Top Ten American Directors, 1990-Present

I had to write this one for a class too. I only turned in 1-5.

Top Ten Best American Directors, 1990-Today


There have been plenty of lists to dictate who the best directors of all time are. The likes of Orson Welles or Jean Luc Godard consistently made the list, along with many others.

However, not much has been said about the current state of cinema in the way of artistic integrity. Much seems to have been said about the evolving state of the box office or viewing habits as a result the new Blu-Ray technology, but little is often said about what great movies are being released today.

The criterion for this list is that the directors did not begin directing feature films before 1990. If a director had projects in which he was used in a different role before that date, or wasn’t making feature films as a director, I still consider them for the list. This allowed me to include the likes of Quentin Tarantino who penned two feature films in the late 80’s (True Romance and Natural Born Killers before making his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs in 1992.

Let’s get down to it.


10.            Michael Bay  (Bad Boys, The Rock, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II, The Island, Transformers) – Don’t give me crap about this choice. I put him on this list because he has set a new precedent for action films. No, his films cannot be described as high art—or even medium art most of the time—but he has become the benchmark for whether or not an action film is good or even decent. He sets up and films explosions better than anyone in the business.  He tosses away pretense and gives the audience pure spectacle. According to a reviewer on “Aint it Cool News” by the pseudonym of Mr. Beaks, “Bad Boys II is the ultimate achievement in empty spectacle; an unabashedly brainless thrill ride that cleverly announces its intentions with an opening credit montage of Ecstasy tablets rolling off an assembly line. This is a summer cinematic narcotic refreshingly bereft of pretension and aimed directly at the pleasure center; a perfect complement to the deadly serious philosophizing of THE MATRIX franchise that focuses solely on sensory overload, not stopping until it collapses in exhaustion at the finish line with a brilliantly improbable finale that ups the ante just as the film seems to be wrapping up.”

Michael Bay doesn’t just make an action film, he empties it of its story and its character development, and creates something that lacks between explosions and excels during them. That may not be a good thing, but damn is it an enjoyable one that has become the new modus operandi for the genre.


9.            Michael Moore (Roger and Me [December of 1989 is close enough to 1990 for me], Canadian Bacon, The Big One, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 911, Sicko) –

Aside from his attempted foray into directing comedy with Canadian Bacon, Michael Moore has been a thorough and conniving documentarian. When I was in video production in High School, we analyzed the techniques of his films. For example, one things that he does is that he poses a question via voiceover and then shows clips of people simply saying yes.

Does it take this out of context? Most of the time, yes. But is it effective? All of the time, hell yes.

And it makes sense that he would do this given that, to be a successful documentarian, you have to be able to convince your audience of your point of view across the runtime of your film. And sometimes, the only way to do this is to sometimes twist the truth just a little bit.

It doesn’t matter that his Fahrenheit 911 didn’t convince the American people to not re-elect George W. Bush, what does matter about this film and all of his other films, is that he was able to get people talking and wondering about such issues. This is usually where convincing comes from—the after-the-movie discussions that eventually breed grassroots dissent either over the internet or the phone.


8.            Kevin Smith –

Honestly, I don’t like Kevin Smith. I think he’s a one trick pony (and, usually, that one trick is people talking about girls fucking ponies) who can write smart and tight dialogue but honestly cannot direct worth a damn.

I had been trying to pin down why I didn’t enjoy his films until earlier this week when I was discussing this with a friend of mine and we got on the subject of the acting and it became clear to me that Kevin Smith just eats it as a director.

So the hell is he here? Because he set a new precedent with Clerks in indie filmmaking by doing it all by his lonesome. He used the place he worked at as the set, he maxed out his credit cards, and he got a discount on film by saying he was a student. Essentially, he did what Melvin Van Peebles did with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”: he taught a brand new generation of directors that lying, cheating, and stealing can turn your screenplay into a film if you have the wit and the ethical depravity (who am I kidding, we  all do at heart).


7.            Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up)

I honestly feel like comedy has never gotten very much attention even though it’s been known that, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Oscar Wilde said that and he is never known much for comedy, but Apatow is.

