The 1980s produced a ton of amazing movies, and with that, ushered in a crop of directors who still wow audiences today. Directors like Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, and Tim Burton all found their groove in that radical decade (even if a few technically started before 1980). Other directors came out of the box swinging, but quietly faded away, despite being responsible for some A+ films. That’s this list, a list of directors that had big hits that didn’t translate to long careers.
Of all the directors on this list, John McTiernan’s story is the weirdest. In the ’80s McTiernan first directed the underrated Nomads, followed by two of the biggest movies of the decade, Predator in 1987, and Die Hard in 1988. He worked into the ’90s with hits like The Hunt For Red October and The Thomas Crown Affair, then it all came to a crashing end when he got involved in a wire-tapping scheme that eventually landed him in prison for about a year, which forced him to declare bankruptcy, and ended his career completely. His last credit was the movie Basic in 2003.
Savage Steve Holland
Better Off Dead (1985) and One Crazy Summer (1986) seemed to set up Savage Steve Holland for huge success. He brought a unique lens to filmmaking, mixing in his original animation with hilarious comedy. Holland was a fresh voice making his own kind of movies. And then, they pretty much stopped after those two. He directed the decent How I Got into College in 1989 and then moved pretty much exclusively to television. Fun fact: Holland drew the original “Whammys” for Press Your Luck.
Michael Ritchie got his start in the 1970s, but his five-picture run in late ’80s is what defines him. First, Fletch in 1985, followed by Wildcats and The Golden Child in 1986, The Couch Trip in ’88, and finally Fletch Lives in 1989. What run! The ’90s weren’t so kind with a string of busts and that was pretty much it. Ritchie died in 2001.
Martin Brest hit the big time in the ’80s by teaming up with Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop and Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run. He even found huge success at the very beginning of the ’90s with Scent of a Woman. So how does the director of hits like that get ostracized from Hollywood? By directing one of the most notorious flops of all time, Giglii in 2003. It’s his last credit; his career has never recovered. Brest still laments this downfall.
While most people might think of 1995’s Clueless when they hear the name Amy Heckerling, it was really in the ’80s that she redefined being a female director in Hollywood. With hits like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Johnny Dangerously, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, and the Look Who’s Talking movies, Heckerling dominated the ’80s then, aside from Clueless, hasn’t made many films since.
The 1980s were good for Joe Dante. The Howling, Gremlins, Explorers, Innerspace, and The ‘Burbs is one heck of a run. Unfortunately, after Gremlins 2 in 1990, Dante’s output dropped off, and so did his box office results.
Nick Castle has really always been more of a writer than a director. Still, he had a nice string of movies in the ’80s with films like The Last Starfighter, The Boy Who Could Fly, and Tap. His biggest hit was actually in 1991, with Hook, but after a couple of box office disappointments in the 1990s, his work slowed down.
After a couple of quirky surprise hits in the 1980s with Valley Girl and Real Genius, you’d expect a director like Martha Coolidge to hit the big time, but for whatever reason, it’s not really the way things went. After the very well-received but underperforming Rambling Rose in 1991, Coolidge never really got that big career boost.
Hal Needham had one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood. He started as a stuntman and that led to working with Burt Reynolds. From there, he started directing a bunch of Reynolds’ movies in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He helmed Smokey & The Bandit in the ’70s, but then Cannonball Run I and II, and Stroker Ace in the ’80s. Plus the classic Gen X film, Rad, in 1986. After that, though, it was mostly TV rehashes of the Bandit movies.
Dragonslayer, The Legend of Billie Jean, and *Batteries Not Included are all foundational films for kids of the ’80s, yet the director of all three, Matthew Robbins, is barely remembered today. He works strictly as a writer these days.
John G. Avildsen
Despite winning an Academy Award for Rocky in the mid-1970s and directing classic ’80s movies like The Karate Kid (and the first two sequels), Lean on Me, Neighbors, and For Keeps, director John G. Avildsen isn’t often mentioned as one of the best, which he clearly was.
Hugh Hudson is kind of like the film equivalent to a one-hit wonder in music. Or really, a two-hit wonder. The first film he ever directed was Chariots of Fire. You don’t really get better than that, right? He was nominated for a Best Director Oscar and the film won Best Picture. Hudson followed that up with the under-appreciated Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which was also a critic and financial hit. After that, he directed a handful more films, but he never regained that mojo he had when he started.
Desperately Seeking Susan made a huge splash in 1985 when it was released. Madonna was the biggest pop star in the world, and this movie was her debut. Unfortunately, director Susan Seidelman wasn’t able to keep her hot streak going and though she’s gone on to direct a few movies and TV shows, she’s hardly remembered like she should be.
Michael Apted isn’t totally forgotten, but he’s not always remembered for all he should be. Sure, he’s probably most famous for his epic Up series of documentaries in the U.K., but he directed some huge movies, especially in the 1980s. Movies like Gorillas In The Mist, Gorky Park, and, of course, Coal Miner’s Daughter, which was nominated for seven Oscars.
