This article is part of a three-part series about the best Hollywood directors of all time, stretching from the birth of sound films until the present day. This is the second part of that series, where I will list the Top 20 Directors from the New Hollywood era who I believe have had the greatest impact on Hollywood, general audiences, American culture, and my own appreciation of cinema. For the purposes of this list, I will define “New Hollywood” as the era of filmmaking that predominated between 1967, when Bonny and Clyde and The Graduate were released, and 1982, when One From the Heart and other major box office bombs spelled the end of director-driven filmmaking that predominated in the 1970’s. Filmmakers on this list may have begun filmmaking well before 1967 and continued making films well after 1982, even until the modern day. The time frame above is to give this list some structure and to give readers an idea of what to expect. These filmmakers will have their roots in the 1960’s, some peaked in the 1970’s, and likely continued making major career-defining films in the 1980’s, 1990’s, and beyond.
The New Hollywood era or “American New Wave” was characterized by a strong deviation from Classical Hollywood norms. Rather than honing their craft in the early industry like their predecessors, many New Hollywood directors got their start in nascent American film schools like NYU and USC, or on television. They broke the stranglehold that major studios and their contracts had on the industry by creating director and writer-driven projects that have become some of our most admired and studied films. A number of them were even mentored by Roger Corman, the b-movie director who had an eye for young talent and helped to teach directors the economy of making a movie. The turning point came in 1967 when Bonnie and Clyde turned the tables on Classical Hollywood’s preordained notion of what could and couldn’t be depicted on screen. Soon artists from all over the world began to flock to Hollywood and the time was a Renaissance of excellent filmmaking. This list is part of a three part series that includes Classical Hollywood directors, as well as an upcoming one on Modern Hollywood directors. Here they are:
Peter Bogdanovich (1939-present): Like many of the directors on this list, Bogdanovich got his start as a director thanks to a chance meeting with Roger Corman. At the age of 29, Corman hired Bogdanovich to write and direct Boris Karloff in a thriller called Targets, about a Vietnam veteran who goes on a killing spree. Soon after, Bogdanovich met Orson Welles, who inspired him to make his own kind of films, and the result was 1971’s The Last Picture Show. Often hailed as one of the best films of the 1970’s, it got the 32 year-old director an Oscar nomination. He followed up The Last Picture Show with What’s Up, Doc? and then Paper Moon before creating three straight flops starting with Daisy Miller in 1974. Bogdanovich’s career began a gradual decline after that, with only the Palme d’Or-nominated film Mask between that and a minor acting career. Nonetheless, Bogdanovich’s early works have inspired a number of young directors and The Last Picture Show was put in the National Film Registry in 1998.
Best Film: The Last Picture Show
Mel Brooks (1926-present): It may come as a surprise to some to see Brooks on this list, but he is indeed a New Hollywood filmmaker who got his start writing for television. His television career peaked in 1965 with the series Get Smart, which was followed three years later by Brooks’ film debut The Producers. That film won him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and Brooks followed it up by making subversive parody comedies ever since. Perhaps the most subversive of them all was 1972’s Blazing Saddles which remains a biting satire of both Westerns and American race relations. Next Brooks made Young Frankenstein and eventually Spaceballs, both of which have since become comedy classics. Although he doesn’t have the dramatic resume of others on this list, his mark on American cinema remains similar.
Best Film: Blazing Saddles
John Cassavetes (1929-1989): John Cassavetes may not be as famous as some of the other filmmakers on this list, but he is emblematic of the New Hollywood style of personal filmmaking. Talented as both a director and as an actor, Cassavetes studied both while in school, and his first film, Shadows, is considered a milestone of independent cinema. Cassavetes followed up on Shadows with films like A Child is Waiting, and another one called Faces. Another low-budget film, Faces was another huge step forward for both Cassavetes and the independent film scene that Cassavetes followed up with Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, and Cassavetes’ best known film A Woman Under the Influence. Starring Gena Rowlands as an unstable mother, the film saw Cassavetes get an Oscar nomination for directing, and has since been preserved by the National Film Registry. Cassavetes’ career was cut short at age 59 due to cirrhosis of the liver, but his influence on independent film pervades to this day.
