Hollywood Movies

The 30 Greatest Film Directors Of All Time

April 6, 202424 Mins Read

There are many amazing film directors. From living legends like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese to new auteurs like Greta Gerwig, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, many of these directors are household names. However, many of the greatest directors spend their life behind the scenes by nature. It is hard to quantify what makes a great director. It has to do with making great films, but there is more to it. The best directors innovate the art form, push boundaries and champion new techniques. They drive everyone on set, from actors to cinematographers to editors, to deliver their best work. The best directors turn in fully realized masterpieces and create their own distinctive styles across their catalogs.

Top Movie Directors

Just as there are great films from every genre, great directors on this list have worked in comedy, drama, western, noir, musicals and even animation. The best directors also come from many markets, both domestically and internationally. The directors on this list range from the late silent/early sound era to several working today.

Historically, not everyone has been allowed to direct, especially in American cinema. Women and people of color haven’t been afforded the same opportunities as white men in this space, and yet many of the best directors have broken through the red tape to tell their own stories. And a new class of directors (including Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, Charlotte Wells, Julia Ducournau, Dee Rees and many others) is changing the face of modern cinema. However, looking back, it’s important to understand how opportunities in directing have shaped who can be considered for a list like this.

30. Nora Ephron

Many great women directors are discounted because they have primarily worked in rom-coms and comedies. However, great directors like Nancy Meyers, Amy Heckerling, Diablo Cody and Nora Ephron have shaped the genre. Ephron wrote several films, including Silkwood (1983) and When Harry Met Sally (1989), before making her directorial debut with Sleepless in Seattle (1993). She went on to direct Mixed Nuts (1994), You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Julie & Julia (2009).

Ephron started as an intern in JFK’s White House before becoming a journalist. Breaking into writing was hard for her, so she became a mail girl at Newsweek after being told they didn’t hire female writers. Later, she was part of a class action lawsuit against the magazine for sexual discrimination. In the mid-1970s, she found her way to Hollywood after rewriting a script for All the President’s Men. Ephron broke down barriers when it came to women in Hollywood behind the scenes, but more than that her films show what films for women can be.

29. Vincente Minnelli

Vincente Minnelli doesn’t often make “best of directors” lists, possibly because musical directors are not often showcased. However, Minnelli directed over 27 films in his nearly five-decade career. Many of those films are considered classics, such as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958).

Minnelli made his directing debut with the race film/musical Cabin in the Sky (1943) after working on Broadway and a brief stint at Paramount. Six of his films have been preserved in the United States National Film Registry. His films have been both heralded and critiqued for their over-the-top and lush style. However, for musical lovers and queer cinema scholars, Minnelli left a lasting legacy as a director.

28. Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar is an icon of LGBTQ and Spanish cinema and has grown a cult following amongst U.S. audiences. He made several short films in the 1970s before making his first feature-length film, Pepi Luci, Bom, in 1980.

He has directed films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006) and The Skin I Live In (2011). His films are instantly recognizable by their use of bold colors, unique camera angles and themes of sexual deviancy, Catholicism and camp.

27. Mira Nair

Many Asian female filmmakers haven’t been given their fair praise and while that’s changing with directors like Celine Song and Chloé Zhao, names like Alice Wu, Mina Shum, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair should be revisited. Nair especially is notable with films like Mississippi Masala (1991), The Namesake (2006), Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Vanity Fair (2004).

Nair started as a documentary filmmaker before making her first scripted feature film Salaam Bombay! (1988.) The film won the Camera D’or and Prix du Public at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar for best Foreign Language Film. Nair’s films showcase a sense of realism and her roots in documentaries and activism are often evident.

26. John Huston

Not only a director, but also a writer and actor, John Huston is behind many classic American films. He directed films like The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Casino Royale (1967), Annie (1982) and Prizzi’s Honor (1985).

