Advertisements

Category Archives: Best Directors – All Time

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)

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: