The 25 Most Influential Directors of All Time

As time passes, new models inevitably emerge. In art, politics and history, each generation finds its own heroes.
In the motion picture industry, though, is that really the case?
The innovators who shaped the art form are the ones still asserting
the most influence on moviemakers today. Or so says a stellar assembly
of directors, writers, actors, critics and others we polled with
this question: Who are the 25 most influential directors of all

The question is an important one. Influence is defined as that intangible power which can affect a
person, thing or course of events. Many believe that motion pictures,
more than any other art form in the past century, have had a profound
influence on modern life. If one also accepts the generally held
premise that directors, more than any other creative force in the
film industry, are responsible for steering and shaping motion pictures,
then perhaps film directors as a group have had a vastly underestimated
effect on the way society thinks and behaves.

But who has had the most influence on other
directors, as well as the public?
In the past 100 years,
which directors have made an indelible impact on our lives, and
on the face of the movie industry? In what ways have these directors
helped to define cinema as we know and see it today? With the help
of some of our most celebrated moviemakers and industry professionals,
we have counted down the directors who made the most difference—and
continue to do so today.

1. Alfred Hitchcock (1899 – 1980)

Alfred Hitchcock did not invent modern cinema, but
for much of the past century he has defined it. Inarguably the
most imitated motion picture artist of all time, a slew of spine-tingling
hits including Rebecca, Rear Window, Vertigo and North
by Northwest
brought international acclaim to the London-born
director, earning him the moniker “The Master of Suspense.”

While Hitchcock’s work certainly tended toward the
thrilling, it was not as much his ability to keep audiences on
the edge of their seats as it was to pull them out of their chairs
that made him a legend—drawing moviegoers into his films and challenging
the role of viewer as detached spectator. Widely hailed as his
masterpiece, 1960’s Psycho took audiences into the recesses
of a disturbed mind, making use of a fast-paced, adrenaline-inducing
editing style and a succession of POV shots. With a perfectly
measured combination of style and innovation and seamlessly blended
bits of humor and romance throughout his work, Hitchcock’s films
are a whole experience, usually playing upon a variety of human

Though he was considered a legend in his own time,
making more than 65 films in a career that spanned over half a
century, the only Academy Award Hitchcock ever won for directing
was an honorary one given in 1976, when he made history once again
by uttering the briefest speech in Oscar history: “Thank you.”

2. D.W. Griffith (1875 – 1948)

There are two sides to every film—the story, and the
technique used to tell it. While success on both parts is the
test of any director’s talent, it’s not always the case that even
the most influential directors triumph on both counts. While the
techniques employed by D.W. Griffith serve as the foundation of
moviemaking, for many critics of cinema the stories he told are
now best forgotten.

Considered the father of modern moviemaking, Griffith
made over 450 short films while employed at American Biograph
in the early 1900s. With this prolificacy came the opportunity
to experiment with the mechanics of film. His collaborations with
cinematographer Billy Bitzer yielded the discovery of such editorial
innovations as crosscutting and flashbacks, elevating the medium
of film to one of true storytelling capabilities.

With 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, Griffith
made the film that would change his career. Though audiences poured
into theaters to see it, the film’s overt racism and heroic depiction
of the Ku Klux Klan were deemed inappropriate, and the film was
banned in eight states. Though the controversy continues today
(in 1999, the Directors Guild of America renamed the D.W. Griffith
Award, their highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, citing
that Griffith “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes”),
there is no denying his impact on the industry.

Says critic David Sterritt: “He made many a bad
movie, and his career petered out when his storytelling sense
failed to keep pace with his formal ingenuity—and with new generations
of spectators bored by the Victorian formulas he obstinately mistook
for real experience. Still, his name remains solidly linked with
techniques and devices taken for granted to this day, from the
artful use of close-ups and flashbacks to the complexities of
parallel editing and multiple narrative. His most ingenious movies,
from the best Biograph shorts to features like Intolerance and the notorious Birth of a Nation, remain a source of
ideas and inspiration for open-minded auteurs as different as
Oliver Stone and Wong Kar-Wai, to mention just two who have clearly
benefited from his brilliance.”

3. Orson Welles (1915 – 1985)

What D.W. Griffith invented, Orson Welles perfected.
With no previous film experience, Welles was given a contract
with RKO Pictures (that included final cut) when his 1938 “War
of the Worlds” broadcast sent radio listeners into a state of
panic. The result: Citizen Kane, the most studied film
in history of cinema.

