The Top Ten Greatest Directors of All Time

Last week, I stirred some folks up with my Top Ten Most Overrated Directors of All Time. To recap, they were: Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, David Lean, Darren Aronofsky, Mike Nichols, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Alfred Hitchcock. And by “stirred some folks up,” I mean faced down a virtual lynch mob. Who knew that Aronofsky supporters were fans of the film Fury?

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A few quick items in response to that piece. First, it was not about “bad directors” (although some were plain bad, including Aronofsky), but about overrated directors. Alfred Hitchcock is nowhere near the worst director ever (I was probably too harsh to label him “slightly better than mediocre”), but it is a travesty to label him the greatest director of all time, as so many have. The same holds true for David Lean (I appreciate Great Expectations, Brief Encounter, and swaths of Bridge Over the River Kwai, I just think he doesn’t deserve to make the top 20 list). Second, I neglected three directors who clearly should have made the list: Roman Polanski (somebody stop the Chinatown cult!), Spike Lee (how can he make race relations this dull?), and Tim Burton (damn you for ruining Sweeney Todd). Third, two corrections:

(1) Rebecca and Suspicion are the same film, not Notorious and Rebecca; (2) the Orlando Bloom reference was to Black Hawk Down, not G.I. Jane, and I apologize for the obvious mix-up.

Now, to the real question: the top-ten greatest directors of all time. This is truly a rough decision – there are at least two score great directors who could make this list. Here is my one basic criteria: directors who provide me the most viewing pleasure over the course of their career. That means telling a great story in the best possible way. Subjective? Sure. Deal with it. I’ll admit that this list skews toward older directors, not because older movies are generally better than newer movies (though I think they are), but because directors in the period 1920-1960 generally made more movies, which means more opportunities for directors to shine.

I’ll start by explaining why certain directors are not in the top ten.

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Francis Ford Coppola: He had a period of unbelievable creative magic. Within a ten year period, he made Finian’s Rainbow (1968), a charming musical; The Godfather (1972), which requires no commentary; The Conversation (1974), perhaps the creepiest movie ever made; The Godfather: Part II (1974), which matches its predecessor in quality; and Apocalypse Now (1979), a mad journey into the heart of darkness. Then he was done. How this talented filmmaker went from The Godfather to the atrocity that was Jack (1996) is utterly bewildering. It was tough to keep him off the top ten list. It was even harder to boot someone from that list to make room for him.

Peter Jackson: I believe Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to be the finest directorial effort of all time, surpassing even Citizen Kane. That said, Jackson hasn’t done anything else. King Kong was overlong and CGI-obsessed. He has shown that he can produce with the best of them – District 9 is brilliant – but he needs to direct more great movies before he belongs in the top ten.

Christopher Nolan: I believe Nolan will one day make the top-ten list. He’s that talented. Watch one of his early efforts, Following (1998) if you don’t believe me – on a budget of $6,000, he creates a taut thriller. His last five movies have all been terrific: Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight. He is one of the few modern directors for whom I check the IMDB calendar to see when his next movie comes out. I look forward to Inception with bated breath. For now, however, it’s too early to chart his trajectory with certainty.

Orson Welles: Citizen Kane requires no explication – it is justifiably seen by many as the greatest directorial job ever. His Othello is similarly creative and inspired. The Magnificent Ambersons follows the pattern. But Welles destroyed himself and his career, and the fates should never forgive him for wasting his unparalleled talent.

Peter Weir: I love Weir. He is always creative and interesting. Although I didn’t enjoy Master and Commander as much as others, The Truman Show, Fearless, and Gallipoli are all minor masterpieces. As far as the top ten, my heart says maybe, my brain says no.

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Stanley Kubrick: Overrated. Yes, he directed the wonderful Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and Dr. Strangelove, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is an abomination, A Clockwork Orange doesn’t hold up, The Shining is made a parody by Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing. He’s inconsistent, and that’s what knocks him off the list, as it should.