W. D. Richter
Another one-hit wonder on this list is W. D. Richter. Known mostly as a screenwriter, Richter also directed one ’80s movie that doesn’t get enough love, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
You’d think the director behind ’80s classics like Porky’s, A Christmas Story, Rhinestone, and Turk 182 would be talked about all the time, but sadly, Bob Clark isn’t. It’s true his output slowed in the ’90s ,and he died in 2007, but he directed some of the best of the decade.
Fans of Horror might recognize the name Steve Miner, but otherwise, he’s just not known anymore, and he should be. As the director of Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981, Friday the 13th Part III (1982), and House (1985) Miner helped drive the genre forward by leaps and bounds in the ’80s. He stumbled when he directed Soul Man, which isn’t well-regarded today for its use of Blackface.
Jeff Kanew had a string of comedies in the ’80s that are still loved today by many people, but his name is hardly associated with them. He’s no John Hughes, to be fair, but with Revenge of the Nerds, Tough Guys, Troop Beverly Hills, and the criminally underrated Gotcha!, Kanew made some great movies in the 1980s.
Three of the most talked about movies of the ’80s were directed by Adrian Lyne, who is almost never talked about anymore. Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Fatal Attraction were all huge in their day, and are still talked about now. Lyne, however, isn’t. Despite directing a handful of movies since, he’s basically been retired for decades, with his only movie of the last 20 years being the poorly-received Deep Water in 2022.
Alan Metter is another director of a couple of classic comedies that are still beloved today, but he never gets the credit he deserves. Back to School and Girls Just Want To Have Fun are part of the 1980s zeitgeist, but sadly Metter, who died in 2020, isn’t, and he should be.
We’re No Angels has an A+ cast, but, like its director Neil Jordan, it’s hardly talked about anymore. Jordan had a great run in the 1980s, with movies like High Spirits and Mona Lisa, and after some big successes in the ’90s, he seems to have fallen off most people’s radars, which is a shame.
Blue Thunder (1983), WarGames (1983), American Flyers (1985), Short Circuit (1986), and Stakeout (1987) is a fantastic run of movies! But can you name the director? John Badham has mostly worked in TV since the ’90s, but he should be far better remembered for his stellar work in the ’80s.
Alex Cox came out of the box swinging with his first two movies, Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, two amazing films that have become true cult classics, but his fourth movie, Walker, which is honestly kind of underrated, was a bomb and he never really regained any momentum in his career.
Roland Joffé has become more infamous than famous over his career, but in the ’80s, he knocked it out of the park with The Killing Fields and The Mission. Sadly, a string of box office bombs, including the notoriously poorly-reviewed The Scarlett Letter, starring Demi Moore, in 1995 sealed Joffé’s fate. Though he’s continued to direct movies, he’s not the big name he could have been.
Lawrence Kasdan might not be a name you’d expect to see on a list like this, because as a writer, he’s still revered, having written classics like The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Force Awakens, and more. But he’s not as well remembered for his great directing in the ’80s, with movies like The Big Chill, Silverado, and The Accidental Tourist.
9 to 5 director Colin Higgins is a tragic case of a fantastic director taken from us too soon. Higgins died at age 47 of AIDS in 1988, and who knows how much better remembered he would be today had he not. The sky was the limit.
Stewart Raffill has one of the wildest filmography of the ’80s and early ’90s. Starting with High Risk in 1981, followed by Ice Pirates, and The Philadelphia Experiment in 1984, and ending the decade with the now-cult classic (though panned at the time) Mac and Me in 1989. The movies (other than Mac and Me) are actually pretty good and Raffill should be better remembered for them.
Howard Zieff started the 1980s with the Goldie Hawn classic, Private Benjamin, and he ended it with the oft-forgotten 1980’s classic, The Dream Team. He even started the ’90s with a banger, My Girl. Sadly, Zieff suffered from Parkinson’s and retired after the sequel to My Girl, otherwise he’d be far better remembered.
Paul Schrader is mostly remembered (for good reason) as a screenwriter, but he also directed some great movies in the ’80s that he’s less remembered for. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, is a forgotten classic from 1985 and Schrader should be better remembered for that alone.
Joseph Ruben found his biggest commercial success in the ’90s, but it’s his ’80s movies that he should be equally remembered for. The Stepfather with Terry O’Quinn, and especially Dreamscape with Dennis Quaid, are bonafide cult classics.
Choreographer Alan Johnson only directed two films in his career, and both are better than they are remembered for. The first, To Be Or Not To Be, is a lost Mel Brooks classic which is a rare time that Brooks only starred in the film and didn’t write or direct it. The second, Solarbabies, is…well…it’s pretty bad and seemingly the reason we don’t remember Johnson as a director today.
John Sayles has had a long career in Hollywood, and despite A+ films like Eight Men Out, Matewan, and The Brother from Another Planet, Sayles is hardly mentioned when people talk about the greats from the ’80s, except among his hardcore fans, and he should be. He definitely should be.
Hollywood can be fickle, and this list of great directors who are not as well remembered as they should be is proof of that. Hopefully, this will spur readers to go back and check out some of these classic movies.