The best movie directors of all time — the idea of such a list sparks immediate debate. Rather than try to impose any sort of definitive or objective best directors list, consider this more of a celebration of the entire medium. Woefully underrepresented on this list are women. While women have been an integral part of the film industry since the beginning, the opportunity to direct was rarely given to them. That means that any list that covers the entirety of film history will be unfortunately one-sided. Thankfully, women have been making great strides in reversing this over the years and we’ve seen some truly masterful and inspiring work from the best female directors working today. We look forward to adjusting this list to include these filmmakers in the years to come.
Ida Lupino had a fascinating career. She began as a child actress in the '30s before co-founding an independent production company where you wrote, directed and produced her own films. Needless to say, this was basically unheard of in 1950s Hollywood.
Her films tackled taboo subjects and The Hitch-Hiker is regarded as one of the best Film Noirs of all time. She ended her decades-long career directing nearly 70 episodes of TV for shows including The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, and Gilligan's Island.
Before his landmark smash Parasite, Bong Joon Ho had been churning out minor masterpieces for years. Whether it's his haunting Memories of Murder, his exceptional monster movie, The Host, or his English-language breakout, Snowpiercer — this is a filmmaker to watch.
And then came his history-making and Oscar-winning parable about inequality, Parasite. Now more than just a foreign filmmaker wowing the art house crowd, Bong Joon Ho solidified his place among the greats.
We often think of watching movies as entering another world but few filmmakers facilitate that transportation more than Guillermo del Toro. He's a world-builder with razor sharp design and endless imagination. His first feature, Cronos, promised a unique cinematic vision and he's spent the last decades fulfilling that promise.
You know when people say a film "got under their skin"? David Cronenberg films seem to take this euphemism literally. For decades, he has given us nightmares and visions that operate on intellectual as well as visceral levels.
Perhaps best known for his "body horror" flicks like Shivers, Rabid and The Brood, Cronenberg's more recent output focus on more "legitimate" plots like the outstanding A History of Violence and the underrated Eastern Promises.
Sidney Lumet's career lasted for 50+ years and yielded countless classics. His first feature was 12 Angry Men, one of the most confident and powerful debuts ever, and he hit an insane streak in the '70s — Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network to name a few.
Lumet is a director's director. He cares about the craft, which is obvious whether you've read his seminal book "Making Movies" or not. Few directors have as much range or as much or as much love for the medium as Mr. Lumet did.
Woody Allen always wanted to be a serious artist. His career began at 16 writing jokes for Sid Caesar and his '60s-era stand-up routines are legendary. He started making comedies like Take the Money and Run and Bananas but his heart was always in heavier subjects.
Audiences didn't know what to think when Allen gave them bleak existential tomes like Interiors and September. Where Allen truly found his groove is the combination of the two modes in classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan.
Being the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director would be significant enough but her work before and after that win prove that she's got the goods.
Near Dark is one the best horror movies, Point Break is one of the best action movies, and those are simply where she started. Her war-time thrillers The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty aren't simply satisfied with the spectacle of war, they're after something much more.
Few directors are defined by their visual style more than Tim Burton. From the idyllic suburban landscapes to the macabre whimsy of his fantasy worlds, Burton melds these disparate styles with a deft hand.
His favorite protagonists are loners and outsiders — Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, even Batman. But for how dark and morbid some of his stories might be, they're not morose; there is an infectious joy that runs throughout.
If Terry Gilliam had stopped directing after his stint in Monty Python, we might assume his genius was dependent on the group. But, as we've seen for decades now, that was not the case. Gilliam takes risks in his work that are equal parts insane and magical.
Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus — there is an almost meta-thrill of watching an unhinged director making movies about unhinged characters. And we can't admire Gilliam more than for his undying dedication to getting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finished.
From his dialogue, production design, music, and tone — there is no mistaking a Wes Anderson movie. Whether Anderson's directing style is your cup o' tea or not, you can't deny his ability to inject his movies with style and personality.
The other surprising revelation about his work is just how complicated it is tonally. Despite the bright and optimistic hues in Anderson's color palette, his characters are rife with internal conflict, depression, and even suicidal tendencies. Only an artist with a firm grasp on their medium can balance these elements.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger will go down as one of the best director teams in history. While Powell was directing before and after his partnership with Pressburger, they worked best as a team. Working in England, they were fiercely independent and created The Archers, their own production company.
Highlights from their indelible career including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. As many British filmmakers ended up emigrating to Hollywood, Powell and Pressburger were able to stay and help establish the entire British film industry.
