The Top Fifty Directors of All Time

As a companion piece to my list of the fifty best living film directors, which I published last year around this time, today’s post concerns my highly subjective list of the top fifty directors of all time. Below you will find a countdown of my top ten (with commentary on each and a citation of three essential works) as well as a list of forty runners-up (for whom I cite two essential works). As any reader of this blog knows, I love making lists and generating debates concerning all things cinematic. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!

10. Jean Renoir (France)

Today Jean Renoir is thought of as the quintessential director of “classical” French cinema even though the films he made in the 1930s, the lofty high point of his career, are far wilder than this reputation would suggest. In the twin peaks of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale. He left France during the German occupation and became a U.S. citizen long enough to make at least one masterpiece in Hollywood (The Southerner) and another in India (the striking one-off The River). When Renoir returned to France in the 1950s, he embarked on a sublime trilogy of films centered on the relationship between life and performance that, fittingly, gave a trio of international movie stars some of their very best roles: The Golden Coach (with Anna Magnani), French Cancan (with Jean Gabin) and Elena and Her Men (with Ingrid Bergman).

Essential work: Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion) (1937), The Rules of the Game (La Regle de Jeu) (1939), French Cancan (1954)

9. Orson Welles (USA)

Orson Welles was the great synthesizer; in Citizen Kane he self-consciously appropriated techniques from most of the major historical film movements that came before him and wedded them to a revolutionary use of deep focus cinematography. More importantly, he pressed these techniques to the service of an epic story about the life of “one of the biggest” Americans that speaks volumes about the changes undergone by American society from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the second World War. This monumental achievement, coupled with the fact that it was the only time Welles had complete creative control over a movie, virtually guaranteed that his subsequent films would be seen as not living up to the “early promise” of Kane. Fortunately, Welles’ critical stock has risen considerably since his death in 1985 and masterpieces like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight (my personal favorite) and F for Fake, not to mention various unfinished projects, are now more easily seen as part of a highly personal continuum stretching from the early-1940s to the mid-1980s, inside and outside of the Hollywood studio system, and from America to Europe and back again. With each passing year, his body of work looks more estimable for what he did achieve instead of deficient for what he didn’t.

Essential work: Citizen Kane (1941), Touch of Evil (1958), Chimes at Midnight (1965)

8. Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan)

Of all the great Japanese directors, Kenji Mizoguchi is the most expressive visual stylist. His hallmarks – elaborate tracking shots (in some films the camera is moving more often than not), chiaroscuro lighting and the subject of the oppression of Japanese women – were already evident as early as the mid-1930s when he made such gems as Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. His first major masterpiece, 1939’s heartbreaking The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, about a wealthy young actor’s illicit affair with his family’s wet nurse, was enough to ensure his immortality. But the best was yet to come; after a handful of relatively safe films made during and immediately after the war, Mizoguchi’s career peaked in the 1950s with an extraordinary series of movies, including The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff and the incredibly atmospheric and unusually poetic ghost story Ugetsu. Each of these films is a period drama, in which an earlier era in Japanese history is painstakingly and authentically recreated, that tackles human suffering with a clear-eyed honesty and compassion that is simply unparalleled in cinema.

Essential work: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953)

7. Roberto Rossellini (Italy)

In the 1940s Roberto Rossellini helped to spearhead the revolutionary Italian Neorealist movement with his socially conscious, documentary-style War Trilogy (consisting of Rome, Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then, he shifted gears in the 1950s to make six remarkable melodramas starring his then-wife Ingrid Bergman including Stromboli and Voyage in Italy. These films arguably marked the birth of “cinematic modernism” by eschewing plot in favor of a series of scenes of Bergman wandering a primordial landscape meant to evoke the interior journey of her characters (which would pave the way for both Antonioni’s L’avventura and Godard’s Le Mepris). Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s Rossellini turned to television for a series of de-dramatized, educational films about “great men” throughout history that arguably took the Neorealist aesthetic to its logical extreme. Very few filmmakers have gone through multiple phases as dramatically different as Rossellini. Fewer still have managed to create such groundbreaking work with each distinct chapter in their careers.