I really think that his films portray just as much tragedy and sadness as Baumbach’s except that they are swathed in raunch and circumstance. Take, for instance, his directorial debut film of the 40 Year Old Virgin: it is damnable that a man has gone 40 years of his life so shy agoraphobic that he hasn’t been able to sustain a romantic relationship. He stays home most nights either repainting WarHammer figurines or watching the TV show Survivor with his elderly next door neighbors.

Obviously, if this film were made as a drama, it would break your heart. But, instead, it is taken as humorous and it runs with this as a gag instead of as a fault for him.

And, in Knocked Up, we are confronted with the all-too-real possibility of a one-night-stand leading to a pregnancy that neither party wants to deal with or abort.

His films deal with real situations in hyper-comical ways instead of dealing with comical situations in comical ways (like modern comedies like Zoolander or Balls of Fury or Napoleon Dynamite). The realism of his films lends itself to an undertone of subtle sadness.


6.            John Lasseter (Toy Story 1 & 2, A Bug’s Life)

Whenever I reflect on the successes of John Lasseter, I wonder what it’s like to see the effects of your innovations on an entire genre of filmmaking.

Before Lasseter got the crazy idea to animate a film completely on computers, the genre was beginning to sag because animating by hand is expensive and time-consuming. Computer technology was beginning to be used for special effects by the beginning of the 90’s, but no one expected it to be something that could be visually engaging.

With 1995’s Toy Story, Lasseter proved the opposite: a film made wholly through computer animation could be visually engaging as well as one hell of a film.

It’s not just that Lasseter’s films are revolutionary for their animation innovations, it’s also that they are done with such heart and such passion that it flows through every cell and every animation.


5.             Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, The Squid and The Whale, Margot at the Wedding)

Although Baumbach hasn’t done very much to reinvent or reinvigorate a genre,

he has, according to Kevin Mattson of Dissent Magazine in their Summer 2006 issue, he has begun to brought back Susan Sontag’s idea of filmic directness that “that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret.”

His films are emotionally raw. Everything that happens on screen lingers within your soul.

Dealing with familial dissension and existential quandaries he has released movies that make you forget the actors and remember the characters. In his 2007 film Margot at the Wedding, Jack Black plays a character who is a pitiful excuse for a man who wants to sit around and play guitar. When something is revealed later in the film and he is chased down a hill and onto the beach, you can really see the characters true colors: running away and crying and apologizing profusely like a small child.

The movies he makes are wildly visceral, focusing on a small amount of time in which the main characters are honestly suffering and, in an age in which films are given to irony and jadedness, it is a refreshing film even though it will, along with his other films, ultimately breaks your heart.


4.            Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof) –

By waking up a generation of film goers by shocking the hell out of them with Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino reinvigorated a generation of jaded watchers with eyes glazed over.

And it’s an amazing film in the way that an adolescent film lover will watch it at 15 or 16, right around the time that one becomes jaded towards children’s films and typical Hollywood fare (and the whole world in general), and suddenly capture the movie-bug. It did it for kids in 1992, and it did it for me during my Junior Year of High School.

I was sick and tired of seeing movies at that point. I knew they were something I loved, but I just hated everything about the typical fare that one gets at the multiplexes or at Blockbuster. I wanted something more.

Based on someone’s recommendation, I discovered this film and, honestly, it was much like discovering masturbation: I thought I was the only one who knew about its glories and its heights and I wanted to tell every other male my age about it.

As a result I woke up the friends around me to better films as we began our journey into adulthood.

But, here’s the thing about Tarantino: he seems to work better under some kind of limitation—under some sort of reign. This is evident during his two greatest works of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (which is considered by some to be the Citizen Kane of that Generation) because he was constantly hounded by producers to see a return.

And when they got their return by way of Pulp Fiction being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (it lost to Forrest Gump, because what movie wouldn’t lose to Forrest Gump?), he was essentially given a blank check for the rest of the movies. He was allowed to go about and make the most bombastic and utterly disastrous films around.