Before the Hollywood studios really got going, women directed quite a lot. Lois Weber is considered the preeminent female director working in and outside the studio system. Weber directed hundreds of shorts and features during her career, including a short called Suspense that would give Hitchcock a run for his money.
On top of all that, Weber founded her own production company and continued to crank out exceptional work for decades after.
William Friedkin is a bit of a chameleon and you'd be hard-pressed to identify much of signature directing style. Some directors you can easily put a finger on, and others like Friedkin you can't.
For example, consider the fact that he followed up one of the best crime films, The French Connection, with perhaps the greatest horror film of all time, The Exorcist. The former won Best Picture and Best Director (among others), the latter earned nominations in the same two categories (among others). Granted, his most recent work hasn't caught the same amount of buzz but he's still got it. Watch Bug and you'll see what I'm talking about.
If there's one word to describe Darren Aronofsky's directing style, it would be "uncompromising." His feature debut was a monochrome nightmare called Pi. His follow-up? Requiem for a Dream, one of the most bleak and spiritually exhausting anti-drug PSAs you'll ever watch.
Aronfsky's best movies are anchored by unyielding and tragic anti-heroes, driven to self-destruction by their obsessions. Another impressive thing to consider about his filmography is his ability to oscillate between lo-fi 16mm (Black Swan, The Wrestler) and the lush and beautiful (The Fountain, Noah).
Spike Lee is a singular voice in American cinema. He's an auteur director who wrestles with tough social issues with a sure hand and a clear point of view. Music videos, documentaries, short films and features — Lee has left his mark in many forms over the last four decades.
You won't find many Pedro Almodóvar movies playing at the mall cineplex. His status on the international circuit and his reign in Spanish cinema, however, is legendary. Almodóvar's point of view is ever present and wholly his own, seeming to capture essential human drama with his pen and his camera.
If you're unfamiliar with Almodóvar's work, here's a quick playlist to start with. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver, The Skin I Live In, and Pain and Glory. Watch those, come back, and tell me I'm wrong.
Many people really dislike Lars von Trier and his work. It's an acquired taste to say the very least but there's no denying his love of cinema nor his willingness to destroy it from within. The man and his work defines controversial but if you can stomach the atrocities there is a clear vision.
As a co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement, von Trier revels in experimentation. Whether it's a musical shot on video (Dancer in the Dark), a social drama with imaginary sets (Dogville), or letting a computer operate the camera (The Boss of It All).
Abbas Kiarostami was a huge part of the second Iranian New Wave. His poetic and non-traditional filmmaking style was a huge influence on his contemporaries. Consider the beautiful sadness found in the Palme d'Or-winning Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy or Like Someone in Love.
But if there's one film Kiarostami will forever be known for, it's Close-up. The film blurs the lines between reality and fiction in fascinating and heartbreaking ways. Sight & Sound named Close-up one of the 50 greatest movies ever made, as it should be.
The films of Brian De Palma are edgy — not just in their subject matter but in their presentation as well. In other words, it's difficult to passively consume a Brian De Palma film. It is an engaging activity that often explores the dark and sometimes taboo part of the human experience.
His Hitchcockian influence is clearly seen in Sisters, Dressed to Kill and Body Double, but De Palma's filmography is much more nuanced than that. Other highlights include The Untouchables, Blow Out, Mission: Impossible, and one of the best Stephen King adaptations, Carrie.
Along with his contemporaries Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu have brought Mexican cinema front and center on the international stage.
By now, you're probably familiar with his work like Birdman and The Revenant, in which he won back-to-back Best Director awards. But that's just what he's done lately. If you want more of his visceral, challenging and thrilling work, check out Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and the grossly underrated Biutiful.
The Father of Indian Cinema, Satyajit Ray created powerful and human cinema. Like his Italian Neorealism contemporaries, Ray worked with minimal budgets, inexperienced crew and non-actors.
It's his Apu Trilogy that Ray is most known for — Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar, three films that became seminal works in film history. But Ray's career was just getting started and he went on to make equally masterful films over the next 40 years.
Like many other picks on this list, Scott's ability to work in various movie genres and styles makes him nearly unstoppable. He's had his bombs like every other director but when your filmography boasts Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and The Martian, a few speed bumps isn't enough to derail him completely.
Working in France at the dawn of cinema, Alice Guy-Blaché was one of the first filmmakers period. Over the next few years, she moved to America with her husband, founded a movie studio and proceeded to direct hundreds of films over the next couple decades.
Most of her work has been lost over time but what remains isn't just novelty. Guy-Blaché was just as instrumental in laying the groundwork for the cinematic medium as anyone.
During the '30s and '40s, Frank Capra dominated Hollywood filmmaking. An Italian immigrant, Capra embodied the American Dream and extolled its virtues throughout his work. And when WWII came, Capra contributed by directing films for the War Department. He was nominated for Best Director 6 times and won half of them.
It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life — classics that hold up to this day.
D.W. Griffith gets a lot of credit for shaping film language that we know and recognize today. He wasn't the first director to use a close-up, for example, but he did solidify how to use them for maximum effect.
Griffith directed dozens and dozens of films in his career but Birth of a Nation is his most familiar work. For all its achievements, the film also has some objectionable racial stereotypes. It's unfortunate that such a landmark film from a technical standpoint also has such a stain. Later films like Intolerance and Broken Blossoms would attempt to address and apologize for these transgressions but with little success.
The films of Terrence Malick are poetic in every sense of the word. His fragmented and collage-style films have pushed film language into the beautiful and personal.
Malick came out swinging with Badlands and Days of Heaven as his first two features. Then...he disappeared for 20 years. The Thin Red Line marked his return and he's been busy since then with breathtaking films like The New World, The Tree of Life and To The Wonder.
Joel and Ethan Coen make a different film every time out and yet there is certainly a Coen-esque style to their work. Bouncing between comedy and violence without blinking, the Brothers Coen have amassed a staggering filmography.
They've made their career out of dark comedies like Barton Fink, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man. How a film like No Country for Old Men could emerge from the same minds that conjured Raising Arizona, we'll never know.
Fritz Lang had two careers — one in Germany and a second in Hollywood. His best work, arguably, came in the '20s and '30s while working in Germany, including Metropolis, M, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. He fled Germany when Hitler came to power.
Working in Hollywood for the next 40 years, we have solid entries like Fury, Scarlet Street, and The Big Heat.
On Sight & Sound's 100 Greatest Films of All Time, Andrei Tarkovsky has three of his films represented — Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and Stalker. Tarkovsky is one of Russia's preeminent movie directors and even though his filmography is quite a bit shorter than many others on this list, what he did in those few films is more than enough.
Solaris, Nostalgia, and The Sacrifice are just as impressive. The best directors don't just accept the "rules" of the medium, they push, pull, stretch and break those rules. Watching a Tarkovsky movie is like watching the laws of physics change right in front of your eyes.
David Lean made BIG movies — in their length but also in their scope and depth. We toss the word "epic" around a lot but it was David Lean that truly defined epic cinema.
He began with more grounded melodramas like Brief Encounter and Oliver Twist before breaking out with sweeping landscapes like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India.
You won't find a more varied filmography than Alfonso Cuarón's. He switches between genres, industries and demographics with unnatural ease, making his mark on each at every turn.
His children's films include A Little Princess and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which many HP fans consider a highlight in the series. But he also takes on character-driven dramas (Y Tu Mamá También), dystopian thrillers (Children of Men), sci-fi survival stories (Gravity), and a love letter to his childhood in Mexico City (Roma).
His career is most filmed with acting gigs but John Cassavetes became an exceptional movie director in his own right. Cassavetes is often credited with ushering in a new wave of independent filmmaking.
You'll find gritty, handheld works like Shadows and Faces alongside devastating domestic dramas like Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz. And if you want to see one of the most heartbreaking performances by an actress, check out Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, which doesn't so much appear to be directed as it does captured.
Roman Polanski's first feature, Knife in the Water, is a taut thriller and a stunning debut. He would continue in this mode again with unsettling deftness in Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, and The Tenant.
Polanski's greatest works are Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, two films that became pillars in their respective genres. He doesn't overplay his hand in Rosemary's Baby as he manages to ride that fine line between sanity and insanity. Chinatown is Film Noir throwback that hits all the right notes. Despite his rather troubling personal life, Polanski brought extreme talent with him to Hollywood.
Billy Wilder managed to work within the studio system and still give his films a distinct perspective and personality. It helped that he was a writer as well but no matter what the subject matter, Billy Wilder delivered consistently.
We can't think of Film Noir with his Double Indemnity, his haunting meta-drama Sunset Blvd. exposed a dark heart at the center of fame, and his cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot is near perfection. Don't forget his dramas that were unusually frank and bleak like The Lost Weekend and The Apartment.
Since he broke out with Memento, Christopher Nolan has carved out a place for himself all his own. He works with high budgets and high concepts — and he's just getting started.
Nolan's directing style combines strong visuals in his shot lists with highly sophisticated themes — like his use of "circles as motifs." He is also very transparent in his quotes and interviews about his process. For many reasons, Nolan has already established himself as one of the best directors and chances are good that his status will remain intact.
F. W. Murnau was yet another German immigrant to Hollywood, exchanging the dramatic flare of German Expressionism for slightly more optimistic studio films.
First there's Nosferatu, the progenitor of the vampire movies. The Last Laugh is a crushing tragedy about a man losing everything. Faust is a morality tale that's just as terrifying as anything in Nosferatu. And, perhaps his crowning achievement, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans shared the very first Best Picture award. For many, myself included, Sunrise is the pinnacle of silent filmmaking.
A defining characteristic of David Fincher's directing style is his attention to detail. Everything we see on-screen is calculated, as is his camera movement and editing. He specializes in crime thrillers like Se7en and Zodiac with an occasional detour into straightforward dramas like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Social Network.
If if the subject matter isn't your thing, what's truly inspiring to watch Fincher's work is to know that he is in complete control of his medium. Like a master conductor leading a 100-piece orchestra through a pitch perfect symphony, David Fincher crafts cinematic gold.
While Hollywood spent decades trying to perfect "invisible filmmaking," Jean-Luc Godard made it his personal mission to blow it all up. Like the Russians of the '20s using Soviet Montage for propaganda, Godard used his medium to shake things up. For him, "film as entertainment" is not just boring, it's offensive.
At the forefront of the French New Wave movement, Godard started rewriting the film language dictionary. His outstanding works include Breathless, Contempt, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou and Weekend.
If you've read his book on transcendental meditation, you know that David Lynch likes to "catch" his ideas somewhere in the depths of his subconscious. Watching his films, it becomes immediately clear that this is entirely accurate.
What Lynch shows us are dreams, dark and inexplicable. Eraserhead is a puzzle, Blue Velvet is a suburban nightmare, and Lost Highway is a doppelgänger mystery to end them all. The third season of Twin Peaks is nearly 18 hours of daring and exhilarating television. But his crowning achievement will probably end up being Mulholland Dr., which has topped many Best of the Decade polls.
The cinema of Yasujiro Ozu is defined by stillness. Both his camera and characters are often immobile, and this gives his films (and the audience) the chance to reflect and look inward. While other filmmakers tend to impose a perspective onto their work, Ozu lets you do the heavy lifting and we're better off for it.
Even from the titles, you can anticipate the mood, themes and pacing. Floating Weeds, Late Spring, Equinox Flower — see what I mean? But his most revered work is Tokyo Story, a heartbreaking family drama about generation gaps, modernity, and how families grow apart.
When Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, it was a blessing and a curse. At the time of release, the film wasn't immediately embraced as the greatest film ever made — that would come later. Directing movies after that became an uphill battle for Welles. Studio interference forced him to basically go independent and he spent the next 3 decades finishing as many films as he left abandoned.
Before he changed the game with The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola was making low-budget "B" movies. And then he just kept making masterpieces. Naturally, there was The Godfather: Part II and The Godfather: Part III, one of those is better than the other.
Outside the post-war Neorealism movement, there is no Italian cinema without Federico Fellini. To describe is work, the first adjective that comes to mind is "magical." Not like rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic, it's more a feeling you get after watching a movie like Juliet of the Spirits or La Strada and can't help but feel there's more to life than we can see.
La Dolce Vita is a celebration of adulthood, I Vitteloni is a celebration of youth, and 8 1/2 is a celebration of the creative process — even when it tears the artist apart.
Paul Thomas Anderson's directing style took a quantum leap forward after Punch-Drunk Love. Prior to that, his work is kinetic and frenetic with protagonists buzzing with emotions. Then he made a film called There Will Be Blood and everything since has focused that same amount of energy and power inward.
The Master is masterclass in acting and Phantom Thread is a character study that is as demanding as it's lead, Reynolds Woodcock. And Inherent Vice is an acquired taste, its genius is only revealed upon subsequent viewings.
His first couple of films don't really allude to the level of artistry that has defined Denis Villeneuve's subsequent work. On one hand, it's been thrilling to see each of his films get better than the last. On the other hand, no one can keep up this batting average forever. At some point, Denis Villeneuve will make a bad movie but it hasn't happened yet.
When you realize that Charlie Chaplin himself was an orphan living on the street, his Tramp persona becomes that much more tragic. We all love underdogs and the Tramp must be crowned King of the Underdogs. Without dialogue, Chaplin was able to communicate the entire range of human emotions.
You can't watch The Kid without balling, you can't watch City Lights without rekindling your sense of romance, and you can't watch The Great Dictator without promising to fight the good fight.