Unlike the innovators before him, the techniques
employed by Welles and his Kane team (including DP Gregg
Toland and editor Robert Wise) seem contemporary even by today’s
standards. The film’s unique cinematography, accomplished through
the use of a “deep focus” lens created by Toland specifically
for the film, reevaluated the impact a single image could have.
Bringing every person, prop and nuance of a scene into focus,
deep focus widened the canvas on which Welles could paint his
picture, so that each viewing could offer up something new for
the audience.

For the larger part of his post-Kane career
Welles floundered. He pushed several ideas to various stages of
development, but ran into walls each time when he couldn’t find
the financial backing. Though a pariah in Hollywood, Welles has
continued to influence each new crop of moviemakers, regardless
of genre. Documentarians Albert and David Maysles were struck
by Welles’ philosophy of film when they spent a week with him
in Madrid in the early 1960s. Their nine-minute recording of that
time shows Welles talking about an upcoming project (that would
become The Other Side of the Wind). He tells the
Maysles that “Some of the greatest moments in film have been divine
accidents.” Recalls Albert today, almost 30 years after the taping,
“As documentarians, that hit us right between the eyes. I’ve always
remembered that.”

Regardless of the place he came to hold in an industry
always looking for the next big thing, the interminable influence
of Citizen Kane is no accident. Even if Welles’ legacy
is defined by that first brilliant film, the influence of Kane is so vast that the director’s place in film history is guaranteed
for the generations to come. Each viewing of Citizen Kane yields
a new cinematic innovation and a deeper understanding of a genius
at work.

4. Jean-Luc Godard (1930 -)

He wasn’t the first of the French New Wave directors,
but he was the most celebrated. His 1960 film Breathless heralded
a new kind of moviemaking—one that was free from studio constraints
and continues to permeate the very heart of independent film today.

Armed with an exhaustive knowledge of film history
and a 16mm camera, Godard gave permission to later moviemakers
to break the rules when it came to story, structure and process.
Says Toronto Film Festival Director Piers Handling: “Godard challenged
the accepted notions of how a film was constituted. His innovations
included jump cuts, direct address to camera, the long take, disjunction
of sound and image and an innovative use of the actor—all of which
have become completely integrated in a variety of ways into contemporary
film, music videos and commercials. His famous statement ‘A film
should have a beginning, a middle and an end—but not necessarily
in that order’ revealed his modus operandi. He had an enormous
influence on the emerging national cinemas of the ’60s in Latin
America, Africa and Eastern Europe, and no major filmmaker in
America or Europe could ignore his radical challenge to established
film grammar. Quentin Tarantino named his production company A
Band Apart after Godard’s Bande à part, while Aki and Mika
Kaurismäki’s unit was called Villealfa after Alphaville.

Jason Kliot, of Open City Pictures and Blow Up Films,
puts it more succinctly: “Godard to modern film is what Picasso
is to modern art—the ultimate daredevil and pioneer, the man who
had no fear, the man willing
to try anything in any genre and push it to its limits.”

5. John Ford (1894 – 1973)

John Ford was a man of few words. Honest and straightforward
in personality and technique, he was an all-American director
who influenced a diverse slate of moviemakers from Martin Scorsese
to Satyajit Ray. With film school not an option
until much later in the 20th century, John Ford’s films became
moviemaking class for budding directors the world over.

Ford was one of the most prolific directors in the
history of cinema, and one of the few to be just as successful
in the silent era as he was in the talkies. Though many consider
his crowning achievement to be The Searchers, nearly his
entire filmography attests to his genius. Primarily remembered
for his westerns, Ford tried—and succeeded—at various genres. Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are
considered great westerns, but his romance The Quiet Man, his
adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and his
documentaries The Battle of Midway and December 7th were also widely revered.

Technically, Ford was the master of the long shot.
His long, sweeping epics helped establish setting as a primary
character. Says director Allison Anders: “For me the impact of
seeing John Ford’s westerns was the use of space and American
landscape. And presenting the land itself as powerful as it is
on the screen, he was forced to also reveal several things: American
mythology, the existential condition of the individual and, eventually
and inevitably, the relationship of the Native American to the
land we call America. That impact—his use of space and landscape
and how that alone spoke volumes for the core of the American
experience and myth—continues to be felt in every filmmaker who
attempts to create a film about non-urban America.”

6. Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999)

Unlike other directors whose backgrounds are pulled
apart to create a psychological profile meant to better understand
their work, Stanley Kubrick never let on much about his past.
His interest was based on aesthetics, making his contribution
to the cinema relatively undiluted. And yet it was his confessional
style that revealed vulnerability: he was using film to express
emotion, and did so better than any contemporary director. Rather
than have the audience watch an experience, Kubrick invited
them to be part of it. Audiences felt the exhilaration of space
travel gone awry with 2001, were horrified by the violence
entrenching “their” city in A Clockwork Orange, experienced
the psychosis of desolation in The Shining and tasted the
appeal of adultery in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s films are
not voyeuristic: they’re all-sensory adventures. But his films
at not always love at first sight, either. Deeply layered in metaphorical
meaning, they often require a certain digestion period—if not
a second viewing—to fully realize their implications. Says editor
Steve Hamilton: “[Kubrick is] the master of big (really big) budget
art movies.”

Though he worked in many different genres, tackling
horror, sci-fi, literary adaptations and war with just as much
ingenuity, Kubrick never made a straight ‘genre’ film. Like the
work of Hitchcock, Kubrick’s work displayed a full range of emotion.
What could be horrifying one moment could become bitingly funny
the next. His work was too complex to fit neatly into any one
category, and he went about reinventing each new genre he touched,
in essence making “A Kubrick Film” its very own label.

7. Sergei Eisenstein (1898 – 1948)

With only seven completed films on his resume, Sergei
Eisenstein’s influence may stem more from his theories—both written and
demonstrated—on the possibilities of film than from his body of
work itself. Released 10 years after The Birth of a Nation,
Eisenstein’s landmark The Battleship Potemkin was directly
inspired by Griffith’s advancement of the medium.

Potemkin’s 10-minute Odessa steps sequence
is one of the most powerful testaments to the importance of editing
and montage in film, and to the emotion such devices are capable
of rendering. Brian De Palma “borrowed” the scene directly for
1987’s The Untouchables, when Elliot Ness and his men confront
a group of Al Capone’s associates at a train station.

Intended as a showcase for montage editing, Potemkin was just that. But when the rest of the world wanted to know
more, Eisenstein was forced to reveal his secrets. Though his
discoveries are often overlooked as a basic part of moviemaking,
Eisenstein’s theories continue to affect the changing world of
motion pictures.

Says critic J. Hoberman “As the best known of the
Soviet montage theorists, Eisenstein has come to stand for the
powerful (and basic) notion that cinematic meaning is a factor
of editing—specifically the dynamic juxtaposition that is only
possible with movies. In his writings, Eisenstein argued that
it was possible to use montage scientifically to direct an audience
to think and/or feel in a particular way. He not only anticipates
propagandists of all political persuasions, but also Alfred Hitchcock
(and his multitude of followers), as well as the makers of TV
commercials and theatrical trailers.”

Though each of his films employed the same techniques
as Potemkin, it only took that one film for Eisenstein
to claim his place in cinema history. Alongside Griffith and Welles,
Eisenstein is one of the major contributors to moviemaking technique,
using innovation to heighten the audience’s visual and emotional
relationship to film.

8. Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977)

In the transition from silent films to talking pictures,
there were few survivors. Charlie Chaplin was an exception to
the rule. As both actor and director, he was one of Hollywood’s
first superstars, drawing record number audiences to the theater—and
bridging the gap that existed between entertainment for children
and adults.

But Chaplin also succeeded in making movies with
meaning. As a physical comedian, he stands as one of history’s
greatest, with the ability to express an extensive range of emotions
without the benefit of words. At the same time, Chaplin aimed
to say something with his movies, to talk about social
and political injustices, but with a sugar coating to attract
the largest audience. He’s still doing so, informing the work
of everyone from Woody Allen to midnight movie king Lloyd Kaufman.

Says Kaufman, “I don’t know about other contemporary
filmmakers, but Chaplin certainly influenced my movies. It is
no coincidence that the Toxic Avenger’s ‘significant other,’ Sarah,
is blind—City Lights is the obvious source. I could write
a book about how Chaplin has influenced my movies, scripts, characters
and themes.”

