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ridley scott the last duel
Photo via 20th Century Studios

The 10 best directors of all time

We all have our favorite filmmakers - but who are the greatest?

We all have our favorite filmmakers – those directors whose work we just can’t resist, no matter what the subject. But who are the greatest? Here’s our hot take.

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10. Alfred Hitchcock

The Birds – Attack on Bodega Bay

The master of suspense was nothing if not prolific, averaging a film a year over a career that spanned half a century and began in the 1920s – so long ago, in fact, that several of his early films are lost. But Hitchcock is chiefly remembered for his remarkable works of the 1950s and 1960s, movies that included Rear Window, Psycho, and The Birds. All three cranked up suspense to new levels, with both the famous shower scene in Psycho and the attack scene in The Birds are so well known that they are the frequent subject of parodies. His mastery of technique was complete, and it remains a minor mystery that despite five nominations, Hitchcock never received the Academy Award for Best Director.

9. Jane Campion

The Power Of The Dog – trailer

Peter Jackson may have more name recognition, but it’s one of New Zealand’s other great directors who makes the list. The first woman in history to receive Cannes’ Palme d’Or (for The Piano), Campion’s clinical, unfussy directorial style has won many plaudits over the years, most recently for her acclaimed revisionist Western drama The Power Of The Dog, which bagged her an Academy Award for Best Director. Look out also for the taut psychological thriller In The Cut, an uncompromising look at sex and power starring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo, and Bright Star, her 2009 biopic of the Romantic poet John Keats, starring Abbie Cornish and a young Ben Whishaw.

8. David Lean

The Bridge on the River Kwai – “Madness! Madness!”

With two Academy Awards and a further nine nominations to his name, British director David Lean swept all before him in a glittering career. Success came early with Brief Encounter, the Noël Coward-written romantic drama that made household names of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as would-be lovers who weigh the pros and cons of cheating on their respective spouses in pursuit of happiness together. Adaptations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Oliver Twist brought good box office returns, Oscar nods, and excellent reviews. But Lean’s reputation rests on The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Zhivago. All three swept the board at the Oscars, and two smashed box office records on both sides of the Atlantic. Lean’s two Academy Award wins were richly deserved; his faultless direction of, for example, the climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai is an object lesson in how to build tension without music, explosions, or gimmickry.

7. Ang Lee

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Jen vs. Shu Lien

The ultimate stylist, Taiwanese director Ang Lee has an extraordinary CV. Fans of the neo-Western genre will remember Brokeback Mountain, which garnered Lee the first of two Academy Awards for Best Director, and Life of Pi was similarly a tour de force, if a little cloying in some aspects of its realization. But Lee’s earlier work is just as impressive: his version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility remains definitive, and The Ice Storm is a disturbing meditation on the secrets and betrayals that tear two families apart during a Thanksgiving weekend. However, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains Lee’s masterpiece. A technically unsurpassed wuxia film in which Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat star as warriors intent on bringing a criminal to justice in 18th Century China, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s absorbing storyline, pitch-perfect performances, faultless pacing, and gorgeous cinematography make it one of the finest films the this century has yet produced.

6. Francis Ford Coppola

Apocalypse Now – I Love The Smell of Napalm in the Morning

Coppola’s Godfather trilogy was largely responsible for supercharging the careers of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, as well as offering lavish and superb filmmaking. 1979’s Apocalypse Now, however, raised the bar, with technically demanding action scenes and storytelling on an epic scale, all in the service of a plot that sees Martin Sheen’s rabble of whacked-out Marines make their way hesitantly upriver to meet their fate, perhaps at the hands of the shadowy renegade Colonel Kurtz (played by a Marlon Brando who famously refused to learn the script and improvised his lines). The director’s latest project, the science fiction drama Megalopolis, is slated for a 2024 release, with Adam Driver, Forest Whitaker, and Apocalypse Now star Laurence Fishburne in leading roles.

