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The Top 10 Directors of the 90’s

By Michelle Donnelly · August 17, 2014

Acclaimed director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) is quoted as saying, “the director is the true author of the film.” In almost every way, a director must be all and know all. They must take responsibility for the whole film. From the screenplay, the actors and the cinematography to costumes, scenery and the editing process. They must have expansive background knowledge and savvy to execute an insurmountable task: making a movie. Without a doubt, there is a vast difference between being a director and being a great director. Then, what makes a Top 10 Director? In my estimation a Top 10 Director will possess extraordinary vision, craft and originality. Further, they must have made important contributions to filmmaking and its innovation. With this in mind, here are my Top 10 Directors of the 1990’s.


10. Penny Marshall— Awakenings, A League of Their Own, Renaissance Man, The Preacher’s Wife

Her beginning is infamous. Playing Laverne in the beloved series Laverne & Shirley, no one much expected the smart talking, milk and Pepsi drinking Laverne to become one of the biggest directors in Hollywood. Following in the footsteps of Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Marshall entered big budget cinema with 1988’s incredibly successful Big. In 1990, she followed with Awakenings, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and A League of Their Own in 1992. While the rest of the 90’s were not as successful commercially or creatively for Marshall, there is no doubt that her films have made her one of the most successful directors in a field dominated by men. Kathryn Bigelow, Sophia Coppola, and Lena Dunham would rise to prominence on a road Marshall helped paved.


9. John Sayles- Limbo, Men With Guns, Lone Star, The Secret of Roan Inish, Passion Fish, City of Hope

Indie pioneer John Sayles became so out of necessity. His tireless efforts to produce movies as he envisions them have often meant funding them himself. His staunch ethos was evident in the beginning of his career as a writer for B film extraordinaire, Roger Corman, were he infused his signature style into movies such as Piranha. His own movies tend to explore the commonality of man and he is fearless in his approach as he addresses taboo subjects such as race, class and politics. He is notorious for not having rehearsals and filming very few takes. He does not allow his actors to veer from script, but provides each with a character rich bio. He is a master at providing the audience with relatable characters while telling original, yet familiar stories.


8. Jonathan Demme—The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Beloved

Like John Sayles, Jonathan Demme also began his career in the 1970s writing for Roger Corman. After some moderately received romantic comedies in the 1980’s, his 1991 movie Silence of the Lambs would catapult him to another level. In a rare feat, it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress, one of only three films to do so. His follow up, Philadelphia was one of the first and most high profile movies to broach the controversial subject of AIDS and homosexuality. Demme hoped the film would push for a cure and he purposefully targeted those people who had not previously given due consideration to the disease.  The film has been credited with helping break the stigma surrounding the illness as it uncovered discrimination those living with HIV and AIDS often endure.


7. Clint Eastwood— White Hunter, Black Heart, The Rookie, Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, True Crime

As an actor, Eastwood has enjoyed fame and heaping accolades. Directing, he says, was something he was determined to do from the outset of his career and his debut was 1971’s Play Misty for Me. During filming he is focused and efficient and his control over all aspects of production has proved successful. His 1992 film Unforgiven provided audiences with an innovative take on a tired genre. His movies tackle a wide array of subject matter and often reveal tragic characters. He delves deep and asks difficult questions with a grace and intelligence unsurpassed.


6. David Lynch – Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks

David Lynch exposes us to unknown worlds that in actuality do not exist, but are entertaining none-the-less. Through his creative vision, we experience weird, quirky, more than slightly damaged people that without a doubt, most of us would never have known. Twin Peaks was groundbreaking television that enjoyed not only critical acclaim but also cult status. Mulholland Drive was a mass of confusion laced with moments of unexplainable visions all while it expressed very real themes. His use of original camera angles and intense lighting reinforces the distorted images we see on screen.  Lynch allows us to truly get away from the benign, the usual, the pedestrian and we should be grateful.


5. Martin Scorsese – Casino, Cape Fear, Goodfellas

Scorsese’s resume is long and prestigious. His least successful films could read as another director’s greatest works. His gritty style is often mimicked and now commonplace. His characters are flawed, emotionally corrupt and provide us a glimpse into dark, but hauntingly realistic, ways of life. Goodfellas is lauded as one of the greatest mobster films of all times, with Scorsese having won not only the Oscar for Best Director but also the Golden Globe, BAFTA and Director’s Guild Award. In Casino, Scorsese expertly recreates 1970’s mobster Vegas for those of us who did not experience its debauchery. His innovative style has influenced many filmmakers including Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), Spike Lee and David O. Russell (American Hustle).


4. Steven Spielberg– Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, Lost World: Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Hook

Prior to 1990, Spielberg had directed Close Encounters of the Third Kind, two Raiders of the Lost Ark movies and E.T. If only for his catalog of ambitious and lucrative films, one must give him kudos and while box office receipts should not be a qualifier of a Top 10 Director, his prominence cannot be overlooked. The 90’s didn’t start out well for Spielberg with Hook failing to impress audiences. For the rest of the decade though, he balanced action flicks with serious historical dramas, all becoming blockbusters. Not all critics agree with Spielberg’s iconic status, but the truth is that his ability to float freely in between genres and make enormously successful movies that entertain audiences as well as his do, his spot on any Top 10 list is well deserved.


3. Spike Lee—Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers, Girl 6, Get on the Bus, He Got Game, Summer of Sam

Not only was Spike Lee prolific in the 1990s, directing twelve films during the decade, but he also directed some of the most creatively and socially important work of the decade.

His films provide previously unavailable substantive roles for African Americans in mainstream cinema and propelled the careers of many an actor/actress. Outspoken and unapologetic, he has become a voice for a minimized demographic. Critics have not always been kind to Lee’s work and that may well be a badge of honor for his vision is not one shared with all. His work exposes us to exceptional stories that would otherwise have been untold.


2. Quentin Tarantino—Jackie Brown, From Dusk Till Dawn, Four Rooms, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino burst on the scene in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs. With his follow up Pulp Fiction two years later, he quickly became heralded as a genius that founded a new generation of filmmakers. His cutting edge approach combined with intense realistic violence struck a chord with the audience. With style, offbeat humor and engaging characters, Tarantino somehow gets us to look past his demented and violent view of the world. Between the unrelentingly dialogue and pop culture references, Tarantino made that which might be considered tacky, corny or geeky cool.


1. Joel and Ethan Coen – The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing

The 90’s were the breakout decade for the Coen Brothers. After 1987’s Raising Arizona the Coen’s continued to awe us with their unconventional views of the world. In Fargo they not only introduced the world to the Minnesotan accent, but also to heartland characters gone wrong and a thriller plot that kept audiences on the edge of their seats. The Big Lebowski has taken on larger than life cult status celebrated by fans at annual Lebowski Fests throughout the country. The Coen Brother’s see the world through a crooked lens and they explore eccentric characters that find themselves in unfathomable and unique situations. They consistently present us with innovative and radical new material and have redefined mainstream cinema.

Honorable mentions: Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Gus Van Sant

Read more: ’90s Indie Films That Became a Mainstream Attraction