Cuarón and Hitchcock and Scorsese, Oh My! The Greatest Directors Of All-Time

30. Alfonso Cuarón

30. Alfonso Cuarón
Image Source: Variety

From an off-kilter AIDS comedy to a Harry Potter adventure — from a hormone-fueled road movie about horny teenagers to an Oscar-winning spectacle about a lone woman lost in space — Alfonso Cuarón has forged one of the most unpredictable and uncompromising careers in modern filmmaking.

Someone who’s not very familiar with his filmography would be startled to discover that a small but charmingly brilliant Spanish film Y Tu Mamá También was made by the same guy who directed two of the grandest science fiction films of this generation: Gravity (for which he became the first Mexican director to win an Oscar for Best Director) and Children of Men. His universally adored 2018 film Roma, which was released in theaters and on Netflix, cemented Cuarón’s place among the greatest auteurs working today.

29. Kathryn Bigelow

29. Kathryn Bigelow
Image Source: The Independent

The first and only woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow is best known for tense, gritty films such as Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Confounding stereotypes about feminine film-making, the director, producer and writer has built a career on the study of violence – from biker gangs in The Loveless, her first full-length feature, to her controversial dramatization of the United States’ hunt for Osama bin Laden. She tackles contemporary subjects head-on, drawing out cinematographic substance that is often troubling, without sacrificing entertainment value.

28. Spike Lee

28. Spike Lee
Image Source: Variety

Skeptics may scoff that he is too current to make the cut, and they’d have a point if Spike Lee weren’t the first director to nail so many black experiences with a consistently rich narrative style. Lee’s movies have examined race relations, colorism in the black community, urban crime, poverty, and other political issues. The first African American director to become a household name, he burst onto the 1980s indie scene with his debut full-length feature, She’s Gotta Have It (1986).

With Do the Right Thing, following in 1989, he became a filmmaker of international fame — seen as the figurehead of the new black cinema. He has been making movies for more than 30 years now, racking up some two dozen feature credits (most notably Malcom X, 25th Hour). He is of the most important filmmakers of the current generation and one of the very few directors who uses the medium of cinema not just as an artistic expression but also as an instrument for social change.

27. Christopher Nolan

27. Christopher Nolan
Image Source: Variety

After bursting into the cinematic limelight with the brilliant neo-noir mystery film Memento, Nolan became a global phenomenon with the path-breaking Dark Knight Trilogy. Nolan has directed 10 feature films while demonstrating a rare ability to marry blockbuster entertainment with complex, compelling ideas — in addition to experimenting with form and function. One of the most original and imaginative directors working today, Nolan has revolutionized the scope of popular cinema in Hollywood with his entertaining yet profound works of art. While I do consider his debut to be his finest and most emotionally profound film till date, Nolan’s cinematic prowess has matured over the years.

26. Mike Nichols

26. Mike Nichols
Image Source: PBS

From Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s ugly marital war in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), right through to Aaron Sorkin’s snappily-expressed Washington intrigue in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), Mike Nichols was bringing literate, grownup dramas and comedies to the screen. After beginning in the late 1950s with the classic comedy albums he made alongside Elaine May, Nichols became one of the leading theater and motion-picture directors of the second half of the last century. He introduced the world to Dustin Hoffman, a veritable standard-bearer for smart, disaffected, and pained youth in his 1967 film, The Graduate.

The groundbreaking and acclaimed film led critics to declare Nichols the “new Orson Welles”. He is one of only 15 people to have won all four major American entertainment awards including an Emmy, Grammy, an Oscar (for Best Director, for The Graduate), and a Tony (nine in all).

25. Ethan and Joel Coen

25. Ethan and Joel Coen
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One of the most unconventional and wildly original filmmakers in the history of cinema, Ethan and Joel Coen (or the Coen Brothers as they are popularly known) are arguably amongst the finest filmmakers working today. Since making their feature directorial debut in 1984 with Blood Simple, the Coen brothers have proven themselves to be among the greatest directors Hollywood has seen. Their diverse films prove that few others can pivot so seamlessly between dark drama and screwball comedy.

They take weird, niche ideas and find ways to bring them to a mainstream audience. Whether it is their brilliant neo-noir crime masterpiece Fargo or the trippy black-comedy The Big Lebowski, their cinema often serves as an incisive rebuff to the American values of hope and idealism.

24. Elia Kazan

24. Elia Kazan
Image Source: Senses of Cinema

Elia Kazan was an actor, then stage director, then filmmaker and novelist, often embarking on several of these endeavors simultaneously. Known for introducing Marlon Brando to the world of cinema, Kazan is considered one of the most influential American filmmakers of all-time. While Kazan’s films were often marked by social issues to the outsider, the filmmaker was much more drawn to the pathos of the human condition — the painfully vulnerable, complicated and emotional naked places of the human psyche.

He loved and nurtured the vanity-free actors who were willing and able to facilitate such ends and emotional complex truths. Some of the most impactful works from Kazan include such undoubted masterpieces as Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and East of Eden.

23. Quentin Tarantino

23. Quentin Tarantino
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Since his feature debut Reservoir Dogs came out in 1992, Quentin Tarantino has established himself as one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. From Pulp Fiction to Django Unchained, his style is defined by a mix of shocking violence and humor. With just nine (soon to be ten) movies in a career spanning about three decades, Tarantino remains as one of the most recognizable Hollywood names. With his stylized violence and extended dialogues, he has been the catalyst in ushering in a new era of cinema aesthetics in Hollywood.

What truly makes his cinema memorable is its sub-textual commentary on contemporary politics, war and race. Unarguably the most influential filmmaker of his generation, Tarantino has inspired a generation of filmmakers with his bold and ambitious vision.

22. Cecile DeMille

22. Cecile DeMille
Image Source: Ultimate Movie Rankings

Legendary producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, affectionately known as C.B., was a seminal co-founder of Hollywood and a progenitor of Paramount Studio. With an enviable array of works that includes both silent films and talkies, DeMille commercialized the art form better than most of his contemporaries. This iconic but frequently unsung auteur helped turned an obscure Californian orange grove into the movie center of the world and made “Hollywood” synonymous with success.

He excelled in biblical narratives and produced some of the finest movies in the said genre. Some of his most acclaimed works include The Ten Commandments, The King of Kings, The Sign of the Cross, Samson and Delilah, and The Greatest Show on Earth.

21. Jean-Luc Godard

21. Jean-Luc Godard
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He wasn’t the first of the French New Wave directors, but he was the most celebrated. Godard’s seductive first feature, Breathless, wrapped American pulp conventions around an existential romance; shot like a documentary, with handheld cameras, it has influenced several generations of film directors. Armed with an exhaustive knowledge of film history and a 16mm camera, Godard gave permission to future filmmakers to break the rules when it came to story, structure and process.

He had an enormous influence on the emerging national cinemas of the ’60s in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Quentin Tarantino named his production company, “A Band Apart,” after Godard’s Bande à part.

20. Frank Capra

20. Frank Capra
Image Source: StMU History Media

Capra was one of America’s most influential directors during the 1930s, winning three Oscars as Best Director. The Italian immigrant began in comedies (1934’s It Happened One Night was the first to sweep the top Oscars), then made relevant films about humble men facing venal capitalists: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It’s A Wonderful Life. Known for introducing the concept of spot improvisation, Capra perfectly synchronized tempo and action in his movies.

19. Victor Fleming

19. Victor Fleming
Image Source: Famous People

In 1939, over the course of five months, out came two of the greatest American movies ever made — both directed by the same man. Whether it is the epic Gone with The Wind or the profoundly brilliant The Wizard of Oz, there is always a sense of grandeur and glory in his cinema which has rarely been replicated. A tough and unsentimental director, Fleming enjoyed a career that, while rarely spoken of in the same reverent tones as many of his peers, had more highlights than most of the canonized figures in critical and historical circles.

One of the greatest storytellers Hollywood has ever seen, Fleming has had a prolific career over three decades and has always managed to infuse a sense of optimism and raw energy into his cinema.

