The 25 Greatest British Directors of All Time
Since the origins of the medium, Britain has been one of the leading forces of the film industry. Directors from the country have been greatly involved in the revolutionizing of cinema from its very beginning, starting with the silent era.
Although Hollywood mostly controlled the silent film scene, there were many British films made during this time also, notably the early works by Alfred Hitchcock. Once talkies were invented, however, the British film industry really took off and that’s when the real creativity of the nation came through in the medium.
It was in this era where the unique British identity was shown in film the way that it had been conveyed in literature for hundreds of years. Since this time, British cinema has led the industry into new, unexplored territories and has not faltered in its production on great films.
Unfortunately for Britain, the allure of the glamour and success of Hollywood has attracted many of their native talent away from the country. For instance, the great Charlie Chaplin was born British but never made a film in England. While filmmakers like Chaplin are of British descent, the fact that they never contributed to British cinema excludes them from this list.
Other directors like Christopher Nolan and Alfred Hitchcock who did make films in London but eventually moved over to Hollywood are considered for this list, but their ranking does take into percentage of their work that was actually connected with Britain.
25. Edgar Wright (1974 – present)
The youngest director on this list, Edgar Wright may only be responsible for 4 feature films in his career but these works have helped define a new wave of British comedy.
Starting out in television, Wright made his first big hit with the cult comedy show Spaced, which featured his frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. He moved from television to movies a few years later with the groundbreaking comedy Shaun of the Dead. This dark comedy not only launched the careers of Wright and his actors but it also kickstarted the resurgence of the zombie movie.
After the craze of Shaun of the Dead, wright followed the film with two others, also starring Pegg and Frost, forming what is called the “Cornetto” trilogy, named after a treat that appears in all three movies.These movies are Hot Fuzz, a dark comedy about a policeman investigating a murderous town, and The World’s End, a comedy about a pub crawl that gets interrupted by an alien invasion.
Although these films don’t share any similarities in storyline, the style of dark humor in the films is consistent through them all. His other film, outside of the trilogy, is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a cult film based on a manga series of the same name.
24. John Schlesinger (1926-2003)
John Schlesinger was one of the any directors on this list who started out in the British film industry but, after a big breakthrough success, moved over to Hollywood to further his career. Schlesinger got his start in the industry as an actor, appearing in bit parts in several films before getting behind the director’s chair with a documentary about transportation in London.
This led him to directing feature films in Britain. His first venture was A Kind of Loving, starring Alan Bates, was a powerful addition to the growing “kitchen sink drama” genre that was becoming more popular in the British New Wave.
He followed this film with two well received films: Billy Liar, another ‘kitchen sink’ film, and Darling, which starred Julie Christie and focused on the “swinging sixties” scene in London. The latter won Schlesinger an unprecedented amount of international acclaim, even being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
It was then that he abandoned British filmmaking, only to go to America to make his masterpiece, Midnight Cowboy, with which he would win the Best Director Oscar and cement himself in film history. For the rest of his career he oscillated between the two countries, producing great films for both, including Marathon Man and Sunday Bloody Sunday.
23. Peter Yates (1929-2011)
Yates was one of the leading directors of crime films in the 1960s and 70s, as well as some emotional dramas, but for some reason his name is not heard much anymore.
After serving for a few years as assistant directors he got his first chance with Summer Vehicle, a fluff vehicle for singer Cliff Richard. He had a few other low-key projects in Britain until he landed his big break, and the film he would be most remembered for, Bullitt. This now action classic showed the director’s daring and fresh take on the genre most memorably shown by the intense iconic car chase.
While Yates was never able to recapture the popularity of Bullitt, he had a string of great crime films that followed including the Robert Redford caper The Hot Rock and the criminally underrated Robert Mitchum film The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Yates’s career was inconsistent, every now and again having a critical hit, and although he mainly directed American films, he occasionally returned to Britain.
His greatest British film is The Dresser, a film of Ronald Harwood’s award winning play of the same name about an assistant to a volatile veteran actor, starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in great performances. Some other notable filmsof his are Breaking Away and Krull.
22. Danny Boyle (1956 – present)
One of the most successful and most lauded British filmmakers still working today, Danny Boyle has shown his vision and technical abilities in various projects throughout all genres. His first film was the dark comedy Shallow Grave, a crime film starring his early collaborator Ewan McGregor.
McGregor would go on to star in his next two films, A Life Less Ordinary and the cult favorite Trainspotting. Having covered the grittiness of British life and the crime surrounding it, Boyle moved onto more ambitious projects.
Boyle’s next films focused on more radical storylines, such as The Beach, starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio, 28 Days Later, a film about a zombie-like apocalypse, and Sunshine, a sci-fi horror movie. Not only were these films entertaining and well made but they showed Boyle’s diversity.
These were followed by Boyle’s most acclaimed film of his career, Slumdog Millionaire which swept all the awards and provided an gritty view of the realities of India. More recently, Boyle has continued his string of great films with 127 Hours with James Franco and a biopic of Apple Founder Steve Jobs penned by Aaron Sorkin.
21. Lindsay Anderson (1923 – 1994)
Lindsay Anderson was one of the leading voices in the British New Wave and made his mark on the film world with his gritty social commentary and realism. Before trying his hand at filmmaking Anderson was involved in many theater productions as well as working as a respected movie critic. When he made the jump to directing, he started out making documentaries depicting the urban atmosphere of England.
With his first feature film, This Sporting Life, Anderson carried over a lot of the bleakness from his documentaries and his environment to create one of the most powerful and influential “kitchen sink” dramas. This film is also notable for Richard Harris’s incredible performance as an unstable rugby player.
His next big film was the controversial movie If… about a violent rebellion at a cruel British boarding school. Malcolm McDowell stars in his first film role as Mick Tavis, an unconforming student who is reviled by the teaches and if punished frequently and harshly. Eventually, he and his friends have taken enough and launch a surreal assault on the school.
The film drew harsh criticism for its violence and ideas but garnered many awards and propelled McDowell to stardom, landing him the lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Anderson continued to make films, many being socially charged and starring McDowell, and although they never reached the acclaim of his early works, they are just as interesting.
20. Richard Attenborough (1923 – 2014)
This veteran actor, producer and director was one of the most influential people of British theater and film in the 20th century, becoming not only a creative face of the field but also a spokesperson for actors in England.
After being on stage and in front of the camera for decades, Attenborough tried his hand at directing and although , in this writer’s opinion, his auteurial talents did not quite match his acting skills, he directed many impressive and ambitious projects. His first attempt was with the fun, bizarre, World War I musical Oh! What a Lovely War which featured many of his fellow movie stars at the time. His first big success came almost a decade later with the star studded war film A Bridge Too Far.
Attenborough finally began receiving critical acclaim for his work in 1982 when he made the immense biopic of Mohandas Gandhi, starring Ben Kingsley as the Indian leader. Some critics called out the film for its superficial treatment of the story and for glossing over many events in Gandhi’s life but the film swept the awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor Oscars.
Another big period piece in his career was the biopic of silent movie legend Charlie Chaplin, which had a bit of an uneven story but captured the eras of the film’s setting well and featured Robert Downey Jr. in a brilliant role. While the films that Attenborough directed were unfortunately not as daring as many of those he starred in as an actor, his projects are always well thought out and always entertain even if they may seem a bit too conventional.
19. Stephen Frears (1941 – present)
Stephen Frears is one of the most consistently enjoyable and hard working British directors still working. Starting his directorial career in the 1970s, Frears hit the ground running with a string of cool, daring and powerful films.
The three in particular that earned him international attention were The Hit, a crime film starring Terrence Stamp and Tim Roth, My Beautiful Laundrette, a topical film addressing homosexuality and race relations, and Prick Up Your Ears, a vastly underrated gem about playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover, featuring fantastic performances from Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina.
Frears then started on his more mainstream films, both in Hollywood and England, and has not slowed down since, making interesting films in all sorts of genres and styles. Some of his best American films include the two John Cusack movies The Grifters and High Fidelity, both of were a witty and refreshing treat.
His other acclaimed films include the 1988 adaptation of the French novel The Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, and the recent Best Picture nominee Philomena about a woman trying to track down her biological son. Frears’s most recent project is a biopic about the infamously terrible opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins which is set to come out in 2016 and stars Meryl Streep.
18. Christopher Nolan (1970 – present)
One of the hardest directors to rank on this list, Christopher Nolan has transformed from a clever and innovative independent filmmaker to a visionary, big budget director. There is little debate as to whether or not Nolan is a great director, for most of his films are both immensely popular and critically acclaimed.
Unfortunately, when it comes to this list, Nolan’s minimal work in England and his lack of contribution to British culture makes it difficult to place him high. While some directors ahead of him may be objectively lesser in talent, their work is more crucial to the world of British cinema.
Nolan’s first film, and the only made in England, is a clever low budget gem called Following, an intriguing project about a man who follows strangers around the streets of London but soons faces the consequences of his actions. After Following garnered acclaim, Nolan moved to America and struck big with his mind bending mystery Memento.
Ever since, Nolan has been directing ambitious films that partner spectacle with fascinating concepts. His work on the Batman series revolutionized the superhero genre and his influence carries over to many other genres as well. Although Nolan may not be very tied to British culture, his massive success and influence over the last couple decades is impossible to ignore.