Steven Hyden introduced his five-albums test more than a decade ago as a third way to judge a band, short of its popularity or its critical acclaim. While this one is not meant to stand on its own—for example, he’s not sure that either Bob Dylan nor the Rolling Stones had made five great albums in a row, but would hardly displace them from the firmament—the five-albums test provides a useful heuristic all the same. In music, especially as a band ages and grows, this is a really valuable tool. In movies, on the other hand, it’s an absolute nightmare. I’m fairly confident that if you were to look for a five-feature stretch of true greatness, there might only be about one hundred directors in the history of the medium who could answer that call. It is so hard to make even one great album, but in almost all cases an album requires fewer people to make than a motion picture, especially a studio picture. (For what it’s worth, this is why it is easier to think of a novelist or playwright writing five great texts consecutively than it is to think of a band making five great albums.) There’s just more that can go wrong when making a movie rather than an album due to the greater number of factors involved, and it takes so, so little to keep a great movie from achieving its potential.
To do this project, I looked up the filmographies of hundreds of directors and made the best five-movie stretch I could for each one. The rules are many, even for something I’ve done, but I used them to create the most consistent environment I could.
- The films have to be feature-length. That means sixty minutes or more, which is fairly standard. I didn’t want someone to get railroaded by a short, especially a documentarian, but that also means that some people are left out in the cold. Lee Grant, for example, was wiped out by this edict, which I really hate, but on the whole I think it’s done more good than bad.
- The films have to be primarily in English. The nation of origin really did not matter at all to me, but the language of their initial release needed to be primarily in English. (I’ve made a waiver for Sergio Leone. I recognize that this will strike some people as impure.) This also means that Alfonso Cuaron, just to name a guy, isn’t eligible for this list because he doesn’t have enough Anglophone releases. Why no movies from other languages? That’s a great question. It’s because I thought if I were ever going to finish this thing, it would be better to do it before I died.
- The films need to have been released theatrically if that was the norm for their time. TV movies from a time when TV and cinema were actively different are ruled out, and so were direct-to-video releases. On the other hand, if you’re Alex Gibney and you’re living in a time when HBO or Hulu will take your films first, that’s a different animal for me.
- No lost films. Can’t judge what we can’t see. Eventually we’ll talk about how the rules for this really disadvantage people from the early days of moviemaking.
- The films need to be narrative in nature, unless they’re documentaries. Call this the Jonas Mekas or Stan Brakhage Rule if you want to, but I wasn’t going to make this even harder than it is. Now, what this also means is that filmmakers who make both fiction and non-fiction could have both types of pictures in their five.
- No anthology films by multiple directors. I’m looking for feature-length footprints here, not bits and pieces of a New York Stories or How the West Was Won.
- The director in question has to have actually made five films that fit the qualifications. Lynne Ramsay and Steve McQueen and anyone else with only four features: I’m so sorry.
- The credit on the screen is the credit we give. I know that Victor Fleming did not shoot significant chunks of Gone with the Wind. His credit is on the screen, and he gets the credit for the picture in these rankings. Maybe it’s not nuanced but, once again, I’d like to finish this before the next ice age.
- Only one five-movie stretch per director. This seems unfair at first, but how many times can you read basically identical iterations of Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, etc.?
We’ll take these in tiers. In the interest of brevity I’m not going to comment in depth on every single movie or every single director, but I’ll stick my oar in here and there.
Tier 1 – Five Great Movies
1) Terrence Malick: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life
- Not only the greatest five-movie stretch in Anglophone cinema, but this stands up to the best stretches in world cinema. Compare this to Andrei Tarkovsky’s five, probably the best five in film history—Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, Stalker—and Malick comes off the worse. To his credit, the only person with a thinner margin I can think of is Robert Bresson. There are nearly four decades separating Badlands from The Tree of Life, and twenty of those are between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Suffice it to say that no one else has a gap anything like that between their first and last movies on this list. Maybe that’s the secret! Or maybe the secret is having a better understanding of how to intermingle divinity and cinematic beauty than anyone else born west of Kostroma, who can really say for sure. If there were some way to jump directly to A Hidden Life from The Tree of Life, then we would even be able to get his five best films in this mix. However, spoiler alert, no one manages to do that in this tier.
2) Stanley Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining
- To be honest, I’m scared that this is a little bit of a /r/moviescirclejerk decision, but when the weakest film of the five is A Clockwork Orange, then that’s a chance I have to take. Kubrick presents an interesting dilemma that Malick clearly does not, which is that there are a few different five-film iterations that one could credibly go with. This one has the benefit of including what I think are Kubrick’s three best movies (Strangelove, 2001, The Shining, not in that order), and so I went with this option. In the past I’ve wondered if building a top-five around Paths of Glory wouldn’t be better, and of course there are some people I don’t understand who would prefer to start with A Clockwork Orange. Somewhere the ghost of Kubrick is trying to squish my head because I went for five-movie streaks rather than decades, where his ’60s would jump him ahead of Malick almost without question.
3) Charlie Chaplin: The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator
- I really like The Circus and really don’t care for The Great Dictator much. Even if you think those weak links are reversed, this is still an undeniable group of five. I wish that Monsieur Verdoux was part of this group, but in the end Chaplin’s Phony War urgency wins out over his deftly crafted brew of sardonic pathos.
4) Preston Sturges: The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero
- Not to be rude, but this is a coup for Preston Sturges. No director in this top twelve is so reliant on words rather than images or editing, and yet here’s Sturges filing in neatly to the top five. Where Malick’s best work sprawls like your dad’s limbs on the couch during a sleepy Sunday viewing of Von Ryan’s Express, the best of Sturges is crammed into just four years. Considering that the movies immediately preceding The Lady Eve are The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, both 1940, that’s historic efficiency. Like Malick, Sturges is helped by having probably his best picture right in the middle of the hot streak. What raises him above the level of some of the names to follow is the consistency in these pictures. Is Sullivan’s Travels the weak link? Is The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek? Some weak links they are if they can have lines like “Listen, zipperpuss, some day they’re just gonna find your hair ribbon and an axe someplace” and scenes like “Go Down, Moses.”
5) Alfred Hitchcock: The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds
- The choice here is between The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Birds. I like the former more, but I don’t think it would make much of a difference in terms of where Hitchcock would place. It’s that middle group of three that matters most, obviously, although what keeps Hitchcock in the top five rather than dropping a spot or two is the presence of The Wrong Man. Where the other four films are fantastic stories—even a ghoul like Ed Gein was never so Freudian—The Wrong Man has a story from life about a man who was very nearly convicted of a crime he never committed. North by Northwest may be his most famous story about a wrong man, but it’s after a totally different effect than The Wrong Man. Where Cary Grant makes that story entertaining or even silly, depending on the scene, Henry Fonda plays Manny Balestrero like the man he was, which is to say a person born under a bad sign. There’s no lynch mob waiting to get Fonda the way there was for Ivor Novello back in 1927, but those hands pulled to the limit of endurance in The Lodger are the objective correlative for one of the most unfairly underseen pictures of the 1950s.
6) Hal Ashby: The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, Being There
- The conceit of this list probably favors Hal Ashby more than any other single director. Most of these people would probably benefit from the addition of a sixth film, but a sixth film for Ashby would be Harold and Maude, which preceded The Last Detail. Ashby’s reputation as one of the underrated directors of the New Hollywood no longer makes sense—even if Peter Biskind hadn’t made him the hero of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, surely the documentary about Ashby would prove there’s an interest—but the work remains. The outlier here is the middle picture, Bound for Glory, a movie which isn’t particularly funny about society nor particularly scathing about it. If it’s a personal movie, it’s personal because a countercultural artist with an uneasy foothold in the mainstream was a terrible family man. There’s real sadness in watching Warren Beatty at the end of Shampoo, in the pitiable slumped wreck of Randy Quaid in The Last Detail, and contrarian that I am I prefer the miserable solitude of Bruce Dern in Coming Home to Jon Voight’s inspirational but riven figure. But there’s nothing in Ashby’s oeuvre like watching David Carradine fail time and again in virtually every personal endeavor. It’s not about morality so much as it is decency.
7) Nicolas Roeg: Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing
- Blessed are the weird music people, for they will see their icons made new in the films of Nicolas Roeg. Pithiness aside, there really is a kind of genius in Roeg’s facility for taking non-traditional actors, whether it’s David Bowie or David Gulipilil, and centering a movie on what makes them wonderful. For Bowie, it was the ethereal, anti-earthly quality. For Gulpilil, it was the goodwill you could sense emanating from him.
