The Best Directors of Them All


Who, or what, should the greatest director be? It’s hard for anyone to stand out amidst such a diversely brilliant field. There are masters of the camera, of performance, and of design. Some filmmakers’ genius is to capture reality, while others invent entire worlds from scratch; there are humanists who probe the depths of human nature and there are visionaries who explore new ways to see the world and tell stories. Nobody can do everything better than everyone else, but there are a few who, for my money, epitomize what is truly great about cinema and the artistic vision.  I’ve already provided my long list; now, here are the best of the best of the Academy Award nominees for Best Director.


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Cliff’s Picks for Best Director

Here they are, the best of the best!  As with my votes for Best Actress, I’m going about this in two ways.  First, the old-fashioned method: I’m casting my vote by year in all 87 races for Best Director.  Lots of fun, and full of impossible choices: Wilder or Hitchcock? Wellman or Reed? Altman, Lynch, or Jackson?  Second, to accommodate the overflow from such strong years (and get rid of the races I could do without), the second column contains my top 87 Best Director nominees of all time, drawn from the entire pool of 426.

Finally, the third column, just for reference, contains the list of actual recipients of the Academy Award for Best Directors.  I’ve shaded in gold the instances where my pick and the Academy’s pick align. Your thoughts, either privately or down below in the comments section, are more welcome than ever!

Now, without further ado:

In image form, for those who want to see the whole list at once:


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86 Best Director Omissions

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Once again, having surveyed all those honored by the Academy for excellence in directing, I’m ready to offer my own humble assessments of the field. But as I did last year, I’m pausing before casting my personal votes to consider the vast terrain of filmmaking outside the 214 filmmakers and 426 films in this column of Oscar history. The Directors Branch has frequently made inspired decisions, nominating the likes of Gillo Pontecorvo and Terrence Malick as well as Frank Capra and Woody Allen. I’m not a big fan of the word “snub,” though I concede its convenience as shorthand. Oscar nominations are a compliment to those who receive them and by no means an insult to those who don’t. Nonetheless, there’s only so much room in the finals each year, and the directors that cram into those five spots invariably squeeze out other admirable visions. I don’t begrudge the Academy voters their choices; I can see the merits in nearly every nominated effort, whether or not it’s my cup of tea. Still I guarantee that if I had the power, somebody would be making way for one of these personal heroes.

As with last year’s Best Actress Omissions, I’ve restricted myself to the period covered by the Academy Awards (1927 to present) and only one film per filmmaker. Even with those strictures, though, I found it difficult as always to whittle the list down to just 86, or an average of one candidate per year in the Oscar race. Many of these are among my absolute favorite films of all time, though I also considered some of the films I consider to be the most impressive directorial visions ever realized. The list ranges from rare misses by Oscar favorites (Wilder, Kazan) to those who never would have had a prayer at a nomination (Paley, Cocteau) except through the divine intervention I’m suggesting. They also wound up falling quite evenly among the decades and across a wide spectrum of production—unlike last time, feature animation and documentary are fair game.

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425 and Done: Robert Altman for Short Cuts



The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List

Jane Campion for The Piano

James Ivory for The Remains of the Day

Jim Sheridan for In the Name of the Father


I need to get into the habit of promising “in the next couple of days” when I end these projects, as I seem to have a refractory period between the viewing of my very last film and writing about it. Reluctance for it all to end, perhaps? Sheer exhaustion? Or the challenge of grappling with the great work I choose to save for the finish? I suspect the latter most of all, as I keep mulling over Short Cuts in terms of everything Robert Altman ever directed and every film the Academy ever nominated for Best Director. I’m still swimming around in the world Altman created, but rather than ruminate forever, I suppose I ought to get words down and draw this quest to a close.

