The 10 Most Underrated Movie Directors

Published on June 13, 2014. Updated June 27, 2014

If you were to ask the average filmgoer to name a director, they might say Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, or even Michael Bay, as they are all enormously popular filmmakers with easily identifiable films. Unfortunately, many great directors go relatively unnoticed by most movie audiences, even if these same audiences enjoy their films. For every Spielberg, there are multiple directors who do not ever become household names. At the same time, a director may be popular with audiences but underappreciated by critics. This list addresses both of these situations, as popularity and critical acclaim do not often go hand-in-hand. The following filmmakers are the 10 most underrated movie directors.

10. Rian Johnson

Perhaps an odd choice for this list given his relatively short time on the scene, Rian Johnson is still beginning his feature film career, but he’s already proven himself to be one of the most talented new directors to emerge in the last 10 years. Johnson got his feature film break with 2005’s well-received Brick, which starred fellow up-and-comer (at the time) Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Johnson would collaborate again with Gordon-Levitt in 2012’s phenomenal Looper, which was unfairly snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. In addition to his feature film credentials, Johnson also notably directed episodes of Breaking Bad, including the final season’s crowning gem “Ozymandias”, a front-runner for best episode of the entire series. With a slew of excellent dark, dramatic pieces under his belt, Johnson is definitely a director to watch as he continues to make great (and likely underappreciated) films.

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9. Edgar Wright

British director Edgar Wright, whose directing credits include the “Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy” and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, has a large fan following and has yet to make a bad film. Yet, he has gone largely unnoticed when it comes to award nominations. His latest, 2013’s The World’s End, was arguably his best film to date, but was somehow overlooked for a best picture nomination. Wright’s penchant for genre mash-ups may be to blame, as critics and the academy tend to gravitate more toward clear-cut genre films. Also working against Wright is that his films, other than the Canadian Scott Pilgrim, are distinctly British in tone and humor, which has never been very popular with North American audiences. Despite this, Wright is undoubtedly one of the most talented and original directors of his generation and deserves more recognition.

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8. Joe Johnston

Joe Johnston has made a career out of directing films focused on nostalgia for bygone eras and is generally considered to be a family-friendly director of “pure entertainment” films, but this approach has not endeared him to critics. This is unfortunate because Johnston is a talented director who crafts enjoyable and underappreciated films. Johnston directed the classic family films Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Jumangi (1995), but the real hidden gem among his catalogue is 1991’s The Rocketeer, a throwback to 1930s serial pictures (much like Steven Spielberg’s immensely popular Indiana Jones films). Dismissed by both critics and audiences upon its release, the film now has a cult following, and would help inspire Johnston’s approach to his next superhero picture, 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, arguably the best of Marvel’s films prior to The Avengers.

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7. Zack Snyder

Landing on the scene with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead and 2007’s 300, Snyder has established himself as a master of action filmmaking, with a distinct visual flare. His latest film, the 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel, received mixed reviews upon its release. While Snyder’s direction helped offset some of the plot and thematic issues in that film, the rest of his filmography is woefully underappreciated. In particular, Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, widely considered to be one of the best graphic novels ever written, is arguably the most faithful adaptation of a comic book ever put to film. Snyder’s films may not be overly complex, but his distinct visual style and flare for action-packed storytelling make him one of the most creative directors working today.

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6. Joe Wright

British director Joe Wright is best known for making lavish and emotional period piece dramas, but he is far from being recognized by general audiences. Wright is a master of adaptation, successfully converting the lengthy classic Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice into an excellent feature film, and his adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel Atonement earned a Best Picture nomination. While Wright’s strengths tend to lean toward the dramatic, he has also proven himself capable of directing well-choreographed action scenes, like those found in his underrated 2011 film Hanna. Wright has frequently collaborated with Keira Knightley and gave actress Saoirse Ronan her big break with Atonement and Hanna. Wright’s next film will be Pan, a re-telling of the Peter Pan story, scheduled for a 2015 release.

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5. Paul Verhoeven

Sometimes it only takes one complete flop to overshadow a director’s career. For Paul Verhoeven, that film is 1995’s Showgirls, a film that frequently shows up in “Worst Film” lists. However, if you look beyond Showgirls, you’ll find an impressive filmmaker who does not get the credit he deserves. Films such as Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997) are extremely violent, but possess political satire undertones that elevate them beyond being mere carnage captured on screen. Verhoeven’s films often have something important to say underneath all the blood and guts, and he is criminally undervalued as a director with an original style and voice. Unfortunately, Verhoeven has never quite been able to replicate his excellent output from the 1980s and 90s, but he is still a director whose films deserve to be admired.

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4. James Mangold

James Mangold never seems to get mentioned in lists of great modern directors and yet you would be hard-pressed to find a director with as diverse a range of films under their belt. Mangold has tackled many different genres, including drama (1997’s Cop Land and 1999’s Girl, Interrupted), biopic (2005’s Walk the Line), western (2007’s 3:10 to Yuma), and superhero blockbuster (2013’s The Wolverine). He is a very consistent filmmaker, and likes to have strong female characters in his films; to that end, both Girl,Interruped and Walk the Line won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress (Angelina Jolie) and Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon), respectively. With these kinds of directing accomplishments, it’s astounding that Mangold does not receive more recognition.

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3. Sam Raimi

Raimi became a cult hero in the 80s thanks to his Evil Dead films, but didn’t become a household name until he was given the task of directing the first 3 highly successful live-action Spider-Man films. Unfortunately, Spider-Man 3 (2007) was largely seen as a disappointment, which had the unfortunate side effect of lessening Raimi’s stature as an intelligent, inventive filmmaker. After the career setback of Spider-Man 3, Raimi returned to his horror-comedy roots with 2010’s underappreciated Drag Me to Hell, and most recently, 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, another fun film that didn’t seem to get the recognition it deserved. Raimi’s next directing project is still unknown, but given his excellent track record, it will most surely be worth the wait.

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2. Tony Scott

Tony Scott was the younger brother of Ridley Scott, director of iconic and ground-breaking films like Alien and Blade Runner. While Ridley is widely regarded as the better director, Tony was a great director in his own right, known for his kinetic style and classic action films. Sadly, Tony took his own life in 2012 at the age of 68, but he left behind a great body of work that deserves more recognition. Perhaps his most popular film was Top Gun (1986), which made Tom Cruise a star and helped define 1980s action filmmaking. Scott’s other credits include Days of Thunder (1990), True Romance (1993), Man on Fire (2004), and many others. Tony Scott may have been underrated in life, but in death, he definitely stands as an important director worth remembering.

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1. Richard Linklater

One of the best directors to emerge from the 1990’s independent filmmaker movement, Linklater is perhaps best known for creating Dazed and Confused, one of the biggest cult films of all time that notably helped launch the careers of both Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey. However, Linklater’s accomplishments in directing extend far beyond that stoner classic. He also co-wrote and directed the ambitious “Before” trilogy – Before Sunri se (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) – which follows the same couple from their initial courtship to their married life decades later. All 3 of these films have been critical darlings, especially last year’s Midnight, which was unfairly snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Despite not having much commercial popularity, Linklater is a director well-respected by his peers, and it’s always a safe bet that his films will be worth watching.

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