Spielberg, Cameron, Coppola, Fincher, and the Coens. These are top-of-the-line directors with names even a casual moviegoer would recognize. They’re legends who have built up incredible filmographies any prospective director would kill for.
But not even they were susceptible to having a bad film once and awhile. Cameron started with that Piranha movie and Fincher started with that Alien movie. The Coen brothers got lost in The Ladykillers and Spielberg got stuck in 1941. Coppola put a black mark on what would’ve otherwise been the best trilogy in existence, and has had a couple duds since.
But for a select few directors, failed projects have yet to surface. To be chosen, the director must’ve had at least a half-dozen feature-length films.
Not all of these men can be considered among the greats. Some are often accused of being overrated or divisive. But despite that, they’ve consistently pleased both the crowds and the critics.
1. Paul Thomas Anderson
P.T.A. has had some real clear-cut winners and some more divisive films. While There Will Be Blood is a magnum opus anyone would be proud of, Anderson also has a film like Inherent Vice that are a little more split down the middle.
Vice is comical in peculiarities and even more odd in its structure. It can throw you off here and there, but it never seems like the director loses focus in the story despite its unconventional style.
His other comedy attempt, Punch-Drunk Love, is another fine example of a director with not only unique concepts, but one with original storytelling methods. And most impressive of all, it allows you to say “good movie” and “Adam Sandler” in the same sentence.
Ever since his start with Hard Eight, Anderson has shown a rare amount of versatility. He’s done noir, melodrama, comedy, epics. He’s done movies on oil men (Blood), porn stars (Boogie Nights), and a private detective (Vice). And don’t get started on all the occupations the people in Magnolia have.
P.T.A. has had talents like Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Joaquin Phoenix along the way. But he just as often sets his talent up for superior success as they do for him by elevating the material. Anderson is loyal to his favorites, and is certainly an actor’s director.
2. Denis Villeneuve
Damian Chazelle may be the director everyone is talking about this year, just like Alejandro Inarritu before him. But Villeneuve has quietly risen up the ranks, and that’s finally being paid off with best picture and director nominations.
Arrival may be his best work, but even more experienced filmgoers hadn’t ever realized before how long he’d been churning out quality films. He started with the bizarre, darkly comedic Maelstrom, which seems far distant from Arrival or Sicario in genre and style, but not at its center.
Sadly, Villeneuve wouldn’t release another movie for nine years, but Polytechnique was a wonderful sophomore effort. Its depiction of tragedy and the genuine way it evokes emotions makes it a perfect predecessor for Villeneuve’s second best film.
And that near-masterpiece is called Incendies. The emotional impact in this one is even greater, and the talent surrounding the film and the script they work with are far superior. It’s a film that shouldn’t work, and sometimes finds itself a little off the tracks. But it ties together well and is perhaps the movie most likely to stick with you from his filmography.
Prisoners and Enemy only helped solidify him as a Grade-A talent, the former establishing him in Hollywood. Though all his films have been underappreciated at the box office, Sicario finally exposed him more to audiences. And after Arrival’s subtle brilliance, it seems he may just be the one to handle the sequel to one of science fiction’s crown jewels, Blade Runner.
3. Martin Scorsese
Anyone can throw out Boxcar Bertha or Shutter Island, but the truth is, none of Scorsese’s movies are bad. Not even close. And he’s directed 24 of them.
Most directors would wish for Scorsese’s tenth or eleventh best film. He had a classic in the 70’s (Taxi Driver), 80’s (Raging Bull), and 90’s (Goodfellas). He explored the streets of New York and immersed his audiences in the big city unlike anyone else.
His 1970’s, with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York, New York, can only be trumped by Francis Ford Coppola’s epic decade. And in a decade like the 80’s, which gave us Spielberg, Cameron, and so many other great directors in their prime, Scorsese stacks up with them all. And above everything, he not only made the best boxing movie ever, but possibly the greatest sports film ever with Raging Bull.
Scorsese would eventually win best director for The Departed, but he had deserved the award multiple times before that. Such films as Shutter Island or Boxcar Bertha are sometimes considered let-downs in his career, but only because of the simple fact they come from Scorsese. Bertha was considered flat, distant, and insipid.
On the flip-side though, it did have enough Bonnie and Clyde aspects with great camera work and moments of brilliance dashed in. Moments that would signify the upcoming of one of cinema’s greatest directors.
4. David Lynch
If there’s one director we don’t see enough of in film these days, it’s David Lynch. One of the most artistic men in the business, Lynch has forged a unique path in cinema. But he hasn’t directed a feature-length movie since 2006.
He took such a break on a proper note, with Inland Empire delivering on the profound imagination the man himself possesses. And it may’ve been in the bottom half of his filmography.
It’s hard to find many directors as experimental as Lynch who have collected such overwhelmingly positive results. Whatever didn’t stick with audiences and critics alike out of the gate eventually became cult hits anyway. He even took on one of the most ambitious, and frankly impossible assignments by doing Dune back in 1984. He did service to the classic literature, though making an extraordinary depiction of it in two hours and 17 minutes was never going to be done.
Lynch brought us Eraserhead, a film as intense, disturbing, intriguing, and flat-out weird as they come, and hard not to love. Then came the classic Elephant Man, and eventually Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., all extremely stylish and thoughtful creations from an innovative mind.
5. Park Chan-wookLeading the ever-growing South Korean film movement, PCW has continuously churned out well-crafted work. His blending of genres has created exhilarating films full of all sorts of emotions.
Last year’s The Handmaiden was a prime example of his expansion of genre. In fact, it’s hard to pin down the movie close to any particular one. He can deliver amazing choreography, violent action, well-placed humor, and sincere solemnity, and do it all convincingly in the same film.
His Vengeance Trilogy is one of the better trios to ever exist. Though they’re not narratively connected, at their heart they surely seem like they are. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is more of a fan-favorite than a critical success, but any disapproval quickly went to the wayside when Oldboy hit the screens in 2003.
It is one of the best revenge films of recent memory, but it is a complete alternative to most films with the theme. After finishing the trilogy with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Park Chan-wook shot even further into the cinematic stratosphere.
This eventually led him to making Stoker, which should one day be considered a cult classic. And he’s only 53, so expect that his best work is still to come.