Who are the best directors of all time? That’s a harder question to answer than you might think. Is it those whose work came first and created the foundation of early cinema? Is it those who have advanced cinema most spectacularly? Or maybe it’s those whose work every filmmaker and screenwriter should know?
Any such compilation is inherently subjective, betraying its author’s own sense and sensibilities, to the extent that it would almost certainly be more accurately entitled, “20 Truly Great Directors.” Nevertheless, it would be absurd to overlook the achievements of these great directors. From silent cinema to 21st-century cinema, they have produced most of the medium-defining works of cinema: the films that stand out as the consummate examples of filmmaking.
Here they are, in reverse order.
20. Robert Altman
Some would dispute Altman’s right to be on a list of the two hundred best directors of all time, let alone the top 20 because they do not like his uniquely individual and genuinely iconoclastic style, the trademarks of which included unlikely or anti-heroes, overlapping dialogue, and historical revisionism. And yet it is arguable that at the end of the 20th century no other director produced such a succession of great films that captured so much of the messiness and even monstrosity of late Western civilization.
Like Hollywood itself, Altman enjoyed two golden ages. The first was nearly a decade long, taking in almost the entire 1970s when he produced a trilogy of apparently sprawling but in reality meticulously plotted classics in M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975). Again like Hollywood, Altman’s second golden age in the early 1990s was significantly shorter than the first, really consisting of The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993). Nevertheless, this pair of late Altman classics reminded everyone of his sheer shaggy genius.
19. Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky is the James Joyce of cinema: a man who directed relatively few films (only seven features in total), just as Joyce wrote relatively few books, but, just like Joyce, every one of his works was a masterpiece.
Tarkovsky’s magnificent seven films began with Ivan’s Childhood (1962), one of the greatest films ever made about both childhood and war. It continued with Andrei Rublev (1966), a biopic not of the current Russian tennis player but the 15th-century Russian painter of the same name; and Solaris (1972), the finest Soviet sci-fi film ever made.
However, it was with his next three films that Tarkovsky really sealed his reputation as one of the true cinematic greats. In Mirror (1975), Stalker (1979), and Nostalghia (1983), he almost became his own genre, both pioneering and perfecting a uniquely individual and idiosyncratic style of filmmaking in which images were arguably subjected to more “processing” and even warping than at any time since the Silent Era, when there were only images (and not sound as well) to manipulate.
Finally, there was The Sacrifice (1986), a cinematic updating of the story of Abraham in which a man tries to negotiate with God to prevent nuclear Armageddon. Made at the height of the First Cold War, when Tarkovsky himself was dying of cancer, it may be the definitive “end times” film, and as such it remains horribly relevant in the 21st century.
18. David Lean
David Lean’s star may have fallen from its high point at the end of the 1960s when he capped a trilogy of truly epic films — The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965) – with Ryan’s Daughter (1970), which was so savaged by critics that Lean did not make another film for nearly 15 years (A Passage To India (1984)). However, just as Ryan’s Daughter itself has now been largely critically rehabilitated, so Lean himself should be regarded as one of the master directors, and not just of epics.
Indeed, Lean’s career was so long that he almost seems to have had two or three different careers. The films with which he made his name in the 1940s, including his debut In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1948), were anything but epic; instead, they were intimate but nonetheless immensely powerful stories of Britain and Britons at war. And his pair of Dickens films, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), are arguably the finest-ever screen adaptations of Dickens novels.
Still, it is the epics for which Lean will be remembered, and deservedly so. In Bridge, Lawrence, Zhivago, and, yes, even Ryan’s Daughter, he depicted troubled individuals against the largest backdrops imaginable: a lone British officer standing up to his Japanese captors; an eccentric Englishman leading the Arab revolution against their Turkish overlords; a Russian doctor (and nurse) trying to survive the Russian revolution; and a mismatched Irish couple being caught up in both World War One and Ireland’s struggle for independence. Indeed, if you had to choose just one director to capture the majesty and turbulence of the 20th century, it would surely be David Lean.
17. Michael Powell
It is almost perverse to type the words “Michael Powell” without immediately adding “Emeric Pressburger” because the Briton and the Hungarian-born Briton were arguably the greatest directing-screenwriting partnership in history. Nonetheless, Powell was a great director in his own right.
