50 Sam Fuller
Forged in the frontlines of crime reporting and war, Sam Fuller was a cigar-chomping attention-grabber who thrived on human extremes. Sent a 16mm camera by his mother, his first film was footage of the Falkenau concentration camp in 1945. Postwar, his singular movies hinged on embattled emotions, slam-bang stylisations and spiky material – communism, madness, racism, war. “Ballsy yarns,” he’d say. Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss and Pickup On South Street knew no affiliations, though: Fuller preferred the “smell of something real”, trailblazing for mavericks to come.
Picture perfect The Big Red One. Surviving during wartime.
49 Mike Leigh
“I defy anyone to walk away from any of my films and say exactly what the message is. I’m far more concerned that you come away reflecting on the way we live.” Firmly ensconced as a national treasure, Leigh’s extensive use of rehearsal and improvisation to sculpt his mordant explorations of working-class life have produced some of this country’s most insightful ensemble dramas. Recent films Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake have revealed a refreshing willingness to explore beyond the confines of contemporary Britain.
Picture perfect Naked. Truth in the raw.
48 Fritz Lang
“The director,” said Lang, “is the one who keeps things together.” A half- Jewish Viennese perfectionist who fled Germany in the ’30s, Lang’s reputation for on-set tyranny made it tough for him to work in Hollywood. But his films thrived on his stringency, playing as tight, ground-breaking pulp cinema. If Metropolis, Dr Mabuse and M pre-empted dystopic sci-fi, Nazism, horror and noir, so You Only Live Once foresaw Bonnie And Clyde and Rancho Notorious made westerns adult. He was a rare breed: a philosophical filmmaker and visionary entertainer.
Picture perfect M. Serial-killer scares as social prophesy.
47 Krzysztof Kieslowski
Kieslowski’s death in 1996 aged 55 robbed world cinema of one of its most luminous talents. The Polish director was responsible for both the 10-part Dekalog (based on the Ten Commandments) and the Three Colours trilogy. “You make films to give people something, to transport them somewhere,” he once said. Kieslowski’s supreme talent was his ability to use the formal components – editing, music, colour, lighting, depth-of-focus – to make the ordinary seem extraordinary.
Picture perfect Three Colours: Red. Desire and destiny.
46 Alexander Payne
“There is an audience out there for literate films,” claims Alexander Payne. “Slower, more observant, more human films. They deserve to be made.” And Payne – his work influenced by the ’70s cinema of Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby – is trying to make them, starting with the brave Citizen Ruth (taking on both sides in the abortion debate) before hitting his stride with the magnificent Election. And while the gentle About Schmidt garnered buzz for Nicholson’s low-key turn, it was Sideways that revealed a filmmaker at the top of his game.
Picture perfect Sideways. Poignant, warm and funny.
45 Werner Herzog
“The patron saint of cinematic eccentricity” was how US critic Janet Maslin once described German New Wave helmer Werner Herzog. His visionary, unique films confirm it: midgets in Even Dwarfs Started Small, a dancing chicken in Stroszek, a hypnotised cast in Heart Of Glass, Klaus Kinski raving in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Even his documentaries are impossible fictions: “I’ve always been after the deeper truth, the ecstatic truth and I will always defend that, as long as there’s breath in me”.
Picture perfect Aguirre, Wrath Of God. Jungle fever.
44 François Truffaut
Out of the fertile film journal Cahiers du Cinema sprang many critics-turned-directors but none more admired than the Hitchcock-idolising François Truffaut. “Film lovers are sick people,” he observed, all the while feeding the disease: he kicked off the French New Wave in 1959 with The 400 Blows, made arthouse smash Jules Et Jim and Oscar-winning satire Day For Night. Spielberg adored him, casting him as the child-like Lacombe in Close Encounters. He later slid into bourgeois respectability, but his influence remains beyond doubt.
Picture perfect The 400 Blows. A resounding cri de coeur.