Not content to work around studio restrictions,
Chaplin also pioneered the role of director as businessman. Continues
Kaufman “Instead of being exploited by a studio as a contracted
director like fellow geniuses Buster Keaton and Preston Sturges,
Chaplin owned all his movies and benefited from the revenue derived
from them.” Chaplin also saw the potential for a relationship
between merchandising and film, emblazoning the image of The Little
Tramp on clothing and toys—making a fortune and leading the way
for future director-moguls like George Lucas.

9. Federico Fellini (1920 – 1993)

In a country marked by the documentary-like films
of the neorealism directors, it could be considered ironic that
Italy’s most famous director is one teeming with surrealism. But
Federico Fellini is not so far removed from the work of Vittorio
De Sica, Luchino Visconti and the neorealists before him: Fellini
began his career as a writer, collaborating with Roberto Rossellini
on the scripts for Paisan and Open City, two landmarks
of the movement. But the inspiration for his own work came from
life experience.

Fellini’s brief stint with a circus and early work
as a caricaturist and cartoonist certainly informed his playful
style. Though anchored in personal history, the impetus for his
work was based more on his dreams—both waking and sleeping—than
in any sort of day-to-day reality. As such, Fellini’s work is
marked by a chimerical quality where everything and everyone is
big and exaggerated. Yet, for the most part, his stories were
quite accessible, helping him attain his status as a true visionary.

Unlike other directors who dared to be different
by executing a new kind of simplicity, the work of Fellini magnified
and enlarged all that had been attempted in cinema before. Though
many have tried to imitate his style, his vision is too large
to duplicate. The most one can hope for is to be deemed “Felliniesque.”

10. Steven Spielberg (1946 – )

The “blockbuster” originated in 1976, when Steven
Spielberg’s Jaws packed a record number of moviegoers into
theaters around the country. Ever since, studios have been scrambling
to one up each other for bragging rights at the box office.

More than 25 years after Jaws, Spielberg
continues to deliver more big-budget successes than any other
director, remaining prolific and popular at the same time. Probably
the most bankable moviemaker working today, of the five highest
grossing films of all time, two bear his directorial stamp. But
success does have a price tag. For Spielberg, it’s the pressure
of appealing to the largest possible audience, which occasionally
means having to compromise. Though his Schindler’s List is no doubt one of cinema’s most powerful documents, films
like the Indiana Jones series and Jurassic Park exemplify
“entertainment” in its purest form.

Says MM’s Rustin Thompson: “It’s unfortunate that
the blockbuster mentality that has gripped the movie industry
since the summer of Jaws has superseded the influence of
Spielberg’s talents. His craft has always been deft and elegant,
but in recent years, buoyed by the knowledge that he can get away
with just about anything, his films have been self-indulgent,
lazy and sentimental. None of his post-’70s work bears up under
scrutiny; none of it has the exuberant economy of Duel, The Sugarland Express, Jaws or Close Encounters
of the Third Kind
. It’s sad to realize that the very freedoms
that allowed him to make those films have been bigfooted by today’s
box office myopia. His influence cannot not be found in a director’s
homage to classic Spielberg manipulations of light and off-screen
space in Close Encounters, his precocious use of foreground
in Duel, nor in the precise editing of the beach scenes
in Jaws. Instead, one need only look at the ads for the
latest dumb, must-see, comic-book extravaganza to realize the
monster—much more voracious than a great white—that Spielberg
quite unintentionally created.”

11. Martin Scorsese (1942 – )

Part of the “new Hollywood” generation that emerged
in the 1970s, Martin Scorsese is at the forefront of contemporary
cinema, certainly one of the living masters, able to easily infuse
a strong dose of reality into each installment of his work. His
work measures the difference—both geographically and mentally—between
Hollywood and New York.

Scorsese elevates the Freudian needs of sex and
aggression to a heightened sensibility. He does not glorify violence,
but he does beautify it. It would be hard to argue that the boxing
scenes from Raging Bull aren’t some of the most exquisite
caught on film. And the haunting conclusion to Taxi Driver is memorable not just for the actions that take place, but
for the perfectly rendered image of insanity and disillusionment—a
visual expression of a societal contention.

Though most often associated with his work in the
gangster genre with films like Mean Streets and GoodFellas, it is not the intense action that makes Scorsese’s films so
immensely watchable. Whether immediately recognizable or not,
it is the spirit of his films as much as the visual stimulation
that appeals to audiences. Says writer-director Jim McKay: “He’s
one of the few veteran directors who has kept his passion and
his artistic curiosity at the forefront. Decades into his craft,
he’s still exploring, learning and taking chances. His work, unfortunately,
affects today’s moviemakers much more in the stylistic realm (copycats
pay “homage” to the grit, attitude and technical flair) than in
the spiritual and artistic realm, which is where, I think, his
brilliance lies.”

12. Akira Kurosawa (1910 – 1998)

One need look no further than John Sturges’ The
Magnificent Seven
(based on The Seven Samurai), Sergio
Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (a remake of Yojimbo)
or George Lucas’s Star Wars (inspired by Hidden Fortress)
to give credit where it’s due.

In a Time remembrance at Akira Kurosawa’s
death, director Zhang Yimou said that “Other filmmakers have more
money, more advanced techniques, more special effects. Yet no
one has surpassed him.”

Says Facets’ Ray Privett, “Kurosawa
was one of the first ‘foreign’ filmmakers whose work
I encountered. His drawing on texts I already knew—Macbeth,
King Lear
and so forth—provided an entry point into a rich
and dynamic body of work. But his situating of these texts in
a world I didn’t know—Japan—helped me reach beyond familiar reference
points in my cinephilia.”

Such is the mystery of Kurosawa: a man who made
films in his native Japan, but was more greatly appreciated in
the west. He made movies for the people of his country, but was
criticized for alienating Japanese audiences. He was a director
revered in America when relatively few of his 30 films ever made
it to the continent. Yet he remains one of our greatest storytellers,
mastering the art of effecting a cultural tale with worldwide

13. Ingmar Bergman (1918 – )

With a team of regular collaborators,
including actress Liv Ullmann and cinematographer Sven Nykvist,
Ingmar Bergman brought the raw emotion of the stage to film, enchanting
audiences around the globe. Working first as a playwright, Bergman’s
unflinching interest in the pathos of his characters transcended
language, affording him one of the most respected careers in cinema

Autobiographical in nature, his films display keen
observations of the human condition, whether dealing in comedy
or drama. Bergman’s scripts are intellectual and introspective,
allowing a stellar group of actors to display more range in one
performance than other actors have in their entire careers. Ignoring
special effects, Bergman instead employed lighting as his tool
of choice. Through constant collaboration, he and Nykvist innovated
ways in which lighting could move the story forward: displaying
emotion and revealing the hidden secrets of the characters. He
easily transitioned the rules of theater to the medium of film,
donating a uniquely uncomplicated—albeit not easily duplicated—style
to the world of cinema.

As distributor Emily Russo says, “Bergman is quite
simply an extraordinarily gifted artist; his originality blazed
a trail and left an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape
which continues to inspire and be emulated by countless filmmakers
who follow him today. His concerns reached the depths of human
emotion and spirit and proved to be universal in their language.
No serious list of influential directors can fairly omit him.”

14. John Cassavetes (1929 – 1989)

In his introduction to The Films of John Cassavetes:
The Adventures of Insecurity,
BU Film Professor and Cassavetes
enthusiast Ray Carney asks: “Do any American feature films work
harder to prevent viewers from reclining into their La-Z-Boys
of the imagination? Cassavetes’ scenes deliberately swerve away
from dependable courses and outcomes. Every time a scene is about
to congeal into a predictable tone, Cassavetes will give it a
stir; every time a relationship is about to stabilize, he’ll give
it a push. Just when the audience thinks it’s figured out the
relationship between two characters, a new piece of information
or an emotional adjustment forces viewers to reevaluate everything.”
Therein lies the inspiration in Cassavetes’ work, and the reason
why his films never reached the wider consciousness of mainstream
moviegoers: they require work.

Taking a cue from the French New Wave, Cassavetes
could well be crowned the pioneer of the American independents.
A successful Hollywood actor, he used the money he received from
his television and film acting gigs to finance his first foray
into film, 1960’s Shadows. Shot on 16mm without a script,
the film touched upon many social taboos of the day, most notably
that of interracial relationships.

Though seemingly chaotic, his films are meant to
represent the true range of human emotions. His films require
patience, just like real life. He favored actors as the rulers
on set, letting their emotions get the best of them and taking
the story where they wanted it to go. In doing so, he created
some of the most realistic stories in contemporary cinema, and
the most genuine characters—flaws and all—in the history of film.

15. Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002)

It could be considered ironic that Hollywood’s most
beloved writer-director was actually born in Austria, never speaking the
English language until he came to America in the 1930s. But perhaps
it was his outsider perspective that made him such a keen observer
of American behavior. With a slate of films, covering all genres,
Wilder set his wit loose on America, and we have yet to recover.
Few have managed to match his success in the business, nor his
dedication to the occupation. Up until his recent passing, Wilder
continued to go to his office each day and work on new ideas.

Says MM Editor at Large Phillip Williams: “In film
after film—Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Double Indemnity, Sunset
Boulevard, The Apartment
—Billy Wilder got audiences to fall
in love with characters that, on a good day, might be considered
loveable losers. The Wilder leading man—whether fallen drunk,
cynical opportunist, kept writer or lovesick accountant—was always
digging himself out of some self-generated pit. [His characters
were] fully human and fully realized”. They were also wholly American.

16. Jean Renoir (1894 – 1979)

Never did the worlds of art and film collide as
closely—or literally—than in the work of Jean Renoir. Employing
the same masterful visual stimuli as his father, Auguste Renoir,
did in his paintings, Jean Renoir discovered that simple adjustments
to lighting, location, focus and camera angle could add new and
exciting dimensions to a film. Selling some of his father’s paintings
to finance his work, Renoir was a renegade moviemaker—too far
ahead of his time to be fully appreciated.

Though he’s best known for Grand Illusion, about
a WWI prisoner camp, Renoir’s most powerful work was probably The Rules of the Game, a satirical take on a high-society
country weekend, originating the vein in which films like The
Gosford Park have been created.

Says Slamdance Film Festival founder Peter Baxter:
“Renoir is film’s great humanist. His perspective trapped the
essence of the real world for the spectator—a human viewpoint
that integrated actors, objects and space that expressed the relationship
between individuals and society as one mutual tie-in.”

17. Francis Ford Coppola (1939 – )

Though in recent years he seems to have settled
comfortably into the role of director-for-hire, in the 1970s,
Francis Ford Coppola was responsible for almost single-handedly
resurrecting genres that had long been considered dead by Hollywood
decision-makers. First with The Godfather and The Godfather
Part II,
he brought the gangster genre back to life, infusing
it with humanity and paving the way for such later films as Martin
Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Casino. Though war films
had seen a bit of a resurgence with Michael Cimino’s The Deer
and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, Coppola’s Apocalypse
was the one film that confronted the act of war and its
effect on those involved. It was Apocalypse, more than
any other film, the allowed directors like Oliver Stone to make Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July in the following

18. Howard Hawks (1896 – 1977)

In a time when the studios called the shots, Howard
Hawks proved that you could still be successful even if you didn’t
play by the rules. As a novice director, he signed on with Fox
Films to direct, but learned that the seemingly mandatory studio
contract was one reason many directors and actors were being pigeonholed
into certain genres, expiring early in Hollywood. Hawks refused
to be put into such a position, and made sure his first contract
was the only one he ever signed.

As a result, he proved to be one of the industry’s
most versatile directors, genre-jumping throughout his career,
almost always to great success. Though he is often associated
with the screwball comedy—with films like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday—Hawks was just as at home with
film noir (The Big Sleep), westerns (Red River),
gangster films (Scarface), war movies (Sergeant York)
and literary adaptations (To Have and Have Not).

19. François Truffaut (1932 – 1984)

Though generally considered less important than
Godard in the French New Wave brigade, François Truffaut kicked
off the movement when The 400 Blows premiered at Cannes in 1959. Originally entering the industry
as a critic with the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut published the infamous (and industry-changing) article
“A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema” during his tenure. The
article caused a stir among film critics and theorists—claiming
that true innovation in film would only be achieved if the director
asserted him/herself as the driving force behind it.

Not one to hide behind his words, Truffaut set about
proving his theory, creating the autobiographical The 400 Blows.
Like many other directors cited here, the enormous—and immediate—triumph
of his freshman effort proved a difficult feat to live up to in
later years. Though he had enormous success with such later films
as Jules and Jim, Day for Night, Farenheit 451 and The
Last Metro,
the style he had helped to pioneer had become
commonplace by the time his later efforts arrived, reducing Truffaut
to—like many cinema innovators—constantly having to defend his
later works.

20. Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966)

It is difficult to make mention of Buster Keaton
without also mentioning his biggest rival, Charlie Chaplin, as
their intended demographic was essentially the same. But even
in the 1920s, audiences were split between the two camps. Those
who know both of the comedians’ work know that, though the on-screen
image was similar, their methodology and intentions were completely
different. Born into a family of vaudevillians, Keaton was first
put on the stage as a child, becoming the third player in his
parents’ act, which revolved around disciplining a misbehaved
young boy.

