During this time, we’ve learned about the dedication and commitment required of a director. For example, after finally seeing Tenet, we truly understand why Christopher Nolan insisted on waiting to release it in theaters. That’s why there’s never been a better time to salute the notable men and women who have made their visions come true right before our eyes.
So what constituted a mention on this best directors list? A steady body of work and a handful of fantastic must-watch narrative films certainly helps; as does a groundbreaking behind-the-camera style, a unique voice that crosses genres and demographics, and awareness and accountability when it comes to how their work influences viewers. The compilation also features directors from all over the world, ranging from the stalwarts of Hollywood’s Golden Age to a collection of 21st-century hotshots.
Table of Contents
- 1. Steven Spielberg
- 2. Martin Scorsese
- 3. Alfred Hitchcock
- 4. James Cameron
- 5. Spike Lee
- 6. Quentin Tarantino
- 7. Paul Thomas Anderson
- 8. Christopher Nolan
- 9. Stanley Kubrick
- 10. Alfonso Cuarón
1. Steven Spielberg (1946-)
Pick an age, any age. Now remember what it was like seeing a particular Spielberg movie for the first time. As children, we believed in E.T.; as adolescents, we couldn’t get enough of Indiana Jones’ adventures or Jurassic Park’s larger-than-life dinosaurs or the terrifying shark in Jaws. As adults, we wept while watching the senseless deaths in Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich. Spielberg is the rare filmmaker who can deliver commercial blockbusters—don’t forget about Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds (2005) and Catch Me While You Can (2002), to name three more titles—and captivating, highly pedigreed art that stirs the imagination. Still going strong into his sixth decade of moviemaking, Spielberg will soon offer us more magic via a remake of the musical West Side Story.
2. Martin Scorsese (1942-)
After calling the shots for more than 40 years, most directors would quietly recede from work and just participate in anniversary panels. Thankfully, Scorsese has never been most directors. From his early work of 1973’s Mean Streets and 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to his most recent 2019 epic The Irishman, Scorsese has continued to stay relevant as he pushes boundaries. He’s willing to serve up deliciously entertaining red-blooded fare such as Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (for which he finally won his Best Director Oscar in 2007) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2015) and then explore serious religious themes in The Passion of the Christ (1987) and Silence (2016). Twenty-five full-length films in all; many masterpieces among them.
3. Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)
Hitchcock will forever be one of the greats because of his sheer brilliance in his craft. His movies unfold with the utmost confidence, enabling audiences to put their blind trust in him. And his set-pieces—the terrifying shower scene in 1960’s Psycho, the swooping crop duster in 1959’s North by Northwest, the swarm of birds in, well, 1963’s The Birds—resemble our most haunting nightmares. The director, who’s influenced generations of filmmakers, also had a keen understanding of the obvious: if you’re watching a movie in the dark then you’re a willing participant in a voyeuristic thrill ride (see: 1954’s Rear Window). And nobody delivered these thrills like the master.
4. James Cameron (1954-)
The appropriate descriptor is titanic—and that’s not just a reference to his behemoth 1997 movie of the same name. Cameron is the director who can tackle mammoth projects with sky-high budgets and turn them into awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping wonders. And even if the Titanic never hit the iceberg, he would go down as a legend (if not the king of the world) for helming tense and technically brilliant visual wonders such as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and the 2009 3D adventure Avatar. He’s promised there are several Avatar sequels still on the way.
5. Spike Lee (1957-)
A Spike Lee Joint equals a deep exploration of race relations, media, urban crime and politics at the highest levels. Indeed, Lee isn’t just a magnificent original filmmaker, he’s a master at using the medium as an instrument for social change. And films such as Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), 4 Little Girls (1997), 25th Hour (2002) and BlackKklansman (2018) never fail to evoke important and interesting conversations. His new film, Da 5 Bloods (on Netflix this summer) focuses on Vietnam veterans returning to the jungle to find their lost innocence.
6. Quentin Tarantino (1963-)
There’s an easy way to distinguish between the eras of cinema: Before Pulp Fiction and after Pulp Fiction. That’s how much Tarantino’s non-linear-structured and super-cool 1994 opus impacted the industry and his peers. Though he’s made just nine movies in less than 30 years (including the Oscar-nominated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2019), the former video store clerk/movie-history savant is a brand name who delivers a distinctive form of entertainment. Audiences know that when they buckle in for one of his projects—from 1992’s Reservoir Dogs to 2012’s Django Unchained—they’re in store for a rollicking mash-up of hyper-verbal dialogue, pitch-perfect music, blood-spewing violence and dark-edged comedy.
7. Paul Thomas Anderson (1970-)
A true auteur in every sense of the word, Anderson infuses raw energy in his multi-layered work while also serving up a visual cinematic flair and unique insights about love, death and abandonment. A PTA film—his highly ambitious, original masterworks include 1997’s Boogie Nights, 1999’s Magnolia, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, 2012’s The Master, 2014’s Inherent Vice and 2017’s Phantom Thread—also features intricate and complex characterizations that linger in audiences’ minds long after the credits roll.
8. Christopher Nolan (1970-)
The king of cerebral blockbusters, Nolan is worshipped by audiences and critics for being one of the most original and imaginative directors in the business. He’s not only unafraid to challenge fans with overly complex narratives, he packs intense themes of morality, identity and time into each work of art. And as evidenced in mainstream hits The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017), fans are more willing to go along with him for the ride. And his next shrouded-in-mystery effort, Tenet, promises to be the spark to ignite the 2020 moviegoing experience.
9. Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999)
The Shining (1980). A Clockwork Orange (1971). 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Full Metal Jacket (1987). Eyes Wide Shut (1999). His films left us with deep psychological scars, and yet we kept coming back for more. Kubrick himself was never one for convention, forever experimenting with genres, themes and styles. (He also helmed the classics Spartacus in 1960 and Dr. Strangelove in 1964). But all his works highlighted the joys and terrors lurking within the common man. And Kubrick’s chilly postmodern perspective is even more insightful and mysterious today.
10. Alfonso Cuarón (1961-)
He ignited his career with the coming-of-age road-trip charmer Y Tu Mama Tambien in 2002 and only became bolder and more impressive from there. Cuarón has taken on jaw-dropping science fiction (Children of Men, Gravity), crafted a poignant black-and-white love letter to his Mexican childhood (2018’s Roma, for which he earned his second Best Director Oscar in five years) and adapted a children’s classic for the masses (2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). That’s the resume of a genius.