The 10 Greatest Directors of The New Hollywood Era

The New Hollywood wave may be the most significant film movement in the history of American cinema. The classic era of Hollywood was built on vertical integration, meaning that the film studios controlled the production, distribution and exhibition of every movie they made, until the United States v Paramount Pictures Case forced the studios to end this monopoly of movies.

With the innovation of television only making things worse for the film industry, Hollywood was in need of something new and innovative, something different that could break the rules of everything they thought was essential to a critically successful and profitable movie.

The answer came from across the Atlantic Ocean, as the French New Wave took off internationally, it inspired an entire generation of filmmakers to put their own specific visions into practice. These two factors coincided so perfectly as the studios were willing to take risks on a new generation of filmmakers, right as a new generation of educated filmmakers were more eager than ever to enter the film industry.

Having been dominated by musicals and epics during the previous decade, this generation were focused on tackling more intimate and relevant themes, they were young, radical and everything Hollywood was looking for at the time as they sought to recapture the feel of European art house cinema. The directors in question were immensely talented individuals and instead of having their films constantly scrutinised by the studios, they were given more freedom to craft their own visionary ideas and concepts.

During this time, the director became the biggest star of the film, more than any actor producer or composer. Naturally a list attempting to narrow down the ten best is a difficult so to include some clarity, not only are these the ten best directors of the movement, they are the directors that embody the movement.

While juggernauts like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas also played a key role in the era of movies, this list will focus on those who personified the social commentary, realism and independence that defined the movement.

A few other directors worth mentioning (because there are so many) also include John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdonovich and Michael Cimino. But here are the final ten.


10. Brian De Palma

Most essential New Hollywood movie: Carrie (1976)

De Palma spent the late sixties crafting a small yet significant mark in the American independent scene with small hits such as Greetings and Hi Mom (both of which featured early roles for the up and coming Robert De Niro). In the next decade he quickly made a name for himself as a director of the psychological and supernatural thrillers. He put himself on the map as a new visionary with Sisters, a sort of homage to Hitchcock, yet one that was never afraid to rely on its own stylistics and themes when it needed to.

The nature in which De Palma draws suspense out of his direction and cinematography draws instant attention to his career and prominence. Perhaps his best known film Carrie gave him the position as an indisputable master of psychological thrills.

It was an observant examination of human character as well as a terrifyingly tense horror movie, becoming one of the few horror films to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Carrie used its suspense, suggestiveness and ambiguity to its full advantage as De Palma crafted a seminal horror film for generations to come, accompanied by a harrowing psychological portrait.

De Palma used the success of Carrie wisely as he experimented more in range as the movement drew on. His other projects included the science fiction thriller The Fury and though some felt De Palma was at risk of being a one trick pony he would go on to direct such masterpieces as Scarface and The Untouchables in the subsequent decade.


9. William Friedkin

Most essential New Hollywood movie: The French Connection (1971)

A man who was once reprimanded by Alfred Hitchcock for not wearing a tie while directing went on to forge one of the most varied and intense careers of the New Hollywood movement.

Friedkin’s movies shared a common theme of tension and terror, but they were all generated from a different genre and style, each one as innovative and unique as the last. He opened the decade with The French Connection, which was praised for its gritty realism and its use of a documentary style of filmmaking to capture a greater sense of realism that heightened its classic crime tropes to unprecedented levels.

His next film was the legendary horror masterpiece, The Exorcist. Friedkin utilised the most ferocious resources in special effects as he endured a tumultuous production to bring his film onto the big screen.

While renowned for its frequently graphic and disturbing content, Friedkin also used the story as a way to reflect themes of faith in the face of obstacles and tales of human interaction to underpin the films astonishing aesthetic and atmosphere of shock and nausea, but what makes The Exorcist incredible is its addition of hope to those emotions.

Friedkin’s sense of tension did not stop at horror either. In 1977 he reached into the realms of existentialism and brought forward a little film known as Sorcerer. Though it was a commercial failure (perhaps due to opening the same week as Star Wars) as well as being poorly received by critics it has later been regarded as an amazing thriller.

