Top 10 Film Directors of the 1980s


Whether it was Marty McFly, Gordon Gekko, the Terminator, Jake La Motta, the working girl (Melanie Griffith), or sharp-shooter Jimmy Chitwood, the 1980’s was a memorable decade of iconic heroes, novel advances in technology, and the cementation of blockbuster culture at the movies. Hollywood has always been a fast-moving town with new sets of winners and losers every decade. Here are the ten directors who most defined the 1980’s*.

Directors who were big in the 80s:

10. Spike Lee

Spike Lee

Because Lee’s films were at their height during the late 80’s and early 90’s, he splits both decades somewhat evenly which makes him a difficult choice. The tiebreaker would be his masterpiece Do the Right Thing. The film became known as one of the few films to deal so openly and effectively with racial representations on screen. Along with She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze, Lee was able to give the African-American community a voice they’ve never had before in filmdom. Roger Ebert cites the film as one of his favorites, writing, “I have only been given a few film going experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw Do the Right Thing.”

9. Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam

The wildly imaginative Terry Gilliam broke away from his association as the animator of Monty Python sketch troupe and began his own brand of artistically ornate fantasy films in this decade.  Adventures of Baron  Munchausen, Time Bandits and Brazil constituted what was informally known as the imagination trilogy because they explore the role of imagination in the individual during three different phases of the human lifespan. Of the three, Brazil earned an Oscar nod (for screenwriting). The biting satire of modernity and the bureaucracy that comes along with it is equal parts tragic and comic and one of the best films of its time.

8. David Lynch

David Lynch

Lynch is a director with highly offbeat sensibilities who TCM says, “often defied tidy description.” Although Lynch has always been more cult than mainstream, he had a couple big hits in the 80’s and briefly worked within the Hollywood system at the time. His disturbing independent film Eraserheard, released in 1977, won him an unlikely fan in comic director Mel Brooks who produced the highly successful The Elephant Man for Lynch. His commercial respectability was short-lived due to the fact that his next film Dune went wildly over budget and was rendered incoherent by the studio’s cutting room floor (it’s more on the basis of his first and third films of the 80’s that he’s on the list).  Fortunately, he still had a contract to produce one more film and with it, he made his masterpiece Blue Velvet. He then went on to make the groundbreaking TV series Twin Peaks. On the basis of his first and last films of the decade

7.  Woody Allen

Woody Allen

Prolific comic director Woody Allen has been making memorable hits in every decade since the 70’s, but in the first two decades there was a novelty factor to a Woody Allen film. In the 1980’s, Hannah and Her Sisters was a multiple Oscar nominee and critical hit. He also showed an ability to explore the darker side of humanity in Crimes and Misdemeanors. In contrast, the wispy piece of nostalgia, The Purple Rose of Cairo, was the most indulgent film of his career. Paying homage to Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., Allen took us to the days of silent films and brought the era’s stars to life in a very literal manner.

6. Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis

Originally an apprentice to Spielberg, Zemeckis has made many popular and iconic films. He’s had a penchant for being on the forefront of technology and combining that sensibility with storytelling in interesting combinations. For example, he simultaneously paid tribute to film noir and the animated shorts he grew up on in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with the merging of live action characters and cartoons on the same screen. He also succeeded in straight-up action with the Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner vehicle Romancing the Stone (tragically, the forgettable sequel ruined any hopes of a trilogy). His most iconic film, Back to the Future, merges off-the-wall science fiction with historical revisionism, teenage angst, and light-hearted comedy. It’s a credit to the film’s staying power that we’ve all been keeping an eye on 2015 as the year flying cars, holographic newspapers, and the World Series-winning Cubs come to life. Zemeckis also made one of the most promising action film serials

5. Barry Levinson

Barry Levinson

This Baltimore-based director –writer started off his career in this decade with a roaring start: Diner, Good Morning Vietnam, Tin Men, and the Best Picture winner Rain Man. Diner was a character-driven film heavily reliant on Levinson’s dialogue to carry it (which it does). In contrast, Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man were filled with more action. All of his films (with the exception of his last two which bogged down with heavy-handed attempts at political commentary) feature strong-yet-vulnerable male characters and show a strong curiosity towards the nature of male bonding.

4.  James Cameron

James Cameron

The decade was one of strong heroes (and heroines) and films that showed offered action and advancing special effects. Cameron delivered this in spades.  In Aliens, Cameron created one of the few sequels to outdo the original Aliens. Considering he took over the original from Ridley Scott, this was no small feat. He also authored and directed the Terminator series and helmed the horror film The Abyss. If Titanic was Cameron’s big comeback, this was the decade he was coming back from.

3. Peter Weir

Peter Weir

When his latest film (The Way Back) came out this past year, one movie review  noted “Peter Weir has never made a bad film….[he] is incapable of churning out a disaster.” Although he’s not as well-known as his films are, a quick glance at his relatively small filmography reveals quite a few classics including The Truman Show, Dead Poets’ Society and Witness. The 1980’s was his most prolific decade with five hits. He started the decade in the Australian film industry (his 1983 film Year of Living Dangerously has a curiously Australian-centric view on world conflict), and relocated to Hollywood to shoot Witness shortly thereafter. The producers required a delicate outsiders’ touch to deal with the sensitivity of portraying the Amish on film.

2.  Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone

A Yale dropout and disillusioned Vietnam War vet, Stone has always had a lot to say on the political front. Coupled with an ease in translating those political opinions into film and willingness to be bold, Stone’s films stood out among a relatively bland decade of films that fell too heavily in line with Regan-era conservatism.  He won two directing Oscars for Platoon and  Born on the Fourth of July. He also directed the endlessly quotable classic Wall Street, which is best known for the iconic character Gordon Gekko who has become the archetype for power stock brokers and the mercurial greed behind them.

