A-List: Five Best Directors of All-Time (Sort of)

By J. Don Birnam

November 13, 2014

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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.

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