Top 50 Directors
Before I get to the list, I want to make a quick list of directors who might (or might not) end up being on a future list of this sort once I have a better chance to get acquainted with them. (I've seen most of them to some degree, but not enough to know whether they belong on my list, though I like them.) Some of you might yell at me for not being fully acquainted yet, but it's better than being yelled at for forgetting them entirely. They are: Robert Altman, Michael Apted, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, John Carpenter, Federico Fellini, John Ford, Jean-Luc Godard, George Roy Hill, Akira Kurosawa, Sam Peckinpah, Andrei Tarkovsky, Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles, Wim Winders, and Franco Zeffirelli.
I also might have included the following if they'd made more movies for me to evaluate: Liam Lynch, Gaspar Noé, and Caveh Zahedi.
1. David Lynch -- Lynch has been my favorite for twenty years. I love everything he's done, and Fire Walk With Me is my favorite movie of all time. Other favorites among favorites are Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. Lynch movies work on me almost exactly like dreams do. He's a modern myth-maker.
2. Werner Herzog -- Everything Herzog does is unusual: not meaning "odd" or "weird," but meaning "not usual." He'll never show you something ordinary, whether it's fiction, nonfiction, or a blend of both (which is usually the case). My favorites among his tons of excellent films include Fata Morgana, Aguirre the Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek, Fitzcarraldo, and Rescue Dawn.
3. Paul Thomas Anderson -- This young man has done no wrong. He has made five perfect pictures, all different from each other: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood. Werner Herzog beat P.T. on this list only because of Herzog's volume.
4. Lars Von Trier -- Lars Von Trier gets rid of the things I hate about movies: obvious directing, obvious acting, obvious stories, obvious moral lessons, anything obvious. The monkey wrenches he throws into his own work make them great. There are no bad ones yet. My favorites among favorites include Epidemic, Breaking the Waves, Dogville, The Five Obstructions, and Manderlay.
5. Stanley Kubrick -- Hard to believe that Kubrick is this "low" on the list, which only demonstrates how much I like the guys above. His movies really know how to make your eyes happy and nervous at the same time. 2001: A Space Odyssey is my second-favorite movie of all time, and I've liked everything from Lolita forward (and some of his older stuff too).
6. Joel and Ethan Coen -- They scared me for a while with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, but they seem to have gotten back to making excellent movies again: great blends of old-fashioned genre movies and contemporary smartness. My very favorites are Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Man Who Wasn't There.
7. Errol Morris -- The greatest documentary maker. You'll never see slow zoom-ins of black and white photographs and voice-overs in his stuff. These are real movies and they're all great. My very favorites are Vernon Florida, The Thin Blue Line, and A Brief History of Time.
8. Quentin Tarantino -- Tarantino translates crappy genre movies that I hate into movies that I love. It's almost like he's showing us his love for those old dumb movies through his eyes. His only misstep so far has been Death Proof, but everything else has been perfect. My very favorites are Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill Vol. 1.
9. Steven Spielberg -- Spielberg found a way to combine art and personal vision with commerce. You get your money's worth out of him. He's made a few less-than movies (1941, The Color Purple, Munich), but even those are appealing to some (if not me) and most of his movies are either good or excellent. My personal favorites are Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Hook, Schindler's List, and the Indiana Jones movies.
10. Peter Jackson -- I'm not a huge fan of his early gross-out movies (though some of them are okay), but he first made an excellent movie with Heavenly Creatures and then outdid any expectations with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, creating the most perfect book-to-movie transition imaginable. And it looks like they haven't ruined him for future good movies like Star Wars did for Lucas.
11. John Patrick Shanley -- Primarily a playwright and screenwriter, Shanley has directed only two movies -- his script Joe Versus the Volcano in 1990 and his play/screenplay Doubt in 2008 -- but they are both fantastic. Joe has a devoted cult following, and I am among them.
12. Frank Capra -- This is the first director on this list whose movies I haven't seen all of, but I seem to have seen the major ones. It's a Wonderful Life is my third favorite movie of all time, and my other favorites by Capra include Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. Capra's movies are equal parts depressing and feel-good, socialism at its best. He creates worlds that seem like they've always existed.
13. Walt Disney -- I'm not sure whether to consider Walt Disney a director or not, but I figure he's a director of directors, which makes him a super-director. (I considered giving credit here to some of those directors he directed, but it took up tons of space.) Movies with Disney's name are among the worst movies being made today, but the movies made while he was alive were among the best and most magical. My favorite feature-lengths are Fantasia and Bambi.
14. Sam Raimi -- Raimi has some average and even bad movies (Crimewave, For Love of the Game, The Gift), but most of his work is filled with his signature energy and sadistic fun. The best of those include A Simple Plan, Drag Me To Hell, and of course the Evil Dead series.
15. George Lucas -- Lucas makes my list in spite of himself. Though he has driven away his fans in an attempt at a form of perfection that no one wants, it remains that George Lucas has made two of the most spectacular trilogies in movie history: children's adventure films created at the highest level. Let's just hope now that he's finished (fingers crossed) with the Star Wars saga he can move on to something completely different. I'm thinking a realistic indie drama.
