The Top 10 Greatest Directors of The Modern Age

Our list of the 10 greatest directors of the last 30 years.

In the hundred or so years since film was invented and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, plenty of ink has been spilled over lists and articles about just who has been the best – the best director, the best actor, the best musician – like humanity can’t get enough out of figuring out the most superior of our own self-importance. The Hollywood awards season seems to last the entire year, with a multitude of industry-based awards shows dominating the blogosphere and newsprint each and every month, culminating in the very pinnacle of cinematic artistic achievement, The Academy Awards. Each year, golden gongs are handed out to those folks judged by others folks to be the best in their category at what they’ve done that year. Whether those awards are warranted or not isn’t the point of this article; here, we’re going to spotlight the very best of the best – the best Actors and Actresses, the best Directors, the best Films, even the best cinematic advances of the Modern Age. What do I mean by Modern Age, you ask. Simple. Hollywood’s boom times of the 30’s and 40’s, at least prior to the War, are known today as the Golden Age, and the three decades after that could be termed the Bronze Age – with a shift into color film, multi-channel stereo and the re-invention of the Hollywood “blockbuster” away from biblical epics and sweeping melodramatic romance. The 80’s, however, when you look at films produced at that time in a reflective mood, represents a shift both artistically and stylistically in the medium of film to such a degree that I think a new “age” of Hollywood could be coined: the Modern Age. An epoch of cinema between 1980 and 2010, 30 years of both massive successes, and epic fails. The Greatest of the Modern Age series attempts to distill the best of the Modern Age into a series of opinion-based lists, and we hope you enjoy (if not disagree with) our work.

 Nobody ever said being a film director was easy. You’re responsible for everything to do with a film – finding a crew, casting, scripting, production – both pre and post – and, if you’re powerful enough, you may even have something to do with marketing. You control the final product – at least, you do if you’re one of the directors listed below – and if the film turns out to be rubbish, then you take the blame. You’re the conductor of a symphony not just of several dozen instruments, but often many thousands of people working towards a common goal: to tell the story you want to tell. Since the Lumiere Brothers first invented the motion picture, the film industry has gone from strength to strength based on the creative drive of the single man or woman in charge of overall production – the Director. Producers handle the money, and to a degree have final say over what appears on screen, but the director is the one with their balls in the sling (so to speak) if things go wrong. In the last 30 years or so, many a director has come and gone from the pop-culture zeitgeist, but the ones listed below are those who’ve truly taken the format by the short-and-curlies and deliver constant levels of entertainment each time they go into bat.

The oldest member of our list today, Clint Eastwood has certainly shored up his status as one of the industry’s genuinely great directors – his Oscar win in 1992 for Unforgiven, which he followed up in the mid 2000’s with a nomination for Best Director of Mystic River, and a win the following year for Million Dollar Baby, are testament to his methodical talent. With a focus on character and story over visual panache, and Eastwood film is marked with the steady hand of a man able to weave magic on the screen with an ease built up over half a century of experience both in front of, and behind, the camera.

Often touted as “the master visualist” by many a critic, Ridley Scott’s initial success came in the late 70’s (with Alien) and the early 80’s (with Blade Runner) ensuring his cult status forever. Every one of his films since is met with near universal attention (although “acclaim” perhaps not so much), from the blockbusters like Gladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven, to the low-key like Matchstick Men and A Good Year, with each one delivering the crisp, perfect visual style of Scott’s keen sense of cinema. Recent fare, such as the critically flawed Prometheus, has tarnished some of the sheen on his stellar career, yet he still works with the best crews and assembles the best casts for his projects; Ridley Scott is a master storyteller and perhaps the definitive visual master of the modern age.

Relatively new on the scene, Christopher Nolan set the bar high with his debut hit, Memento, before following that up with stylish genre work in Insomnia and even The Prestige – however, it’s his current tenure as the director the Batman franchise which has led to an almost God-like acclaim for anything he puts his fingerprint on. Batman Begins, rebooting the mythos of the Caped Crusader, and The Dark Knight, which was criminally robbed for a Best Picture Oscar nomination (although rightfully won the late Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar as Best Supporting Actor) and the most recent entry – The Dark Knight Rises – all became massive critical darlings. Indeed, Nolan need not make another film again and he’ll still be whispered about for generations to come as one of the modern age’s most astonishing auteurs.