8) John Carpenter: Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing
- This set of five has more to do with my preference for The Fog over Christine, because given the choice I’d probably rather have Starman and Big Trouble in Little China. Suffice it to say that Carpenter is another person who would benefit from a wider sample. Carpenter also has the virtue of having the most entertaining selection in this first tier of anyone besides Chaplin, which is delectable company. It’s not just that Carpenter is such a marvelous genre director, but that all of these films feel so different from one another. Maybe Halloween and The Fog have a similar interest in slashing and stabbing, or a fascination with diagnosing the original sins of a place, but of course they’re working from totally different perspectives. Halloween has a single dangerous individual with a knack for indestructibility; The Fog equips a battalion of ghosts with a specific mission. Kurt Russell is as different from himself between Escape from New York and The Thing as he is different from both in Big Trouble in Little China.
9) Paul Thomas Anderson: There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, Phantom Thread, Licorice Pizza
- Another potentially dangerous kino opinion, I’ll grant, though I don’t think most people would actually put him this high. (At least not for these movies…some of you are Magnolia people who haven’t seen Short Cuts, I can smell it.) What rates him this highly for me are two factors that I think are relatively rare opinions. First, I think The Master is the best film any American director made in the 2010s. Second, I think Inherent Vice is marvelous instead of maddening.
10) John Ford: My Darling Clementine, The Fugitive, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
- Truly, this is a compromise five. Of this first group, Ford and the co-directors in the next slot are the only people who I don’t think manage to get their best film into this group, which is about the highest praise I can give them. My top seven John Ford films are The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Grapes of Wrath, Fort Apache, Pilgrimage, and Young Mr. Lincoln. Two of those films have remarkable pictures following them, and they’re represented in this group of five. But The Searchers is followed by The Wings of Eagles (38th), Liberty Valance by Donovan’s Reef (36th), Pilgrimage by Doctor Bull (41st), and Young Mr. Lincoln by Drums Along the Mohawk (37th). The Grapes of Wrath is too close to both Drums and Tobacco Road (last, now and probably forever). Where I differ from a great many people is in my belief that The Fugitive is secretly one of Ford’s best films. I’ve always been sympathetic to the F.W. Murnau in John Ford, because Ford is one of the rare people who can actually stand on the same ground as his predecessor. The Fugitive is not so different from The Informer, either in Murnau influence or Christian allegory. It’s just that one of them was, and remains, more fashionable.
11) Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: I Know Where I’m Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room
- Missing out on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a blow for the Archers, but the distance between that film and The Red Shoes is much smaller than the distance between The Searchers and My Darling Clementine. I love the symmetry in this set. It begins and ends with black-and-white dramas about egoists with occasional lapses into Expressionism. In the interim, three of the most beautiful and colorful films ever put on celluloid, all shot by Jack Cardiff, all of them pure fantasy in different flavors.
12) David Lean: Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Passionate Friends, Madeleine
- Maybe not the most name-brand set of Lean films, but I erred on the side of giving him his best movie, Brief Encounter, and his most underrated, The Passionate Friends. Lean never seems to get enough credit for being a director of romantic pictures in the vein of like, George Cukor or Nora Ephron or whatever, but there is an undeniable streak of romantic dramas in his filmography. The difference is that Lean tends to emphasize the deep sadness of those romances, which is probably a little less catchy than meet-cutes and happy endings. Brief Encounter and The Passionate Friends are so similar to one another even without considering the presence of Trevor Howard as the lover: well-off Englishwoman recollects in nonlinear narrative. Where one has a husband who can murmur “Thank you for coming back to me,” the other has a husband who takes the affair in a far more realistic fashion. Where Brief Encounter squeezes a shoulder firmly, The Passionate Friends takes both hands and strangles. As for other three pictures, three Victorian period pieces, Lean may not be at the very top of his game, but his mastery of the camera is undeniable, his understanding of the inside-outside of the frame scintillating.
Tier 2 – Nitpicking Terrific Stretches
13) Ernst Lubitsch: Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, That Uncertain Feeling, To Be or Not to Be, Heaven Can Wait
- If That Uncertain Feeling were even as good as Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Lubitsch would be in the top tier. The least influential of the rest is, as far as I can tell, Heaven Can Wait. Hollywood has indulged in odd couples as strange as the one in Ninotchka, as pugilistic as the one in Shop Around the Corner, and as ludicrous as the one in To Be or Not to Be. I struggle to find movies that can present the kind of romance that Heaven Can Wait gives us, perhaps because even in Lubitsch’s time people didn’t believe in good women civilizing decent but devious men. Maybe it’s something that I ought to find offensive, but Don Ameche is too balanced to ever find loathsome, Gene Tierney too perfect to ever criticize, and Lubitsch too indulgent to let these sins rest forever on consciences. Lubitsch was more than capable of sharpening a shiv when the occasion called for it, but Heaven Can Wait is pure forgiveness.
14) Sergio Leone: For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker!, Once Upon a Time in America
- I just sort of think that if you can actually hear Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef and Jason Robards and Henry Fonda, then maybe it can qualify as English-language. If I think about it too much longer it won’t, so maybe that’s a sign to move on.
15) William Wyler: The Letter, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Heiress
- We are one Mrs. Miniver away from getting Wyler, in all likelihood, into the top ten. I like Mrs. Miniver, as I like the vast majority of the propaganda films of the 1940s, but I can’t quite get to calling it a great movie no matter how good that final shot of the film is. I don’t have a problem calling any of the rest of these great movies. On my friskier days I start letting myself believe that The Best Years of Our Lives really deserved Best Picture for 1946. The other three films, showcases for Bette Davis or Olivia de Havilland, set in rich environments and made with such keenness, are exceptional. For someone who made beautiful movies about decent, even courtly people, there is real savagery brimming up in something like The Little Foxes or The Heiress. Ineligible for Wyler in this period is his documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, which I rate among the ten greatest documentaries ever made by Americans.
16) Mike Leigh: Naked, Secrets and Lies, Career Girls, Topsy-Turvy, All or Nothing
- Career Girls is minor Leigh, and there’s a good case to be made that this should really be designed around Mr. Turner, Another Year, and Vera Drake instead of Naked and Topsy-Turvy. (Leigh, like Kubrick or Ford, would be better served by getting a full decade in rather than a group of five. He is the sixth director whose career is primarily British on this list, seventh if you count Kubrick, and yet on a more holistic/fair basis there is no British director whose work I find as powerful as his.) In the end, there are more great performances in these five films, released in under a decade’s time, than most directors can coax out in a lifetime of filmmaking. There’s no point in trying to decide if David Thewlis is better in Naked than Brenda Blethyn is in Secrets and Lies, or which is the best Timothy Spall or Lesley Manville or Katrin Cartlidge or Ron Cook performance in the bunch.
17) Albert Brooks: Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, Mother
- Maybe a little bit short of the “five great movies” qualification up there, but this is, at the very least, five really really good ones. Brooks has one of the rarest gifts in comedy, an ability to make his premises about something beyond themselves while still actually being funny. In a time where comedy is mostly about the warm hug feeling people want rather than the tiredness in the cheeks from smiling or the cramping in the abdomen from laughing, Brooks stands out. Real Life and Modern Romance are emphatically about moviemaking and the expectations we gain based on films. Lost in America, with its multiple and increasingly ludicrous nods to Easy Rider, has much of that same focus. And then there are two high-concept pictures at the end, one about the afterlife and the other about middle-aged sons and their aging mother. In each of these films, Brooks as an actor is less important than he was in the last, and while I don’t know that the filmmaking is better, it is interesting watching him cede more ground to his lead actresses: Julie Hagerty, Meryl Streep, Debbie Reynolds.
18) Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver, New York, New York, The Last Waltz, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy
- Sort of like The Fugitive for Ford, New York, New York is frequently given as one of Scorsese’s weaker films. It is not one of his weaker films, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s one of his best, either. Thus a little outside the “five great movies” category. (Is it that much worse than The King of Comedy? I don’t know!) Scorsese is an interesting filmmaker for this kind of list because of how often he’s made documentary films. He’s not Spike Lee, but he is sneakily one of the more active documentarians among fiction filmmakers. Getting The Last Waltz in solidified the choice for me, even if the dad factor on this list really jumps because of it.
