25 Great Directors Working Outside Mainstream Cinema
Meet some of the best directors working today, who haven't gone down the blockbuster movie route...
Ever find it a bit lame when the same big name directors get kicked around for every high profile project? Christopher Nolan, JJ Abrams, maybe the Russo Brothers? With so much focus on blockbuster films these days, getting a major franchise job seems like the main acknowledgement of success for a filmmaker. And yes, both the financial and creative rewards can be great. But there are plenty of other directors out there, doing their own thing, from art house auteurs to DTV action specialists.
Here are 25 examples.
Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve probably seen Lee Hardcastle’s ultraviolent claymations shared on social media. He first started getting noticed for his two-minute remake of The Thing, starring the famous stop motion penguin Pingu. Far from just a cheap one-joke mash-up, it’s a lovingly composed tribute to both, capturing the arctic bleakness of both John Carpenter’s classic and the ’90s CBBC staple. After that he produced more super-gory recreations of cult movies, now featuring his own character Claycat (probably for legal reasons), and eventually ended up being commissioned to make them by studios as viral videos.
But if Hardcastle only made fan videos, he wouldn’t be on this list. He’s refined his Sam-Raimi-but-in-plasticine style into a series of crude but hilarious original shorts. He contributed T Is For Toilet, about a haunted toilet, to the ABCs Of Death anthology, and his 20 minute sequel to it, Ghost Burger, is his biggest project to date. He’s currently working on a debut full-length feature called Spook Train, and it can’t come soon enough.
Where to start: His recent music video for Gunship’s song Tech Noir, which combines violence, VHS nostalgia and a John Carpenter cameo.
I wasn’t really sure if Benh Zeitlin had a large enough body of work to be included on this list – I tried to keep it to people who at least had made a lot of shorts, if not full features. Zeitlin has only really made one feature, 2012’s Beast Of The Southern Wild. But that netted him the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and Best Film and Best Director Oscar nominations.
Plus it’s such a unique, weird film, flirting constantly between a documentary-like naturalism and magical realism, I felt it had to be included.
In a mysterious Louisiana bayou community called the “Bathtub”, seemingly cut off from modern society, a six-year old girl and her grumpy father live off the land. Then a Hurricane Katrina-esque flood happens, and they struggle to survive. And that’s not to mention the Godzilla-style giant wildebeest god that follows her around. Perhaps rightly, the film did get criticised for fetishising African-American poverty, especially as Zeitlin himself is a white New Yorker. But it’s a film so beautiful, so lyrical, so confident in its tone and logic, and it’s impossible to dislike.
Where to start: Well, he’s only got that one film. But despite its initial success it seems to have been semi-forgotten about, so go watch it if you missed it at the time.
Carruth was an unknown software developer when he wrote, directed, produced, and acted in the low budget 2004 sci-fi Primer. Probably the most accurate and realistic take on time travel ever captured on film, it seems deceptively simple at first. A guy builds a time machine in his garage. But by using it, he creates a double of himself. And something has to happen to that double. It’s played out to its logical extreme, and it leads to a plot so complicated it needs diagrams to explain it. Yet it’s all there, on the screen, if you’re willing work for it.
Nine years later Carruth returned with Upstream Colour, again starring himself. Somehow the film is even wilder than Primer, with an almost indescribable plot about parasites, pig farming and identity. Just go with it.
Where to start: Primer is probably his most accessible film. But the term “accessible” is definitely relative here.
It’d be easy to dismiss French-Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan and his films as vapid hipster posing, consisting mostly of haircuts and electropop. Especially since he’s already got four films under his belt at the age of only 26, and used to be a child actor (he also voices Stan in the French Canadian dub of South Park).
But look past that, and he’s a fiercely personal filmmaker. His debut I Killed My Mother dealt with his complicated relationship with his parents and his own sexuality, with him taking the lead role. His second film Heartbeats continued the theme of sexual confusion, with two friends – one male, one female – both falling in love with the same boy. Then, still only at the tender age of 23, he embarked on the three hour epic Laurence Always, spanning ten years in a relationship between a woman and her a transgendered former boyfriend. He then took a Hitchcockian turn with the psychological thriller Tom At The Farm. His films are cool, controlled, polysexual and highly watchable.
