Skip to main content

10 Underrated Movie Directors

A pop culture addict who loves to talk about movies, music, books, comics, and all of the other things that move and entertain us.


When it comes to film nerds, no one is more revered than the auteur. The auteur has a distinctive style that transcends genre and story, creating a sense of continuity between their films. Signature shots, certain story beats, and dialogue are all tell-tale signs of the who made the movie. There is no doubt that some of these directors are responsible for great bodies of work. They're so highly regarded that they're often referred to by last name only: Hitchcock, Tarantino, Kubrick, Nolan, Scorsese, and Spielberg.

But, there are other giant talents making movies, who may not exactly be unknown, but don't often get mentioned with those titans of cinema. And while they may not be held in the same regard, their body of work is arguably as good or better than some of the auteurs ranked above them.

Richard Donner

Richard Donner is not an unknown name, especially to fans of comic book movies. But, most film fans probably don't realize how many great movies the man helmed. He started out in television, making episodes of great shows like Route 66, Wagon Train, The Rifleman, The Twilight Zone, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He directed three movies in the 1960's that aren't particularly well known, but in the mid-to-late 70's he blossomed.

In 1976, Donnerreleased The Omen, a classic in the horror genre. In 1978, he directed Superman, the movie for which he's probably most famous. Superman was long held to be the best comic book movie and I know people that will still argue for it. He started the 80's in a small, but effectively earnest way with Inside Moves, a basketball drama. he followed that up with The Toy, a Richard Pryor comedy that seems wildly offensive now. But, then he made The Goonies, a massive hit with a devoted cult following. He followed that up with Ladyhawke, Lethal Weapon, Scrooged, and Lethal Weapon 2, one of the better movie runs of the 80's.

Donnerslowed down a bit in the 90's, but finished up the Lethal Weapon franchise, and directed movies like Maverick and Conspiracy Theory. He was involved in the popular Tales From the Crypt franchise, both on TV and the silver screen. But, his run of hits as a director was over by that point. Still, he definitely left his mark in the 13 years between The Omen and Lethal Weapon 2.

The Omen (Trailer)

Joe Dante

Joe Dante started his career, as so many did, working for Roger Corman. As a result, he learned to put everything he had into his work, and I think it shows. His first movie, Hollywood Boulevard, is choppy and goofy, but Dante soon hit his stride. He made a cash in on Jaws, entitled Piranha, that might not have reached Jaws heights, but made a sizeable impression for a low budget horror flick. Then came Rock N' Roll High School, which is a must-see for fans of The Ramones and/or P.J. Soles.

Dante's next movie was The Howling, a big step forward. A werewolf movie that helped rejuvenate the subgenre, but whose impact was somewhat muted by being released the same year as Wolfen and An American Werewolf In London. After that, he released the most celebrated movie of his career, Gremlins. Filling out the decade were three underappreciated gems. Explorers, Innerspace and The 'Burbs are really fun flicks that I, and many others, watched repeatedly on HBO.

After his obligatory Gremlins sequel, he made his best movie, Matinee. A tribute to the gimmicky horror movies of the early 60's and the tensions of the Cold War, Matinee tracks a William Castle-type filmmaker premiering his new film during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After Matinee, Small Soldiers and Looney Tunes: Back In Action couldn't help but disappoint, and it seemed his streak was over.

Still, Joe Dante made some of the best movies of the 80's, as well as some good TV, including episodes of Police Squad, Amazing Stories, and Eerie, Indiana. He is currently co-host of the great podcast, The Movies That Made Me.

Rock 'n' Roll High School (Trailer)

Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis has written and directed some of the most beloved movies of the last few decades. While well known, he isn't someone who typically comes to mind when film nerds are asked about great directors. This despite having directed Romancing the Stone, the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump (the reason many film nerds deride him, but it's not as bad as they would have you think), Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Bordello of Blood, Contact, and What Lies Beneath. Few directors can boast a string of hits that impressive.

And it's not just the sheer number of hit movies, it's the variety. After making the Back to the Future movies and Roger Rabbit, he followed up with the dark comedy Death Becomes Her (a personal favorite). He followed Forrest Gump with Contact. But, his career almost ended before it began. After getting the notice of Spielberg, he directed a couple of movies that were critically acclaimed, but did not do well at the box office. This caused him to get a bit of a reputation as someone who couldn't get a movie off the ground, so he was finding it difficult to land a job until Michael Douglas hired him to direct Romancing the Stone. That movie was a big enough hit that doors opened and Zemeckis was off to the races. Just consider that without him, we wouldn't be quoting lines like, "You are my density" and "Where we're going we don't need roads."

