The 50 greatest directors and their 100 best movies
Decades ago, this cover story would have been unthinkable. Directors weren't stars in the days of the old Hollywood studio system. Stars were stars. Directors were the employees who made sure everyone did his or her part and got out, within the budget and on time. Any director who insisted on artistic control — that crackpot Welles, say — was a troublemaker.
How did we get from there to here: Scorsese, Spielberg, and Stone inspiring passionate debate among movie lovers, Tarantino garnering as much press as James Dean once did? Some of the credit has to go to film critics who, in the late '50s and early '60s, pioneered the auteur theory — the idea that the director is the primary author of a movie. But the shift has come from the audience, too. These days, when we watch a tape of Jaws or The Birds or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we know we are privy to one person's way of seeing the world — one that has the power to change the way we see the world.
And what gets a director on our list of the 50 Greatest? A consistent body of work or a handful of great movies; a compelling vision; a groundbreaking style; above all, a personal stamp that cuts across films, genres, and decades. We tried to balance the home team against directors from other countries and past geniuses against present prodigies. The list may be glaringly made up of white guys — an inescapable fact of movie history — but diverse voices have been resonating louder within Hollywood, setting new standards for directorial excellence.
Here are the artists who made the cut — in every sense of the phrase.
1. Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980)
Like the nettlesome corpse in The Trouble With Harry, he keeps popping up: in reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in the pages of the long-running Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, wielded like a billy club by critics whenever a filmmaker apes his style. Hitchcock remains the quintessential brand-name director — a testimony to both his silents–to–swear-words longevity and his prescient gift for publicity. But that's not why he's at the top of this list. Hitchcock stands here for two reasons: the sheer brilliance of his craft and the profound darkness of his themes.
The secret's in the shots. His movies unfold with such confidence that we delight in trusting the teller — even when he betrays that trust by killing off the heroine in the first hour. Hitchcock's outre set pieces — a swooping crop duster in North by Northwest, a sea of umbrellas disgorging an assassin in Foreign Correspondent — have the inevitability of the movies' closest relative: dreams.
Or nightmares. Everybody's a sinner in his movies, especially the characters who haven't done anything. His public persona — that droll ghoul comparing actors to cattle — was a dodge; underneath was a shy fat boy who feared the police, who knew that anyone could be guilty, at any time, of anything. Even us. Hitchcock understood (and showed, in Rear Window) that since we watch movies for voyeuristic thrills, we're implicated in the crime as well. That's a harsh message, but — further proof of genius — we loved the messenger.
Must-sees: Strangers on a Train, Robert Walker (1951, Warner); Rear Window, James Stewart (1954, MCA/Universal, PG)
2. Orson Welles (1915–1985)
He changed the movies. With one genius stroke, his first film, Citizen Kane, inaugurated a new depth — both visually (Gregg Toland's deep-focus camera work made previous movies look 2-D) and emotionally (Charles Foster Kane was the most complex hero-villain in American cinema). Washed up at 27, Welles had one incontrovertible masterpiece left in him (Touch of Evil); a mangled thing of greatness (The Magnificent Ambersons); a bundle of shimmering close calls (The Lady From Shanghai, his Shakespeare films) — and a voice that paid the bills until he died. By then he had become his own Rosebud.
Must-sees: Citizen Kane, Welles (1941, Turner); Touch of Evil, Charlton Heston (1958, MCA/Universal)
3. John Ford (1895–1973)
For all the hardass on-set stories ("If an actor started to ask questions," recalled Henry Fonda, "[Ford would] either take those pages and tear them out of the script or insult him in an awful way"), Ford was the great sentimentalist of Hollywood's classic era. Themes of honor, duty, and patriotism percolate through his war films, dramas, and Lincoln biopic — even a comedy like The Quiet Man. Above all, he codified the Western with the textbook Stagecoach, plumbed the dark side of the genre with The Searchers, and enshrined Utah's Monument Valley as the only playground for an icon like John Wayne.