In 1917, Keaton moved from stage to screen, starring
in a slate of Fatty Arbuckle shorts, and bringing the physical
comedy that had been instilled with him. But unlike Chaplin, Keaton
was willing to take physical risks for his comedy, performing
all of his own (often life-threatening) stunts, including jumping
onto a moving train and setting up a house to fall on top of him,
all in pursuit of a laugh.

Says actor Bruce Campbell: “Buster was the ballsiest
of all the silent era guys, bar none. His genius was very simple:
he used the magic of movies to showcase his outrageous physical
abilities better that anyone else. It’s one thing to be a great
physical comedian, but it’s another thing to know how to capture
that on film.”

21. Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976)

Though he backed out as the director of The Cabinet
of Dr. Caligari,
his work on the script and subsequent directorial
efforts bear the imprint of a pioneer in the world of German expressionism.
Lang was able to make the leap from silent films to talkies unharmed,
and further managed to shape the history of film in two countries—in
Lang’s case, Germany and America.

Long before the term was coined, Lang was making
some of the greatest film noirs ever to exist, including The
Blue Gardenia
(1953), Human Desire (1954) and While
the City Sleeps
(1956). Interest in Lang’s work further increased
when his landmark sci-fi film, Metropolis, was re-released
in the 1980s—this time pitted against a contemporary rock soundtrack.
Even without the aid of dialogue, Lang preferred to tell stories
on a grand scale—epic fantasies and horrific legends—and did so
easily within the limitations of the technology. He was resourceful
and ahead of his time.

22. John Huston (1906 – 1987)

Says writer-director Mika Kaurismäki of
the life of John Huston: “John Huston’s film career lasted at
least 57 years, more than the half of the first century of cinema.
He started acting at the end of the 1920s, writing scripts in
the beginning of the ’30s, and made his directorial debut in 1941
with the excellent The Maltese Falcon, that renewed the
whole genre of detective films. The Asphalt Jungle is one
of the classics of film noir; it inspired many directors, including
Kubrick, who five years later made The Killing and Jean-Pierre
Melville, who said that it was the most important American film
of all time.

Huston was able to change with time and some of
his later films (Fat City, The Life and Times of the
Judge Roy Bean
, Wise Blood and Prizzi’s Honor)
were absolutely modern films that achieved the critical acclaim
normally associated with promising
debut filmmakers. He was a painter, boxer, bullfighter, poet,
hunter, soldier, gambler and filmmaker. He adored life and took
risks. This can be seen in his films; no genre was impossible
for him. The African Queen, Moulin Rouge, Moby Dick, The Misfits,
Freud, The Night of the Iguana, The Bible, Casino Royale, Reflections
in a Golden Eye, The Man Who Would be King
are just a few
examples of his range.

Huston was a storyteller whose films were always
both well conceived and strongly character-driven, even to the
extent that his ‘directorial style’ was often invisible. As James
Agee says: “a wonderful breath of fresh air, light, vitality and
freedom goes through every one of his issues/47/images.”

23. Woody Allen (1935 – )

Woody Allen is one of the few directors who has
successfully turned imitation into an art form. With an encyclopedic
knowledge of film history and theory, Allen has used the discoveries
and innovations of some of cinema’s greatest masters to come up
with a conglomerate style of his very own.

His films combine the physical comedy of Chaplin
and cerebral wit of The Marx Brothers with the psychological exposition
of Bergman and the haphazard camera technique of Godard. He is
paradoxically comedic and intellectual—able to espouse his philosophical
or political beliefs in an entertaining way or choreograph a pratfall
just as easily. Though his films have rarely been moneymakers
in the United States, Allen is one of America’s most recognizable
directors, with an enormous following the world over.

Says screenwriter Alan Sereboff: “Quite simply,
Allen is 50 years into his film career and still making the movies
he wants to make, taking lessons from the finest that preceded
him in developing a style distinctly his own. Some of the more
influential directors on the list have become so at the price
of alienating a portion of their audience—such is the price of
genius. He has remained an auteur, true to himself and his audience.
And, perhaps most importantly, he made it okay for a writer to
be neurotic and successful.”

24. Luis Buñuel (1900 – 1983)

Though he chose moviemaking as opposed to fine art,
Luis Buñuel’s kinship with Salvador Dalí was evidenced in his
work, as he elevated surrealism in film to a new level. In fact,
it was this same friendship that would ultimately jumpstart Buñuel’s
career. With assistance from Dalí, he made his first film, the
short Un Chien Andalou. Praised for its surrealistic attributes,
it was with the support of various art patrons that Buñuel would
go on to make his feature debut with the scathing L’Age d’Or.

Unlike many other directors on this list, Buñuel’s
career would make its deepest impression in its latter part, beginning
with 1964’s Diary of Chambermaid, a film he made at the
age of 64. It would be followed by his most renowned—and austere—surrealistic
undertakings, including Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of
the Bourgeoisie
and That Obscure Object of Desire, films
that combined the worlds of fantasy and reality, always leaving
viewers to anticipate the unexpected.

25. Ernst Lubitsch (1892 – 1947)

“Hitchockian” and “Felliniesque” are two common
adjectives in the English language. But the one director
who left an entire phrase as part of his legacy is Ernst

Though some contend that “The Lubitsch Touch” was
a phrase concocted as a publicity stunt—an attempt to ‘brand’
the director and increase his popularity—the term stuck. It has
come to signify a certain bit of sophistication, wit and intelligence
in film, making it possible for a director not to bend the rules
of cinema, but find a way around them. Like Billy Wilder (whom
he collaborated with on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka), Lubitsch’s razor-sharp observations of America were probably
due in large part to his standing as an outsider, having only
left his native Germany in 1922. Says writer-director Sherman
Alexie: “I wish his love of spoken language was more common in
contemporary movies. The people in his movies were so damn smart,
so clever, so biting and satiric, yet were capable of being foolish
and vain. I wish more movie directors used dialogue to convey
character, rather than relying on image and action.”

Sticking mainly to comedies, Lubitsch relied on
superb writing and strong actors to bring his stories
to life, leaving camera experimentation and tricks to others.
As a result, his “touch” is not seen in any heavy-handed visual
style, but rather in the overall emotion of such films as Trouble
in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be
and Heaven Can Wait.

Whether the list provokes agreement or dissension,
it is meant to encourage serious discussion about film. It is
also meant as an educational tool. In the digital age, new movie
fans and moviemakers are often looking to be led where technology
takes them, resulting in an interest in film that is inclined
toward newer works. Yet cinematic innovation was equally—if not
more—present in cinema’s nascent years than it is today. While
time has passed, many of these landmark works have been forgotten
and pushed aside in the video stores for one of the 300 remaining
copies of the latest summer blockbuster. As a result, legendary
directors like John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir are
bypassed. Perhaps a survey such as this will spark a renewed interest
in the work of these and other pioneer artists.

Finally, reviewing film history’s influential people
and moments helps to put in perspective the current state of moviemaking—both
in America and abroad. The snapshot that emerged from our findings
tells us three important things: first, that the lack of diversity
in the 25 directors cited shows how far we need to go in incorporating
more women and other minorities into the film industry. The second
implication this list makes is that success—and influence—on the
industry is a matter of quality over quantity. The fact that Sergei
Eisenstein could crack the top 10—with only seven films to his
credit—proves that the momentum from one film alone can extend
generations into the future. And although Orson Welles, François
Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard have much larger filmographies, their
inclusion is due, in large part, to the impact of a single early

Finally, and most importantly, the ordering shows
that the film industry is a place where anarchy rules. Studios
have always tried to lure all moviemakers into an established
“system,” but it is those who have decided to break the rules—the
true cinema mavericks—who have succeeded in being the most remembered
and revered. Many claim that the current state of moviemaking
is stagnant; it’s a statement that could be corroborated by the
current slate of sequels and remakes that are littering the box
office. But as the preceding list of directors proves, it’s in
the times of homogenization that true creativity often asserts
itself, leaving hope that the next great cinema renegade will
heed the call. MM


  1. Violet Ray

    May 5, 2018 at 3:31 pm

    Where are the women?

  2. Deepak

    March 8, 2018 at 7:53 pm

    Where is Satyajit ray, the greatest indian filmmaker?

  3. steve

    February 25, 2018 at 7:45 pm

    david lean? where is andrei tarkovsky?

  4. R. Taylor

    January 6, 2018 at 4:51 pm

    Where the heck is David Lean?!

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