43 Preston Sturges
The triple threat
A fiercely independent writer/ producer/director who maintained his idiosyncratic voice at the height of the studio system, Sturges created more comic masterpieces in five years (The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek, The Palm Beach Story, Hail The Conquering Hero) than most manage in a lifetime. He couldn’t sustain that energy, but wasn’t concerned: “When the last dime is gone,” he said in 1957, “I’ll sit on the curb with a notebook and start again.”
Picture perfect Sullivan’s Travels. A true canvas of the suffering of humanity. With a little sex.
42 Frank Capra
The American dreamer
Frank Capra’s work is often lazily dismissed as an ode to soppy feelgood Americana. But the director himself was always more concerned with kicking at the rotting planks of America’s white picket fences. His best films – Mr Smith Goes To Washington, It’s A Wonderful Life – see the “unusually usual” (Capra’s description) James Stewart waging seemingly doomed wars against himself as much as the corruption confronting him. “I thought drama was when the actors cried,” said Capra. “But drama is when the audience cries.”
Picture perfect Dark, light, sad, happy... It’s A Wonderful Life just shades it over rom-com It Happened One Night.
41 Ang Lee
Always the shy misfit (Taiwanborn, American educated), Ang Lee’s fascination with other cultures was spawned by The Wedding Banquet’s critical love-in – a sign for Lee that compelling human stories are universal. Almost old-fashioned in their elegant craftsmanship, his films show uncanny insight into worlds as opposite as Jane Austen’s England (Sense And Sensibility) and ’70s American suburbia (The Ice Storm). “The more foreign a story is, the happier I am and the more creative,” says Lee.
Picture perfect The Ice Storm. Lost and found in suburbia.
40 David Lean
Experiences as an editor, clapperboard assistant and tea-boy ensured Lean knew every aspect of filmmaking by the time he stepped behind a camera for In Which We Serve; whether they also fostered the authoritarian streak that irked so many of his collaborators is open to debate. (“Actors can be a terrible bore on the set,” he once said, “though I enjoy having dinner with them.”) His prickly personality went hand-in-hand with a mastery of his craft as evident in his adaps of Dickens and Coward and in those later grandiloquent epics.
Picture perfect Lawrence Of Arabia. Genius in 70mm.
39 Ridley Scott
From art school to Hovis commercials, Ridley Scott was honing his acute visual sense early, but his gong-collecting ad career made him a late bloomer: debut The Duellists came at the age of 39. He followed it with a mind-blowing pair of sci-fi landmarks: Alien and Blade Runner. Little wonder he hasn’t consistently matched that level, but when he’s on form – Gladiator, Thelma & Louise – he distils cinematic ambition and crowd-pleasing diversion. “When something good is happening on a movie, you can sense it,” says Sir Scott.
Picture perfect Blade Runner. Cyberpunk future vision.
38 James Cameron
“What people call obsession, for me is just a work ethic,” says the guy whose self-confessed “gonzo intensity” earned him the nickname ‘Iron Jim’. Behind the macho bluster lies a fondness for take-charge females (Rose, Ripley, Sarah Connor). Technology is another preoccupation, as is water, the Ontario-born action man making his inauspicious debut with Piranha II after building sets for Roger Corman. Ironically, he’s gone on to make some of the priciest pics ever; but every cent’s on the screen in True Lies, Titanic and T2.
Picture perfect The Terminator. Low-budget, high-impact tech-noir.
37 Sergio Leone
The man with no reins
Leone worked on Ben-Hur’s chariot dash before directing his own sword-and-sandal flicks. Making spaghetti out of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo with A Fistful Of Dollars, he brought the oater a new star (Eastwood). “He gave back to American directors the confidence that a western can be a great,” says Bernardo Bertolucci, co-story-devisor on Once Upon A Time In The West, his penultimate project before Once Upon A Time In America capped a career of CinemaScope-sized vision.
Picture perfect Once Upon A Time In The West. The west was won…
36 Roman Polanski
The poison dwarf
“For as far back as I can remember, the line between fantasy and reality has been blurred,” wrote the diminutive Polanski, who escaped occupied Poland as a child and later won an Oscar for his Holocaust drama The Pianist. Twisted ’60s thrillers like Knife In The Water and Repulsion gave way to Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. But in between, his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was killed by the Manson gang. He later fled America after being convicted of statutory rape, a scandal that eclipsed his fortunes until The Pianist.