Sergei Eisenstein turned cinema into a weapon. Along with the other Soviet filmmakers, their experiments revealed what moving pictures can do. The unleashed the power that cinema has to move people politically as much as emotionally.
Strike is an unflinching portrayal of working class conflict. October (Ten Days that Shook the World) manifested an entire revolution on screen. And, of course, as you've probably seen in every film history class, the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin will forever go down as the greatest example of film editing.
If you look on John Ford's IMDb page, you'll see he has 147 directing credits...and MANY of those are feature length. Sure, Ford was a fixture in the Hollywood Studio System that would allow for such extensive output. And there are plenty of other directors from that era with just as many credits but far less masterpieces.
Here's a quick highlight reel of John Ford's best: Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Is he a philosopher or a movie director? Or, and this is the correct answer, is he both? If a primary pursuit of the philosopher is to uncover the meaning of life, then Ingmar Bergman's cinematic pursuit is the same. The trick that Bergman pulled off in so many films is to pose the big questions but leave the answers up to us.
Here's just a sample of Bergman's existential explorations: Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, and Persona — a film everyone should watch in their lifetime.
One of the criteria for this list was cultural impact and Quentin Tarantino has been something like an atomic bomb in pop culture. As Hollywood's biggest fanboy, he has made a career out putting that cinephilia right back onto the screen. When an artist puts this amount of personal joy into their work, it can be nothing short of infectious.
If rumors are true, we'll only get one more Quentin Tarantino film before his self-imposed retirement. No matter what that swan song looks like, Tarantino has cemented his place in the pantheon of the best directors.
What can we say about Martin Scorsese that we all don't already recognize? He is a master movie director of the highest order and he's just as much of a movie fan as the rest of us. What people should maybe remember is that Scorsese doesn't just make phenomenal gangster movies — he's actually got quite a bit of range. We all know Scorsese's best movies, so let's use this opportunity to recognize his lesser works.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is an excellent character-driven domestic drama. The Color of Money is about as exciting as a billiards movie can be. And who could forget the synchronicity of Nicolas Cage losing his mind in Bringing Out the Dead?
Steven Spielberg has been directing for over 50 years and shows no signs of stopping. Looking at his career, it's not just the sheer number of movies he's directed (30+), it's the amount of greatness on that list.
Let's also recognize his range of subjects and genres. Children's films, war films, science fiction, fantasy adventures, and espionage thrillers. Spielberg has also mastered blocking and staging, turning simple conversations into dynamic moments and, in general, turning words on a page into cinematic art.
You don't have to understand Japanese culture or be a scholar of the country's Sengoku period to appreciate what Akira Kurosawa's work means. The point is Kurosawa took stories that are extremely specific and made them globally relevant. His stories took common themes from his own culture but also Shakespeare and found a message that resonated around the world.
Of all the filmmakers on this list, perhaps no one had as much global impact on filmmaking than Mr. Kurosawa. From his samurai epics like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai to his modern dramas like Ikiru and The Bad Sleep Well, there is something we can all take away from his work.
There's a scene in Hitchcock, the biography starring Anthony Hopkins, where Alfred Hitchcock stands outside a packed theater as an audience watches Psycho for the first time. And when the infamous shower scene unfolds and the cacophony of screams erupts, Hitchcock emphatically waves his arms back and forth like an orchestral conductor.
This is exactly what Hitchcock set out to do — play the audience like an orchestra. He knew exactly what notes to play, when to play them, and when to keep us waiting for them. You don't earn the moniker "Master of Suspense" by accident and that's because perhaps more than any other director, Hitchcock knows his audience. This is an artist so confident in his abilities that most of energy went into planning a film and actually shooting it was obligatory and boring.
So, here we are. Why is Stanley Kubrick the best movie director of all time? Well, we don't have 3 hours to explain everything so here's a brief argument for this decision. If we can agree on the qualities that great directors must have, Kubrick simply checks all of the boxes.
He has a point of view that he uses his medium to express. There is an obvious command of the tools necessary to manifest these films. Kubrick's fascination with cameras and lenses, along with his background in photography, makes his composition, framing, and lighting second to none.
If you want escapism from your entertainment, Kubrick will take you there. Perhaps you're looking for a moral message or a reflection of our own world — Stanley's got you covered. Maybe you want to laugh at the absurdity of human behavior? Look no further.
In 13 films over 46 years, Stanley Kubrick perfected the art of cinema.
How to become a director
Are you a filmmaker trying to get your project off the ground? In the next article, we'll go through the process of how to become a director. From getting work on on sets to directing short films and working the festival circuit. There is no singular path to becoming a movie director but there are things you've got to do first. Come along and we'll explain it all.