10 Movie Directors Who Made More Than 5 Masterpieces

6. Jean-Pierre Melville

His Masterpieces: Le Silence de la mer (1949), Bob Le Flambeur (1956), Le Doulos (1962), Le deuxième souffle (1966), Le Samourai (1967), Army of Shadows (1969), Le Cerce Rouge (1970)

Much like Hitchcock, France’s Jean-Pierre Melville might be thought of as a genre director (he made many crime-oriented films) and one pandering to popular tastes. Like Bergman he started as a man of the theater (and acted in such films as 1959’s famous Breathless).

Like Tarkovsky, his career was sadly truncated by a short life (though, happily, not by government interference). Like Hitchcock and Kurosawa, few recognized his great talent fully until his actual creative moment had passed (and, in this case, he had passed on).

Though he would have wished to start his career sooner, Melville was very much caught up in the drama of World War II, courageously serving as an underground freedom fighter (which served as the basis of one of his few films to address this time, alongside Leon Morin, Priest, Army of Shadows, which might well be his outlier masterpiece).

After the war ended, he began a career in the theater and made a superb low-budget film, only later really noticed, entitled La Silence de la Mer (1947). After becoming acquainted with the famed Jean Cocteau, he was awarded the task of directing the film adaptation of the acclaimed Cocteau novel Les Enfants Terribles(1950), which was a big hit but not really from his heart. Five years would pass before he would direct on film again but the vehicle was Bob Le Flambeur, his first mature masterpiece.

As with most of his crime films, Melville is interested in, not the crime (a la 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle or 1955’s Riffifi), but the criminal. The title character is an old hand at crime and, though he couldn’t have lived his life another way, has his own code of honor though he does have his regrets that it all might have been different. Melville is extraordinary in not judging his often unfortunate characters (much more uncommon at the time than in later eras).

Like the film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s (and the French poetic realist films of the 1930s), Melville’s works are more like Greek tragedies set in a modern urban crime milieu. To much of the world at the time, the films just seemed like genre caper stuff.

However, looked at today, Melville’s sureness of touch with the camera, the characters, the pacing, and the actors (even often inexpressive Alain Delon was moved to convey what the director wanted in their films together) add up to films which are far beyond that facile interpretation. Some directors look good at the time and fade later but Melville and his work has only gotten better with time.


7. Luis Buñuel

His Masterpieces: Un Chien Andalou (1929), L’Age D’Or (1930), Los Olvidados (1950), Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962), Belle de Jour (1967), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Luis Bunuel has some 35 films credited to him as director and a deserved reputation as the foremost surrealist in cinema history. This is impressive enough but the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be listed alongside some of the other film makers here in the truncated career category (meaning no disrespect to them, as often circumstances were beyond their control) is extraordinary.

No less than the Catholic Church came down on Bunuel and, after getting a look at his cheerfully blasphemous surreal comic masterpiece L’Age D’Or, promptly banned him from filmmaking…for life! Happily that mini-epic of the absurd and biting was worth stirring up trouble over (though no film is worth that much trouble).

Bunuel left Europe for North America, namely Mexico, another Catholic country but far from his trouble spot and one without a language barrier. There he labored in the Mexican unit of Warner Brothers publicity department until he managed, in the very late 1940s, to start directing in the film industry of his adopted country, then very much of the third world and obscure.

Happily, talent will out and, before too many years passed, he started to craft films that drew the attention of discern films critics and viewers the world over. However, it may be noted that most of the films cited here are from the triumphant last phase of his career, after he was able to return to Europe and, eventually, Spain. Even he had soil in which he best grew.

What makes a Bunuel film special? First of all, he was a relentless critic of established social institutions which he considered dated, illogical, hypocritical, inhumane, and brutal. In other words, he was against the social elite, the government and the church, not necessarily in that order.

Secondly, he had studied theater and art before taking up film making (the great surrealist painter Salvador Dali was his friend and professional colleague in his early film ventures, including L’Age, before he “repented” to the authorities and saved himself). There were really no film making schools at that time but that art training helped Bunuel to perfect an immaculate technique which served him well.

Though his spirit was wild and anarchic, his style was very formal and precise, which somehow made the way he skewered his subject feel all the sharper. However, the big distinction was that the numerous surreal forays his films would take.

The images he created for his films were quite like what Dali achieved in his painting: the pictures were clearly unreal yet contained a psychological reality no literal image could express.

Bunuel was also quite gifted with actors, a fact seldom commented upon (he could get exactly what he needed from such cinematic ice goddesses as Catherine Deneuve in Belle and Tristana and Stephane Audran in Discreet Charm). Many film makers tail off towards the end. However, maybe because he was denied so many of what should have been his prime years, he mostly saved the best for last.


8. Robert Bresson

His Masterpieces: The Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), Au Hazard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), L’Argent (1983)

Once more an artist is put in the truncated or limited department due to a paucity of output. However, in Robert Bresson’s case, it’s a bit difficult to imagine him being but so prolific given the specialized output he created.

If Tarkovsky was one of the great poets of the screen, then Bresson could be labeled one of the great philosophical voices of cinema. Bresson films very clinically observe life in its aspects both good and bad (and, sadly, bad dominate realistically quite often). Au Hazard Balthazar, in fact, has been described as life in an hour and a half.

From a distance, Bresson sounds like a spiritual cousin to Bergman, especially since they operate in much the same moral/ethical territory. However, their techniques are far different. Whatever one may think of a Bresson film, it could never honestly be categorized as theatrical.

In fact, Bresson was famous for his disdain of drama and actors. The people who appear in his films are for the most part, non-professionals, whom he labeled “model” and instructed to deliver their lines in monotones with a minimum of gestures. (The fact that two of them, Dominique Sanda and Anne Wiazemsky, later actually became actresses displeased him greatly.) This style of “acting” was in perfect concert with his scripting and direction.

Bresson was a minimalist who believed that the surest way of getting inside is to stay resolutely outside. Bresson does not engage in exposition or extraneous detail and never throws a “comfortable” moment to the viewer. (The cast of Lancelot du Lac is mostly encased in armor with no bodily part truly visible and, yet, it works!) This stripping away of artifice forces the viewer to concentrate on the theme Bresson is expressing and makes each film an intense experience.

The basic premise of Balthazar could work for a Disney film (the life of a donkey), but Bresson turns it into a harshly heartrending parable concerning the plight of the defenseless in an uncaring world.

Mouchette turns the oft-told story of the hard life of an abused young girl and The Diary of a Country Priest, relating the short, unenviable life of a much misunderstood cleric, into stoically unbearable tragedy. Pickpocket, a masterpiece among masterpieces, becomes one of the great explorations into guilt and innocence. Once again, Bresson isn’t for everybody but he rewards those who will invest in his view of the world.


9. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

His Masterpieces: The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), World on a Wire (1973), Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Fox and His Friends (1975), Chinese Roulette (1976), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Though the countries of France and Germany border one another, France’s Robert Bresson and Germany’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder, contemporaries for a while, were artistically worlds apart. Where Bresson was about the last cinematic word in austerity, Fassbinder…well, if the artistic term “baroque” didn’t exist, it would have had to have been invented just for him.

Fassbinder seemed fascinated by two overarching things: the world of theater/cinema and the relatively recent and tortuous history of his country (West Germany in his time). One might say he loved those things but love/hate seemed to be as close as he could manage to much of anything in his relatively short time on Earth.

However, the word truncated will only be used to describe what his output was not: though he died (of his own excess) in his early forties, he created some 44 films! No, not all were masterpieces but a surprisingly large number of them were good.

Fassbinder revered German-in-Hollywood director Douglas Sirk and the “plastic” style Sirk created for his films where every color, prop, design and angle was put at the service of an artistic whole. His own films became much like that, which gave them an ascetically pleasing look.

However, while Sirk, who worked in a very glossy and heavily censored place and time, had to suggest much by inference, subtext and irony, Fassbinder could, and did, come right out and say it and show it.

The mainly gay Fassbinder employed a lot of subjects not directly used until modern and more permissive times (Fox and Petra Von Kant feature gay main characters and observe their various places in society).

Almost all of his films focus on those who live lives that are somewhat disconnected from mainstream society. His BDR trilogy (of which Maria Braun is the star attraction) traced the changes in post-war German life through the lives of women making their way as best they can.

Part of the reason Fassbinder could make so many films so well was due to the dedicated (if constantly embattled) team of actors and technicians who worked with him (and the great actress Hannah Schygulla must get mention, especially for her work in Maria Braun).

His magnum opus was the fourteen hour made for TV Berlin Alexandeplatz, an epic version of Alfred Doblin’s famed novel concerning Berlin in the days just before the Nazi’s rise. The project (including its controversial, highly personal, coda) seemed to weave together everything that had stated Fassbinder to the cinematic world.

It wasn’t his last project but it might just as well have been. He seemed to have no place left to go in his work. Or did he? Sadly, the world will never know if he could have changed and grown and surprised. However, he left enough fine work for any lifetime.


10. Stanley Kubrick

His Masterpieces: The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1974), The Shining (1980), Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The list ends much as it began, but with a twist. Like Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick stood at the top of his profession. Unlike Hitchcock, acclaim always seemed to be his (though from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who only gave him an Oscar for creating 2001’s special effects!).

Unlike the prolific Hitchcock, who gave the cinematic world 53 films and assorted TV efforts, Kubrick’s output stands at 13 films and a few early short subjects (one doubts he ever even looked at TV, much less worked in the medium).

However, unlike some of the others on this list, Kubrick’s output was not truncated, abbreviated, limited by outside forces, or curtailed. He was a legendary perfectionist who always would settle for nothing less than things being done “the right way” (i.e. his way, right or wrong).

That Kubrick’s way was so often right is a sign of his cinematic genius, at least for the majority of his career. One remarkable thing about his professional history that rarely arouses comment is that from the start of his career (the short The Day of the Fight in 1950) through Barry Lyndon, every Kubrick film seems to substantially advance over its predecessors.

At almost any point in his career he would have been at a level few could approach but he kept setting challenges for himself. (Time magazine tempted fate by doing a cover article on the then-just-being-released Barry Lyndon, calling it his greatest gamble, only to have the film become Kubrick’s first big box office failure. Perhaps that sad fact winded him a bit thereafter.)

Kubrick started his career as a photographer, notably for Look magazine. The training for that occupation obviously stayed with him throughout his career. Virtually every frame of a Kubrick film could pass muster as a picture for a high end periodical or coffee table book (and many have ended up in books). There is also, due to this fact, a stateliness and stillness to Kubrick films.

Even when the characters engage in raucous activities (such as Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange and even The Killing) it is they and not Kubrick and his camera who are exhibiting that quality. Like Bresson, he observed without any real editorial comment.

The people inhabiting Kubrick films are often extreme and quite often living outside of society’s conventions (throw a dart at Kubrick titles on a board and then pick a main character and, chances are, they will exemplify this fact).

A Kubrick film will move at its own measured pace with formal technique and observe people doing the darndest things. However, the pull of the two forces seems to create a memorable tension which, quite often, imprints itself on the viewer’s psyche.

There were many who found Kubrick and his work quite cold (to the delight of some and the woe of others) and there is a chilled element to the films but somehow this control seems just the right approach to characters and a society which seem to have largely lost those qualities.

Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film, cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years.