Greatest Living English Language Directors

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

25. Richard Linklaterrichard-linklater2 

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.Richard-linklater

-“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

Film Year
Slacker 1991
Dazed and Confused 1993
Before Sunrise 1995
SubUrbia 1997
The Newton Boys 1998
Waking Life 2001
Tape 2001
School or Rock 2003
Before Sunset 2004
Bad News Bears 2005
A Scanner Darkly 2006
Fast Food Nation 2006
Me and Orson Welles 2009
Bernie 2012
Before Midnight 2013
Boyhood 2014

24. Clint Eastwood2ol-clint-eastwood-with-movie-camera

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.Clint-Eastwood-07fc0229c513a8bea4cfe51f5abc8041

“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

Film Year
Play Misty For Me 1971
High Plains Drifter 1973
Breezy 1973
The Eiger Sanction 1975
The Outlaw Josey Wales 1976
The Gauntlet 1977
Bronco Billy 1980
Firefox 1982
Honky Tonk Man 1982
Sudden Impact 1982
Pale Rider 1985
Heartbreak Ridge 1986
Bird 1988
White Hunter, Black Heart 1990
The Rookie 1990
Unforgiven 1992
A Perfect World 1993
The Bridges of Madison County 1995
Absolute Power 1997
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil 1997
True Crime 1999
Space Cowboys 2000
Blood Work 2002
Mystic River 2003
Million Dollar Baby 2004
Flags of Our Fathers 2006
Letters From Iwo Jima 2006
Changeling 2008
Gran Torino 2008
Invictus 2009
Hereafter 2010
J. Edgar 2011
Jersey Boys 2014
American Sniper 2014

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

Film Year
She’s Gotta Have it 1986
School Daze 1988
Do The Right Thing 1989
Mo’ Better Blues 1990
Jungle Fever 1991
Malcolm X 1992
Crooklyn 1994
Clockers 1995
Girl 6 1996
Get on the Bus 1992
He Got Game 1998
Summer of Sam 1999
The Original Kings of Comedy 2000
Bamboozled 2000
25th Hour 2002
She Hate Me 2004
Inside Man 2006
Miracle at St. Anna 2008
Red Hook Summer 2012
Oldboy 2013
Chi-Raq 2015

22.  Ridley Scottridley_scott_29164

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.Ridley-Scott 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

Film Year
The Duellists 1977
Alien 1979
Blade Runner 1982
Legend 1986
Someone To Watch Over Me 1987
Black Rain 1989
Thelma & Louise 1991
1492: Conquest of Paradise 1992
White Squall 1996
G.I Jane 1997
Gladiator 2000
Hannibal 2001
Black Hawk Down 2001
Matchstick Men 2003
Kingdom of Heaven 2005
A Good Year 2006
American Gangster 2007
Body of Lies 2008
Robin Hood 2010
Prometheus 2012
The Counselor 2013
Exodus: Gods and Kings 2014
The Martian 2015

21. George LucasDirector George Lucas is shown standing next to a digital movie camera used to shoot, 'Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones,' on the set of the film, in this undated photo. Lucas shot the entire film using digital cameras and hoped to have the film shown with digital projectors in theaters. Studio and theater executives counter that the technology is not ready for mass use and that complex questions remain on setting industry-wide standards, avoiding piracy and financing digital-projection systems, which can cost up to $150,000 for each screen. (AP Photo/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

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. GeorgeLucasee45b26e4085edd86117336446b4e5efLucas’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.George-LucasPanavision-MOSW

“People say my movies are just like Hollywood movies. And I say, “I can’t help it if Hollywood copies.” – George Lucas

Film Year
THX 1138 1971
American Graffiti 1973
Star Wars 1977
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

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