I’ve explained at length my reasons for saving my favorite director’s Last Great Film for the end of my Best Director project. After engaging with dozens of different directorial visions over the past month, Altman’s film seemed to have sneakily lain in wait just for me. I’d played out the movie countless ways in my head over the last several years, but I couldn’t have anticipated the moments featuring Alex Trebek, Captain Planet, or the 1960s Batman TV series that seemed to speak directly to me. Before I get too solipsistic, though, I know that these sensations were just symptoms of another rich cinematic reality Altman had put on the screen, one enmeshed in another time and place (medflies, smoking, photo kiosks) even as it connects directly to mine.  Altman’s eternal project is to create a piece of reality, replete with details and hidden connections only we can appreciate but also extending far beyond the edges of the frame.  As I sat down for the beginning of Short Cuts, I was struck by how long I’d gone without seeing an Altman film for the first time, and how wondrous it was to see his familiar technique moving in strange and new ways, tracing a new world to explore.

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The End of Another Quest

I sure cut this one a bit closer than last time!  But of course I got there in time to see Robert Altman’s Los Angeles epic unfold from start to finish, with a wonderful pre-screening conversation with Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed, and co-writer, Frank Barhydt!

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Thoughts on the film to come tomorrow, followed by some final musings on the Best Director category and my overall picks.  But first, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

9 Down, 1 to Go: Steven Soderbergh for Traffic



The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Stephen Daldry for Billy Elliot

Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Ridley Scott for Gladiator

Steven Soderbergh for Erin Brockovich

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light bluee indicates those who were nominated.


This must unfortunately be a capsule review, as I’m flat out of time to head off to Westwood for the conclusion of my Best Director Quest.  But apart from the elusive Drag and the swiftly approaching Short Cuts, the film viewing is done!

Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic shows off the director’s famously versatile talent, breathing rich meaning into every frame of even slightly subpar material.  Stephen Gaghan‘s screenplay has some strengths but some considerable weaknesses, including the incredibly contrived Michael Douglas storyline that seems like it’s trying to cram too much political discourse into one perspective.  I have it on good information that Simon Moore’s teleplay for the original British miniseries is the superior work, and I look forward to catching up with it sometime soon.  But Soderbergh intelligently uses a prodigious expertise with editing (thanks to Stephen Mirrione‘s colossal efforts keeping everything straight) and cinematography (finding nuance in the at-first obvious visual schemes for the separate storylines) to probe the heart of each character’s experience.  I was a particular fan of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ rudely awakened drug lord wife and Benicio Del Toro‘s Oscar-winning turn as the morally beleaguered Mexico undercover agent.



Despite Soderbergh’s estimable work on both this and the intriguing Erin Brockovich, and the interesting range of choices offered by Ridley Scott’s spectacular Gladiator, Stephen Daldry’s charming Billy Elliot, I have to hand this one to Ang Lee for his opulent period drama Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–perhaps not the finest wuxia film ever made, but certainly the most simultaneously sweeping and subtle.

And now, off to see Short Cuts!  If you’re in the neighborhood and can make it over in the next ten minutes, drop by!

8 Down, 2 to Go: Terrence Malick for The Thin Red Line



The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan

John Madden for Shakespeare in Love

Peter Weir for The Truman Show

Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.


Whew, dashing this off during a break before the last half hour of Traffic—just in time to bolt out the door! As my word choice probably indicates, these will be pretty quick and instinctive posts, but I’ll do what I can to do justice to both films!

The principal sacrifice I made in setting my June 7th deadline for this Best Director project was passing up the chance to see The Thin Red Line on the big screen. Watching the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray on a 65-inch screen was a pretty decent substitute, but I regret that my first trip to one of his transcendental cinematic planets could not be in the dark asylum of a movie theater. From the very first shot of an alligator gliding into the scummy pond, Malick captures a lyricism that somehow has eluded every filmmaker before or since. Much credit goes to the brilliant cinematography of John Toll (on a hot streak after back-to-back wins for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, but the fact remains that Malick has managed to elicit the same kind of magical aesthetic with three generations of collaborators–even the bombastic Hans Zimmer‘s is tamed by his pacific outlook.  The film is ultimately a testament to an immaculate directorial vision for the ages.

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