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..
Fine list Keith! Love Nolan ahead of such directing greats, can’t wait for Interstellar!
Interstellar is sooo intriguing. Nolan may be a stretch for some but I think he is an absolute genius. I love all of his films and he has a special knack for his craft that few have.
I also truly adore all of Nolan’s outings thus far and I’m certain Interstellar will be nothing short of cosmically cataclysmic!
Yep. Considering his creative genius and the great cast involved, it would be a major disappointment if it fell flat.
P. S. We are getting the full length trailer for Interstellar with Godzilla!
Wonderful list, Keith.
Thanks. Pretty hard to narrow it down to five.
I can’t imagine anyone saying your list was “bad”. Awesome choices. Soooo, I’ll add others that I love: Spike Jonz, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Julie Taymor, and Woody Allen. 🙂
Thanks Cindy. Wes Anderson was the hardest to leave off. It pained me! I’m a little mixed on Spike and Woody Allen is a good consideration. He is so hit-and-hit though.
David Fincher, Clint Eastwood, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, Ang Lee, David O. Russel, but I think the five you listed with the exception of Nolan would be my top five. I want to see Interstellar before I jump on the bandwagon, but everything you said about him is right by me. I might move Eastwood or Fincher up or maybe drop Nolan into 5th. Lists are fun. And it could change tomorrow.
So many to consider, aren’t there? I really struggled leaving Wes Anderson off. I’ve always been a bit lukewarm with Ang Lee and Fincher. I completely expect more to mention PTA.
I would probably replace the Coen Brothers with Tarantino, that man is an all around talent (minus acting). His use of extended shots are unparalleled.
Ouch! Replace the Coens? Not a fan? I like QT’s work but sometimes I think he gets lost showing off his abilities. I really don’t fault his direction though. I think it’s a bigger fault of some of his writing.
No Wes?! 😢
I know, right. He was always in the mix and it completely sucked leaving him out. Love Wes Anderson!
Great list! Nolan has really changed the face of batman and made the series into credible films worthy of Oscars. Inception is an amazing film and spectacle and Memento is genius! Scissors has made some of the best films ever and it is scandalous that he has only won one oscar! Raging Bull and Taxi deserved every award going. I enjoyed shutter island and rate Leonardo as one of the best actors around. Scott has created one of the best Sci fi films of all time. Aliens is a masterpiece although I’m not a fan of Gladiator as I see Spartacus as a superior film. Gladiator just doesn’t seem like an original story although I cannot fault the direction. Spielberg is the master of blockbusters although the blockbuster can stem some snootiness Spielberg has made some amazing films and changed cinema on a great scale. Jurassic Park still stands out today and hasn’t aged. Schindlers list and Saving Private Ryan show that serious thought provoking films are not beyond him. I have only seen a few Coen brother films and Raising Arizona really stands out to me especially the performances. Again the fact that the find are written and directed by them makes a world of difference. To be able to span many decades is an amazing achievement and this shows why these guys are on your list. Great blog!
Thanks so much for the great comments. I think you hit on many of the things that make these guys great. Style and expression are important, but in the end it comes down to the movies. All of these directors have made some fantastic films and the way they have defined themselves amazes me.
Scorsese, Nolan, the Coens, all just wow! I still think Woody Allen is one of the best despite a few recent misses. I also love Wes Anderson and always look forward to a Baz Luhrman picture although these two are pretty divisive! I really admire writer-directors and one of my faves is Stephen Poliakoff who does a lot of work for TV too.
I figured Woody would get several mentions. For me he is a little hit-and-miss. When he is on the results are fabulous. But when he’s off… Still, there is no denying his skills.
Great list Keith. Some nie choices here.
My five would be…
#5. Martin Scorsese.
#4. Quentin Tarantino.
#3. Paul Thomas Anderson.
#2. David Lynch.
#1. Joel and Ethan Coen.
Love that #1! You just can’t beat the Coens. I just had to put Speilberg there. I really wanted to slip in Wes Anderson but Jaws, Raiders, Schindlers, etc. He can put out crap but some of his work is so brilliant.
Great choices! Love that Nolan and the Coen brothers made it to the top.
They just had to be there. Really love them and I always get excited for their films.
I love Ridley Scott but seems like he needs to get his mojo back. I’d probably swap him w/ Michael Mann as even his worst film Public Enemies isn’t THAT horrible. Nolan is the youngest one but certainly deserved to be on the list. Can’t wait for Interstellar!
I like Mann but I still prefer Scott. Of course I’m also a big fan of both Robin Hood and Prometheus. Sounds like The Counselor flopped though!
I have never been a big Ridley Scott fan. Still am not. But everyone else here . . . yeah. Exceptional. Even Scott, I have to admit, does some things very well (such as creating atmosphere).
Great list, Keith!
Thanks man. Tough list to narrow down. I mean there are just so many talented directors making movies today!
There certainly are. That you didn’t have Alphonso Cuaron or Steve McQueen on the list, for instance, proves it.
Nice list and I agree on most with the exception of Ridley Scott (he’s pretty hit or miss for me). My favorites today would be Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Michael Haneke, Spike Jonze, and Martin Scorsese.
Love that you mentioned Michael Haneke! He was another one that I literally hated to leave off!
Hey Keith, interesting post once again. I can’t really find any fault with any of your choices but I would personally go for the Coens, Tarantino, Fincher, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Jacques Audiard and Paul Thomas Anderson that really float my boat at the moment. But could just as easily have plumped for most of the names other people have mentioned above!
Lol that’s 6. Oops.
See! It’s tough narrowing something like this down, isn’t it?
Too hard man! But you’ve got to have a cut-off I guess … The Phenomenal 40 doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!
LOL! That’s true, plus I don’t think I could turn out one of those every week.
There are just so many, aren’t there? We really are in a fortunate time right now. So many skilled and able filmmakers. So many behind the camera who capture our attention almost as much as those in front of it.
They don’t always strike a perfect note, but they are always intriguing and will garner my interest. Woody Allen and Baz Luhrmann were close.
Very interesting list. I’m not a fan of Aronofsky but I do love Wes Anderson. Very cool variety!
Fab list dude. I’d actually have Nolan top before the Coens, but they are at different stages of their career. Who would have been sixth btw?
Really tough to say but I think Wes Anderson may be it. I simply love most of his films. Michael Haneke is another one that may be there.
Tarantino? Must have been one of your toughest lists to come up with. Some nice shouts above.
I’m not the biggest QT fan although I do respect his skills as a filmmakers. I just think his films sometimes get drowned in his quest for style. Style an excellent director though.
Great list! Happy you included Ridley, Steven and Marty. Good job, man.
Thanks bro. Tough list to narrow down. Sooo many good directors working now.
That is a pretty good list even though mine would probably have Werner Herzog, Tarantino, Linklater, Scorcese and another director in it. Can’t currently think who I would place in that fifth position. Although I like your choices with some I have issues. Scott has made some awesome movies, but also a couple recently which didn’t seem to have his usual magic. Even though I do like Nolan for the way he works and approaches things, I sometimes feel they lack feeling and feel more like a procedure….had that with Inception and the last Batman movie. Spielberg knows how to direct, but can be a bit too manipulative in evoking emotions at times.
Good words my friend. I think Nolan deserves mention because of his mixture of stellar visual storytelling and unequaled originality. As for Inception, for me it had one of the most emotional ending ever. I still get misty every stinking time I watch that last shot.
Linklater is a wonderful director and I like some of Herzog’s work. Unlike most I am lukewarm on QT. Sometimes I think he gets so wrapped up in conveying his own style that his stories suffer. One that I really hated to leave off was Michael Haneke. LOVE his work.
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