Powell and Pressburger took a while to get going, making several fairly un-astonishing films before entering their imperial phase in the mid-1940s when they produced arguably the greatest-ever series of films about England, the English and Englishness: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a classic love triangle played out against the backdrop of two World Wars; A Canterbury Tale (1944), which was less an updating of Chaucer than an explosion of Chaucer and so many other English archetypes in film and literature; I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), in which an ambitious young woman has to make the ultimate choice between happiness and wealth; A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in which a seemingly doomed British airman struggles to stay alive so he can meet the American radio operator trying to guide him home; Black Narcissus (1947), which is to cinema what Revolver or Pet Sounds are to pop music, namely the finest ever studio creation; and The Red Shoes (1948), the ultimate cinematic (and psychedelic) dance film.
16. Buster Keaton
It would of course be possible to produce a list of the 20 Best Directors of the Silent Era, the formative phase of cinema that is so often forgotten now. Chaplin, Griffith, Murnau, Von Stroheim, and many others would merit inclusion on that list, but arguably the greatest silent filmmaker of them all and the one whose work most resonates with audiences a century later is Buster Keaton.
The greatest Keaton films are Sherlock Jr. (1924), in which Keaton’s movie projectionist becomes an amateur sleuth to try and win the hand of the girl he loves; The General (1926), in which Keaton steals a succession of locomotives, including the titular train, during the American Civil War; and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), in which Keaton plays the captain of a steam paddle-boat trying to resist the onslaught of new technology.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was virtually Keaton’s own cinematic epitaph, as he too would become a victim of technological change when the arrival of sound finally ended the Silent Age that he had been the (stone) face of. Nevertheless, his trademark stoicism in the face of disaster and above all his absolute commitment and ingenuity as a filmmaker, as perfected in the still remarkable house collapse in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (which he survives by dint of an open upstairs window), ensure that Keaton will always be a cinematic immortal.
15. Howard Hawks
Howard Hawks was one of the greatest Hollywood directors ever, mastering many different genres and eliciting career-best performances even from superstars such as Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. In a career lasting nearly fifty years – so, from the Silent Era to the start of the 1970s and the second golden age of Hollywood – he produced at least half a dozen classic films that rank among the finest films that Hollywood has ever produced.
The first of Hawks’ classics was the original Paul Muni-staring Scarface (1932), one of the original gangster pictures. However, he soon proved that he was equally adept at comedy, particularly the screwball comedy that was arguably Hollywood’s finest genre in the 1930s, with rapid wisecracking by both men and women as the emancipation of Western women after World War One led to a seemingly unending “Battle of the Sexes”. Among Hawks’ finest screwball comedies were Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), both of which are absolute stone-cold classics of the genre.
Hawks then mastered noir with To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), in the process introducing Bogart to Bacall and generating arguably the most sizzling screen chemistry of all time. And for his final act, near the end of his career, he produced one of the last great Westerns in Rio Bravo (1959), in which John Wayne, Dean Martin, and then-teen sensation Ricky Nelson hole up in a sheriff’s cell against a veritable army of bad guys.
14. Francis Ford Coppola
Almost all the directors on this list enjoyed imperial phases of some kind or other when almost everything they touched turned to greatness, but arguably the most imperial phase of them all was enjoyed by Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970s. In that decade, Hollywood’s second golden age, Coppola wrote and directed The Godfather (Parts I & II) (1972 and 1974), The Conversation (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979), as well as writing two other great screenplays for films that he did not direct, Patton (1970) and The Great Gatsby (1975). In short, Coppola could set his 1970s against any other equivalent period in a great filmmaker’s career and be confident of coming out on top.
2022 was the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the original Godfather and age has not wearied it. It still remains, as Stanley Kubrick (another great director on this list) said at the time, perhaps the greatest film ever made. And yet if anything, Godfather II bettered it, not least in its radical structure, whereby it served as both prequel and sequel to the first film.
13. Carl Theodor Dreyer
Dreyer was Bergman before Bergman, bringing a singularly Scandinavian sensibility to filmmaking, contrasting a cold, austere, almost Arctic darkness of subject matter with spectacular and beautiful Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights)-like displays of emotion.
Dreyer’s greatest film is La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928), which was one of the last great silent films. However, unlike so many other luminaries of the Silent Era, such as Buster Keaton, Dreyer successfully made the transition to sound filmmaking and continued to make masterpieces for nearly half a century after Joan. Among them are Vampyr (1932), one of the most realistic and therefore one of the most terrifying of all vampire movies; Ordet (The Word) (1955), one of the great cinematic explorations of faith and faithlessness; and Gertrud (1964), his last, slowest (one take lasts over 10 minutes) and perhaps most breathtakingly beautiful film.