16. Paul Morrissey -- Unfortunately, I haven't been able to see all of Morrissey's films; they're just not widely available. Some of the later stuff I've seen isn't great, but the earliest movies he made for Andy Warhol are one of a kind. My favorite two are Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula. I also really like the Flesh / Trash / Heat trilogy. Morrissey makes movies about decadent lifestyles, making fun of them in a refreshing and hilarious way that's also often sweet.
17. Jim Jarmusch -- Jarmusch's trick of slamming cultures together in America while filming them in a slow French New Wave style seems to almost always work. These movies make you feel cool. My two favorites are Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law.
18. David Wain -- Only three movies under his belt so far, but they are among the funniest movies I've seen, especially the first two, Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten. These movies begin funny and become more and more absurd and surreal as they go.
19. Mike Judge -- A smart guy who has built his career on a hatred of stupidity and the mundane, a dead-on observer of the human race. I've loved or really liked all of his movies so far: Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Office Space, and Idiocracy.
20. Trey Parker -- Whether working in television or in movies, Trey Parker (and his partner Matt Stone) are always hilarious and among today's best satirists. In addition to the South Park movie, I also love Team America: World Police and their first movie, Cannibal! The Musical.
21. Woody Allen -- Woody Allen writes and directs about a movie a year and he's been doing this for over forty years, so he's got over forty movies. I haven't seen them all, and I haven't even seen some of the bigger ones (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters), but I have seen most. Since he shoots so many movies, they can get repetitive and annoying, especially if you don't space them out for yourself. Many are very good (my favorites being Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Crimes and Misdemeanors), most are okay, and some just suck (Alice, Anything Else, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). The great ones make the bad ones worth it.
22. Robert Zemeckis -- There are still two I haven't seen (Used Cars and Death Becomes Her). Zemeckis doesn't always make perfect movies, but they're at least always screwed up in interesting ways, like Forrest Gump or Cast Away. My favorites are Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Back to the Future trilogy. For the past five years (and counting) he's made nothing but motion-capture cartoons (I liked Beowulf); I hope he gets back to real people soon.
23. John Hughes -- I still haven't seen Curly Sue or She's Having a Baby and I'm not looking forward to them, but I wasn't looking forward to Uncle Buck either and it ended up surprising me. Hughes's first four movies were funny and often affecting movies about teens. My favorites were Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Weird Science.
24. Edgar Wright -- Only two movies to his name so far (and one great TV series and very funny fake trailer for Grindhouse), but they are perfect genre send-ups that are equal parts parody and tribute: Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. A young director with a lot of British energy.
25. Krzysztof Kieślowski -- I haven't seen a lot of his movies yet, but the goodness of his Three Colors trilogy (Blue was my favorite) as well as The Decalogue was enough to put him this high on the list, and I've liked the others that I've seen. One day I hope to be able to spell his first name without looking it up.
26. Bill Melendez -- An animator for Disney and Warners before moving on to what he became most known for: directing Charlie Brown cartoons. (He was also the voice of Snoopy.) Peanuts is my favorite comic strip, and the animated incarnations are about the best anyone could have hoped for. My favorites (from both TV and the theatricals) are A Charlie Brown Christmas, It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, and A Boy Named Charlie Brown. All of them (the TV specials especially) aren't perfect, but they're all charming. I haven't seen many of them (and there are many).
27. Robert Rodriguez -- Rodriguez has an annoying habit of making kids movies (Spy Kids 3-D was abominable) and some of his movies aren't that great, but he has a good sense of fun and knows how to make an entertaining exploitation movie. My favorites are From Dusk Till Dawn and Sin City.
28. Jody Hill -- A new director of dark, interesting, and hilarious comedies. His two movies so far, The Foot Fist Way and Observe and Report, are well ahead of most contemporary comedies.
29. Ross McElwee -- I haven't seen all of his documentaries yet (many of them are just now becoming available), but I have seen the big ones (Sherman's March, Time Indefinite, Six O'Clock News, and Bright Leaves) and they are all unique movies with a definite McElwee voice, more about himself than the things he pretends to be documenting. Watching them in order is like watching one long movie of this man's life.
30. John Waters -- John Waters' movies are sometimes too goofy to be something I completely get into, but I love his personality and how it comes through in the films. My favorites are the earlier ones, before he cleaned up his act somewhat and went into a slicker form of kitsch. My very favorite is Pink Flamingoes. Female Trouble is almost as good.
31. Joss Whedon -- He's only directed one theatrical movie (Serenity, which was excellent), but his TV stuff (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) proves that this guy knows what he's doing, since he makes better television than most people (who have all the money in the world to do so) make movies.
32. Billy Wilder -- I simply need to watch more Billy Wilder movies. He might be further up if I had, since everything I've seen so far is great. He makes movies that will probably always be classics (because they're classy), creating great little worlds. My favorite is Sunset Boulevard.