Must-sees: Stagecoach, Wayne (1939, Warner); The Searchers, Wayne (1956, Warner)
4. Howard Hawks (1896–1977)
You know how it is when you're halfway through an entertaining book, and you realize it's a work of art, too? That's how it is with a film by Hawks. His hallmarks are more thematic than visual: men who adhere to an understated code of manliness; women who like to yank the rug from under those men's feet; a mistrust of pomposity; a love of sly, leg-pulling wit. Yet, there's the ease of the complete filmmaker in his Westerns, dramas, musicals, detective films, and supremely confident comedies. No wonder the French adored the guy: His casual profundity was the studio system's best advertisement for itself.
Must-sees: Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant (1938, Turner); Rio Bravo, John Wayne (1959, Warner)
5. Martin Scorsese (1942–present)
He was a sickly kid, living in New York City's Little Italy, who threw himself into old movies, creating storyboards for the films he saw in his head. And the greatness of Scorsese is that alone among his peers, his movies still feel hot-wired into his own id. Scorsese may seem to have reached an impasse of late, but who can deny the feverish power of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas? There is no other director with more of an interest in the mechanics of sin or with more movie-drunk craft to explore it. I spatter bits of myself all over the screen, he has said. We're still ducking.
6. Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998)
As tough to pin down as the elusive truth in his masterpiece Rashomon, the Tokyo-born director has moved from genre to genre. Rashomon, a 12th-century crime story told from four viewpoints, established him as an artist, opening up the West for other Asian directors like Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Kurosawa, who grew up watching American films, put his personal stamp on such figures as King Lear (Ran) and Macbeth (Throne of Blood). Hollywood returned the homage — The Seven Samurai inspired The Magnificent Seven, and Star Wars has touches of The Hidden Fortress.
Must-sees: Rashomon, Toshiro Mifune (1950, Sultan); The Seven Samurai, Mifune (1954, Home Vision)
7. Buster Keaton (1895–1966)
Keaton was a great silent comedian, yes — and, until his sad, boozy decline in the '30s, a great director. "He always put his camera in the right place," said filmmaker Richard Lester. "Take THE GENERAL... You can't take a shot away. They're all necessary." More than Chaplin, Keaton understood movies: He knew they consisted of a four-sided frame in which resided a malleable reality off, which his persona could bounce. A vaudeville child star, Keaton grew up to be a tinkerer, an athlete, and a visual mathematician; his films offer belly laughs of mind-boggling physical inventions and a spacey determination that nears philosophical grandeur.
Must-sees: Sherlock Jr., Keaton (1924, Kino); The Navigator, Keaton (1924, Kino)
8. Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007)
"I take the images from my childhood, put them into the 'projector' [to get] new ways of evaluating them," Bergman once said. He had much to evaluate. Born in Sweden, he was raised in a Lutheran home, and the pessimism and introspection in his work have a deeply religious sobriety. In his prolific career — over 40 films — Bergman used surreal dream sequences and Christian allegory to explore family, God, and death. The great exception is 1982's Fanny and Alexander, a tale of childhood that has an adult's perception of pleasure and anguish — it was his last theatrical release before retiring to concentrate on television and stage work.
Must-sees: The Seventh Seal, Max von Sydow (1957, Sultan); Persona, Liv Ullmann (1966, MGM/UA)
9. Frank Capra (1897–1991)
A biography painted him as more Mr. Potter than George Bailey, yet it's a testament to Capra's economy and skill that his films stand as tributes to the American spirit. The Italian immigrant began in comedies (1934's It Happened One Night was the first to sweep the top Oscars), then made relevant films about humble men facing venal capitalists: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deed Goes to Town, It's a Wonderful Life. He had a simple style, but his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, reveals that Capra saw himself as an auteur long before the term was coined.
Must-sees: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart (1939, Columbia TriStar); It's a Wonderful Life, Stewart (1946, Republic)
10. Federico Fellini (1920–1993)
At first, Fellini's characters used spectacle to hide from loneliness; why else is La Dolce Vita's hero a tabloid reporter but to avoid himself? Later, Fellini fell in love with spectacle for its own sake, with consequences wonderful (Amarcord) and dire (Casanova); still, in the '60s, he primed Americans for other Italian directors. The turning point was 8 1/2, in which he mythologized his creative block and became cinema's ringmaster. Orson Welles said his films "...are a small-town boy's dreams of a big city." If there's childlike indulgence in Fellini, there's the flash of clear-eyed poetry attainable only by the young.
Must-sees: La Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni (1960, Republic); Amarcord, Magali Noel (1973, Home Vision, R)
11. Steven Spielberg (1947–present)
He's a mogul now, running production companies he co-owns (Dreamworks and Amblin Entertainment), but under the surface lurks a 13-year-old kid making war movies in his backyard. Spielberg awes us because he's a natural as if born from the head of D.W. Griffith himself; the fun of Jaws is in rediscovering the joys of storytelling as demonstrated by a gifted 27-year-old. He's dazzled us with craft (the Indiana Jones films), lost himself in never-never land (Hook), and earned respect and Oscars (Schindler's List). Yet, it's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. that balance skill and meaning in a way closest to Spielberg himself.
Must-sees: Jaws, Roy Scheider (1975, MCA/Universal, PG); E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Henry Thomas (1982, MCA/Universal, PG)
12. Jean Renoir (1894–1979)
"Everyone has his reasons," said party guest Octave in Rules of the Game. The role was played by the director, and that offhand credo is the source of his movies' democratic, humane gaze. Villains are rare in a Renoir film; even the enemy officer played by Erich von Stroheim in Grand Illusion has a stiff-necked grace. Renoir's films have something of the sunny generosity of his father, French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. But there's also a fatalism — even in a comedy like 1932's Boudu Saved from Drowning (remade as Down and Out in Beverly Hills) — that is the son's own.
Must-sees: A Day in the Country, Sylvia Bataille (1936, Nostalgia); Rules of the Game, Marcel Dalio (1939, Sultan)
13. John Huston (1906–1987)
In some ways, his legend was greater than his films. Huston fashioned himself as a Hollywood Hemingway: a cussing, hunting, artistic man's man who tilted a lance at front-office idiocies. The irony is that his best films are so entertaining: The Maltese Falcon is perfect pulp; The African Queen, a fine, purposeful mismatch of stars; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a wondrous display of Humphrey Bogart, antihero. When he stretched for art (as in Moby Dick), Huston often grasped at air, but when he let his caustic humor bubble up through a film, the results carried a sense of the man.
Must-sees: The Maltese Falcon, Bogart (1941, MGM/UA); The Man Who Would Be King, Sean Connery (1975, FoxVideo, PG)
14. Luis Bunuel (1900–1983)
Spain's greatest, most experimental filmmaker collaborated with Salvador Dali on 1928's Un Chien Andalou and 1930's L'Age d'Or, surrealist masterpieces filled with images powerful enough to incite riots. After 15 years of advising or working on Spanish and American films, Bunuel directed Los Olvidados, a bleak tale of Mexican delinquents, and later made cutting satires of hypocrisy, class, and sex, like 1967's Belle de Jour. His style could be blunt; of Un Chien Andalou's infamous eyeball slashing, he said, "I filmed it because I dreamt it, and I knew it would disgust people."
Must-sees: L'Age d'Or, Gaston Modot (1930, Glenn); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Fernando Rey (1972, Media, R)
15. D.W. Griffith (1875–1948)
When we watch Hollywood's latest blockbuster, we're still seeing the visual language that Griffith developed in more than 480 movies and shorts from 1908 to 1925. But while he helped create the art form of the 20th century, Griffith's stories were often purple Victoriana. Worse, the overt, rosy racism of The Birth of a Nation — the birth of the feature film as we know it — is unforgivable. Yet, he cannot be denied his place as cinema's first major artist, as well as its first victim. "He lived too long," said critic James Agee of Griffith's decline in the '30s and '40s, "and that is one thing sadder than dying too soon."
Must-sees: The Birth of a Nation, Lillian Gish (1915, Republic); Way Down East, Gish (1920, Nostalgia)
16. Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947)
"At least twice a day, the most dignified human being is ridiculous," remarked Lubitsch on his celebrated touch. Imported from Germany by Mary Pickford, whom he directed in Rosita, Lubitsch brought European sophistication to gawky Hollywood. His suave silents were widely imitated, and his musicals and comedies, such as 1932's bubbly heist farce Trouble in Paradise, perfected the formula. They remain delightful concoctions of sly wit, ridiculousness, and expert timing. "Doors!" complained Pickford. "He's a director of nothing but doors!" Ah, but what they opened to!
Must-sees: The Shop Around the Corner, James Stewart (1940, MGM/UA); To Be or Not to Be, Jack Benny (1942, Warner)
17. Robert Altman (1925–2006)
He's the very model of a counterculture director, specializing in formless collisions of characters and dialogue that, as in M*A*S*H and Nashville, can create sparks of haphazard profundity. When the sparks don't fly, though — as in Quintet, Popeye, or Ready to Wear — no director can seem more wearingly self-indulgent. But, there was something exquisitely American in Altman's style — one thinks of pioneers coalescing on a trail, bickering toward the unknown. Hollywood's living rebuke to itself, he floated in and out of fashion — rising gloriously to the occasion when the suits and the material allow.
18. George Cukor (1899–1983)
During a 50-year career that began in 1931, this former stage director made costume dramas, romantic comedies, musicals, melodramas, and even a Western — and yet all are touched by the same cosmopolitan esprit. Under his nurturing eye, actresses such as Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn gave some of their best performances — thus Cukor's reputation as a "woman's director" (also a backhanded reference to his homosexuality). Once deemed uncinematic, his style today seems sharp, fluid, and devoid of gimmickry. "A director must never overwhelm a picture," he observed. "He must serve it."
Must-sees: The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant (1940, MGM/UA); A STAR IS BORN Judy Garland (1954, Warner, PG)
19. Woody Allen (1935–present)
Perhaps it was his humble origins as a gag writer for the likes of Sid Caesar that made Allen such a quintessentially New York nebbish. Whatever the reason, this writer-director-actor's films are less by Woody Allen than about Woody Allen. His early slapsticks (Take the Money and Run, Sleeper) gave way to brilliant romantic comedies (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters) that won him respect. (However, his esteemed reputation has dwindled due to sexual abuse allegations made by his daughter, Dylan Farrow.) Allen may lapse into self-absorbed homages (Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), but he creates perfect ensemble pieces just as we're ready to write him off.
20. Vincente Minnelli (1903–1986)
He started out as a costume designer, and many of his films are made of such shiny gossamer that one never thinks to look behind it. But if Minnelli is best known for splashy musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis), for the riotous, urgent colors of the Van Gogh biopic, Lust for Life, or for being Liza's dad, his finest work tended to be small-scale and domestic, such as the heartbreaking romance The Clock, in which Judy Garland and Robert Walker fall in love in an enchanted New York. Maybe love did have something to do with it: Minnelli and Garland married several months after the production wrapped.
Must-sees: The Clock, Garland (1945, MGM/UA); An American in Paris, Gene Kelly (1951, MGM/UA)
21. Francis Ford Coppola (1939–present)
Adjectives accrue to him like thistles on a bear: talented, profligate, hapless, visionary, familial, idealistic, and self-indulgent. Of the triumphant triumvirate of California film school grads, Coppola is the only one who has followed his artistic impulses; Lucas has locked himself away with tech toys; Spielberg is too simple a genius to self-destruct. But Coppola has The Conversation, The Godfather, and its sequel, and that truly qualified masterpiece, Apocalypse Now — movies that trouble and gnaw like no others of their time. One watches him uneasily, waiting for greatness.
22. Michael Powell (1905–1990)
He might have become another Hitchcock — instead, Powell stayed in Britain and worked with writer (and codirector) Emeric Pressburger on a series of astounding films that insist on the human need for fantasy and the prices we pay for it: Black Narcissus shows a nunnery disintegrating from sexual tension; The Red Shoes reveals the risk of choosing art over life. His own Peeping Tom equates movie making and murder (and implicates the audience in the deed); British critics' horrified response ruined his career, while the not dissimilar Psycho took Hitchcock to new fame.
Must-sees: I Know Where I'm Going, Wendy Hiller (1945, Home Vision); Peeping Tom, Karl Boehm (1960, Home Vision)
23. Stanley Kubrick (1928–1998)
"I think he really wants to make a movie that will hurt people," puzzled Stephen King before The Shining came out in 1980. Therein lies the paradox of Kubrick's art: No matter how deeply it cuts, we keep coming back for more. With precise, surgical shock, he creates moments that embed themselves in our consciousness: HAL's all-too-human death throes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, teens pillaging to the strains of "Singin' in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange. His films pay chilly witness to the joys, terrors, and consequences of one's dehumanization.
24. Billy Wilder (1906–2002)
In praising The Best Years of Our Lives, a William Wyler film that moved him to rare tears, the Austrian-born Wilder said, "I laugh at Hamlet." Alas, poor Billy: He found humor (or humanity) in the darkest foibles, a trait that got him into box office trouble with mean-spirited films like Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas as a cutthroat reporter, and Kiss Me, Stupid, with Ray Walston as a wily composer. But that brittle sensibility was just as keen when ingeniously leavened for a mass palate in serious masterworks like The Lost Weekend and such ebullient farces as One, Two, Three.
25. Satyajit Ray (1921–1992)
At a time when most Indian films were dismissed as cheesy, formulaic musicals, Ray's gripping humanist dramas drew worldwide attention. The Calcutta-born filmmaker's debut feature, 1955's Pather Panchali, told the story of a poor boy's life in a Bengali village with breathtaking, universal beauty. It won the Best Human Document award at Cannes in 1956 and encouraged Ray to make two sequels, Aparijito and The World of Apu, which drew comparisons to Chekhov and Renoir. In 1992, Ray accepted a Lifetime Achievement Oscar from his sickbed.
Must-sees: Pather Panchali, Kanu Banerjee (1955, Nostalgia Family); The World of Apu, Soumitra Chatterjee (1959, Hollywood Home Theatre)
26. Roman Polanski (1933–present)
It's Polanski who inherited Hitchcock's mantle as a preeminent director of personalized thrillers. His traumatic childhood in wartime Poland reverberates in films where stability is ravaged by outside forces — as in his Hollywood breakthrough, Rosemary's Baby. Though his output includes black comedy (The Fearless Vampire Killers) and the uncharacteristically romantic Tess, it's the thrillers and dark dramas that have made his reputation. Not prolific, particularly since a 1977 statutory rape conviction, Polanski, in exile, continues to mine his pessimist's psyche with refreshing vigor.
27. Francois Truffaut (1932–1984)
With a 13-page diatribe on France's stagnant studio system in Cahiers du Cinema, the shy but insolent Truffaut began a movement that revolutionized film criticism and filmmaking. Stressing that directors should infuse works with personal style, he proffered The 400 Blows, an ultrarealistic look at a boy with uncaring parents — and the Nouvelle Vague bloomed. Seen as the best storyteller of the New Wave directors, he later directed more conservatively and left the experimenting to others. "He justified all our inconsistencies," said director Claude Chabrol, "by his own painstaking consistency."
Must-sees: The 400 Blows, Jean-Pierre Leaud (1959, Home Vision); Jules and Jim, Jeanne Moreau (1962, Home Vision)
28. Preston Sturges (1898–1959)
A screenwriter in the '30s, Sturges wrote and directed seven of the movies' most sublimely anarchic comedies, starting with 1940's The Great McGinty — and stars like Claudette Colbert and Barbara Stanwyck, boosted by a repertory of crackerjack, character actors, got to spout some of the funniest dialogue ever written. But Sturges left Paramount before Hail the Conquering Hero's 1944 release over artistic control. There'd be just one more gem amid a handful of lesser films. "The only amazing thing about my career in Hollywood," he later wrote, "is that I had one at all."
Must-sees: The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda (1941, MCA/Universal); Unfaithfully Yours, Rex Harrison (1948, FoxVideo)
29. Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948)
Copied in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables and parodied in The Naked Gun 33 1/3, his Odessa-steps sequence in the silent Battleship Potemkin is credited with contributing montage to film language. Hollywood was piqued by the Russian's genius, but when he came in 1930 to direct An American Tragedy, he fought with moguls and didn't shoot any film. Back in the USSR, Eisenstein's stunning Alexander Nevsky, about the hero who saved Russia from the Germans, was withdrawn when the Soviets and Hitler signed a nonaggression pact, and the second part of his last film, Ivan the Terrible, was banned outright.
Must-sees: Potemkin, Alexander Antonov (1925, Republic); Alexander Nevsky, Nikolai Cherkasov (1938, BMG)
30. Fritz Lang (1890–1976)
A director who aimed to shock and horrify, Lang must have felt he was a character in one of his own films when Hitler asked him to oversee German propaganda movies (ironically, after Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was banned for its subversive messages). Lang, of Jewish descent, declined and fled to Hollywood to helm anti-Nazi thrillers and dramas about persecuted innocents. But Lang's cinematic world was no paradise found: His film noirs were populated with psychopaths, prostitutes, and arch criminals. And his visual mastery gave that dark world a startling, organized veneer.
Must-sees: M, Peter Lorre (1931, Sinister Cinema); The Big Heat, Glenn Ford (1953, Columbia TriStar)
31. Jean-Luc Godard (1930–present)
"Western culture is my country," Godard said in 1983 — a fitting statement from a director who picked over the detritus of cinema history to cobble together a brilliantly original style. Godard's seductive first feature, Breathless, wrapped American pulp conventions around an existential romance; shot like a documentary, with handheld cameras, it has influenced several generations of film brats. In his later films (like Tout Va Bien), Godard — the intellectual godfather of all enfants terribles — became preoccupied with politics and technique, but his attitude endures at the heart of postmodern cinema.
Must-sees: Breathless, Jean-Paul Belmondo (1959, Nostalgia); Band of Outsiders, Anna Karina (1964, Moore)
32. Sam Peckinpah (1925–1984)
Get beyond Bloody Sam's reputation as a hard-living man's man off the set — and a mercurial maverick on it — and you'll find a string of groundbreaking, morally ambiguous action films that plumbed the depths of the male psyche while taking violence to a new level of graphicness. An unapologetic alcoholic who was virtually blacklisted in the mid-'60s for being difficult and uncompromising, Peckinpah made brutal dramas (like The Getaway and Straw Dogs) and genre-redefining Westerns, whose heroes are adrift in psychological terrain far less hospitable than the parched valleys where they ride.
33. F.W. Murnau (1888–1931)
What Murnau might have accomplished, had the German-born silent director not died in a car crash at age 42, is one of Hollywood's great what-ifs. But there's nothing iffy about his contribution to the film canon — his gift for storytelling was so profound, you barely notice the absence of spoken dialogue. Although best known for the vampire flick Nosferatu (with its indelible image of a rodentlike bloodsucker), Murnau was anything but a genre director: The Last Laugh traces the decline of a hotel doorman; Sunrise, an honoree at the first Oscars, follows a farmer lured from home by a city vamp.
Must-sees: Nosferatu, Max Schreck (1922, Grapevine); Sunrise, George O'Brien (1927, Grapevine)
34. David Lean (1908–1991)
Forbidden to go to the movies by his Quaker parents, the British director spun a secret passion into a career that went from English class staples (Oliver Twist) to exotic epics (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago). A perfectionist indifferent to time and expense, he used camera angles and framing to express characters' inner workings. "When you work with David," said John Mills (Ryan's Daughter), "be prepared to wait." Some critics have dismissed Lean as a technical whiz without a vision — but he had a true gift for placing introspective figures on expansive canvases.
Must-sees: Brief Encounter, Trevor Howard (1945, Paramount); Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O'Toole (1962, Columbia TriStar)
35. Werner Herzog (1942–present)
Once, after losing a bet, the German filmmaker ate his shoe — literally and publicly, recorded on film by Les Blank in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The incident typifies Herzog, driven to such extremes in his work. "I seek planets that do not exist," he has said, "landscapes that have only been dreamed." His strange dreamscapes include Every Man for Himself and God Against All, about a man raised in isolation, and Fitzcarraldo, in which an opera nut tries to build a concert hall in the jungle. For La Soufriere, he descended into a volcano about to erupt. Fortunately, it didn't.
36. Nicholas Ray (1911–1979)
Those who know only Rebel Without a Cause might assume that the film's wounded romantic soul came from James Dean. In fact, it's there in Ray's first movie — 1948's unbearably sad They Live By Night— and in the phrase he adopted as a personal motto: "I'm a stranger here myself." Ray carved out a niche as a misunderstood Hollywood bad boy, with results that could be turgid but often vibrated with angry, vivid poetry. Little wonder his Rebel cast worshiped him, as did '60s French cineasts, as does anyone who feels the world isn't quite right yet lacks the words to say why.
Must-sees: In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart (1950, Columbia TriStar); Rebel Without a Cause, Dean (1955, Warner)
37. Josef Von Sternberg (1894–1969)
For a time, in the early '30s, he was the epitome of directorial arrogance, yet it's clear that he needed his muse and platonic fetish object, Marlene Dietrich, to fashion wonderful farragoes of cinematic nonsense. Both Von Sternberg and Dietrich made good movies after they parted company, but none have the dizzy allure of the seven they made together, from 1930's The Blue Angel to 1935's The Devil Is a Woman. Masterpieces of lighting and cynicism, they turn the Moroccan sands, Catherine the Great's Moscow, and the passenger cars of the Shanghai Express into opulent soundstage fantasias.
Must-sees: Shanghai Express, Dietrich (1932, MCA/Universal); The Scarlet Empress, Dietrich (1934, MCA/Universal)
38. Douglas Sirk (1900–1987)
A director of Trojan horses: Lurking within his glossy '50s Technicolor soap operas are caustic commentaries that bite the audience that needs them. So in 1959's Imitation of Life "heroines" Lana Turner and Juanita Moore come across as cold and smothering, respectively, while "villainous" Susan Kohner is touchingly messed up. That's the way Sirk, a German theater director who fled the Nazis in 1937, wanted it. His key films (huge moneymakers all) work as melodramatic tripe, conscious camp, and intellectual head trip — and are profoundly moving in the bargain.
39. Max Ophüls (1902–1957)
Some critics didn't originally appreciate the fatalistic films of German-born, French-raised Ophüls, who focused his lens on idealistic love and the limits faced by women in society (topics many considered frivolous). One of the first directors to use uninterrupted crane shots, Ophüls layered his films' dialogue to convey realism while unbalancing audiences with narration and flashbacks. "If Lola Montes throws viewers off, it's because for 50 years most films have been narrated in an infantile way," said Francois Truffaut of Ophüls' last film. "Ophüls has given us a new kind of realism."
Must-sees: The Earrings of Madame De..., Charles Boyer (1953, Meridian); Lola Montes, Martine Carol (1955, New Line)
40. Louis Malle (1932–1995)
As he tempered his French reserve and New Wave sensibility with eroticism and heart, Malle was a truly sympathetic observer of passion. The director explored the world at a distance (in Murmur of the Heart and Pretty Baby) and kept sentimentality at bay in such documentaries as 1956's Oscar-winning The Silent World. Yet, his restrained sensuality infused even the seemingly static gabfest My Dinner With Andre and lent a piquancy to his tales of French youth Lacombe, Lucien and Au Revois, Les Enfants. Malle's reflective, inventive style could be called New Wave Goodbye.
41. Sergio Leone (1921–1989)
"If Americans [lower their] mythical level, we can evict them," Leone once said. After assisting Italian filmmakers, he invented the spaghetti Western with 1964's A Fistful of Dollars, evicting the Americans from their own genre (though director Clint Eastwood echoes his style). Set to Ennio Morricone's twangy scores, Leone's studied mythologies are spiked with comic cynicism. His Once Upon a Time in America, re-edited for release, helped trigger later calls for director's cuts, but his legacy remains those frame-filling close-ups and the birth of the nihilistic antihero in modern action.
42. Sidney Lumet (1924–2011)
He wasn't the first to shoot in New York, but more than any director pre-Woody Allen, Lumet brought an aggressive Noo Yawk sensibility to film. You can practically smell the steam spewing from the manholes in Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Q&A. Lumet's generosity with actors and respect for the script have given him a rep as one of the few Nice Guys behind the camera. "All I want to do is get better, and quantity can help solve my problems," Lumet said in 1973. True to his word, he's still making movies at 71: Night Falls on Manhattan is due later this year.
43. Oliver Stone (1946–present)
Love him or hate him — do you know anybody who's ambivalent? — Stone is the premier movie stylist of our era. He's the Clifford Odets of the MTV generation, enlisting rapid-fire editing, wildly varying film stocks and videotape, and soundtrack hallucinations in agitprop action paintings, both thrilling and discombobulated. A child of privilege, whose views were forged in Vietnam, Stone thrives on overkill (at 19, he wrote a 1,400-page novel about suicide), and his work grips us by the throat in its effort to convince. Either he's Orson Welles with a sociopolitical ax to grind or the most gifted provocateur in the business.
44. Bernardo Bertolucci (1940–2018)
It's no surprise that this Italian filmmaker started out a poet. Continuing to write or cowrite all of his films, Bertolucci brings a richly lyrical and visually lavish style to period dramas (such as 1900 and The Last Emperor) that dazzle with glorious color, brilliant camera work, and extravagant sets and costumes. He gained early notoriety for pairing revolutionary politics with broken taboos in The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris, a story of obsessive sex, which, though banned in Italy for 15 years, is now universally considered one of the key films of the 1970s.
Must-sees: The Conformist, Jean-Louis Trintignant (1971, Paramount, R); Last Tango in Paris, Marlon Brando (1972, MGM/UA, R)
45. Jonathan Demme (1944–2017)
A graduate of the Roger Corman school of exploitation filmmaking, Demme started out writing and directing affectionate, quirky takes on the biker-and-booty genre, but transcended his beginnings via affectionate, quirky takes on more illustrious genres: the concert film (Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense), the screwball comedy (Something Wild), the crime thriller (Oscar winner The Silence of the Lambs), and the disease drama (Philadelphia). His respect for the marginal and fondness for kitsch mark Demme as a hipster heir to the populist directors of the '30s.
46. Jacques Tati (1908–1982)
His father thought Tati would take over his fine-art-framing business — and in a way, he did: As a filmmaker-actor, Tati framed whole communities of French eccentrics in artful compositions. Imagine a live-action Where's Waldo? and you've got the find-the-joke feel of such delights as Jour de Fete and MR. Hulot's Holiday, in which Tati, as his comic alter ego, Mr. Hulot, stumbles through pratfalls with an athlete's grace. (Before turning to film, Tati was a pro rugby player.) Still, Tati's humor wasn't mere slapstick. From the '50s on, his films decried with rising bitterness the strangulation of rural culture by soulless urban architecture.
Must-sees: Mon Oncle, Tati (1958, Moore); Playtime, Tati (1967, New Line)
47. Otto Preminger (1905–1986)
There are many who dismiss everything Preminger directed after his 1944 mystery Laura. But that ignores his other good melodramas at Fox and the strong, taboo-breaking dramas (The Man With the Golden Arm) and epics (Exodus) of the '50s and '60s. Preminger's early years as a legal student and theater director in Vienna were crucial to a body of work distinguished by a probing camera and nuanced performances from actors as diverse as Henry Fonda and Joan Crawford. Intelligent and often outlandish, his spirit resonates today in such provocative films as Dead Man Walking and Nixon.
Must-sees: Laura, Gene Tierney (1944, FoxVideo); Advise & Consent, Fonda (1962, Warner)
48. Spike Lee (1957–present)
Skeptics may scoff that the kid's too young, too current, to make the cut. And they'd have a point if Lee weren't the first director to nail so many black experiences with a consistently rich narrative style. From the scrappy comedy of She's Gotta Have It to the street-scene conundrums of Do The Right Thing to the epic biography of Malcolm X to the mature complexities of Clockers, Lee's world has a moral integrity that belies his in-your-face public persona. If he stopped making movies today, he'd still be on this list; that he's only 39 makes one itchy with anticipation.
49. Tim Burton (1958–present)
Burton's success tramples the notion that audiences insist on golden twaddle. After 1985's unexpected hit Peee-Wee's Big Adventure led to the smash Beetlejuice, which led to the megazillion-dollar success Batman, the onetime Disney animator really pledged himself to the dark fable. Edward Scissorhands is for every kid who can't stand to look in the mirror, Batman Returns is the blockbuster as a freak show, and Ed Wood is a mainstream valentine to a movie pariah. Multiple features and Burton's wildly visual, startlingly tender sensibility is emblazoned on every frame.
50. Jerry Lewis (1926–2017)
What the French adore about Lewis — his brilliant lowbrow antics and high aspirations — may be what befuddles everyone else. In 1960, after his 10-year partnership with Dean Martin ended, Lewis directed himself in a virtually silent performance in The Bellboy. Several other films followed before he concocted his tour de force, The Nutty Professor, which epitomized his duality by morphing him from lab rat to lounge lizard. Americans have never given him much respect, yet he's taught film at USC and authored a text on film theory. No other filmmaker so nakedly lays out his yearnings on a whoopee cushion.
Must-sees: The Bellboy, Lewis (1960, LIVE); The Nutty Professor, Stella Stevens (1963, Paramount)