Essential work: Stromboli (1950), Voygage in Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (1954), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV) (1966)

6. Carl Dreyer (Denmark)

Carl Dreyer was nothing if not exacting. The great Dane proclaimed cinema to be his “only” passion and proved it by making only the kind of films that he really wanted to make. His rigorous/perfectionist style is reflected in the fact that his final five features, as astonishing a run of movies as can be found in any filmography, were released in five separate decades: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943) Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). The evolution of his style over the course of these films is fascinating: from close-ups to long shots, from quick-cutting to long takes, from acting to non-acting, from music to no music. Genre trappings (the melodrama of Joan, the horror of Vampyr) also fade away as Dreyer moves relentlessly inward in pursuit of the capture of various “states of soul.” Equally fascinating is his naturalistic approach to ambiguously supernatural subject matter: a woman who communes with God, vampirism, witchcraft, the resurrection of the flesh and . . . romantic love.

Essential work: Day of Wrath (Vredens dag) (1943), Ordet (1955), Gertrud (1964)

5. F.W. Murnau (Germany/USA)

F.W. Murnau is often referred to as the best director to have only worked in the silent era and for good reason; he was the chief figure of German Expressionism, creating three major masterpieces with Nosferatu (the first and best vampire film), The Last Laugh (a movie with no intertitles but a lot of fluid camerawork) and Faust (a technically virtuosic take on the German folk tale that nearly bankrupted UFA, the studio that produced it), before answering the call of Hollywood where he made three more: Sunrise (a love story about the dichotomy between city and country life featuring highly innovative cinematography), Four Devils (a lost film) and City Girl (an exquisite melodrama that intentionally reverses the iconography of Sunrise). Unhappy with working conditions in both Germany and the U.S., Murnau went to Tahiti for his independently produced final film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. If Fritz Lang was the Tolstoy of German cinema (going “wide” with his ambitious, third-person societal portraits), then Murnau was its Dostoevsky (going “deep” with his take on the highly subjective psychological impressions of the individual).

Essential work: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), City Girl (1930), Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

4. Alfred Hitchcock (USA/UK)

Alfred Hitchcock is a rare example of a director who was able to combine a high degree of creative control with a long and prolific career. Beginning in the silent era in England, Hitch successfully adapted to sound, the Hollywood studio system, color, widescreen cinematography and even 3-D. He looked at potential projects as logistical problems that he could utilize the latest technology to solve, frequently breaking new ground along the way. Furthermore, his ostensible “genre pieces” were highly personal in nature, more often than not studies of obsession with an emphasis on the duality of man. The fact that he could make such personal films on such a massive scale, using major stars and the resources of Hollywood, is impressive in the extreme. And his craftsmanship has never been bettered (Andrew Sarris has aptly referred to him as the “supreme technician of the American cinema”); the best of Hitchcock’s suspense sequences (the climactic confrontation between photographer and killer in Rear Window, the crop dusting scene in North By Northwest, the shower murder in Psycho, the final attack in The Birds) are so well planned and executed that they retain their power to thrill, entertain and strike fear in the heart even after many viewings.

Essential work: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960)

3. Luis Bunuel (France/Mexico)

Like Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel was one of the most Catholic of all directors. But the theme of guilt that was present in so much of the Englishman’s work was not allowed to so thoroughly infuse the movies of his Spanish counterpart. Instead, Bunuel violently reacted against his upbringing (and against the rising tide of fascism of late 20s/early 30s Europe) with the wildest and most transgressive films of the French Surrealist movement (Un Chien Andalou and L’age d’Or). Following a lengthy stint of not being able to direct, Bunuel resurfaced in the late 1940s as a master of the subversive Mexican melodrama, dropping bombs like Los Olvidados, El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. After a brief sojourn in his native Spain in the early Sixties, where he made the scandalous, blasphemous masterpiece Viridiana, Bunuel returned to France for what is arguably the greatest last chapter of any director’s career; it was there that he married his distinctive Surrealist sensibility to more polished cinematography and glamorous movie stars, resulting in a series of droll comedies, full of hilarious non-sequiturs and bizarre, dreamlike imagery, that constitute his very best work: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire.

Essential work: Los Olvidados (1950), Viridiana (1961), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie) (1972)

2. Robert Bresson (France)

The relationship between spirit and flesh has never been dramatized on screen as effectively as it has in the work of Robert Bresson because no other filmmaker has used sound and image so precisely to focus on material reality (and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, on the spiritual conditions underlying it). The great French director hit his stride early on with a “prison cycle” of films consisting of The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped (the best prison break movie ever), Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc (a film so austere it makes Dreyer’s Joan look like a soap opera). Then came Au Hasard, Balthazar, a soul-enchanting masterpiece about the life of a donkey, in which the title character is seen as a barometer for the sins of mankind. In the late 1960s Bresson began working with color, expanding his palette while refining his overall style to an increasingly “essentialist” extreme. Some observers find his late work pessimistic (virtually all of his last movies end in suicide and/or murder). Bresson himself rejected this view, opting for the word “lucid” instead. The redemption is still there if you’re willing to look for it; it’s just buried a little deeper beneath the surface. Robert Bresson more consistently made near-perfect films than any other director with whose work I am familiar.

Essential work: A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut) (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), L’argent (1983)

1. John Ford (USA)

Simply put, John Ford is the American cinema. A few indelible moments: Shirley Temple singing “Auld Lang Syne” to Victor McLaglen as he lies on his deathbed in Wee Willie Winkie (while an exquisite camera movement slowly eliminates him from the frame). Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, awkwardly dancing with and serenading his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” in The Grapes of Wrath. Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley, looking on from a cemetery in long shot while the love of his life, Maureen O’Hara, exits the church after marrying another man. Fonda again as Marshall Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, leaning back in his chair on a hotel veranda, balancing himself on a post with his boots. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, standing in the doorway between civilization and wilderness, unsure of whether to enter, in The Searchers. Anne Bancroft’s resignation while committing the ultimate self-sacrifice at the end of 7 Women: “So long, ya bastard.” And, as Johnny Cash once said, lots of other things.

Essential work: How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Runners-Up (listed alphabetically by family name):

11. Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)
Essential work: L’avventura (1960), Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) (1964)

12. John Cassavetes (USA)
Essential work: A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Love Streams (1984)

13. Charlie Chaplin (USA)
Essential work: City Lights (1931), A King in New York (1958)

14. Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal)
Essential work: Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)

15. Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Ukraine)
Essential work: Arsenal (1929), Earth (1930)

16. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany)
Essential work: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) (1974), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

17. Federico Fellini (Italy)
Essential work: La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963)

18. Louis Feuillade (France)
Essential work: Les Vampires (1915), Tih Minh (1919)

19. Sam Fuller (USA)
Essential work: Park Row (1952), Shock Corridor (1963)

20. Jean-Luc Godard (France/Switzerland)
Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989-1998)

21. D.W. Griffith (USA)
Essential work: Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)

22. Howard Hawks (USA)
Essential work: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), Rio Bravo (1959)

23. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan)
Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), Three Times (2005)

24. King Hu (Hong Kong/Taiwan)
Essential work: Dragon Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971)

25. Shohei Imamura (Japan)
Essential work: Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

26. Buster Keaton (USA)
Essential work: Our Hospitality (1923), The General (1926)

27. Abbas Kiarostami (Iran)
Essential work: The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)

28. Stanley Kubrick (USA)
Essential work: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

29. Akira Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954)

30. Fritz Lang (Germany/USA)
Essential work: M (1931), The Big Heat (1953)

31. Sergio Leone (Italy/USA)
Essential work: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

32. Ernst Lubitsch (Germany/USA)
Essential work: Trouble in Paradise (1932), Heaven Can Wait (1943)

33. Vincente Minnelli (USA)
Essential work: The Band Wagon (1953), Some Came Running (1958)

34. Mikio Naruse (Japan)
Essential work: Floating Clouds (1955), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

35. Max Ophuls (France/USA)
Essential work: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953)

36. Yasujiro Ozu (Japan)
Essential work: Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953)

37. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (UK)
Essential work: Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)

38. Nicholas Ray (USA)
Essential work: In a Lonely Place (1950), Bigger Than Life (1956)

39. Satyajit Ray (India)
Essential work: Pather Panchali (1955), Charulata (1964)

40. Alain Resnais (France)
Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

41. Ousmane Sembene (Senegal)
Essential work: Black Girl (La noire de…) (1966), Moolaade (2004)

42. Douglas Sirk (USA)
Essential work: All That Heaven Allows (1956), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)

43. Preston Sturges (USA)
Essential work: The Lady Eve (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

44. Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia)
Essential work: Andrei Rublev (1966), Stalker (1979)

45. Jacques Tati (France)
Essential work: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Play Time (1967)

46. Dziga Vertov (Russia)
Essential work: Kino-Eye (1924), Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

47. Jean Vigo (France)
Essential work: Zero de Conduite (1933), L’atalante 1934)

48. Luchino Visconti (Italy)
Essential work: Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) (1963)

49. Josef von Sternberg (USA)
Essential work: The Docks of New York (1928), Shanghai Express (1932)

50. Erich von Stroheim (USA)
Essential work: Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924)


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

34 responses to “The Top Fifty Directors of All Time

  • Ben Herzberger

    Interesting list. I have not seen one film by Robert Bresson, which I guess I’ll have to remedy.

  • michaelgloversmith

    I wish you were in Chicago, Ben. The Siskel Center is currently doing a complete retrospective of his films in 35mm. If you can track them down on DVD, I’d recommend starting with A MAN ESCAPED, PICKPOCKET, AU HASARD BALTHAZAR and L’ARGENT. Then see all of them.

  • jilliemae

    Great list, but one observation–I couldn’t help but notice the shocking absence of female directors. That fact that this is your best of list, and of all time, leaves me feeling dubious as to either your preferences, or possibly absence of quality female directors? I see both as problematic conclusions…

  • Ben Herzberger

    I notice you don’t have Francis Ford Coppola on here, which doesn’t strike me as weird; but, I did just do a back-to-back Godfather 1 and 2, which I thought had some “landmark” quality. Or maybe it was just Al Pacino’s incredible silent intensity, like he was going to walk out of the screen and kill you.

  • michaelgloversmith

    Jill, you make a good point about female directors. I feel that their absence on my list however says less about my preferences than it does about the sad fact that the vast majority of all movies ever made have been directed by men. I am always interested in checking out women directors; in my list of the 50 best LIVING directors (linked at the top of this post) there are 5 women included: Lucrecia Martel, Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman, Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow.

    Ben, you raise an interesting question that I’m eternally debating with myself: should artists be judged by their best work or by the quality of their output as a whole? You are correct that the first two Godfather movies are “landmarks.” I’m willing to concede that a case could also be made for the greatness of The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. All of that work, however, was done in the 1970s and Coppola has made a LOT of mediocre films since then.

  • Thor

    Vertov is your only documentary director on the list? Pah.

  • Zach

    This really is an interesting list. I watch a lot of movies and actually feel a bit embarassed to be familiar with only a few listed.

    I’m glad you recognize Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone, but I think now I really need to get started on Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard, and more Buster Keaton.

    I’m a bit surprised, however, that David Fincher, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Robert Altman aren’t on there. I also figured David Lynch or maybe even Robert Wise to come up.

  • Zach

    Also that Clint Eastwood isn’t there, as you seem to greatly admire his work.

    • michaelgloversmith

      No need to feel embarassed, Zach. You’re a young man and the history of cinema runs very deep! I do love all of the directors you mentioned but I just couldn’t find room for them with only 50 slots. Maybe if the list went to a hundred . . .

  • Susan Doll

    I’m with Jillie Mae on this one. Let’s have some women, please. I would swap out Robert Bresson for Agnes Varda. And, given the amount of creative control Mary Pickford had on her films, I might put her on my list of Top 50 as partnered with her scriptwriter, Frances Marion.

    Glad to see Minnelli made the list.

  • David

    Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel are definitely also my top 10 fav directors.No love for Stanley Kubrick? He’s my NO.1.
    The list also tells that early films had great influence on you,which I also enjoyed a lot.

  • Ben Herzberger

    I see what you are saying about Francis Ford Coppola, although I don’t think I have seen another movie besides the GodFathers.

    Re: your #2 John Ford, I just watched A Man Who Shot Liberty Valence for the second time; one theme I picked up: the weirdly insidious way in which the “law” and Jimmy Stewart, even in the noblest intentions, are still “corrupting” the natural West. I think the scene where Jimmy Stewart is teaching in the classroom the Mexican kids to recite the ABCs is meant to be subtlely sad — its great that they are getting an education, but they’re learning the White Man america and saying things like, “America is a republic”. There are the props, the American flag for instance, in the background. On the other hand, John Wayne’s character is part of the “natural” west. Anyway, just thought it was a really good example of how overtly something can be the noblest intention (help illiterate kids learn to read), but even that has to be insidious and destructive of some “natural” origin. Of course, then Jimmy Stewart’s wife says at the end, “I would love to go back to [name of town] … its where my roots are”.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Ben, you should drop out of law school and join me in the film studies field! You get to the heart of what makes LIBERTY VALANCE such a poignant and complex film; Stewart represents civilization and progress, which Ford sees as both inevitable and good, and yet you know that Ford’s heart lies more with the Wayne character. Ford actually mourns the end of the kind of heroism represented by Tom Doniphan (and Ethan Edwards). This is less obvious on the page than it is in Ford’s direction.

  • Zach

    I make it a hobby to study the careers of filmmakers I’m familiar with in order to study the rise and decline of their careers in terms of quality. As a response to this post, I have a few directors whose careers I feel started out well but have since faced significant decline, whether it be slowly or quickly. Let me know which ones you agree with and others not listed you feel are in similar situations.

    1. George Lucas—
    After directing his first three films, it seemed like Lucas was on his way to being Hollywood’s next biggest director. After over twenty years of directing, he made a very unimpressive return with the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Perhaps his recent announcement of deciding to return to independent filmmaking will determine whether there is still a good director at work.

    2. M. Night Shyamalan—
    Criticize me all you want, but I will defend The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs to my dying day. His other films, however, have collapsed into formula and have never made above it anywhere above average, at least. It still baffles me as to how a once talented filmmaker so quickly became one of today’s most hated names in cinema.

    3. Wes Craven—
    Although he clearly has a mixed array of films to his name, Wes Craven will always have a place in the hearts of horror fans. His contribution to the genre cannot be ignored for its innovation and sheer ambition. And despite the fact Red Eye proved quite satisfactory and the recent Scream 4 was slightly above average, the end of Scream 2 essentially proved to be the final chapter to the prime of Craven’s career. Don’t expect much else from him in the future.

    4. Mel Brooks—
    The first four films of this comedy legend will always be ingrained in the hearts and memories of film buffs. But once the fabled director began to become the main star in his own films, things began to change. Despite still being as funny and satirical as ever (History of the World part 1 being the best of this era), the quality of Brooks’ films reduced significantly, until the absolutely horrific Dracula: Dead and Loving It, signaled the death knell of his career.

    5. Robert Zemeckis—
    I’ll always admire Zemeckis for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, and Back to the Future (one of my all-time favorites), but I must say that much of his recent work has been very disappointing. Despite the fact the director defends himself as being an idealist, with his recent pioneering in special effects, it’s clear that he’s lost touch with his roots and sacrificed his once great methods in favor of tiring visuals and severely unbalanced storytelling. There may still be a chance for him to make a comeback, but not until he comes to terms with the reality of his situation.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I agree with your assessments of 4 out of the 5. I’ve actually never seen a Shyamalan film. What’s interesting to me about the directors you’ve cited is that they all seem to be victims of their own success. There are other directors in recent decades whose recent work is arguably less impressive than their early work – like Carpenter and Gilliam – but they’re more independently-minded and haven’t been able to make the kinds of films they want to make due to a risk averse studio climate. So they should get something of a pass.

      • Zach

        Yeah, I guess I could be a little more forgiving when you put it that way. But I still maintain that some directors have indeed lost their touches or just never properly adapted their styles, causing them to eventually become formulaic. And I still think that Mel Brooks’ decision to start staring in his own films was a major blow to his career. Another thing that’s always baffled me is how some directors are just already bad, and yet their careers will produce at least one movie that is currently considered classic, such as John Singleton’s, Boyz in the Hood and Joel Schumacher’s, Lost Boys. They probably just got lucky.

  • Zach

    *Back in Lucas, I meant to say a twenty year hiatus. Just to avoid confusion.

  • Kayla

    My best friend is a film student at Columbia and is currently working on a homage to Bunuel. She’s seen every single one of his films and would be very happy to see him so high on your list. I’ll have to show this to her.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Oh cool. Please do share. I haven’t seen all of Bunuel’s films but I’m only missing a few from his Mexican period. The impressive thing to me about his career is that I don’t think any other director made so many great films so consistently over such a long span of time. His last 3 movies, made when he was in his seventies, are ridiculously, savagely funny and among his very best.

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  • Venkateshwaran

    Michael, gr8 list, but am a lil bit dissapointed in ranking Tarkovsky and Ozu lower down the order. Moreover, where is Truffaut, Vittorio de Sica, Ingmar or have i missed in the list?
    PS: In case of Satyajit Ray, Jalsaghar (music room) is essential and in case Akira Kurosawa how can you miss Rashomon?

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the comment.

      First of all, Tarkovsky and Ozu are not “lower down”! ALL of the runners-up directors are listed in alphabetical order (and have thus not been ranked in order of preference).

      You are right that Jalsaghar is essential but Charulata is my favorite and I thought it was also essential to include Pather Panchali since it was Ray’s first film.

      Truffaut, I must admit, I am not a fan of. I love his work as a critic and I love The 400 Blows (the movie I think he was put on this earth to make) but very little after that. I think he essentially ended up making the kind of bourgeois cinema that he had attacked as a critic!

