The Greatest Directors Ever (Part one)

It took months of bickering - sorry, discussion - and weeks of sulking - sorry, reflecting - but here, finally, is Total Film’s locked down, rubber-stamped, definitive selection. Well, at least the first part of it.

100. Abel Ferrara

There’s nothing nice about Abel, a guttersnipe with a taste for the outré. His films are grubby notes from the underground lacking taste or (infuriatingly) quality control: rape-revenge in Ms 45, a muddled Madonna in Dangerous Game, gangster chic in King Of New York, Christian confusion in Mary.

He’s like Scorsese’s kid brother, not as talented but cut from the same cloth of street Catholicism, violent redemption and cine-passion: “We’re just trying to make one good movie. Not even one good movie. We’re just trying to shoot one great scene…”

Picture Perfect: Bad Lieutenant

99. Sofia Coppola

Rubbish as an actress, eloquent as a filmmaker, Francis’ little angel has taken just three films to fashion her graceful movie chic. If Sofia was adored for The Virgin Suicides (adolescent death eulogy) and Lost in Translation (suitcase gloom sheen), it was the Cannes-booed Marie Antoinette that separated the fickle from the fans.

Wilfully vacuous and beautiful, it summed up the cheek of the young superstar: “I guess it was a bit audacious to show first in France!” Dreamy, brave and cool, this Coppola is doing it for herself.

Picture perfect: Lost In Translation

98. John Sturges

An apprenticeship directing training films for the US Army Air Corps during WWII stood ‘Captain’ John Sturges in good stead for his later career as bluff helmer of big-budget, male-oriented actioners.

Before The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, though, he’d already landed a Best Director Oscar nod for Bad Day At Black Rock and directed the definitive Wyatt Earp pic, Gunfight At The OK Corral.

Ed Zwick correctly identifies him as “a wonderful storyteller who was quite humble in not putting himself in front of the story…”

Picture perfect: The Magnificent Seven

97. Baz Luhrmann

Who’d have known that the kitsch-lover behind Strictly Ballroom could deliver a cinematic statement of intent as radical as Romeo + Juliet, mixing Shakespeare with helicopters and handguns?

The flamboyant former actor followed up with twirling, lavish pop musical Moulin Rouge!. A perfectionist (“All the films I make are about 60 per cent of what I imagine them to be”) wise to the power of adding theatrical zing to celluloid dreams, he’s about to go epic with period romance Australia. Expect anything but the ordinary.

Picture Perfect: Moulin Rouge

96. M Night Shyamalan

The wunderkind polymath who could do no wrong? Lady In The Water put paid to that, its failure giving his many detractors a $75m stick to beat him with. Prior to that, however, Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan was shaping up to be the new Spielberg: a master storyteller with a gift for twists and a keen understanding of public taste.

Will he get his mojo back? As far as he’s concerned he didn’t lose it. “Don’t judge movies from commercial success,” he cautions. “It’s my job to be brave and I have been brave...”

Picture Perfect: Unbreakable

95. George Lucas

In 1977, Lucas wowed the world with Star Wars. In 1999, he upset the world with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Alone, THX 1138 (coldly futuristic) and American Graffiti (warmly nostalgic) would not be enough for this list, but arguably no director has made a work as talked about as George’s original space saga.

Sure, he threatened cred with interminable fiddling and a trio of lesser prequels, but the standard was set 30 years ago. “Star Wars is fun, exciting, inspirational,” he says. “It’s what they want.”

Picture Perfect: Star Wars

94. Wong Kar-Wai

“We love what we can’t have,” Wong says. From Days Of Being Wild to In The Mood For Love, his world of romantic rhapsody and missed opportunity swoons to the tune of isolating desire.

As pale and interesting characters mope and smoke, extravagant colours and lush music shudder in key. Intuition is his method: having written for TV and the derivative Hong Kong film industry, Wong set his form by making zippy breakthrough Chungking Express, on the hoof.

Famously, it made Tarantino weep. This is cinema of the moment: you need to feel it.

Picture perfect: 2046

93. Alan J Pakula

Already a successful producer by the time he hoisted the megaphone, Bronx-born Pakula proved a dab hand at voicing American anxieties in the Watergate era.

But such was the impact of his “paranoia trilogy” – Klute, The Parallax View and seminal drama All The President’s Men – his later works (The Pelican Brief, Presumed Innocent) seemed trifling by comparison.

Or were we missing something? “I am oblique,” he said just before his 1998 death. “I like trying to do things which work on many levels...”

Picture perfect: All The President’s Men

92. Paul Verhoeven

“Of course there are nude scenes… I’m Dutch!” Verhoeven’s always had a nose for the box office, pulling in punters with lashings of sex and ultraviolence. It’s a basic instinct summed up in that Sharon Stone crotch shot.

Even his early Dutch work was more grindhouse than arthouse: see the bold eroticism of Turkish Delight or Spetters. When Hollywood beckoned, Verhoeven impressed with ironic/iconic sci-fi (Robocop, Starship Troopers) until success bred excess (Showgirls).

Returning home triggered a comeback in Black Book’s pulp blend of Nazis, sex and dyed fannies. Well, he is Dutch…

Picture perfect: Robocop

91. DW Griffith

“Remember how small the world was before I came along?” Undistinguished writer/actor David Wark Griffith wasn’t afraid of blowing his own trumpet… and with good reason, for he invented a new language of cinema through innovative use of cross-cutting, close-ups and characterisation.

Co-founder of United Artists, his rep will forever remain stained by the KKK sympathies of The Birth Of A Nation, but several of his silents have stayed golden: Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, Orphans Of The Storm.

Picture perfect: Intolerance

90. Curtis Hanson

A self-confessed movie buff with a journalistic background, Hanson cut his teeth in Hitchcockian suspense (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, The River Wild) before helming LA Confidential, his Oscar-winning calling card.

Since then he’s made as many hits (8 Mile, In Her Shoes) as misses (the underrated Wonder Boys, Lucky You). With no obvious visual style, his skills lie more in his empathy with actors and immaculate storytelling.

“I just go to what interests me,” he smiles. “I always ask myself: is this a world I want to go into and learn about?”

Picture perfect: LA Confidential

89. Peter Weir

“Frankly, I’ve never fit in anywhere,” is Peter Weir’s take on his place in life. To anyone who’s seen his films, that’ll come as no great shock. From the dreamy uncertainty of Picnic At Hanging Rock through his shift to Hollywood and bracing movies like Witness, Dead Poets’ Society and The Truman Show, Weir has always majored in alienation.

Occasionally a love of lush visuals overwhelms the story, but few modern directors can match the Aussie when it comes to old-school big glossy movies with a brain.

Picture perfect: The Truman Show

88. Buster Keaton

One of cinema’s most beautiful faces (did Garbo ever battle hurricanes, leap from trains or play billiards with a hand grenade?), Joseph Frank Keaton was hurled into a chaotic, vaudeville world.

He took it on the chin – and became not just a genius comedian, but a true master of the medium. The General is a Civil War romance to rival Gone With The Wind, Steamboat Bill, Jr an amazing disaster epic and Sherlock Jr still looks like a modern marvel, as Keaton’s projectionist sleepwalks into his own film. Spectacular and seriously funny.

Picture perfect: The General

87. Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant’s the master of capturing slacker youth, crafting a haunting, lyrical mood as he does it. He’s dabbled in multiplex fodder (Good Will Hunting, the Psycho misstep), but this middle-class boy’s heart has pulsed for dysfunctional outsiders since his days infiltrating street-kid culture in LA and Portland.

Lately, he’s abandoned Hollywood for experimental improv (Last Days, Elephant, Paranoid Park): “I always want to go back to the days of Mala Noche, when I had three people on the crew. I haven’t gotten there yet.”

Picture perfect: Drugstore Cowboy

86. Lars Von Trier

“I don’t want to scare the audience away a little; I want to scare them away totally.” You’d expect nothing else from the Danish auteur, a 50-year-old enfant terrible who has made it his mission to provoke and unsettle.

From the stylistic audacity of Europa and the intensity of Dancer In The Dark to Dogville’s stark austerity, his best work is characterised by a willingness to experiment. He’s not about to mellow, either – brace yourself for his upcoming effort, office comedy The Boss Of It All.

Picture perfect: Breaking The Waves

85. John Woo

As a kid, John Woo used to sneak into Hong Kong movie theatres to watch American musicals (“Gene Kelly was so beautiful”). Years later he put his misspent youth to good use directing “heroic bloodshed” movies (A Better Tomorrow, Hard-Boiled).

“When I do action, I’m choreographing a dance sequence”. The jump to Hollywood (Broken Arrow, Mission: Impossible II) kept the ballet but lost Woo’s unabashedly Christian interest in redemption. Kitsch classic Face/Off is the closest America’s come to doing it Woo’s way.

Picture perfect: Hard Boiled

84. Carl Theodor Dreyer

All 14 of Dreyer’s films bombed commercially. But they can only be described as filmed miracles. Somehow both realist and expressionist, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc turns actress Falconetti’s face into a devastating human landscape.

Beyond Vampyr’s mind-melting fear and Day Of Wrath’s witch-hunt horror, Ordet’s clash of religion and faith and Gertrud’s elusive love story approach utter revelation. A meticulous craftsman, Dreyer had a sixth sense for putting the unrealisable on screen.

Picture perfect: Ordet

83. Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson nearly didn’t stick with the directing lark: “We’d just done a screening for Bottle Rocket and about half the audience got up and left. I thought, ‘That’s it. We’re not going to do anything better than this.’

Fortunately for us he stuck with it, going on to lovingly sculpt such precious, precocious gems as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. Offbeat and sure to catch you off-guard, his films deliver formal beauty, poised characters and – here’s the kicker – genuine emotion.

Picture perfect: The Royal Tenenbaums

82. James Whale

This Dudley-born son of a blast-furnace-man was haunted by memories of World War I. But he found his calling there, too, staging theatre as a POW. Postwar, the ex-cartoonist acted in theatre and moved into dialogue-doctoring for Howard Hughes.

Monsters made him: Frankenstein and The Bride Of… are legendary for their outsider empathy, grandeur, pathos and cinematic take on theatricality. But as David Thomson says, this aesthete was “never at ease in Hollywood” and retired in ’41 after a brief but glorious career.

Picture perfect: The Bride Of Frankenstein

81. Cameron Crowe

“Sugar-coat that bitter little pill.” That’s Cameron Crowe’s piece of wisdom from his own personal movie guru, Billy Wilder. And while Crowe has been accused of over-sweetening his output, there’s always more to his films if you dig a little deeper.

From the jarring look at high school life he wrote for Fast Times At Ridgemont High to the pain of the outsider in Say Anything… to the slow destruction of Tom Cruise’s playboy in Vanilla Sky, Crowe’s output burns with real emotion and gut-wrenching truth.

Picture perfect: Say Anything

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