Martin Scorsese. Stanley Kubrick. Alfred Hitchcock. 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 time?
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.
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 work.
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.
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