Take Jackie Brown for instance: it’s a 2 and a half hour film lead by Pam Grier who Tarantino had a crush on as a child. He seemed to have disregarded the fact that she really can’t act.

Or Kill Bill, a four hour movie split into two films that Tarantino has yet to re-release as one film. It’s simply four hours of homage to all his favorite kung fu and western films. He even goes so far as to cast David Carradine, a perennially B-rate kung fu star, as the titular Bill.

Or his most recent picture, Death Proof, which was packaged in theaters as a double bill with Richard Rodriguez’s Planet Terror: it, again, is pure homage. After Pulp Fiction, it seems like he’s run out of original ideas.


3.            Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) –

With a flare for the visual, Darren Aronofsky has created visceral and emotional films much like Noah Baumbach except with a style that beckons one to constantly pay attention.

Take for example his film Requiem for a Dream where he uses half-second close ups of eyes dilating and mouths gasping cuts to show people taking heroine as opposed to simply showing them shooting up. He gives his film a look all his own by casting off norms and pointing his films in a surreal direction.

With The Fountain, he took his stylized approach to a whole new level. The story spans a thousand years and tells three parallel loves stories: one of a conquistador searching for the tree of life for his queen, one of a present-day doctor trying to find a cure for cancer that may have been found in the bark of a tree in South America, and a man in the future with the tree of life floating through a bubble trying to get to the Mayan afterlife. Obviously, the idea is the question of “What if you could live forever?”

I can’t understand why critics responded the way they did to the film. I mean, sure, it can be a bit convoluted at times but it is also one of the most beautiful films ever produced. It stands alone as a film that can both visually keep me in awe and make me cry every time I watch it.


2.            Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited)

A post-modern filmmaker to the end, his films are swathed in the irony that was discussed in the Baumbach portion.

They are antitheses even though they often work together. Where Baumbach’s films go out of their way to show pain and to show hurt, Anderson’s go out of their way to avoid such feelings or to confront them in a deadpan and stylized way.

All his characters are jaded by life and are only willing to show their true colors some of the time.

In his films, you really have to watch the eyes because they are usually the only portion of the face allowed to show emotion. The rest of the face is flat with exhaustion from the hyperbolic situations they are thrust in. Everything in Anderson’s movies is amped up with style and flare except for the acting which comes across as apathetic.

This mix causes the viewer to be constantly taken away with the film to its strangest places—be it India or the bottom of the ocean.


1.            Paul Thomas Anderson (Sydney [or Hard Eight], Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will be Blood)

PT Anderson, to me, is the greatest director to come out of the 90’s and today. He has been able to create epic films out of some of the most esoteric topics like 70’s porn or oilmen of the early 20th century.

Yet he has also been able to make films that deal with being lovelorn and angry as well as dealing with tragedy and death of the soul and the body.

And he has done it all with a flare and with imagination. He doesn’t go so far towards the Anderson side of quirk and smarminess nor does he go the entire other way of Baumbach by constantly showing heartwrenching emotion. Instead, he sways around in the middle, choosing to go either way as he chooses.

A lot of my affection for his films goes beyond words. You simply have to see Magnolia to understand what pendulum shifts I am talking about. The movie is about six people in the San Fernando Valley losing themselves in sadness which fulfills the Baumbach esthetic. And yet, there is something unreal about the world be it frogs falling from the sky or a character having success through a series of inspirational series about dating with the tagline “No Pussy has Nine Lives,” and this fulfills the Wes Anderson esthetic.

The film sits happily in the middle, allowing humor to shine through at the right times to give a break from some of the sadness, or allowing pure emotion to shine through when it needs to as well.

On top of all this, PT Anderson is one of hell of a director just based on his Academy Award Nomination track record: three of his five films have had one or more actors nominated for awards (Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights; Tom Cruise in Magnolia; and Daniel Day-Lewis won for his role in There Will be Blood).

So there you have it. My top five American Directors of the past 18 years. To see directors numbered six through ten, check out


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