Best Film: A Woman Under the Influence
George Lucas (1944-present): Okay, so I might catch some flak for this one but hear me out. Judging on directing alone, Lucas has made about five films: American Graffiti, Star Wars, and the Star Wars prequels. He is a revolutionary visual effects artist and is well known and appreciated for his stories with Steven Spielberg. However, as a director his output aside from the original Star Wars is somewhat less noteworthy. Star Wars is an iconic movie and American Graffiti is a classic coming-of-age story that has influenced a number of independent modern filmmakers with its wayward storytelling. While many of this list are writers or technological innovators in addition to directors, they are primarily cited for their considerable directing talent. Although he continues to perplex fans, his influence on American filmmaking is certainly worth noting, even if he isn’t the greatest director. Again, not judging him as a storyteller or a visual effects innovator, but the Star Wars prequels speak for themselves.
Best Film: Star Wars
Philip Kaufman (1936-present): Philip Kaufman earned a history degree from the University of Chicago and spent a year at Harvard Law before quitting and went backpacking around Europe. Inspired by Cassavetes’ films, Kaufman decided to take his talents and begin working as a filmmaker with inspiration from the European films he saw while overseas. Kaufman’s first film was 1964’s Goldstein and years later Kaufman wrote the 1976 Western The Outlaw Josey Wales that catapulted him into the mainstream. Kaufman followed up on Josey Wales with the sci-fi horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a remake of the 1950’s film of the same name. Five years later he produced his most critically-acclaimed work in The Right Stuff, based on the Tom Wolfe bestseller of the same name and telling the story of the early era of space flight in the United States. Kaufman’s unconventional style and talent followed him into films such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Quills, and Hemingway & Gellhorn, even in his later years. Considered one of America’s best auteurs, Philip Kaufman has made a unique mark on the filmmaking world.
Best Film: The Right Stuff
Arthur Penn (1922-2010): Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is often considered the starting point of the New Hollywood era of filmmaking. Like Bogdanovich, Penn became interested in filmmaking after seeing Citizen Kane and made a name for himself directing on television. Penn’s second film, The Miracle Worker, is a classic adaptation of the stage play of the same name starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. After two somewhat lesser known pictures, Penn hit it big-time with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, forever changing the American film industry. Combining a classic story with counter-cultural themes and portrayals, and strongly influenced by the French New Wave. Penn’s later works are less impressive, however, including Alice’s Restaurant, Night Moves, and Dead of Winter. It’s for that reason that despite essentially beginning the American New Wave, that Penn remains off of the main portion of this list
Best Film: Bonnie and Clyde
The Top Twenty:
20) Hal Ashby (1929-1988): Despite having his career cut short at 59 like Cassavetes, Hal Ashby’s career as a director had already made an indelible mark on American filmmaking. Ashby’s career began as an editor, nominated for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and winning an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night. Ashby’s early career as a director flourished with the independent film Harold and Maude, about a young man and his elderly girlfriend who bond over a love of the macabre. Ashby’s next film, The Last Detail, was even more successful, and set Ashby up for a streak of successes that include Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. Being There and Coming Home especially have become renowned for award-winning performances by Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Peter Sellers, and Melvyn Douglas. After the success of Being There, Ashby’s career suffered like many others of his generation in the 1980’s. An attempt at his own production company failed and Ashby was dismissed before he could direct Tootsie. Before he could mount a serious comeback, Ashby died of pancreatic cancer in 1988. However, his streak of wonderful movies in the 1970’s maintains his legacy today.
Best Film: Being There
19) Sydney Pollack (1934-2008): Well, speaking of Tootsie. Sydney Pollack got his start directing for television series’ like The Fugitive and Alfred Hitchcock Presents before his film debut The Slender Thread in 1965. Pollack followed that up with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1969, which was nominated for nine Oscars including Best Director. Pollack’s career continued to flourish in a number of genres with the likes of The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, and Tootsie. After that Pollack finally won Best Director for 1985’s Out of Africa, which was successful in its day but has not aged well and has since come to be considered one of the worst Best Picture winners. Pollack continued to direct afterwards with moderate success and branched out into producing and acting as well, including on the hit TV show Will & Grace. Pollack’s films remain well known to this day and appreciated by the industry and audiences alike.
Best Film: Tootsie
18) George Roy Hill (1921-2002): Although he may not be as well known as Sydney Pollack, George Roy Hill’s films have also become representative of the quality of New Hollywood filmmaking. Originally a music student under Paul Hindemith, Hill eventually become involved in theatre and appeared on Broadway with Bea Arthur before transitioning to television. Hill won an Emmy for the TV version of A Night to Remember before making his film debut with 1962’s Period of Adjustment. Although he may be a bit of a latecomer to filmmaking, Hill followed up his debut with Toys in the Attic in 1963, and later films like Thoroughly Modern Millie, emblematic of the late studio musical. Hill made a giant leap forward in 1969 with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, now a classic Western. Hill followed that up with an adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse-Five before making the Best Picture-winning crime film The Sting, for which he also won Best Director. Hill’s quality as a director continued on in his career with films like The World According to Garp and his successes speak for themselves.
Best Film: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
17) William Friedkin (1935-present): Yet another New Hollywood filmmaker inspired by Citizen Kane, Friedkin began his career working in a TV station mail room before directing. His debut was the 1967 film Good Times, a musical comedy starring Sonny and Cher, four years before Friedkin revolutionized the crime drama with The French Connection. That film won Friedkin wide acclaim and an Oscar, and has since become a classic. Friedkin followed it up with another classic, this one of the horror genre, with 1973’s The Exorcist, a deep exploration of faith and horror. Both films are among the greatest not only of their genre, but also of the 1970’s. Friedkin turned his whole career around, unfortunately for the worse, in 1980 with the film Cruising, which starred Al Pacino as a serial killer who target gay men. The film’s depiction of homosexuality was widely panned by gay rights groups, and its mixed reviews from critics almost sank Friedkin’s career. Late career successes on television like a remake of 12 Angry Men have helped salvage his career, however, and Friedkin is now an avid film historian.
Best Film: The French Connection
16) Brian de Palma (1940-present): Brian de Palma originally wanted to study physics before he was inspired by, you guessed it, Citizen Kane as well as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. One can still see the influence of Hitchcock all over de Palma’s career, which has earned him the malign of some critics due what is seen as him directly copying some of Hitchcock’s material. Brian de Palma worked on documentaries and other assorted films until transitioning to Hollywood in the 1970’s with films like 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit and his breakout hit in 1976’s Carrie. Proving himself as an excellent genre director in horror and thrillers ever since, de Palma followed up on Carrie with films like Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, and Mission: Impossible. De Palma has since left a unique mark on the film industry with his movies and made a name for himself in the American cinematic consciousness with some of those films which are still referenced all over to this day. Even as his talent as a director may have waned, tributes like 2015’s De Palma have helped to grow a more recent groundswell of appreciation for his directing.
Best Film: Blow Out
15) Ridley Scott (1937-present): Another director who some may not directly associate with the New Hollywood era of filmmaking, Ridley Scott started out in film school at the Royal College of Art. Scott worked as a set and title designer for BBC television before he began directing for television as well and then making the leap into filmmaking with 1977’s The Duellists, a historical drama set in the Napoleonic War starring Harvey Keitel. Scott followed up on The Duellists by completely remaking the sci-fi genre with 1979’s Alien, making Sigourney Weaver a star and her character Ripley a legendary action heroine. The film’s excellent mix of horror and science fiction birthed a new sub-genre that Hollywood’s been trying to make money off of ever since. Scott continued to build on his influence in science fiction with 1982’s Blade Runner, which was originally a disappointment before becoming the classic that it is today. Afterwards Scott began working in other genres with films like Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and another sci-fi film, The Martian. Although his films may not always reach the standard of quality that he’s established, Scott’s impact on Hollywood remains immense.
Best Film: Blade Runner
14) Norman Jewison (1926-present): Born and raised in Canada, Norman Jewison was inspired to make socially-conscious movies after travelling to the heavily-segregated American South in the 1940’s. Afterwards, Jewison began to work for the BBC and CBC in television as an assistant director before transferring to CBS in New York City in 1958. Jewison soon transitioned to directing for the big screen in 1963 with 40 Pounds of Trouble three years before his first major hit with The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Jewison reached the peak of his success with the groundbreaking 1967 classic In the Heat of the Night, a crime drama set in the Deep South starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. The film won Best Picture and Jewison was nominated for Best Director. Jewison quickly moved into other genres with films like The Thomas Crown Affair, a crime drama starring Steve McQueen, in 1968, Fiddler on the Roof in 1971, A Soldier’s Story in 1984, and Moonstruck in 1987. Although he never won Best Director, Jewison continued to make an impact with films like The Hurricane in 1999, starring Denzel Washington as a wrongfully-imprisoned former boxer. Since retiring, Jewison has been honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Directors Guild of America and remains one of Hollywood’s most respected talents.
Best Film: In the Heat of the Night
13) Oliver Stone (1946-present): Oliver Stone remains among the most controversial of Hollywood’s directors due to his starkly anti-establishment themes and manipulatively-written scripts. Famously in the Army before he went to NYU for film school, Stone learned from the likes of Martin Scorsese before adapting the book Midnight Express to the big screen as a writer, for which he earned the Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1979. A late member of the New Hollywood era, Stone kept its knack for unconventional filmmaking alive with his debut Salvador in 1986, before winning wide commercial and critical acclaim the same year for Platoon, which won Best Picture and Stone Best Director. Stone followed up that work with more Vietnam-era films like Born on the Fourth of July, which netted him a second Oscar for Directing, as well as Wall Street and The Doors before making waves in the cinematic and news world with JFK in 1991. Notable for its less-than-completely-accurate account of the JFK assassination, the film is still a masterwork of Stone’s brand of filmmaking. Stone’s last major success was 1995’s Nixon, before his 2004 flop Alexander brought an end to his mainstream success. Although he’s still making movies like 2016’s Snowden, Stone’s profile as a director has begun to diminish but his impact on film history has not.
Best Film: JFK
12) Alan J. Pakula (1928-1998): Alan Pakula began working as an assistant in the animation department at Warner Brothers before he helped produce the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Pakula directed his first feature film in 1969 with The Sterile Cuckoo, starring Liza Minnelli, before shifting his focus to conspiracy-based films in the 1970’s. Pakula began his “Paranoia Trilogy” in 1971 with Klute, which starred an Oscar-winning performance by Jane Fonda, as well as Donald Sutherland and Roy Scheider. The second entry in the trilogy was 1974’s The Parallax View, an underrated thriller starring Warren Beatty. But it was the third entry in the trilogy that embedded Pakula in cinema history with All the President’s Men, a classic of the journalism drama starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Watergate investigators Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. The film is one of the best of the 1970’s and a paragon of 1970’s filmmaking in its counter-culture take on the political establishment. Pakula’s career continued to flourish in the 1980’s with 1982’s Sophie Choice, which starred an Oscar-winning performance by Meryl Streep. Pakula continued to make films before his 1998 death like The Pelican Brief and Presumed Innocent, showing off his talent for paranoid and intense filmmaking.
Best Film: All the President’s Men
11) Terrence Malick (1943-present): Terrence Malick’s education wouldn’t often lead one to filmmaking, with a degree in philosophy from Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship, and a job teaching philosophy at MIT before becoming a freelance journalist. At 26, however, Malick decided to get an MFA from the American Film Institute and wrote early, uncredited drafts for Dirty Harry before directing his first film in 1973, Badlands. Starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a pair of young lovers and robbers in the 1950’s, the film received rave reviews and kick-started Malick’s career as a great filmmaker. Malick followed Badlands with his genius, quiet film Days of Heaven, filmed mostly at the magic hour and rightfully earning an Oscar for Best Cinematography while winning Malick the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. After releasing Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick took a twenty-year hiatus until the release of his 1998 film The Thin Red Line, a star-studded and cinematic look at the Pacific Front of World War II. Malick’s career revival has since allowed him to hit his stride with films like The New World, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups, thanks to a partnership with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life has been hailed by many critics as a masterpiece and his output is now approaching one new film every year, meaning that fans have plenty to look forward to in the years to come.
Best Film: Days of Heaven
10) Roman Polanski (1933-present): Regardless of what you make of Polanski’s personal life, his film career is much less controversial as the man responsible for some of Hollywood’s best films. Polanski grew up amidst the horrors of the Holocaust and was heavily influenced by the 1947 film Odd Man Out before he began his directorial career in his native Poland. Polanski feature debut was 1962’s Knife in the Water and was followed up with the horror classics Repulsion in 1965 and then Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. The latter film has since become one of the most well-known and beloved films of the genre, and Polanski’s horror roots followed him into his 1971 adaptation of Macbeth. Polanski reached his peak form in 1974 with Chinatown, a complex and perfectly-crafted tale of a PI played by Jack Nicholson who crosses paths with Faye Dunaway as they’re both caught in a neo-noir tale of murder and water rights in 1937 California. Polanski’s career continued with films like Tess, before his late-career success with 2002’s The Pianist, which earned Polanski the Oscar for Best Director. The quality of Polanski’s films have been maintained throughout the years and his mark on American cinema remains consistent and lasting.
Best Film: Chinatown
9) Robert Altman (1925-2006): Robert Altman is not just one of America’s best directors, but also perhaps the paragon of New Hollywood, alternative filmmaking. Altman entered filmmaking on a whim when who wrote the story for the 1948 film Bodyguard before moving to Kansas City and beginning work as a director. Altman then went to work on television directing for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a number of other popular television shows before directing his first feature film in 1969’s MASH. The film adapted a subversive novel satirizing the Army, and became a financial and commercial smash hit. Altman followed MASH with a string of hits like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, and his 1975 work Nashville, often considered his best work. Altman’s career took a dive after 1980’s Popeye, but in the 1990’s his career was revived thanks to films like The Player, Short Cuts, and in 2001, Gosford Park. At age 81, Altman was awarded an Honorary Oscar for his legendary career. Altman was known for his improvisational allowances on set and his maverick methods of filmmaking. Few artists are as representative of their era as Robert Altman is for New Hollywood.
Best Film: Nashville
8) Mike Nichols (1931-2014): After a troublesome childhood, Mike Nichols started his career working for a local radio station before he met Elaine May, who became his artistic partner. Nichols studied acting with Lee Strasberg and joined Chicago’s Compass Players, the precursor to Second City, and then opened a comedy show on Broadway with May, directed by Arthur Penn. Nichols finally started directing for the stage in Canada before returning to America to direct Neil Simon’s 1963 play Barefoot in the Park and earning a Tony nomination. He then won in 1965 for the original stage production of The Odd Couple, starring Art Carney and Walter Matthau, the first of nine Tony’s that Nichols would win in his lifetime. Although he had no experience with filmmaking prior to 1966, Warner Brothers still hired him to direct the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film is the main predecessor to Bonnie and Clyde as an alternative starting point for the New Hollywood era. The film received five Oscars on thirteen nominations, including Nichols’ first Best Director nomination.
Nichols soon began building a stupendous resume with his next film, The Graduate, premiering in 1967 and earning Nichols his Oscar. The film has since become a classic for its tale of youthful abandon and its soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel which perfectly captures the film’s tone. Nichols spent the rest of his career jumping between stage and screen for various plays and films. He directed Broadway shows like Annie, The Gin Game, The Real Thing, Spamalot, and the 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman. Nichols’ success on the screen continued with films like Silkwood, Working Girl, Postcards from the Edge, The Birdcage, Primary Colors, as well as the TV adaptation of Angels in America. Nichols passed away in 2014 the recipient of nine Tony’s, an Oscar, a Grammy, three BAFTA’s, a Golden Globe, and three Emmy’s. His mark on American culture is very underrated and less well known than others on this list. But his impact is staggering and unparalleled nonetheless.
Best Film: The Graduate
7) Sidney Lumet (1924-2011): Sidney Lumet also began his career in theatre, before World War II lead him to join the Army before returning to the stage and then turning to television after the war. Lumet honed his craft at CBS, which included directing almost 200 stage plays in their television adaptations for Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre, and Studio One, making him one of the most prolific directors before even beginning his film career. He was soon hired to direct his first feature film, 1957’s 12 Angry Men, also an adaptation from the stage, starring Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. The film has since become a classic of the courtroom drama despite barely taking place in a courtroom, save the beginning. Lumet continued to adapt plays to the screen like The Fugitive Kind, based on Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending, an adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, A View from the Bridge, and Long Day’s Journey into Night.
After the early 1960’s, Lumet took a turn toward more cinematic and socially-conscious work with films like Fail-Safe, that explored accidental nuclear war, Serpico, that examined police corruption, and Dog Day Afternoon, that examined homosexuality in a novel way. Lumet’s work peaked with his 1976 masterpiece Network, which examined a news corporation that becomes more concerned with offering commercially-appealing content than telling the truth, leading its executives to ruin. The film stars Oscar-winning turns from Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight, as well as William Holden and Ned Beatty. Peter Finch’s quote “I am mad as hell, and I am not going to take this anymore” was listed number 19 in movie quotes by AFI. Afterwards Lumet continued a prodigious output with films like The Wiz, The Verdict, and on into the 21st century with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Sidney Lumet received an Honorary Oscar in 2005 near the end of a landmark career, and his impact on American filmmaking remains staggering.
Best Film: Network
6) Miloš Forman (1932-present): Miloš Forman began his life in Czechoslovakia and both of Forman’s parents died in the Holocaust for being anti-Nazi. He lived with relatives before meeting his biological father and then got started in the film industry. Forman began directing Czechoslovak comedies after the war before immigrating to America after the 1968 Prague Spring. Forman then began his mainstream film career, having already directed two Oscar-nominated Czech films with 1967’s Loves of a Blonde and 1968’s The Fireman’s Ball, and then his first American film in 1971, Taking Off. However, Forman’s big break came when in 1974 he was asked by Michael Douglas to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as Douglas’ father had starred in a Broadway play based off of the novel and acquired the rights for a film adaptation. Forman helmed the adaptation, written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, and starring Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. The film also starred Will Sampson as The Chief, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Lloyd, and has since become a classic of American filmmaking, with Nicholson, Fletcher, Forman, the film’s writers, and the film itself all winning Oscars. The film’s anti-establishment message have helped make it a hit in its time and iconic since then.
Forman’s next film was an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Hair in 1979. The film missed the Summer of Love by twelve years, but the film maintained its social relevance nonetheless. Forman then entered film history again with another masterpiece in 1984 with Amadeus, based on Peter Shaffer’s script, adapted from his own stage play. The film starred F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri and Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart’s wife Constanze. One of the best films ever made in terms of production design, cinematography, acting, and just about every facet imaginable, it rightfully took home eight Oscars including Forman’s second Oscar for Best Director. Forman has since worked on few projects, including The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. Forman has since retired and now teaches filmmaking, including as professor emeritus at Columbia University.
Best Film: Amadeus
5) Steven Spielberg (1946-present): Putting Steven Spielberg on this list is actually an interesting prospect. One of Spielberg’s best known films is Jaws, whose premiere in 1975 made it the original modern blockbuster and was the beginning of the end of New Hollywood. Soon big production companies took back control of the industry due to the need for wide releases and massive ad campaigns that only their size and scale could allow for. And it all goes back to Spielberg, but not on purpose. Spielberg was also trained in classical filmmaking and helped forge a bridge between the New Hollywood and Modern eras of filmmaking thanks to his cinematic style and limitless imagination. Spielberg began his career in 1969 directing for television before his directorial debut on TV in 1971 with Duel, about a man pursued by a faceless truck driver and his vehicle. Spielberg’s feature film debut came in 1974 with Sugarland Express, and then came Jaws in 1975. That began what has become one of the most successful, durable, and most impactful careers by an American filmmaker ever.
Spielberg followed up on Jaws with sci-fi classics like E. T. the Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg and George Lucas again changed the industry by introducing one of America’s most beloved film characters, Indiana Jones, with Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, beginning a four-movie series, three of which have become action-adventure classics. Temple of Doom became part of a controversy with the Spielberg-produced Gremlins that lead to the formation of the PG-13 rating. In 1985, Spielberg made a huge leap forward with his film The Color Purple, beginning his turn toward historical dramas rather than sci-fi adventure films. In 1993, Jurassic Park again broke box office records before Spielberg won his first Oscar in 1993 for his masterful work directing Schindler’s List, and then in 1998 won big again with his work for the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. Since then Spielberg’s career has included films like A. I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, Lincoln, and continues to be exceptional even to this day. Spielberg has had an almost unparalleled level of success and impact on American filmmaking. Regardless of his impact on the New Hollywood style of filmmaking, Steven Spielberg has always maintained a standard of quality and a degree of imagination that continues to inspire cinematic artists the world over.
