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The 25 Most Influential Directors of All Time, From Scorsese to Kubrick

The 25 Most Influential Directors of All Time, From Scorsese to Kubrick

25 Most Influential Directors Scorsese

Articles - Directing

6. Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999)

Stanley Kubrick

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)

Sergei Einstein

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)

Charlie Chaplin

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)

Federico Fellini

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 – )

Steven Spielberg

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.”

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  1. R. Taylor says:

    Where the heck is David Lean?!

  2. steve says:

    david lean? where is andrei tarkovsky?

  3. Deepak says:

    Where is Satyajit ray, the greatest indian filmmaker?

  4. Violet Ray says:

    Where are the women?

  5. Roger Howerton says:

    Yes, David Lean has should be here, and how ’bout William Wyler?

  6. Essaywriter says:

    For me, it’s definitely Lars vor Trier with his impecable style and metaphors. His Melancholia drama was just astonishing with its sci-fi influences and Kirsten Dunst starring. I wrote more than 50 movie reviews on all of his films starting with The Orchid Gardener. I wonder how may times Willem Dafoe wanted to leave the projects.

  7. Ben Hewson says:

    The post you published here is very informative. Thanks for writing such a nice post for us.

  8. Gaston Bacquet says:

    I would expand the list to 30 names: Elia Kazan, who brought a deeper naturalistic approach to filmmaking and acting; Walt Disney, without whom we would have no animated films; David Lean, Frank Capra and William Wyler.

  9. Sam Kalegana says:

    You missing one of the greatest.. Andrei Tarkovsky

  10. Bruce B Blank says:

    While probably not a director per se’, Stan Laurel can arguably be listed among the most influential film creators in Hollywood history. The ‘Laurel and Hardy’ film series were his babies where he often wrote, stared and – yes – directed his directors to do his bidding, perhaps second only to Chaplin in comedic inventiveness, if not delivery. Hal Roach was smart enough to get out of the way and let Laurel control almost every aspect of his projects. Along the way he brought innovations in sound editing, special effects and gag pacing.

  11. Rob Ford says:

    Tarkovsky is the only director to invent a new language in cinema. Woody Allen is not even a great B director?

  12. Morio Hatano says:

    The following people deserve to be listed as great artists:
    Frank Capra, William Wyler, Yasujiro Ozu, Michelangelo Antonioni

    In addition, the following persons are listed as those who have a greater influence on social history and cultural history than all of these directors.
    Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney

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