This list has been an idea of mine for quite awhile. I last updated this sometime around 2005-06, so needless to say it was in need of some tweaking. Awhile back I started a preliminary list, and found myself with some 140 names. Even when I started numbering this I still left some 120 people on the list and figured whoever didn’t get numbered got cut. That said, oh my goodness there are some serious omissions here. Even some directors that you should think I love are missing. Which goes to show there are no shortage of great filmmakers around.
You may know by now that I prefer the term top to favorite or greatest. Simply my personal ranking of the people I think are awesome. The only requirement I set for this list is that I had to have seen at least 5 films from each director. This requirement wound up being insanely easy, because well I’ve seen a lot of damn movies. A great director is usually what motivates me above anything else to see a movie. I’ve sat through a few stinkers simply because I loved the filmmaker. The way some folks are drawn to movie stars and actors, I feel that way about a director.
So about my numbering system. I look at each director based on a few criteria. First of all how many great films they made, whether or not they have a distinct personal style, influence, and the overall scope of their work. For some directors they may have had a tremendous period of success followed by several decades of forgettable work. Others have produced mostly good to great work over many decades without necessarily hitting the same highs as others. Some simply make movies like no other and I tip my cap to them. There are no measurable metrics just my personal feelings about each person involved. I apologize in advance for all the names left off, the numbering of the people on there and everything else sure to offend.
A topic for another blog, but essentially there seem to be two kinds of “great” directors. The first are directors who are great because they make great movies. These are the few who don’t necessarily mark each film with some personal stamp, but nevertheless have a track record of amazing movies (Michael Curtiz, Frank Capra, George Cukor). Then there are the directors who make their films great. This second group includes people like David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, Andrei Tarkovsky. You can make your own bets now which group I admire more, either way they’re all great for their own reasons.
In the case of some people I find them overrated and they’re not on my list, some others might have been #101 if I just extended the list a bit. A good look at my top 100 and film canon would probably give you fewer surprises reading this. I also decided to list my two favorite films from each director as a way for you the reader to go out and explore their work.
100. Mikio Naruse (Floating Clouds; When a Woman Ascends the Stairs)
Whereas many of you might say “who” I know of at least a few people who are angrily shaking their fists and vowing that the rest of my list is null and void. Perhaps it’s the fact that Naruse doesn’t have a style that draws attention to itself that puts him a bit below some of his more renowned countrymen, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t well worth checking out. His post-war masterpiece Floating Clouds in particular is a must-see. Perhaps his greatest strength might be his one weakness, the fact that his style doesn’t draw attention to itself.
99. George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story; Adam’s Rib)
George Cukor got his start as Ernst Lubitsch’s assistant and went on to one of the longest and most well respected careers in Hollywood. Known by many to be a woman’s director, not unlike Naruse, his best work came during his frequent collaborations with Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn owned the rights to The Philadelphia Story and insisted Cukor direct, and well the rest is history as they say. Cukor’s work with Judy Holliday as well is also not to be overlooked.
98. Dusan Makavajev (Love Affair: or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator; W.R. Mysteries of the Organism)
Arguably the strangest director to come out of Eastern Europe in the 60s (and that’s saying something) Makavajev gained some notoriety in the US for his graphic sexual films of the early 70s. For my money Love Affair, a surreal murder mystery in reverse is still his finest achievement. He pushed the boundaries of what cinema could be and naturally found himself in frequent hot water with the powers that be in Yugoslavia. So many future Eastern Europeans owe the man a debt of gratitude for expanding just what cinema could be.
97. Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Decalogue; Three Colors: Red)
I’ll admit it now, Kieslowski is too low. I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened. The leading Polish filmmaker in the post-Wajda 70s, Kieslowski achieved his greatest success at the end of his life, breaking through in a big way with his Three Colors trilogy made in exile in France. The ten part Decalogue is soul damaging stuff, based loosely on the ten commandments, it is still his finest hour, and certainly worth the massive running time.