Best Film: Schindler’s List
4) Woody Allen (1935-present): Woody Allen, born Allan Stewart Konigsberg, grew up with an unhappy family in Brooklyn, where Allen honed his talent for writing self-deprecating humor. Allen developed an interest in magic and comedy that lead him to write jokes for The New Yorker, various TV comedians, and then getting his start writing for himself with his manager Jack Rollins in 1960. Some of his early stand-up is still on YouTube, by the way, and I highly suggest you check it out. Allen even had his own TV show in 1965 before he wrote his first Broadway play called Don’t Drink the Water in 1966, a Cold War comedy of errors. Allen followed it in 1969 with Play It Again, Sam, in which he starred opposite future co-star and Don’t Drink the Water veteran Tony Roberts, and where he met Hair cast member and future romantic interest Diane Keaton. Allen moved into filmmaking in 1965 when he wrote the script for the comedy What’s New Pussycat?, directed What’s Up, Tiger Lily? in 1966, and then made the first film in which he starred, wrote, and directed in 1969 with Take the Money and Run. This began what Allen has termed his “early, funny ones” with Bananas in 1971, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* in 1972, Sleeper in 1973, and Love and Death in 1975.
Allen’s career took a turn for the better in 1977 with the release of Annie Hall, which combined his knack for intellectual comedy with a more dramatic and romantic storyline that laid out the path for his best films. Allen won an Oscar for Directing and Screenplay and followed the film with another comedic masterwork in Manhattan, then Interiors, and soon a yearly cinematic output rivaled only by John Ford. Allen’s output continued to exceed expectations with movies like Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bullets Over Broadway, and so many more. Even as his output continues at this rate and the quality varies, Allen’s legendary career as a comedic genius continues. His impact on cinema has been larger than he’s given credit for, and the quality and introspective nature of his best films has made many of them classics. He continues to work with the best actors and cinematographers of our time, travelling the world and imagining new adventures for his characters. Woody Allen is a cinematic national treasure.
Best Film: Hannah and Her Sisters
3) Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999): Steven Spielberg may have served as the bridge between New and Modern Hollywood, but Stanley Kubrick served as the bridge between Classical Hollywood and New Hollywood. Despite being a poor student, Kubrick was always fascinated by filmmaking and maintained that schooling was unnecessary for his career. He started work as a photographer, which allowed Kubrick to hone his wonderful cinematic eye working for Look magazine. Kubrick began making short films in the 1950’s, and then made his first feature film in 1953 with Fear and Desire, about soldiers who get trapped between enemy lines during a war and begin to chase after a desired woman. Although the film wasn’t itself successful, it allowed Kubrick to become a known talent in Hollywood, which he followed up with the crime thriller The Killing in 1956, war drama Paths of Glory in 1957, and then the historical epic Spartacus in 1960. Kubrick really came into his own in 1962 with his adaptation of Lolita before making his first masterpiece in 1964 with Dr. Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott as the US President and a military commander who have to deal with the situation after a mad general launches a nuclear attack on the USSR.
Kubrick followed the success of Dr. Strangelove with his most lauded film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on the novel of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke. The film remains a classic of the sci-fi genre for its groundbreaking storytelling and effects, winning Kubrick his only Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Kubrick followed up 2001 with 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, his most violent and controversial film. Afterwards followed the immaculate-looking Barry Lyndon, with each frame designed to look like an 18th-century painting. Then horror classic The Shining in 1980, Full Metal Jacket in 1987, and his final film Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. Although the film was re-cut by the studio after Kubrick’s untimely death, it remains a late masterpiece for his career. Kubrick’s unfinished project based on the life of Napoleon remains one of the great cinematic what-ifs of history. His visual style, directing techniques, and technological innovations have made Kubrick into one of the most studied and revered filmmakers of all time. His impact on the American cinematic consciousness is unmatched thanks to his excellent eye for detail and talent bringing together the best team possible.
Best Film: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
2) Francis Ford Coppola (1939-present): Francis Ford Coppola grew up in a family of artists as much of his family was involved in playing music. After reading Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, Coppola became interested in directing, and pursued playwriting and directing despite his father wanting him to be an engineer. Coppola was inspired by the work of Elia Kazan and graduated from UCLA with a degree in film. Coppola began writing for a number of Hollywood pictures before his big break came in 1970 when he wrote the screenplay for the Best Picture-winning Patton. The film won Coppola and co-writer Edmund H. North Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, and soon allowed Coppola to work in the director’s chair. After Sergio Leone and Peter Bogdanovich turned down the chance to adapt Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, Coppola was offered the job, initially disliking the idea of glorifying the Mafia on film. Eventually, however, Coppola agreed and after a long, daunting shoot, the film was released to near-instant acclaim. Coppola won an Oscar for writing the film’s screenplay, losing Best Director to Bob Fosse for Cabaret, but creating perhaps the greatest American film ever.
