Comfortable and Furious

Top 10 Film Directors of All Time: A view from two Ruthless writers

John Welsh loves the classics, and rightfully so

Top Ten Hollywood Directors of ALL time (not just now).  A subjective list from a slightly informed Know-It-All. (Faves) 

Ten is the number and the number is Ten.  Not nine, not eleven.  Ten.  

1. D.W. Griffith. He just about invented the art of cinema.  No whining about the racism in Birth of a Nation, please.

2. Charlie Chaplin.  He acted, wrote, directed and even composed the music for his films.  Anyone not moved to tears by the ending of his film City Lights has no soul.

3. Buster Keaton.  His The General and Sherlock, Jr explains his presence on the list.

4.  John Ford.  One of the most cinematic directors. The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, The Informer, The Searchers, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

I’ll not pontificate on the influence of German Expressionism. I will say the one good thing that came of Nazism is the influx of European directors to Hollywood.

5. Fritz Lang. He set a high standard for science fiction with his film Metropolis.  The Big Heat is one of the best of the noir.

6. Michael Curtiz. No one has made better adventure films.  Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, and an obscure arthouse film titled Casablanca.

7. Ernst Lubitsch.  No one has made better comedies. 

To Be Or Not To Be, Ninotchka ” “The last mass trials in Moscow were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

8. Alfred Hitchcock.  The Master. He told his stories with images. Vertigo, Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt.

9.  John Huston.  The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen.

10.  Orson Welles. His Citizen Kane is always at the top of the best films ever made, with good reason.  Touch of Evil is a great noir film

Honorable mention:  Bob Fosse, Cabaret,  All That Jazz (my favorite movie)

Matt Cale has different ideas
  1. Akira Kurosawa – He’d claim the top spot for The Seven Samurai and Ran alone, but few directors of any stripe dared to pursue (and master) a dozen different cinematic genres. Film noir? Done. Westerns? Enough to make John Ford tip his cap. Shakespeare? Been there. Adapted stage plays? And how. Adventures, comedies, kitchen sink dramas. He took on all comers and left not a single peer. At bottom, AK leaves all others in the dust due to his persistent humanity; the full width and breadth of our wild, disjointed spin around the globe. And yes, he gave us the incomparable Toshiro Mifune, perhaps his best legacy of all.
  1. Billy Wilder – Oh, so he’s more screenwriter than director, is he? A mere craftsman without real artistic flair? Wrong, and at the top of your voice. Whenever the topic turns to cynical optimism, we begin and end the conversation with Samuel “Billy” Wilder, perhaps the greatest Polish import since Kielbasa. While The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, The Lost Weekend, and Ace in the Hole should be enough to shut your heretical yap, I submit Double Indemnity, far and away the greatest work ever to flicker on an American movie screen. Murder does indeed smell like honeysuckle, and don’t you ever forget it. 
  1. Alfred Hitchcock – While “popcorn cinema” is far from an insult to those who believe movies should be, above all, entertaining, it’s not even accurate when it comes to the grand Hitch. The man all but invented subtext, and I defy anyone not to believe there are layers within layers, even in otherwise escapist claptrap like The Birds or The Trouble With Harry. A master of the camera, yes, but his twinkling misanthropy all but sums up the human experience. We’re greedy, reckless, and vain, and Hitchcock has the only cure worth seeking. At bottom, he just gets us, and we’re thankful for the lesson. 

  1. Woody Allen – I know, I know, he hasn’t been the same since 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. Neither has anything else, so quit your complaining. Oh, and be happy he gave it to us at all. Sure, there are a few lemons spread out over a lifetime, but when you’ve made fifty fucking films, you can be forgiven a lapse or two. The man all but owned the 1970’s, and in case you thought he was a one-trick pony of sight gags and Freudian wit, I give you Interiors and Another Woman, two dramas that can proudly stand toe-to-toe with anything by Bergman. Plus, who couldn’t help but love a man who keeps plugging away at 89, not giving a damn if his movies make a cent. He just loves the work. And not dying. Mostly not dying. 
  1. Sidney Lumet – I could make my case with Network, 12 Angry Men, and Dog Day Afternoon alone, but the strongest evidence I have is that, at the ripe old age of 83, he dared – while actively dying, mind you – to throw us a final bone in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, the most wicked swan song in the history of the medium. I’ve seen this open wound of a movie at least a dozen times, and never not given it a standing ovation, even from my own living room. Again, I hear time and again that Lumet never really had a style worth knowing, but when were guts and talent not enough for the pantheon? Lumet was the ultimate blue-collar director, believing that competent storytelling outweighed pretension. Save your complaints for your bearded film school professor.
  1. Stanley Kubrick – Depending on the day, I could easily push Kubrick to the top, or somewhere nearby, but after reading a recent biography of the man, I am forced to downgrade a bit for being such a procrastinating fuckwit the final 20 years of his life. We deserved more from the man, and instead got two measly films from 1981 forward. Sure, Eyes Wide Shut is likely only to grow in esteem with the years, but who wouldn’t have wanted his Napoleon instead of Ridley Scott’s? 2001: A Space Odyssey remains, for my money, one of the few genuine masterpieces of world cinema, and Dr. Strangelove is on any cinephile’s list of grand comedic outbursts, but I’d prefer to highlight his most representative work, Barry Lyndon. From birth to death, all is folly. Deal with it.
  1. Robert Altman – Again, perhaps much too low on any list, but I can’t forgive him for dying before he made Hands on a Hardbody. Still, A Prairie Home Companion was the perfect final act, showing that beneath the hard, toxic exterior was a streak of sentiment a mile wide. “The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” he said, and goddamn if that isn’t the most insightful thing I’ve ever heard. Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller will remain relevant so long as man walks upright, but let’s reserve our loudest applause for The Long Goodbye, a film of singular obsession for me in recent years, if only because it dares give us a shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger before anyone knew how to handle it. If anything, he made Elliott Gould the epitome of cool for a fortnight, and lord knows we could use that kind of cool again.
  1. John Ford – Sure, the eyepatch-wearing motherfucker was an unreconstructed prick, and maybe the meanest man in Hollywood, save Louis B. Mayer, but who better told the story of the United States? Sure, he trafficked in myth until he copped to the con in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and pretty much dehumanized the entire Native American experience until The Searchers (partially) set things right, but if Americana is your pleasure, there’s no greater authority. Besides, the man saw global war up close and personal, and I trust anyone who came back from that experience with talent and ambition intact. And if The Grapes of Wrath isn’t on your shortlist of all-time American films, you can go back to not reading this website. 

  1. Francis Ford Coppola – I can already hear the rage, my friends. But let’s examine what makes a man great. Is owning a decade enough? Take the 1970’s – The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. And, for a kicker, the screenplay for Patton. Now tell me who’s done better? I’ll wait. Is it fair to bring up One from the Heart, Jack, and what is almost certainly the worst film of the year, Megalopolis? Perhaps, but as the existence of Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown help forgive Polanski’s hot tub frolics, so does a decade of dominance for Coppola’s reign of error in the 80’s and 90’s. True, we all wish Francis had walked into traffic after premiering Apocalypse Now at Cannes, but not everyone can be as selfless as John Cazale. 
  1.  Martin Scorsese – It almost feels obligatory to add the mighty midget to any “best of” list, but his absence would feel like the ultimate sin against filmmaking. For over 50 years, Scorsese has been telling stories his way, always with dramatic flair and great insight. Taxi Driver and Goodfellas alone would cement his legacy, but he had so much more to give, including the one movie in existence that actually made me like Jerry Lewis. And while some dismiss Casino as an unworthy follow-up to a cinematic gem, I’d argue few films have made three hours slip away with such effortless abandon. Oh, and he had the cheek to cast the actor with the biggest cock in Hollywood as Jesus. Bless you, Marty.