Vincente Minnelli: The best director of musicals of all time came close to making the list, too. Meet Me in St. Louis is delightful. An American in Paris is a joy for the senses. The Band Wagon is the best parody of Broadway ever made; Brigadoon is pretty if unfaithful to the source material (they cut a couple of the best songs from the Broadway version); Gigi is gorgeous; Lust for Life is well-done. Few directors have Minneli’s grasp of the music that film can be, the vibrancy that film can create. Again, this is just a case of ten being too few to fit him.

Fritz Lang: M is the best foreign language film ever made. Period. It is tight and tense and incredibly driving. Metropolis is fantastic too. Perhaps if I’d seen more Lang, I’d put him up in the top ten (the only other films I’ve seen of his are Fury and The Big Heat), so I’ll claim ignorance here.

Fred Zinneman: Perhaps the best conventional director of all time – a man who simply puts on camera what needs to be there. He’s not the artist that any of the top ten are, but he did create The Day of the Jackal, A Man for All Seasons, Oklahoma!, From Here to Eternity, and High Noon, a list to be reckoned with.

Victor Fleming: How hard was it to come up with this list? I had to leave off the guy who directed Captains Courageous, The Good Earth, The Wizard of Oz, some of Gone with the Wind, A Guy Named Joe, and Treasure Island. He also directed lots of films that ain’t quite as great, so his percentage is what keeps him off the list.

Stanley Donen: Stylistically, Donen was tops. He directed On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, Charade, Damn Yankees!, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Two for the Road. The pure fun that is Seven Brides could put him on the top ten list. But Donen just can’t knock anyone else off.

Robert Rossen: His resume is simply too short. Three fantastic movies: Body and Soul, All the King’s Men, The Hustler. A great career. Not a top ten one.

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John Huston: The best adventure director of all time, responsible for The Man Who Would Be King, Moby Dick, The African Queen, and The Maltese Falcon. Again, not enough versatility to put him over the top.

George Stevens: Tough to keep off the list, tough to make room. The Diary of Anne Frank, Shane, A Place in the Sun, I Remember Mama, Gunga Din – versatility, certainly, brilliance, certainly, sweetness, certainly. Off the list? Hesitantly, yes.

The Top Ten Greatest Directors of All Time



10. Steven Spielberg: This will be the most controversial pick on the list, to be sure. He’s got big hits, and he’s got big misses. His hits are clearly terrific – Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan. His misses are pure awfulness – A.I., 1941, The Terminal, and the misery that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Of late, far more misses than hits. Still, that early canon of films, plus Schindler’s and Saving Private Ryan puts him over the top. No better popcorn filmmaker has ever been born. Yes, I hate his politics. But his artistry, when he’s at the top of his game and when he’s comfortable with the script, is unmistakable. Watch this scene again:

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Nobody – nobody – directs action better. And Schindler’s List proved he can do drama, too. Is he the deepest guy on the list? Nope. Does he belong here? I say, yes.

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9. Michael Curtiz: How can I possibly put the man who directed the monstrous farce that is Mission to Moscow on this list? Because he also directed Casablanca, the best movie of all time; White Christmas and Yankee Doodle Dandy, two of the best musicals; The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of the best adventure movies; Mildred Pierce, one of the best melodramas. Other films: The Sea Wolf, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Captain Blood. Renting his film canon, Mission to Moscow aside, is almost entirely wonderful.

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8. Ingmar Bergman: No one made images like Bergman. The Seventh Seal is easily the darkest movie ever made, and it’s got some of the most stirring pictures ever put on screen. His version of The Magic Flute is a delight. Then there are his others, like Fanny and Alexander, Through a Glass Darkly, The Virgin Spring. Do you watch Bergman for a laugh? Not unless by laughter you mean suicidal depression. But no finer image-maker has ever stood behind a camera.

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7. Billy Wilder: Nobody ever mixed drama and comedy like Wilder. And he was a master at getting great performances from his actors. Jack Lemmon was his muse, and he used him to the fullest: he made the ultimate Matthau/Lemmon comedy in The Fortune Cookie, the ultimate Lemmon comedy, Some Like It Hot, and the beautifully understated The Apartment. If Lemmon wasn’t his muse, William Holden was – and he’s got masterpieces like Sunset Blvd. and Stalag 17 to prove it. Or maybe it was Audrey Hepburn – Sabrina, and Love in the Afternoon. And that isn’t even looking at Witness for the Prosecution and Double Indemnity. The guy was a classics factory. And all of them are fast-moving and fun to watch.

