Reworking the 25 Greatest Working Directors List

Last week amidst the frenzy of Oscar coverage, Entertainment Weekly published an article that ranks the 25 Greatest Working Directors. Their list received much criticism from online writers and tweeters for giving too much credit to 2010 directors and for appearing “xenophobic” in their refusal to acknowledge more than two foreign filmmakers. Their list also focused heavily on mainstream filmmakers whose movies are more widely seen than some independent filmmakers who often get better reviews.

The complete list published by Entertainment Weekly was: 1) David Fincher, 2) Christopher Nolan, 3) Steven Spielberg, 4) Martin Scorsese, 5) Darren Aronofsky, 6) Joel and Ethan Coen, 7) Quentin Tarantino, 8) Terrence Malick, 9) Clint Eastwood, 10) Pedro Almodovar, 11) Paul Thomas Anderson, 12) Guillermo Del Toro, 13) Roman Polanski, 14) Danny Boyle, 15) Kathryn Bigelow, 16) David O. Russell, 17) David Lynch, 18) James Cameron, 19) Peter Jackson, 20) Edgar Wright, 21) Spike Lee, 22) J.J. Abrams, 23) Brad Bird, 24) Mike Leigh, 25) Wes Anderson

Any attempt at such a list is opening the doors for criticism as any form of list-making is completely subjective and largely dependent on taste. The criteria for EW’s list is not clearly stated, but briefly alluded to with the sentence: “we’re counting down the most talented, in-demand filmmakers behind the camera today.” This would imply that Box Office performance and Awards recognition were taken into consideration when compiling the list. Even though the evidence they cite for why a filmmaker is great includes their greatest hits of the past, the list seems to be very forward looking, which would explain why Darren Aronofsky who has made one or two excellent films is higher ranked than Woody Allen who has made nearly a dozen masterpieces.

With the criteria given, the Entertainment Weekly list is reasonable, but I still feel they made a number of mistakes. Being the smug, know-it-all twenty something that I am I have decided to revamp the EW list and substitute it with my own which I will claim is superior. I’m also looking to enlist Film Misery leaders to help me create a proper list of the 25 Greatest Working Film Directors.

Criteria: I wanted to be clear and specific about how I would be creating this list so as to not create any confusion. I have decided to treat the list like a Fantasy Football team, meaning I am ranking them based on how I project their future performance will be. The order of preference will be determined by: 1) My personal preference, 2) Critical reception to their recent films, 3) Awards success of their films, 4) Box Office performance of their films.

The (Revamped) 25 Greatest Working Directors

25) Ang Lee – Despite a miss with Taking Woodstock, he is still a very well-respected director who will get Awards buzz every time he releases a new film.

24) Danny Boyle – His last two films have been nominated for Best Picture and his films from earlier in his career remain among the greatest of their respective deacades.

23) Woody Allen – For every Scoop there is a Match Point. For every You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger there is a Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He may never approach the level of brilliance from a few decades ago, but his films are always highly anticipated.

22) Werner Herzog – One of the few directors who has already proven himself a great director, yet continues to challenge the conceptions that have been established.

21) Arnaud Desplechin – The French director behind two of the most critically acclaimed films of the aughts – Kings & Queen and A Christmas Tale. I can’t wait to see the stark and realistic drama he stirs up next.

20) Edgar Wright – The Academy may never embrace his brilliance, but as long as he maintains his frenetic and perfectly timed comedic direction he should never lose his fans.

19) Sam Mendes – In my opinion one of the most underrated directors of the past decade since American Beauty rocked the Oscars. I predict it’s only a matter of time before his next Oscar nomination.

18) Paul Greengrass – As proof that the Bourne movies are not his one trick pony, check out his brilliant 2006 effort United 93, which earned him a Best Director nomination.

17) Pedro Almodovar – Like Woody Allen, Almodovar has already proven himself as a legendary director yet continues to output new films that reflect his established personal style. His films are huge hits internationally and always favorites for Best Foreign Film.

16) Wes Anderson – His original style has inspired many imitators, but nobody quite masters the quirkiness like Wes Anderson.

15) Christopher Nolan – This crowd-pleasing director is most likely to inspire me to see his films at a midnight showing. With his last several efforts he has proven that with a huge budget he can turn any story into Box Office and Awards gold.

14) Steven Soderbergh – He recently announced his retirement from directing films, but not before first directing three major upcoming productions. Face it, he’s never going to retire and the world of cinema is all the better for it.

13) Alfonso Cuaron – He has been quiet since his masterful 2006 effort Children of Men, but he has never missed and has several major projects in the works.

12) David Lynch – Who knows what is coming next from this enigmatic filmmaker, but whatever it is you can count on his legion of fans (of which I count myself) to come out in droves.

11) Peter JacksonThe Hobbit: Part 1 and The Hobbit: Part 2. Enough said.

10) David Fincher – Entertainment Weekly was on the right track with their ranking of David Fincher, but they forgot about a lot of excellent ones who didn’t have 2010 films released. Still I’ll always anticipate a Fincher film.

9) Terence Malick – Sure he only releases a film once every ten years or so, but the whole cinematic world seems to stop when he does.

8) Guillermo del Toro – Epic filmmaker whose recent work has established him as one of the most imaginative directors working.

7) Martin Scorcese – Three out of his last four films were nominated for Best Picture and all of his works have great performances, great themes, and brilliant…direction.

6) Michael Haneke – One of the greatest all-time foreign directors whose recent works include Cache, Funny Games, and The White Ribbon. You can expect his next several releases to make a splash at the Cannes Film Festival and among the art house crowd.

5) Alexander Payne – Two of my favorite films of all-time came in the last decade from Alexander Payne. He’s been out of the feature film world since 2004, but he has two films planned for the next two years.

4) Quentin Tarantino – This revolutionary modern filmmaker has never made a bad movie and shouldn’t be expected to do so anytime soon.

3) David Cronenberg – His films are smart and artistic and it is only a matter of time before one of them becomes the Oscar favorite and takes home the top prize. He’s due.

2) Paul Thomas Anderson – Whether it’s an ensemble film or an intense character study, PTA will master it. Who will be the next actor or actress he leads to Oscar and Awards attention?

1) Joel and Ethan Coen – Even if the Coen brothers mess up and release a film that is bad by Coens’ standards, chances are it is still one of the best films of its year. Two of the most original filmmakers working and decades from now will likely find their way onto lists of the top 10 directors of all-time.

Those are mine. Which working filmmakers are your favorite?

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  • Angel E.

    1. Paul Thomas Anderson.
    2. Scorcese.
    3. Coens
    4. Tarantino.
    5. Almodovar.


  • 1. Fincher
    2. Coens
    3. Reitman
    4. Mike Leigh
    5. Cameron Crowe (damn right!)
    6. Arnaud Desplechin
    7. Tarantino
    8. Sam Raimi (he may have slipped on Spidey 3, but Spider-man, Spider-man 2, A Simple Plan, and Drag Me To Hell make for an exceptional decade overall)
    9. Ramin Bahrani
    10. Roman Polanski

    I like both lists, but I’m alarmed at the lack of Reitman on either one. And where is Ramin Bahrani? He may not win major awards or produce blockbusters, but if quality is to be taken into account…

  • John W.

    I actually think the Entertainment Weekly list is pretty good, as is Film Misery’s.

    Though I wouldn’t rate Spielberg or Scorcese as highly…given that their current work is not on par with most of what they’ve done in the past, not to mention compared to the work of some other younger directors also listed. But theyre still good.

    The situation might be a bit dire when we think in terms of Hollywood blockbusters/ mainstream films, but I think that in general we are going through some great times for cinema, with quite a few brilliant films and brilliant directors in the past few years. I’m actually starting to not feel nostalgic for the 70s…

  • yan

    i think i like the EW better i think they got the top 15 pretty close to right. I really think the Coen gets a little extra praise then they deserve. Let’s face it true grit isn’t for the ages and they shouldn’t have gotten a director nod over Nolan. I mean Nolan and fincher always have some heat on them even though they don’t deserve it.

  • @Davin – I think Reitman is a bit overrated. His only great film, in my opinion, is ‘Thank You for Smoking.’ Also, I haven’t seen any Bahrani films, nor Assayas, so they didn’t make my list, but I fully support them being on anyone elses. I also considered Jacques Audiard, but the only film of his I’ve seen is ‘A Prophet’, so I can’t bank on him yet.

    @yan – I disagree with you about your assessment of the Coens. I thought ‘True Grit’ was this year’s best film and they deserved every accolade they received. Time will tell if it will hold up over the years, but I suspect it will.

  • Fantastic list, and far more interesting than EW’s. I quite honestly forgot Alexander Payne existed for a while. I don’t really agree of your assessment of Reitman, because I love pretty much every film he’s made, but you called my attention to some filmmakers I had forgotten.

  • Anessa

    1. David Fincher
    2. Coen brothers
    3. Christopher Nolan
    4. Alfonso Cuarón
    5. Guillermo del Toro
    6. Terry Gilliam
    7. Quentin Tarantino
    8. Edgar Wright
    9. Roman Polanski
    10. Peter Weir

    And as stereotypical as it mat be, I don’t mind that EW rated Spielberg as high as they did. Just because his best movies are all in the past, most of them are too great to forget. :p

  • @Alex, you would probably enjoy Bahrani; I would recommend checking his films out. he is three for three in his feature films for me. As for Reitman, I guess I’m still alarmed that he isn’t on EW’s list. Perhaps you’re right, they are overly slanted towards 2010 by itself. Weird.

    @Anessa, good call on Peter Weir, but I can see why he isn’t on EW’s.

  • Jose

    Its not so much as slanted to 2010 than 2009. This list was originally released at the end of 2009 and the new list is the same thing, only with a different order (I remember that Cameron was number 3 at the time and Tarantino was around number 10, which angered a lot of readers then) This is just a repackaged list and i think there’s only one new entry since the old list.

  • Andrew R.

    Depends: is it based on overall career (Spielberg for me) or what they’ve done recently (Fincher, Lynch)?

  • Isaac Richter

    I don’t think any list is complete without Darren Aronofsky. It has been a pleasure to follow his career, from Requiem for a Dream, to The Fountein, to The Wrestler to Black Swan (I haven’t seen Pi yet, I really want to). Whenever I see a film of his, I know I have seen a work of art even if the scripts have flaws, there is something so absorbing about the visual language of Aronofsky. I do agree with Almodovar, and the Coens and I actually love Jason Reitman’s film (I think Up in the air is fantastic). I also think Sofia Coppola should be included (if only for Lost in Translation, but Somewhere is also beautiful) and Michel Gondry (only bcause he directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Min, which might be my all-time favorite).

  • 1. Paul Thomas Anderson
    2. Martin Scorsese
    3. Joel and Ethan Coen
    4. Quetin Tarantino
    5. David Fincher
    6. Christopher Nolan
    7. Peter Jackson
    8. Tom Hooper
    9. Steven Spielberg
    10. Alexander Payne

  • i’d also add spike lee, pedro almodovar, martin scorsese, steven spielberg, and Alejandro González Iñárritu

  • Steven Spielberg hasn’t made a great film in the past ten years. I wouldn’t raise my expectations for such a thing to happen this year.

  • julian

    The filmmisery list is superior, if onlt due to one inexcusable omission in the EW list; that of michael haneke, surely the greatest active filmmaker in the world.
    I would add Kim Ki Duk, Lars Von Trier and Jaques Audiard…
    Spielberg? A great director, but is he relevant today? No way.

  • julian

    also, david lacksonen, I find your inclusion of talentless twats like cameron crowe and jason reitman (not ivan, I assume?) downright hilarious:)
    Surely a joke, right?

  • @ Duncan Houst Have you seen Minority Report or Munich?

  • julian

    on behalf of duncan or in addition to him: spielberg has not made a great film for almost two decades. Munich was a travesty (eric bana delivering the worst performance of the nougties didn’t exactly help), Mionority report was a joke (and a bad one at that), even Saving Private Ryan is an uneven effort at best.

  • Jose

    Is it bad that I actually think the The Terminal was the best film Spielberg has done lately? I’m not saying all his other films are bad (I actually loved Minority Report, heck I even enjoyed Kingdom of the crystal Skull. Although I have yet to see Munich and Saving Private Ryan, they just don’t look appealing to me.) I just loved that movie more than any of his other latest films.

    It seems that Spielberg is better as a producer than a director lately (Super 8, Letters From Iwo Jima to name a few) although I’ll wait to see what his two upcoming films War Horse and Tintin will do for him.

  • Spileberg’s resume in the last two decades:

    Hook: B
    Jurassic Park: A
    Schindler’s List: A (His best film. One of the best movies ever made.)
    Jurassic Park: The Lost World: B+
    Saving Private Ryan: A (Jose, you should really see it)
    A.I. Artificial Intelligence: B+
    Minority Report: A-
    Catch Me If You Can: B+
    War of the Worlds: B+
    Munich: A-
    Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: C

    Unlike other people I didn’t nitpick Munich, Minority Report, and Saving Private Ryan. They have their flaws, but it doesn’t out weigh the good things about them.

  • julian

    brandon, you must be one hell of a spielberg fanboy to rate his films like that.
    Here’s how I would do it:

    Hook C-
    Jurassic Park B+
    Schindler A-
    The Lost World C-
    Saving PR B-
    A.I C
    Minority Report C+
    Catch Me If you Can C
    War of the Worlds C-
    Munich C
    Indiana Jones 4….if somebody offers me a million bucks, I may consider watching this film…!

  • I would consider giving Indiana Jones 4 a D becasue it was bad, but how on earth does Schindler’s List deserve an A-. What flaw did Schindler’s List have?

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