The legend of Tarantino’s escalation into the Hollywood A-list has become almost mythical folklore – the former video store clerk sold a script (True Romance, directed by Tony Scott), made a film called Reservoir Dogs, and the rest, as they say, is history. If you look up the word “auteur” in the dictionary, it’s likely Tarantino’s picture will be there. Pulp Fiction remains perhaps the most famous sophomore film effort of all time (it scored Tarantino an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and is easily Tarantino’s most brazen work of film-making. His follow up to Pulp Fiction would be directing a segment in Robert Rodriguez’ Four Rooms, while his next major feature would become Jackie Brown (starring the out-of-retirement Pam Grier), an homage to the blaxploitation films of the 70’s. Tarantino’s next project, Kill Bill, would see him team up with Uma Thurman again (she played the drug-addled wife of a gangster in Pulp Fiction) as The Bride, a former killer who’d been double-crossed by her boss, Bill, and was now out for revenge. Tarantino split Kill Bill into two films, both of which would see critical and commercial success. The Grindhouse project followed, with friend and fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, when both decided to make an homage to the pulpy thriller/slasher/gore films of their generation – Rodriquez would make Planet Terror, while Tarantino would deliver a flawed action flick in Death Proof, starring Kurt Russell as a sadistic stunt-driver who thrill-kills by causing death with his car. Grindhouse would become a cult classic. His WWII flick Inglourious Basterds followed, starring brad Pitt as the leader of a gang of Jewish US Solders tasked with killing as many Nazi’s as possible during the War. Tarantino’s next project is to be the spaghetti western, Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx as Django (the “d” is silent). Tarantino is single-handedly responsible for revolutionizing the amateur film-making industry, with his “if I can do it, so can you” backstory and verve.

Scorsese’s been around for ages, but that doesn’t seem to be making him redundant or outdated. Scorsese remains an iconic, near-legendary figure in cinema, not only for the quality of films he’s made, but also for his encyclopaedic wealth of knowledge on the medium he so loves. It’s almost impossible to create a list of directorial achievement in any category without Scorsese being included. While he cut his teeth in the 70’s for Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, his influence on film has continued unabated into the Modern Age of film-making. The 80’s saw projects such as Raging Bull, The Color Of Money (the sequel to the 60’s Paul Newman classic The Hustler), The King Of Comedy and The Last Temptation Of Christ, while the 90’s offered no less than four commercial and critical masterpieces (and a couple of misfires) in Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age Of Innocence and Casino. The late 90’s saw him release a couple of flawed (but still eminently watchable) films in Kundun and Bringing Out The Dead, the latter of which is a personal favorite even though I acknowledge it’s a bit of a misfire. In the early 21st Century Scorsese discovered a new muse (previously you’d have classed Robert DeNiro in this position) in Leonardo DiCaprio, who would appear in 3 of the Master’s films in that decade – Gangs Of New York, The Aviator and The Departed, all massive commercial successes and genuine Oscar contenders. Scorsese would finally snag a Best Director Oscar for The Departed, a long overdue honor for a man who has made an art out of this most wondrous of art-forms. Recent films, such as Shutter Island and Hugo, have continued to provide audiences with thrills and excitement every time we visit the cinema, with Hugo especially showcasing Scorsese’s love of cinema in more ways than one. His inclusion within this list was always assured, although it was only a matter of where.

If you have yet to witness a Coen Brothers film, then you’re truly in for an experience. Joel and Ethan Coen hail from Minnesota, and they got their first break into the industry when Joel became an editor for Sam Raimi on The Evil Dead.  The brothers directed their first film, Blood Simple, in 1984, which went on to success at independent film festivals such as Sundance. Blood Simple starred Frances McDormand, who would become Joel’s wife and would also appear in a number of their films later on. Following Blood Simple, the brothers would script Sam Raimi’s film Crimewave, and would direct the Nic Cage starrer Raising Arizona. Critical success would follow with projects such as Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and The Hudsucker Proxy galvanizing both audiences and industry types alike to their alternative, idiosyncratic style and sense of cinema craft. It would be their 1996 masterpiece, Fargo, that truly catapulted them into the big league. Fargo would snag Frances McDormand a Best Actress Oscar, while the Coens landed a golden statue for their Best Original Screenplay. With this success came greater latitude to direct films of their choice; the immediate follow-up to Fargo would be O Brother Where Art Thou with George Clooney, before stepping into true noir territory for the stylized Man Who Wasn’t There (with Billy Bob Thornton), which wasn’t a major commercial success. Intolerable Cruelty followed, a throwback to romantic comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood, which starred Catherine Zeta Jones and George Clooney, while The Ladykillers (a remake of the Ealing Studio’s classic) found them directing Tom Hanks. Their next film reaffirmed their popularity: No Country For Old Men snagged Oscars for Best Film, Director(s), Screenplay and best Supporting Actor (for Javier Bardem). The Coen Brothers have come to represent a directorial style unlike any other – they’re unafraid to tackle a variety of genre and periods, and constantly attract the big name stars to their projects (Brad Pitt arrived to appear in Burn After Reading, while Jeff Bridges would return for True Grit in 2010), making them one of Hollywood’s most bankable independent filmmakers.

Zemeckis remains perhaps the most technically accomplished film director in the last 30 years. Almost Hitchcockian in his craft, with every single nuance of his films finely tuned and crafted to within an inch of its life, a Zemeckis film can be categorized into two distinct groups – live action brilliance, and animated brilliance. For the best part of ten years Zemeckis dabbled in the “performance capture” style of film-making, bringing movies such as The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol in the animated format, leaving behind the live-action stuff fans had grown to love. Since he burst onto the scene with Back To The Future, and the two incredibly successful sequels, Zemeckis has gone out of his way to create entire worlds and universes for audiences to enjoy. Zemeckis debuted in 1978 with I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and followed that up with the critically praised Used Cars, before he was hired to direct the rudderless Romancing The Stone by then-producer and star Michael Douglas. When Romancing The Stone became a massive hit, Zemeckis could choose his own projects, and the first was Back To the Future. When BTTF became a monster success, it was immediately followed by two sequels (the aptly titled Back To The Future Part II and III), before Zemeckis took on the challenge of blending live-action and traditional cell animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Following on from Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis delved into the effects-heave Death Becomes Her, working with Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis. It wouldn’t achieve the same success as his previous few films, but the next project, a story based on a novel by Winston Groom – Forrest Gump – became Zemeckis’s calling card to the Academy Awards. Gump would trounce all-comers in its debut year of 1994, delivering star Tom Hanks his second Oscar (his first for a performance in Philadelphia) and Zemeckis his first. The Jodie Foster-led alien pic Contact came next, followed by both Cast Away (with Tom hanks again) and What Lies Beneath (with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer), before the director began to experiment with a new technology known as “performance capture”. Using this method, Zemeckis crafted an adult-animation film in the form of Beowulf (based on the ancient story), The Polar Express (which has since become a seasonal classic) and the umpteenth retelling of A Christmas Carol, with Jim Carrey portraying Scrooge. For his exacting technical expertise and use of visual effects to aid in telling the story, there’s little doubt Robert Zemeckis belongs in this list.

