Any list of the top 10 greatest filmmakers would only fail to do justice to the rich, half-mad grandeur of the first century of movies. Even a list of the top 100, flatly stated as such, would be inadequate. Hollywood, like nature itself, abounds in great talent, or we wouldn’t be here. So, how might we best pay tribute to those leaders who’ve pursued excellence, in all of its known and unknown forms?
What follows are, in creative terms, a set of “family trees,” as characterized by some of their most vivid members. The names are listed chronologically. Many (Orson Welles especially) could have been defined several ways, but we ruthlessly planted everybody under just one banner.
Not everyone mentioned here is beloved. Some have been (and remain) controversial, and one, Riefenstahl, is morally reprehensible enough to serve as a permanent warning to anyone with great talent. But love these artists or hate them, one way or another, each has made a difference, and stand in for all the other great talents we had no room to mention.
Only three people fit in this category. All three began as actors. All three demonstrate to the ages the mystery of “genius,” as it is manifested on film. All three aspired at various times to consciously create change in the world — and thereby hang three catastrophic stories.
For the first, and greatest of these three, taking strong humanistic stands in “Modern Times” (1936) and “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947) meant Charlie Chaplin made powerful enemies in the American political establishment, to the extent that he found it safer to live in self-imposed exile in Europe for the last third of his life.
Leni Riefenstahl‘s wondrous, inspiring ability to exalt the human form in “Olympia” (1936) had earlier been applied, to her everlasting shame, to the task of exalting Adolph Hitler in “Triumph of the Will” (1934).
Orson Welles managed, through the medium of radio, to become world famous even before he came to Hollywood. (In a now-legendary Halloween prank, he convinced over a million listeners to flee their homes over an imaginary Martian invasion.) FDR encouraged Welles to consider a political career. Instead he accepted a three-picture deal with RKO, made “Citizen Kane” (the most exuberant movie critique of Great Power) and brought both his political and Hollywood career crashing down about his head. Nevertheless, he forever transformed the mere grammar of movies into a rich self-critical language.
These particular titans speak most deeply, and morally, to children. As such, each has shaped, and will continue to shape, the imaginations of generations. Their films abound in suspenseful adventures. Yet, however romantic, comical or triumphant the outcomes, they also deal head-on with nightmarish terrors as all good grim fairy tales must. (Bambi’s mother is not far removed in this food chain from Norman Bates’ mom.) Disney built actual theme parks, but the rest have constructed theirs in our minds:
Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg
These singular, life-giving artists don’t often make fortunes for their backers, right away. Yet as decades mount, such fiery spirits inevitably prove to be blue-chip investments. They so pierce one’s heart and soul via their films, that a single viewing — made in the right moment of your life, at any age — can forever deepen the way you see the world:
F.W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir, Yasujiro Ozu, Luis Bunuel, Robert Bresson, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio DeSica, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes, Jean Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Wong Kar-wai
Old and new masters
The man who heads this list defines it. After pioneering, in movie terms, the genres of science fiction and the crime film — “Metropolis” (1927) and “M” (1931) — Fritz Lang pulled up stakes, changed countries (trading Berlin for Hollywood), mastered American culture and made some of the most blisteringly well-realized pictures of Hollywood’s first Golden Age: “Fury” (1936), “The Return of Frank James” (1940) and the definitive anti-Nazi tract “Hangmen Also Die” (1943).
Everybody else on this list shares with Lang a passion for comprehending the world, for mastering its visual and dramatic languages as well as his appetite for laying claim to wide popular audiences — very often on an international scale. Each of these filmmakers is above all a master synthesist, using their keen observations about life to make movies new, to render them ever more insightful about such permanently relevant matters as crime, sex, laughter, warfare, alienation, heroism and human monstrosity:
Kenji Mizoguchi, George Stevens, Vincente Minnelli, Elia Kazan, Roman Polanski, Francois Truffaut, Milos Forman, Lindsay Anderson, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Wim Wenders, Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Jane Campion, Ang Lee, Quentin Tarantino
Thanks to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the phrase “Category 5” is on so many lips of late that we’ve consciously relegated these masters, visionaries and renegades to — well — Category 5. Each is hugely ambitious. Each has sensitively made the great movements of history visible in their work. Each of these men (and the one woman noted, a Russian) have tried the patience of people in power — be it their backers, their governments or their harshest critics. Their passionate natures inevitably arouse them to excess.
Yet whenever these great hearts most fully realize what’s inside them (Griffith, Ford, Capra and Cimino making love to America; Lean and Bertolucci bearing witness to the twilight of empires; Peckinpah, Herzog, Shepitko, Verhoeven and Fassbinder revealing the tyrannies in the human heart) they leave you staggering in awe:
D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, John Ford, Frank Capra, David Lean, John Boorman, Sam Peckinpah, Bernardo Bertolucci, Werner Herzog, Larissa Shepitko, Paul Verhoeven, Michael Cimino, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Harry Houdini, after he’d watched the boy calmly take a pratfall, suggested that the Keatons nickname their son “Buster.” Houdini’s spirit haunts this list, which is purely comprised of actors-turned-directors: pratfalls ahead! Yet this is also one of the most distinguished family trees in movies.
Many other onetime actors disappeared behind their cameras when they made the jump — Raoul Walsh, Elia Kazan, Charles Laughton — and thus occupy other lists. Those listed here managed to excel, directing themselves — even if they only got one film made, like Brando with “One Eyed Jacks” (1960). To direct oneself on film is the riskiest, most punishing, most potentially rewarding feat a performer can attempt — one very akin to the magic of Houdini, who could routinely escape a straitjacket while hanging upside down in midair:
Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Ida Lupino, Gene Kelly, Jerry Lewis, Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Henry Jaglom, Clint Eastwood, Barbra Streisand, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson
Captains of industry
These greats have climbed their ways through the ranks, seized the helm, and have steered or are steering their ships toward unforgettable destinations. Some, such as DeMille and Kramer, began as producers, others as editors (Wise, Arzner). A significant number of others came to the fore either through directing live television or musicvideos. Many leave an explicit individual stamp on the work: the Lubitsch touch, the Hawks attitude, the Wilder edge, the Ridley Scott look. Still others — Walsh, Huston, Lumet, Redford — succeed best by making themselves invisible. What matters in each case are the results:
Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Ernst Lubitsch, Dorothy Arzner, William Wyler, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Robert Wise, Stanley Kramer, Roger Corman, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, Peter Bogdanovich, Ridley Scott, Robert Redford, Lawrence Kasdan
Mad poet society
What exactly does “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” (1941) have in common with “In a Lonely Place” (1950), “Night of the Hunter” (1955), “La jetee” (1962), and “Two Lane Blacktop” (1971)? The question answers itself, if you think about it. No two have anything in common. Their makers either make one film, few films, or develop radically from picture to picture. Such talents engage and enrich the medium (often with poetic elegance) from its most dangerous and stylish margins, but the work itself is never marginal.
W.C. Fields, Charles Laughton, Nicholas Ray, Chris Marker, Monte Hellman, Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, David Cronenberg, Richard Rush, Robert M. Young, Terrence Davies, Jim Jarmusch, Emir Kusterica, Tim Burton, Lars von Trier, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, David O. Russell, Gaspar Noe
Who wrote the picture? In closing, we cite a selection of “playwrights for the screen.” Some climbed into the director’s chair to defend what they’d nourished in their hearts and heads. One (Chayevsky) leveraged control over his films through hard-headed contracts. A blessed few (Riskind, Zavattini, Guerra, Brach, Kaufman) bonded so well with like-minded directors that their screenwriting bespeaks particular visions as fully as those of their more celebrated partners. Movies are, first and last, a medium for storytellers.
Preston Sturges, Samuel B. Fuller, Robert Riskind, Richard Brooks, Cesare Zavattini, Paddy Chayevsky, Tonino Guerra, Gerard Brach, Robert Towne, David Mamet, Nora Ephron, Steve Martin, Cameron Crowe, Nicholas Kazan, Joel and Ethan Coen, Audrey Wells, Charlie Kaufman
If your favorite filmmaker is missing from these lists, we sympathize and regret the oversight. If we did not mention YOU (and that’s more likely) we commiserate. By all means, choose a category and mentally sign yourself aboard, wherever you wish. If you are not listed here yet, we’re with you in hoping that another century from now, you will be.