Sometimes, I feel we carry some kind of twisted prejudice against big blockbuster films. Yes, most of them are truly rubbish – done with zero thought or care for the actual quality of the craft, catering to audiences worst impulses and saying nothing interesting about or to us. There are a few of them, though, that really stand out, and sometimes we can pass them on based solely on our general judgment of blockbusters instead of our real knowledge of its quality or its makers’ talent.
To provide some kind of at least half-effective guide to which blockbusters should be at least given a chance, here are 10 directors working directly into big-studio Hollywood right now, in big-budget films, that maybe deserve some of our attention. And here’s also why we picked them among the others.
10. Ron Howard
Former child/teen star turned Oscar winning director? That’s not a trajectory we see every day, but Ron Howard still managed to pull it off. A long way since his days at The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) and Happy Days (1974-1984), Howard is, at 62 years old, one of the most interesting directors working in crowd-pleasing, yet still somehow academic dramas in Hollywood.
Since his initial success with Splash (1984), he’s done a string of variably successful, but consistently interesting works in Cocoon (1985), Willow (1988), Parenthood (1989), Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Cinderella Man (2005), Frost/Nixon (2008), Rush (2013) and In The Heart of the Sea (2015).
His style is by no mean a subversive one, but he has that particular penchant for tapping into the better instincts of commercial, big-budget cinema, making good use of high production values and adapting his style to different genres and different stories. Even his most maligned movies, like The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) have a whiff of could-be brilliance to them.
Next project: He’s (unfortunately) going back for another round of Dan Brown in Inferno, which comes out October 28.
9. Matthew Vaughn
First of a few British filmmakers in our list, he was a creative partner and producer for fellow Brit Guy Ritchie through the late 90s and early aughts, but the duo broke up after the phenomenal flop of the Madonna-led rom-com Swept Away (2002). Who’d say that Vaughn would bounce back before Ritchie?
His 2004 directing debut Layer Cake, about a cocaine dealer looking for an early retirement was praised by critics, and while his Hollywood debut Stardust (2007) was a bit lackluster, Kick-Ass (2009) came along to make the director everyone’s new favorite Brit. His round in the X-Men franchise, First Class (2011), was possibly the best mutant movie to date, while Kingsman (2014) became an unlikely hit in the box office and among critics.
Vaughn has a distinctive ironic twist, a light touch for action sequences and a good eye for casting. His films’ tones are always precise while not seeming too calculated or cynical and his peculiar style elevate the script he’s working with.
Next project: He’s returning for the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, coming June 16, 2017.
8. Brad Bird
Trained as an animator with Disney since the age of 14, Brad Bird spent a good part of his adult life in a job he describes as restraining and uncreative. He made his break for it when The Iron Giant (1999), his first truly personal project, came out – he was already 42.
Brought in by Pixar, he went on to do two of their best films to date, The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), also becoming, with the former, the first person to have sole writing credit for a Pixar movie. He broke out of that job too with his next project, the fourth (and arguably best) entry in the Mission: Impossible series, Ghost Protocol (2011) – one of the very best, most exciting action films in recent history.
His visual genius and his absolute commitment to creating wondrous situations and premises are deliciously combined with a gift for pacing and narrative in Bird’s cinema. Even the comparatively uninspired Tomorrowland (2015) has moments in which his talent shines.
Next project: While the ever-gestating book adaptation 1906 remains in development, he’s revisiting his superheroes in The Incredibles 2, due June 21, 2019.
7. Joe & Anthony Russo
Who was to say that comedy kids Joe and Anthony Russo would become two of the best, most trustworthy blockbuster directors of our time? Sure, the brothers did very well on their feature film debut, 2002’s crime comedy Welcome to Collinwood, toplined by William H. Macy, Sam Rockwell, Patricia Clarkson and George Clooney.
That underseen gem has yet to be rediscovered, and their work in comedy series like Arrested Development, Happy Endings and Community made them good names, but when they were called upon to helm Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), no one would have guessed they would do so well they’d become Marvel Studios’ favorite auteurs.
Their stunning work in follow-up Captain America: Civil War (2016) resonated what they do best: combining movie references and working genres into and around those superhero stories, while paying respect to the characters and creating a coherent universe in which they could exist.
Next project: Their work at Marvel is not done, since they’re billed to be the helmers of Avengers: Infinity War, the two-part epic coming in May 4, 2018, and May 3, 2019.
6. J.J. Abrams
New York-bred filmmaker J.J. Abrams has been a renowned producer and director on TV since his Felicity (1998-2002) and Alias (2001-2006) days, while also writing the critically praised film Joy Ride (2001), but it was his stint directing the history-making two-part pilot episode of Lost (2004-2010) that made him the big household name he is today.
No more than two years after his work behind the camera in the ABC hit series, he was called upon to breathe new life into the Mission: Impossible franchise with the third installment, made in 2006. It didn’t exactly work, even though the movie was well-received by critics and had what’s probably still the best villain in the series.
It got him the gig in the Star Trek (2009, 2013) and Star Wars (2015) franchises, plus the time to write and direct his personal little project, Super 8 (2011). His Midas touch when it comes to the box office is also reflection of his talent as a storyteller, even though his techniques have been sometimes criticized. He has a gift for giving fans what they want while not forgoing the task to make a good film out of it.
Next project: He’s got nothing as a director in the foreseeable future. As a producer he’s helping Julius Onah (The Girl is In Trouble) make his sci-fi God Particle a reality.