Like many of the directors on this list, David Fincher is a director with a definite visual style. The man knows how to craft a film, how to work the screen with images that captivate, move and stimulate you, and it’s become his trademark. Debuting with the train-wreck that was Alien 3 (for 20th Century Fox, a studio he vowed never to work with again), Fincher went on to enormous critical and popular acclaim with the crime thriller Se7en, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Se7en set the bar for crime genre films so high it’s doubtful it would ever be equaled. His next film, The Game, starred Michael Douglas and was relatively low key – it did limited business here in Australia, limping out of cinemas almost as soon as it arrived. Which is a pity, because I rank The Game as one of Finchers best five films. His fourth feature, once more starring Brad Pitt, was Fight Club. While not a massive commercial success initially, the film has since garnered near-universal recognition as one of the great films of the 90’s, with it’s anarchic themes and anti-establishment narrative, entrenching Fincher as one of the most visually stylish directors working in mainstream cinema today. Fincher worked with Jodie Foster with Panic Room, a film with plenty of Fincher flourishes but a less-then stellar box office return, and then with Robert Downey Jr (among others) in the ensemble crime thriller Zodiac. Zodiac saw Fincher return to that creepy crime genre he’d boosted in Se7en, with a creative flexibility to do more of what he wanted in terms of scope and story. The third team-up with Brad Pitt saw Fincher direct the somewhat soppy Forrest Gump-ish Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, before he really hit industry big-time with The Social Network, a film about the creation of Facebook. The Social Network saw three wins at Oscar time, including one for Aaron Sorkin’s dynamite screenplay. Most recently, Fincher helmed the US remake of the original Swedish film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, to mediocre critical and commercial success.

Perhaps the only other director apart from Spielberg whose name above the title is enough to guarantee success, James Cameron has almost single-handedly become the godfather of the modern day “blockbuster”. With Piranha II a distant memory, Cameron’s debut in the mid-80’s with The Terminator, followed closely by the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, ensured his continued success. And the chain has yet to be broken. Massive successes, including True Lies and The Abyss, capped off with 1997’s Titanic and 2010’s Avatar, both of which became the highest grossing films of all time upon release, make a James Cameron film release an event. While he’s best known for his film-making style, and a legendary temper on set derived from his passion for perfection, Cameron has also become something of a technological innovator as well. His development of superior 3D technology (for Avatar), as well the burgeoning CGI technology (in Terminator 2), while co-creating legendary Visual Effects house Digital Domain, has ensured his reach within the industry is indeed a giant one.

Since debuting Jaws in 1977, Spielberg revolutionized cinema in the 80’s with several monster (and I mean monster) critical and commercial successes – ET: The Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Raiders Of The Lost Ark – to name just three. Ever since, he’s been the cultural touchstone for film-goers around the world, revolutionizing what could be achieved in storytelling and film in the decades since. Criminally under-appreciated by his peers – he finally won his first Oscar in 1993 for Schindler’s List – Spielberg’s been accused of overly sentimental or preachy storytelling, yet, he manages to touch the casual film fan with each movie he puts out. In recent times Spielberg’s taken on projects which have both been considered safe (War Horse) or which have stretched him as a filmmaker (AI Artificial Intelligence, Munich), while his massive producing status grows with each passing year. Easily taking the number one spot, for influencing a generation of aspiring film-makers and for delivering not just one or two, but a multitude of genuinely classic films, Spielberg is a worthy entrant into this list and a shoe-in for pole position.

What do you think? Do you disagree with any or all of our selections? Would you put somebody else in this list, and if so, who? Leave your thoughts in our comments section below!!!

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10 thoughts on “The Top 10 Greatest Directors of The Modern Age

  1. Great choice to include Robert Zemeckis and place him so highly. He's one of the best of his generation yet never gets talked about in the same light as Spielberg, Scorsese and others.

    Having just seen The Dark Knight Rises and living it I'd probably place Nolan higher but nobody touches Spielberg for the no. 1 spot!
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    1. The only thing keeping Nolan back is the fact that he's not yet done as many films as the rest of those included. No doubt in ten or twenty years he'll be higher up a similar list…..

        1. When you consider Speilberg's output, and the ratio of successes to failures, I think he's perhapst the greatest director of all time – about the only two real bombs I remember from Speilberg were 1941 and Hook (although the latter does seem to remain a favorite for the younger crowd)…. Although Munich, Amistad and AI are on the fence a little…..

  2. I like most of these directors' work, some of them are my favorites. I'd put Michael Mann on my list of top 10 though, I LOVE The Insider, Heat and Last of the Mohicans.

    1. Working against Mann's inclusion, though, was Miami Vice and Public Enemies, both revent relative failures compared to his previous work. And I didn't really like Collateral.

        1. I thought the only bit in Collateral that I liked was the part where Foxx bluffs the gangsters in the club. Aside from that… meh. 🙂

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