Can anyone question the fact that we have an exceptional group of directors making movies these days? From gorgeous visual spectacles to unique humors and styles, many directors have established themselves in the art of filmmaking. Many have developed such director-specific styles that you immediately recognize their work in their films. I restricted this Phenomenal 5 list to working directors – in other words directors who are still currently making movies. I factored in not just a director’s body of work but also their influence on the industry and creative uniqueness. There are so many great directors out there and certainly some that I hated to leave off. So, as always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these working directors are absolutely phenomenal.
#5 – STEVEN SPIELBERG
Steven Spielberg has solidified his status as one of the most accomplished director’s in film history. He has received six Oscar nominations for Best Director and has won twice. He has directed several critically acclaimed films but he’s also directed some of the most successful box office pictures in film history. His directing credits reach back into the 70’s where he brought us “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the wonderful classic “Jaws”. He really excelled in the 80’s directing the fantastic “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and two “Indiana Jones” sequels, “E.T.”, and “The Color Purple”. The 90’s were just as good as Spielberg directed two “Jurassic Park” pictures and the Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”. Since then he’s directed a wide variety of films such as “Minority Report”, “Catch Me if You Can”, “War of the Worlds”, “The Adventures of Tintin”, and “Warhorse”. There are several forgettable films sprinkled throughout that I haven’t mentioned and there is a good argument that Spielberg has become more about presentation than substance. But you can’t question his contributions to cinema and I couldn’t leave him off this list.
#4 – MARTIN SCORSESE
From priesthood to filmmaking, Martin Scorsese’s life took a major turn when he entered the movie industry. He started his career directing shorts but it was 1973’s “Mean Streets” that gave moviegoers their first real look at a style and grit that would become synonymous with a Scorsese film. He has been nominated for the Best Director Oscar five times, winning once and has had memorable collaborations with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Scorsese’s early career includes films such as “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”. But other than “Raging Bull”, Scorsese didn’t offer much in the 80’s. Then along came “Goodfellas” in 1990, a film considered by many to be the quintessential gangster picture. The 90’s also gave us “Cape Fear”, “The Age of Innocence”, and “Casino”. In 2002 Scorsese garnered more critical praise for his gangster period piece “Gangs of New York” followed by his 2004 Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator”, and the film that earned him his one Oscar, “The Departed”. Recently he has reached into new genres with the underrated psychological thriller “Shutter Island” and the fine family film “Hugo”. Scorsese may not appeal to everyone mainly due to the large number of his films that share the same dark and violent themes and tones. But there’s no denying his filmmaking skills and I love that he’s expanding into new genres.
#3 – RIDLEY SCOTT
It says a lot when only your second film becomes an all-time science fiction classic. Such was the case for Ridley Scott and 1979’s “Alien”, a movie that inspired many sci-fi films that would follow. A three-time Oscar nominee for Best Director, Scott’s resume is filled with a variety of films but he seems to be at his best making historical period pictures. After starting his career with the period film “The Duellists”. He followed up “Alien” with the sci-fi cult classic “Blade Runner” and the less impressive “Legend”. He jumped into the 90’s with “Thelma and Louise”, a critical and commercial success. But it was in 2000 and 2001 where Scott directed two films that have become favorites of mine: “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down”. Both are gritty action movies and both are made with such sharp detail and a visual flair that Scott has become known for. Scott then directed the underrated historical epic “Kingdom of Heaven”, the crime drama “American Gangster”, and the spy film “Body of Lies”. In 2010, Scott directed the epic-scale “Robin Hood”, his fifth movie with Russell Crowe. In 2012 Scott returned to science fiction with “Prometheus”. Scott may not have the fattest resume but his contributions to the sci-fi, action, and historical genres can’t be questioned. He’s a director with a gripping visual style and many of his films have really resonated with me.
#2 – CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
I figure several jaws will drop and eyes will roll at me putting Christopher Nolan ahead of such greats as Spielberg and Scorsese. But Nolan has won me over with his incredible style and storytelling skills. Nolan’s genius is also tied into his ability to write. He’s written almost every film he’s directed and the personal connection shows itself on-screen. His films are layered and often challenging. And while his resume isn’t as full as other directors, he has yet to make a bad movie. That’s quite a compliment. Nolan started with the intriguing small independent film “Following”. But in 1998 he caught they eyes of movie fans with his complex but mesmerizing “Memento”. The film won him several independent movie awards. He then directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams in the well received “Insomnia”. But it was in 2005 that Nolan stepped into the superhero genre and directed “Batman Begins”, the reboot of a franchise that had been left in shambles. It was a brilliantly crafted picture that truly legitimized the genre. After 2006’s fun movie “The Prestige”, Nolan made “The Dark Knight”, the second film in his Batman trilogy and a movie that’s become one of my favorites of all time. It went beyond just being a comic book movie. Then in 2010 Nolan made the intensely challenging and beautifully structured “Inception”, a dream-based heist picture unlike anything that’s been done before. Nolan nicely wrapped up his Batman trilogy with “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Interstellar” is on the way. Nolan has shown himself to be a creative genius and true visual storyteller. His ability to write allows him to craft stories that directly connect to his own unique directing style. The results so far have been incredible.
#1 – JOEL & ETHAN COEN
Much like Christopher Nolan, The Coen brothers have a personal connection with the material they direct. As writers they have created some of the most memorable films of the last 30 years. As directors they have brought those projects to the big screen with a signature style that is unlike any other. You truly know a Coen brothers film when you see one. They examine familiar themes and weave them throughout their unique assortment of movies. They also use familiar performers and create films with different regional flavors. There first movie was 1984’s “Blood Simple”, a crime thriller that immediately revealed the brothers style of filmmaking. In 1987 they made “Raising Arizona”, one of the funniest movies of all time that showed the brothers’ quirky off-the-wall sense of humor. The 90’s brought several great films including “Miller’s Crossing”, an underappreciated gangster picture, the critically acclaimed “Barton Fink”, and the quirky crime thriller “Fargo”. In 2000 the brothers made “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, their first of three collaborations with George Clooney. Three movies later, the Coens directed what is one of my favorite films “No Country for Old Men”. They won three Oscars for the movie including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. They followed it with two comedy’s “Burn After Reading” and “A Serious Man”. In 2010 they stretched their boundaries again by remaking the John Wayne classic “True Grit” and more recently they went “Inside Llewyn Davis”. The Coens are filmmakers that may not appeal to everyone but there’s no denying their craftmanship and unique style. Their movies are unlike any other and if I see their name attached, I’m automatically intrigued.
So there you have my list. I automatically know some directors that many will think of. Tell me about them. Who are your Top 5 working directors. Be sure to share them in the comments section below..