If you're a lover of film, you soon find yourself putting things into groups. You start with creating your favorite movies, then your favorite types of movies, then you start creating groups of your favorite actors and eventually your favorite directors. Favorites are purely subjective. For me, it's a combination of respect, trend setting, nostalgia or just flat-out good moviemaking.
So after much shuffling, I'm pretty confident the list of my fifty favorite directors is a combination of all those things. There's certainly a bit of my childhood here, a hell of a lot of respect, but all makers of great movies spanning back decades. Truth is, that's the only way to make a list like this. Trying to do some objective list of "greatest directors" is impossible. You can't say "Reed" is better than "Tarantino." You can only say you like one more than the other, their films are too different to really be able to do that. To me, great is great; they're all lumped into the same greatness, and the only way to make this fun and entertaining is throw out any notion of objectivity and just go with listing my personal favorites.
A few quick notes, I'm also throwing out five favorites for each and I'm not including animation directors. That's going to be for another time, friends. So let's start with an honorable mention, then hit the first 25 on our little journey.
Honorable Mention: Georges Melies
My English keyboard is unfortunately not fancy enough to put the correct spelling of his French name, but Melies is synonymous with a number of things for me. Or, at least, phrases and words. Brilliant. Dreamy. Experimental. Fantasy. Science Fiction. Maybe a little creepy at times. In the early years of cinema when nobody quite knew what to do with the thing, Melies started tossing out experiments in special effects and now taken-for-granted camera tricks that I'm sure wowed audiences in their day. His shorts were simple little vignettes, Melies never made a film over 40 minutes, most were very simple but at the same time wondrous. His films (like a lot of silent era films really) seem to sweep you away to a dream world just outside of reality.
Much of his work can be found free online or in large collections on DVD.
50: James Cameron
Compared to others with as lengthy careers as Cameron’s, one could easily see his list of movies and think the man just doesn’t work that much. Cameron, though, is what one calls a perfectionist. He call himself that, afterall. He tends to not make something unless he feels it can really be made, which is why most of his movies take years to be developed these days. During the height of his career, though, from The Terminator to True Lies, Cameron was synonymous with polished, well-told stories that happen to be genre pictures as well. Aliens is regarded as one of the best sequels ever made, The Terminator made Arnold Schwarzenegger an action superstar, and T2, like many of Cameron’s works, set trends all while retaining simple, effective storytelling and memorable characters balanced with awesome action.
Favorites: The Terminator, Terminator 2 Judgment Day, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies,
49: Paul Verhoven
Though working few and far between these days, and his good films spotty over many decades, when Paul Verhoven makes a film that hits to his strengths, it’s just magical. Verhoven weaves satire and tongue-in-cheek humor into his action movies, movies he’s best known for, yet today manages to create a unique and underrated gem of a drama in Black Book. He’s made a two solid thrillers in The Fourth Man and its spiritual sequel Basic Instinct, making one wonder why he didn’t head down the thriller route instead of nearly committing career suicide with Showgirls. He’s inconsistent, but his strong films are as strong as one could ask for.
Favorites: Total Recall, Robocop, Black Book, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct
48: Clint Eastwood
With a directing history going back decades, only until the last decade or so has Eastwood began being put up against the greats thanks to him finding a particular “style” that he’s refined over the years. His films are often quiet, contemplative and dark both tonally and visually. His films have something to say without having to try hard to say it. Known as an actors-director, Eastwood has dabbled in thrillers, westerns, war and noir, and even a comedy or two, takes risks and more or less makes whatever movie he wants to make thanks to the respect he’s garnered amongst his peers (and those Oscar noms that keep coming).
Favorites: Unforgiven, Letters from Iwo Jima, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, High Plains Drifter, Gran Torino
47: Orson Welles
One might expect Welles higher on this list, but a) it’s a personal list and b) Welles really didn’t direct much during his career and the material he did do was more retro-actively pasted together (such as Touch of Evil or Mr. Arkadin) to where we aren't quite sure if it was his vision in the first place. Quality-wise, though, the five listed below are damn good. Kane goes without saying and his follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons, is a superb comedy/drama that has every staple of Welles throughout. Touch of Evil finally was recrafted to a now classic piece of noir, The Trial his most overlooked film and F for Fake one of the most unique and bizarre documentaries you’ll ever see. Welles, even until the end, always looked to re-invent himself. That philosophy, along with his ego, didn’t get people jumping to make more movies with him, but the ones he managed to get out there go down as some of the finest in film history. A genius on every level and across numerous forms of media, Welles probably had the biggest impact on film more than any other director on this list.
Favorites: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, The Trial, F for Fake
46: Francis Ford Coppola
Still the poster child for a career downswing, despite all that Coppola’s work in the 1970s remains one of the strongest of any director. From the Best Picture Winners of the Godfather films to the imagery of Apocalypse now, with The Conversation one of the more overlooked thrillers out there, he was a creative and commercial height that few directors can claim. His later work was hit and miss: Dracula has its fans here and there along with The Godfather Part III, but really only The Cotton Club has held up. The Godfather, though, is a masterpiece. It's a perfect script, perfectly shot and has ingrained itself into popular culture like few films have.
Favorites: The Godfather 1 and 2, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Cotton Club
45: Yasujiro Ozu
Ozu loves the mundane. A vast majority of movie goers couldn’t care less about that. You know, those everyday situations and problems about your family, your home, your friends and so forth. Ozu, though, took that idea and made movies about it. I suppose the “everyday situations” is what interested him the most because that is what really makes up our lives. Most things we forget because they’re seemingly irrelevant, Ozu takes those irrelevant things and shows they may seem irrelevant, but they still make up most of our time. His focus on relationships and generations of a family consistently made up his work and he’s shoot them in intimate, close quarters of a simple home or neighborhood, shooting objects and things and using little in terms of music and audio. A polarizing director, but one that has made his claim as a great and nobody would say otherwise.
Favorites: Good Morning, Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds (1934,1959), Early Summer
44: Dario Argento
The giallo genre is best described as follows: take Italy + Hitchcock + lots of blood and violence and you have a giallo. Where there is a giallo, you have Dario Argento. He was dubbed the “Italian Hitchcock” as you probably know. His early work is the standards of the genre with Suspiria and Deep Red considered the finest examples of Italian horror/thrillers. Though his career began to falter in the 1980s, his early work remains an influential part of the horror genre we know today and a personal favorite.
Favorites: Deep Red, Suspiria, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Tenebre
43: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Clouzot was a bit of a late find for me, as in three or four years ago finally sitting and watching his work. I had seen Diabolique but not until The Wages of Fear did I finally feel comfortable saying "Clouzot, yeah I like that guy." Le Corbeau, though, was what really blew me away: a very simple (and based on a true...truish) story of a woman who would send letters to her town telling everyone their darkest secrets and sending their lovely little lives into chaos. The film is a perfect example of a simple escalation in storytelling, because things eventually explode. That story could be impossible to film, but Clouzot in probably a very cynical and angry way (he was known to have a temper) found a way to make it work. He didn't make a ton of movies over his career, but he made some of the best of all time. That sentence is something that you'll repeated in this list, I might add.
Favorites: Le Corbeau, The Wages of Fear, Diabolique, Quai des Orfevres, The Mystery of Picasso
42: Francois Truffaut
Along with Godard, one of the biggest influences during the 1960s French New Wave, Truffaut’s films influenced countless filmmakers you probably know and love today (Spielberg noting Truffaut as one of his idols). Truffaut was known as a lover of cinema (always the excitable and positive thinker) especially, notably Hitchcock and Orson Welles, and was one of the principles in the film magazine Cahiers du cinema which more or less took the idea of movies and began looking at them on a more artistic and critical level. Truffaut himself creating the “auteur theory” that is widely accepted (and still argued) to this day.
Favorites: Jules et Jim, Shoot the Piano Player, Day for Night, The 400 Blows, Fahrenheit 451
41: Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro may still be incredibly young in his directing career, but he's proven one thing: he is a hell of a visionary. His ideas and thoughts are spread out on film and offering us amazing stories of horror and fantasy that are hard to deny. I don't know if there's anything that I wouldn't see if he's name is attached (either as director, writer, producer or all of the above). He's simply one of the most inspired and creative (and helluva nice guy) working today.
Favorites: The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos, Pan’s Labryinth, Blade II, Hellboy
40: George Romero
Every Halloween I have a select group of movies that I always watch. There's your standards, such as the classic Universal Monster Movies, The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but at least four movies of the dozen or so I watch are from George Romero. His zombie movies were one of the biggest impacts in horror, creating an entire genre that still incredibly popular (to a point where it probably surpassed Romero himself). His horror movies were a little more than that, though, noting them as more horror/satire than horror/scary. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Romero years ago and he seemed a quiet but thoughtful man that probably doesn't quite get the recognition he deserves for the massive contribution he made to the horror genre. He invented something that nobody had before and it exploded. Not many can say that.
Favorites: Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Martin, Creepshow, Day of the Dead
39: Richard Linklater
Even though Dazed and Confused is Linklater's most popular and renowned film, and deservedly so, his two romance movies (for lack of a better description), Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, are what I think of when someone mentions him. I don't think there's two scripts that are as real and effective in showing two people in love. Why? Because that, and all his films really, are about conversation, not plot. It's about characters acting like real people, not a situation or conflict that has to be overcome. The situation is the time with each other, the conflict is simply finding something to say. Like Jim Jarmusch, another favorite in similar vein (though not on this list), Linklater is a minimalist and simple filmmaker that isn't so concerned about telling stories as he is presenting characters and their stories - naturally evolving both through dialogue. He's also a rare director that will shift from an indie movie (such as A Scanner Darkly) then make a studio production (such as School of Rock, a nice little comedy I might add). An intriguing filmmaker to say the least.
Favorites: Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset, Slacker, Waking Life
38: Danny Boyle
Boyle is a director that loves to challenge himself which explains his desire to leap around various genres over his career. He might do a romance movie in India one minute, a British comedy the next, an outer-space science fiction movie then psychological thriller after that. Some call him the best British director working today. I can't say that for sure, but he is certainly the most risk-taking and infamous one with years ahead of him that makes you wonder "I wonder what movie he's going to make next." That's impossible to answer, but we do know it will be something unique as only Boyle can deliver.
Favorites: Sunshine, Millions, 28 Days Later, 127 Hours, Trainspotting
37: James Whale
The grandfather (or maybe great-grandfather) of horror cinema, Whale only worked consistently for about ten years before his career sharply declined due to World War II (and a film he made that nearly caused an international incident) and where he retired from it entirely in 1941, the movies he did during the 1930s made Universal Studios what it is today. Whale is also known for being a rare, openly-gay man in Hollywood which even today is a risky decision to have. His films were moody, atmospheric and one can’t help but wonder what others he would have crafted had he continued to work longer.
Favorites: The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, Remember Last Night (a poor man’s Thin Man but even that is saying something)
36: Peter Weir
Far from prolific, Weir probably couldn’t care less about that. Over the past few decades he sets his eyes on a project, usually an ambitious one, and just runs with it. Weir plays it all close to vest, relying on old-school movie making, such as using mainly miniatures in Master and Commander (or, in some cases, real boats) or shooting entirely on location in his latest film, The Way Back. His productions are extensive and detailed with his movies having a certain refined quality that has you thinking the man looked at every single frame before saying “ok, let’s show this to people.” A testament to quality over quantity.
Favorites: Master and Commander, The Truman Show, The Mosquito’s Coast, Witness, Dead Poet’s Society
35: Paul Thomas Anderson
Like Weir, Paul Thomas Anderson takes his time when developing and creating a film. That’s why, when you’re in a theater and the lights dim and the movie starts, you’ll in for something that you know was a labor of love. Anderson’s films are unique, to say the least, and tend to focus on opposing stances on themes, ensemble casts and any type of camera mastery to get some of the most amazing shots in film (The opening of Boogie Nights regarded as one of the best long-take shots in cinema history). His movies are about simple conflict and ripple effects of trying to resolve that conflict, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but always engaging.
Favorites: Boogie Nights, There Will be Blood, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, Hard Eight
34: Sidney Lumet
One of the most consistent workers in Hollywood, Lumet’s career is one that could fill any book. In fact, it did in his own book (one of standards of Hollywood literary reading). He’s worked with countless legends and has one a number of awards, but Lumet never went out of his way to draw attention to himself or his films. He told stories effectively and got amazing performances out of actors. He never set out to create a visual “identity” because he was a director that worked with the material and had trusted actors, not a director that tried to put a certain spin on things – he just set out to make a good picture and that in itself was the ends to it being “artistic” for him. He worked quick and just knew how to do a damn good job. The result: some of Hollywood’s best film stories and most memorable moments, and a vast number of films (such as The Hill) that might go overlooked because he made so many movies in the first place.
Favorites: Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Hill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
33: Blake Edwards
I can think of few comedy filmmakers as important as Blake Edwards. He loved the irreverent and the satirical, candidness and especially the sexual - the latter two taken for granted in today's comedy market where a sex joke is on every other page. He knew how to set up and punchline a scene perfectly and showed incredible patience with letting the comedy develop. Edwards' biggest success were the slew of Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers and the still-loved-by-teens Breakfast at Tiffany's. 10 took the idea and notion of sex and obsession to a level that was ahead of its time and SOB, a commentary on the state of Hollywood and Edward's own career, an underrated satire.
Favorites: The Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses, 10, SOB
32: Quentin Tarantino
Style goes a long way in film. If you have something that is quintessentially yours, you're already ahead of the curve. Tarantino has something that is quintessentially his. His style is like Samuel Fuller on steroids (I would say Scorsese is Fuller more refined) and can make basic conversation intriguing, tense and flow like water through his film. He's a writer who has a vision of how each scene will play out to the most minute detail as we end up with some of the most engaging movies of the past twenty years. Recently, he's shown a hell of an ability to shoot action as well, shown in his loveletter-to-movies, the Kill Bill Saga. A lover of movies as much as he loves making them, Tarantino is what every movie fan wishes they could be like: make movies you want to make for movie fans who want to see them.
Favorites: Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill 1 and 2, Inglorious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs,
31: Powell and Pressburger
Though Powell was technically the director of the films, neither would have worked without the other. Powell and Pressburger were a synergistic unit of creativity that, under the name The Archers, just made hit after hit for a solid ten years. Their films were unique, to say the least, sometimes darkly comic, other times quite serious - labeling them in simple genre terms is easier said than done, I suppose. That uniqueness, just as their collaborative relationship, is what defined them.
On a side note, Powell also directed (without Pressburger) the amazing Peeping Tom, one of the best thrillers of all time.Favorites: Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Col. Blimp, The Red Shoes, I Know Where I'm Going, A Matter of Life and Death
30: Preston Sturges
Though I only list three favorites here rather than five, Sturges’s films are some incredibly strong pieces that show a heralded screenwriter (which Sturges was) can make a move to directing. But, like James Whale, studio politics never worked in his favor and he made one film after 1950 before dying at age 60 nine years later. Sullivan's Travels is a personal favorite, probably in my own top movies, but not because it's some wildly original or technical proficient film. It's because it's just good storytelling, and that's what movies are (whether directly or indirectly). Sturges's knew that about as well as anyone and was a bit of precursor, in my respects, to the likes of Billy Wilder. Vanity Fair did a fantastic retrospective of the man that every film fan should read, fan of Sturges or not.
Favorites: Sullivan’s Travels, Unfaithfully Yours, The Lady Eve
29: David Fincher
I remember seeing Seven when it was first out on VHS. It was probably the most played cassette in my library because I simply had never seen a film that quite looked and played out as well as it did. I was still young, but I can look back at Seven and my mother's love of Hitchcock as the roots of my love of mystery/suspense (and in Seven's case, horror). He outdid it though, with Fight Club - one of most brilliant undertakings of an adaptation I've seen, and recently began becoming more and more accepted in critic's circles with The Social Network, possibly one of the most important movies of a generation, and I was quite the fan of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. You sense Fincher's desire for perfection, his notorious attention to detail and consistent visual eye one of his most defining traits.
Favorites: Fight Club, Seven, The Social Network, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
28: Ridley Scott
Still a workaholic to this day, I always look forward to a Ridley Scott film. Not simply because he's made some of the most renowned movies in history (notably Alien and Blade Runner, two timeless pieces of cinema) but because the guy just knows how to tell a story. Even if the story itself isn't that great, such as Hannibal or Matchstick Men, he still manages to make it interesting along the way and craft scenes seemingly easily. His great films, though, are considered as such and his body of work something to be in awe of from Alien to Black Hawk Down, Legend to American Gangster (hey, Legend was a daring little fantasy movie, so sue me). Notably, the directors cut of his movies seem to show that the man knows what he's doing because they often outdo the original theatrical versions (notably Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven, two arguable masterpieces thanks to him releasing a director's cut).Favorites: Alien, Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven, The Duellists, Gladiator
27: Jean Renoir
Renoir's The Rules of the Game is now heralded as one of the greatest films ever made. However, perhaps a precursor to Orson Welles' (a close friend I might) Citizen Kane, the film was an absolute flop and absolutely despised. In fact, it was banned in France. Twice. But that one film doesn't define Renoir's career, and one little paragraph on a list far from does it justice. Even though his work dated to the silent era, the films by him from the 1930s to 40s were unparalleled. His work is complex, layered and has depth that makes for countless essays and analysis in film schools today, just as it did in the 60s and 70s when people truly started to appreciate the man's artistic vision.
Favorites: Grand Illusion, The Lower Depths, The Rules of the Game, The Diary of a Chambermaid, The River
26: John Hughes
As a filmmaker, Hughes only until the past ten or fifteen years really began receiving the respect he so deserved. Perhaps its his influences towards the likes of Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow that help build that, but it’s probably because those that loved those movies during that decade grew up and became film fans themselves. His movies defined a generation, but they all have a timeless quality that is more honest towards the lives of teens and young adults, family and friendship than your typical comedy. Hughes’s movies often had a little thing called “heart” in them and come off as sincere rather than overly sentimental – a journey in discovering the heart through various trials and tribulations of the characters in stages of their lives we all can relate to.
Favorites: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Uncle Buck, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Sixteen Candles
25 - 1 Coming Soon