To get out of my writing funk, brought on a job that leaves me with much less free time, I’ve decided to assemble a breezy, easy to write, faux clickbait post. In this case, I’ve chosen a subject that always interests me, movie directors. The single most important person in a uniquely collaborative art form, a good director is in many ways a glorified manager with artistic sensibilities. They are simultaneously politicians, businessmen, and artist, and I’ve always considered the study of film irrevocably intertwined with the study of film directors. While good directors often make bad films (a movie is, after all, influenced by hundreds of people), I think a great director will generally elevate the quality of a film.He (or she) should be able to make an other wise poor film mediocre, an otherwise mediocre film good, and an otherwise good film great. More than any other single figure, the director is the driving force behind a movie’s quality.
This list is obviously highly subjective and, like all rankings of artistic oeuvres, also depends on whether you prefer peak or longevity. How do you rank someone who’s made 6 films in 40 years vs someone who’s made 40 films in 40 years. Or how about someone who directed 4 cornerstones of american cinema in a decade before making practically nothing of consequence since? For this list I tried to be as objective as possible and rate peak and longevity equally. I also took into account significance of the directors filmography; my estimation of their ability as an artist outside the confines of the material they worked with, and of course I inserted a little bit of my own biases into the ranking. I also gave consideration into the general consensus around each directors(there are a few on here that I’m not particularly enamored with but are just too central to American critical consensus to leave off in good faith) as well the reception of their work in terms of awards, placement on all-time lists etc…
I’d have really liked to have made this list just Living Directors, period. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with most of the well regarded foreign directors (Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke, Wong Kar Wai, etc…) as I’d need to be for such a ranking. For the purposes of this list, only English language work was considered, eliminating directors like Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, who probably wouldn’t have made the top 25 anyway but would definitely make honorable mention.
So without any further ramblings, here are my choices for the most “Important” living English language film directors
Most likely to join in the future: Steve McQueen, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, Kathryn Bigelow
Richard Linklater is obsessed with time and how its passage effects us. From his debut film Slacker to his recent Boyhood, Linklater plays with time and place in ways that no other director does. One of the few great modern directors equally comfortable working as a director for hire on major projects or writing his own scripts, Linklater has put together an eclectic filmography riddled with classics. His first two films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused, are deceptively complex high school/college comedies. His work on the Before Trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight) first showed his ability to imbibe otherwise experimental films with extraordinary devotion to character. School of Rock is one of the funnier studio comedies of the 00’s and his most recent effort, Boyhood, is considered one of the great films of the 2010’s. Linklater combines very American stories with a European storytelling sensibility that has yielded one of the more eclectic filmographies of any modern, major director.
-“I’ve always been most interested in the politics of everyday life: your relation to whatever you’re doing, or what your ambitions are, where you live, where you find yourself in the social hierarchy.” – Richard Linklater
|Dazed and Confused||1993|
|The Newton Boys||1998|
|School or Rock||2003|
|Bad News Bears||2005|
|A Scanner Darkly||2006|
|Fast Food Nation||2006|
|Me and Orson Welles||2009|
The definition of a living legend, Clint Eastwood has been directing movies since the 70’s and as a director redefined the western and has become a perennial Oscar favorite. He’s directed a Best Picture winning film twice, while directing three other films to nominations. His films have an old fashioned stateliness about them that is becoming more and more rare. Although his recent output has declined significantly in quality(and personally I’m not the biggest fan of even his major work) he’s put together one of the longest, and most celebrated filmographies of any living director. His films encompass a wide variety of genre, from the revisionist western Unforgiven to the boxing drama Million Dollar Baby to the crime saga Mystic River and many, many others. His resume looks more like the directors of classic Hollywood like Howard Hawks or John Ford who jumped between different studio projects than it resembles modern directors who often pick films more in line with their innate directorial personality.
