To begin my film discussions, I would like to start with a list that I hold near and dear. For those of you who know me, you have probably heard me recite this list, possibly more than once.
Here’s the background. Back in 2006, having noticed hundreds of “best film of all time” lists I realized that there weren’t nearly as many lists of the greatest directors. At the time, I was in law school and I needed a good distraction to prevent myself from going batty, so I started doing research, got myself a Netflix subscription, and got to work.
That being said, here’s the list, complete with a few of the directors’ most important films (no more than five) and a brief description of them.
1) Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998). Some notable films: Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Ikiru (1952), Ran (1985), The Hidden Fortress (1958).
When you watch a Kurosawa film, you may be struck by the number of conventions that seem familiar, but it’s because he invented them. “The Emperor,” as he was known in some circles, directed 32 films from the early 1940’s until shortly before his death in 1998. Kurosawa drew inspiration from Shakespeare, the samurai stories of medieval Japan, and his own personal experiences in post-war Japan and used all methods available to him to tell those stories exceedingly well. It often appeared that he had the power to harness nature itself and bend it to his will. In some of his later work, he used color film for the first time. Like fishing with dynamite – it just wasn’t fair.
2) Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). Some notable films: Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946).
Hitchcock started his career in silent films, and to him, images came first, and everything else was flourish. Images of a man with a broken leg spying on his neighbors with a telescope, a biplane firing upon a cornfield, a knife cutting up a shower curtain, and hundreds of others are seared into our popular imagination. He started his career in his native England and moved to Hollywood in 1940. Overall he directed 65 films and six seasons of a popular television series.
3) Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007). Some notable films: Persona (1966), The Seventh Seal (1957), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Wild Strawberries (1957), Fanny and Alexander (1982).
I once went to an open house at the Swedish Embassy, and when I mentioned that most of what I learned about Sweden I knew from Bergman, the tour guide responded, “Well, we’re not all that depressing.” Bergman’s films were more than an endless Scandinavian winter of despair though, and even his darkest films have a silver lining. Bergman’s 63 films deal with themes more in the realm of literature than film: the silence of God, the mental illness of a loved one, growing old, the alienation of modern society.
4) Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999).
Some notable films: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Paths of Glory (1957). Is Kubrick the greatest American director? It’s close, but I think he edges out John Ford. He only made 16 films, but he never made a bad one (even Eyes Wide Shut is not a bad film). I always like to think that Kubrick excelled by making his audience uncomfortable, but the reason his films make us uncomfortable is because he is showing us a part of ourselves we’d rather not acknowledge. Still, we keep coming back.
5) John Ford (1894-1973). Some notable films: The Searchers (1956), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Stagecoach (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941).
John Ford is best known as the man most responsible for the rise and fall of the Western. He made so many so well that he set an impossible standard for the genre. Most of the directors on this list that followed Ford have referred to him at one time or another as an influence. Although some of his 146 films feel dated now (and his depictions of Native Americans in his early work leave much to be desired), his best work features some of the deepest characters and best performances in all of cinema.
6) Fredrico Fellini (1920-1993). Some notable films: 8 1/2 (1963), La Dolce Vita (1960), La Strada (1954), I Vitelloni (1953), Amarcord (1973).
I sometimes don’t know where to begin with Fellini. The first of his 24 films were squarely in the Italian neo-realist camp, but then something happened around 1960 when he started using the conventions of the realists to tell stories in unconventional ways and create possibly the most unique style in all of cinema.
7) Orson Welles (1915-1985). Some notable films: Citizen Kane (1941), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958).
Orson Welles was many things (actor, writer, radio star, frozen food salesman) and few of the 42 films he directed are widely seen today (the majority of them are shorts and documentaries). One stands above all of the others of course, but Citizen Kane was not Welles’ only masterpiece from behind the camera. His films were some of the first that felt like they could be real when you watched them, and he made them a decade before the Italian neorealists or the auteurs of the French New Wave.
8) Francois Truffaut (1932-1984). Some notable films: Jules and Jim (1962), The 400 Blows (1959), The Last Metro (1980), Day for Night (1973), Fahrenheit 451 (1966).
Speaking of the New Wave, I don’t think it had a more versatile director that Truffaut. The “French coming of age film” is arguably his invention, but it was Truffaut’s knowledge of film that really set him apart from other directors. He knew what worked and what didn’t, and it allowed him to transcend genres in ways that even some of the directors I have ranked ahead of him could not match.
9) Martin Scorsese (1942 – ). Some notable films: Goodfellas (1990), Raging Bull (1980), Taxi Driver (1976), The Departed (2006), Cape Fear (1991).
So far, Scorsese has made 51 films. His best work deals with characters at the margins of society, and his best stories deal with subjects we’d rather have swept under the rug. The images that stay with us from his films are oftentimes the most shocking and violent, but the context that Scorsese places around those images make us consider their meaning rather than simply recoiling from them. Even when Scorsese reaches beyond what we usually think of as his comfort zone, he never loses his ability to place intricate context around memorable images.
10) Charles Chaplin (1889-1977). Some notable films: City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1941), The Gold Rush (1925), The Kid (1921).
For a time, Charlie Chaplin was the most famous man in the world. Once the British vaudeville actor got behind the camera (he starred in 86 films and directed 73), he was one of the first people to see that film could be art and not just silly or melodramatic images flashing across the screen. It is hard to overstate the importance of Chaplin’s work, especially his later films, in the development of the comedy genre.