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6. Charlie Chaplin: It would be a crime to leave Chaplin off this list. Watch him toss around the globe as Hitler in The Great Dictator and tell me who you’d put in his place. The Kid is as affecting as any movie ever made. Modern Times is chock full of amazing sequences, and so are Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and many of his others. The silent movie era was never so magnificent.

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5. Frank Capra: In my review of the top ten most overrated directors of all time, I wrote this about Martin Scorsese: “In the musical Damn Yankees, a group of hapless baseball players sing the following lyric: ‘You’ve gotta have heart / All you really need is heart!’ Martin Scorsese never saw that musical. His films are entirely devoid of anything resembling likable characters. They are cold and calculating and ruthless – and boring.” If Scorsese is the epitome of the heartless director, Capra is the embodiment of heart on screen. It’s a Wonderful Life is simply the most heartfelt movie ever made (and it’s Jimmy Stewart’s best performance). From It Happened One Night to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Meet John Doe to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, nobody made movie magic like Capra. If you can sit through all his films without crying and smiling simultaneously, I’m betting there’s something wrong with your tear ducts or your cheek muscles.

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4. Elia Kazan: Reviled by the Hollywood left, Kazan was also one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. His IMDB reads like a top ten list of films: A Face in the Crowd, East of Eden, On the Waterfront, Viva Zapata!, A Streetcar Named Desire, Gentleman’s Agreement, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The performances Kazan elicited from his actors are groundbreaking and astonishing. Unlike some others on this list, Kazan’s films do not date (other than Gentleman’s Agreement, perhaps) – they remain timely and prescient. And they’re quick-moving and entertaining, which is tough to do with heavy drama. He does it with ease.

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3. John Ford: The man revolutionized movie making, and is worshipped widely for all the right reasons. First off, the Western is the American genre, and Ford was the best. Name the best Westerns of all time, and you’ll be sure to come up with Stagecoach, The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Informer is an early masterpiece, and there’s no movie more fun than The Quiet Man (plus, the cinematography is enough to bring a tear to your eye). Mister Roberts is a chock full of great performances (Lemmon and Cagney stand out, of course). How Green Was My Valley is a beautiful film. The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln are rightly credited with making Henry Fonda the quintessential American actor.

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2. Akira Kurosawa: Nobody plumbed the depths of human emotion like Kurosawa. Ikiru is known by few outside the film buff community, but it is a masterful expression of human hope and tragedy. Ran is exciting and thrilling and brilliant. Throne of Blood is a wonderful adaptation of Macbeth. The Seven Samurai is tremendous, an adventurous expose of the best and worst mankind has to offer. Rashomon is a groundbreaking exploration of perspective. I could keep going, but there’s no point – few will argue with Kurosawa’s placement on this list.

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1. William Wyler: Underrated beyond all rationality, Wyler was a master of all genres. He covered gothic romance (Wuthering Heights), period pieces (Jezebel) light comedy (How to Steal a Million and Roman Holiday), film noir (The Desperate Hours and Detective Story), epic (Ben Hur), morality tale (Friendly Persuasion), horror (The Collector), western (The Westerner) and wartime drama (Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives). His first tier films are unmatched (Dodsworth, Ben Hur, and The Best Years of Our Lives deserve to make anyone’s top ten list), and his second tier films (The Big Country, The Heiress) are better than most first-rate directors’ first-tier films. If you don’t believe Wyler’s range, watch these three scenes back to back:

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That’s not even the best scene from The Best Years of Our Lives (the movie contains perhaps the most beautiful love scene in screen history, between Harold Russell and Cathy O’Donnell – and, in a lesson to Aronofsky and Lynch, he didn’t need to show T&A to do it).

Whom would you put on the list?

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