19) Kelly Reichardt: Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves, Certain Women, First Cow
- The first woman on this list, which is a little vexing to me, but the history of Anglophone movies is the history of men getting a staggering number of opportunities to direct while women have to move heaven and earth for that kind of opportunity. Reichardt, who found her way through by making small independent films, has been crafting some of the best films that $2 million can buy. (Compare that to the fourth season of Stranger Things getting a budget of $30 million an episode.) There’s a nightmarish quality to these movies even at their most benign, a weightlessness in the characters that means they can never put their feet on the ground and move. Wendy and Lucy is the most realistic of these nightmares, and First Cow the most subtle (and most alleviated by the cutest cow), but all of them choose to gnaw rather than tear at the viewer. This is the second-highest stretch on my list that takes place entirely within the 21st Century, which isn’t something I did on purpose but which also feels very right to me.
20) David Cronenberg: Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch
- There’s probably an equally good case for Cronenberg’s five movies from 1996 to 2005: Crash, Existenz, Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises. Truly new science-fiction, literary adaptations by people as different as William Burroughs and Stephen King, a remake of a classic ’50s sci-fi flick. If anything, this five-film stretch shows that even his fans have a way of pigeonholing one of Canada’s greatest filmmakers. To simply reduce him to “strangeness” or “body horror” or even “visionary” is to miss out on his gifts for the kind of things one usually hears about Steven Spielberg. The Dead Zone is a crackerjack piece of entertainment, and The Fly has some of the most emotional, touching sequences in any film from the 1980s. This stretch is anchored by a truly great movie romance.
21) Todd Haynes: Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Carol
- I’ve been thinking about that tweet off and on since I saw it. Most days I don’t think there’s really a case for anyone because there are just too many movies. On other days I think Todd Haynes is a great answer, even if I think he literally falls short of top five status. You have to give him Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story to make it work, but otherwise three of those in his five are contenders. Safe is a yes for the 1990s. Far from Heaven is close to a yes for the 2000s. Carol is close to a yes for the 2010s. Really what I learned from writing about Todd Haynes just now is that I really don’t think much of Velvet Goldmine; I’m Not There is doing something far more interesting with a very similar impulse.
22) Francis Ford Coppola: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart
- I don’t know who’s leading the charge for the rehabilitation of One from the Heart. Surely there must be someone who’s doing so, but the fact that no one has made that their cause says something. As for the other four, this is probably the most famous four-film stretch of this quality in the public’s memory and I struggle to know what to add other than “it’s pretty good.”
23) the Coen Brothers: No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis
- Almost as good but dragged down a little bit by The Hudsucker Proxy: Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski. That one would still be a top thirty list. As it is, I have a slightly unorthodox opinion about Burn After Reading, which is that it’s one of the best films about our government after 9/11, and Inside Llewyn Davis is the finest Anglophone musical with diegetic music since Nashville.
24) Howard Hawks: Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, Ball of Fire
- In 1936, Come and Get It, a movie I have never seen, was released. Howard Hawks and William Wyler co-directed the film; Hawks started it and Wyler finished it. I don’t know exactly what alchemy came of that pairing of very different directors, but the upshot is that after 1936 both men would only make good movies well into the 1950s. Someone who loves noirs more than I do might choose to start with Sergeant York and instead run with Air Force (a credible and surprising adventure story of the hours after Pearl Harbor), To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep. Like Wyler, Hawks’s greatness has so much more to do with the consistency of a career than the incandescence of a few films in a row. All five are undeniable classics. Even Sergeant York, which has some moments of doublethink earnestness that I think a modern audience has a right to sneer at, is fascinating. Hawks’s depiction of World War I is the equal of Lewis Milestone’s in depicting the horror and celerity of combat, and he manages to get a performance out of Gary Cooper as good as anyone not named Lubitsch. Except, perhaps, for himself in Ball of Fire, where Hawks recognizes what Lubitsch knew: Cooper was a great whipping boy.
25) John Frankenheimer: The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Train, Seconds, Grand Prix
- The great directors manage to con us into talking about their unrelated movies like they belong together, and Frankenheimer is no exception. One of about a hundred directors with paranoia trilogies, all three of those slip in here. The feted one will probably always be The Manchurian Candidate, though my sympathies lie a little more with the clipped qualities of Seven Days in May and especially the, well, body horror of Seconds. Seconds is a profoundly subjective movie—”European” is derisive for me much more often than not, but Seconds really does feel European—and there’s such brilliance in putting Rock Hudson into that film. Aside from the obvious reasons why the protagonist would want to be come a man who looked like Hudson, there’s the confidence that Doris Day’s prime screen partner would be able to give a great performance in a movie that could not be less like Lover Come Back. What makes this a top quarter stretch for me is, weirdly enough, Grand Prix bringing up the rear. Where that paranoia trilogy is a taut, disturbing group, the other two films are just really great dad movies. I love the first half-hour of Grand Prix, a movie that’s kind of bloated and holds its melodrama like a scared fifteen-year-old holds a baby, because Frankenheimer is doing what he came here for. He wants to make us feel exactly what it’s like to be driving a Formula One car in Monaco. It remains the standard for motorsports in features for me. Nothing else comes close to that profound rush of feeling, the thrill that no loud noise can create on its own.
26) Peter Weir: Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness
- I know, I also can’t believe this doesn’t have any movies about oceans being battlefields. The movies in the middle are pretty good. The Last Wave is not always great but it’s got some great images and its heart is in the right place. Gallipoli has earned its status as one of the better “hot young men are disillusioned by war” films. And The Year of Living Dangerously, for its several faults, at least has some epic inclinations. But Picnic at Hanging Rock is a masterpiece, the only real competition that Walkabout has as Australia’s greatest film, and Witness is an unfettered triumph. Sure, Witness is a great procedural, a wonderful premise, thrilling and violent and pacey. It’s also an emotionally and morally lush film, with these stark moments of honesty peppered throughout the picture. There’s a throughline connecting Michael of Picnic at Hanging Rock and John Book of Witness, two men who are roped into mysterious cases which start as a kind of noblesse oblige and which turn into personal Grail quests. It could be semirural Victoria or rural Pennsylvania, but Weir has a way of making these small worlds as beautifully textured as anyone else can. Anyone could, I suppose, get those shots of the waving grass that he gets for establishing shots in Witness, but it requires something really special to tell the story of the Amish community through the barn-raising montage.
27) Orson Welles: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth
- Orson Welles, as he so often is, acts as the poster child for whatever relevant discourse we want to thrust him into. How much should one film count for the entire list of five? Whether or not it’s fair, a just fine movie or a mediocre movie drags a director down more in these rankings than even a historically great picture can raise them up. This has more to do with checkmarks than star ratings, even for the director who came out of the gate with history’s consensus top film.
28) Jim Jarmusch: Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Dead Man
- It’s a little bit of a shame that there’s not a good way to get Jarmusch’s renaissance of the last decade in here, but this group is simply too irresistible. Night on Earth, while it comes very near to violating my rules about Anglophone cinema, is sufficiently in English for me to decide it’s worth keeping around; even if it were to be replaced with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, I think that would be plenty fine. Jarmusch, a patron saint for anyone who thinks the margins are irrecoverably distant (let alone the warm center), has a series of stripped down yet still beautiful movies. Few directors after the heyday of black and white cinematography have made meals out of that fashion (both artistically and financially) like Jarmusch. Stranger than Paradise uses its cinematography for cost, and you know what they say about necessity and motherhood; the film looks really good and plays even better. But Dead Man, which probably could have been in color, is so ethereal and strange and stark. Great decisions, different roots.
29) Terence Davies: The Long Day Closes, The Neon Bible, The House of Mirth, Of Time and the City, The Deep Blue Sea
- Only one of these movies misses in any respect, and that’s The Neon Bible. Otherwise, Davies is at the peak of his powers in these films. The Deep Blue Sea may well be the most gutwrenching British romance since David Lean was making movies. Almost everything I’ve said earlier about the story structure of The Passionate Friends is applicable to The Deep Blue Sea as well. But the emotional thrusts are fundamentally different, and Davies finds the humiliation rather than the betrayal in the affair. I love knowing that I will walk away from any Davies movie just overwhelmed with feeling, even if that feeling is not traditionally overwhelming. Davies is one of the greats in using music, and reinforcing the title of his film with a static shot on the sky as Arthur Sullivan’s music plays on the cosmos makes The Long Day Closes as mysteriously majestic as the heavens themselves.
30) Robert Altman: The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson
- Altman was never a very cuddly director, and there is a real iciness in this stretch that equals the literal snowblowing in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (just a couple spots away, can’t have that and Nashville on the same list). Think of that last stretch of California Split, where George Segal is on a winning streak that’s likely to set him free. He’s had some tough luck of late, can’t pay his debts, and then a night at poker, blackjack, roulette, craps which is likely to become the biggest little legend in Reno. But it doesn’t feel like anything. He has been chasing a feeling, some kind of fulfillment, and at the end even winning $82,000 is insufficient to make him feel something. The endings of The Long Goodbye and Thieves Like Us are much more traditionally bleak, and then of course there’s Nashville, which is not merely bleak but disaffected to boot.
31) James Cameron: Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Titanic
- The last slot in this tier belongs to James Cameron, and I’ll admit that it has a little less to do with the overall quality of the films and a little more to do with how successful they are. The financial success speaks for itself—I would be shocked if there’s a group of five anywhere on this list that made more money in their combined initial runs—but I also mean that the films are tremendously successful in matching their construction. Terminator 2 is designed like Cameron wanted to make an awesome spectacle; it is an awesome spectacle. True Lies is designed like Cameron wanted to make a ridiculous action comedy; it is a ridiculous action comedy. The rule for him is to exceed expectations. There have been plenty of films designed to be awesome spectacles, but how many of them are as repeatedly and historically awesome as T2?
Tier 3 – The Pat Benatars (“We Belong,” can’t believe I need to explain this)
32) Billy Wilder: Love in the Afternoon, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two, Three
- I’ll grant what Wilder’s critics grant, which is that there’s certainly a weariness with human weakness that shows up in his work. At this point, having cleared a lot of the grace from his system that shows up in The Major and the Minor or A Foreign Affair or Sabrina, the impatience shows up in full flower. Love in the Afternoon doesn’t seem to believe its premise; Witness for the Prosecution questions the basis of the law and order system Wilder had to pretend to believe in in Double Indemnity. Some Like It Hot, which is about as enjoyable a movie as has ever been made, features a couple of guys who would rather chase a hot chick than preserve their own hides. The Apartment tacitly blames Buddy for his willingness to get ahead by letting his bosses get their affairs into bed, and then noisily blames him when he appeals to his neighbor for help. One, Two, Three, another movie which is totally uproarious, looks at the world on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis and honestly, if cynically, really can’t tell the difference between what those people on either side are doing.
33) Derek Jarman: Caravaggio, The Last of England, War Requiem, The Garden, Edward II
- Jarman was born in the same year as Martin Scorsese, Michael Haneke, Peter Greenaway, Barbra Streisand, and Werner Herzog. Jarman died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994, the year after Martin Scorsese made The Age of Innocence and the same year that Michael Haneke made 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. It is desperately unfair that we lost Jarman so early, and yet these five, bookended by two films which stand tall among all the others of their genre, speak for themselves. Jarman, like perishingly few other directors, has been able to breathe life into a biopic while simultaneously paying homage to its subject. And unlike so many other directors who fall in love with Early Modern English or the trappings of Elizabethan times, Jarman makes Edward II feel aggressive and new.
34) Errol Morris: The Thin Blue Line, The Dark Wind, A Brief History of Time, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
- There’s a pivot point in Errol Morris’s career that we’re able to find just at the tail end of this stretch. With rare exceptions, Morris has spent the 21st Century interviewing people he finds loathsome, amoral, or venal: Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, Steve Bannon. That thread of Morris’s work begins with the final movie on this list, Mr. Death, a film which starts as the story of a slightly odd designer of the instruments of capital punishment and which reveals him to the uninitiated as a prominent Holocaust denier. I much prefer how Morris treats Leuchter to the way he treats Bannon in American Dharma, though American Dharma has been unfairly maligned as too sympathetic to Bannon, or of somehow “platforming” him. (I cannot make either of those criticisms lining up with an actual account of that picture.) In American Dharma, Morris makes himself part of the story, prodding and criticizing Bannon. In Mr. Death, Morris uses many of the same techniques he used in earlier films to coolly bring out a subject like Stephen Hawking or Rodney Brooks or the grieving pet parents of Gates of Heaven. It’s about knowing someone, Morris is suggesting, not about affirming them. It takes something like The Thin Blue Line or Mr. Death to bring added balance to a Gates of Heaven or Vernon, Florida; Morris is providing channeling sympathy for interviewees because they themselves are sympathetic. The apogee of this idea is in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, where Morris presents four men who seem entirely unlike one another in four wildly different fields. And yet in fewer than ninety minutes and with the use of music and montage, Morris manages to craft this narrative around them, an evolution of plant to unknown animal to known animal to robot. The idea is Morris’s, but the reason the documentary is instantly compelling is in four parts. It has everything to do with the passion his interviewees refract through the screen.
35) Lars von Trier: Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay, Antichrist
- That fox from Antichrist, you know the one:
- I had seen this gif about a zillion times in reference to like, weird happenstances or “covfefe” or something. And then recently I watched this movie for the first time, and in that moment which I knew was coming, I still recoiled in revulsion. Lars von Trier is a provocateur if you take the man’s press conferences seriously, or if Dogme 95 is something more than young folks trying to make a statement. Von Trier is something more than that. He is an assassin. Emily Watson praying desperately in Breaking the Waves, Bjork at the gallows in Dancer in the Dark, Charlotte Rampling feverish with grief in Antichrist: von Trier wants to murder you, and as one of the murdered I have to say the experience is unique.
36) Vincente Minnelli: Father of the Bride, Father’s Little Dividend, An American in Paris, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Band Wagon
- To direct Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in the same stretch is to have one’s cake and eat it too, and then to see an especially tempting box of cream horns lying unsupervised and abscond with them. Though I can’t say that Minnelli has the best of Kelly, he may well have the best of Astaire in The Band Wagon. The Bad and the Beautiful is soap opera trash at heart, but with Minnelli that trashiness is what makes it evanescent. And while the Father of the Bride movies may seem a little thin compared to their competition here, Spencer Tracy might well be giving the most delightful performance of any leading man Minnelli had in this stretch. The secret of Minnell is in An American in Paris, I think, where he has three lead actors going in three totally different directions and manages to give them all at least one number to shine in an ideal environment. For Kelly, a luminous ballet with Leslie Caron. For Oscar Levant, a dynamic piece of music where he plays all the parts. For Georges Guétary, a stairway to paradise made of light-up pink steps.
37) Rob Reiner: This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…
- The normie’s second choice for a director streak, after Coppola. Yes, I’m trying to be condescending. Yes, I would absolutely love to marathon these five movies.
38) John Schlesinger: Billy Liar, Darling, Far from the Madding Crowd, Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday
- While Tony Richardson was throwing out everything but the kitchen sink and Basil Dearden was putting on the full armor of the SJW, John Schlesinger made one of the most romantic movies of the decade. Billy Liar is often put into the category of British realism even though I find it an awkward fit at best. To name some other Tom Courtenay films, Billy Liar bears more resemblance to the poetry of Doctor Zhivago than it does the sullenness of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Schlesinger makes occasionally cruel scenes in his films, but he values tenderness. That first sequence with Courtenay and Julie Christie is so gorgeous in the way that you can see them fitting together. Midnight Cowboy may not lead with its story of a dumbass trying to be kind to the con man who swindled him, but that’s what it turns into. Sunday Bloody Sunday ends with a direct appeal for our sympathy.
39) George Stevens: A Place in the Sun, Something to Live For, Shane, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank
- A deeply unfashionable group by a director who’s gone out of style. George Stevens, like so many people the Oscars have showered their praises upon, is far less popular in the years after his victories. And while I’m not all that taken with A Place in the Sun myself, and while I want to yeet young Brandon de Wilde as much as the next guy, this is a great run. Stevens never lost the wit and ardor that characterized so many of his films from before World War II, and that’s evident in these films. There’s wit in the more cutting lines of Giant and Anne Frank, and ardor to capsize a boat in A Place in the Sun. All of it’s less fun than The More the Merrier, but the seriousness lingers. Stevens isn’t making after-school specials with better budgets; he’s making deeply personal films which are deep because of the well of generosity his politics spring from.
40) Steven Spielberg: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
- The problem here is not 1941 so much as it’s Close Encounters or E.T. Again, the normies will complain that this stretch is not much higher, but the normies should be grateful I didn’t go The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Adventures of Tintin, which even I’ll admit isn’t as good but which includes more movies by Spielberg that I like. What stands about the one I’ve actually chosen is that Spielberg’s most indelible images almost universally come from this group, and that’s more than enough to push this over the edge.
41) Rob Epstein: Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, Where Are We Now? Our Trip Through America, The Celluloid Closet
- Where Are We Now? is so bad that it dropped Epstein out of the running to be in the tier above this one. It would be a favorite of the center-left if it were more widely available, I’m sure, as it has all the smug coastal provincialism of a Lin-Manuel Miranda story. It is a strange entry indeed in a group of films which are otherwise profoundly humanistic. Though Epstein is, compared to Peter or Nancy Adair, something of a minor figure in Word Is Out, it’s clear that he learned so much from making that film. In Common Threads, that same receptivity, that willingness to listen, is so clear. Word Is Out is meant to be serious if not sober. Common Threads is personal heartbreak as I’ve only ever seen one other time in a documentary, elegant in its sincerity and unvarnished in its depth.
