A-List: Five Best Directors of All-Time (Sort of)
By J. Don Birnam
November 13, 2014

Never get drunk at a demon ghost bar.

I have watched with regret in the past weeks and days as the Oscar chances for David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar have faded, asking myself just what it will take for the out-of-touch Academy to recognize the brilliance of some of my favorite directors ever, certainly among active American directors (Nolan is British-American). David Fincher has directed classics such as Fight Club and Se7en as well as technical psychological masterpieces like Zodiac and The Social Network, while proving his wit and ability with soupier popular adaptions like Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. He does not have an Academy Award accolade to show for it. Nor does Nolan, whose brilliance that was exhibited in his early features such as Insomnia and Memento is undeniable, and whose snubbing for The Dark Knight led to the most consequential change in Best Picture voting rules in modern Oscar history.

This made me ponder just who my favorite directors of all-time are. But before the conniption fit I suffered while contemplating the extremity of the task of listing the five best directors of all time did me in once and for all, I realized that what I was really pondering here is a particular category of directors: those who have never achieved Oscar gold.

The task, however, did not become that much less herculean. One could travel the world and the decades and find dozens of directors whom the kooky AMPAS members had embarrassingly overlooked. So I whittled down my task a bit further by focusing exclusively on directors that make movies primarily for American and/or British audiences. After all, throughout its history, the Academy has been Anglo-centric, honoring in its top categories almost exclusively movies produced by or in either of those countries. Suffice it to say that it would be strange to ding them for not honoring all great European directors when their focus has never been Continental Europe. Moreover, in their defense, the Academy has found a way to somehow honor movies from some of the all-time masters. Witness Federico Fellini, whose movies received an impressive three Best Foreign Language Film Oscars, and Francois Truffaut, nominated for four different Academy Awards. Even Luis Bunuel, mostly ignored by American critics in his time, received a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and several other nominations.

It thus makes sense to make this a list of the five Best Directors of all time not to win an Oscar, who have a mostly Anglo-American focus. Thus, modern geniuses like Lars Von Trier and Pedro Almodovar will not be featured today.

Still, the assignment is quite daunting, and the list of runners-up is plentiful. Many artists that have received universal acclaim are, in my view, too quirky or “out there” to make me comfortable naming them here (if you haven’t noticed I’m a traditionalist, you haven’t paid attention). Thus, Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, and Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, all brilliant at their art, do not seem to me to be as worthy as some of the others I have come up with. Moreover, one or two brilliant films do not a “greatest of all time” make, in my view.

Indeed, a certain depth in work is arguably missing for some of the directors honorably mentioned above. And perhaps there is no better example of that than Orson Welles, who did not, in my view, compile a long-enough list of work to make me want to desperately honor him. This statement is perhaps controversial, as Wells’ stature is undeniable.

Another runner-up I must mention is Tim Burton, someone whose craft I admire and adore in ways that are hard to describe. His movies are so stylistic (too much for many) that they are all obviously the work of the same individual, while being so unique in style, narrative methods, and even color as to always provide a new, fulfilling experience. I appreciate the craft of moviemaking more than most, and I like to think of myself as someone who is not as focused on the “story” of the movie as the more typical critic. For that reason, Tim Burton’s movies have always earned my respect.

And undoubtedly placing sixth on the list (mostly because I spoiled it by mentioning them at the opening of the article) are Fincher and Nolan. They are arguably better than the director I placed in the fifth spot, but I resisted the urge for now to avoid listing them out of the favorable bias I have for the movies they have released this year.

This preface being its by-now-usual length, I’ll now turn to the impossibly narcissistic task of listing the five Best Directors of all time (who haven’t won an Oscar, etc.).

5. Darren Aronofsky

I have seen all six of Aronofsky’s directorial feature films and only the last, Noah, is a truly weak link. Meanwhile, from his very first feature, Pi, Aronofsky has wowed audiences and critics alike with his unique surrealistic style, his unabashedly dark views of humanity, and his impressive use of haunting and jarring soundtracks to evoke suspense and create tension. Nor are many Oscar-less directors as adept at bringing out fantastic performances from his cast - with nominations or wins for Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream.

But Aronofsky’s true genius lies in the fact that every one of his pieces says something - both subtle and explicit - about the human condition and the dark desires that drive us. Obsession, alcoholism, other forms of addiction, compulsiveness, and paranoia all pepper his work in disturbing yet realistic ways. His point of view is too compelling and brutal in its honesty to be able to turn away. Aronofsky is in touch with the dark side of human nature in ways that few working today except perhaps Scorsese are capable of achieving. Indeed, it should be no surprise that Aronofsky cites Roman Polanski as one of the biggest cinematic influences on his work, given that director’s dark vision and style with respect to human nature.

Other than Noah, The Fountain is perhaps Aronofsky’s least impressive movie, the science fiction genre clearly not being his forte. But the effort is no less admirable in that in reaching for new areas of versatility, Aronofsky at the very least told a touching story about grief and loss that is only mildly weakened by some of the thematic/artistic distractions. In the end, of course, movies like Pi and Requiem for a Dream earn him a spot among masters, and he only has a single Best Director nomination to show for all of it (for directing Black Swan).

4. Robert Altman

Altman’s brilliant career spanned over six decades and netted him five Best Director nominations, but zero wins. A pity, for at least three of those movies - M*A*S*H*, Nashville, and Gosford Park - are already timeless classics.

Unlike stylized directors like Burton or Aronofsky, Altman’s style was always more mundane in the sense that it relied much less on the showier aspects of filmmaking, and much more on dialogue, a strong rapport between the cast, and intelligent, witty story lines. Altman was, in a nutshell, one of the greatest modern masters of satire that ever lived. Thus, from satirizing something as seemingly meaningless as army corps medics to the more purportedly relevant political criticism of Nashville, or the critic of Victorian (but, really, of modern 1% mentality before that was even a thing), Altman’s range and depth are unequaled. He truly touched upon many aspects of human society.

Of course, in addition to the trifecta of classics, few of his movies are more relevant or hit closer to home than The Player, a brilliant satire of Hollywood itself. Like his other movies, in The Player, Altman also showed off his impressive abilities to work with multifaceted tasks consisting of over a dozen top-billed stars and countless other cameos. Thus, the movies take on a sense of additional fiction but also additional reality: by exposing us to a parade of familiar faces, the satire increases along with the untruth of the storyline, but the viewer is at the same time led to a place of comfort in the known faces.

In the end, Altman is to me one of the best directors to have ever lived, and perhaps one of the most underrated at this time and since his death.

3. Stanley Kubrick

I hope that as soon as the parameters for this A-List were established, you thought of Kubrick as the obvious choice to make an appearance. With due respect to Altman and Aronofsky, the gap between the fourth and third slots today is gargantuan. Altman may have impressive range in his ability to satire different aspects of society, and Aronofsky is quite imaginative and diverse in his analysis of mental conditions. But Kubrick’s versatility spans genres and time periods, and transcends simple commentary on human nature.

From unabashed and controversial criticism of war (In Paths of Glory, my personal favorite, or Dr. Strangelove), to satire and commentary about modern anxieties (A Clockwork Orange), to an epopee to the meaning of life itself and to our collective anxieties to the age old question of whether we are alone out there (2001: A Space Odyssey), Kubrick’s master is arguably unparalleled in the 20th Century. He has been rightly called one of the most influential directors of all time.

And in the preceding paragraph I didn’t even touch upon impressive costume behemoths like Spartacus and Barry Lyndon, or one of the all-time horror classics, The Shining. To explore in depth Kubrick’s contributions to cinema - both stylistically (consider his innovative cinematography techniques in Barry Lyndon or 2001) and thematically (witness the cutting commentary of Paths or Dr. Strangelove) - would take hours and pages and pages.

Kubrick’s masterful career is perhaps best left to simply be enjoyed rather than discussed - very little anyone could ever say would do real justice to the pure genius of his work.

2. Alfred Hitchcock

The other obvious entry on this list is the Master of Suspense himself, a British-born director whose career spanned over 50 years and produced several dozen seminars in moviemaking for several generations. Older, scarier movies relied less on gore and blood than they did on bone-tingling suspense and creepiness, and few achieve it in as timeless a way as Hitchcock’s most renowned masterpiece, Psycho. If the iconic shower scene is not one of the most famous scenes in horror movie lore, it certainly comes close.

But Hitchcock was so brilliant that he began as a successful director in the talking film era and even remade one of his own movies (The Man who Knew Too Much). Hitchcock arguably also invented and perfected the use of muses, repeating collaborations with Grace Kelly, as well as with an affable James Stewart. And the list of Hitchcock’s signature achievements goes on: from including himself in most of his pictures during a subtle cameo to using exaggerated close-ups of victims during violent scenes. And, of course, there was his remarkable, tortured relationship with women, whom he presented both as helpless victims but also as resourceful heroines and even dangerous relations in some movies.

I can’t pretend to have seen all or even most of his movies, but the ones that most people have - Rear Window, Vertigo, The Birds, Marnie, North By Northwest, Dial M For Murder, are all unarguable. Hitchcock even directed a Best Picture winner, Rebecca, but that was as close as he would get to an Academy Award for directing (he did received six nominations, including for Psycho, Rear Window, and other earlier work).

I placed Hitchcock ahead of Kubrick because above all I am a fan of suspense and mystery movies, and Hitchcock’s brilliance in this field knows no parallel.

1. Sidney Lumet

No one in their right mind would ever argue that Sidney Lumet was objective a better director than two of the masters of the 20th Century. But the A-List column would be no fun if I just copied AFIs more purportedly objective list over my own personal preferences, and to my own taste, Sidney Lumet’s movies are simply delicious and some of my all-time favorites.

Like Hitchcock, Lumet was eventually honored with a lifetime achievement Oscar, but never a Directing win during a career that spanned nearly 70 years and that produced some of my favorite movies of all time. Network, of course, tops the list, but Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, 12 Angry Men, and his last movie, the haunting Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, are movies that belong in the pantheon of film history.

Again, it would be too extensive to list of all Lumet’s contributions to filmmaking. Suffice it to say that few managed court-room style dramas (another favorite of mine) better than he did, and his adaptations of the Agatha Christie classic as well as the jury classic with Henry Fonda are flawless. Indeed, Lumet worked with diverse casts like Altman, incorporated social commentary and satire after turning to epics like Kubrick did, added elements of surrealism and mental illness in movies like Devil ala Aronofsky, and, of course, mastered suspense in ways clearly inspired by Hitchcock.

Few directors without an Oscar have as many movies that provoke so much dialogue, controversy, or thought as Lumet’s. Whether satirical commentaries like the timeless Network, or more subtle pieces on the human condition like Dog Day or 12 Angry Men, to say nothing of his harrowing last piece, Lumet’s work is unimpeachable at every turn.

Hands down, I would say, he is the Academy’s biggest oversight in a history riddled with many such infamies.