Where to start: Heartbeats is a really great little indie movie about growing up, falling in love, and falling out with your best friend. It also has some fantastic haircuts and electropop.
To be perfectly honest, the ironic grindhouse/exploitation/VHS pastiche movement pretty much ran out of steam halfway through Death Proof. But it was an entry into a competition to have your own fake trailer run alongside the Canadian release of Grindhouse that actually spawned the genre’s most enjoyable film. That trailer was called Hobo With A Shotgun, and when young director Jason Eisener got to turn it into a full film, his masterstroke was to cast Rutger Hauer in the lead role.
That’s been Eisener’s only feature length work so far, but in his work in anthologies he’s displayed a filmmaking talent far beyond just throwing out 80s references. His ABCs Of Death entry was essentially an incredible music video, a tale of revenge inflicted on a paedophile janitor shot like an 80s shampoo commercial and scored with pounding synth beats. And his contribution to V/H/S 2 was a sly found footage take on classic Amblin kids’ adventures, partially filmed from a dog’s POV. The guy is going to get a superhero movie soon, and you’re all going to love him.
Where to start: Hobo With A Shotgun is far better than it has any right to be. It’s lean, genuinely thrilling, and honest in all the ways that the Machete Kills of the world really aren’t.
The “mumblecore” movement of the mid-00s can definitely rub some people up the wrong way. Loose, naturalistic, semi-improvised glimpses of mostly-white, usually affluent 20-somethings hanging out, not doing much – self-indulgence and navel gazing is common. But they can also capture something perfect and relatable about early 21st century life.
Joe Swanberg remains probably the best, and definitely the best known filmmaker of the scene. Cheap digital technology was key to mumblecore’s growth, and Swanberg is a master of this.
2006’s LOL, about a long distance relationship carried out over the internet, is still one of the best films ever made about how social media affects us, and 2011’s Uncle Kent went as far as immortalising Chatroulette on screen. While most filmmakers struggle to make computers interesting on screen, Swanberg manages to make the grainy screens and jerky displays look strangely beautiful.
Technology also allowed him to be incredibly prolific (he made seven films in 2011!), but recently he’s started with on bigger budgets with high profile names – Drinking Buddies with Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson, Happy Christmas with Kendrick and Lena Dunham – but he’s retained his perfect grasp of human relationships.
Where to start: Drinking Buddies with his all-star cast and more traditional filmmaking is a good entry, but LOL is probably still his masterpiece.
Bujalski has been somewhat dubbed the “godfather of mumblecore,” as it was his 2002 film Funny Ha Ha that arguably defined the movement. A rough-around-the-edges tale of post-college kids, it would be painfully clichéd is it wasn’t so real and honest.
But to label Bujalski as just the mumblecore guy would be completely wrong. He’s slowly but surely growing into a really interesting filmmaker as the movement has died away. His next two films, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, shared similar themes to Funny Ha Ha but showed a growing confidence. And then came the utterly unique Computer Chess. Set at 1980 computer convention where nerds battle to create the ultimate chess program, it’s part sports comedy, part awkward indie drama, and then goes batshit crazy in the final reel. It’s also shot in black and white, on vintage ’80s Sony cameras, which makes it really look like a lost documentary from the era.
Where to start: This site is called Den of Geek – you need to see Computer Chess.
An Israeli-born martial artist who cut his teeth on episodes of Power Rangers, Isaac Florentine makes the best action movies that you’ve never seen. Whereas mainstream blockbusters are just muddy CGI and crossover franchises, Florentine has been stuck making straight-to-DVD films, but he takes advantage of the freedom that allows. He shoots fights with a clean consistency, with long takes and still camera, letting the talent of the martial artist really shine.
And that’s his other skill – finding and getting the best out of the finest on-screen fighters in the world today. He’s helped Jean Claude Van Damme’s great mid-00s renaissance. He gave Chilean action star Mark Zaror his first American role. But his greatest muse has been Birmingham-born martial artist Scott Adkins. Somehow he made a classic out of the DTV sequel to the forgotten Wesley Snipes boxing movie Undisputed, by putting Adkins up against Michael Jai White, and then made his bad guy the hero of part 3.
