Getting a film made is a victory in itself. To make a career out of this and deliver a multitude of films that have a distinct voice and vision is the sign of an accomplished director. But to have an oeuvre of films that are each unique, acclaimed and deemed significant is something very rare and nothing short of a miracle.
It has proven a challenge for filmmakers to resist the temptation of either repeating themselves unnecessarily or taking on projects that do not utilize their talents. Even the most influential directors like Hitchcock, Bergman, Welles and Chaplin, or more recently Scott, Lynch, Tarantino and the Coens have had their misfires. Creating a singular and fully realized vision, and being able to translate that time and again into a picture that finds an audience is a trait only very few have.
This list is a careful though incomplete selection of filmmakers. I´ve decided to only look at people who made at least seven features as a sole director, since that is the number of films a director can make during a generation and through which they can have a full cultural impact. Moreover, half of this list consists of older directors who have passed away and the other half is still alive.
In doing so, some did not make this list but can still be regarded as undeniably gifted filmmakers. The ones that did are directors who had an important hand in the writing and/or producing of their pictures, further cementing their status as complete auteurs or at least visionary writer-directors who in their least successful effort still delivered a good and unique film. Here is, in chronological order, a selection of 10 directors who never made a bad film.
1. Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), Cinematic Painter
A giant with an unparalleled ability to draw visual masterpieces.
The oldest director on this list, Akira Kurosawa was trained as a painter before he focused on directing films. Many Japanese filmmakers were incredibly productive during their lifetime, given the 40+ films that Yasujirō Ozu made and the 94 credits that Kenji Mizoguchi has to his name. And Kurosawa is no stranger to this: every single one of his 32 films as a director during a 60 year-long career presents an exciting story.
Another reason for him being such an icon is his huge influence outside of Japan, counting a variety of accomplished directors as his closest admirers. From legends such as Kubrick to New-Hollywood directors like Spielberg, and from Italian masters such as Fellini to Scandinavian specialists like Bergman.
In fact, Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Yojimbo and Lucas’ Star Wars Saga was directly influenced by The Hidden Fortress. This is evidence of the enormous impact Kurosawa has made throughout the history of film. All of his works are signature pieces and it comes as no surprise that he is regarded as the first Asian auteur.
He is probably best known for his samurai stories like Seven Samurai, revolutionary for their epic scale. Psychological thriller Rashomon is equally brilliant for its point-of-view storytelling. Other masterpieces like High and Low are astonishing for their careful blocking to visually build dramatic tension, controlling the viewers’ attention on a single character, revealing who the characters truly are, and conveying this all into one unifying visual story.
His range is equally incredible: from historical action adventures like Ran to the romantic drama The Idiot, and from profound dramatic pieces such as Ikiru to contemporary crime films like Drunken Angel. He is the sensei of cinema´s other heroes who stand on his shoulders. Without him, many directors would not be the filmmaker they would have become.
2. Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), Master of Adaptation
A complete filmmaker in complete control.
Even if you glance at Kubrick’s earlier work, it’s evident that he exhibited a meticulous control of his craft. His anti-war film Fear and Desire was more of an experiment, but worthy and effective as a debut. He made two solid noirs: Killer’s Kiss – his first adaptation – and The Killing using a nonlinear structure and featuring Sterling Hayden who would later play in the best war comedy ever written: Dr. Strangelove. A poignant political satire with a perfect look at the Cold War: razor-sharp and funny as hell up to this day.
Kubrick became a coveted filmmaker with the raw Paths of Glory set in World War I and by helming the historical drama Spartacus. Furthermore, he never shied away from controversial topics to reveal the darker side of humanity like in the forbidden romance of Lolita and the dystopian crime satire that is A Clockwork Orange. He mastered other genres as well.
With his background in photography he lighted the elegant set designs like no other in period drama Barry Lyndon, he made psychological horror completely visual in The Shining, and he delivered an intense war drama with Full Metal Jacket. Although he perfected the art of adaptation, he was also able to create new concepts.
Together with author Arthur C. Clarke he developed his crown jewel, the enigmatic sci-fi spectacle 2001: A Space Odyssey. One the most analysed films of all time, Kubrick elevated the genre to unprecedented heights and created a sublime visual and philosophical work of art.
He dazzled audiences one last time in Eyes Wide Shut, an erotic thriller that is mysterious and unforgettable. It’s one of the most underrated of his works, and remains as haunting as any love story can be. He was able to secure his own place in the Hollywood system, only doing studio projects he chose and operating with a rarefied independence.
He completely controlled each stage of his work. Each picture added a new layer of intensity, originality and fearlessness to his track record. He envisioned his films with extreme focus and used every technique to his disposal, perfecting his actors, cameras, production design, soundtrack and editing. As Spielberg once said about Stanley Kubrick: nobody could shoot a picture better.
3. Sergio Leone (1929-1989), Capo of Close-up
A master who shattered genre conventions.