1. Steven Spielberg

Stephen Spielberg

It’s a telling sign of the level of respect Hollywood has for Spielberg that even the director who beat him out for the Oscar in 1983 (Richard Attenborough for Gandhi) admitted that he didn’t think his film deserved to have beaten E.T.  Along with E.T, Spielberg continued to define  crowd-pleasing entertainment with the sublime Indiana Jones trilogy. The adventures of an archeology professor who moonlights as a treasure hunger set new heights for action films and largely influenced most blockbusters you see today. In addition to dominating the box office, Spielberg also demonstrated an ability to handle heavy material with the critically acclaimed The Color Purple.

*This list would be incomplete if we didn’t make mention of the people who directed two of the greatest films of the decade: Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner). Their omissions were the result of a small body of work outside of that one masterpiece.

By Orrin Reed

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  1. @Scott OK, I’ll rewrite the intro to mention that director has to be more prolific than producing 2 films. Happy now?
    (oh, and I probably won’t rewrite the intro, I don’t believe I have admin authority and don’t feel like bothering them, sorry)

    @Colin Did you see all the people protesting John Hughes getting so much attention at the Oscars. His films are considered popular but by no means good. Both of the two film critics who replaced Roger Ebert on @ the Movies (Christy LeMire & the Russian guy) both said they never liked Hughes films.

    @Not a Squerrill You know, I should have included Scorsese. I didn’t put much thought to After Hours (I’ve seen it, but honestly, I didn’t know he directed it), and all the non-Raging Bulls films from the 80s, but why would I count Goodfellas if that’s released in 1990

    @Topias I disagree. Here’s my defense. I choose limits over my field of expertise. I didn’t study world film history/criticism in college. I studied American/English language film history/criticism with certain forays and a limited exposure into the people and films that influenced American films whether the Bicycle Thief, Battleship Potempkin, etc.

    It’s just like anything else in life. Someone’s not gonna choose to be a biologist but they’re gonna get into a certain field of biology.

    In short, they might make better movies somewhere else, but there are enough great English language films to immerse myself in the meanwhile. I don’t agree that I have an obligation to consume every film ever made to speak with authority about films.

    Without scope or limits, none of us have any authority to say what the best films of the 1980s are: Not even you. For all you know, the best films in the 1980’s might have been made by someone on a home video in Madagascar who only showed them to 8 people


  2. It’s annoying that allmost all of the directors are american…really…you don’t know they make often way better movies somewhere other than america.

  3. Scott Herdliska on

    This list is ludicrous. I read your comment about Scorsese (to which I disagree wholeheartedly) and Stanley Kubrick, both of whom deserve to be at or near the very top of the list.

    I also might put Richard Donner and John Carpenter on here in favor of Peter Weir and James Cameron.

    Walter Hill, Tim Burton and John Hughes also deserve mention, but a list lie this without Scorsese and Kubrick is just worthless.

    • Scott Herdliska on

      I also wanted to add that you are talking about the best film directors of the 80s, not the most prolific, I’d put Full Metal Jacket and the Shining up against five movies from 80 % of the rest of the list.

  4. Opinions are opinions, sure, but to not even include John Hughes in this list seems a little ignorant and/or standoffish. To say that The Breakfast Club, Uncle Buck, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Ferris Bueller only appealed to one kind of audience is nonsensical.

    Not to mention those movies have transcended pop culture and have made lasting impressions on viewers 30 years later. I wasn’t even a product of the 80’s and three of John Hughes’ movies are probably in my top 25 favorite movies of all time.

  5. Not A Squirrel on

    …. MARTIN SCORSESE?!?!?!!??!!? RAGING BULL??!?!?!?!? PERHAPS THE GREATEST SPORTS MOVIE OF ALL TIME??!!?!??! Opinions are opinions though.

    • Scott Herdliska on

      Spot on. not to mention Last Temptation, After Hours, King of Comedy and lastly Goodfellas (1990I could also be considered as the last great film of the decade or the first great film of the next.

  6. I donâ??t agree with this list. The only one I agree with is David Lynch. Whereâ??s Stuart Gordon, Frank Henenlotter, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Brian Yuzna, Michele Soavi?

  7. I don’t agree with this list. The only one I agree with is David Lynch. Where’s Stuart Gordon, Frank Henenlotter, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Brian Yuzna, Michele Soavi?

  8. 1. Stanley Kubrick? Full Metal Jacket and The Shining both came out in the 80’s.

    2. John Hughes, as has already been mentioned.

    3. Roland Joffe. Fat Man and Little Boy is underrated, The Killing Fields was brutal awesomeness, and The Mission is easily in my top 100.

    4. James Cameron is overrated, and to call him one of the best of the 80’s is a joke. He made 1 film you could call “great” (Aliens), one agenda-driven mediocre flick (The Abyss), one entertaining Arnold vehicle (The Terminator), and one utterly terrible B-flick (Pirana II: The Spawning).

    • Yeah, but was Kubrick defined by the 80’s? His four most famous films were in the 60-71. Also, I tried to pick people who made more than 2 films.

      I did see Fat Man and Little Boy. I do like a good historical docudrama and I don’t think that film was necessarily bad.

  9. Good idea for a list. Interesting choices, but I’m pretty shocked that John Hughes isn’t included. He directed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck. He also wrote National Lampoon’s Vacation, Some Kind of Wonderful, and Pretty in Pink.

    • I feel like John Hughes is memorable and captured the imaginations of teenagers and children in the 1980’s but they certainly weren’t very mature films. Giving John Hughes a place on this list would be like giving Saved by the Bell an emmy.

      -The author of this article