Where to start: Florentine and Adkins’ latest collaboration, Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear – it’s the greatest ninja movie Cannon never made, and it’s also the second best action movie of the 2010s after The Raid.
You might also know Quentin Dupieux as Mr. Oizo, the French house producer behind late 90s Levis advert soundtrack number one hit Flat Beat. But he’s also had a second career recently as a director. A very unique director at that.
Look, there’s no other way to put this – his films are really weird. Really, really weird. Like Rubber, which is about a killer tyre, that rolls around the desert making things explode. And that’s rather conventional compared to his next film Wrong, which is something to do with a missing dogs, morphing palm trees and William Fichtner. He’s now managing to get all sorts of amazing weirdos to work with him – his most recent movie was a cop film called Wrong Cops, and featured the likes of Eric Roberts, Marilyn Manson, Eric Wareheim (of Tim & Eric) and Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise. Anyone who can assemble that cast deserves your respect.
Where to start: Rubber is still probably his most consistent work. But to be honest, you’re just either totally gonna get this guy, or hate everything he does.
This list could be full of indie animators, to be perfectly honest, but Don Herztfeld’s primitive scribbling is one of the most unique voices in current American cinema, animated or otherwise. He’s a complete one-man band, producing pretty much everything – art, music, voices – himself, and notably finances himself on DVD sales and the touring circuit, meaning he never has to sell out and do corporate work.
His first real breakthrough was the Oscar nominated short Rejected, which purported to be a collection of rejected adverts for the fictional “Family Learning Channel.” It starts out with hilarious Adult Swim style non sequiturs, but as the animator slowly loses his mind it becomes strangely beautiful.
His masterpiece, however, is his first full length feature It’s Such A Beautiful Day. Focusing on a man with a unnamed brain disease slowly losing his memories (and his life), it retains his unique humour, but also creates a powerful collage about what it means to be alive. Recently he animated a guest couch gag slot on The Simpsons, and it might be the weirdest thing to air on US network TV since Twin Peaks.
Where to start: It’s Such A Beautiful Day is on Netflix. Don’t be put off by its minimalism, it will blow you away.
It might be weird to call someone who’s made an Ice Cube biker movie non-mainstream, but Joseph Kahn is one of the most idiosyncratic American filmmakers working right now – even if he doesn’t really make films anymore.
His first film Torque is a highly enjoyable, very stupid Fast & Furious rip off with motorbikes, but it’s his second film Detention that makes him stand out. It’s an ADHD-paced slasher, time-travel, teen movie pastiche that defies description. It doesn’t quite work but it’s definitely worth seeing. Since then he’s stuck to shorts and music videos, and actually that’s been a good thing.
Short form suits his rapid, teenage boy style, and whereas something like Detention can run out of jokes quick, Kahn rarely outstays his welcome. His video for Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” is perhaps the finest crystallization of his style. It’s four minutes of action scenes, sexy girls and celeb cameos, with a Kendrick Lamar guest verse covering up the need for narrative coherence. Or his Power Rangers fan film, that manages to be both a satire of grim and gritty reboots but also a pretty kick-ass reimagining at the same time, whilst also including ultraviolence, an early ’90s hip hop pastiche and a James Can See Been comeback.
Where to start: Go watch that Power Rangers fan film if you haven’t already.
Ti West is at the forefront of a movement dubbed “mumblegore,” by critics eager to give things names. It’s a wave of indie horror directors as keen to embrace their indie film roots as their genre fandom, who take just as much influence from Richard Linklater as they do Wes Craven.
After a few home-made projects, it was West’s haunted house throwback House Of The Devil that put him on the map. Essentially, all that happens in the film is that a girl takes a mysterious babysitting job, then spends the rest of the runtime getting scared by mysterious noises in the background. That’s basically it. But it’s all about the atmosphere, and the dripping sense of dread, which is somehow made even better by the ’80s period setting, which is pitch perfect down to the clothes, the hair, the score and the cassette tapes.
His studio debut was meant to be the sequel to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, but that got taken away from him in editing. So his true follow up was The Innkeepers, which did much the same thing as House Of The Devil but lacking the ’80s charm.