96. Paul Verhoeven (Robocop; Turkish Delight)
Despite being familiar with Verhoeven’s work throughout most of my life (I first saw Robocop when I was about 6), I still look at him as a relatively new discovery for me. Like Makavajev he pushed sex on film ahead sometimes in disturbing and unsettling ways, and the man never shied away from anything. The death of Murphy in Robocop is still one of the most brutal and unsettling scenes in all of movies. The man was even great at making bad movies, I dare you not to be entertained by Showgirls. Although he’s slowed down his pace substantially of late, there are no shortage of brilliant films from one of the Netherlands best exports. Hopefully Hollywood will stop remaking his movies, because lets face it, it takes a special kind of vision to make Total Recall coherent.
95. Lars Von Trier (Dogville; Dancer in the Dark)
Lars Von Trier is probably the most polarizing filmmaker to emerge in the last 25 years. Even his fans can’t help but scratch their heads in confusion after every other film. Never a dull moment some of his films are just supremely hot messes, others are a hot mess in a good way. A huge fan of melodrama he’s the extreme continuation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk. An eccentric who seems to get off on pushing people’s buttons and making them uncomfortable he’s been must watch cinema for years now.
94. Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away; Princess Mononoke)
My love of anime pretty much begins and ends with Hayao Miyazaki. Japan’s best animated feature director, he might very well hold the title of best animated director in all of cinema. Although his 80s work is extraordinary, he really hit his stride with Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away which helped earn the man some Oscar gold and set the bar so high for animated film no one has come close to reaching it since.
93. Claire Denis (White Material; Friday Night)
Hey maybe I’m not sexist, an honest to god woman on my list. Denis is of that post New Wave generation who first made her mark in international cinema with 1988’s Chocolat, not to be confused with the god awful 2000 movie. In the meantime she’s delved into some strange human depravity, and examined a lot of by-products of French colonialism. There’s a certain mesmerizing quality to all of her films that is not unlike Leos Carax, but perhaps not as strange. White Material might just be her finest hour, but most people would probably point to Beau Travail.
92. Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas; False Movement)
Of the new wave of West-German filmmakers to emerge in the late 70s and early 80s, none seemed as American obsessed as Wim Wenders. His films take a foreigners look at the great American road trip, rock and roll, and a lifelong obsession with finding yourself in the middle of nowhere. Like a lot of filmmakers his recent work has dropped off a bit, but for a time in the 70s (Alice in the Cities, False Movement, Kings of the Road) and into his first couple of International co-productions (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas) he seemingly could do no wrong. He’s something of an existential Jack Kerouac.
91. Michael Curtiz (Casablanca; Yankee Doodle Dandy)
Another in a long series of great American filmmakers who got their start in the German film industry. Curtiz was Hungarian and when he found himself in Hollywood’s studio system, he would produce an average of about three films per year. In that time he made some of the greatest American classics we know (Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce) and arguably the greatest of all Hollywood movies, Casablanca. His style was so seamless and perfect that it never drew attention to itself. Only after watching and re-watching his films do you start to get a sense of how brilliant the man was.
90. Maurice Pialat (A Nos Amours; Van Gogh)
Although Pialat began his career at the same time of his better known new wave contemporaries, he didn‘t make his first feature until 1968‘s L‘Enfance Nue. Not sure that France had any filmmaker better than Pialat during the 80s when he really hit his stride. An occasional actor he was never a fan of sentimentality, as is evident in A Nos Amours. Sadly his filmography only includes about 10 features and a handful of shorts, but you’d do well to check them out, there really wasn’t a contemporary like him in world cinema.
89. Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris; The Bandwagon)
Vincente Minnelli got his start as a costume and set designer before getting a chance to direct the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky in 1943. Although capable of handling any number of genres, he found his greatest success in musicals. Minnelli was also a pioneer in bringing avant-garde art styles into film, particularly his musicals. Beginning with the Pirate (1948) and continuing in An American in Paris (1951) and The Bandwagon (1953) Minnelli shot some of the most abstract and surreal dance numbers in movies. His dramatic work is not to be overlooked and he received ample praise for The Bad and the Beautiful as well as my favorites Some Came Running and Home from the Hill.
88. Olivier Assayas (Carlos; Irma Vep)
Like the generation before him Assayas got his start in cinema originally as a film critic. A direct descendent of the new wave school of personal filmmaking, he included tons of references to film history throughout his work, most notably in Irma Vep, the film within a film remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial. Over the last two decades he’s been one of the most consistently great filmmakers in Europe, but to me he really hit his stride with Carlos, the epic three part film which if you’ve been reading my blog at all know that you should have already seen by now.
87. Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight; Inception)
You may start to notice that I tend to rank contemporary directors a little lower than their long since dead counterparts. Christopher Nolan however has done the truly extraordinary, making probably the only truly great super hero movie. I’m not bad mouthing the numerous good to great Marvel movies, but The Dark Knight is on a separate level altogether. In the process he’s managed to have nearly James Cameron-esque levels of control + budget, and when the result is Inception, I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. Nolan is still capable of making good films on limited finances, as was evident in his first two features The Following and Memento.
86. Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch; The Getaway)
Sam Peckinpah is one of my favorite people to ever make a movie. A lifelong alcoholic who fought with every producer he ever had regardless of how accommodating they tried to be. He rarely if ever got to release a film his way, and in the years since his death we’ve seen nearly all of his films re-released in “director’s cuts”. Perhaps the first director to truly romanticize and even fetishize violence, his work would be copied by so many over the years, and with the exception of possibly John Woo, few would ever do him justice. My favorite Peckinpah story though is about how later in life he was told he needed to quit drinking or he’d die. So he decided he’d start drinking Sake, because in his mind that didn’t count.
85. Michael Haneke (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance; Cache)
An idiosyncratic auteur for today’s cinephiles, Michael Haneke has been a one man Austrian wrecking crew at making unnerving and occasionally profound cinema. His films are often disturbing, but rewarding. If you could pinpoint a central theme to his work it would probably be how quickly polite society can unravel. Always a fan of letting the audience think for itself many of his films have completely conflicting messages depending on who you ask. I’ve seen enough written about the credit sequence in Cache to fill several encyclopedia’s.
84. David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter)
David O. Russell might find himself jumping far higher on this list in year’s to come. Barely on my radar some 8 years ago, he has made a name for himself, particularly of late with a string of great American movies. Hell O. Russell got the first decent performance out of Robert De Nero in nearly two decades with Silver Lining’s Playbook. However from Three Kings on, the man hasn’t made a bad movie, and yes I love I Heart Huckabees. I’ve seen some people complain that his films are predictable and crowd pleasing, but well forgive me if I like a filmmaker who doesn’t make me brutally depressed. His last film, American Hustle might very well be his best. I can’t wait to see what this guy has in store for us.
83. Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven; Million Dollar Baby)
Despite making some of the best movies of the last several generations, Clint Eastwood has had a bit of an uneven directorial career. His highs (two best picture/director Oscars) can more than make up for some of the forgettable films like Absolute Power or True Crime. Even into his 80s he seems to be showing no signs of slowing down, and admittedly I’m yet to check out his recent Jersey Boys. No one since John Wayne has been so iconic to the American Western as Eastwood, and I highly doubt anyone will make a Western better than Unforgiven again.
82. Alain Resnais (Night and Fog; Private Fears in Public Places)
Alain Resnais is another filmmaker who has continued to produce incredible work into his 80s. Although he didn’t get his start as a critic, Resnais was part of the original French New Wave with such landmark head-scratchers as Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour. Unlike most of his contemporaries though he found himself producing some of his best work in the 2000s, with Private Fears and Wild Grass being arguably his two best films. The man has never come close to making a straightforward movie and if it weren’t for I Want to Go Home I’d say he never made a bad one either. Don’t ever see that movie, seriously don’t.
81. Robert Altman (Nashville; The Long Goodbye)
Rounding out my geriatric portion of the list is the great Robert Altman. A Kansas City man who became the unquestioned master of the ensemble piece. A loose, often haphazard style, Altman thrived in chaos. Frequently filming with multiple cameras and letting his actors do their thing. Altman was far from one dimensional though, check out his largely forgotten one-man film Secret Honor. Perhaps my favorite thing about Altman is he wrote the screenplay for Corn’s-a-Poppin’ but he has all but completely disowned it, for shame. During his long career Altman found a way do deconstruct the war film, western, musical, mystery, and even Hollywood itself. There is a certain level of charming anarchy to his work.