These are the directors I love and value the most. Whether their work has inspired me humanly or creatively (or both), the films of these men have influenced me in ways that I will never fully, coherently, be able to communicate in written form. They are responsible for so many cherished memories and bouts of fluid, manic motivation.
Please keep in mind that these are my personal choices. This list is not to act as a grand statement on who are the very best filmmakers of all time, these are just the ones I personally love. The first three directors are listed in order of significance – their work resonates above all others, so they deserve to carry specific weight. The remaining seven are listed alphabetically.
Enjoy, and please feel free to share your favorite directors in the comments!
The man, the myth, the master. I’ve written much about the impact Bergman and his films have had over my life and creative career, and that’s for good reason. There is simply no other person who has influenced my imagination more than Ingmar Bergman.
I was first introduced to Bergman through countless parodies of the most famous scene of his career: a knight playing chess with Death in The Seventh Seal. Not-so-coincidentally, that film was my first Bergman, and from there, the artistic floodgates were opened. Don’t get me wrong, I loved and knew movies well before I discovered Bergman, but after The Seventh Seal, I loved and knew movies.
I’ve seen every film Bergman directed, and although his filmography isn’t flawless (some of his early films were misguided and rough), his work remains indelible. Sure, I could list his most profound work here – the films that have and will always stand the test of time – but I’m afraid I’d end up listing the majority of his filmography. Just know this: my life and the general wonderment of the cinematic medium will be forever linked. And the films of Ingmar Bergman are large in part to thank for that.
My Top Three Favorites: Persona, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander
Werner Herzog, mad crazy genius or batshit crazy pioneer? To me, both. I feel safe stating that there is no living filmmaker who doesn’t give less of a shit about pushing the boundaries than Werner Herzog does. To be clear, Herzog doesn’t care that he makes films. He finds it an insignificant profession that he only partakes in as means to provide himself with an income.
Now, in understanding a master’s complete apathy to his own work, we may begin to understand why much of that man’s work is quite flawless.
Herzog stops at nothing to tell the story, evoking realism by any means necessary. If this means actually dragging a massive ship across a mountain landscape, then so be it. Threaten to kill (and threated to be killed by) your leading star? Fine. Travel to an island that has been evacuated due to an impending volcanic eruption? It’s all part of the game for Herzog. The man stops at nothing to document unique lives in unique ways. It is simply impossible for me to not be in awe of the dedication this man puts into his craft. Even if he thinks that craft is a futile one.
My Top Three Favorites: Woyzeck, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Grizzly Man
In my mind, Martin Scorsese is responsible for the best film of the ‘70s, the ‘80s and nearly the ‘90s, and because of that (and much more) I am proud to call him one of my all time favorite directors.
“Craft” is a word you’re going to hear quite a lot in this post, and that’s because all of the men listed here have an impeccable command of it. Scorsese chief among them. There’s a great moment on the commentary track for Taxi Driver in which film historian Robert Kolker comments on the film’s frequent use of slightly-tilted camera angles. At one point, Kolker admits that he doesn’t know if the angles were intentional and then laments that whether they are intentional or not, they are a perfect means to subtly understanding the characters better.
So, essentially, what Kolker is saying here is that Martin Scorsese’s films often bleed perfection, even if it’s on accident. Scorsese’s latest film, Hugo, divided people sharply, which surprised me a great deal. Detractors found it overly long, unevenly paced, and too self-congratulatory. Not me. Hugo, like many of the man’s other films, reminded me why I love movies. That’s damn near the highest praise I can give any one film.
My Top Three Favorites: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas
The awkward, bumbling prodigy that is Woody Allen, a director who, not unlike Herzog, considers his films a means of getting by. He films one movie a year, edits it, then moves on long before it’s distributed in theaters. The man simply does not care what people think of his work; he makes movies because he finds that it is the occupation that suits him best. Thank God for us.
Woody Allen’s most famous films represent some of the most polarizing features of American cinema. For every person who loves Annie Hall and Manhattan, there is an equal amount who find them garish, nimble and boring. I personally love what Allen does with the art form: the blending of narrative devices to tell the story, his lush use of black and white, the bleakness of his dramas, the reliability of his comedies, and so on. Like him love him or hate him, there’s no arguing that there’s only one him.
While I’ll forever be taken with his unique brand of comedy, it’s Allen’s dramas that I am drawn to most. Whether it’s Mia Farrow’s melancholic face in The Purple Rose of Cario, the impossible bleakness of Interiors, the perfection that is Another Woman, or even the misunderstand density of September, Woody Allen always manages to draw me in for the duration. When his best work is on display, he’s got me.
My Top Three Favorites: Another Woman, Match Point, Husbands and Wives
The best way I can encapsulate my love for Charlie Chaplin is with a story. A few years ago, not having seen any of his films, I purchased a massive Chaplin DVD box set, and went about cranking them out over the course of one weekend. About five movies in, I simply didn’t get it. I didn’t understand the hype, the magic, the wonder and fulfillment. I just couldn’t see it.
That is, until I could.
My moment of clarity came in the final scene of Chaplin’s masterpiece, City Lights. If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly the moment I’m speaking of. If you haven’t seen it, then, go about benefiting yourself by doing so. That final scene was so delicate and tender and simple that I sat jaw-dropped and teary-eyed. Everything clicked.
Younger generations watching Chaplin today may fail to appreciate the weight his films had over the medium. At least that’s what I can accuse myself of. I only hope that, when people who don’t “get” his work, finally watch (or rewatch) his films, it clicks for them as it did for me.
My Top Three Favorites: City Lights, Modern Times, The Gold Rush
The master of suspense, the mad manipulator. Alfred Hitchcock is and will forever remain synonymous with the horror suspense genre of films. It’s virtually impossible to have an intelligible discussion about suspense cinema without uttering his name. And the credit couldn’t be more justly deserved.
The man is responsible for so many iconic film moments – to list them all here would be a fruitless attempt to conjure up the life’s work of a master. It didn’t matter who he was given or what he had to work with, Hitchcock continually managed to deliver something worthy.
Vertigo was recently named the best film of all time by Sight & Sound, a publication that conducts a once-every-decade poll in which nearly 900 critics rank cinema’s greatest films. I love everything about Vertigo. I love its forgery, its against type Jimmy Stewart, its revelatory cinematography – everything. So to say that I wouldn’t consider it Hitchcock’s fifth (or sixth) best film is, well, saying something rather significant.
My Top Three Favorites: Psycho, Notorious, Rear Window
The word craft, as it relates to cinema, is never better used than in discussing the films of Stanley Kubrick. Everything about the man’s films bleeds tireless excellence. The epic, impossibly smooth tracking shots, the efficient handheld camera work, the dynamic storytelling, the lavish landscapes, the curious casting – Kubrick was a man who knew what he wanted and stopped at nothing to get it.
His process of perfection brought with it many things, including remorseless privacy and a scarce number of finished films. No matter, because whether he hauled himself away for years to complete his magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey in private, or rebuild the streets of downtown Manhattan for Eyes Wide Shut, all of Kubrick’s films have an impeccable authenticity. That, coupled with his never-to-be-mirrored vision, represents some of the finest films we’ll ever know.
My Top Three Favorites: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange
Now, I haven’t seen every Kurosawa film, but of the many I have seen, I have yet to view one that I wouldn’t hail as excellent. I was first introduced to this Japanese genius in the form of Rashomon, his nonlinear masterwork that tells the same story from multiple sides, leaving the viewer to decide what’s real, what’s false, who’s right, and who’s wrong.
Since then, I haven’t seen a Kurosawa I didn’t adore. One could talk for pages about the emotional complexities of High and Low and Ikiru, or the grandiose achievements of Seven Samurai and Ran. Even looking at his restrained, magical Dreams, it’s clear that Kurosawa will always have a unique, enduring presence over cinema. There’s simply nothing I don’t love about his films.
My Top Three Favorites: Rashomon, High and Low, Ikiru
I’ve written about the man and his films determinedly on this blog (most recently in my essay in appreciation for his constant ploy for naturalism), and that’s because I like to believe that I get what Soderbergh is going for.
I understand how his obsession with films of the ‘60s and ‘70s impact not only the work he produces, but the philosophy in which he produces them. He puts up with the studio system, simply because in order to make it that’s something you have to. But his acceptance for the hindrance that Hollywood can often bestow only goes so far. He keeps them at a distance, releasing micro budget gems like The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble alongside star vehicles like the Ocean’s films and Out of Sight.
My point is, no matter what he does, he does it his own specific way. And, granted, if you don’t like the way he does things, then you are certain to not enjoy his films. Me? I’m completely enamored with his digital, filtered cinematography, his purposeful angles and deliberate sound, his shifting narratives and precise font choices. You name it.
In the past 12 years, he’s released 15 narrative films, created a TV show and won and Oscar for directing. He’s been open with the press in saying that after next year’s The Bitter Pill and the HBO Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, he plans to retire. Most of me hopes he’ll reconsider, but if he does bow out prematurely, at least I’ll have his impeccable body of work to fall back on.
My Top Three Favorites: Traffic, Out of Sight, Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Quentin Tarantino has gotten to the point where he is so revered that it’s almost become cool to dislike him. I’m not saying people don’t have the right to hate his films, but a 10 second Google search on Tarantino will spawn hundreds of feverish words of contempt for a man who I feel singlehandedly rejuvenated independent film.
Pulp Fiction was a phenomenon. It showed audiences that talking can indeed be fun and entertaining, and even if your movie contains sex, drugs and violence, the words can act as the punch line. It showed young, aspiring filmmakers that, as long as the story is there, the stars will follow, and for cheap. It is, to me, the most significant film of my lifetime – it started a revolution of newfound hope. It gave independent filmmakers the voice they were looking for.
And that’s just one of the flicks in this guy’s oeuvre. I could go on and on, but I don’t want to scare away the (many) QT detractors. Let me close by saying that, yeah, I’m a fan. I love the way he manipulates language and let’s his feverish, encyclopedic knowledge of films bleed through every frame of his movies. A contemporary master if there ever was one.
My Top Three Favorites: Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown
Honorable Mention: Edward Burns
Crazy right? There are so many other names that seem more fitting to go here. There’s Fellini and Godard and Truffaut and Antonioni and Wilder and Ozu. But I can’t help myself. I simply cannot conduct a list of my favorite filmmakers without including Edward Burns, who, along with Soderbergh, has influenced my work as a filmmaker more than any other director.
Burns doesn’t make movies for money. He doesn’t make them for notoriety or lasting fame. He makes them because it’s what he loves to do. The funny thing is, he makes movies that, given my tastes, I really shouldn’t enjoy. Take his weakest film, Nice Guy Johnny, as an example. The movie is about a young kid who is tempted to step out on his crushing bitch of a fiancé with an innocent girl next door. It’s a cheesy, annoyingly optimistic romantic comedy, and I absolutely love it. Why? I have no goddamn clue. Maybe it’s because Burns made it just to make it. He got his friends together, drove them to the Hamptons for a few weeks and shot the damn thing. Done. I find honor in that. In terms of scope, his films certainly don’t compare to the work of the other directors on this list, but I love them despite.
In February of this year, I sat dumbfounded as I watched Burns’ latest (and best) film Newlyweds via iTunes. The movie was shot over a few days for $9,000 using the consumer grade Canon 5D Mark II camera. It stars Burns and a few of his friends and is a perfect dramedy that details how miscommunication can crumble a relationship. When it was finished, I sat and reflected in silence about the short I would be shooting in a few months. And right there, I set aside any doubts I had at the time and convinced myself that making a movie was what I needed to do. I wasn’t doing it for money or fame. I was doing it because I had to. That’s something Edward Burns taught me.
My Top Three Favorites: Newlyweds, She’s the One, Purple Violets