Great film directors

Lists of great films are easy to compile if you don’t look too hard at what you mean by ‘great’. I looked around and found lots of lists. They all had two things in common. They were all different; and they were all different to my list. Typically they would consist of one third films I liked, one third ones I didn’t and one third films I’d never heard of. And as well they all grouped together films selected on different criteria, which was crazy. 

This list of great film directors was made using one criterion: the effect their films had on me. I considered only those directors who had made at least four films I liked, as a measure of their consistency of achievement. Subjective criteria, but all lists are subjective. Mine is pretty conservative, all recognised as important directors. Drama, fantasy, satire, comedy, social comment and documentary are represented. Limited to 21 names.

1 Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) possessed a rare ability to convey on film the most detailed portrayal of his characters’ emotional states. It’s hard for me not to get involved with his characters, as Ray portrays the complexity and intensity, as well as the ambiguity, we experience in real life, perhaps the only film maker with the ability to do so. Working with untrained young actors in many cases, Ray was scriptwriter, both director and drama coach, an accomplished cinematographer and on occasion set designer, editor, and a very great composer of film music. He also created the titles, being a celebrated designer and calligrapher. Best known for his three films on Apu (1955-9), from the famous novel Pather Panchali of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, one of the classics of Bengali literature, the first (Pather Panchali) gives an unforgettable picture of village life. The second, Aparajito, is an absorbing portrayal of a young man’s education and exploration of the world. The third, The World of Apu, is a deeply moving portrait of a marriage. Ray made over 30 films after the Apu trilogy. Although I love many of them, the two which have the deepest impact are Teen Kanya, made in 1961 and based on stories by Rabindranath Tagore, and Charulata, made in 1964 also from a Rabindranath Tagore story, Ray’s greatest film and one of the best ever made, a film I’ve seen so many times I almost know it by heart.
( or

2 Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks (1896-1977) was a Hollywood pioneer who managed to keep his independence during the heyday of the studio system, producing and directing (and sometimes scripting) the movies he wanted to make despite the power and influence of the studios. What resulted were films of exceptional style and finesse. Although he worked till the 60s, his best work was done early in his career. And though Hawks excelled in almost all genres, he made his mark with some of the finest comedies of the 30s and 40s. He began in 1934 with Twentieth Century, with great work from Carole Lombard and John Barrymore, the first of the so-called screwball comedies, itself influenced by his friend Victor Fleming’s 1931 film Bombshell, with Jean Harlow, which introduced the frantic overlapping dialogue Hawks was to make his own trademark. In 1938 came Bringing Up Baby, with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, and in 1940, His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, these last two I think among the finest comedies ever made, still hilarious, and relevant, after 70 years. Hawks was not done yet, and in 1946 made perhaps the finest film noir, The Big Sleep, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Hawks’ understated expertise in every facet of film making, avoidance of sentimentality, superb sense of pacing and atmosphere and rapport with actors make him among the very greatest of directors.

3 Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) became one of the most influential film and stage directors of the 20th century, but his films have suffered a reputation of being difficult intellectual exercises about symbolic abstractions. Nothing could be falser. Bergman, an accomplished writer and dramatist, had a remarkable ear for dialogue, and the services of an extremely talented repertory company of actors throughout his career. He extended the boundaries of cinema in many ways, mainly in his ability to project his personal obsessions and anxieties into absorbing, even riveting, chamber dramas featuring some of the most intense acting on film. Bergman took risks, and not all his films are worth watching, but his best are among cinema’s best. Starting with a crowd pleasing comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night, in 1955, Bergman achieved international acclaim in 1957 with the back to back release of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, films whose personal subject matter and experimental technique were hitherto unknown in mainstream cinema. This reached an extreme form in 1966’s Persona. A film about personal identity and also about cinema itself, and the degree the two approach what could be called reality, it is also one of the most hypnotic and absorbing films I have seen. These are some of Bergman films I love, and exemplify his paradox: films which are non cinematic have become the essence of film.