5. Akira Kurosawa

Kagemusha – trailer

Though many in English-speaking countries know his work only by reputation, Akira Kurosawa’s influence on cinema is out of all proportion to his fame, or lack thereof, in America. It was the Japanese director’s Rashomon, with its multiple-perspective storyline, that first brought him to the attention of Western audiences; and his Seven Samurai, with its impeccable action scenes, was famously the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven. Newcomers to Kurosawa’s oeuvre, however, would also do well to watch Kagemusha, an epic film set in medieval Japan that recounts the exploits of a petty criminal who is tasked with the job of impersonating a powerful lord. In 1990, he received an Honorary Academy Award in recognition of his services to cinema.

4. Ridley Scott

Napoleon – trailer

No-one has directed cinematic science fiction over the last half-century quite like Ridley Scott. The British filmmaker cut his teeth on advertisements in the 1970s before Alien catapulted him to greater things. The visually sumptuous Blade Runner and The Martian confirmed Scott’s status as a go-to director for all things sci-fi, while Gladiator bagged a Best Picture Academy Award. But it’s the less vaunted films in Scott’s career that prove his excellence as a director. 1492: Conquest of Paradise contains numerous inaccuracies, not the least of which is a far rosier picture of Christopher Columbus than is warranted by history, but is visually superb, while Kingdom of Heaven is a breathtaking story of the Third Crusade. Nor is Scott ready to hang up the megaphone, either; anticipation continues to build ahead of the premiere of Napoleon, with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role, this November.

3. Martin Scorsese

Killers of the Flower Moon – trailer

The director of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and The Age of Innocence is the quintessential director’s director, with an uncanny knack for hard-hitting storytelling. It was modern-day gangster film The Departed that won Scorsese his Academy Award for Best Director, but The Aviator is the superior movie, an expansive account of the life of Howard Hughes, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead. Scorsese’s latest movie, the epic Western Killers of the Flower Moon, featuring longtime collaborators DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, premieres in American cinemas next month.

2. Stanley Kubrick

Full Metal Jacket – “Let’s Get It Done!”

Stanley Kubrick’s reputation precedes him; there can be few directors with such a track record of consistently brilliant filmmaking. Some of that achievement can be laid at the door of Kubrick’s obsessive streak, though few today would be impressed with the rampant perfectionism that frequently reduced Shelley Duvall to tears on the set of The Shining. But in Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick displayed a grasp of cinematic technique that has rarely been emulated since. The sheer attention to detail and verisimilitude in 2001 single-handedly elevated the science fiction genre above the cardboard sets and shoddy special effects, while Dr. Strangelove allowed Kubrick to show off a whip-smart sense for satire and black comedy. Arguably the finest cinematic achievement of his later career was Full Metal Jacket; sequences such as the forward advance with the soldiers, shot with a Steadicam in a single take, place the viewer right at the center of the action, and underscore the thankless task that was the soldiers’ lot.

1. Steven Spielberg

Amistad – Anthony Hopkins’ speech

Subtract Steven Spielberg from Hollywood, and you rip out most of the history of cinema over the last 50 years. The legendary director has either produced or directed so many of masterpieces – Jaws, the Indiana Jones franchise, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and more – that it is difficult to know where to begin. Jaws, with its beautifully executed dolly zooms and axial cuts, proved an early indication of a young director on top of his game, while Raiders of the Lost Ark showed aptitude with action. Jurassic Park remains impeccable 30 years after its release, while Schindler’s List – for which Spielberg won an Academy Award – remains just as harrowing, but his less lauded works as just as compelling. Amistad, about an insurrection by slaves on the eponymous ship and the efforts of abolitionists to have them freed, was inexplicably overlooked at the Oscars. No Hollywood director has helmed such a wide variety of subject matter, and none have exhibited such consistent brilliance.

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Craig Jones
Craig Jones is a freelance writer based in California. His interests include science fiction, horror, historical dramas, and surreal comedy. He thinks Batman Forever was pretty good, and has a PowerPoint to prove it.