Between the first two Godfather films, Coppola created another great film in 1974 with The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman as a private surveillance expert who gets involved with a corporate conspiracy and a possible murder. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and the same year Coppola finally won Oscar gold for best Director for The Godfather Part II. The film adapted the remainder of Puzo’s novel that didn’t fit into the original, focusing half of the film on the rise of Don Vito Corleone in the New York crime world. Often considered one of the greatest films ever in its own rite, as well as the best movie sequel ever produced, The Godfather Part II remains a classic for good reason. Coppola continued his amazing output in the 1970’s with Apocalypse Now in 1979, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in the jungles of Vietnam. One of the greatest war films ever made, the film is notable for its hellish shoot and is another example of Coppola’s genius filmmaking. Coppola’s next film, One from the Heart, released in 1982, became one of the films used as the mark for the end of the New Hollywood era. Although Coppola continued to make films for a number of years, nothing has been created at the level of his former output. Francis Ford Coppola’s impact on the film industry and on American culture has remained immense thanks to his talent, and will remain so for years to come.
Best Film: The Godfather
1) Martin Scorsese (1942-present): Martin Scorsese was born to Italian-American parents in Queens, New York, and due to his asthma, he couldn’t play sports like the other boys. Young Marty was forced to stay at home, and spent much of his time watching cheap Italian films on the television or occasionally going with his father to the local movie theater. After doing away with the idea of joining the priesthood, Martin Scorsese earned an English degree from NYU before getting an MFA at the same school. Scorsese made his best known student film in 1967 with The Big Shave the same year that he made Who’s That Knocking at My Door with fellow students Harvey Keitel and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. After seeing that film, Roger Ebert predicted that Scorsese would become “the American Fellini” before long. Scorsese then met a young actor named Robert De Niro around the time that he learned how to make an economic film under Roger Corman with 1972’s Boxcar Bertha. The next year Scorsese produced one of his first major works called Mean Streets, starring Keitel and De Niro, and his career took off from there. After making Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in 1974, Scorsese met cinematographer Michael Chapman and screenwriter Paul Schrader, and the three made Taxi Driver. The rest is history.
There is a saying among critics and fans that Martin Scorsese makes the kind of masterpiece every decade of his career that most filmmakers could only make in a lifetime of work: in the 1970’s he made Taxi Driver, in the 1980’s he made Raging Bull, then Goodfellas in the 1990s, The Departed in the 2000’s, and onward. Taxi Driver is an intense and spellbinding look at the isolation of a war veteran driven to violence by his own state of mind and his environment. Raging Bull is a near-perfect character study of a man who uses violence in and outside of the boxing ring to right his wrongs and cleanse his soul. Goodfellas is based on the real-life story of Henry Hill growing up in a crime-ridden neighborhood and becoming a legendary mobster in his own rite. The Departed is a lauded study of Boston, the influence of one’s environment on one’s upbringing, and an interesting contrast between a life of crime and a life of fighting it. Each of these four films has easily become among the best of their respective decades and each has become endlessly imitated while maintaining its originality thanks to the quality of work for every facet put into making it. Not the least of which, of course, is the direction.
Aside from each of these films, Scorsese has spent his career relentless pursuing films with themes like guilt, faith, damnation, greed, and constantly working with characters with morals outside of mainstream norms. After Taxi Driver Scorsese continued his invaluable output with films like New York, New York, The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, as well as Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, and now Silence. Every film that he makes reminds America why Scorsese is our greatest living filmmaker, and perhaps our greatest of all time. His level of passion and consistency in quality over the years has stood the test of addiction, trials of faith, and personal losses of all kinds. Even today his films continue to be the most highly-anticipated of any year that they’re released in. Martin Scorsese’s talent for his craft knows no bounds and he compares to the greatest American artists of any kind.
Best Film: Raging Bull
Keep on the lookout for the third part of this series, about the Top 25 Modern Film Directors, covering the best directors working from the late 1980’s until today. If you don’t agree with my rankings above or if there’s someone who you feel has been unjustly omitted please feel free to comment and discuss it below!