4 Krzysztof Kieslowski

Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) was a Polish documentary film maker who found government censorship restrictive in his native country, filmed abroad and became very celebrated for his last few films, though probably as restricted by the large budgets of these as he had been restricted by political censorship. He remained essentially a documentarian all his film career, moving from social issues to human emotions, as depicted in the last few frames of Camera Buff, where the possessor of a movie camera finally turns that camera away from his family and friends and begins to explore himself. Kieslowski has an almost unique ability to transform everyday life with a spiritual dimension which makes his films very moving to watch. I prefer his Polish films to those made at the end of his life such as Double Life of Venonique or the Three Colours trilogy. Kieslowski worked with a co-scripter, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and a composer, Zbigniew Preisner, whose influence on his work was immense. Camera Buff (1979), and Blind Chance (1981), were followed by The Dekalogue (1988), a series of 10 short films, and A Short Film about Love (1988), a feature enlarged from one of these. I can best describe these four, all favourite films of mine, as sublime. Of Dekalogue in particular I can say I saw the world in a different way after I watched it, and it continues to inspire me.

5 Louis Malle

Louis Malle (1932-1995) straddles two worlds, both a documentary film maker and writer and director of feature films; and both working and residing first in France, then later relocating and working, in English, in America. It’s hard to praise his films too much, and one of his best, Atlantic City, I had to exclude from this list. My favourite film of Malle’s, and his own favourite, is the documentary Phantom India of 1969, some footage of which was released as a feature called Calcutta. Malle, one of the great cinematographers, went on a freeform recording quest, with his fellow cameramen and other staff, and simply shot what they saw. They had no idea what they would find, and in fact the films were largely created in the editing process. The same method was applied to And the Pursuit of Happiness (1986), an examination of the immigration experience Malle was then going through in his own life. There’s a strong documentary feel to My Dinner with Andre of 1981, and also Vanya on 42nd Street, 1994, Malle’s last film. The first of these is simply a conversation between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, shown at dinner together in a restaurant. Totally unexpected, totally convincing. In Vanya, Gregory and Shawn direct and act in the Chekhov play, and the experience draws together in a sublime way Chekhov’s 19th century vision and the 20th century sensibilities of Gregory, Shawn and Malle.

6 Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini (1920-1993) was a caricaturist before he was a film maker, and he was one as a film maker too. Bizarre types, clowns and eccentrics populate Fellini’s films from first to last. He was obsessed by the mask, the persona, with which people deceive themselves and others, and when he discovered the ideas of Jung this gave an added dimension to his fascination. I find it easy to get lost in his world. La Strada (1954) contrasts Zampanò, a man whose machismo obscures his self awareness, with Gelsomina, a waif imprisoned in her childhood. Despite touches of melodrama the film has a shattering effect, thanks to two powerful performances from Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina. In 1955’s Il bidone Fellini follows another man fooled by his reputation as he gradually loses his confidence and that of his colleagues. Zampanò, and Augusto, played powerfully by Broderick Crawford, are both tragic clowns. In Satyricon (1969) Fellini follows another group of swindlers, in ancient Rome. Here his grotesques come to the fore, with a landscape that confuses dream and reality. In Casanova (1976) Fellini shows another man for whom the persona, the image shown to others, is more important than his real self. The later films are more visually splendid than the earlier ones: all four display the same dilemma and its effects on men whose distance from self knowledge makes them tragically funny.

7 Preston Sturges

Preston Sturges (1898-1959) went from being a highly paid dramatist to being a highly paid Hollywood scriptwriter before he started directing his own films, and for a while was one of the most popular auteurs in Hollywood, where the term was then unknown. His films redefined the screwball comedy. They were fast paced farces full of wit and brio that faced off his male and female leads in a scintillating battle of the sexes. Most of his best work was done in the early 40s, before studio interference destroyed the fragile balance of his magic. Christmas in July, made in 1940, mocked the advertising industry mercilessly, but also presented a touching romance. The Lady Eve of 1941 showed Barbara Stanwyck in two roles, and, as the Lady Eve, falling in love a second time with Henry Fonda, while he performed some of the best slapstick ever seen in the movies. Later that same year came Sullivan’s Travels, in which Joel McCrea learns how to really make a meaningful film, with a little help from Veronica Lake. And in 1942 came The Palm Beach Story, in which Claudette Colbert wants to divorce Joel McCrea because she loves him so much, and he keeps finding millionaires who want to give away money. These four films are among the most sophisticated and witty comedies ever made in Hollywood. Some mourn that he only made a few such works; I think how lucky we are he was able to make them at all.