His latest film was a definite return to form however. The Sacrament is a found footage movie posing as a Vice documentary about a mysterious religious cult. Just as he’d got the ’80s details so perfect, West nails the look and feel of Vice’s journalism, and it feels like the perfect horror movie for the early 2010s.
Where to start: House Of The Devil – nothing happening has never been this exciting.
The son of the great Hollywood journeyman director Peter Hyams (Timecop, 2010, Running Scared), John Hyams has worked mostly in the murky world of straight-to-DVD action films. He started out making MMA documentaries, before getting the chance to direct the DTV second sequel to Universal Soldier, titled Regeneration. Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren both returned, and instead of just phoning it in, Hyams made possibly the best American martial arts movie since the ’80s. It’s gritty, brutal and bleak, and Hyams shoots the action with a clean simplicity missing from most Hollywood movies.
When that was a hit, Hyams was given carte blanche for a sequel. He brought in brilliant Birmingham born martial artist Scott Adkins in the lead, and made a film that is more inspired by Philip K. Dick and Gaspard Noe that Michael Bay. It has a complicated plot about clones, Blade Runner–like themes about the nature of identity, brain-hurting trip out sequences and Dolph Lundgren in chessboard make up, as well as the phenomenal fight scenes you came for.
Where to start: Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning is an incredible experience.
Kelly Reichardt is the main American proponent of the 21st century wave of “slow cinema” – films that have lots of long takes of nothing happening. I personally can’t handle the super drawn out Bela Tarrs of the world, but Reichardt captures beautiful little moments from characters’ lives. She described her films to The Guardian as “Glimpses of people passing through,” and I couldn’t put it any better than that.
Take her film Wendy And Lucy for instance. It stars Michelle Williams as a young drifter named Wendy, who turns up in a small town with her dog Lucy in tow. In the first ten minutes, Lucy goes missing. She spends the rest of the film’s scant ruining time looking for her (spoiler: she doesn’t find her). If that sounds like hell, go back to superhero sequels, but give it a chance and it’s strangely riveting.
Where to start: Night Moves, with Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, is probably her most genre based film, being broadly a thriller about eco terrorists. But it’s also unmistakably Reichardt.
Back in the late ’90s and early, directing a load of cool indie music videos was an established career path for trendy directors. Just look at Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Yet with the decline of music videos on MTV and the rise of YouTube, that’s sort of tailed off. But Romain Gavras should have been the guy to continue this tradition.
In his native France he was associated with the Parisian house scene, making the boy racer filled promo for DJ Medhi’s Signatune. He then hit the headlines with the controversial video for Justice’s Stress, featuring a bunch of hoodies running riot through Paris and ruffling the feathers of the right wing press. He was soon working with international artists like The Last Shadowpuppet. His masterpiece though was the eight minute epic for MIA’s “Born Free.” MIA was never one to shy away from controversy, and the tongue in cheek video showed ginger kids being the victims of genocide, both shocking and thrilling. Did it make a serious point? I’m not sure. But did it get people’s attention? Definitely.
Gavras has only made two features so far. One was a concert tour film for Justice. The other, Our Time Will Come, was almost a prequel to “Born Free.” It featured Vincent Cassell as a ginger psychiatrist who goes on the run with a outcast redhead teenager, hoping to escape to Ireland and escape persecution. It’s a bit too shaggy and unfocused to really work, but it’s very interesting and watchable. Gavras has displayed so much creativity in his music clips that he’s definitely got a great feature in him one day.
Where to start: That “Born Free” video is still pretty fantastic.
Britain obviously has a great tradition of social realist “kitchen sink” cinema, but with the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh entering their twilight years, it feels like there’s a lack of successors. Andrea Arnold might be our greatest hope to add to that lineage. After a string acclaimed shorts, she eventually won an Oscar for best short form film with Wasp, a brilliant slice of council estate life with Danny Dyer (yes, Danny Dyer has been in an Oscar winning film).