Huston was nominated for 14 Oscars and won two, including Best Director for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He was also awarded a lifetime achievement award from the Directors Guild of America. Huston was precise in his direction and rarely captured any superfluous material for his final edits. Micheal Caine once said of working with Huston, “Most directors don’t know what they want so they shoot everything they can think of — they use the camera like a machine gun. John uses it like a sniper.”

25. Sofia Coppola

One of two Coppolas on this list, Sofia Coppola started as an actress but quickly transitioned to filmmaking in the late 1990s. Her filmography includes The Virgin Suicides (1999), Marie Antoinette (2006), and most recently Priscilla (2023). She became the third woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar (after Lina Wertmüller in the 1970s and Jane Campion in the 1990s) for 2003’s Lost in Translation.

Coppola’s films often deal with themes of youth, femininity, privilege and loneliness and have an almost immediately recognizable style. She also often works with actress Kirsten Dunst. From her use of fashion to incredible wide shots, her work has an auteur quality and one that often connects with young women and teens especially.

24. Emilio Fernández

Arguably the most important director of The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Emilio Fernández (sometimes also called Emilio “El Indio” Fernández Romo) was also a prolific actor. He started his career after a failed insurrection and prison escape. After leaving Mexico, he found work in Los Angeles as a bartender, longshoreman and stonemason before working as an extra and body double for stars like Douglas Fairbanks.

He directed his first film La Isla de la Pasión in 1941. He made over 40 films including María Candelaria (1943), La Perla (1945), Una Cita de Amor (1958) and La Choca (1974). Fernández’s films received a Palm d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival, several Ariel Awards, a Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival and a Golden Globe. He never won an Academy Award; however, there is an unsubstantiated claim that he was the model for the Oscar statuette.

23. Fritz Lang

One of the fathers of German Expressionism, Fritz Lang directed classics of early film including Metropolis (1927), M (1931) and Die Nibelungen (1924). Lang’s early life was marked by violence, possibly leading to his dark film style. He lost an eye fighting in World War I and in the early 1920s, his first wife, Lisa Rosenthal, who was shot under mysterious circumstances (and some have cited him as likely being involved.)

While he frequently collaborated with his second wife, the novelist and screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, he divorced her after she started exhibiting Nazi sympathies and had an affair with journalist Ayi Tendulkar. After a screening of his film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) was shut down by Joseph Goebbels and the film later banned for “anti-Nazi sentiment,” Lang left Berlin and began a career in Hollywood. Director François Truffaut wrote that Lang, especially in America, was greatly under-appreciated by historians and critics.

22. François Truffaut

François Truffaut helped establish the French New Wave with films like Jules and Jim (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Day for Night (1973) and The Story of Adèle H. (1975). He made several short films before making his feature directorial debut, The 400 Blows (1959).

Truffaut was a close friend and often a collaborator with Jean-Luc Godard. However, they had a falling out over the place of politics in film. Truffaut was a true lover of film, and wrote about the medium as well as other directors often. His work made strides especially in narrative approach and shooting on location.

21. Spike Lee

Spike Lee doesn’t have a perfect record. He has made some films that haven’t been well received, defended directors who have been accused of sexual misconduct and has been critiqued for objectifying women of color. However, where Lee shines has always been in crafting an aesthetic that brings the audience into the world of his film and pioneering distinctive visuals that define what “A Spike Lee Joint” is.

Lee made his directorial debut with She’s Gotta Have It (1986). However, he broke onto the scene three years before with a short film (that he also used as his master’s thesis at Tisch,) Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. The film earned him a Student Academy Award. Director Ang Lee (no relation) also worked on the film as an assistant director. The Atlanta born director went on to make Inside Man (2006), Crooklyn (1994), Malcolm X (1992), BlacKkKlansman (2019) and arguably, his most beloved film, Do the Right Thing (1989.) Five of his films have been added to the Library of Congress for preservation as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and he is still directing today

20. Sidney Lumet

The son of actors from the Yiddish Theater, Sidney Lumet, started his directing career in off-Broadway plays. He made the jump to TV in the early 1950s and directed his first film, 12 Angry Men, in 1957.

He went on to direct films like A View from the Bridge (1962), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and his last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). While he is most remembered for anti-authoritarian films about working-class New York, he was able to direct comedies, musicals and even horror films during his over 50-year career. His approach to film focused on collaboration and he was famous for making the set a place where anyone could share their creative ideas mirroring his anti-authoritarian themes.

19. Raj Kapoor

Raj Kapoor has been called the “Greatest Showman” in Indian cinema. Kapoor started his film career as a child actor in the 1930s. However, he made his directorial debut with 1948’s Aag. He went on to be nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Awaara (1951) and Boot Polish (1954).

In 1971, he was given the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award. Filmfare also named their Lifetime Achievement Award after him. Kapoor’s films capture a romance and epic quality while balancing realism with the surreal.

18. Melvin Van Peebles

When Melvin Van Peebles couldn’t break into Hollywood in the late 1950s, he established himself as a writer in France. In Paris, he directed his first feature-length film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968). He was born in Chicago, but producers mistook him as a French Auteur, which helped him direct his first Hollywood film, Watermelon Men (1970.)

Van Peebles was not only a director, but a writer, composer, actor, playwright and editor. Many credit him with the blaxploitation genre. His third feature length film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) became the highest grossing American independent film at the time, bringing in a $15.2 million from a $150,000 budget. While he passed in 2021, his contributions and legacy in new black cinema and theater live on.

17. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg has perfected the art of the blockbuster film. His films are weaved into the American cultural consciousness, and seven have been inducted into the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” With films like Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Jurassic Park (1993), Lincoln (2012) and West Side Story (2021), Spielberg has proved himself in almost every major film genre.

He has been nominated for 22 Oscars and won three, including Best Director for Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler’s List (1993). Not only is he critically celebrated, several of his films have broken records for highest-grossing films. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is still the fourth highest-grossing film adjusted for inflation. He is still working and released his most recent movie, The Fabelmans, in 2022.

16. Agnès Varda

While there are more famous names associated with the French New Wave, including her own husband, Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda films are amongst the most experimental in a movement noted for its experimentalism. She made numerous films in her over 60-year long career including La Pointe Courte (1955), Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Vagabond (1985), The Gleaners and I (2000) and Faces Places (2017).

Varda started her career as a photographer before becoming involved with the Left Bank Cinema movement. Her work has been influential to many other directors and Martin Scorsese famously called her “One of the Gods.”

15. Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese has been directing films since the 1960s and is still active at the age of 82. He started directing short films while attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. While he had already directed 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, he became a household name after director Biran De Palma introduced him to Robert De Niro. Scorsese and De Niro made Mean Streets (1973) and became frequent collaborators over the next 50 years.

Scorsese has made 26 full-length films including Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982), Goodfellas (1990), The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), Kundun (1997), Hugo (2011) and most recently Killers of the Flower Moon (2023). Scorsese has been nominated for 16 Oscars but has only won one (Best Director for 2006’s The Departed.) However, he has won 3 Golden Globes for his directing. Scorsese’s work has influenced other directors. Sam Mendes said in his Golden Globe Award for Best Director for 1917, “There’s not one director in this room, not one director in the world, that is not in the shadow of Martin Scorsese.” Bong Joon-ho also quoted Scorese in his acceptance speech for the Academy Award for Best Director for Parasite, saying, “When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is, ‘the most personal is the most creative.’”

14. Howard Hawks

Film critic Leonard Maltin once called Howard Hawks “the greatest American director who is not a household name.” Hawks’ lack of recognition may be because, in some ways, Hawks didn’t have a directorial style. He was a chameleon who was able to execute well made films across genres with exacting cleanliness.

Hawks started in silent films and made the jump to “talkies” with the now-lost 1928 film The Air Circus. He would go on to make classics such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), The Big Sleep (1946), A Song Is Born (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959). While he never won an Oscar, the Academy recognized him with a special award in 1975, saying, “To a giant of the American cinema whose pictures, taken as a whole, represent one of the most consistent, vivid and varied bodies of work in world cinema.”

13. Hayao Miyazaki

Few directors in animation have been as influential as Hayao Miyazaki. His work as a director, animator, manga artist and co-founder of Studio Ghibli has proven that animated films aren’t just for kids. Miyazaki became popular in Japan for films like My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Princess Mononoke (1997). His work became celebrated in the West as well after 2001’s Spirited Away.

He has won two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature with Spirited Away and The Boy and the Heron (2023), the only two non-English-language films to win in the category. His films explore themes of feminism, environmentalism and family. He has become known for his dreamy plots and amazing visuals. He has been cited as an influential director by many other directors and even helped prompt Disney’s renaissance in America.

12. Orson Welles

Orson Welles wasn’t only a film director. He made a name for himself in theater, radio, magic and acting in his over fifty-year career. While his most famous film is probably his directorial debut Citizen Kane (1941), he also directed films like The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Macbeth (1948), Othello (1951) and Chimes at Midnight (1966).

Welles largely makes this list due to his innovations in camera technique. Many of his films pushed technical limits for their times and developed techniques for visual storytelling. His work pioneered deep focus, a technique where the fore, mid, and backgrounds are all in focus. He also is notable for his long shots, especially the opening shot of Touch of Evil (1958) which clocks in at over 6 minutes (however, it is not the longest shot in the film. There is another unbroken shot that runs for 12 minutes later in the film.)

11. Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola is one of the the world’s most awarded filmmakers. His work has earned five Academy Awards, six Golden Globes, two Palmes d’Or and a British Academy Film Award and is considered one of the leading figures of New Hollywood.

He is known for films like The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990,) Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Outsiders (1983). Coppola has done many commercial ventures including owning a winery; however, he took a hiatus from directing after 2011’s Twist. He is currently working on a film, Megalopolis, set to be released late in 2024.

10. Chantal Akerman

Belgian Feminist avant-garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman is best known for her films JeanneDielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), News from Home (1976) and Je Tu Il Elle (1974). She has been called a “director’s director” for her influence on cinema.

In addition to her feature films, she worked on several documentaries, art exhibitions and short films. Later in her career, she was a professor of film and media. In 2022, she became the first female filmmaker to top Sight & Sound’s list of Greatest Films of All Time.

9. Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini is best known for films like Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1960), (1963), Roma (1972), Amarcord (1973) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976). During his nearly 50-year career, he was nominated for 17 Oscars and won a record four in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

After dropping out of law school in Rome, Fellini began working in radio. Through Roberto Rossellini, he later became involved with the Italian neorealist film movement. Fellini co-directed his first feature film, Variety Lights (1951), with Alberto Lattuada. However, he is more remembered for his post-neorealist art films. This period led to the words “Fellinian” and “Felliniesque” to describe films and art with a fanciful and extravagant quality.

8. Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray is an Indian filmmaker most known for The Apu Trilogy (1955–1959), The Music Room (1958), The Big City (1963) and Charulata (1964) and the Goopy–Bagha trilogy. Ray’s work was inspired by the Italian neorealist movement; however, he crafted a style all his own with meticulous editing, classical Indian music and the use of actors from diverse backgrounds.

Director Akira Kurosawa said of his films, “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” Francis Ford Coppa and Christopher Nolan have also cited Ray as an influence to their work. The International Film Festival of India named its annual Lifetime Achievement award after Ray to celebrate the auteur’s legacy in Indian Cinema.

7. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s legacy is undeniable, even though he was difficult to work with as a director. With films like Dr. Strangelove (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Kubrick directed 13 theatrical films, all of which are classics in their own right.

Kurbrick was nominated for 13 Academy Awards over his career but only won one for best special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick won very few awards for his directing and was even nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director for The Shining (1980). However, his directing style, especially when it comes to camerawork and framing, has influenced many directors and his films have been called some of the most important in the twentieth century.

6. Wong Kar-wai

While Wong Kar-wai started his career in TV, the Hong Kong-based filmmaker made is directorial debut with 1988’s As Tears Go By. He is best known for his films Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000).

Wong has influenced many directors like Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Daniels and Barry Jenkins. Wong films often feature broken narrative structures, bold saturation, pop music and step-printing, a process which alters film rates. Many of his films are frequently placed on “best of” lists. Ty Burr wrote in the Boston Globe, “Wong stands as the leading heir to the great directors of post-WWII Europe: His work combines the playfulness and disenchantment of Godard, the visual fantasias of Fellini, the chic existentialism of Antonioni, and Bergman’s brooding uncertainties.”

5. Alfred Hitchcock

The “Mater of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock, directed over 50 films in his decades-long career. While his legacy is marred by his infamous cruelty to his female leads, his work helped shape and define the thriller, suspense and horror genres. Hitchcock started his career in Britain in silent film, and unfortunately, some of his films from this period are also now lost. However, his 1929 film Blackmail was the first British “talkie.”

After moving to Hollywood in the late 1930s, Hitchcock made Rebecca (1940), which earned him his first of five Academy Award Nominations for Best Director. He went on to make classics like Suspicion (1941), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). His works led to the term “Hitchcockian” which often describes films with plot twists, restricted action, symbolistic darkness, Maguffins and voyeurism, especially in the use of camera movement to mimic a person’s gaze.

4. Jean-Luc Godard

Another pillar of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard was arguably the most influential. The Swiss-born director played with narrative, continuity, sound and camerawork in many of his works especially jump cuts and use of the fourth wall. He was famous for giving his actors freedom to explore their performances and often bagan filming with unfinished scripts.

His filmography includes Breathless (1960), Vivre sa vie (1962), Contempt (1963), Band of Outsiders (1964), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Masculin Féminin (1966), Weekend (1967) and Goodbye to Language (2014). Roger Ebert said of the director, “Godard is a director of the very first rank; no other director in the 1960s has had more influence on the development of the feature-length film.”

3. Frank Capra

Director John Cassavetes once said, “Maybe there really wasn’t an America, it was only Frank Capra.” Capra’s films capture the idealism of what America could be, including hits like It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

While most of his most beloved films come from the 1930s and 1940s, Capra started in silent comedies after emigrating to America from Sicily at age five. Over his career, he won five Oscars and earned lifetime achievement awards from the American Film Institute and the Directors Guild of America. His final theatrical film was 1961’s Pocket Full of Miracles. Outside of his work as a director, he also served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, worked alongside the Writers Guild of America, and headed the Directors Guild of America.

2. Billy Wilder

Austrian director Billy Wilder started his film career as a script writer in Germany. While many of his family members were killed by the Nazis, Wilder left Germany in the 1930s and cemented himself as one of the great directors of Hollywood by the 1940s.

Wilder spanned decades and genres from comedy to noir with such classics as Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). He worked through the 1980s, and he directed his final film, Buddy Buddy, in 1981. Wilder hoped to make his last film an adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark as a memorial to his mother and grandmother. However, he later praised Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Schindler’s List. Over his career, Wilder was nominated for 21 Oscars, winning six, including two for Best Director.

1. Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa started working for Photo Chemical Laboratories (which later became Japan’s Toho Studios) in 1936 when he was just 25 years old. He directed his first feature film, Sanshiro Sugata in 1943. He would go on to make Drunken Angel (1948), Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), High and Low (1963) and his thirtieth and final film, Madadayo (1993).

Kurosawa was also an accomplished screenwriter who worked on books, TV and theater over his nearly 60-year career. He helped popularize Japanese films in the West and was a favorite of many filmmakers including Satyajit Ray, Steven Spielberg and Federico Fellini. Ingmar Bergman once called his own film The Virgin Spring a “touristic… lousy imitation of Kurosawa.” George Lucas also credited Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress as the main inspiration for Star Wars.

Bottom Line

The best directors make great movies, but it’s more than that. They inspire others and create aesthetics and techniques all their own. They push the film industry forward and showcase their unique points of view, which truly makes them the best directors of all time.

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