The Top 20 Movie Directors of All-Time

The Top 20 Movie Directors of All-Time

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The success of a movie is often down to the talents and skills of the director as they are responsible for many different aspects of a film. They must interpret the screenplay and transport this to the screen with visual effects and dramatization. Directors are also responsible for guiding the actors and the technical crew to achieve the desired results to fulfill their vision. The director will often choose the cast, design the production and make key choices relating to the creative aspects of filmmaking.

For a director to be a success, they must have a vast knowledge of the filmmaking process as well as an extraordinary creative streak to translate ideas into movies. While it is often the director that receive great critical acclaim if a movie is a success, it is also they who face the brunt of the criticism for the failure of a film. Therefore, the director’s job is a difficult one and not all succeed in this role. However, there are some directors who have become famous for the success of their films and are widely acclaimed.

Here are our picks the top 20 movie directors of all-time:

20. Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski was born in Paris on August 18, 1933. He is a famous director, actor, writer, and producer. His first feature length film was ‘Knife in the Water’ and this was released in 1962. In the United States, it was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. In 1969, his wife and four of their friends were brutally murdered by the Manson Family causing Polanski to take a short career-break while he grieved. Some of his most famous works include ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘Chinatown’, ‘Tess’, and ‘The Pianist’. Polanski has led a controversial life, including accusations of sexual assault on a minor. During his career, he has won eight Oscars.

19. Tim Burton

Born in California on August 25, 1958, Timothy Walter Burton has established himself as one of the most prolific directors in the modern movie industry. He is well-known for his eccentric and flamboyant style which is evident both in his own personality and in the films he directs. Typically, he directs movies in the genres of fantasy, horror, and animation. Some examples of his work include ‘Beetlejuice’, ‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’, ‘Sleepy Hollow’, ‘Batman’, ‘Planet of the Apes’, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, and ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Surprisingly, Burton has never won an Oscar or a BAFTA despite many nominations. He has won just one Golden Globe and one Emmy Award. In addition to his work as a director, Tim Burton is also an artist, writer, producer, and animator.

18. Charles Chaplin

While most people associate Charles ‘Charlie’ Chaplin with his on-screen performances in silent movies as the ‘Little Tramp’, he was also a writer and director. The movies he directed included dramas, romances, and theatrical productions. He won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe during his career. Some of his most famous films include ‘The Kid’, ‘A Woman of Paris’, ‘A Countess from Hong Kong’, ‘The Great Dictator’, ‘The Circus’, and ‘Modern Times’. Chaplin was born in England on April 16, 1889, and died from a stroke in Switzerland on Christmas Day of 1977. From his four marriages, he fathered 11 children.

17. Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet specializes in romance, suspense, and drama movies. He is particularly notable for his technical knowledge and his ability to get the best from the actors he is directing. During his career, he made over 40 movies and many of these were filmed in New York. Some of his greatest movies include ’12 Angry Men’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, ‘Network’, ‘The Wiz’, and ‘The Verdict’. Although he was nominated for many different awards throughout his career, he won just six awards, including one Oscar. Lumet was born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1924, and died from lymphoma in Manhattan, New York, on April 9, 2011.

16. James Cameron

James Cameron is a Canadian director whose work has influenced that of many other directors. He was born in Ontario on August 16, 1954, but moved to the United States in 1971. He originally followed in the footsteps of his father who was an engineer as he chose to study physics at California State University. However, he decided this wasn’t the right choice for him and switched his course to English. In the end, he decided he wanted to pursue a different career path and dropped out of university altogether. He began screenwriting but had to work as a truck driver in the early stages to support his ambition. He went on to have a very successful career as a screenwriter, director, producer, and filmmaker. He was also an engineer, an inventor, a deep-sea explorer, and a philanthropist. Some of his biggest films include ‘The Terminator’, ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Avatar’, ‘Titanic’, ‘True Lies’, ‘Strange Days’, and ‘Spider-Man and Dark Angel’. Throughout his career, Cameron has won two Golden Globes and three Oscars.

15. John Ford

John Ford has such an outstanding reputation within the movie industry that he is known as ‘The Great American Director’. He was born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, on February 1, 1894. He is best-known for his adaptations of 20th-century novels, such as ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. However, he also built a reputation as being a fantastic director of Westerns. These included ‘The Searchers’, ‘Stagecoach’, and ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’. Ford’s career spanned over 50 years and during this time he directed over 140 movies. Unfortunately, many of his early films were silent movies and these are now lost. Two of the characteristics of Ford’s direction were long shots and the use of location shooting. In recognition of his outstanding work, Ford has won four Oscars. He died of stomach cancer on August 31. 1973.

14. Joel Coen

Joel Coen is one half of the duo that are known as ‘The Coen Brothers’. He is a director who predominantly works alongside his brother, Ethan Coen, who is a screenwriter. Coen has built a reputation as one of the most idiosyncratic and visionary filmmakers in the modern film industry and he usually works in the genres of crime, drama, and suspense. To date, he has won four Oscars, one BAFTA, and one Golden Globe. He is most famous for the 2007 movie ‘No Country for Old Men’. However, some of his other famous films include ‘Barton Fink’, ‘Fargo’, and Bridge of Spies’. Joel Coen was born in Minnesota on November 29, 1954, and he is married with one child.

13. Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman is a Swedish director, actor, and writer who was born on July 14, 1918. He is well-known for creating a TV series and film which are both titles ‘The Best Intentions’ and this is a biographical account of the early marriage of his parents. He created many movies in the genres of horror, drama, and suspense and for these works he was awarded a BAFTA and nominated for many more awards throughout his career. Some of his best-known films include ‘The Seven Seas’, ‘Eva’, ‘It Rains on Our Love’, ‘While the City Sleeps’, ‘Summer with Monika’, and ‘Prison’. Bergman was married five times and had nine children in his lifetime. He died on July 30, 2007, in Sweden.

12. David Lean

David Lean is one of the most important filmmakers in the British film industry. He was born in Croydon on March 25, 1908 where he was brought up in a Quaker family. He went on to become a prolific director, producer, editor, and screenwriter. His specialist film genres included war, romance, and adventure. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is probably this director’s most famous film. This epic historical drama was released in 1962 and starred Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains, and Anthony Quayle. Other movies Lean is famous for include ‘Brief Encounter’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘The Bridge of River Kwai’, and ‘In Which We Serve’. Lean has won three Golden Globes and two Oscars.

11. Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood has switched sides of the camera throughout his career as well as taking on many non-movie related roles in life. He is famous as an actor, a director, a musician, and a political figure. He originally rose to fame in ‘Rawhide’ a Western TV series before landing the role of a man with no name in ‘Dollars Trilogy’, a Sergio Leone film of the 1960s. The genre of films which he is most famous for directing and acting in are western, drama, crime, and war. Some of the most famous of the movies he directed include ‘Play Misty for Me’, ‘The Enforcer’, ‘The Gauntlet’, ‘Any Which Way You Can’, ‘Million Dollar Baby’, and ‘The 15:17 to Paris’. Throughout his career, he has won three Golden Globes and four Oscars, although he has been nominated for many more awards.

10. Milos Forman

Born in Czechoslovakia on February 18, 1932, this director, actor, professor, and screenwriter was born with the birth name Jan Tomas Forman but is known as Milos Forman. While His most famous movie is probably ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, he has directed many more movies. These include ‘Loves of a Blonde’, ‘Taking Off’, ‘The Fireman’s Ball’ and ‘Hair’. Until 1968, when he left Czechoslovakia, he was one of the most important and influential directors in the Czechoslovak New Wave. He has been married three times and has four children.

9. Peter Jackson

Born in 1969 in a small town on the coast of New Zealand, Peter Jackson has become a world-famous screenwriter, director, and film producer. He is best-known for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and ‘The Hobbit trilogy. These series of films are all based on books by J.R.R. Tolkien. Jackson made his directorial debut in 1987 with ‘Bad Taste’, a slapstick horror comedy. Since then, he has predominantly worked on fantasy and adventure movies. He has won three Oscars three BAFTAs and one Golden Globe and has been nominated for many more awards. When talking about his inspirations, he has mentioned both Martin Scorsese and James Cameron. This successful director now has a net worth of approximately NZ $600 million. He is married and has two children.

8. John Huston

Over a period of five decades, John Huston was one of the most established and experienced directors in Hollywood who also has many credits as a screenwriter and a character actor. He earned the reputation of being an eccentric rebel amongst Hollywood circles. He is most famous for drama, suspense and adventure movies. Some of his most successful movies include ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘The Asphalt Jungle’, ‘The African Queen’, ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘Freud’, and ‘Wise Blood’. He has won one BAFTA, two Oscars and three Golden Globes. He has been married five times and has five children.

7. Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder had originally planned a career in law before deciding to become a journalist. He worked for the largest newspaper in Berlin before becoming a screenwriter in 1929. Throughout his career, he directed 27 movies and wrote many more. Some of his most famous films include ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, ‘A Foreign Affair’, ‘The Apartment’, and ‘Love in the Afternoon’. He directed movies in a range of genres, including comedy, romance, drama, and even musicals. For his work, he has received six Oscars, three Golden Globes and a BAFTA Award.

6. Woody Allen

Woody Allen initially made his name in front of the camera before switching sides and has worked as an actor, a comedian, a filmmaker, a director, a writer, and a musician. His career spans over six decades and he has been nominated for many awards for acting, writing and directing. Of these, he has won four Oscars, nine BAFTAs, and two Golden Globes. His work is generally in the genres of drama, romance, and comedy. Just a sample of the films directed by Woody Allen, many of which he wrote, include ‘Wonder Wheel’, ‘To Rome with Love’, ‘Cassandra’s Dream’, ‘Sweet and Lowdown’, ‘Small Time Crooks’, and ‘September’.

5. Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola is a prolific director in the genres of war, crime, and drama. He is an Italian-American who grew up in New York although he was born in Detroit in 1939.He graduated from Hosfra University with a degree in drama before establishing a career in the film industry. Some of his most famous movies include ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘The Godfather’, ‘The Godfather: Part II’, and ‘The Godfather: Part III’. Coppola is widely considered to be one of the central figures in the New Hollywood wave of filmmaking. In addition to his work as a director, Francis Ford Coppola is a producer and screenwriter. Coppola has won five Oscars, four Golden Globes and a BAFTA Award. He has been married to Eleanor Jessie Neil since 1963 and the couple have three children; Gian-Carlo, Roman, and Sofia.

4. Stanley Kubrick

Achieving poor grades at school did not stop Stanley Kubrick from making a success of his life. In fact, he went on to become one of the most famous directors of all-time. Throughout his career, he was nominated for 13 Oscars nominations of which he won one. He was best-known for directing war, horror, and science-fiction movies. Amongst his most famous films are ‘The Shining’, ‘Spartacus’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, ‘A Full Metal Jacket’, and ‘2001: The Space Odyssey’. Kubrick was born in The Bronx, New York City, on July 26, 1928. He died on March 7, 1999 following a massive heart attack.

3. Alfred Hitchcock

When it comes to horror and suspense movies, Alfred Hitchcock is often the first name that springs to mind as he is renowned for his work in these genres. He has also directed many notable drama movies. Alfred Hitchcock is a British director who was born on August 13, 1899. He began his career working on silent films and he didn’t direct a film with sound until his tenth film, ‘Blackmail’, which was released in 1929. Some of Hitchcock’s most famous movies include ‘Psycho’, ‘Rebecca’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘North by Northwest’, and ‘Rear Window’. He was awarded a Golden Globe and also received five different Lifetime Achievement Awards in honor of his contributions to the film industry. Hitchcock died on April 29, 1980.

2. Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese was born in New York City on November 17, 1942. He is now one of the most famous directors in the world and specializes in directing movies in the crime, drama, and suspense genres. There are often themes that run throughout his work, including the concepts of redemption and guilt in the Catholic church, gang conflict, modern crime, and his Sicilian-American identity. Some of his most famous movies include ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘The Departed’, ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Raging Bull’, and ‘Mean Streets’. This highly acclaimed director has won many awards, including an Oscar, three Golden Globes, and three BAFTA Awards. He has been married five times and has three children.

1. Steven Spielberg

Not only is Steven Spielberg one of the best-known directors in Hollywood, he is also one of the wealthiest people in the film industry in the world. This American director, producer and screenwriter has a career that spans over four decades and he has become one of the most influential people in the movie industry. Although he has made films in many genres, his areas of specialism are science-fiction, war, and adventure. He made his professional directorial debut in 1968 with a short film called ‘Amblin’ which he also wrote. Some of the films for which he is best known include ‘Jaws’, ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’, ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. This prolific filmmaker has been nominated for 15 Oscars of which he has won three. He has also won two Golden Globes and two BAFTA Awards. Spielberg is one of the co-founders of DreamWorks Studios.

*Plenty of honorable mentions but David Fincher gets a nod, Christopher Nolan needs a mention, Peter Weir is amazing, Edward Zwick has made his mark, George Roy Hill is awesome, Kathryn Bigelow is up there, Sofia Coppola continues to produce great films, Jean Luc Godard is a legend, and certainly Quentin Tarantino needs recognition.  Plus new guys like Darren Aronofsky or J.J. Abrams may very well make the list some day but not yet.   


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