I’ll admit, I’m one of those people who obsess over lists, ranks, and various other methods of comparing artists and art. In reality, I do realize that such lists have no real bearing on quality, nor are they even logical things to put together. So if someone says Alfred Hitchcock is better than Carol Reed, what does it actually matter? Calling Howard Hawks a better director than John Huston by no means changes the history of film. Lists are just our way of putting our minds together in logical order.
I’ll also admit I spend far too much time and energy reading other people’s lists. On IMDB, lists are always popping up where people like me insist on ranking directors, calling one better than another and so on. More often than not, I’m revolted by what I find. I can’t believe my eyes when I see names like Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer are placed on top ten lists of directors several spaces higher up than Hitchcock. What’s so highly nonsensical about this is that Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer aren’t even directors, they’re just shills who somehow got a lot of money. Steven Spielberg also appears on these lists, often as high as 1 0r 2. Twenty years ago, I could maybe understand this choice. Now, Spielberg has ruined his posterity by becoming just another guy with too much money, who directs and produces movies that are little more than money on the screen. Has he given up on significant films? Will he just keep shoving Transformers down our throats for the rest of his life?
It’s at least refreshing for me when I see names like Stanley Kubrick or Sidney Lumet on the list, but it becomes a cruel, cruel joke when I see Ridley Scott ranked higher than them (although, I will say Alien is good).
I also have to wonder, how are such lists judged? Quality, quantity, or a mixture of both? Stanley Kubrick for example could be called the greatest director ever, but his body of work is rather small. IMDB credits him with 16 films, but I’d say the main phase of his artistic career started with Lolita, and after that he merely made seven films. Sure, Stanley only made a handful of films, but most were good. If that’s the case though, why not put him next to Andrei Tarkovsky, who only made about 8 movies, all of which were good? Is it really fair though to compare directors with small outputs to directors who, instead of making a few excellent films, made a huge amount of likeable ones? Howard Hawks comes to mind. Hawks might not have made any particular film to single out and call truly excellent, but he did make 47 films in about 45 years, many of which were quite good. He’s also about as diversely talented as directors get. He made westerns, gangster movies, film noirs, screwball comedies, and colorful musicals. Here’s just a few of his films: Bringing Up Baby, The Outlaw, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo, Ball of Fire, and To Have and Have Not. If that weren’t enough, I’d credit him with basically creating the action movie as we know it with the 1932 Scarface. Why then does Howard Hawks not appear on many best director lists? Does his industriousness work against him?
Here’s another flaw I’ll have to point out about best directors lists: why is it we have to praise directors who make serious, turgid films, and not include ones who make crowd pleasing, delightful films? Preston Sturges comes to mind. Sturges is one of the handful of Hollywood personalities I’d call an absolute genius. On shoe-string budgets and with very little money at his desposal, he made some of the funniest and most heart warming films ever. I’d go so far as to rank Sturges above Capra as an entertainer who knows how to tug on the heart strings. Modern comedic filmmakers should spend a month just watching his movies. So frequently, he managed to make funny movies that were nice and short and compact. His movie Christmas in July is one that will have open-minded viewers crying–crying out of happiness, that is, and it’s only about 70 minutes long.
I can anticipate people saying that I’m living too much in the past, and being too critical of directors who came after the fifites. To that, I’d argue that the following directors should be thought of higher: Sidney Lumet, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Stanley Donen, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and Bernardo Bertolucci. If you take these names into account, plus directors from diverse countries and eras, I think you’ll find that Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer belong nowhere even on the top 100 list of directors.
Cheesy best director lists say more about the writer than the film industry. It’s obvious that many lists are made by people who call themselves “film buffs” yet remain stuck in the present, and worse, stuck thinking about their country alone. It’s shocking how many lists don’t feature foreign directors at all, or if they do, it’s foreign directors whose films have recently become popular in America, like Guillermo Del Toro (in all honesty though, I do love the work of Del Toro, but I wish supposed cineastes would venture out further).
I’m glad at least that Alfred Hitchcock appears somewhere on most lists. I only wish that some of his contemporaries did too. For instance, Carol Reed made a lot of great thrillers too.
I would say the most overlooked director of all would have to be Michael Powell. Only recently did I discover the work of Michael Powell and his writing partner Emeric Pressburger. Not only did they make some phenomenal films, they made a ton of them (IMDB credits Powell with 60 films directed, although some were tv specials or short documentaries). I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Powell’s name on a top director’s list, and he certainly belongs on the top 5 if you ask me. If you haven’t heard of Powell and Pressburger (it seems like they’re not very popular here in America), go out and watch I Know Where I’m Going, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Small Back Room, or the cult classic Peeping Tom that Powell made without Pressburger. Take the time out, then tell me what you’re top ten directors are.
Really, I would like to know who you consider the top 10 directors to be. I promise I won’t criticize you for your choices. I saw a charming thing on IMDB where someone wrote what their top ten favorite directors were. They still included Bay and company, but at least they used the term favorite, instead of using the pretense of saying who the best were without even considering other countries. So take a moment and write out your top ten or twenty favorites. I’m curious to know if my overly long tirade here has any impact.