8 Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) made 19 sound films, and, despite the switch to colour, seemed to be able to say more by doing less as he matured. He was concerned with exploring the delicate webs that map relationships and in his restrained way created exquisite pictures on screen filled with deep unexpressed feeling and wonderful beauty of composition. He established a rhythm and momentum of action and reaction between characters that enabled him to omit much detail, so involving the viewer in the unfolding of the story. In Banshun of 1949 a daughter devoted to her father leaves his house to marry. The change causes anguish to both. This is expressed without the slightest trace of sentimentality, and that restraint makes it one of the most moving films I have seen. Tokyo Story (1954) is a poignant look at the bonds and the gaps between the generations. In the perceptive selection of detail in five people’s lives Ozu expresses the meaning and limitation of being human in an unforgettable way. Equinox Flower (1958) also explores the differences that divide generations. In The End of Summer (1961) Ozu looks at what happens when the bonds of family are broken. It is his most beautiful film, yet interleaved with the sense of loss Ozu expresses is a salty humour truly enjoyable to watch. Ozu’s films recall a wonderful array of great actors such as Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, and Chieko Higashiyama.

9 Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) started as a novelist and never really stopped being one, as he used many of the devices of the novel in his films. But though he used conversation, which in a novel reveals character, in a Rohmer film conversation is used dramatically to reveal the gap between whom we think we are and our actual selves. Rohmer, with his home movie ambience, was far more of a revolutionary in cinema than his friend Jean-Luc Godard. I think 12 of his films are classics. My Night at Maud’s (1969) is part of a series called Six Moral Tales, which contrast reason and passion. A man who’s life is planned in every detail meets a woman who is the love of his life, and can’t accept it. In Chloe (or Love) in the Afternoon (1972), part of the same series, a woman who will not be bound by rules made by men tries to have an affair with a man who can only make room for romance at a specified time of the day. A second series, Comedies and Proverbs, included The Aviator’s Wife (1981), in which jealousy drives the aviator back to his wife but separates his mistress from the young man who really loves her. A third series called Four Seasons includes A Summer’s Tale (1996) in which a young singer is involved with three women, one of whom is the one he loves, and rejects them all. This is a cinema of immense charm and beauty, of colour in landscape and chiaroscuro in people’s feelings. I find it hard to resist it.

10 Coline Serreau

Coline Serreau (b. 1947) is a film maker who has moved from commercially viable romantic comedies to films with a more overtly political agenda, yet these later films merely emphasise feminist and environmental concerns that have always been expressed in her work. I found her documentary What Do They Want? (1978), a collection of interviews with female factory workers, with perhaps more than an influence by Kieslowski, quite absorbing. Her 1989 feature Romuald et Juliette, with great performances from Daniel Auteuil and Firmine Richard, is about a yogurt manufacturer who is victim of a corporate takeover, foiled with the help of his cleaning lady, mother of five children with five husbands, with whom he falls in love. This is a serious study of what relationships really are as well as being a very funny romantic comedy. La Crise (1992) features another great performance, from Vincent Lindon, and concerns a man who experiences a crisis, no, make that two crises, or three, who then finds everyone he turns to for help, or at least a sympathetic ear, has a crisis too. The moral is, crises are caused by lack of awareness of others. A very funny film, one of my favourites. Chaos, made in 2001, is an exciting thriller with an overtly political and feminist message, about an immigrant woman fleeing her male exploiters, and the effect her plight has on a French middle class family she encounters.


11 Frank Capra

Frank Capra (1897-1991) directed several romantic melodramas starring Barbara Stanwyck during the early 30s, many with risqué themes. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) I think the best of them, a realistic and convincing account of a physical attraction between a man and woman from different races meeting during a tumultuous civil war. It remains my favourite of his films. Capra remains known for his sagas of the common man who turns out to be not so common, as in Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), both with the wonderful Jean Arthur, who transformed virtually any film she starred in. You Can’t Take It With You (1938) is a Broadway play brought to the screen with Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, and Jean Arthur. Capra’s films are so well crafted and inspiring it’s still hard to resist them.

12 Akira Kurasawa

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) was revered by many other film directors for his mastery of the many skills of film making. His 1954 film Seven Samurai I think the greatest film ever made, an incredibly detailed character study, an accurate and striking depiction of the historical period of its setting, and still the most impressive action movie ever made. Kurosawa was much more than an action director, as Ikiru (1952) demonstrated. It’s also one of my favorite films, about a government clerk with a mission to do something meaningful before his death. Rashomon (1950) is a samurai film with a difference, as it tells the story of a crime as seen by several different observers and participants. Late in his career Kurosawa made the epic Ran (1985), beautiful, impressive, operatic, but for me less involving than his other work.

13 Lina Wertmuller

Lina Wertmuller (b. 1926) wrote and directed four extraordinary films starring Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. All looked at honesty in both politics and sexual relations, in a way that hilariously confused these areas. The Seduction of Mimi, or Mimi the Metalworker (1972) is about a man who tries to be honest in politics, and ends up pursued by members of his party as well as the Mafia. Love and Anarchy (1973) is about an anarchist who plans to kill Mussolini but falls in love. Tunin must decide which is the most important. In Swept Away (1974) role reversal finds an aristocratic woman marooned and submissive to her uneducated former deck hand. Is she happier? And in Seven Beauties (1975) a man survives at hideous cost to his self respect. Is it worth it? Profound questions asked with a smile. All films to cherish.

14 Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) was a director whose achievement was based on his partnership with scriptwriter Samson Raphaelson. Trouble in Paradise (1932) is much more than a romantic comedy, but it’s probably the best romantic comedy ever made, the closest thing to a fairy tale I’ve experienced since I was three years old. Angel (1937) deals with marital infidelity. Marlene Dietrich must choose between lover and husband when what she loves is love. Romance with a capital R, but so gently done even a man can watch it. In Heaven Can Wait (1943) the devil claims Don Ameche but has to let him go when he finds out all he has ever done in life is to love his wife. To Be or Not To Be (1942) starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Benny is better at Hitler than Hamlet and along the way there are some great moments of lunacy. All films with a touch of genius.

15 Shunji Iwai

Shunji Iwai (b. 1963) is a multi talented artist who works in the music, video and TV worlds as well as in film. His first successful film, Love Letter (1995) tells a complex story of two relationships with a man who has died, and the picture the two women have formed of him. Probably has the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen. April Story (1998) is a short film (just over an hour) about a girl’s first crush. Unbelievably sensitive and tender, and visually ravishing. Swallowtail (1996) is quite different, a lengthy, episodic story of survival in a post nuclear ruined city. Stars the charismatic Chara. All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) is an experimental treatment (it was written in chat rooms) of schoolchild isolation and tragedy which is quite powerful in its effect. Iwai has gone off in other directions since these films were made, but these are masterpieces.

16 Robert Altman

Robert Altman (1925-2006) had a career obstinately doing his own thing. He made some bad films, but at least four great ones. Nashville (1975), ostensibly about a political rally taking place in the country music capital, says more about America than even Sidney Lumet’s 1975 masterpiece Dog Day Afternoon. With 20 lead actors and multiple story lines, Nashville was a one of a kind masterpiece. Then, in 1993, Altman went back and rivalled it with Short Cuts, a series of Raymond Carver stories deftly interwoven so as to say more than the sum of its parts. Also worth noting is his Depression crime story Thieves Like Us (1974), with its black and white documentary feel, and his Raymond Chandler variation The Long Goodbye (1973), as unlike Chandler as can be, yet somehow in the spirit. Four great movies.