      De Sica is someone I like but, Bicycle Thieves aside, I don’t know if I’d call him a truly great director. I can’t rank him alongside the best Italian directors: Rossellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, Pasolini, or even Sergio Leone.

      Bergman is someone whose work I don’t get at all. I have watched a lot of his most well-known films (some several times) and I just don’t see the greatness. His conception of cinema strikes me as being very theatrical and literary but, dare I say it, uncinematic.

      I think Kurosawa is a great director but I don’t hold him in the same high esteem that a lot of critics do. I’ve always found the “relativity of truth” theme in Rashomon a little trite.

      • Henry Pulle

        Uncinematic? I remember you claimed the same in regard to Marriage Story, as if Theatre direction is lesser. Seems odd when one of your favourites is Gertrud, that seems to be so close to literature, so bare cinematically.

  • JohnB

    Uh. Ingmar. Bergman. Persona. Winter Light. The Seventh Seal. Shame. Cries and Whispers. ??

    • martin fennell

      Yes, Bergman should have been in the top ten, so should Kurosawa. I would take out Rossellini and put Bergman there instead. Much as I love Hitchcock, I would put Kurosawa there instead.

  • korgy

    ” His conception of cinema strikes me as being very theatrical and literary but, dare I say it, uncinematic.” this has got to be one of the oddest comments i have ever read about Bergman — and leads me to believe you have not seen many of his early or mid-period films. it’s true that many of his later films were more theatrical — (meaning, like stage dramas — leaning on dialog and blocking of actors) — but this grew out of a purely visual reduction of scenic elements that eventually led to a reduction to mainly psychodramatic speech and a few characters in a room. however, Bergman’s early films are among the most visually stunning and cinemagraphically influential films ever created. other than the most famous choices that JohnB listed above, his earlier black and white films are simply breathtaking in their use of light and shadow as psychological symbols.

    very, very bizarre comment.

  • John Charet

    I love your list of people you consider to be the greatest filmmakers of all-time. A majority of the directors you chose are on my list as well and the ones I did not include I still think are magnificent. For example, I would have included Jean Vigo and Jacques Tati and others If they made three or more * * * * star films in my opinion. That is not to diminish their importance far from it. However, when I set out to do my list, I felt I needed a pattern to stick to. Each has their own method though. One of these days I will make a follow up list. I love the way you present your Top 10 with pictures of one of their films. Who expected you to pick Frenzy as a photograph when discussing one of his films. SInce Citizen Kane is already widely known, it was refreshing to see another example of Welles filmography on there (in this case Touch of Evil). I can go on for days commenting on how wonderful and beautifully detailed this list is. I had a feeling that John Ford was going to be your number 1. Reading this blog in the past, I know you regard “The Searchers” as the film that tops all his others If I am not mistaken.


    Hmm it seems like your website ate my first comment (it was super long)so I guess I’ll just
    sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’mstill new
    to the whole thing. Do you have anny tips for inexperienced blog writers?
    I’d really appreciate it.

  • Miquel

    I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my
    own blog and was curious what all is needed to geet set up?
    I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?
    I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100% positive.

    Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated.

  • directdriver

    My baker’s dozen of favorite directors… not in any particular order other than the first two. As an unrepentant formalist, majority of these artists provided me the most pleasures in terms of formal innovations and opening up new emotional experiences through formal means. Of course I might change my mind on the list when I sneeze.

    01, Ozu
    “He had an engineer’s mind, a painter’s eye, and a novelist’s human empathy. And he accomplished it all within one of the most flagrantly capitalistic film industries, which populated Ozuland with stars and stories. Taken all in all, I bet he’s the greatest filmmaker who ever lived.” – David Bordwell.

    “The American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman once said that the only difficulty in making a film was that all you were really interested in was people’s insides, and all you could photograph was their outsides. We shall examine a small number of masterworks by the Mozart of cinema, one of the supreme geniuses in the history of the art—Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and explore Wiseman’s question, among others. How can you capture the spirit if you can’t go any deeper than the epidermis? How do you photograph the soul?” – Ray Carney’s syllabus

    02, Tati
    A formalist humorist like Tati requires the viewers the kind of attention often paid to the contemplative cinema a la Bresson or Dreyer. PlayTime is the most inventive film ever made. Enough said.

    03, Bresson
    04, Hou
    05, Kiarostami
    06, Renoir
    07, Dreyer
    08, Rivette
    09, Mizoguchi
    10, Naruse
    11, Keaton
    12, Marker
    13, Godard

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