Picture perfect Chinatown. Goodbye happy endings.
35 Rob Reiner
Carl Reiner’s son began as a sitcom actor before becoming a director; small wonder he’s been such an intuitive facilitator of feel-good comedy (The Sure Thing, When Harry Met Sally). His defining strength, though, is his affinity with writers, collaborations with Stephen King (Stand By Me, Misery), William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Misery again) and Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President) producing entertaining hits. “I make films that try to be honest about human behaviour,” he says.
Picture perfect This Is Spinal Tap. 11 out of 10.
34 Carol Reed
The Greene man
In the mid-to-late ’40s, former actor Carol Reed directed three of the era’s finest films: dying Republican gunman-on-the-run drama Odd Man Out, child’s-eye view of adult betrayal The Fallen Idol and Vienna-set thriller The Third Man. These monochrome works offer proof that Reed, aptly described by one critic as a “humane pessimist”, was a canny director of actors, a skilful collaborator with writers (notably Graham Greene) and a master of atmospherics. He was also an unpretentious crowdpleaser: Oliver!, anyone?
Picture perfect The Third Man. Flushing out Awesome Orson…
33 Yasujiro Ozu
The old master
Late Spring, Early Summer, Toyko Twilight, Floating Weeds, An Autumn Afternoon… Watch one, watch them all. And marvel as the quietest giant of world cinema blindsides you with a left-hook to the heart every time. Delicately contemplating the tiny domestic tragedies that make up life, Ozu’s is a cinema of distillation: no jagged cuts and tracks, just a serenely still camera watching pure feeling trickle free. Amid the lairy chatter and blare of 21st-century movies, the unique Japanese legend seems to whisper ever louder.
Picture perfect Toyko Story. The old movie that never gets old.
32 Christopher Nolan
“As a filmmaker you spend a couple of years crafting a piece that will play with audience expectations, lead them in certain directions and then pull the rug from under them,” says Nolan. “Hopefully in an entertaining way...” The London-born 37-yearold was raised both here and in America, his upbringing perhaps a clue to the mixture of smarts and showmanship he brings to his movies. He studied English and his signature time-shifts and story jumps survived into blockbuster form with Batman Begins.
Picture perfect Memento. Memories are made of this.
31 Terrence Malick
Rumour has it Terrence Malick is prepping an adap of The Catcher In The Rye; highly apt given that the Waco-born one-time philosopher could be the most reclusive genius since JD Salinger. “He speaks through his work,” says Sissy Spacek, star of Malick’s debut Badlands, where the auteur aimed for a “dreamy quality” that’s become his signature. Yes, his four films in 32 years make Kubrick look like Corman, but Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World are lush experiences, with a poet’s ear for language and a painter’s eye for nature.
Picture perfect Badlands. Once upon a time in the Midwest...
30 Luis Buñuel
The cheekiest, funniest and most imaginative of all cinema’s master directors. Anarchist provocateur Luis Buñuel’s mad, surrealist debut Un Chien Andalou (1929) ignited six decades of sex, violence and satire. And the Spaniard’s attacks on the unholy trinity of bourgeois repression, religious hypocrisy and patriarchal excess never let up. From Los Olvidados to Belle De Jour, his films are unique, comical and quietly appalling. “In a world as badly made as ours,” notes Bunuel, “there’s only one road: rebellion.”
Picture perfect That Obscure Object Of Desire. Going out with a bang.
29 Jean-Pierre Melville
According to Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the giants of post-war French cinema, “Nothing matters except my profession and therefore my work”. When he died aged 55, he left behind 13 moody films, including a trilogy of Resistance dramas and a series of minimalist policiers (Le Doulos, Le Samouraï, Le Cercle Rouge). The latter drew on star actors (Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo) and the iconography of classic Hollywood gangster movies to present a series of matchless set-pieces and a vision of masculinity.
Picture perfect Army Of The Shadows. Haunting epic.
28 Michael Mann
The ice man
“A 65ft screen and 500 people reacting to the movie,” shrugs Michael Mann. “There’s nothing like that experience.” At the end of the ’80s, Mann’s love of cinema looked to be unrequited. Miami Vice gave him telly success, but The Keep, Thief and Manhunter marked him out as a cult filmmaker. Then came the ’90s... The Last Of The Mohicans, Heat and The Insider were masculine but not macho, icy in execution but simmering in emotion and adrenaline. Ali, Collateral and Miami Vice offered professional, obsessional protagonists.
Picture perfect Heat. You are going down!
27 Sam Peckinpah
“Bloody” Sam was a rogue. “A fucker and a fighter and a wild-horse rider,” said editor Lou Lombardo. His lairy lifestyle made him ill and he riled studios something rotten. Most famously, from The Wild Bunch to Straw Dogs, he shredded the screen-violence envelope. Having seen death as a Marine from ’43-’45, he wanted its film equivalent to look “bloody fucking awful”. But his revisionist westerns were also odes to ageing outlaw saints. “I’m an outsider,” he said. “And I think being an outsider is a lonely, losing job….”
Picture perfect Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. The west goes down.
26 Robert Altman
When Robert Altman died aged 81, no one could claim he hadn’t fulfilled his potential. After early TV work, the Kansas City-born iconoclast made it big in 1970 with M*A*S*H. He reigned in the ’70s (McCabe And Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye), suffered a lean ’80s but enjoyed a comeback with Hollywood satire The Player, LA epic Short Cuts and the prestigious Gosford Park. Known for innovative use of sound and improvisation, there are as many duds as masterpieces on his CV, though he’d have disagreed – “I’ve not made a film yet that I do not consider a success.”
Picture perfect Nashville. America in a nutshell.
25 Hayao Miyazaki
Apocalyptic epic Princess Mononoke is one of the few Japanese films to make Kurosawa’s Top 100 list. Spielberg calls The Castle Of Cagliostri one of the best actioners ever made. John Lasseter force-feeds Pixar a diet of Ghibli wonders. For good reason: more than anime’s gentle emperor, Miyazaki is our greatest living animator. Bottling the myth and magic of life, his fantasies cling on in limbo: those seconds before children are lost to adulthood. Watch Nausicaä, Castle In The Sky and Spirited Away. And don’t blink.
Picture perfect My Neighbour Totoro. A fantastic voyage.
24 Tim Burton
An illustrator and animator who has translated his dark imagination to live-action, Tim Burton is arguably modern cinema’s pre-eminent visual stylist. Financially speaking, his greatest success has come from re-energising pop-culture icons (Batman, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.) From an aesthetic point of view, though, it’s his more personal movies (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Big Fish) that best showcase his wry innocence and psychological complexity. As he says, “It’s nice to try and keep a sense of things where everything seems strange and unusual...”
Picture perfect Ed Wood. Rubbish movies, great sweaters.
23 Jean Renoir
Son of the great Impressionist artist, Jean Renoir brings to his films a painterly eye and a deep love of nature. Of running water especially – the stream of life in all its passion and frailty and messiness, its comedy and tragedy. “The movement of cinema has something ineluctable about it like the current of a stream,” he said. Renoir’s finest decade was the ’30s, that great run of films from bourgeois-baiting satire Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux to lyrical love story Partie De Campagne to humane anti-war, anti-class drama La Grande Illusion to…
Picture perfect Social (tragi)comedy La Règle Du Jeu.
22 David Lynch
The inland emperor
Hard to believe David Lynch’s films have been inked, shot and cut. They seem to have crawled fully-formed from his brainpan. He’s the (sur)real thing: a dreamweaver, psyche-peeler and one of the few independent American auteurs. He’s given us nightmare odysseys (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), heart-breakers (The Straight Story) and a TV phenomenon (Twin Peaks). But Blue Velvet remains the perfect vortex: a midnight mystery that lets the inside out.
Picture perfect Blue Velvet. Let’s be Frank.
21 Clint Eastwood
Clint claims he only started directing so he’d have something to do when he was too old to act. He’s now made 27 movies, from 1973 debut Play Misty For Me to recent war epics Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Some pictures have been undistinguished, but others, like The Outlaw Josey Wales or Charlie Parker biopic Bird, are near perfect. Clint’s speciality is character-driven movies, soberly crafted. “I’ve always had the ability to say, ‘Watch this if you like,’ he smiles. ‘And if you don’t, take a hike.’”
Picture perfect Unforgiven. Clint’s farewell to the western.
20 Paul Thomas Anderson
The child genius
Grew up watching VCR porn, dropped out of film school after two days, loves Adam Sandler movies. Could we be talking about Hollywood’s most gifted young filmmaker? Heat-seeking visual style, ambition and a love of filmmaking make Anderson exactly that. When he scripted, produced and directed Boogie Nights aged just 27, PTA looked a fusion of ’70s mavericks Altman and Scorsese. Powered by a search for hope, Anderson’s emotional maelstroms make magic out of chaos.
Picture perfect Magnolia. When it rains, it pours.
19 Woody Allen
“I am at two with nature,” said Allen Stewart Königsberg in his first published gag. Never really comfortable with life, religion, Hollywood, women or himself, Allen’s neuroses have now fuelled a prolific career: adding contemporary mores to the Hope and Marx- inspired slapstick of the “early, funny ones” (Bananas, Sleeper); a sardonic edge to the richer middle works (Annie Hall, Hannah And Her Sisters) and a wearier cynicism to his later, more varied output (Celebrity, Match Point). His last few films have been hit and miss, but he remains a giant of American cinema.
Picture perfect Mirth and melancholy in Manhattan.
18 Joel and Ethan Coen
The brothers grim
Joined at the hip despite being separated by nearly three years, Joel and Ethan are the indie geeks made good - writer/ producer/editor/directors whose oddball sensibilities inform every aspect of their output. Best suited to darkly comic neo-noirs made on limited budgets (Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There), they’ve only stumbled when trying to hijack the multiplex. Thankfully their chase-western No Country For Old Men is dark, devious and demented
Picture perfect Miller’s Crossing. Machine gun dialogue.
17 David Cronenberg
The venereal king
“Just because you’re making a horror film doesn’t mean you can’t make an artful film.” Few mistook David Cronenberg’s early work as art: grubby exploitation flicks Shivers and Rabid prompting outrage and the moniker Dave Deprave. Beneath the gloop was high-minded purpose, though. In AIDS-era body horror classics like The Fly the splatter really mattered. Literary adaptations Naked Lunch and Crash pinpointed his influences (Ballard, Burroughs) while cementing his rep as horror’s smartest/scariest auteur.
Picture perfect Crash. Man and his machines.
16 Michael Powell
The magic surrealist
Rebelling against British cinema’s realist tradition, Michael Powell’s best work (The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, A Matter Of Life And Death, Black Narcissus…) tapped into a rich vein of fantasy. Working with Hungarian screenwriter/producer Emeric Pressburger, Powell was the most inventive filmmaker of his generation, his genius often misunderstood. “I make films for myself,” he told DoP Jack Cardiff. “What I express, I hope most people will understand. For the rest, well, that’s their problem.”
Picture perfect The Red Shoes. Shearer ballet brilliance.
15 Steven Soderbergh
The 44-year-old Oscar-winner cites John Huston as a role model, for his durability and genre mastery, and the comparison sticks. Birthed with the Palme-greaser sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh’s career lulled before Schizopolis saw him rediscover his mojo and convince Clooney he could deliver Out Of Sight. Pinging between mainstream mastery (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich) and off-kilter cine-sketches (Full Frontal, Bubble), he’s more interested in ideas than emotion, but his two-picture Che Guevara bio should see another reinvention.
Picture perfect Out Of Sight. Blindingly cool.
14 John Ford
“My name’s John Ford. I make westerns.” He also made WWII docu-propaganda, Irish romps and the greatest cine-statement on the Depression, The Grapes Of Wrath (one of Ford’s four Best Director wins). But it’s the oaters that distinguish the erstwhile actor’s six-decade helming career: from his breakout The Iron Horse to the revisionist Cheyenne Autumn, via Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, the Cavalry trilogy et al. Ford’s populist, poetic handling of landscape, family, individualism, comic drunkenness and extreme long shot blazed a trail for others.
Picture perfect The Searchers. The long voyage home...
13 Billy Wilder
Nobody’s perfect… but at times Billy Wilder came damn close. An early life of few friends and much upheaval fuelled a cynicism that – coupled with fierce smarts – invigorated Hollywood’s Golden Age. Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot all followed Wilder’s Ten Commandments: “The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut.” The work got woollier in later years, but Spielberg still sought him out for script collaboration on Schindler’s List.
Picture perfect The Apartment. Cynicism with a heart.
12 Quentin Tarantino
“Movies are my religion and God is my patron.” Lord Quentin of Video Archives went to film school in his lounge, then unleashed the most intoxicating one-two punch in film history: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. It made him cult hero, geek genius and superstar. Tarantino slips into debauch mode in between films, shoring up experiences that filter into his movies (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof). As a director, he’s monstrously gifted; as a writer, he’s a genius, consuming pop culture to weave his intricate dialogue spell.
Picture perfect Reservoir Dogs. From Sundance to superstardom.
11 Akira Kurosawa
The samurai master
Rashômon alerted the world to the riches of Japanese cinema – and to the tigerish energy of Toshiro Mifune. But it was Seven Samurai, with its bravura action sequences and melancholy, that sealed Akira Kurosawa’s reputation. Yojimbo added a gleeful dose of black comedy, while Ikiru, set in modern-day Tokyo, revealed Kurosawa’s gentler, elegiac side. His love of Shakespeare inspired Throne Of Blood as well as the majestic late Lear adaptation, Ran.
Picture perfect Seven Samurai. Poetry in motion.
10 David Fincher
“Some people make movies so they can have a big house,” says Fincher. “Some people do it so they can date Swedish models... If I wasn’t making movies I would be drunk and homeless.” The MTV auteur who segued from Rolling Stones’ and George Michael vids to the fascinating failure of Alien3, Fincher’s do-or-die vision eventually delivered the seminal Se7en, mirrored this year by Zodiac’s more muted but no less intelligent take on fractured masculinity, obsession and loneliness (and, oh yeah, a serial killer). Hardly prolific, but Fincher’s smarts, wit and eye are unsurpassed in his generation; even his popcorn pictures (The Game, Panic Room) are a different league. Always pushing the technical envelope, he matches his meticulousness with mordant humour and a growing sense of humanity. Expect third Pitt hook-up, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, to stun you. Kubrick has an heir.
Picture perfect Fight Club. A beautiful and unique snowflake.
9 Peter Jackson
The ring master
A bashful, only child growing up in Pukerua Bay, New Zealand, Peter Jackson latched onto the 8mm camera he was given at the age of eight, forging a small talent that became big.
Jackson’s early work – camp splatter movies Bad Taste and Braindead, influenced by George A Romero – segued into the rapturous, teen-lesbian murder tale Heavenly Creatures and the mature, visionary storytelling of The Lord Of The Rings. “It was a giant undertaking,” says Jackson of his three-film, five-year odyssey, “but I consider it a personal film – my film of a lifetime.”
Maybe so, but now that he’s finally laid to rest his obsession with King Kong, a liberated Jackson can funnel his extraordinary filmmaking talents into more intriguing artistic-multiplex synergies – including, he says, a return to his gorehound roots.
First up, Alice Sebold’s ghost-child drama Lovely Bones, the perfect vehicle for his rhapsodic blend of visceral emotion and transporting fantasy.
Picture perfect The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Eleven hours of pure cinematic majesty.
8 Stanley Kubrick
Even in death – it’s still hard to believe he’s gone – Kubrick remains a semi-mythic figure, hidden behind a thicket beard, monolithic intellect and the front gates of his Xanadu-like mansion. Bizarrely, he’s greater than any one of his 13 truly unique films. After WWI trench-tragedy Paths Of Glory, Kubrick became less interested in humans than humanity itself, driving actors to hundreds of identical takes in his obsessive search for perfection. Even Dr Strangelove (an original, brilliant, terrifying nuclear comedy that equates military might with big, swinging dicks) and Lolita (sex and power again) reach us through a God-like POV that belongs to him and none of his characters. He fish-eyed Big Questions through some of the most unforgettable spectacles in cinema: 2001’s celestial enigma; The Shining and A Clockwork Orange’s mesmerising horrorshows; Full Metal Jacket’s clinical destruction; Eyes Wide Shut’s end-of-century sign-off. Daring, demanding and unique.
Picture perfect 2001: A Space Odyssey. To infinity and beyond.
7 Ingmar Bergman
“At times, the demons can be helpful. But you have to beware. Sometimes they will help you along to hell.”
Ingmar Bergman knew what he was talking about. Survivor of a cracked faith and four broken marriages (a fifth ended when his wife died of stomach cancer), the Swedish auteur made a career out of “the ability to attach my demons to my chariot” (The Seventh Seal, Shame, Scenes From A Marriage, Autumn Sonata, Fanny And Alexander).
And if his chariot’s wheels occasionally threatened to come off, that only helped Bergman work through his crises of creative confidence in movies like Persona and Hour Of The Wolf, positing the artist as charlatan.
Honing his uncluttered style over 60 years and 50-odd films, he shoots his tortured protagonists in looming, luminous close-up, his camera performing keyhole surgery to extract tumorous lies. It is, as critic David Thomson puts it, a “cinema of the inner life”, revelatory in every sense.
Picture perfect Persona. Bergman’s silent scream.
6 Orson Welles
It’s almost forgotten that, apart from the stalled projects, TV ads and ballooning waistline, Welles’ ‘thwarted’ post-Kane career is a roll-call of masterpieces and locked-down classics. Ever the showman mythologiser, Orson was well aware of this. The fabulous wreckage of The Magnificient Ambersons, Shakespearian epic Chimes At Midnight, inky noirs Touch Of Evil and Lady From Shanghai, conjuror’s trick F For Fake… all dance between ambition and failure, truth and illusion, character and destiny, fact and fiction. Welles’ thrill at the possibilities of the medium are palpable, along with his mastery of camera, sound, editing and performance. He was a true genius. And his exhilarating imagination still kicks hardest in that astonishing debut. Greatest lists are nothing but consensus. That Kane keeps topping them means few of us could do without it.
Picture perfect Citizen Kane. Believe the hype.
5 Francis Ford Coppola
“Anything you build on a large scale or with an intense passion invites chaos,” said the great lost beard of new Hollywood. He started out small, mind. Plucked from film school by Roger Corman in ’62, on $90 a week, Coppola shot the shocker Dementia 13 in Ireland. Cheap axe-ploitation? Sure, but it kick-started his eclectic career, which sprawls from the claustrophobic intensity of The Conversation to the sun-drunk Finian’s Rainbow. Isolation is a key theme, possibly because at nine, this son of a concert flautist fell ill with polio and had to be kept indoors. After the grandiose Godfather films, excess consolidated his myth and almost destroyed him, financially in the case of One From The Heart and physically in the case of Apocalypse Now. “My film is not a movie,” Coppola said. “It’s not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.”
Picture perfect The Godfather: Part II. A journey into the heart of darkness.
4 Howard Hawks
This one-time car racer made silents in the ’20s but really flew in the talky ’30s. His motto was modest: “Make a few good scenes, don’t annoy the audience.” But he was actually magnificently complex, being a crowd-pleaser who made genre (screwball comedy, westerns, film noir, science-fiction, musicals) pieces his own, a writer of “realistic” dialogue who made non-realist entertainments and a man’s man who directed legendary female performances. He was also a genius talent-spotter, pairing Bogey’n’Bacall – first in classy war romance To Have And Have Not and then in labyrinthine noir The Big Sleep. As ’50s French critics recognised, he was the studio helmer as auteur, the populist as artist. Bringing Up Baby, Red River, Rio Bravo… who can match him now?
Picture perfect Screwy newspaper rom-com His Girl Friday.