42) Alexander Korda: The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Private Life of Don Juan, Rembrandt, Lady Hamilton, Vacation from Marriage
- I feel a little strange putting Korda, the consummate producer, in this list of directors. But the work speaks for itself, and I can’t deny how good these films are, all of which must rate among the pride of the British studio system. There’s a richness in Rembrandt even without Charles Laughton’s magnificent performance, an overtness to the propagandistic elements of Lady Hamilton which makes them feel all the more genuine. Korda was not all vegetables, either. He understood the value of humorous grace notes, like throwing Elsa Lanchester’s card-playing demon into Henry VIII or the dreary pre-war home life of Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr in Vacation from Marriage.
43) David Lynch: Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Mulholland Dr.
- There’s not a wrong answer for Lynch’s filmography, to be honest, but I love the way this one ends: the implacable forthrightness of The Straight Story followed by the mysterious crop circles of Mulholland Drive. It is all too fitting that one of our directors most concerned with truth is so often difficult to understand.
44) Richard Linklater: Bernie, Before Midnight, Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!!, Last Flag Flying
- There is not a one of these that’s simply contemporary. “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” is an article from 1998 referencing a 1996 murder. Before Midnight throws back to the 1995 original Before Sunrise. Boyhood started filming in 2002. Everybody Wants Some is set in the early 1980s and already feels like a loose continuation of 1993’s Dazed and Confused. Then there’s Last Flag Flying, which Linklater made the own goal of saying was actively related to The Last Detail. Granted, there are few directors who have made such an effort to reenter their pasts as Linklater, but even by his standards this is a little silly. Two of these have been hailed as potential best-of-the-decade movies, but the rest do have their charms. I’m partial to Everybody Wants Some above Dazed and Confused, and Last Flag Flying is successful on its own terms without reference to a better movie. And Bernie, which sat on Netflix so long that I think it was easy to ignore its skill, is a truly remarkable neo-noir. It’s almost too bad they couldn’t get Jack Black to do a new verse of “Cell Block Tango” in character.
45) John Cassavetes: Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night
- As ever, “greatest” and “most important” are distant cousins indeed. If this were about the most influential stretch of five movies, Cassavetes would be up forty spots. This is the bloom of independent cinema in America.
46) Frederick Wiseman: National Gallery, In Jackson Heights, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Monrovia, Indiana, City Hall
- The old guy’s still got it. But seriously, Wiseman is someone to appreciate all the more in a time where a docuseries of six to eight thin episodes with talking heads and bad recreations of tawdry events. There are no twists in Wiseman, no plot to speak of. He is recovering social history in the form of T-bone steaks. And films like In Jackson Heights and City Hall, Wiseman recovers the idea of sociopolitical involvement. There are so many political groups meeting and discussing and debating, but just as wonderfully you get a sense of the religious groups and schools in Jackson Heights, the triumph of James Rodriguez, a local band performing badly, the task forces sticking up for the underdogs of Boston.
47) Peter Bogdanovich: Targets, Directed by John Ford, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon
- In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was a huge sensation: made the 2007 AFI Top 100, got Shyamalan “the next Spielberg,” you know the rest. When that movie was released, no one really talked about Shyamalan’s prior experience in movies; he’d made two features already in the 1990s, and so The Sixth Sense is not a miracle debut so much as it is a highly creative individual getting the chance to make a movie with a personal stamp on it. Of course, we all know what happened to Shyamalan, including his recent resurgence and increased reclamation, which I appreciate. In 1971, Peter Bogdanovich was hailed as the next Welles because of the mastery of The Last Picture Show. That film was occasionally treated as a kind of debut—like Shyamalan with Praying with Anger, I don’t think Bogdanovich made a lot of noise about asking people to revisit Targets—and like Shyamalan, within five years of that breakout picture, Bogdanovich had been relegated to the garbage bin. The 2020s, perhaps because of streaming and home video, are kinder to directors we want to bring back, but it’s incredible how rapidly Hollywood turned on Bogdanovich after making three incredible pictures. Bogdanovich was certainly smelling his own musk in the 1970s, but that it took literal decades for him to come back to the outer edges of success is stunning.
48) Robert Flaherty: Nanook of the North, Moana, Man of Aran, Elephant Boy, Louisiana Story
- If you love watching movies that have made the top 10 of the Sight and Sound poll but which also feature the adventures of a boy and his raccoon, boy do I have the director for you.
49) Samuel Fuller: The Crimson Kimono, Underworld, USA, Merrill’s Marauders, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss
- I’m not Jean-Luc Godard or a serious Film Twitter figure, so I can’t quite make it to idolatry with Fuller. All the same this might be the method of judging directors which gives him the least possible credit. If this were about ranking directors by their ten best movies, Fuller would be an absolute force. As it is here, the gonzo, grimy earnestness of his vision is double-edged. Shock Corridor, for all of its potent images, is maybe a little too silly. Yet his next film, The Naked Kiss, takes an old story about the oldest profession and makes it new, redolent with the fetid whiffs of treachery and prejudice.
50) Robert Wise: I Want to Live!, Odds Against Tomorrow, West Side Story, Two for the Seesaw, The Haunting
- One of the more varied entrants on this entire list, Wise has five very different movies to choose from: a crime drama based on a true story, a noir with a Defiant Ones flavor, arguably the most important movie musical ever, a romance drawn from theater, and a supernatural horror movie. Wise is a little underrated as a director, perhaps because it’s harder to put two arms around someone with such a varied career. Like Lean, another man who cut his teeth editing and then turned into a good director in part because of his ability to get strong performances, this list is almost as much the story of his stars as it is anything else: Susan Hayward, Harry Belafonte, everyone but Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, Bob Mitchum, Julie Harris. Not one of those actors bears much resemblance to the other, either, not any more than West Side Story looks or feels like The Sound of Music.
51) Jean Renoir: This Land Is Mine, The Southerner, The Diary of a Chambermaid, The Woman on the Beach, The River
- Renoir’s Anglophone interlude may not have the highest highs of a Day in the Country, but he may never have made a film more beautiful than The River, a film far more understanding than Black Narcissus despite having source material by the same author and being made in the same generation. Renoir came to the idea of Texas and the idea of India as equally foreign, and The Southerner and The River, despite being very different from one another, both profess a real sympathy for the people of those places.
52) Leo McCarey: Ruggles of Red Gap, The Milky Way, Make Way for Tomorrow, The Awful Truth, Love Affair
- Some people deride the studio system, and I don’t blame them for it. Its flaws are manifold and well-documented, from the broad and correct allegations of racism and sexism to the specific sins of forced abortions and lavender marriages. Yet these failures in decency are not absent in today’s modern studio system either—remember why #MeToo took off?—and to boot we no longer have room for a 1937 like the one Leo McCarey had. To have made a historically sad but historically beautiful film, Make Way for Tomorrow, in the same year as a screwball as sensational as The Awful Truth seems beyond our reach. So few directors release multiple films in the same year these days. We settle for Ridley Scott putting out The Last Duel and House of Gucci in one year and getting excited about that; we could have it so much better.
53) Paul Verhoeven: RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers
- One of the directors I actually feel kind of guilty about placing in the second half, less because I feel a deep bond to any of these films and more because I admire what Verhoeven’s up to. What percentage of the great satires of the past fifty years are his? Is it ten percent?
54) Atom Egoyan: Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, Calendar, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter
- Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter deserve to make any shortlist of Canada’s top ten films, and while I realize that not everyone is as fond of Speaking Parts as I am, I’d put that on a top 100 list pretty easily. Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter have this wonderful Lynchian quality not because there’s anything surreal or even that unusual about them, but because there is such deep, uncool feeling in the characters. How pathetic Bruce Greenwood is in Exotica, for example, and yet there can be no doubt that his feelings are emphatically real. Honesty is prized above all in those films, particularly in The Sweet Hereafter, and in the face of deceivers or varnishers, Egoyan’s protagonists do not falter.
55) Raoul Walsh: The Roaring Twenties, Dark Command, They Drive by Night, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde
- The great purveyor of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney as ruffians. Walsh has this wonderful stretch of pre-noirs, mixing the sappy melodrama of the ’30s with the hardcore cynicism of the ’40s. The Roaring Twenties is a tidy amalgamation of the two, the story of a guy who wanted to be someone in America and who could only make good (for a brief while) by breaking bad. In The Strawberry Blonde, James Cagney is playing another little guy, a frequent brawler who loses every fight he gets into, a sucker getting played by a false friend who knows how to manipulate him. The presence of Rita Hayworth as the much-desired title character in the film presages the noirish elements, and ditto Cagney’s prison term in the film. But the melodrama is in Olivia de Havilland, playing the unexpectedly good woman with a little more snap than she’d been allowed to opposite Errol Flynn, but still inevitably the decent gal to come home to.
56) John Musker and Ron Clements: The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet
- Four great animated movies, one mediocre but unfairly maligned animated movie. Judging from the sheer number of meh Sherlock Holmes adaptations I grew up with, The Great Mouse Detective is marvelous because it’s less about the mystery and more about Holmes’s brain. There’s some limited mystery in Great Mouse Detective, but it’s made plain immediately, with a musical number, that Ratigan is the source of all the evil shenanigans. What’s exciting in this film is watching the way that Basil’s brain works, whether through his misery at a non-matching pair of bullets or the sudden, delicious mania of “WE’LL SET THE TRAP OFF NOW!” This gift for adaptation, for recognizing a central idea in a myth or classic story and then writing around that concept, is such wonderful fodder for children’s movies. The Little Mermaid boils down to bildungsroman, and Hercules to this feeling of not belonging. Easily digestible, really fun.
57) Edgar Wright: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The World’s End, Baby Driver
- Another really fun group of five, Wright’s skill in creating premises stands out even in the lesser films (anything with “world” in the title), whether that’s through characterization or those little comicky flourishes that raise the hands of true believers and keep the doubters’ in their pockets. How long he can keep that premise going is basically the answer to how successful the film is. In the case of Hot Fuzz, the entire film is one joyous riff on The Wicker Man, using every mediocre cop movie ever made as the point of divergence. In Baby Driver, a film that I think very highly of and that relatively few other people seem to be into, the film starts to wind down once Baby gets arrested and never quite recovers the energy it had in excess earlier on. It still has a good enough conclusion, but the next great ending Wright makes will probably be the first.
Tier 4 – As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty
58) Sydney Pollack: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, The Yakuza, Three Days of the Condor
- Pollack falls into this tier because he hasn’t got a movie that I think of as really great on its own terms that can be surrounded by other solid films. He gets checkmarks, but they are in pencil rather than pen, let alone Sharpie. All the same, there’s a baseline here that Pollack manages to hold to, and over five films, as we’ve seen already, that’s not nothing. There are scenes of genuine complication in this stretch, as in that wonderful scene between Robert Redford and Max von Sydow late in Three Days.
59) Carol Reed: Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, Outcast of the Islands, The Man Between
- The Fallen Idol remains underrated because so many people continue to feel like the film is too designed, probably because there’s so much emphasis on the staircase we couldn’t quite see from a child’s perspective. Of course, when this plot point figured in A Separation, everyone lost their minds.
60) Mel Brooks: The Producers, The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie
- A potentially lethal group of five films, and in its own fashion about as brilliant as any other group of five here. Brooks’s 1974 is really not that far away from Francis Ford Coppola’s; like Coppola, Brooks succeeds enormously on ground of his own choosing. It also wouldn’t take much of a contrarian to say that minute for minute, Brooks has made the more entertaining pictures. You could fit both of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein into the runtime of The Godfather Part II alone, and both Brooks films made more money in their theatrical runs than either of Coppola’s did.
61) Victor Fleming: Captains Courageous, Test Pilot, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- Fleming is one of the most confusing directors for movie autodidacts (raises hand) to try to riddle out as they’re autodidacting. The measure of Fleming is probably better taken by his work in Captains Courageous or Test Pilot or A Guy Named Joe, but he’s the credited director on two films which are famous for having the fingerprints of just among other directors: Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, King Vidor, Sam Wood. This says nothing about other screenwriters who presumably had their own influence, and so Fleming, who was a reasonably talented director, is fascinating because there is no other person in movie history who made two films that beloved and yet no one wants to give him a lick of credit for either.
62) Robert Zemeckis: Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future Part II, Back to the Future Part III, Death Becomes Her
- Zemeckis is the punchline that no one is willing to make Spielberg, partially because Zemeckis in the recent past has been balls out weird while Spielberg has largely played things safe. The weirdness has been apparent since the beginning for Zemeckis. This is a weird slate of movies, and while I don’t think we can really argue that the Back to the Future sequels are great art or anything, they’re both so unexpected compared to what one would guess would be in a sequel for an ’80s megahit. While I’m surrounded by people who love Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, my favorite Zemeckis is probably Death Becomes Her, a movie which remains pretty gross despite the old-fashioned special effects. There’s a kookiness that one can find in a late ’50s, early ’60s picture like Bell, Book, and Candle, but with the kook zapped into a higher gear thanks to some great special effects and makeup work.
63) Sofia Coppola: Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring, The Beguiled
- Lost in Translation is for Gen Xers waiting for permission to grow up, cinematically speaking. The Bling Ring is one of the great movies made in response to the Great Recession.
64) Jonathan Demme: Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, Swimming to Cambodia, Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs
- While we’re sitting around throwing takes into the wind, there’s one Great movie in this group, and it’s the one with David Byrne.
65) William Friedkin: The Boys in the Band, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer
- This makes me wish that I thought The Boys in the Band was a better movie. The last three are all exceptional in their own way—just to get these takes under control a little bit, I think The Exorcist is close to perfect—but The Boys in the Band, which still stands as an honestly special piece of the late ’60s early ’70s, can’t quite rise above that point. Those pockmarked close-ups of Leonard Frey are about 90% as nervous as that bridge scene in Sorcerer.
66) Peter Jackson: Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, King Kong, The Lovely Bones
- Robert Zemeckis is on this list with a trilogy. Peter Jackson is on this list because of a trilogy. The Lovely Bones is such a disappointment, mostly because Jackson appears to have been sapped of the mystical savagery that underlined Heavenly Creatures. Where did that go? Will he ever find it again?
67) Quentin Tarantino: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Kill Bill Vol. 2
- The moral of the Kill Bill movies? Never send a screenwriter to do a director’s job. The moral of Jackie Brown? Tarantino might have had the chops to be a director all alone. There’s a line in Company I think about a lot, where one of Bobby’s girlfriends says that there’s a time to come to New York and a time to leave it. For movie autodidacts (oh, hey, that’s me again), there’s a time to adore Tarantino and there’s a time to leave him behind. We’ll always have “Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face.”
68) Tim Burton: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns
- Another person who one comes to and then leaves, though this really is a lovely group of films. Tim Burton, who fetishizes the lonely where Jim Jarmusch would roll a joint for them, at least has some real weirdos to stick in front of the camera. At his best, he understands that there can be a sitcom quality to having one weird guy stuck in a group of normal people: thus Beetlejuice or Batman or Edward Scissorhands. Managing to make Batman the normal one in Batman Returns is minor genius.
69) Bill Forsyth: Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, Comfort and Joy, Housekeeping, Breaking In
- The master of moments in the final ten minutes of a movie that make you give an appreciative “huh.” If those lists of movies for teenagers excluded John Hughes and stuck with things along the lines of Gregory’s Girl, we’d live in a more cheerful and kind world.
70) Dorothy Arzner: Merrily We Go to Hell, Christopher Strong, Craig’s Wife, The Bride Wore Red, Dance, Girl, Dance
- Like Lois Weber, who would be here if more of her films were longer/not lost, Arzner combines an interest in social justice with a kind of social conservatism. That this sounds contradictory is a sign of the times. Here we have films about alcoholism, infidelity, inadequate spouses, and the thin line between the stage and burlesque. Arzner has an interest in people living up to their better angels, but if they become better people we rarely see it. More likely to die in a plane crash or weep alone in a mansion than to regain a shred of honor.
71) Charles Burnett: Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding, To Sleep with Anger, The Glass Shield, The Annihilation of Fish
- I doubt if there’s any city in the world that has figured in American films more than Los Angeles, and one of its best chroniclers is Charles Burnett. I love that those first four tell entirely different stories about Los Angeles while managing to foreground Black people, which of course is not something that is frequently foregrounded in these pictures. (I keep thinking about that Paul Haggis quote where he was like, No one talks about how Los Angeles has a racism problem.) In one, a minimalist tone poem. In another, a slice-of-life drama commenting on social class. In another, something nearing a fable but also considering the Great Migration. In another, law and order and where Black people figure into both sides of that drama. Is there another director who sees Los Angeles so clearly and kaleidoscopically all at once?