Friedkin’s directorial touches are perhaps most noticeable and admirable here as he employed an effective narrative, primeval stylistics and sustained sequences of suspense make it a masterclass of trepidation and peril.


8. Woody Allen

Most essential New Hollywood movie: Annie Hall (1977)

It would be unfair to say that Woody Allen was completely unknown before the New Hollywood wave, having made a name for himself as a slapstick comedian and writer. But it was in the 1970s that Allen found his true voice, inspired by the European Art Cinema of the era he wrote, directed and starred in stories of endearing social relevance. They emphasised a fresh and new perspective on previously melodramatic stories of love, loss and life.

Annie Hall was a wonderfully intelligent and humorous film that never failed to pack a dramatic punch when it needed to, but at the same time it broke the fourth wall, played with the concepts of film itself and became a work of comedic genius. In the simplest terms it is a romantic comedy, but Annie Hall never feels limited by its genre and strived to be relevant to the era as well as timeless through an incorporation of both cultural references and pertinent themes.

Allen’s next film was his love letter to New York City, aptly titled Manhattan. As well as being superbly written with the same sharp and thematic style as Annie Hall but at the same time Manhattan retained a different sense of comedy through its own atmosphere, further romanticising the notions of love and relationships.

Yet it was Allen’s masterful direction that allowed the film to undercut these themes when it was required, not to make them seem over dramatic or sentimental. Allen was able to do this time and time again with his movies by taking big concepts and populating them with familiar and intimately shot humans in which we know the characters and feel their struggle even amid the ideologies of classic Hollywood.


7. Arthur Penn

Most essential New Hollywood movie: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Having been persuaded to direct Bonnie and Clyde by its producer and lead Warren Beatty, Penn was able to pin down what was so compelling and emotive about this story of lover struck criminals.

It captured the attitude of the disaffected youth at the time, bringing out the film’s mass appeal to audiences of the time. As a result, it would become a rallying cry for the counterculture movement and attracted a great deal of attention, both good and bad.

Initial reviews were completely polarising, as many critics were disturbed by the films violent content matter, sometimes even in a comedic manner, and rapid shift between tones and style. Those who enjoyed the film praised it for the exact same reasons. It was Bonnie and Clyde that first sewed notions of love and violence so seamlessly together, that dared to sympathise with its protagonists despite their moral decadence.

Parallels between Penn’s movie and the artistic films from across the Atlantic were obvious. Its rapid fire style of editing, modern social relevance and humanity amid all the bloodshed made it a landmark in American cinema. Penn went on to direct a number of impressive films throughout the next decade with Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man and Night Moves but with Bonnie and Clyde alone he created a larger legacy than most directors do in their entire careers.


6. Mike Nichols

Most essential New Hollywood movie: The Graduate (1967)

Though many view Bonnie and Clyde as the first definitive film of New Hollywood, one can trace its origins back to the 1966 classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Beyond its thematic complexity and astonishing performances from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the film used profanity and sexual innuendo that was unheard of in cinema prior to its release, yet was still able to get a seal of approval from production codes of the time.

This was the final nail in the coffin for the more conservative rating systems in the film industry as the fact that the film had released proved that it was not even worth pretending that the code mattered any more.

The universal praise for the film earned its director Mike Nichols the title of ‘the new Orson Welles’. His next project was the iconic and youthfully charged film, The Graduate. It was a wonderfully subversive and relevant comedy, capturing a sense of free spirit and youthful alienation as it moves with a fast pace from one humorous situation to the next. The Graduate has something to say about everything from society to sexuality and once again appealed to the young audiences that were ready to take the film industry by storm.

Nichols developed a reputation as an auteur who worked closely and intimately with his actors to get the best performances he possibly could, whether it was the up and coming Dustin Hoffman to the experienced Elizabeth Taylor. He wanted to focus on the emotions that would drive his films, emphasising the human nature of cinema rather than pure spectacle.