3 Steven Spielberg
The universal entertainer
“I always like to think of the audience while I’m directing. Because I am the audience.” From movie brat to movie mogul, Steven Spielberg has never lost the common touch. The first thing he ever saw at the flicks was The Greatest Show On Earth (1952); a couple of decades of home-moviemaking, film school and TV apprenticeship later (Duel was grand enough to go big-screen outside the US), he was the new Cecil B DeMille. And exactly 30 summers after the epochal Jaws, he was still packing in the popcorn-eaters with War Of The Worlds.
But being the most successful director on earth comes with a price: ever since ET (“maybe the best Disney film Disney never made” – Variety), Spielberg has been stereotyped as a sentimentalist, more at home with reassurance than risk. Truth is, he’s rarely rested on those billion-dollar laurels, always looking to evolve his craft despite the constants that recur across his work (absent dads, kids in jeopardy, scores by John Williams).
In fact, finally bagging Oscars for Schindler’s List spurred Spielberg into beginning a drive for complexity rather than complacency, making films like Saving Private Ryan, AI and Minority Report. A trailblazer who works at a phenomenally fast rate – who else could make WOTW and Munich in the same year? – he’s too much of a craftsman to cut corners. “Spielberg has always maintained obsessive quality control,” says critic Roger Ebert, “and when his films work, they work on every level.”
Picture perfect ET The Extra-Terrestrial. Aliens and alienation.
2 Martin Scorsese
Little Marty wanted to be a priest, but he could never square the seminary with his one true religion: movies. So he got busy channelling all that misplaced morality through the lens of a movie camera…
Scorsese has now spent 40-odd years tapping the vein of violence pulsing beneath the skin of the Italian-American dream. Yet still no living director comes close to his delirious cocktail of movie scholarship, blazing technique and the kind of actorly respect that coaxes looming turns from both Oscar-winners and phoner-inners.
Like any lapsed Catholic, he’s obsessed with blood and body, but the ultraviolent rep is just a byproduct of his grand passion: power. “Growing up, I saw power exercised in two ways,” says Scorsese. “The power of the church and the power of the street, which was exercised through violence.”
His films are most thrilling when they mesh the two: street scenes and biblical themes (greed, punishment, redemption). The mob stories (Goodfellas, Casino) unfold in worlds where being ‘made’ is both blessing and curse; where enemies and Godlike ‘bosses’ spare or snuff out life at will.
He’s not married to the mob. There are towering tales of men at war with their own natures (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver), prescient celebrity-cult satire (King Of Comedy), smart biopics (The Aviator). The tardy Oscar nod was a career box ticked, but for Marty, it’s always been about one thing: the movies.
Picture perfect GoodFellas. Stand-out guys.
1 Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock is cinema. No director has been more manipulative or downright entertaining. “Some films are slices of life,” he noted. “Mine are slices of cake.” His wit and intelligence is there for all to gasp at – but was his heart as cold as some have claimed, including the blonde actresses he allegedly tormented? He likened actors to cattle, insisted on storyboarding every shot, and worked from a gloriously cruel creed (“Make the audience suffer as much as possible.”)
This east-end boy got his break in movies designing titles. His third credited gig as director, 1927’s The Lodger, brought his knack for suspense to the fore. (The film also featured the first of his celebrated cameos).
International acclaim greeted The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and by 1940 he’d debuted in Hollywood with the gothic Rebecca. His thrillers could be dark and demented (Spellbound) or just plain wicked (Rope) but with each picture, his technique grew more innovative...
Hitchcock was at his peak in the ’50s and early ’60s: Rear Window, Psycho and The Birds were playful masterpieces that disorientated and indicted the voyeuristic audience; North By Northwest is perfect; and nowhere in cinema is the rug pulled out more dramatically than when Janet Leigh decides to freshen up in Psycho...
Sure, after the sexually charged Marnie in 1964, his creativity waned. But so what? There’s more deviancy and daring in one frame of his ’50s films than most directors manage in a lifetime.
And Hitch just pips Marty to the top spot because, as our eight-page special shows, he may be long gone but his influence lives on...
Picture perfect Vertigo. Hitch scales new heights.