That led to her first feature, Red Road, which deftly blended British social realism with a thrilling plot about surveillance and CCTV. Then came Fish Tank, the absolutely brilliant film about a working class wannabe dancer (newcomer Katie Jarvis, who Arnold found arguing with her boyfriend at a train station), and her strange relationship with her mum’s new beau (Michael Fassbender). Arnold has a way of making simple scenes, like Jarvis and her mum reconciling over some old school Nas or Fassbender dancing in a car park, seem instantly iconic. She followed Fish Tank with that other British tradition, a period drama. Yet she kept her naturalistic style for her Wuthering Heights adaptation, a move that did alienate audiences expecting your normal middlebrow Austen film.
Where to start: Fish Tank is a masterpiece.
Clio Barnard is another British director on the cusp of becoming an institution, even though she only has two films under her belt. Her debut documentary The Arbour charted the life of Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar, who died aged just 29 in 1990. But far from being just talking heads, Barnard instead has actors lip-sync to interviews with Dunbar and her family. It’s an odd effect, but makes it almost like watching a play.
Her first fictional feature The Selfish Giant covered similar ground – two poor Bradford kids who get suspended from school and earn pocket money selling copper wire stolen from power lines and train tracks. It’s a very bleak world, but Barnard shows real compassion and humanity for people usually vilified by the media.
Where to start: The Selfish Giant is already a British classic.
Nicolas Winding Refn
I know what you’re thinking. The director of Drive isn’t exactly underground and non-mainstream, right? Well, just look at the reaction to his follow-up, Only God Forgives. It’s actually brilliant, but people were expecting Drive 2, or at least “Ryan Gosling does kickboxing.” What they actually got was a wheezing, brutal hypnotic visual and aural assault.
That’s the thing about Winding Refn. Drive was an anomaly. His films take broad genre tropes and create mad fever dreams out of them. Bronson should be a Guy Ritchie style Brit crime caper, but instead it’s Tom Hardy shouting at you for 90 minutes. Valhalla Rising looks like it should be Viking hack and slash fun, but you actually get a silent Mads Mikkelsen starring down his own mortality. Long may he continue alienating audiences.
Where to start: If you hated Only God Forgives the first time, go back and keep watching it until you realize how great it is.
Nacho Vigalondo is a Spanish director who makes very interesting genre films. If he was a straight-up horror director, he probably would have already become a cult figure amongst gorehounds. But he makes strange sci-fi movies, and that makes him a much harder sell.
Timecrimes (or to give it it’s much cooler Spanish title Los Cronocrímenes) was a mindbending time travel tale that made up for its lack of budget with originality and ingenuity, and Extraterrestrial was kind of like a Spanish Shaun Of The Dead with aliens. In 2014 he got to make his English language debut with Open Windows, a Skype-based serial killer film that takes place completely in computer windows and features Elijah Wood, porn star Sasha Grey and Kill List’s Neil Maskell. And up next, he’s apparently making a old-school, men in suits monster movie.
Where to start: Timecrimes, but try and know as little about it as possible going in.
A former fashion photographer, Sean Ellis’ first movie Cashback was an extended version of his Oscar nominated short of the same name. It’s about a supermarket nightshift worker who spends his working hours freezing time and making female customers’ clothes fall off (Patrick Stewart would later steal this plot in Extras). But it’s Ellis’ experience in fashion that makes it sleek instead of pervy. It’s a crisp, beautiful film, and it’s no surprise that Ellis went on a Dario Argento-trip with his next film, the giallo-influenced horror The Broken, starring Lena Headey.
He then went to the Philippines to shoot the Filipino-language crime thriller Metro Manila. It’s a slow burn story about a poor rural family escaping to the city – the dad gets a job guarding an armoured truck, and soon enough the criminal underworld are trying to take advantage of his position. Narratively, it’s nothing that unique, but Ellis captures the grit of Manila while still making it look beautiful. His outsider eye manages to make it half travelogue, half reportage, and it’s still a great crime movie underneath it all.
Where to start: Metro Manila is that sort of great crime epic you’re shocked more people don’t know about.
There’s been a slightly worrying trend recently of British directors going to other countries to get films made – look at Gareth Evans making The Raid in Indonesia or Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila. Peter Strickland did this as well, going to Transylvania of all places to make Katalin Varga, with just £28,000 inherited from his late uncle.
It was worth it though – its success led him to get the great Toby Jones for his sophomore feature Berberian Sound Studio, giving a career-best performance as a sound editor on a trashy ’70s Eurohorror. It’s a twisted, expressionist work – a trend Strickland would continue with The Duke Of Burgandy, a strange, arty take on the sort of exploitation erotica Jess Franco and Tinto Brass used to make. He’s proving himself to be a British filmmaker who takes on the tradition of someone like Peter Greenaway or Neil Jordan, far away from the sort of kitchen sink dramas our cinema is known for.
Where to start: Berberian Sound Studio for the genre trappings, but expect expressionism over splatter.
From Woody Allen to mumblecore, American indie cinema is very much driven by whiney, dweeby guys, so female voices like Lynn Shelton are important. Her breakthrough movie Humpday didn’t exactly focus on female experiences though – it’s an awkward comedy drama about two hetrosexual male friends who find themselves agreeing to make a gay porn film on a dare, that really makes the most of its “what would you do” premise.
Shelton just has a great touch for making films about relatable feelings in awkward situations. What is perhaps her best film, Your Sister’s Sister, is basically just a three-hander. Mark Duplass agrees to visit his dead brother’s ex (Emily Blunt), who’s staying with her lesbian sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). They get drunk, there’s awkward sex, then awkward feelings. Sadly, her biggest production so far, Laggies starring Keira Knightley and Chloe Moretz, was somewhat of a disappointment, but she’s also helmed episodes of Mad Men and New Girl.
Where to start: Your Sister’s Sister is a great comedy of errors.
The Duplass Brothers
Mark and Jay Duplass are more filmmakers who got their start during the early ’00s mumblecore period, but they’ve been arguably the most eager of that wave to embrace traditional Hollywood filmmaking (and big name stars). Their 2005 debut The Puffy Chair (credited to just Jay) was as low-fi as you’d expect, but even by their second film Baghead, they were mixing horror tropes to make a strange low budget take on Scream.
Then they started making films with real movie stars, and they’ve managed to integrate things like proper cinematography and sound design into their style with aplomb. Both Cyrus, starring Jonah Hill and John C Reilly, and Jeff Who Lives At Home, with Ed Helms and Jason Segel, are great, awkward character pieces – sadly though they are were marketed as more traditional Apatow-style comedies, and never really caught on with audiences the way they should have.
Where to start: Either Cyrus or Jeff Who Lives At Home. Just don’t expect Superbad or anything.
Despite being part of the great ’90s wave of music video directors that included Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, Jonathan Glazer has only made three films in the last 15 years. But what unique films they are. Sexy Beast starred Ray Winstone as a sunburnt ex-gangster hiding out on the Costa Del Crime, dragged back for one last job. From the opening scene where he’s almost crushed by a boulder to the strains of The Stranglers, you knew it was going to be something special. Ben Kingsley is utterly terrifying, and introduced Ian McShane as a dangerous character actor to a whole new generation (the previous generation having best known him as loveable antiques based rogue Lovejoy).
And his other films are even stranger. The underseen Birth had Nicole Kidman taking on an almost sexual relationship with a 10 year old boy she believes is the re-incarnation of her dead husband. And then in 2013, he had Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious alien seducing random men in Scotland in Under The Skin. Who knows what he’ll do next, let’s just hope it’s soon.
Where to start: Sexy Beast. “Friday, The Grosvenor, you’ll be there.” “YES! YES! YES!”
After cutting his teeth making BBC Three sitcoms, Ben Wheatley made the microbudget, housebound gangster drama Down Terrace. And it set the precedent for his career so far – shoot things fast, quick, and full of ideas. He made four films in four years, whilst still making TV, and while in truth none of them are perfect, they all have a lot to recommend them.
Kill List is a genre melding ride that leaps from kitchen sink to hitman drama to The Wicker Man and has a dirty mood that will take you days to wash off. The very British serial killer comedy Sightseers probably would have worked better as a TV show, but it’s still hilarious. And the mind-bending English Civil War trip A Field In England is probably too weird for its own good, but I’m very glad it exists.
Wheatley’s next film, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise starring Tom Hiddleston, is about to drop and seems to be a much bigger, mainstream production. Could this be him entering the next stage of his career?
Where to start: Watch Kill List knowing as little as possible about it.