, , ,



9 responses to “Top 10 Film Directors of All Time: A view from two Ruthless writers”

  1. Goat Avatar

    Thanks, Matt and John for a great cooperative effort.

  2. John Welsh Avatar
    John Welsh

    I reviewed Matt’s list and must say it is excellent. I might bump Fritz Lang off my list in favor of Woody (his best is The Purple Rose of Cairo). I would have to come up with a separate list of foreign directors, with Kurosawa in the lead, followed by François Truffaut (Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player, Day for Night), Jean Renoir (Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion), Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine), Satyajit Ray (The World of Apu, Distant Thunder).
    Christ, I forgot David Lean, I must be senile. Lawrence of Arabia.

    However, Eyes Wide Shut is a confused disaster and will never be anything else. According to Lee Ermey Kubrick knew it.

    And Taxi Driver? What the hell was that about? Paul Schrader’s repressed neurotic sexuality confused with violence, plus Fritz Lang’s expressionism colliding with Godard’s philosophizing. Travis Bickle is so nuts you’d be surprised if he didn’t go totally apeshit and shoot the place up.

  3. The Crazy Dutchman Avatar
    The Crazy Dutchman

    God-damn. And you call your self movie-critics? How on earth could you leave out the director responsible for the greatest box office successes in the history of movies? AND the greatest action movie of all time? Avatar. Titanic. Terminator 2: Judgement Day. You suck.

    The Wachowski-brother-sisters. The Matrix.

    Uh… Steven Spielberg? Jaws? E.T.? Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Indiana Jones? Schindler’s List? Saving Private Ryan? Empire of the Sun? You SUCK.

    Brian De Palma. Carrie. Scarface. The Untouchables. Carlito’s Way.

    Peter Jackson. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit-movies.

    George Lucas. Star Wars? Damn, you suck.

    And, because I’m Dutch, last but certainly not least: Paul Verhoeven. The Hitchhiker. RoboCop. Basic Instinct. Total Recall. Zwartboek.

    And yeah, I know that’s not ten. I can count. Because I don’t suck.

    1. The Crazy Dutchman Avatar
      The Crazy Dutchman

      Damn. It seems that I myself suck too. I forgot John Carpenter! Who directed one of my personal favorites of all time: Christine! AND Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from both New York and L.A., The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, and so many others.

      Sorry, John.

      1. Goat Avatar

        As a veteran of making Top 10 LIsts I will state that someone or something that is worthy will always get left out.

    2. Matt Avatar

      James Cameron? Are you insane? GEORGE LUCAS? You’re mad as a hatter.

      1. 80s Action Fan Avatar
        80s Action Fan

        To be fair if that bloated prick had retired after True Lies, a case could’ve been made for him being a great action filmmaker like Tarantino, but then came Titanic and that Avatar bullshit and indeed all of a sudden Terminator 1-2,Aliens and True Lies feel long ago.

        However I’d argue Paul Verhoeven deserves an honorable mention mainly for making misanthropic, misogynistic and carnage drenched bloodbaths. And doing it better than anyone else. Okay Maybe Michael Winner.

        Part of the problem with these directors is they live long enough to piss on their legacy with unnecessary sequels, terrible films that are paycheck assignments and phony sentiment. Take Ridley Scott, the guy did Alien and then 1492, Robin Hood and belated Alien and Blade Runner sequels.

        As for Spielberg, I feel like all of such is negated by Indiana Jones 4 and Ready Player One. And that’s going in with the ideal of looking the other way after a certain age. E.T blows by the way, and his digital removal of guns is what ultimately set us on the road of nerfed up and watered down bullshit.

  4. Troy Howard Avatar
    Troy Howard

    These lists are so Anglophone it’s enough to to induce vomiting for anyone who can read or speak even a little more than just English, much less anyone who’s lived on more than one continent. FFS… this is pathetic.

    1. Goat Avatar

      Feel free to send me your list to

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *