If you’re an actor, everything hinges on the director you’re working with. Some of them are tight-asses, sticking to their script by the word like it’s the Bible, with no room for an actor to be free and feel around – it’s like a prison. Other directors are negligent and do nothing to guide actors through a scene and through their characters, or they might focus more on the technical side of things, making sure the camera is all set up correctly and in the right place, and neglect the performers in front of it. The very best directors are the ones who have a command over everything and have the whole production under control, but not like Hitler had control over Nazi Germany. Everyone under their rule should be creatively free, but kept within the confines of the director’s brilliant, unique vision. That’s where great movies come from, especially movies where you can sense the director’s involvement without being able to see them. You can sense Christopher Nolan in Inception without seeing him. You can sense Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction without seeing him (although in a couple of scenes, you can see him, because he thinks he’s a good actor as well). Point is, some directors are auteurs, but they also tailor their films to be entertaining to a mainstream audience as well as making a strong and personal statement. It’s a very thin tightrope, and most directors are nowhere near it. Here are the 15 greatest directors who manage to consistently walk back and forth along this tightrope.
15. Spike Lee
Spike Lee is one of the few African-American voices to have been able to sneak through the cracks of whitewashed Hollywood and get to make movies that shine a light on the black community. Lee’s movies (or “joints,” as he calls them) present us with accurate depictions of African-American people going through their daily lives. She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X – all very important films for the African-American community. Lee’s movies examine deep topics and bring out a whole range of emotions in their audience. They could be funny, they could break your heart, they could shock you, but two things are always the same about his movies: they always offer an honest portrait of the black community, and they’re always really, really cool.
14. Adam McKay
Adam McKay was, in the earliest stages of his career, a sketch comedy writer and director. He made it onto the staff of Saturday Night Live and quickly became its head writer. His feature directorial debut came with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, his first of many collaborations with Will Ferrell. It was a silly comedy, but it was also a satirical commentary on sexual harassment in the workplace and the gender politics of the 1970s. McKay may have started out making absurdist comedy movies with sly political overtones (like the scene in Talladega Nights where Ricky Bobby decides he would rather have his arm broken by the French guy than admit that he likes crepes), but now, he’s making outright political drama movies, like the recession story The Big Short and the upcoming Dick Cheney biopic Backseat – but these still have his wry comedic voice echoing through them, except now his movies are winning him Oscars. Still, it would be great to see him return to making comedies with Will Ferrell, because those damn movies are unparalleled.
13. Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow started out with a diverse range of Hollywood movies, from buddy action thrillers to mind-bending science fiction, but in the last few years, she has narrowed her focus down to making taut political docudramas. She’s teamed up with journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal, and together, they’ve dedicated the better part of a decade (and this looks like it’ll continue for a long time) to bringing important stories into the public eye. For example, the mental toll that the senseless conflict in the Middle East is having on American soldiers, or how the U.S. government found and killed Osama bin Laden, or the racially charged riots in Detroit. For this, she’s been rightfully rewarded with Academy Awards and critical acclaim (but that’s not why she’s doing it).
12. Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro is a director who truly cares about his movies. Every frame of any one of his movies is drenched in his idiosyncratic style – which is influenced by his Mexican roots and the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft – and his intense attention to detail. Every time del Toro makes a movie, he falls in love with it and dedicates every ounce of his attention to it until it’s done. For better or worse, he carries every single one of his movies to term. Whether you like the end product or not, you know the guy made this movie to the best of his abilities and didn’t stop working until he was completely happy with it. Mimic, Hellboy, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak – you can always tell when you’re watching a Guillermo del Toro movie. And his new movie, The Shape of Water, is perhaps his finest. You can tell that the director is maturing with his films, and that’s the first one where he really feels like an adult. It’s intriguing.
11. Wes Anderson
The visual style of Wes Anderson is confusing and off-putting to some, but at least he’s an auteur. Every frame that Wes Anderson shoots feels like a surrealist painting – it’s symmetrical and oddly colored and bizarre. But he doesn’t just do one painting or two paintings and call it a day. He crafts these frames over and over until he’s cultivated an entire feature length film that’s beautiful and somehow manages to feel relatable and real, yet look so artificial. The unusual look of Anderson’s films has been described as “literary geek chic” – this is a term that’s been used to both praise and criticize his style. But who could criticize it? No other director could make Luke Wilson’s suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums look so visually poetic. His films, including Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, are not only great works of cinema, but also really funny. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou may have erred on the side of being too weird, but it’s still a lot of fun. Anderson’s latest, a stop motion animation called Isle of Dogs that’s set for a March 2018 release, looks like it could be his weirdest yet – and greatest.
10. Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson goes all in with every movie. He never half-asses it. He directs each film like it could be his last, pouring his heart and soul into each one, saying everything he could possibly have to say like he’ll never get to have his voice heard ever again. Whether it’s a large scale story or not, every single one of PTA’s movies feels like a sprawling epic, and it’s glorious. He tackled the seedy world of gambling in his debut feature Hard Eight, took on the porn industry in Boogie Nights, managed to make both Adam Sandler and the romantic comedy genre seem great in Punch Drunk Love, tackled the Southern California oil boom in There Will Be Blood, told a story about religious cults and World War II vets’ PTSD in The Master, adapted the unadaptable Thomas Pynchon with Inherent Vice, and recently helped Daniel Day-Lewis to retire with his period piece Phantom Thread about the ‘60s fashion industry. He’s a hell of a director.
9. David Fincher
David Fincher has directed some dark movies in his time. He gave you a serial killer to remember with Se7en, messed with your head in The Game, messed with it even more in Fight Club, gave you a bad case of claustrophobia with Panic Room, unravelled the greatest unsolved mystery in American history with Zodiac, made you jaw drop with the most graphic rape scene you’ll ever see in your entire life with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and made you question everything a woman ever says with Gone Girl. But no matter how grisly the subject matter, Fincher’s visual style is always deliciously rich and sharp and refined. His films are beautiful. He’s a perfectionist. And that’s why he manages to get the likes of Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Rosamund Pike, Jodie Foster, Daniel Craig, Robert Downey, Jr., Jesse Eisenberg, Jake Gyllenhaal, Edward Norton, Forest Whitaker, and Helena Bonham Carter to be in his movies.
8. Noah Baumbach
Kind of like a new era Woody Allen except without the sexual abuse allegations (that we know of) and with a more understated approach, Noah Baumbach has been turned out consistently strong movies about the upper classes of the East Coast since his deeply personal coming of age tale The Squid and the Whale, right up to his latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which stars Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, and Adam Sandler, who gives a surprisingly powerful performance in the role of the neglected son (read: this is Punch Drunk Love Sandler, not Jack and Jill Sandler). It’ll be interesting to see where Baumbach goes over the years, since his films seem to be maturing with him. His writing is so raw and feels so real, which is why great actors like Nicole Kidman, Jack Black, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Greta Gerwig, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Driver, and the aforementioned Stiller, Hoffman, and Sandler would all rather do a little Noah Baumbach movie than some bombastic, big budget blockbuster. His movies have a heart and a soul.
7. Ridley Scott
Sir Ridley Scott’s range of talents knows no bounds. He’s directed all kinds of movies from huge, spectacular blockbusters to smaller, more intimate films. His movies have won Oscars and grossed around $4 billion at the worldwide box office. He’s renowned for his very precise and ethereal visual style, but he’s used his eye to cover all kinds of settings: Ancient Rome, Crusades-era Jerusalem, Medieval England, the war-torn Middle East, futuristic Los Angeles, Mars, and planets many lightyears away that we haven’t even discovered yet. He’s also famous for bringing some great, iconic female characters to the screen, from Ellen Ripley to Thelma and Louise. For his cinematic work, Sir Ridley has been rewarded with a BAFTA for Outstanding British Contribution To Cinema and a knighthood for his “services to the British film industry.”
6. Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg never stops. If he does a big budget movie that’s going to take a while in post-production with the visual effects, rather than take some time off to regroup like a normal person, he spends the interim making a more intimate and dramatic movie. The guy loves to make movies. While Jurassic Park was in post-production, he shot Schindler’s List. Both became classics. This past year, while the visual effects were being added to his film Ready Player One, he directed The Post, the timely story of the journalists who published the Pentagon Papers and brought the Nixon administration to its knees. At a time when Donald Trump’s rhetoric echoes Nixon’s and he calls the free press “the enemy of the American people,” we needed that story to be told. And that’s why we need Spielberg – he tells those stories for us.
5. Edgar Wright
Edgar Wright began his directorial career by collaborating with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to create the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, and from those three films, it was clear that this was a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. In his zombie movie homage Shaun of the Dead, his action movie homage Hot Fuzz, and his sci-fi homage The World’s End, we saw a whole range of techniques used to keep us engaged: fast cuts, foreshadowing, rug-pulling. And then in 2017, Wright really pushed the boat out with his action comedy Baby Driver, a movie that actually cultivated its own genre: the iPod musical. This is like a jukebox musical (a musical that uses preexisting songs), except all the music is played through the lead character’s iPod and we hear what he hears, and if he loses his headphones, we lose our soundtrack, and if the scene is too long for the track, he’ll rewind it back for us. It was revolutionary, it was groundbreaking, and it was a lot of fun. Whatever Wright ends up doing next will be exactly the same.
4. Woody Allen
Despite allegations of sexual assault from his own daughter and the fact that he married his own adoptive stepdaughter, actors are all still dying to work with Woody Allen. He’s a terrific writer with a truly unique perspective on the world and romance. He’s provided deep, three dimensional roles to Scarlett Johansson, Diane Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Michael Caine, Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Mia Farrow, Emma Stone, Alan Alda, Larry David, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and many, many, many more – hell, even himself. And a huge part of his idiosyncratic comic style that makes every one of his scenes feel like it was ripped from real life is his process of letting actors improvise and using his screenplays as a loose guide for how to figure out the movie. A lot of actors love improvising, and that’s why they’ll overlook the allegations of sexual abuse against Allen in order to work with him.
3. Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese has been making movies for almost fifty years, ever since his low budget debut feature, Mean Streets, became an instant classic. He’s a classic example of a director who has continued to find success for half a century by changing with the times. You never hear from his contemporaries Brian De Palma or Francis Ford Coppola anymore, and yet Scorsese continues to turn out massive hits like The Wolf of Wall Street, because he’s changing the way he makes movies as the technology develops. He’s always been a champion of film, but when he realized he’d lost the battle, he accepted defeat and started shooting on digital, and found a way to embrace digital technology and CGI as a way to improve films, not ruin them. He has also changed his casting with the times. His go-to leading man used to be Robert De Niro, the biggest star of that day, but now it’s Leonardo DiCaprio, the biggest star of this day. Scorsese tells gritty crime stories, usually about the mafia, because he grew up in Little Italy in New York. These are the kinds of people he spend his childhood around. He’s as authentic as an artist as Johnny Cash. He’s one of the only directors who have been working for many decades to have consistently turned out brilliant films. Spielberg is kind of up and down, hit and miss – but Scorsese has never had a resounding failure, and that speaks volumes about his talent.
2. Quentin Tarantino
A few people may have soured on old QT when he admitted that he “knew” about what Harvey Weinstein was up to all along and continued to work with him, but by and large, he’s the coolest filmmaker out there. No one makes movies quite like Tarantino (although many try and fail to emulate his signature style). Few other filmmakers are enough of an auteur that you can feel their presence from frame one right to the closing credits. Everything in a Tarantino movie belongs solely in a Tarantino movie. The nonlinear storylines, the pop culture references, the graphic violence, the novel-like chapter structure, the pitch black sense of humor – it’s all classic QT and anyone who tries to do it themselves ends up looking like a shameless, embarrassing ripoff.
1. Christopher Nolan
Lord only knows how Christopher Nolan keeps knocking it out of the park. He’s the Babe Ruth of film. Every single genre he touches, he crafts a timeless classic that has deep roots in that genre and will be being watched by audiences decades from now. Weirdly, he’s yet to slip up. The audiences didn’t quite latch on to his take on science fiction with the trippy Interstellar, but it was hardly panned, and audiences adored it. Inception, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, this year’s Dunkirk – every time Nolan gives something a go (war movie, superhero movie, whatever), he crafts a masterpiece that satisfies regular filmgoers and sends film fanatics into a spasm. He has a close-knit roster of actors that he keeps bringing back – Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine etc. – but any actor who hasn’t worked with him is desperate to. There’s simply no question that Christopher Nolan is the greatest director working today.