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20 Greatest Film Directors


20 Greatest Film Directors (1895-2023) 

Written by The Movie Love Ambassador ©


The criteria used for selecting the leading film directors in history were:

  • Number of films in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”
  • Stylistic influence in the history of film and/or role in furtherance of film theory
  • Number of milestone films made

1. Akira Kurosawa (Japan) (1910-1998)

Seven Kurosawa films appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, three more than any other director, namely Ikuru, No Regrets for our Youth, Ran, Drunken Angel, Seven Samurai, Rashomon and High and Low. To produce this number of top works of cinematic art almost beggars belief.

The genres of his films range across Film Noir, Political Drama, Shakespearean Tragedy, Samurai Drama, Crime and Detective Drama and Period Drama.

In the history of film, Kurosawa put Japanese movies and world cinema on the map, while giving us all a handful of the most dynamic stories the Big Screen has ever seen.

2. Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy) (1912- 2007)

Four Antonioni films appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely, La Notte (The Night), Le Amiche (The Girlfriends), L’Avventura (The Adventure) and Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert). Antonioni was one of the most influential film directors in the post-modern phase of cinema history. He developed a new style of filmmaking known as interior realism.

Two of Antonioni’s films, L’Avventura (The Adventure) and Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) are masterpieces of post-modern art.

3. Elia Kazan (USA) (1909- 2003)

Four Kazan films appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely, East of Eden, On the Waterfront, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Streetcar Named Desire. Kurosawa, Kazan and Britain’s David Lean are probably the most consistently dramatic cinematic story-tellers in film history. Kazan’s poignant social dramas combine psychological realism and social realism to provide “slice of life” social critiques and enduring insights into the human condition.

4. Satyajit Ray (India) (1921-1992)

Ray put Indian cinema on the world map. He also expanded the Neo Realism style in three ways. Firstly, his works extend social analysis from the working classes to the impoverished and dispossessed, especially in Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road). Secondly, his style evolved into a more poetic form of realism in Devi, Charulata and Jalsaghar. Yet, even as he increased the beauty of his film imagery, he always linked his striking cinematic images to the underlying narrative, as well as to the film’s themes. Like Kazan, he succeeded in melding psychological realism and social realism, turning his portraits of Bengalese society into timeless parables.

Four Ray films appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely, Devi (The Goddess),  Charulata (The Lonely Wife), Jalsaghar (The Music Room) and Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road).

5. David Lean (Britain) (1908-1991)

From his distinguished body of work, this powerful cinematic story-teller has four films in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely, Lawrence of Arabia, Brief Encounter, The Sound Barrier and Great Expectations. Just as his films are visually stupendous, so are they thematically rich. It’s probable, in my view, that The Sound Barrier may be the finest British film ever made (so far), closely followed by Lawrence of Arabia.

6. Mikhail Kalatozov (Georgia/Soviet Union) (1903- 1973)

Kalatozov is one of the most poetic, innovative and yet underrated film directors in cinema history. Four of his films appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely, Salt for Svanetia, The Cranes are Flying, I am Cuba and Letter Never Sent. The visual dynamism he generated in these films is marvellous. But he was also a profound story-teller who, like Kurosawa, Kazan and Ozu, infused his narratives with a deep humanism.

7. Yasujiro Ozu (Japan) (1903-1963)

Ozu was one of the first true auteur film directors, developing a distinctive cinematic grammar or style of filming, including the famous low angle shots of his characters, the full-frontal shots of his characters as they are speaking and the brief contextualising shots of the surroundings and settings. He showed great humanity in examining conflicts within families and across generations, giving to cinema a legacy in which his own classical style, portraits of Japanese culture and thematic universality are seamlessly interwoven in unforgettable stories. Three of his films appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely, Tokyo Story, The End of Summer and Tokyo Twilight.

8. Stanley Kubrick (USA) (1928- 1999)

Kubrick directed what many critics and cinephiles, myself included, regard as cinema’s greatest film, the science fiction epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey.      He also directed one of the greatest war dramas, Paths of Glory.

These two masterpieces alone guarantee Kubrick his illustrious place in cinema history. Not only was he a deep thinker, he was technically brilliant. I find it extraordinary that no film has yet surpassed the imaginative and formal grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey in over five decades since it was made.

9. Fritz Lang (Austria/Germany) (1890-1976)

Lang’s 1927 science fiction/fantasy Metropolis is the most magnificent film made during the silent era of cinema and one of the best films ever made. Even today, over nine decades later, it still looks futuristic.  The Film Noir crime thriller, M, is another masterpiece from Lang’s lens. It was Hitchcock before Hitchcock. Lang set the bar high for Western European cinema, just as D.W. Griffith did for American cinema and Ozu and Kurosawa did for Japanese film.

10. Sergei Eisenstein (Russia) (1898-1948)

Eisenstein produced two cinematic masterpieces, Battleship Potemkin, a political drama, and Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible) Part 1, an historical epic. In addition, he was the first great film theorist, establishing the Russian school of montage, which produced some of the best films of the silent era of cinema. His influence on the global development of film art cannot really be calculated.

11. John Ford (USA) (1894-1973)

In a prolific movie career, Ford directed what is probably the greatest Western, The Searchers, as well as one of the most epic social dramas in cinema history, The Grapes of Wrath. The latter film exemplifies how to adapt a great novel and turn it into timeless cinema. In addition, Ford exerted a strong influence on film directors both in America and abroad with his gritty brand of social realism and his gift for cinematic story-telling. 

12. Ingmar Bergman (Sweden) (1918-2007)

Along with Antonioni, Bergman was the most representative and successful of the post-modern directors who embodied post-war Existentialism in their themes and character studies. He was also one of the most distinguished of the auteur film-makers. Two of the influential director’s movies appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely, Wild Strawberries, a socio-psychological drama and the legendary allegory and medieval period drama, The Seventh Seal.

13. Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia) (1932-1986)           

Tarkovsky is one of the most poetic and spiritual of the contemporary auteur filmmakers. Three of the intense Russian director’s films appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely, the historical drama Andrei Rublev, the war drama Ivan’s Childhood and the apocalyptic science fiction drama, Stalker. Tarkovsky’s poetic film style, often deployed in the service of creating cinematic beauty, influenced directors like Andrei Konchalovsky, Larisa Shepitko and Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Tarkovsky advanced film theory and aesthetics with his thoughtful, semi-autobiographical, highly abstract treatise on cinematic art, Sculpting in Time.

14. Robert Bresson (France) (1901-1999)

Bresson was another auteur European filmmaker who exerted a strong influence on modern cinema. His austere minimalism attracted a lot of attention, since he developed such a distinctive filming style and was such an independent, individualistic voice. His highly personal movies were the exact opposite of slick, Hollywood studio films. Often having a hidden spiritual meaning, his films are almost liturgical in their strict formalism.

Bresson advanced the cause of film art through his uncompromising commitment to maximising cinema-specific forms and techniques, forcing cinema to distinguish itself radically from all other art forms, whether literature or theatre. For him, it was a cinematic sin for movies to be too literary, or too theatrical. This pure approach to cinematic art reminds me of the work of Tarkovsky and Bergman, two other cinematic purists.

Three of the great French director’s films appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc), Au Hasard Balthazar and Diary of a Country Priest.

He is one of the giants of European cinema.

15. Roman Polanski (Poland) (1933 -)

Another giant of European cinema is Roman Polanski.

Three of the Polish director’s films appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, namely the Shakespearean drama, Macbeth, the surrealistic horror film Repulsion, and the masterly war drama, The Pianist. Always thematically profound and rich in imagination, his films have so often pushed the boundaries of cinematic form and techniques, such as in Repulsion, which is, by far, the best ever surrealist film. Like Bergman, he has a pessimistic, Existentialist worldview but in his greatest works he recreates his cinematic worlds with such passion, and with such uncompromising artistry, that they seem to pulsate with an unbelievable power.

Polanski is a colossus of the post-modernist phase of cinematic history. 

16. Vittorio De Sica (Italy) (1901- 1974)

One of the leading voices in the influential school of Italian Neo Realism, De Sica has two films in the list “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, the poignant war drama Two Women, and probably the most iconic Neo Realist drama of all, The Bicycle Thieves. The latter is probably one of the most influential films ever made. It is incredibly searing and heartfelt. At the same time, it attained a high degree of stylistic, or artistic, excellence.

17. Robert Weine (Germany) (1873-1938)

Robert Weine mastered the art of Expressionism in film, as evidenced in his legendary horror film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.  What The Bicycle Thieves is to Neo Realism, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is to German Expressionism. The influence of both films in cinema history is incalculable. Weine’s masterpiece spawned successful film genres like horror, psychological dramas and even Film Noir. This film epitomises the marriage of form and content which is the essence of art.

Weine’s The Hands of Orlac is a masterpiece of science fiction/horror and is a seriously underrated film. Fritz Lang and Robert Weine virtually founded the cinematic science fiction genre as a form of modern art. Given that what many believe is the greatest film of all, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a work of science fiction, and given that this genre, like the Western, has been very rich source of successful movies, this represents a profound contribution to the advancement of film art.

18. G.W. Pabst (Austria) (1885- 1967)

Austrian director, G.W. Pabst, made one of the finest war dramas in film history, Westfront 1918. In a later war drama, Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick used the camera in very similar ways to Pabst, with a dynamic mobility and an intimate closeness to the action which turned the viewers of both films into active observers of the recreated war experience. Oliver Stone’s masterpiece Platoon, about the Vietnam War, employed the same approach to filming the war experience as Pabst and Kubrick had. The Austrian director, then, set the benchmark for war dramas, one of the most successful of cinema’s genres.

In addition, in 1931, Pabst made one of the founding films in the disaster movie genre, Kameradschaft (Comradeship), again setting the bar high. Both Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft appear in the list “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”.

Pabst proved early in the history of cinema that war dramas and disaster dramas could be works of art.

19. Vsevolod Pudovkin (Russia) (1893-1953)

Vsevolod Pudovkin was a Russian and Soviet filmmaker, screenwriter and actor, as well as an influential film theorist. His approach to filmmaking, like that of his contemporary and fellow countryman, Sergei Eisenstein, was focused on montage as the key to the art of cinema. His film doctrine is clearly and forcefully expounded in the classic text Film Technique and Film Acting.

Pudovkin’s movies The End of St Petersburg, a political drama, and Mother, a social drama, feature in the list “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”. They are filled to the brim with dynamic imagery and exciting montage effects.

20. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany) (1945-1982)

Along with Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, Fassbinder was a major figure in the New German Cinema of the period 1962 to 1982. Two of his masterpieces appear in the list of “111 Films of Cinematic Genius”, the social satire/romance Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf), made in 1974 and the period drama/romance Effi Briest made in the same year. To produce two films of the highest artistic quality in one year is an astonishing achievement. This speaks volumes about how naturally gifted Fassbinder was. His output was prodigious and it has been said that he could complete a few movies each year on very low budgets. His approach was the very opposite of the big budget, big studio movies. He greatly democratised the film-making process with his example, advancing the cause of the independent filmmaker in the modern period. To succeed artistically at the same time as inventing this new, lower cost, business model for movie-making, gives Fassbinder a special place in the history of film.

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