12. Martin Scorsese
If people had had to bet at the end of the 1970s on which of the “Movie Brats turned Movie Moguls” – i.e. Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese – would have the longer and more stellar career, most money would have been on Coppola after his own spectacular 1970s. Yet in the end, it was no contest, as Scorsese built on his own superb 1970s (notably Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976)) to continue making great films right up to the present day, whereas Coppola, having dominated the 70s, effectively ended up being stuck in them.
Raging Bull (1980) showed spectacularly that, unlike Coppola, Scorsese could thrive in a new decade and, again unlike Coppola, he also showed that he could master comedy in The King of Comedy (1982). Then, at the end of the decade, came Scorsese’s own equivalent of Coppola’s The Godfather, Goodfellas (1990), which together with The Godfather and TV’s The Sopranos constitutes The Truly Unholy Trinity of great screen stories about gangsters.
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Perhaps most impressively of all, Scorsese showed that he could thrive not only in a new decade but in a whole new millennium, as he has experienced a late, great phase in which he has produced works comparable to his very best films of three or four decades earlier. In particular, The Aviator (2004), his biopic of Howard Hughes that was fittingly both bizarre and meticulous, and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), have shown that his is one of the greatest and most enduring careers of any director.
11. Yasujirō Ozu
Like several other entrants on this list, Yasujirō Ozu enjoyed a long apprenticeship as a filmmaker, directing his first film when he was only 24 and making many more films for another quarter-century before finally finding his perfect subject matter and style. However, it was ultimately worth the wait, as Ozu’s late masterpieces, particularly Tokyo Story (1953), which is arguably the greatest film ever made about family, are among the most haunting and hauntingly beautiful films ever made.
Tokyo Story may be the simplest truly great film ever made, at least in plot terms, as an elderly Japanese couple visits their children (and daughter-in-law, who is now a widow) in Tokyo. And yet like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, all human life appears to be here in this Tokyo tale, as the inevitable clashes between the generations are perfectly played out and photographed.
Tokyo Story is Ozu’s absolute masterpiece, but his reputation does not rely on it alone, as other late, great works by him include Early Spring (1956), in which a bored office worker attempts to restart his stalled life by having an affair with a co-worker, and An Autumn Afternoon (1962), his last film, in which an old man attempts to find a husband for his daughter before he dies.
10. Orson Welles
If any one film were enough to merit its director’s inclusion on this list, it would be Citizen Kane (1941), which revolutionized screen storytelling with its complex, oblique, shaken-up-snow-globe approach to biodrama. However, contrary to Hollywood mythology, it was far from the only great film that Welles made, even if none of his other masterpieces ever achieved the artistic and commercial success that Kane did.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the film that Welles made directly after Kane but famously lost control of to the studio (RKO), is frustratingly wonderful: an inter-generational love story that could have been Kane’s equal if Welles had not lost control of and interest in it. But his two great Shakespeare adaptations, Othello (1950) and Chimes at Midnight (1966), are among the finest films of Shakespeare’s plays. And in Touch of Evil (1958), he made arguably the last great noir of the original era of noir.
9. Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa is “The Man Who Made Hollywood”, as so many of his greatest Japanese films were remade in English and became classics in their own right: Seven Samurai (1954) became The Magnificent Seven; The Hidden Fortress (1958) was one of the major inspirations for Star Wars; Yojimbo (1961) was remade as A Fistful of Dollars. Even today, he is a seemingly unending source of inspiration for filmmakers, as Living (2022), the Bill Nighy-starring bureaucrat-faces-death story is a remake of Ikuru (1952). However, Kurosawa’s originals remain unsurpassed, as his samurai films created an alternative cinematic world, an “Uncontrollable East” to the “Wild West” that Hollywood had traditionally been interested in.
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Nevertheless, there was so much more to Kurosawa than just the samurai films that made his name. For one thing, there was Rashomon (1950), which may nominally be a samurai movie but in reality, is a dissection of memory and identity. And like Welles, Kurosawa filmed Shakespeare brilliantly, even if he abandoned Shakespeare’s verse for roving camerawork and the creation of truly eery atmospheres. Throne of Blood (1957) was virtually Shakespeare as Noh theatre (or rather Noh cinema), capturing the essence of Macbeth without actually quoting it, and Ran (1985) was even better, an adaptation of King Lear that captured the madness of the original play and enhanced it with some of the greatest scenes of early modern warfare (with swords pitted against cannons) ever captured on screen.
8. Alfred Hitchcock
It’s ironic that Alfred Hitchcock was universally known as “Hitch” because in the early 21st century there are various “hitches” (or problems) attached to any adoration of Hitchcock. The voyeurism (on and off screen), the obsession with his leading ladies (which led the leading-est of them, Grace Kelly, to decamp to Europe), and even those appalling, almost amateurish backdrops to moving cars that make many 21st-century viewers cringe, if not laugh outright.