“In America, instead of making the audience come to the film, the idea seems to be for you to go to the audience. They come up with the demographics for the film and then the film is made and sold strictly to that audience. Not to say that it’s all bad, but it leaves a lot of the rest of us out of it. To me cinema can be a much more friendly world if there’s a lot of things to choose from.”-Clint Eastwood
|Play Misty For Me||1971|
|High Plains Drifter||1973|
|The Eiger Sanction||1975|
|The Outlaw Josey Wales||1976|
|Honky Tonk Man||1982|
|White Hunter, Black Heart||1990|
|A Perfect World||1993|
|The Bridges of Madison County||1995|
|Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil||1997|
|Million Dollar Baby||2004|
|Flags of Our Fathers||2006|
|Letters From Iwo Jima||2006|
23. Spike Lee
Brash, controversial, and outspoken, Spike Lee somehow managed to make some of the most understated, yet devastating movies of three separate decades. Like Eastwood, although his films have rarely reached the same heights over the last 10 years (although his most recent film Chi-Raq has some fervent admirers), he’s been around long enough to assemble a potent resume. His breakout film Do The Right Thing is considered one of the most important films about Race in America. His film Malcolm X is considered one of the best biopics of the 1990’s. 25th Hour, made in 2002, is considered one of the great movies of the new century as well as a touching homage to New York City in the aftermath of 9/11.
“What’s the difference between Hollywood characters and my characters? Mine are real.” –Spike Lee
|She’s Gotta Have it||1986|
|Do The Right Thing||1989|
|Mo’ Better Blues||1990|
|Get on the Bus||1992|
|He Got Game||1998|
|Summer of Sam||1999|
|The Original Kings of Comedy||2000|
|She Hate Me||2004|
|Miracle at St. Anna||2008|
|Red Hook Summer||2012|
One of the all-time inconsistent directors, Ridley Scott is a fascinating director, in much the same way as Eastwood’, in that his filmography looks much more like one from the older days of Hollywood. His career goes from classic films like Blade Runner to forgotten flops like Legend, from Gladiator to Hannibal, Thelma & Louise to 1492. His strengths are production design and world building, which prove integral to his 3 most widely celebrated films: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator. All three are exemplars of the best kind of popular action/sci-fi world-building. Unfortunately, Scott is also a lackluster dramatist. He generally is much too dependent on having a good script to make a good film for me to be too high on him personally. That being said, he made 2 of the great Blockbusters of all-time, both of them largely due to his strengths. He’s also been around long enough to assemble a wealth of very good films to pad his resume and he’s undoubtedly made an extremely large, mostly positive impact on Hollywood. A list without him would feel incomplete.
“People say I pay too much attention to the look of a movie but for God’s sake, I’m not producing a Radio 4 Play for Today, I’m making a movie that people are going to look at.” – Ridley Scott
|Someone To Watch Over Me||1987|
|Thelma & Louise||1991|
|1492: Conquest of Paradise||1992|
|Black Hawk Down||2001|
|Kingdom of Heaven||2005|
|A Good Year||2006|
|Body of Lies||2008|
|Exodus: Gods and Kings||2014|
George Lucas was one of the more challenging directors to rank. His filmography consists of a tiny number of films (he didn’t direct 2 of the original Star Wars trilogy and took a 20 year gap without directing anything) but he’s without a doubt the single most impactful individual in the movie industry of the last 50 years. Star Wars changed Hollywood in ways that are still developing over 35 years later. In addition, the Star Wars prequels, whatever their faults, are incredibly well directed films. On a frame by frame basis, they look better than almost any other recent blockbuster. What’s strange about Lucas is that he was considered one of the most promising young directors of the early 70’s, on par with Spielberg and Coppola. His 1973 film American Graffiti got him a Best Director nomination and in a different universe he might be a renowned director of experimental films. Star Wars though, made him the most important person in American film and after Spielberg directed his screenplay about an adventurous college professor, he was the creator of the 2 most profitable franchises of the 1980’s; the equivalent today of owning both Marvel and DC films. Lucas’s strength comes from a prodigious imagination, influenced by a bizarre amalgamation of classical mythology and pulp 1930’s sci-fi/fantasy. Although a weak writer at the dialogue level, all his Star Wars films have a sweeping scope, classical formula, and a rich feel for drama that his imitators lack and his critics overlook. Lucas is a great director in his own right, but because of his limited filmography and self-imposed hiatus, I can’t place him higher than this even though I think he’s painfully underrated. At some point I sincerely believe there will be a re-evaluation of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, which are some of the most imaginative blockbusters of modern times.
“People say my movies are just like Hollywood movies. And I say, “I can’t help it if Hollywood copies.” – George Lucas
|Star Wars Episode 1-The Phantom Menace||1999|
|Star Wars Episode II-Attack Of the Clones||2002|
|Star Wars Episode III- Revenge of the Sith||2005|