The difference between genius and skill can be difficult to recognize at first. Both can be used to make a great movie, but only one can be counted on to reliably repeat the results. A director with only technical, learned skill might create a masterpiece if every other contributing factor merges at just the right moment. But a director of genius finds a way to consistently produce masterpieces even in the face of difficult circumstances.
The simplest way to judge a genius is unfortunately in retrospect. Though this reality has left many artists starving during their lifetimes, and found many prophets unknown in their own countries, their love of creativity sustained them.
These directors set themselves apart from the crowd with consistently high quality work. Their genius has been revealed over time through a portfolio of masterpieces which exceeds the number of average movies that most directors will ever make. Their timeless films have made them legends, and here we will celebrate their legacies.
10. Robert Bresson (9 Masterpieces)
The French filmmaker Robert Bresson worked in a cinematic language all his own; his directing style is instantly recognizable and impossible to replicate. Bresson believed that a film was most effective when stripped of all artifice and capacity for emotional manipulation. What remained were the bare essentials of movement, acting, dialogue, and camerawork – and nothing more. While it’s hard to imagine this recipe working for all directors, Bresson perfected the style and gifted us with irreplaceable masterpieces.
Bresson established his inimitable voice with Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and continued his winning approach with the classics A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959). After considering an iconic historical scene in The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), Bresson turned toward tragedy with the heartbreaking masterworks Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967).
A Gentle Woman (1969) and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) are often overlooked classics that deserve more respect, and with his final film L’argent (1983) Bresson made what some consider his best film. This master director chose his films with discrimination and care, and every one of his movies could be considered a masterpiece. His focus on spiritual and ethical themes remains eternally relevant, and Bresson stands as one of the few wholly original figures in the history of film.
9. Werner Herzog (9 Masterpieces)Werner Herzog’s films are so brilliantly unique and visionary that he almost stands apart as his own self-contained genre. One of the boldest experimental filmmakers in history, Herzog has left an astoundingly diverse body of work that is better admired than imitated. Ever true to his creative ideals, he refused to compromise his art to please the masses, and as a result is one of the most beloved and respected directors in history.
After making Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Herzog began his longtime collaboration with actor Klaus Kinski with the classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). He tackled a strange slice of history in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) in tandem with Bruno S., another of his favorite actors. Heart of Glass (1976) perfectly exemplifies Herzog’s unconventional style – he had most of the cast perform while under hypnosis, with bizzarely brilliant results.
After making Stroszek (1977), his work with Kinski resumed for renewed success with Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987). Fast-forward 22 years and Herzog showed us he hadn’t lost a step with the Nicolas Cage film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). Though Herzog’s talent has also been put to use in a variety of insightful documentaries, these feature films comprise an extraordinary film collection.
8. Billy Wilder (9 Masterpieces)
The endlessly witty and socially astute Billy Wilder was writing screenplays long before he first took the helm as director. But movie fans should be thankful that he made the leap to filmmaker, because Wilder left us with some indelible classics. Ever insightful, satirical, and emotionally poignant, his films knew how to hit all the right notes with their audience.
Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945) helped lauch his legendary career, and they still stand as classics today. But the 1950’s were his real heydey as Wilder directed one winner after another, including Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Sabrina (1954), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Some Like it Hot (1959).
Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine joined forces for two of Wilder’s iconic comedies – The Apartment (1960) and Irma la Douce (1963) – and made as endearing a couple as we’ve seen on the screen. Imagining cinematic history without Wilder seems somehow emptier and lonelier. Thankfully we have these classics, still guaranteed to make us laugh or cry right on cue.
7. John Ford (11 Masterpieces)Though John Ford is most often associated with his Western film collaborations with actor John Wayne, he actually had quite a diverse career which proved his versatility behind the camera. Working as a director from 1913-1971 and directing more than 140 films, Ford left behind more than a few masterpieces.
After working for years in silent films, John Ford’s career became firmly established with the films Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). His success continued throughout the 1940’s with How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
Though Ford occasionaly took a break from working with Wayne, the duo found found much of their mutual success when joining forces, and so their legendary body of work continued to grow with Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956). But after a furiously prolific career, one of his most critically acclaimed films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) came near the end of his life and stands apart for its more pessimistic worldview. Ford left a legacy of films which captured the romantic spirit of the old west and celebrated the courage of early American pioneers.
6. Stanley Kubrick (11 Masterpieces)
Few names are as revered in cinema circles as that of Stanley Kubrick. With his bold vision and unbelievable range, Kubrick established and reshaped the standards for what a film could be and express. He worked in almost every genre, and every one of his films could be considered a masterpiece.
Kubrick began his career with more commercially conventional films like The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), and Dr. Stranglove (1964).
But with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick began to find his creative stride which would forever change cinema. Following 2001 were additional revolutionary films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987).
Just before he died, Kubrick took up his camera one final time to direct the controversial masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut (1999). This legendary director chose his work carefully, fashioned his films with perfection, and left behind a career defined by irreplaceable and inimitable classics.