Academy Awards for Best Director - Featured Image

The Academy Award for Best Director is the most prestigious honor any director can receive — well, at least in theory it is. You may be shocked to find out that many of “the greatest directors of all-time,” like Alfred Hitchock, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini never won the award. Of all of the Academy Awards, the Best Director category probably has the greatest discrepancy between its winners and its retrospective, critical consensus. No matter though, we’re going to list all of the Academy Award Best Director winners, then we’ll rank some of their best wins.

Best Director Academy Award Winners

A list of Oscar winning film directors

No director appears twice on this list, nor are the rankings indicative of the overall quality of the film. We judged the direction based on acting performances, visual style, blocking and staging, and camera framing — as well as other directing techniques. The directors were also ranked solely for their work on the particular film for which they received the award. With that note out of the way, let’s review the list of Academy Award winning directors!

  • 2019: Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)
  • 2018: Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
  • 2017: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)
  • 2016: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
  • 2015: Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant)
  • 2014: Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
  • 2013: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
  • 2012: Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
  • 2011: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
  • 2010: Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech)
  • 2009: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
  • 2008: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
  • 2007: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen (No Country for Old Men)
  • 2006: Martin Scorsese (The Departed)
  • 2005: Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)
  • 2004: Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby)
  • 2003: Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King)
  • 2002: Roman Polanski (The Pianist)
  • 2001: Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind)
  • 2000: Steven Soderbergh (Traffic)
  • 1999: Sam Mendes (American Beauty)
  • 1998: Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan)
  • 1997: James Cameron (Titanic)
  • 1996: Anthony Minghella (The English Patient)
  • 1995: Mel Gibson (Braveheart)
  • 1994: Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump)
  • 1993: Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List)
  • 1992: Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven)
  • 1991: Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs)
  • 1990: Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves)
  • 1989: Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July)
  • 1988: Barry Levinson (Rain Man)
  • 1987: Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor)
  • 1986: Oliver Stone (Platoon)
  • 1985: Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa)
  • 1984: Milos Forman (Amadeus)
  • 1983: James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment)
  • 1982: Richard Attenborough (Gandhi)
  • 1981: Warren Beatty (Reds)
  • 1980: Robert Redford (Ordinary People)
  • 1979: Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer)
  • 1978: Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter)
  • 1977: Woody Allen (Annie Hall)
  • 1976: John G. Avildsen (Rocky)
  • 1975: Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
  • 1974: Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Part II)
  • 1973: George Roy Hill (The Sting)
  • 1972: Bob Fosse (Cabaret)
  • 1971: William Friedkin (The French Connection)
  • 1970: Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton)
  • 1969: John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy)
  • 1968: Carol Reed (Oliver!)
  • 1967: Mike Nichols (The Graduate)
  • 1966: Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons)
  • 1965: Robert Wise (The Sound of Music)
  • 1964: George Cukor (My Fair Lady)
  • 1963: Tony Richardson (Tom Jones)
  • 1962: David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia)
  • 1961: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins (West Side Story)
  • 1960: Billy Wilder (The Apartment)
  • 1959: William Wyler (Ben-Hur)
  • 1958: Vincente Minnelli (Gigi)
  • 1957: David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai)
  • 1956: George Stevens (Giant)
  • 1955: Delbert Mann (Marty)
  • 1954: Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront)
  • 1953: Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity)
  • 1952: John Ford (The Quiet Man)
  • 1951: George Stevens (A Place in the Sun)
  • 1950: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve)
  • 1949: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives)
  • 1948: John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
  • 1947: Elia Kazan (Gentleman’s Agreement)
  • 1946: William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives)
  • 1945: Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend)
  • 1944: Leo McCarey (Going My Way)
  • 1943: Michael Curtiz (Casablanca)
  • 1942: William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver)
  • 1941: John Ford (How Green Was My Valley)
  • 1940: John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath)
  • 1939: Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind)
  • 1938: Frank Capra (You Can’t Take It with You)
  • 1937: Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth)
  • 1936: Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)
  • 1935: John Ford (The Informer)
  • 1934: Frank Capra (It Happened One Night)
  • 1932-33: Frank Lloyd (Cavalcade)
  • 1931-32: Frank Borzage (Bad Girl)
  • 1930-31: Norman Taurog (Skippy)
  • 1929-30: Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front)
  • 1928-29: Frank Lloyd (The Divine Lady)
  • 1927-28 (drama): Frank Borzage (7th Heaven)
  • 1927-28 (comedy): Lewis Milestone (Two Arabian Knights)

Now that we’ve reviewed the official Best Director Oscar list, let’s jump into the rankings!

Best Director Oscar Winners

20. The Coen Brothers

The Coen Brothers Win Best Director

The Coen Brothers only win for Best Director for No Country for Old Men will forever be overshadowed by those who consider it part of an all-time Oscar snub. If you’re unfamiliar with the 2008 Oscar winners, a lot of people think that one of the other Best Director Oscar nominees, Paul Thomas Anderson, should have won the Academy Award for Best Director. But alas, the award went to the always-critically-lauded Coen Brothers. This next video explores why many people consider No Country for Old Men an iconic example of a Neo-Western.

Neo-Westerns Explained  •  Subscribe on YouTube

It’s not like The Coen Brothers direction in No Country for Old Men was bad though — quite the contrary actually, it’s widely considered one of the best directed films of the 21st century.

Academy Award Best Director Female Winner

19. Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow Wins Best Director

With The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. To this day, she remains the only woman to have won the award. Bigelow’s movies, like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Point Break, have a very distinct visual feel — and they commonly use quick-cuts to create a sense of chaos.

Kathryn Bigelow: Directorial Trademarks

The Hurt Locker cleaned up at the Academy Awards in 2010, winning six Oscars and receiving three additional nominations.

Best Film Directors

18. Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho Wins the Academy Award for Best Director

Bong Joon-ho is somebody that many would call a “director’s director.” Joon-ho has received endless praise from other directors, tracing all the way back to his first film Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000. Quentin Tarantino called Bong’s films The Host and Memories of Murder masterpieces and compared him to Steven Spielberg.

Bong Joon-ho’s Mastery of Genre and Tone  •  Subscribe on YouTube

But despite all of the praise Joon-ho received from other directors, he never received a nomination at the Academy Awards — that is until 2020, when he won Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Parasite. I’d venture to say that his screenplay win was a bit of a stretch, but he absolutely deserved the win for direction.

Best Directors of All Time

17. Frank Capra

Frank Capra Wins Three Oscars

If you ask anybody who grew up on ‘30s and ‘40s films who their favorite director is, they’ll probably say Frank Capra. When we look back at the early years of cinema, we tend to remember silent films, pre-code films, and the Golden Age — but in a retrospective sense, Capra tends to get lost in the shuffle.

It Happened One Night: Defining the Screwball Comedy

Capra won the Academy Award for Best Director three times in the span of five years, for It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and You Can’t Take it With You. Without a doubt, It Happened One Night was his best win.

Academy Award for Best Director, Ranked

16. Woody Allen

Woody Allen on Winning Best Director

Woody Allen famously didn’t show up to win his only Academy Award for Best Director because he was too busy playing clarinet in a jazz club. Most critics consider Allen a writer first, actor second, and director third — but it’s hard to argue against his talent in any of those fields.

In many of Woody Allen’s best movies, we see him play the parts of writer, actor and director. Watch him control all aspects of filmmaking in Annie Hall below:

Annie Hall Clip

Allen has been nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Director six times since the release of Annie Hall, but has yet to land that ever-elusive 2nd victory.

Oscar Winners Directors List

15. Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes Wins Best Director

Sam Mendes has had the benefit of working with some great cinematographers over the years, like Conrad L. Hall on Road to Perdition and American Beauty, as well as Roger Deakins on 1917.

Mendes and Hall Breakdown ‘Beauty’ Storyboards

When I think of Mendes’ movies, I think of visually rich stories — and American Beauty is no exception. The visuals in American Beauty are always bold and often intoxicating, but they aren’t the only thing that make Mendes’ direction great — he also directed Kevin Spacey to a Best Lead Actor win.

Academy Award for Best Director

14. William Wyler

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives was an enormously influential film on cinema and American culture. Director William Wyler absolutely deserves credit for steering The Best Years of Our Lives through tumultuous waters to its release less than a year after the end of WWII.

William Wyler won the Academy Award for Best Director three times, for Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Ben-Hur.

Best Director Oscars Winners

13. John Ford

The Grapes of Wrath Critics Pick

John Ford is the man who has won the most Academy Awards for Best Director. Ironically, he didn’t win for the two films that most critics consider his best; Stagecoach and The Searchers, but rather How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, The Informer, and The Grapes of Wrath.

Ford’s cinematic adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath certainly isn’t far behind his two more iconic works in terms of quality. Critic A.O. Scott hit the nail on the head in the video above, saying that Ford’s direction in the film seems inspired by German Expressionism with its absolutely stunning chiaroscuro lighting.

Oscar Winning Directors by Year

12. Michael Cimino

Michael Cimino Wins Best Director

I suppose it’s not fair to call anybody a one-hit wonder, but if it were going to be said about any filmmaker, it would most aptly apply to Michael Cimino. Critics were calling Cimino an auteur director after his work on The Deer Hunter, and studios were vying to get him to make their next film. It’s not hard to see why — look at how Cimino captures the frenetic action of a pivotal scene below:

‘The Deer Hunter’ Clip

However, Cimino’s next film Heaven’s Gate was so panned by critics that many credit its failure as the end of New Hollywood. Still, there’s no denying that Cimino’s direction for The Deer Hunter was genuinely a masterclass in drama, trauma, and tragedy.

Best Director Academy Award Winners

11. Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols Wins Best Director

If somebody asked you to drop a pin on when New Hollywood began, you could look up The Graduate’s premiere date and put it there. Director Mike Nichols stormed onto the cinema scene in the late-'60s releasing back-to-back juggernauts in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate.

Why The Graduate is so Timeless

Nichols' direction for The Graduate was promiscuous, daring, and socially risque. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director three times in addition to his win for The Graduate.

Oscar Nominated Directors and Winners

9. Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski Wins Best Director

How do we separate the person from the art? This is a question that has plagued historians and critics for thousands of years. In cinema, there is perhaps nobody who brings this question to mind more than Roman Polanski — who is somebody that we can say is a filmmaker of incomparable talent, but a man of irrefutable controversy.

Polanski pleaded guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” in 1977, and fled the United States in fear of imprisonment. However, many in Hollywood have come to his defense, and you can see in the video above that Martin Scorsese and Meryl Streep were among those who gave his Oscar win a standing ovation. This next clip shows some behind the scenes material from the shoot of The Pianist.

The Pianist  •  Behind the Scenes

I can’t speak to Polanski’s guilt on alleged crimes, but I can say this: his direction in the 2002 film The Pianist is masterclass.

Best Directors of All Time

8. Elia Kazan

Eliza Kazan Wins Best Director

Elia Kazan was a director who almost always got great performances from his actors. He directed Jo Van Fleet to an Oscar win in East of Eden, Vivian Leigh to an Oscar win in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Anthony Quinn to an Oscar win in Viva Zapata!

Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront may be most famous for Brando’s performance but it would’ve never been as iconic as it is if not for Kazan’s steady direction. Need a reminder? Check out Brando in this next clip and pay attention to the amazing lighting.

On the Waterfront Clip

Best Film Directors

7. Milos Forman

Milos Forman Wins Best Director

Milos Forman beat out some tough, tough competition in Federico Fellini (Amarcord), Stanley Kubrick (Barry Lyndon), Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon), and Robert Altman (Nashville) in 1976 to win the Academy Award for Best Director.

Hidden Meaning in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

The direction in all of those films were so good that they probably would’ve ranked on this last had they won. But alas, it was Forman who took the top honor, winning his first of two Best Director Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — the second was for Amadeus.

Oscar Winning Directors by Year

6. Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson Wins Best Director

Watching Peter Jackson win the Academy Award for Best Director has me dreaming of better days. It’s easy to forget how singularly talented Jackson is. Before there were billion dollar superhero movies dominating the box-office every year, there were franchises like The Lord of the Rings.

Elijah Wood on Peter Jackson’s Directing Style in ‘Lord of the Rings’

Jackson’s direction in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is incredible. It’s unbelievable how great the production design and hair and makeup looked in those films, especially considering how abysmal they looked in the Hobbit films. I think most, myself included, would like to see Jackson direct his next feature with no CGI.

Who Won Best Director 2015?

5. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

Birdman  •  Video Essay

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) turned out to be a big hit with the Academy in 2015, winning four awards including Best Director for Alejandro Iñárritu. I went back and forth between putting The Revenant or Birdman here — both are tremendously well-directed movies, and both earned Iñárritu Oscars.

Ultimately, I decided to go with Birdman because I think its direction does a great job of not drawing attention to itself. It’s not just beautifully shot (it doesn't hurt to have one of the best cinematographers, Emmanuel Lubezki, on your team), it’s also beautifully structured. Iñárritu always wanted to shoot the movie to appear as if it was one-take and his bold vision for the film’s structure paid dividends in the final cut.

Best Director Academy Award Winners

4. Michael Curtiz

What’s So Great About Casablanca?

The road to Casablanca’s three Oscar wins wasn’t easy. Casablanca went through an arduous casting process, multiple delays, and numerous re-writes before it became the film that many consider to be one of the greatest of all-time.

The Casablanca script may be one of the best ever written, and there are great performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but Michael Curtiz’s direction was excellent as well. Curtiz was nominated for four Best Director Oscars before his only win for Casablanca.

Oscar Winners Directors List Top 3

3. David Lean

David Lean Wins Best Director

Lawrence of Arabia won pretty much every technical Oscar at the 1963 Academy Awards so it should come as no surprise that David Lean won for directing. David Lean was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director five times and won twice, for Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Check out this next video to see one of Lean’s most iconic techniques, the scene transition.

David Lean’s Signature Scene Transitions

Many contemporary directors, like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, cite Lean’s works as some of their greatest influences.

Best Director Nominees and Winners

2. Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola Wins Best Director

Someway, somehow, Francis Ford Coppola didn’t win Best Director for his work on the original The Godfather. Can you guess who won that year? I bet you can’t — it was Bob Fosse for Cabaret. Ford Coppola wasn’t the only Godfather legend to get snubbed by Cabaret. That same year, Al Pacino lost Best Supporting Actor to Joel Grey. Watch this next video to see how Ford Coppola directed “power” in the original Godfather.

How to Direct Power  •  Subscribe on YouTube

One could say that all was made right when Ford Coppola won Best Director for The Godfather: Part II — a film which we consider one of the greatest gangster movies of all-time.

Best Directors of All Time

1. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg Academy Award for Best Director

Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award win for Schindler’s List is maybe the most deserved award ever given. There have been a lot of Holocaust films over the years, but Schindler’s List is by far and away the best.

Steven Spielberg Reflects on ‘Schindler’s List’ 25 Years After Release

Who knows how good Schindler’s List would’ve been in another director's hands. Would they have shot in black and white? Would they have gotten John Williams to compose the score? Would they have found an actor like Liam Neeson to play the title role? To those questions, I’ll say this: we’ll never know — but I’m thankful for Spielberg’s careful direction in telling such an important story.

Up Next

Best female directors working today

Female directors haven’t won as many Oscars as their male counterparts, but that says far less about the quality of their work than it does the nature of Hollywood and the Academy. There are so many great female directors working today; like Greta Gerwig, Patty Jenkins and Sofia Coppola to name a few. In this next article, we break down some of the best female directors working in cinema today.

Up Next: Best Female Directors →

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