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Ten Greatest Film Directors


Time for a list. Lists are good. People like lists, even – or especially – contentious ones. This does not make me a blogposer (see here).

I could have titled this list Ten Favourite Film Directors, because that’s sort of what it is. Except they’re not just favourites, they’re also directors whose skill and artistry I greatly admire. Just because something is a favourite, that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s good. Like Frank Herbert’s Dune – it’s probably the one novel I’ve reread more than any other, but I don’t think it’s an especially well-written book.

Anyway, here is a list of film directors whose films I both like a great deal and admire a great deal; in no particular order:

  1. Alfred Hitchcock – the master of the thriller, whose films are the most consistently entertaining of all time. He has several absolute classics to his name, which is more than most directors can say: Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, North By Northwest, The Birds
  2. Douglas Sirk – was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller. All That Heaven Allows is one of the great films of the 1950s. His films were melodramatic, but also deeply subversive. And very, very cleverly made.
  3. Krzysztof Kieślowski – created some of the most exquisitely-made films, photography and script, in the history of cinema.
  4. Andrei Tarkovsky – his films were unlike any other film-maker’s. Beautifully-shot, for a start. And resolutely challenging, in a medium which privileges accessibility.
  5. Michael Haneke – because, of all the directors currently making films, he has the most interesting body of work – in the sense of his approach to telling stories using the medium.
  6. Ingmar Bergman – if most cinema can be equated to popular written fiction, then Bergman was an accomplished writer of prize-winning literary fiction.
  7. Terry Gilliam – because he has one of the most singular imaginations in the film-making world.
  8. Michangelo Antonioni – another director who experimented with the narrative techniques of the form, with great success. L’Avventura remains a classic piece of cinema.
  9. Aki Kaurismäki – Finnish cinema may be unfairly characterised as grim and depressing, but even the grimmest of Kaurismäki’s films display a sly and absurd sense of humour. He remade Hamlet, recasting the title character as the heir to an international rubber duck manufacturing concern, for example.
  10. The “Archers”: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger – made three of the best British films of all time: A Matter Of Life And Death, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, and The Red Shoes. And there are plenty more in their oeuvre.

A few who didn’t quite make the cut into the top ten: David Lynch, Fritz Lang, Werner Herzog, Frank Capra.

Feel free to add your own lists in the comments. No doubt there will be some disagreements…

Next up: ten greatest novelists.

17 thoughts on “Ten Greatest Film Directors

  1. Not much disagreement there, except I had never heard of Sirk, Powell, or Pressburger before. I don’t think Gilliam would have made the cut for me, either, although I do appreciate his films. My own list would include Kurosawa. Perhaps Jim Jarmusch. Visually, I adore Peter Greenaway, but wouldn’t call him a great director. Mike Leigh might make the cut, too.

  2. Greenaway is peculiar but in no way a top director of all time — as a result, I’d be temped to classify Gilliam in the same category — self-indulgent — don’t get me wrong, Brazil is one of my favorite films of all time, I just don’t find Gilliam’s body of work all that impressive — especially recently, Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was average, Brothers Grimm was terrible, Tideland below par, etc…

    I agree with most of your other choices — especially Krzysztof Kieślowski who is under-appreciated (if you’ve not seen his early film, Camera Buff, you must).

    I would be tempted include Orson Welles — perhaps that’s a cliché inclusion, but, he’s quite amazing — still…

    • Gilliam may be indulgent at times, but he still has a unique imagination, and that’s on display even in his duff films. On the whole, however, I think he’s made more good films than average.

  3. Have you seen any of Emir Kusturica films? He’s in my top ten list — not sure he’s a top ten director of all time though — he still quite young and I suspect he produce some more masterpieces (Underground, 1995; Time of the Gypsies, 1988; When Father Was Away on Business, 1985; Life is a Miracle, 2004; Black Cat, White Cat, 1998).

    Here’s the imdb link for Underground — my favorite of his films… (just in case you haven’t heard of him)

    • No, I’ve not come across him. I’ll stick one of his films on my rental list. Have you tried Elia Suleiman, Majid Majidi, Mahomet-Saleh Haroun, or Abbas Kiarostami?

      • I’ve only seen Time of the Gypsies and Black Cat, White Cat, but based on those I heartily second Kusturica. I think coming out as a Serb nationalist hurt his career in the West, that might be part of why he isn’t better known.

  4. As I mentioned, Underground is Kusturica’s best — somewhat lengthy, but, the successful use of magical realism in Cinema is just amazing (and hard).

    I’ve heard of most of them (film is one of my obsessions)… i’ve seen Majidi’s The Color of Paradise (a while back), I’ve not heard of Mahomet-Saleh Haroun, I’ve seen Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us and Taste of Cherry (again, a while back), and I’ve not seen one of Suleiman’s films. I somewhat more well-versed in European cinema.

    Have you heard of the Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui? I just saw Santoori a few months back at a film series and was impressed — the director got in quite a lot of trouble for showing the slums of Terran. His main actress, Golshifteh Farahani, had to flee to Europe…

    • I thought The Colour of Paradise was really good. Taste of Cherry too. Although I thought Babak Payamis’ Secret Ballot better than both of them. I’ll keep an eye open for Mehrjui. Haroun is Chadian – his Daratt is excellent.

  5. Certainly each one on your final roster is a UNIQUE film-maker and for that you are to be commended (even if I might take issue with some of your choices). Some obvious names but an eccentric list and true cinephiles would, at least, give it a grudging nod…

  6. The main problem with chiming in is that I haven’t seen the work of many of these directors, so there is little for me to be contentious about. If we are talking “favorites” and directors whose work impresses me, Frank Capra would certainly be on my list, Hitchcock as well. More modern directors that I admire a great deal are Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Wong Kar-Wai, Guilermo del Toro (leaving off the Hellboy films, which I enjoyed but don’t feel are representative of his best work).

    • I’ve seen all Jeunet’s but the latest, and Delicatessen remains a favourite. But his whimsicality can get a bit too much. I’ve only seen two films by Wong Kar-Wai: In the Mood for Love and 2046. I really should watch them again, one of these days.

      • “whimsicality”…good word. It is that more than anything which draws me to his work. Amelie is my favorite of his, though Delicatessen is what hooked me in the first place.

        You should check out Chungking Express by Wong Kar-Wai. It is the first in the “trilogy” of films that include the two you mentioned. Its been so long since I read about the supposed connection between the films that I cannot recall what it was.

        Speaking of foreign films, have you ever seen Old Boy?

  7. Akria Kurosawa needs to be mentioned. He’s work is relavent and riveting and influenced the directors that went on to rule box office from the mid-seventies through last weekend.

  8. Pingback: Ten Greatest Authors « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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