72) D.A. Pennebaker: Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop, Sweet Toronto, Original Cast Album: Company, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
- Something like a quarter of the battle, if you’re a fly-on-the-wall/cinema vérité dude like Pennebaker, is in letting your subjects follow them in around with cameras. A much larger proportion of what leads to greatness is in seeing what will become powerful, and knowing how to incorporate it.
73) Buster Keaton: Battling Butler, The General, College, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Cameraman
- Hurts my heart to dump Keaton this far down the list. My favorite of these is The Cameraman, the last movie he really had much control over, and one of the more complete depictions of what kind of character he liked to depict. Almost as much about the art of filmmaking and the importance of vantage point and of editing as Sherlock, Jr., just with way more reliance on a monkey.
74) Basil Dearden: Sapphire, The League of Gentleman, Man in the Moon, Victim, The Secret Partner
- I will keep stumping for Basil Dearden until morale improves. I’m a little disappointed that this has his most famous movie, Victim, hanging around, but it was a tradeoff I made for Sapphire, which remains woefully underseen. I love the back-to-back of Sapphire, which is shocking and knowing all at once, and The League of Gentlemen, one of the most unapologetically entertaining movies I’ve ever seen.
75) Andrea Arnold: Red Road, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights, American Honey, Cow
- For a director who’s made hay from handheld cameras and all the realism those imply, Arnold really loves her sensational topics. Red Road has a looot of sensation. Wuthering Heights is sensationalized (brilliantly) by making Heathcliff Black. American Honey is based on a New York Times article about mag crews, but the events are obviously pretty jacked up. Arnold is rebuilding a kitchen sink, and generally speaking is doing so not with angry young men but with roadblocked women. She comes not to abolish Tony Richardson and Bryan Forbes but to complete them.
76) Ang Lee: Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain
- Ang Lee would have a reasonable chance of making a worldwide list only ten to fifteen spots further down, which is just nuts. Keeping this to English-language movies loses, among other things, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but this at least does allow for Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain to coexist. I keep expecting to return to Brokeback and find it tawdry or slovenly or something like that, but it’s nothing of the kind. Lee has a gift with actors more often than not—I mean, even I can’t defend Hulk or its performances all that much—but he gets the best of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, channels something new from Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, brings out the good in Christina Ricci and Kevin Kline. His style of giving direction on set is a little brusque, but there is such delicacy in his films that you’d never know.
77) Maysles Brothers: Salesman, Journey to Jerusalem, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic
- Three absolute classics in here, and two…not so much. Salesman is one of the most important pictures of the 1960s, one of the films which gets at the root of (deep breath, shuts eyes so I don’t have to see you when I say this) America. Selling Bibles is almost too on the nose to be believed, but to make the American Dream into something both religious and unattainable, sort of like the Kingdom of Heaven itself, is absolute perfection. How did they find a Willy Loman like Paul Brennan? The Maysles (and Charlotte Zwerin, who codirected the film) are making an essential document, and it’s made with the humility of people who knows they’re doing something remarkable.
78) George Miller: Mad Max, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, The Witches of Eastwick, Lorenzo’s Oil
- There was a tradeoff to be made, and while no less a critical titan than Gene Siskel rated Babe: Pig in the City the best film of 1998, I couldn’t quite scare myself up to two Happy Feet movies to go with Fury Road. Thus the first three Mad Max movies. I know, what a sacrifice. My favorite movie in this group, weirdly enough, is The Witches of Eastwick, where someone finally let Jack Nicholson play the role he was born for. Beelzebub suits him.
79) Danny Boyle: Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, 28 Days Later
- Danny Boyle is a director who knows how to what’s in his frame attractive—see the sleekness of Steve Jobs regardless of what film stock he’s using—but in this, his first five features, he just doesn’t give a crap about doing that. 28 Days Later, made in the early years of digital photography, is one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my life, just a truly gross-looking picture.
80) Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Crooklyn
- Another one that hurts for how low he is, but Spike Lee is one of the directors who is most hurt by this particular measurement. Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X are rare movies, films which are both great in cinematic terms and righteous in moral terms. There’s no call for a film to be either or both, but two have two in four years would be a miracle for most directors. For Spike Lee, it’s the kind of thing he can pull off once every ten to fifteen years.
81) John McTiernan: Predator, Die Hard, Hunt for Red October, Medicine Man, Last Action Hero
- I don’t think any action director could have realistically kept up the torrid pace that McTiernan was on with these first three movies, but at least we have them. It’s not just that those three movies are all part of the gospel of late 20th Century action cinema, but that all three of them feel so different from one another. Jungle-Schwarzenegger, airducts-Willis, submarine-Connery: it’s like a Mad Libs. The throughline is McTiernan, who had such a gift for legible filmmaking which also felt like someone had made it. People do the “I fed an algorithm 1,000 hours of x program, here’s what it gave me” bit all the time, but action filmmaking as translated through the MCU is impersonal to the point where you sit around and say things like, “Wow, I love how Joe Johnson’s signature comes through here!” McTiernan’s films are not shy about Dutch angles or close-ups; there is an originality in the use of language, a realism in Predator and a spectacularly clever cut in The Hunt for Red October.
82) Brian de Palma: Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury
- I’m not going to pretend to love Brian de Palma’s films…most of them bounce off me pretty hard. But this stretch of his filmography, predating Blow Out or Scarface or Carlito’s Way, embraces the weirdness so hard that the weirdness itself starts sputtering. I guess there’s some ambition in remaking the Scarface story, with all its excess and discussion of first- and second-generation Americans, for the 1980s. But you know what takes ambition? Making a movie where a guy in a bird helmet murders a singer named Beef with electrified lightning bolt prop and it might not make the top ten of strangeness, that takes ambition.
83) John Waters: Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester
- Meanwhile, here’s John Waters, presumably smiling a dignified but knowing sneer at the idea that anything de Palma’s doing is that weird. I almost thought about excluding Waters on the same basis that I was excluding like, Andy Warhol: how do you even compare a movie where a giant lobster rapes Divine to anything the rest of these virgins are doing?
84) Steven Soderbergh: Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven
- One of my general knocks on Soderbergh is that he makes a lot of movies that I’d rate no lower than a 3-star movie on Letterboxd but no higher than a 3.5. He really is a consistent director, with far, far more hits than misses, but it also means the ceiling is pretty limited for him on a list like this. Out of Sight and The Limey are certainly good movies, but the reclamation projects intent on calling them underappreciated greats of the 1990s are, at the very least, confusing.
85) Nicholas Ray: They Live by Night, Knock on Any Door, A Woman’s Secret, In a Lonely Place, Born to Be Bad
- Given the number of options one has with Ray as well—probably a better director than half these people—I decided just to go with one that has a few favorites. They Live by Night I am irrepressibly gaga for, and of course we all like In a Lonely Place, but I happen to be very fond of Born to Be Bad as well, a piece for Joan Fontaine to be a bad, bad girl in the eyes of people as morally ambiguous as Zachary Scott and Robert Ryan. Not every Ray foray into this kind of broad melodrama is successful, and we need look no further than Knock on Any Door for the proof of it. Still, insofar as I buy auteur theory, it’s for movies like Born to Be Bad, which without Ray would have been a slightly sparkly clearance item and with Ray is a sexy, frustrating romp.
Tier 5 – Mostly Effective
86) Brad Bird: The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Tomorrowland
- We’re starting to get into the zone where a director can have one mediocre to below-average movie and still make it in, but I happen to like Bird’s take on the Mission Impossible franchise more than Christopher McQuarrie’s, and there are three of the better animated movies from a fecund time in American animation sitting in Bird’s pocket. I don’t have the personal fondness for The Iron Giant that I know many of my friends and generational peers have, probably because I didn’t see it until I was much older, but anyone who can make that scene between the giant and the deer feel that honest and gentle without slipping into Bambi’s mother territory has chops.
87) Joan Micklin Silver: Hester Street, Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Crossing Delancey, Loverboy
- Deftness is the word I keep coming back to for Joan Micklin Silver, a director who wasn’t above some bold turns (such as the takeover of the alt-paper in Between the Lines), but who was exceptional at making real people out of film actors. Hester Street and Crossing Delancey are two New York movies which are both left out of those kind of lists far too often for stuff like The French Connection or Three Days of the Condor, which are good but not necessarily indicative of the city in a way that couldn’t be true of Detroit or Pittsburgh. Micklin Silver was just so good at showing a community, a place, a moment that seemed like something more than just shorthand or grime, and that’s why Crossing Delancey is, to me, the great New York romcom of the color photography era. (Yeah, I said it, but you also didn’t read this far.)
88) Anthony Mann: The Naked Spur, The Glenn Miller Story, The Far Country, The Last Frontier, The Man from Laramie
- My kingdom for a way to sneak in Bend of the River, a film I’ve really cleaved to, and to excise The Glenn Miller Story. The Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart connection is an honestly underappreciated one, even though I think it’s been reevaluted some in recent years with the increased attention that goes to The Naked Spur. The best of the bunch might be The Man from Laramie, which doesn’t quite live up to Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow in terms of how the film approaches the Indians (to name another Stewart movie), but which has some sophistication in its depiction of masculinity which I think makes it a more than worthwhile western.
89) Michael Curtiz: The Sea Wolf, Dive Bomber, Captains of the Clouds, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca
- Casablanca is closer in quality to Citizen Kane than Michael Curtiz is to Orson Welles on this list. Then again, nothing else here quite rates The Magnificent Ambersons, or perhaps even The Lady from Shanghai. No, the real comparison here is to Spike Lee, marking the first time anyone has ever compared those two, because in a five-movie streak, their prolific natures work against them. Curtiz is no Victor Fleming, who is hard to find in his great movies. The Curtiz of Casablanca is evident in The Adventures of Robin Hood, someone who enjoyed sweeping camera movement and high romance; he’s evident in Mildred Pierce as someone who could stare venality directly in the face without blinking. Casablanca just happens to be far away from those two.
90) Otto Preminger: Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent, In Harm’s Way, The Cardinal
- How long are these Otto Preminger movies? They’re so long that offhand, I’m not sure that even Peter Jackson has a longer average runtime on his five than Preminger. Another wonderfully consistent director, another director who just had a harder time stringing together his obvious best movies. Nothing here really comes all that close to Anatomy of a Murder, in my mind pretty easily the best legal drama ever made in America, but one appreciates that there are performances in this other movies that can generally approximate the brilliance of Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott, and Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder: Charles Laughton and Henry Fonda in Advise and Consent, John Huston in The Cardinal.
91) James Whale: Frankenstein, The Impatient Maiden, The Old Dark House, The Kiss Before the Mirror, The Invisible Man
- I really like this group, in part because of the difference between Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. One would be hard-pressed to find a film that was truly more accepting, caring, and kind than Frankenstein is to the monster. Monster though he may be, freaky and strange and naive, the film always makes that monster the most sympathetic character in the film. His death (yeah right) is the road map to the death of King Kong or the defeat of the Gillman. Perhaps the world is safer without him, but it does not speak much of the world that it cannot coexist with him. On the other hand, Invisible Man is pitiless towards its protagonist, a scientist who has fomented his own madness and made himself into a monster. More than any of the other Universal horror films, there’s a real edge to The Invisible Man that feels truly modern, a judgment of its wicked protagonist that does not engender our good feelings toward him. We want Frankenstein to be able to live in peace; for lack of a better phrase, we want the Invisible Man to disappear.
92) Bob Fosse: Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Lenny, All That Jazz, Star 80
- I don’t much like Lenny, Star 80 totally bounced off me, and Sweet Charity has two good scenes and neither of them is “Big Spender.” As a director of movies as whole entities, I don’t know that Fosse ever really became great at that practice. As a director of movies that are made up of scenes which might, in some way, stand on their own, Fosse was inimitable. For every Airotica sequence in All That Jazz there are seven or eight great dances or performances or snippy quibbles that redeem a misstep. Thus Sweet Charity, which is a total slog in which Shirley MacLaine is not at all the right answer, but which can still boast “The Rich Man’s Frug” and “Rhythm of Life.” If you’re not flawless, you’d better be sensational.
93) James Ivory: Maurice, Slaves of New York, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Howards End, The Remains of the Day
- You guessed it, another director who would benefit from being given ten years to cook instead of a flat five-movie set of pickings. Maurice and Howards End put him in consideration, but it’s The Remains of the Day, the best movie of a rich movie year in 1993, which keeps him on this list as other people start falling off like they fell off the Titanic after the power went out.
94) Gene Kelly: On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, It’s Always Fair Weather, Invitation to the Dance, The Happy Road
- Gene Kelly ekes out Stanley Donen despite the fact that I think Donen is probably involved in about as many great movies as director as Kelly was…he just spread them out too far. As an actor, you always knew what you were going to get with Kelly, as consistent and lovely a screen talent as we’ll ever have. The dancing was always going to be mesmerizing and the charisma was always going to be annoyingly irresistible. As a director, Kelly had a way of making things feel new. I mean, Singin’ in the Rain speaks for itself, but I love the basic premise of It’s Always Fair Weather. The dancing on rollerskates or the tap routines on trash can lids are great, but it’s a dance movie about veterans who come home and get sucked into the grind, never really living up to the promise they thought they had when they left the service. There are plenty of postwar movies that fold in some personal darkness…it’s just that most of them have like, Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart scowling instead of Gene Kelly beaming.
95) Arthur Penn: Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks
- The 40th Academy Awards, which Mark Harris among others has highlighted as a turning point in Hollywood history, nominated five men for Best Director: Mike Nichols (who won for The Graduate), Stanley Kramer, Richard Brooks, Norman Jewison (whose movie, In the Heat of the Night, won Best Picture), and Penn. Penn is the highest-rated director by this method, so good on him for that. He also got nominated for that award again before any of the rest of those guys. There’s probably a really good 6,000 word retrospective to be written about Penn’s career, maybe when Bonnie and Clyde turns sixty or when Night Moves turns fifty, but I don’t even know who would write it.
96) Wes Craven: The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street
- Put simply, Last House and Nightmare are both slashers. And while Nightmare (and Hills Have Eyes) have both been cannibalized by a neverending run of sequels, spinoffs, and reboots, I love the way Craven manages to make two slashers so fundamentally different. Last House on the Left is all pseudorealistic, grainy and gory and believable enough that it might make you think twice before hitchhiking or playing nice with people who look like Manson, and of course based on an Ingmar Bergman movie. Then there’s Nightmare, which is so stylized, more expressionistic than existentialist, with a villain who would be horrifying even without knowing what happened to Sharon Tate. The same fear underlines both films, that personalized terror of feeling someone stab you to death, and yet it’s approached from such different angles. That both are classics is a testament to how special Craven was.
97) Tony Richardson: Sanctuary, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Tom Jones, The Loved One
- For a director who cut his teeth making himself, frankly, the most essential of the British New Wave in terms of keeping to a style, it’s only fitting that there are a couple loony pictures at the tail end of this five. Tom Jones, which won Best Picture, still comes off as reasonably anarchic now, sort of like Vancouver or Montreal after a big hockey game. In 1963 I have no doubt it must have felt like an absolute riot. And The Loved One, based on one of Evelyn Waugh’s stranger books, absolutely lives up to the source text. The best of these is probably A Taste of Honey, though, the one time that Rita Tushingham really made sense, and a movie where everyone is just a little too off-putting for us to feel crestfallen for them when things go so, so wrong.
98) Norman Jewison: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, Gaily Gaily, Fiddler on the Roof
- A Canadian liberal in Hollywood. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little five above, you might say every one of them is Norman Jewison, trying to make a series of pleasant, simple morality tales without devolving into Stanley Kramer. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why would he stay in Hollywood if it’s so cynical? He stayed because he was a beloved figure in the industry. And how did he keep himself beloved. That I can tell you in one word: rentals! (Enter chorus, singing, “The rentalsssss, the rentals…the rentals!”)
99) Wes Anderson: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox
- Wes Anderson is a really interesting case, because not only do I think I have left his best movie out of this five, but I have also left his second-best movie out of this five. If he wanted to be…haha, like, forty or fifty spots higher, the guy should have found a way to avoid Moonrise Kingdom and Isle of Dogs. Anyway, I happen to like a lot about Life Aquatic and Darjeeling, two of the more reviled films from his oeuvre, because they manage to hold fast against so many of the stereotypes of Wes Anderson’s work. Are they precise? Unusual? Designed to the hilt? A little foppishly odd? Yes, mais oui, ahoy matey, and definitively. But in Life Aquatic, there’s a surprising meanness that Anderson develops that I’ve never been able to find since, a meanness that befits the potentially suffocating order of Steve Zissou’s expeditions. And in Darjeeling, I think we’re seeing him do what he has so rarely done in the past decade: he works with a smaller cast. It really is Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman’s show, and if there are goofy subplots and slow-motion sprints and moments of wan recognition, then it only shows that the dude making the movie is still himself, at least a little.
100) Christopher Nolan: The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar
- This is going to sound like a troll, and I promise it isn’t, but I can’t believe I put Nolan on this list.