17 Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh (b. 1943) works with his actors to research and create their part, then encourages them to improvise. His films are thus all character studies, and his development has been to include more and more social background, and social criticism, in his work. Bleak Moments (1971), stars Anne Raitt, and is an intense study of the kind of loads people bear even in their conventional relationships. Abigail’s Party (1977) is actually Beverly’s party from hell. Beverly, played by Alison Steadman, is someone you wouldn’t want to know but probably do. High Hopes (1988) is a working class comedy of manners which laughs with the ideals of the downtrodden. Secrets and Lies (1996) exposes the turmoil beneath the respectable middle class family when a black woman tries to discover who her birth mother is. All Leigh’s films are fuelled by powerful acting.

18 Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969) was not only a great director but possibly the greatest of cinematographers. He is closely associated with Marlene Dietrich, whom he made famous in The Blue Angel (1930). His distinctive lighting and scene composition were matched by extravagant scripting which could descend to bathos.The best of his films with Dietrich were Morocco (1930) where she played opposite a magnetic Gary Cooper as a Foreign Legionnaire, Shanghai Express (1932), as a whore with a heart of gold, and the extravagant The Devil is a Woman (1935), probably von Sternberg’s greatest film. All four films create mystery and excitement by von Sternberg’s adroit manipulation of light and camera. Insubstantial on retrospect, but not so while the films are running. This is glamour, romance and all the things only cinema can create.

19 Kar Wai Wong

Kar-Wai Wong (b. 1958) is the master of the suggestive fragment. His films often give what look like shattered parts of a coherent story, and viewers find themselves wondering about the missing pieces. It’s a technique seen even in his early crime story, As Tears Go By (1988). By 1990, when Wong made Days of Being Wild, another component of his style was in evidence, a romanticism bordering on nostalgia. This reached its height with Chungking Express (1994), where the disjointed relationships depicted are recounted through a whimsically humourous narrative. In 2046, made in 2004, 2046 is a hotel room central to a range of events that make up the plot of the film. But 2046 is also a place where heartbreaks are healed, as there is never any betrayal, and lovers there are always true. A beautiful film that suggests far more than it tells.

20 Hal Hartley

Hal Hartley (b. 1959) I think of more as a writer than as a director, as his scripts are so original. His first film was The Unbelievable Truth (1988), which is a comedy about relationships and reputations whose deadpan humour hides much perception. In Trust (1990) two misfits learn to do just that. Surviving Desire (1991) looks at reasons why relationships end. Hartley sacrifices much realism in these three films, substituting formal dramatic structures from 18th century comedy and metaphysical concepts from Theatre of the Absurd. His skill as director, and that of his actors, make them curiously moving. In Amateur (1994) Hartley developed a more complex, though still Absurdist, story and added a component of melodrama (or, if you take events seriously, tragedy). Miles away from contemporary American cinema, and unerringly brilliant.

21 Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) is probably the most gifted American director of all time, a man of enormous intelligence who was as skilled as a photographer, a writer, an editor and a producer as he was as a director. His early Paths of Glory (1957) is the most effective recreation of the nightmare of trench warfare ever made, and the way his camera moves in that film adds enormously to the oppressive feel. Like the earlier film, A Clockwork Orange (1971) is designed to make you think, this time about urban violence and its origins. Brilliant set design and abrupt jump cuts add to the edgy horror conveyed. The lyrical and tragic Barry Lyndon of 1975, with its beautiful photography and slow pace, is profound. 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) I see as four almost perfect short films without enough coherence to make a feature length film.

What’s missing. They know how to make films in America, but it’s a business there. This means mainstream US films have to be crowd pleasers. They are too sentimental for my taste, so Coppola, Jackson, Anderson and Spielberg are missing from my list. The great films are now made by independent producers. I don’t like action films, nor horror, so directors like Hitchcock are missing or excluded by the four film rule. It would be a different list of course if I was just looking at great films.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s