33. David Zucker -- This guy has certainly gone downhill in his old age (witness An American Carol for someone who's now completely off his nut), but he -- along with his brother Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams -- invented a brand new kind of comedy with movies like Airplane! and The Naked Gun (my two favorites). Unfortunately, this new kind of comedy has become watered down and too-easy (especially when copied by others) and now deserves parody itself.
34. Alfred Hitchcock -- Perhaps Hitchcock is too "cold" for me to be any higher on the list (all those meticulous story boards), but I've liked almost everything I've seen my him (and I haven't seen the majority of them). He's a good button-pusher. My favorites are The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Psycho, and The Birds.
35. Christopher Guest -- I still haven't seen some of his earlier movies, but I mostly think of Christopher Guest the director as the mockumentary guy, so those seem to be the ones that count. He always gathers a really funny cast who are as good at improvising as he is. My favorites are Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind.
36. Dario Argento -- I'm just now getting into this Italian horror director; I've seen about half his movies. So far it seems that his early stuff is colorful, dreamy, seeped in myth and fairy tale, and interesting to the eye and ear (even if not always making sense, just as dreams don't). His later stuff seems like some other bland director who forgot about all that stuff. My favorites are Suspiria and Phenomena.
37. Milos Forman -- I haven't seen nearly everything yet, but he's made many exceptional movies, especially Amadeus. He always seems to care about his subjects, especially when it's a biography like Man on the Moon or The People vs. Larry Flint.
38. Tom Green -- He made one movie, Freddy Got Fingered, but it's easily in my top five comedy movies. It's pretty much what I think comedy should be: over-the-top, bloody, psychological, artistic, surprising, smart-n-stupid combined, and somehow a parody of itself. Unfortunately, Tom Green's window was shut too soon (or he shut it himself), but I'll always remember this movie as part of his golden age.
39. Tim Burton -- I haven't much liked anything Tim Burton has done in the past fifteen years (and I downright hate Mars Attacks!, Big Fish, and Planet of the Apes). He's become predictable and bland. But in his early days, his style (borrowing from greater artists and squishing them together in a nice commercial way) was funny. My two favorites are Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Ed Wood.
40. George A. Romero -- Primarily for his zombie movies (except the horrible Diary of the Dead) because I haven't gotten around to much else. Romero almost always uses these now iconic monsters to point out the horrors of humanity more than just making a ghoul film. My favorite is Dawn of the Dead.
41. Adam McKay -- Basically McKay allows funny people to be funny in his movies, shooting with a combination of slick production and a loose aesthetic. He keeps the movies relatively tight and fun to watch. My favorites are Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers.
42. Danny Boyle -- I haven't seen all of Danny Boyle's movies (in fact, I haven't even seen his most famous one, Slumdog Millionaire), but all of them are interesting and somewhat different, if not always great or perfect. (They also always seem to be not quite what you expect from the promotion of them.) My favorites are 28 Days Later and the made-for-BBC movie Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise.
43. Francis Ford Coppola -- Although I've liked him for years, I haven't gotten around to watching most of his movies (I think stuff like Jack and Peggy Sue Got Married turned me off), but he makes the list on the power of the Godfather movies alone (even part three) as well as his messy masterpiece Apocalypse Now. I also tend to like a lot of the scattered things I have seen.
44. Ron Howard -- Little Opie usually makes a good solid movie that's going to entertain you for a night and have just enough smarts to make you feel like you're not wasting your time. I wish we had more popular directors like this who are more or less reliable. (Even though he is capable of making an abomination like Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.) I haven't seen them all, but my favorites are Willow and Apollo 13.
45. Albert and David Maysles -- I've only seen three of these so far (Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens), but they're all among my favorite documentaries. I prefer Errol Morris' theatrics, but their semi lack of intrusion is also great to watch.
46. John Landis -- I haven't seen all of these, but Landis makes pretty good comedies that stand the test of time and even seem to represent certain periods of life pretty strongly. My favorites are The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Coming To America.
47. Sidney Lumet -- He's made so many that I haven't gotten around to most. Of the ones I've seen, Lumet has a style that seems to vary from picture to picture, so he's a bit unpredictable. My favorites are 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe, and especially Network.
48. Edward D. Wood, Jr. -- What's a Top 50 Directors list without Ed Wood? Here's my response to those who say he's the worst director of all time: then why are we talking about him? Wouldn't the worst director be someone we ignore completely? He certainly made B-movies, but he makes the ones we pay attention to. Glen or Glenda? is remarkable.
49. Neil LaBute -- This guy isn't perfect, but his movies are at least notable even if not excellent. His commentary on the evil that men do is always smart and fun. In the Company of Men is my favorite (and for the record, I liked his remake of The Wicker Man).
50. Richard Linklater -- This guy certainly ain't perfect, but he always tries, even when making horrible things like Waking Life. My favorites are Before Sunrise (I also liked the sequel) and School of Rock.
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