Zemeckis also produced the Tales From the Crypt show for HBO, adding the Crypt Keeper to our pop culture landscape. While the pace of his hits has slowed, he is still directing, making movies like Welcome to Marwen, The Witches, and Pinocchio. At this point, even if he never makes another movie, he will go down as impacting pop culture in a way like few directors before or since.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Trailer)

Ron Howard

Ron Howard is probably best known as an actor, for his roles as Opie in The Andy Griffith Show and Ritchie Cunningham in Happy Days. But, he wanted to make the jump to directing, so he went to a man who enabled numerous Hollywood careers since the late 1950s: Roger Corman. Corman let him direct Grand Theft Auto, and from there Howard started making TV movies. Then, in 1982, five years after his directorial debut, he teamed back up with Henry "Fonzie" Winkler and made Night Shift.

Ron never had a string of hits like Zemeckis, but he still has an impressive bunch of credits. He made some 80's classics like Willow, Cocoon, and Splash. He also made more dramatic offerings like Backdraft and Ransom. He even made a few documentaries, including one about The Beatles. (I love the Beatles, but I'm beginning to think there is a rule in Hollywood that directors who reach a certain threshold of success have to make a doc about either the Beatles or Stones.)

Unfortunately, the Han Solo movie he did for Disney was so milquetoast, it was almost worse than had it been actively terrible. While not all of his movies are to my taste, I can forgive How the Grinch Stole Christmas because I got Apollo 13. So, while his directing output may never match his acting success or even his producing achievements, it's still a pretty great resume.

Apollo 13 (Trailer)

Rob Reiner

Like Ron Howard, Rob Reiner first became known as a sitcom actor, playing the hippyish son-in-law on All in the Family. In his first foray as director, he knocked it out of the park. This Is Spinal Tap could have been a disaster. Instead of a script it had an outline, and the movie was largely improvised. It shows the day to day routine of a has-been rock band, who haven't come to terms with the fact that they aren't as popular as they used to be. Spinal Tap is hilarious and is often cited by real rock stars as being their favorite movie.

Reiner followed up Tap with a forgettable rom-com starring John Cusack. And then he had one of the best runs that any director has ever had: Stand By Me, The Princess Bride (a serious contender for best movie ever), When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men, North, The American President. Even after his movies stopped being pop culture events, Reiner continued to put out solid films.

Reiner is similar to Howard in that his acting credits might outshine his directing credits. Besides being Meathead, he was in iconic shows like Batman, That Girl, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Partridge Family, and was even on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. But unlike Howard, most of these were one-off appearances, and his movies used to hit the pop culture zeitgeist with the impact of a tsunami. Seriously, if you weren't around when people first saw the faked orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally, it might be hard to understand its influence. Also, and it has nothing to do with his directing record, but it's worth noting that his father is Carl Reiner, comedy partner to Mel Brooks and creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show (possibly the best sitcom ever made).

This is Spinal Tap (Trailer)

Penny Marshall

So far the list has been exclusively white men. That's not because white men are better filmmakers than women or people of color, but because white men have had most of the opportunities. Penny Marshall helped break that glass ceiling by being the first woman to direct a movie that made more than $100 million. Unfortunately this didn't translate right away into more opportunities for female directors, but that doesn't take away from her accomplishments.

Marshall started out acting in sitcoms (do you notice a pattern developing?) before she moved into directing. And honestly her list of directing credits isn't long. She only made seven movies. But, those movies made more money and had more impact than the collected filmography of most directors with lengthier credits. She started with Jumpin' Jack Flash, a Whoopi Goldberg comedy that was okay, but did not exactly set the world on fire. Then came Big, the movie that catapulted Tom Hanks into a whole new level of stardom. It was inescapable on HBO. It has scenes which have since become iconic.

She followed Big with Awakenings, and A League of Their Own, both considered great movies and both did well commercially. She had a bit of a dip with Renaissance Man, but finished up with The Preacher's Wife and Riding in Cars With Boys. Neither of those reached the level of Big, or even of League, but they did alright. Marshall made movies that will last for generations and proved to the boys' club of Hollywood that women could make movies that make money.

A League of Their Own (Trailer)

Robert Wise

Most great directors have their big string of hits during a relatively short, 10 to 15 year window. Directors like Hitchcock, who have a hit streak lasting decades, are exceedingly rare. One man whose career comes close to matching Hitch's is someone few people would recognize by name. Robert Wise began his career in the 1930's, first in sound editing, then as a film editor, cutting such legendary films as Citizen Kane and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the 1939 Charles Laughton movie, not the animated Disney flick). In 1944 he moved into the director's chair with The Curse of the Cat People.