18. Woody Allen

18. Woody Allen
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Woody Allen is one of the few directors who has successfully turned imitation into an art form. With an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and theory, Allen has used the discoveries and innovations of some of cinema’s greatest masters to come up with a conglomerate style of his very own. There is no director on this list who makes better movies about romantic relationships than Allen. Almost every film of his from Annie Hall and Manhattan to the more recent Blue Jasmine has a realistic quality that’s both funny and sad at the same time.

17. Sergio Leone

17. Sergio Leone
Image Source: Oscars.org

Controversial yet brilliant, cheap yet classy, populist yet artistic – no director in history could divide critical and popular opinion as much as Sergio Leone could. After assisting Italian filmmakers, he invented the spaghetti Western genre. Mr. Leone, who co-wrote many of his films, gained fame and catapulted Clint Eastwood to international stardom by directing and co-writing three violence-packed hits — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The director, who hailed John Ford as his mentor, said, ”All the killings in my films are exaggerated because I wanted to make a tongue-in-cheek satire on run-of-the-mill westerns.” Leone’s works are marked by depictions of violence, long shots and deglamorization of humanity.

16. Sidney Lumet

16. Sidney Lumet
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He wasn’t the first to shoot in New York, but more than any director before Woody Allen, Lumet brought an aggressive Noo Yawk sensibility to film. Possibly the most underrated of all the Hollywood directors, Lumet’s array of works constitutes a definite milestone in American cinema history. Lumet was never fancy. He never needed to be, as a master of blocking, economic camera movements and framing that empowered the emotion of a scene.

A few gems from his enviable collection of works include such timeless masterpieces as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. His directing career stretched well over 50 years, from theater and live television to embracing digital video with his final film, 2007’s outstanding Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Across that time, Lumet was nominated for five Oscars including four for directing, but astonishingly, never won.

15. Billy Wilder

15. Billy Wilder
Image Source: The Independent

Probably the most suave and subject-oriented auteur from the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Austrian-born Billy Wilder is credited with having made some of the most influential movies in the period spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s. He found humor (or humanity) in the darkest foibles, a trait that got him into box office trouble with mean-spirited films like Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas as a cutthroat reporter, and Kiss Me, Stupid, with Ray Walston as a wily composer.

Some of Wilder’s most notable ventures include Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Despite his conservative directorial style, his subject matter often pushed the boundaries of mainstream entertainment. Wilder is also widely believed to have kick-started the careers of William Holden and Marilyn Monroe.

14. Steven Spielberg

14. Steven Spielberg
Image Source: Variety

He’s a mogul now, running a studio he co-owns, but under the surface lurks a 13-year-old kid making war movies in his backyard. As children, we were enamored by the magic of the universe with E.T: The Extra Terrestrial. As adolescents, we wanted to be the cool, nerdy Indiana Jones. As young adults, we couldn’t hold back our tears when we saw the burning red coat in Schindler’s List.

The “blockbuster” originated in 1976, when Spielberg’s Jaws packed a record number of moviegoers into theaters around the country. Ever since, studios have been scrambling to one up each other for bragging rights at the box office. Shunned and disparaged by film experts and intellectuals for being “artistically hollow” and financially successful, Spielberg is unarguably one of the few American filmmakers who have bridged the gap between commercial cinema and art.

13. George Cukor

13. George Cukor
Image Source: PBS

During a 50-year career that began in 1931, this former stage director made costume dramas, romantic comedies, musicals, melodramas, even a Western — and yet all are touched by the same cosmopolitan esprit. Cukor was not just at the helm for some great Hollywood films, but there is also a real consistency in his work both with the gorgeous Technicolor musicals of 2 of his top 3 films (My Fair Lady and A Star is Born) and the tremendous work with actors, particularly female actors.

Under his nurturing eye, actresses such as Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn gave some of their best performances — thus Cukor’s reputation as a “woman’s director” (also a backhanded reference to his homosexuality). Cukor was also known for his great patience in “handling” actors. He was revered by his performers, who described him as “a dream director” and “an actors’ director,” because of his great respect for acting.

12. Francis Ford Coppola

12. Francis Ford Coppola
Image Source: Vanity Fair

Arguably “The Godfather” of American cinema (much pun intended), Francis Ford Coppola was the catalyst which spurred on a revolution in American cinema in the ’70s and changed the course of cinematic expression. Of the triumphant California film school grads, Coppola is the only one who has followed his artistic impulses; Lucas has locked himself away with tech toys; Spielberg is too simple a genius to self-destruct.

He revolutionized the landscape of gangster films with his path-breaking The Godfather and Godfather II, adapting a decent Mario Puzo novel into a compelling analysis of the American Dream and its rickety foundations. An auteur with a keen understanding of the human condition, Coppola’s cinema is thematically opulent and philosophically obscure. And while the jury is still out on naming his finest work, no film has better personified his vision and flair quite the way Apocalypse Now has.

11. Federico Fellini

11. Federico Fellini
Image Source: Senses of Cinema

In a country marked by the documentary-like films of the neorealism directors, it could be considered ironic that Italy’s most famous director is one teeming with surrealism. Unlike other directors who dared to be different by executing a new kind of simplicity, the work of Fellini magnified and enlarged all that had been attempted in cinema before. Fellini’s brief stint with a circus and early work as a caricaturist and cartoonist certainly informed his playful style.

Fellini fell in love with spectacle for its own sake, with consequences wonderful (Amarcord) and dire (Casanova); still, in the ’60s he primed Americans for other Italian directors. Though many have tried to imitate his style, his vision is too large to duplicate.

10. D.W. Griffith

10. D.W. Griffith
Image Source: PBS

Widely known as the father of American cinema, D.W. Griffith is one of the most controversial figures in American cinema history. When we watch Hollywood’s latest blockbuster, we’re still seeing the visual language that Griffith developed in more than 480 movies and shorts between 1908-1925. Most renowned today for conceiving the racially charged yet technically ground-breaking historical drama Birth of a Nation, Griffith’s cinema has been instrumental in ushering in new and experimental film movements across the globe.

Though the controversy continues today (in 1999, the Directors Guild of America renamed the D.W. Griffith Award, their highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, citing that Griffith “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes”), there is no denying his impact on the industry.

9. David Lean

9. David Lean
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David Lean is not just a filmmaker; he is an institution. A person who could be considered the pioneer of the epic genre, Lean has been consistently ranked as one of the finest auteurs of all-time. Forbidden to go to the movies by his Quaker parents, the British director spun a secret passion into a career that went from English class staples (Oliver Twist) to exotic epics (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago).

Some critics have dismissed Lean as a technical whiz without a vision — but he had a true gift for placing introspective figures on expansive canvases. Some of his projects have had profound impacts on many future filmmakers; the prominent ones being Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Sergio Leone and Spike Lee.

8. Charlie Chaplin

8. Charlie Chaplin
Image Source: Variety

Unarguably one of the greatest comedians of all-time, Charlie Chaplin’s accomplishments as a cinematic genius and an auteur often take a backseat to his onscreen performances as an actor. In the transition from silent films to talking pictures, there were few survivors. Chaplin was an exception to the rule. As both an actor and director, he was one of Hollywood’s first superstars, drawing record number audiences to the theater—and bridging the gap that existed between entertainment for children and adults.

After years of being in the fringes of Hollywood as an actor, Chaplin the director made a phenomenal debut with The Kid, where he, along with the young Jackie Coogan as the kid, spun magic on screen in what is a masterclass of silent cinema.

7. John Huston

7. John Huston
Image Source: The Script Lab

In some ways, his legend was greater than his films. Huston fashioned himself as a Hollywood Hemingway: a cussing, hunting, artistic man’s man. Huston’s film career lasted at least 57 years. He started acting at the end of the 1920s, writing scripts in the beginning of the ’30s, and made his directorial debut in 1941 with the excellent “The Maltese Falcon” — a film that renewed the whole genre of detective films.

He was a painter, bullfighter, poet, gambler and filmmaker. He adored life and took risks. This can be seen in his films; no genre was impossible for him. The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, The Misfits, and The Man Who Would be King are just a few examples of his range.

6. Stanley Kubrick

6. Stanley Kubrick
Image Source: NME.com

A visionary whose cinematic imagination and ambition inspired a generation of filmmakers and cinephiles, spawning the term “Kubrickan”, no artist in the last century has influenced his craft quite the way Kubrick has. His 2001: A Space Odyssey, the science-fiction philosophical masterpiece, is easily one of the most important pieces of cinematic art ever conceived. Rather than have the audience watch an experience, Kubrick invited them to be part of it.

Audiences were horrified by the violence entrenching “their” city in A Clockwork Orange, experienced the psychosis of desolation in The Shining and tasted the appeal of adultery in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s films are not voyeuristic: they’re all-sensory adventures. It would not be a stretch to say that we have Kubrick to thank the most for shaping the course of cinema with his vision and wisdom.

5. Howard Hawks

5. Howard Hawks
Image Source: Famous People

In a time when the studios called the shots, Howard Hawks proved that you could still be successful even if you didn’t play by the rules. His hallmarks are more thematic than visual: men who adhere to an understated code of manliness; women who like to yank the rug from under those men’s feet. He proved to be one of the industry’s most versatile directors, genre-jumping throughout his career, almost always to great success.

Though he is often associated with the screwball comedy — with films like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday — Hawks was just as at home with film noir (The Big Sleep), westerns (Red River), gangster films (Scarface), war movies (Sergeant York) and literary adaptations (To Have and Have Not).

4. Martin Scorsese

4. Martin Scorsese
Image Source: Variety

Part of the “new Hollywood” generation that emerged in the 1970s, Martin Scorsese is at the forefront of contemporary cinema. Certainly one of the living masters, Scorsese is able to easily infuse a strong dose of reality into each installment of his work. Right from Taxi Driver up to his recent works like The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has managed to not only stay relevant but has also continued to push the cinematic boundaries.

He does not glorify violence, but he does beautify it. It would be hard to argue that the boxing scenes from Raging Bull aren’t some of the most exquisite caught on film. Whether immediately recognizable or not, it is the spirit of his films as much as the visual stimulation that appeals to audiences.

3. John Ford

3. John Ford
Image Source: Irish America Magazine

John Ford could truly be dubbed as one of the founding fathers of American cinema. He dabbled in both the Western and epic genres. Honest and straightforward in personality and technique, he was an all-American director who influenced a diverse slate of moviemakers from Martin Scorsese to Satyajit Ray. Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are considered great westerns, but his romance The Quiet Man, his adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and his documentaries The Battle of Midway and December 7thwere also widely revered.

Technically, Ford was the master of the long shot. His long, sweeping epics helped establish setting as a primary character. Alfred Hitchcock once said about Ford, “A John Ford film was a visual gratification.”

2. Orson Welles

2. Orson Welles
Image Source: Variety

Orson Welles changed the movies. Period. With one genius stroke, his first film, CITIZEN KANE, inaugurated a new depth — both visually and emotionally. He created a sprawling, epic masterpiece; a quasi-biopic of one of the most influential newsmen of the century, William Randolph Hearst, morphing him into what is today regarded as the greatest character ever portrayed on screen– Charles Foster Kane.

Unlike the innovators before him, the techniques employed by Welles and his team (including DP Gregg Toland) seem contemporary even by today’s standards. The film’s unique cinematography accomplished using a “deep focus” lens, created by Toland specifically for the film, reevaluated the impact a single image could have. Though a pariah in Hollywood for the larger part of his post- Kane career, Welles has continued to influence each new crop of moviemakers, regardless of genre.

1. Alfred Hitchcock

1. Alfred Hitchcock
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Alfred Hitchcock did not invent modern cinema, but for much of the past century he has defined it. The fact remains that his cinema has stood the test of time, and his innate understanding of the human psyche remains unparalleled. Known the world over as “the master of suspense”, Hitchcock consistently broke new grounds and revolutionized American filmmaking. While Hitchcock’s work certainly tended toward the thrilling, it was not as much his ability to keep audiences on the edge of their seats as it was to pull them out of their chairs that made him a legend.

Unarguably the most imitated motion picture artist of all-time, a slew of spine-tingling hits including Rebecca, Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest brought international acclaim to the London-born director, earning him the moniker “The Master of Suspense.”