Sergio Leone is best-known for inventing the subgenre the Spaghetti Western. And rightly so, since his take on the Western was refreshing at the time: complex and morally ambiguous characters, inventive use of music and raw performances edited with a dynamite energy, never at the expense of entertainment value.
He manifested his style most vividly through the balance between long shots that took forever and extreme close-ups. He utilized the whole spectrum of the canvas. Italian-born Leone met composer Ennio Morricone in school, and the two became an illustrious duo behind unforgettable soundtracks. Their scores are guiding themes for certain characters and perfectly capture the rhythm of the story.
He was able to produce high-end spectacles on low-budgets, such as the Dollars trilogy which made Clint Eastwood a household name. It gave Leone the chance to go to Hollywood and work on Once Upon a Time in the West. Among a group of stars, Henry Fonda was brilliantly cast against type as the villain with a grin. The legendary film is a brilliant retribution drama following an unbearably long intro scene that cleverly sets up the tension. Duck You Sucker was overlooked when it was released, but has a great amount of detail, effects and tension.
His last work was his most ambitious and enigmatic. Over 10 years in the making, Leone set out to tell an epic tale of three generations of the Jewish mafia in New York City. He turned down an offer to direct The Godfather to focus on his own meditation on American mythology. Once Upon a Time in America could stand as his best yet most puzzling piece.
A confident departure from the Western, he created a story of enormous scope and depth. Morricone struck gold with the music and Leone´s masterpiece is a treat to experience. The long running time and slow pacing helps to evoke its transcendent feel and reveal its deeper meaning. The signature close-ups in all of his films are not only extreme; they evoke a distinct feeling and rhythm, a deeper understanding of the characters. All of his films are one of a kind.
4. Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), Master of Dreams
Nobody got closer to visual philosophical art.
The life story of Andrei Tarkovsky is that of a great but tragic artist. Born in the Soviet Union, he became their foremost auteur, was banned from working in his beloved country, and he died at age 54. What Chekhov was to writers of short stories and plays, what Stanislavski was to actors, and what Eisenstein was to editors, fellow Russian Andrei Tarkovsky was to film directors. An artist in the deepest sense of the word who elevated the filmed medium to visual poetry.
Nothing sounded like his films, nothing looked like his films, and nothing felt like his films. He invented a new language, as Bergman noted: “capturing life as a dream”. His contribution was so influential that it became known as Tarkovskian.
A film theorist himself, he described his method as sculpting in time: expressing the course of time through the rhythm of film. His heart-breaking debut Ivan’s Childhood dealt with the horrors of war through the eyes of a young boy and brought the director international acclaim.
The historical drama about artist Andrei Rublev won him the first of many prizes at in Cannes. Solaris became a cult hit back home, but it was Stalker – his meditation on the metaphysics of life – that reimagined the sci-fi genre.
Mirror, his most autobiographical account, threw all notions about fabula (the order of events) and syuzhet (the narrative) of the table, and is Tarkovsky at his most inaccessible and inventive. He broke the rules of structure with an art piece that portrays human consciousness itself.
Mirror and Stalker were produced under such difficult circumstances and were treated so poorly by the local authorities that he decided to escape the motherland in exchange for Europe. Due to his illness, he only managed to finish two films: Nostalghia and The Sacrifice. Both films reveal how deeply he cared about his life and legacy.
Tarkovsky asks his audience a lot and no one comes closer to the deepest parts of the soul. His body of work consists of only seven films; it speaks volumes about the effort it took him and his impact on the medium.
5. Hayao Miyazaki (1941), Anime Hero
A pioneer of profound, emotionally-driven animation.
A magical thing happened in the world of animation when editor and producer Toshio Suzuki approached director Isao Takahata and animator Hayao Miyazaki to form Studio Ghibli, based on the Italian noun for “hot desert wind”. And a new wind started to blow. Miyazaki already had a successful career as a manga artist and animator, and improved the techniques of animation with Takahata.
Now they set out to create stories that weren’t just exciting to watch but had strong (female) characters, adult themes, and painted an expressionistic fantasy world that resembled the real world.
Entire generations are raised on these meaningful adventures stories about the relationships between people and with nature. Smoothly evolving from traditional animation to computer-based techniques, Miyazaki juggles roles as a storyboard artist, animator, screenwriter, director, and editor; carefully shaping his control throughout the process. Each of his 12 films is a wonderful story, dealing with varying themes.
By virtue of anime as an art form, no other filmmaker has been able to create such magical worlds for global audiences. He forged a capacity in which he could easily play with elements of biography, family, romance, adventure, and drama. His ability to combine transformational storytelling and quirky excitement has left critics and audiences in awe, delivering hit after hit.
His most successful films include Princess Mononoke, a great war fantasy that also works as a philosophical love story, and Spirited Away, an enchanting and fearless coming-of-age story.
The fact that in each of his works the level of technical craftsmanship never diminishes the scope and impact of its underlying story is utterly unique. Pixar may be Disney for adults, but it’s the little brother of Ghibli. And its hero Miyazaki is a giant who continues to thrive, capturing the human spirit in the most fascinating of ways.