He continued making great genre films like A Game of Death and The Body Snatcher, culminating in the 1951 science fiction classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still. But, this wasn't the end of his career. He worked steadily through the 50's and 60's. In fact. in the latter decade he made at least three more all-time classics: West Side Story in '61, The Sound of Music in '65, and The Sand Pebbles in '66. He made more movies in the decade,those are just the most famous. In the 1970's, he made a couple more big sci-fi flicks, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made a few films in the 80's and after sitting out the 90's, capped his career in 2000 with a made for TV movie.

He made at least one movie per year for most of his career, and more than a few are still considered beloved classics. Almost as impressive as that is the variation in genre and tone between the movies. While every Tarantino movie is a Tarantino movie first and genre and tone come second, each of Wise's movies is its own thing. The Sound of Music is very different from The Body Snatcher, and neither has much in common with the first Trek flick. Some see that as a weakness, thinking it means he has no voice. I see it as a strength, the ability of a director to put the story ahead of his own quirks.

West Side Story (Trailer)

John Carpenter

John Carpenter may seem an odd choice, as it can hardly be claimed that he is unknown. I'm including him, though, because even though people know his movies, his body of work and his influence is vastly underappreciated. Most think of him as the horror movie director who helped spawn a million slasher movies when he unleashed Halloween. But, he has shown his mastery over other genres, as well.

Carpenter has done action movies like Big Trouble in Little China (a movie that does not get the love it deserves), Escape From New York (and it's LA-based sequel), and They Live. He did an Elvis biopic. He made the charming sci-fi movie, Starman. In the horror genre, besides well known films like Halloween and The Thing, he's made Christine, The Fog, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, and Vampires. He also scored many of his own movies, making soundtracks that stand among the most iconic of all-time.

I have seen it stated that when it comes to movies, we've all been living in the imagination of Steven Spielberg since the late 70's. Even movies he didn't direct often seemed to be trying to appear "Spielbergian." I see Carpenter as the yin to Spielberg's yang. I think his body of work is every bit as influential, but where Spielberg is warm, fuzzy, and cuddly, Carpenter is darker, more pointed, and more frightening. While Spielberg spawned armies of Goonies and Gremlins, Carpenter opened the door for Pinheads, Jasons, and Freddies to invade our nightmares.

They Live (Trailer)

Tony Scott

Ridley Scott is a revered film director, hailed for classics like Alien and Blade Runner. His younger brother, Tony, often gets overshadowed by that impressive resume. Tony doesn't have the versatility of a Robert Wise or even a John Carpenter, but he is someone who is very good at what he does: action thrillers. He started his career with the 1983 vampire movie, The Hunger, starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon. That movie is not as widely known as most of what came after.

His next movie, for instance, was the iconic Tom Cruise fighter pilot movie, Top Gun. Few movies have become as emblematic of the decade in which they were made as that. He followed up with Beverly Hills Cop II, one of the rare sequels held in almost the same regard as the original. The 90's were really his heyday, with Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, and The Last Boy Scout cementing his place as one of the great action directors. He even made the Tarantino-penned True Romance, which was the world at large's introduction to Quentin's peculiar style.

Scott continued making movies until just before his death in 2012. He was even put in charge of the film which unsuccessfully tried to resurrect beloved 80's TV franchise, The A-Team. He never made anything that most people would consider high art, but he made some legitimately great movies. In fact, when it comes to iconic movies, I think Top Gun might stand toe to toe with big brother's Alien.

True Romance (Trailer)

Bob Clark

Bob Clark doesn't have the impressive number of hits that Wise, Reiner, and Howard have, but he's another director who makes up for quantity with a diversity of the classic films. He started out in 1967 with She-Man, and then in the 70's had a trio of horror movies. Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things is somewhat well known. Deathdream is not as much so. However the third movie, Black Christmas, is considered by many to be a classic of the genre. It also features a pre-Superman Margot Kidder. Clark made a few non-horror movies after that, including Murder By Decree, which has Sherlock Holmes hunting Jack the Ripper.

It was 1981 when he released his next masterpiece: Porky's. Not quite as revered now, Porky's was legendary in it's time and for quite a while after. I remember kids trying to find some way to watch that movie without their parents finding out. It was the prototypical raunchy comedy, paving the way for There's Something About Mary and the movies of Adam Sandler and Kevin Smith.

Clark might be most famous for A Christmas Story, which came out in 1983 (the same year as his Porky's sequel). The movie is a warm, nostalgic, family-friendly exploration of the hopes and dreams of one little boy growing up in late 30's/early 40's Cleveland.

Clark's other work ranges from movies that were well known but didn't fare as well (Rhinestone and Baby Geniuses) to movies that weren't as well known (Loose Cannons and From the Hip). While he may not have a large number of classics under his belt, three is more than most, and the wildly different genres and tones of those three are noteworthy. It's not everyone who can make a classic horror movie, a raunchy sex comedy, and a heartfelt family Christmas movie. That is a true testament to Bob Clark's range.

A Christmas Story (Trailer)