The 13 Best Directors Of Modern Cinema

9 minute read

By Jonny Hughes

Often the focal point of a film will be the stars, but sometimes the selling factor will be who directed the film. The director is the one who creates the film and controls the artistic and dramatic elements, and no film can succeed without a director with talent and vision. These 13 directors have all had an enormous impact on modern cinema and been responsible for many of the greatest films ever produced. In many cases, their distinctive style makes them immediately recognizable and is a key selling point. Over the last 25 years, these are Hollywood’s greatest film directors.

13. Wes Anderson

Alongside Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton, there is arguably no director whose work is as immediately recognizable as Wes Anderson. He has a very distinctive color palette, utilizing pastel colors in his films, and is also famed for flat space camera moves, symmetrical compositions and snap-zooms. This style is often said to create a feeling of self-contained worlds in his movies, and theme-wise he is known to create quirky, fast-paced comedies that often have melancholic elements and characters struggling with certain events. This makes his stories very much character-driven, and a few of his best-known films include Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson tends to cast a certain group that works so well with his styles, such as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson.

Source: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

12. David Fincher

If you have a dark story and you want to make a Hollywood film, David Fincher is the man for the job. Mainstream audiences don’t generally take to dark and complex films, but David Fincher is an exception and is one of the best modern directors around. His directorial debut was Alien 3 in 1992, and he would follow this up with the immensely popular, but particularly dark, thriller Seven. The Game followed this, before the cult classic Fight Club, which reunited him with Brad Pitt and is still one of the most discussed films of recent times. Next up was the dark mystery thriller Zodiac, before the hugely popular films The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network. Fincher returned to his dark roots with his next two films, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and 2014’s Gone Girl.

Source: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

11. Tim Burton

A true auteur, Tim Burton is the master of his trade. His dark, gothic and quirky horror films can be thrilling, comical, and terrifying all at once. He created macabre, surreal and stunning worlds for his stories to unfold in, and has brought to life some unforgettable characters throughout his career, including Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Alice, and Jack Skellington. Throughout his career, he has directed popular films such as Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman ReturnsSleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie, and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland and Frankenweenie. 2016 will see the release of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and he is a producer on the highly anticipated Alice Through the Looking Glass. It was also recently announced that he will direct a live-action adaptation of Disney’s Dumbo.

Source: AP Photo/Francois Mori

10. Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood rose to fame as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and Dirty Harry, establishing himself as a male icon and master of the antihero. He would go on to be a master behind the camera too and is considered one of the finest directors in Hollywood. His directorial debut was 1971’s Play Misty for Me, and he would direct several more before stunning the cinema world with a return to the Western genre with 1992’s Unforgiven (which would win four Academy Awards). He followed this up with films that include The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director), Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, J. Edgar and most recently American Sniper. His films are famed for gritty explorations of ethical values and often feature flawed characters. A brilliant 50+ year career, both in front of and behind the camera.

Source: AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File

9. Edgar Wright

You can’t discuss the best modern directors without highlighting the work of Edgar Wright, who has quickly established himself as one of the most visually-distinctive and invigorating filmmakers working today. A true auteur who is just as comfortable co-writing his film’s scripts with frequent collaborator Simon Pegg as he is behind the lens, Wright has proven himself to be a master of the genre mash-up. His ‘Cornetto Trilogy’—Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End—each tackle different sub-genres that make them look and feel distinct from one another, yet share a visual language that could only be Wright’s. Outside of his original creations, Wright’s also proven himself to be adept at adaptation, translating Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series to the screen with reverence and an eye for detail that most other directors would skimp on. While his next feature, Baby Driver, isn’t due out until 2017, it’s not difficult to imagine that it will only further entrench Wright as one of the finest directors of his generation.

Source: AP Photo/Joel Ryan

8. Coen Brothers

Joel and Ethan Coen write, produce and direct all of their films, ensuring that you are fully aware when you are watching one of their movies. They are clever, funny and unique storytellers who prove capable of creating fascinating and brilliant characters. A handful of their most famous films include Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis. Together they have been nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won Best Original Screenplay for Fargo and Best Director, Picture and Adapted Screenplay for No Country for Old Men. Although a duo, there are very much auteurs and have established a fantastic reputation for their strange, quirky and endearing films that can be funny, dramatic, serious and intense all at the same time.

Source: AP Photo/Stefano Paltera, file

7. Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is known mainly for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, making him one of the most influential and famous directors of recent times. He has picked up three Academy Awards and dozens of others and his adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s world is utterly breathtaking, making these films epic in every sense. It is a daunting task to take on a job that grand, but he did a remarkable job and created visually stunning, dramatic and gripping adaptations that are arguably the biggest blockbuster films of all time. He has also proven his abilities as a director away from this world, starting in the splatter genre with Bad Taste which he followed up with Meet the Feebles and Braindead. Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners arrived before the career-changing opportunity arrived to direct LOTR. Other notable directorial efforts include King Kong and The Lovely Bones.

Source: AP Photo/Francois Mori, FILE

6. Woody Allen

A stunning career that has lasted over 50 years, Woody Allen remains one of the most important, talented and prolific directors, writers and actors in cinema. His style of the film is instantly recognizable and often sees him star in the lead role, playing the classic insecure and fearful intellectual which he mastered as a stand up comic in the ’60s. He has a staggering 24 Academy Award nominations (winning four), but his importance to film cannot be measured in awards and he has been described as a “treasure of the cinema.” Listing his most notable work is a challenge, but some of his best known directorial credits include Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah, and Her Sisters, Everyone Says I Love You, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. An extraordinary writer and director, Woody Allen have created some of the most hilarious, touching, emotional and fascinating stories in cinematic history.

Source: AP Photo/Luca Bruno

5. Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is perhaps the most recognizable director in modern cinema, both in terms of appearance and film style. His name carries as much clout as anyone else in the business, and his auteur style makes him a fan favorite. A few of his most successful films include Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill (1 & 2), Sin City, Death Proof, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. These are just a few of his directorial efforts, as he has also written and produced plenty more brilliant films (often with Robert Rodriguez). His films are known for non-linear storylines, graphic violence, dark comedy and elements of neo-noir film, and music is also a key part of his immediately recognizable style. Fans are eagerly waiting for the Christmas release of The Hateful Eight, a Western seeing eight strangers seek refuge in a stagecoach stopover on a mountain pass during a blizzard.

Source: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

4. James Cameron

Not just a key figure in Hollywood, James Cameron has also done some incredible work for the scientific community thanks to his deep-sea exploration. He first found success with the enormously popular action film The Terminator in 1984, and he became known for his use of special effects with the sequel seven years later. In between these, he directed Aliens and The Abyss. He then took on the epic Titanic story, which picked up three Academy Awards and made him one of the biggest names in the business. Next up was the game-changing science-fiction epic Avatar (2009), which took almost 10 years to complete due to having to wait until the technology he wanted was advanced enough. This became the first movie to earn more than $2 billion and sparked an influx of other 3D films. If you want an innovative and epic film, James Cameron is your man.

Source: AP Photo/Nick Ut

3. Christopher Nolan

Arguably, there is no bigger director in Hollywood right now than Christopher Nolan. He is famed for his phenomenal reboot of the Batman franchise, which is particularly dark, twisted and features a brilliant cast. He is also famous for creating films with complex narrative structures and films where reality is an abstract concept, which can be a gamble in Hollywood, but his stories have been so well-crafted that they still have people talking to this day. This includes films such as Memento, Inception and 2014’s Interstellar. He has an interesting and instantly recognizable style of film and is regarded as an auteur, and perhaps his most notable trademark is to have a psychologically damaged protagonist, often seeking vengeance for the death of a loved one. His intriguing, complex and utterly gripping films make his name as big as Hollywood’s greatest actors; a rarity for a director.

Source: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

2. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s name is synonymous with Hollywood, and he is the ultimate director of modern-day blockbusters. Financially, he is the most successful director of all time, and due to his tendency to direct box office hit after box office hit, he is sometimes criticized. These box office smashes include legendary movies like Jaws, E.T., Hook, Jurassic Park, A.I., Minority Report, and, of course, the Indiana Jones franchise. He is also an immensely talented director and fantastic storyteller however, and this is evident through mature and delicate films such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and Lincoln. Despite all his success, box office records, fame, and accolades, he does not rest on his laurels and has a passion for telling stories. He is a pioneer of the new Hollywood era and perhaps the most important director in film history and has proven his credentials time and time again over 40 years.

Source: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

1. Martin Scorsese

Regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in history, Martin Scorsese has developed a formidable reputation and has a stunning body of work. His work began in the ’70s with films such as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, before going on to direct legendary movies such as Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street. Throughout his stellar career he has picked up almost every award possible (including an Academy Award for The Departed), and fortunately for us, he is still going strong today. There are a few projects in the pipeline, and in August it was announced he will be directing an adaptation of the book The Devil in the White City which will star Leonardo DiCaprio (a frequent collaborator). He is a master of gangster films, but also a wonderful storyteller.

Source: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

Jonny Hughes


Jonny Hughes has been writing about movies and TV for Goliath since 2015.