And yet there is still no doubt that Hitchcock is one of the greatest film directors ever and in several different eras of cinema. His breakthrough was a silent classic, The Lodger (1927), which was a brilliantly malevolent riff on Jack The Ripper; he made early sound classics in The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), which virtually established the template for every thriller or “action movie” that followed; and after Rebecca (1940) attracted the attention of Hollywood, he became one of the greatest foreign film directors to work in America.
Hitchcock virtually was the 1950s in America, as his succession of “suspense” classics, from Rear Window (1954) to Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), were the finest cinematic expression of the existential fear that gripped humanity in the decade after Hiroshima. And in Psycho (1960), he effectively eschewed suspense and created the horror genre.
7. Billy Wilder
With all due respect to Fritz Lang, Max Ophüls and even Billy Wilder’s own filmmaking hero Ernst Lubitsch, Austria’s Billy Wilder is the only foreign-born director who can rival and even exceed England’s Alfred Hitchcock as the greatest “alien” chronicler of America. And although Wilder made fewer masterpieces than Hitch and indeed many other directors on this list, his finest five films are a rival for any other director’s finest handful of classics.
Wilder enjoyed two great phases as a director, divided by about a decade. The first came in the 1940s and early 1950s, when he made one of the greatest noirs, Double Indemnity (1945), the greatest film about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard (1950), and the greatest film about news reporting, Ace In The Hole (1951).
However, it was the “double bill” that Wilder made at the end of the 1950s that secured his reputation as a master of cinema. Some Like It Hot (1959) may not have been made in the 1930s but it is still the greatest screwball comedy ever made, while The Apartment (1960) is arguably the finest comedy-drama ever made. Certainly, no other director has ever made two such completely different masterpieces back to back and within a single year.
6. Robert Bresson
Jean-Luc Godard (who, unsurprisingly, appears in this list himself) famously wrote of Bresson: “He is the French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.” And yet Bresson is often the forgotten man of French cinema, sandwiched as he is between the wonders of Renoir in the 1930s and the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) of Godard, Truffaut, and others in the 1960s. Nevertheless, Bresson’s films themselves are, once seen, rarely if ever forgotten.
In many ways, Bresson was to cinema what composers like John Adams and La Monte Young were to music: a master of minimalism. It was as if after the obscene, almost world-ending excess of World War Two, Bresson wanted to strip everything else away to get back to the basics of storytelling on screen. And he did so spectacularly in several masterpieces, including Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (A Man Escaped) (1956), which depicted the attempt by a member of the French resistance to escape from the Nazi prison in which he was being held; Pickpocket (1959), which was almost a Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) film before the term existed; and Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), which, remarkably, is a film about a donkey, whose cruel treatment by his owners elicits more pity than most films about humans.
5. Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick has been called “The Shakespeare of Cinema” and if anyone is deserving of such a tribute it is the American-turned-Briton, because just as Shakespeare mastered what were considered the three genres of Elizabethan theatre (comedy, history, and tragedy), so Kubrick proved himself a master of almost all cinematic genres, from noir to sci-fi to period drama.
Indeed, most of Kubrick’s films are either the best or among the best in their particular genre: The Killing (1956) is one of the greatest and darkest film noirs; Paths of Glory (1957) is one of the greatest ever war films and certainly the greatest film about World War One; Spartacus (1960) may have been disowned by Kubrick, but it remains probably the greatest epic (or “swords and sandals”) movie; Barry Lyndon (1975) is one of the finest period dramas ever filmed; The Shining (1980) is a great horror film, and certainly the greatest horror film ever made by a great director.
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However, it is for his “Madness Trilogy” – Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971) – that Kubrick will forever be celebrated. Each film examined a particular aspect of man’s inherent madness: the MAD (mutually assured destruction)-ness of atomic warfare (in Strangelove); the madness of humanity’s predisposition for violence and trust of machines (in 2001); and the madness of state-sanctioned violence being used to try and control individual violence (in Orange). And the centerpiece, of course, is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is not just the greatest sci-fi film ever made but a contender for the title of the greatest film ever made in any genre.
4. Federico Fellini
And so we come to the twin inspirations for Woody Allen and so many other filmmakers in the late 20th century, namely the two poles (south and north) of post-war European cinema: Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Both men were virtually one-man film industries who produced a succession of classics that not only garnered critical acclaim and commercial success but altered the parameters of what was possible in cinema.
Fellini first emerged from the Italian neorealism that immediately followed World War Two. However, he emerged fully formed in the 1950s with I Vitelloni (The Layabouts) (1953), which was Kubrick’s favorite film and a huge inspiration in his decision to become a filmmaker, and La Strada (The Road) (1954), which depicted one of the strangest love stories in all of cinema, between a circus strongman and the small female clown he bullies.
But Fellini was just beginning, as he continued to document the new world emerging in Italy (and the rest of the Western world) after the devastation of World War Two. In Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) (1957), he broke cinema audiences’ hearts again with his story of a prostitute trying to escape her miserable existence; in La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) (1960), he introduced the world to the Paparazzi and the press intrusion they brought with them; and in Otto e mezzo (8 ½) he made what remains probably the greatest film ever made about filmmaking itself.
3. Ingmar Bergman
Bergman was so often linked with Fellini, not just by Woody Allen but by almost any serious scholar of post-war cinema, precisely because they appeared so different: Fellini the warm-hearted, sensual Italian cineaste appearing in opposition to the austere, almost cold-hearted analysis of Bergman and his films. And yet just as there was a logical, analytical mind at work in so many of Fellini’s films, so there was humor, passion, and even laughter in many of Bergman’s works.
Like Fellini, Bergman broke through, after a number of earlier unsuccessful films, in the mid-1950s, with Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night) (1955), a romantic comedy that came to stand in stark contrast with so much of his later and darker output. And exactly like Fellini, once he had broken through to national and then international recognition, there was no stopping him. Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal) (1957), Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries) (also 1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), and Through A Glass Darkly (1961) were all magnificent, melancholy masterpieces that virtually invented “Scandi-Noir” forty years before Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and The Bridge.
2. Jean-Luc Godard
The recent death of Jean-Luc Godard reminded cinema and especially 21st-century filmgoers of his central, indeed seminal, importance to cinema. Martin Scorsese famously called À bout de souffle (Breathless) (1960) “the axis of film history”, literally the hinge on which cinema turned, from the old studio-bound filmmaking of the past to the infinitely faster and more daring street filmmaking that followed it.
Breathless is the greatest debut in film history (a cinematic equivalent of the equally radical The Velvet Underground and Nico in pop music), but so many of the films that followed it were also wonderfully inventive and always utterly cinematic, in that they could only be films and not plays or books or anything else. Le Mepris (Contempt) (1963) was almost a French version of 8 ½; Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) (1964) was an extension of or sequel to Breathless; Alphaville (1964) was sci-fi set in the present and all the stranger for it; Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot The Fool) (1965) reunited Godard with Jean-Paul Belmondo from Breathless, only this time Belmondo was the pursuer of a criminal rather than the pursued; and Week-End (1967) was an apocalyptic road movie or, rather more accurately, an apocalyptic traffic jam.
1. Jean Renoir
It was the great British film critic David Thomson who really helped to raise Renoir’s profile in the English-speaking world in the 1990s when he declared him to be the greatest film director ever. If Renoir’s reputation had always been high, especially in his native France, Thomson helped to introduce him to a younger generation (myself included), who invariably ended up agreeing with his assessment of the French master.
Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning) (1932), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country) (1936), and La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) (1938) are all superb, but ultimately even these fine works pale in comparison with the two uber-masterpieces (to coin a phrase) that collectively constitute the finest pair of films ever made by a single filmmaker: La Grande Illusion (The Grand Illusion) (1937); and La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) (1939).
Effectively, these two films look back to World War One (La Grande Illusion) and project forward to World War Two (La règle du jeu), right on the eve of it. In Grand Illusion, the old mores and manners of the Victorian world are exposed as redundant in the new age of technological warfare, while in La règle du jeu the stultifying class consciousness of the French and wider European aristocracy is exposed as the last, dying laughter of a class about to be swept away forever by Nazism. In both, Renoir perfected cinema as surely as his illustrious father, Auguste, had perfected painting.
It would be foolish not to acknowledge some other very important caveats. All the directors on this list are men; the overwhelming majority of them are white; and they all worked in some of the world’s biggest film industries, mostly Hollywood but also the established national film industries of Europe and Japan. Consequently, they had access to resources that for most of the 20th century were denied to their female, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ contemporaries.
As a society, we have taken larger strides toward inclusion and diversity in the film industry, and many great female, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ directors working today are becoming household names and changing the medium as we know it. Cinema would’ve been completely different (and better) if they were given the same opportunities during the most formative years of early cinema up to now.
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Author: Martin Keady