11) Jean-Luc Godard (1930 – ). Some notable films: Breathless (1960), Vivre sa Vie (1962), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Alphaville (1966), Week End (1967).
Godard made the best of his 97 films in the 1960’s. He’s still making movies, largely unbeknownst to American audiences. Breathless alone has been called the French Citizen Kane for its innovations (the jump cuts especially). To some, his work may seem like experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but his creativity has influenced many of the best post 1960’s films.
12) Stephen Spielberg (1946 – ). Some notable films: Schindler’s List (1993), Jaws (1975), E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
This one is more controversial than it needs to be. Spielberg has 48 films in the can, and yes, some of them are terrible. One thing that I always remember about Spielberg though is his interest in the macro-story – the story of the world in which his characters live. He doesn’t dwell on the day-to-day lives of his characters, and if they come off a little flat sometimes it is only because Spielberg is eternally preoccupied with the magnificence around them, and by extension around all of us.
13) David Lean (1908-1991). Some notable films: Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Brief Encounter (1945), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Great Expectations (1946).
Speaking of magnificent, there are the 19 films of David Lean. While Chaplin and Hitchcock were born in England, it is Lean who was the master of a uniquely English cinema. His undisputed masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia and his other big budget epics have given him a reputation in the United States as a master of large scale, Hollywood productions. Still, in many ways it is his early Noel Coward and Dickens adaptations that set him apart by demonstrating his unique awareness of English culture.
14) Fritz Lang (1890-1976). Some notable films: Metropolis (1927), M (1931), The Big Heat (1953), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), Fury (1936).
Metropolis is the first great science fiction film, and of his 46 films, it is probably Lang’s best known. Even so, Metropolis is a bit of an outlier in Lang’s German period. Most of his pre-1936 films built the foundation of what became known as the police procedural genre (later, television producers would owe him an enormous debt of gratitude). After Lang fled Germany in 1936 rather than work for the Nazis, his work in Hollywood served as the bedrock of another important genre: Film Noir.
15) Vittorio De Sica (1901-1974). Some notable films: Bicycle Thieves (1948), Umberto D (1952), Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963), Shoeshine (1946).
De Sica is best known as the director of Bicycle Thieves, but he made 36 films and starred in 156. De Sica and others developed one of the most influential movements in film history – Italian Neorealism. The basic idea behind Neorealism was that film should imitate life as closely as possible. By doing so, it would break through the conventions of popular cinema to give the audience a heightened awareness of social issues, specifically the plight of working class Italians after World War II. While other directors such as Roberto Rossellini were important to the movement, De Sica’s films are probably the best known and most influential internationally.
16) Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963). Some notable films: Tokyo Story (1953), Late Spring (1949), I Was Born, But…(1932), Floating Weeds (1959).
Ozu’s films are slow meditations on the nature of family and human relationships. If Spielberg is eternally preoccupied with the magnificent worlds his character inhabit, Ozu was his counterpoint. His 54 films do not have plot twists or fantastic adventures, but instead focus on the daily lives of ordinary people in pre and post war Japan. Ozu is also well known for his distinctive artistic style (low angle shots, using scenes from nature to pace his films, having actors speak directly into the camera, etc.).
17) Satyajit Ray (1921-1992). Some notable films: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), The Chess Players (1977), The Visitor (1991), World of Apu (1959).
The Bollywood style is iconic of Indian cinema, but it is the Neorealist influenced style of Ray that is often referred to as the apex of Indian art cinema. If Bollywood represents escapism in Indian film, Ray represents the confrontational with his unforgettable meditations on poverty. Both styles are valuable, but Ray casts a larger shadow over Indian art cinema than any single director does over Bollywood.
18) Luis Bunuel (1900-1983). Some notable films: Belle de Jour (1967), Un Chien Andalou (1929), The Exterminating Angel (1962), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Viridiana (1961).
Bunuel was close friends with Salvador Dali, and what Dali is to art, Bunuel is to cinema. The first of his 34 films was a collaboration with Dali, and despite the fact that it makes absolutely no sense, Un Chien Andalou remains one of the most influential short films ever made. His later work is more accessible, but never loses the unique dreamlike qualities that made Bunuel an icon of surrealist art.
19) Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). Some notable films: Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1928), Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible (1944).
Eisenstein may not have invented the montage or the propaganda film, but he might as well have. Eisenstein’s first films glorified the Russian Revolution on behalf of the Bolsheviks, but he fell out of favor with them for time while he traveled the world. He earned their favor again with his later films which are credited with inspiring the Russian army during World War II. What we have of Eisenstein’s work is impressive, but I can’t help but think what could have been if he was free to fully explore his genius without the Soviet government breathing down his neck.
20) Robert Altman (1925-2006). Some notable films: Nashville (1975), MASH (1970), Gosford Park (2001), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Short Cuts (1993).
There are 89 feature length films, television programs, and documentaries that credit Robert Altman as a director. He started as a television director, loved working with ensembles and without a script, and the results are often as messy and hilarious as daily life. If there ever was a director who could be called the master of controlled chaos, it was Altman.
The next ten (in alphabetical order by last name): Woody Allen, Michelangelo Antonioni, Frances Ford Coppola, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Buster Keaton, Spike Lee, F.W. Murnau, Jean Renoir, Billy Wilder.
(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe