Who are your top 10 film directors of all time? Filmmaking is all about telling a story and each person on this list was an all-time great screenwriter or an all-time great at selecting really good screenplays to work with.
Whenever a filmmaker makes such a large number of great films, you have to start considering them as one of the all-time greats. That’s exactly what Alfred Hitchcock did. I’ve never seen a Hitchcock film I didn’t really enjoy watching. The films he made that ended up being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director are Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Spellbound (1945), Lifeboat (1944) and Rebecca (1940). However many of his greatest films weren’t nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Films such as North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rope (1948) ‘North by Northwest’ is one of the great films of all time. The biggest component of a great film is always the screenplay and the story that it tells, however the mark of a great director is their ability to select a great screenplay to direct. Alfred Hitchcock did that many times over and ‘North by Northwest’ is a perfect example of that. Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay for that film and it was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award in 1960.
John Ford officially has won more Oscars as Best Director than any other person. If you don’t think he belongs on this list, look no further than his classic film ‘The Searchers’ from 1956. He was paired with one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, the three-time Academy Award winner Winton C. Hoch. This film is the epitome of telling a story visually and everyone should go watch it for no other reason than to see what John Ford and Winton C. Hoch made. Many of the films that made John Ford famous were all westerns, however, he made many more other kinds of films other than just westerns. The ones he either won or was nominated to an Academy Award for Best Director are The Quiet Man (1952), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Stagecoach (1939) and The Informer (1935). John Ford is one of the most talented and well-rounded directors we’ve ever seen. I suppose because his last film was released in 1966, we don’t give him enough credit whenever talking about the Steven Spielberg’s or Martin Scorsese’s of modern day. I promise if you watch his films, you will see why he deserves to be on this list.
If you’ve ever watched a film directed by Elia Kazan, then Marlon Brando probably comes to your mind. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954) are the three films they collaborated on. Brando had a reputation as being difficult to work with on set and most of the time he didn’t like or respect the director he was working with. That wasn’t the case with Elia Kazan and he makes note of that in his autobiography ‘Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me.’ Brando is arguably the greatest film actor we’ve ever seen and his opinion about Kazan matters a lot. However, even without Brando’s love of Kazan, we still have his films to look at and watch. On the Waterfront is one of the great films ever made and Kazan is probably the main driving force behind that. Yes the screenplay was outstanding and the cast, including Eva Marie Saint, was great, but the film taken as a whole was created by Elia Kazan and his vision. If that isn’t enough for you, he also made some other films such as Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), East of Eden (1955) and America America (1963), totaling 7 Academy Award nominations and 2 wins over 16 years.
Billy Wilder has a long list of achievements. He may have been even more talented as a screenwriter than as a director, but that doesn’t stop him from making a spot on this list. He came to the United States from Germany whenever Hitler came to power. Over years from 1940 to 1967 Billy Wilder was nominated to 21 Academy Awards and won 6 of them. His film ‘The Apartment’ from 1960 won him three of those Oscars for Best Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director. Billy Wilder did many things with ‘The Apartment.’ There were dynamics of sexism and commentary on the problems with capitalism. He included a cast of unique, impressive and memorable characters. In every line of dialogue, there was wit, humor, thoughtfulness, and realism. Most importantly, Billy Wilder’s ability to skillfully and seamlessly build this motion picture scene by scene into a masterpiece people are still talking about today, is incredible. He made other films too, and those combined with ‘The Apartment’ warrant him making the list.
Whenever ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ first came, I went and watch it at the theaters 3 separate times. I’ve also watched ‘The Departed’ a few too many times. Those are his two best films. A lot of people are big fans of ‘Raging Bull’ and while I think ‘The Departed’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ are much better films, ‘Raging Bull’ will always be considered one of the all-time great films. He made a lot of other good films including The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Goodfellas (1990), The Age of Innocence (1993), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011), among others. It’s sort of hard to compare him to the people ahead of him on this list because he is still going. He may one day rival Alfred Hitchcock.
Francis Ford Coppola
I suppose all I really need to say here is ‘The Godfather.’ I’m a big fan of Gene Hackman and one of his best performances was in a film released back in 1974 called ‘The Conversation,’ written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It’s another great film that will keep your attention and leave you feeling something after watching it. I suppose to just run down the list of what he’s made over the years, Patton (1970), The Godfather (1972), American Graffiti (1973), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Godfather: Part III (1990). It’s worth noting that Francis Ford Coppola was probably an even better screenwriter than director. However, as I pointed out in my review of Alfred Hitchcock, being a good director means picking the write screenplay and story at the onset. Whether the screenplay is written by the director or not, it says a lot about their ability as a director whenever they work with way above average screenplays.
Everything Steven Spielberg does is great. Look at the short list of all the films he’s done. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Color Purple (1985), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017).
If I had to pick one film to play on repeat in my living room, it would be Pulp Fiction. Possibly the greatest film ever made. Tarantino’s ability as a storyteller is really as good as it gets. I don’t want to shortchange him as a director, because he’s certainly one of the best, but he may be the best screenwriter I’ve had the chance to study and analyze. Go watch his films.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket.
Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, and The Elephant Man are all great films.