Top Ten Working American Directors


Top Ten Working American Directors

A list like this is tricky to the point of madness. However, I’m going to save you the trouble by saying it right here, right now: Most of the choices on this list are obvious. There’s a reason why certain names continually pop up whenever conversation drifts toward great American films. So there. I said it.

Yet, how do you weigh the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, a genius who delivered some of the all-time greatest films, but fizzled out 25 or so years ago, against a filmmaker like Woody Allen who has worked consistently for decades churning out both brilliant gems and disposable time wasters? How do you compare either of these directors against an auteur such as Spike Jonze who has only opened two films so far, but both are masterpieces?

In the end I just went with my gut. I knew there were some I couldn’t leave off and a few I shouldn’t have left off, but did simply out of my personal taste (sorry Gus Van Sant). And really, after the number one and two spots the ranking was almost arbitrary.

In case you’re curious how we came up with some of the names below (or more importantly why you may believe so many are missing), you should know we set up some strict rules.

  1. Possible candidates must be natural citizens of the United States (sorry David Cronenberg, James Cameron, and Guillermo del Toro, jingoism won out today).
  2. The directors must still be active in filmmaking.
  3. A beating heart is required (sorry Robert Altman).

Yet, even after we put those parameters in place there are too many brilliant American directors left off this list or the honorable mentions (that’s where your opinions come in to play my dear readers).

(clockwise from top left) Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, David Lynch, Robert Zemeckis, Ron Howard, Kathryn Bigelow, Spike Jonze, Phillip Kaufman, Francis Ford Coppola, Andrew Stanton, Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Terrence Malick and John Sayles

Some of the above filmmakers still have several masterpieces in front of them while others are past their primes. A few should just make more films (yeah, I’m talking to you Malick). However, they’re just names cobbled together from my huge, original list. I could have named many more (can you believe it?), but why should I have all the fun?

So those are a few names to chew on for the time being, but let’s get to the list for now as I have plenty more for you to consider come the conclusion…

Steven Soderbergh
Occasionally, Steven Soderbergh fails. Some see this as a demerit. Fair enough. But his failures are almost always fascinating ones. I’ll take The Girlfriend Experience any day of the week over Stephen Sommer’s best film. Like a true artist, the man isn’t afraid to take risks, whether it’s making a 4-hour marathon about Che Guevara or delivering an arty, European-flavored sequel within his “safe” Ocean’s 11 franchise.

He’s one of the great cinematic experimenters of our time. Yet, unlike most envelope-pushing filmmakers, Soderbergh can often reel in major actors and studio financing. But even with that kind of pull, he still directs small, barely seen moves starring amateur actors just to explore and fine-tune his craft.

The Best: Out of Sight; The Limey; Ocean’s 11

The Undervalued: Solaris

The Worst: Full Frontal

Clint Eastwood
When Clint Eastwood dies, will obits emphasize his acting or filmmaking? Who knows? He’s an icon in both roles, and Eastwood’s filmmaking style mirrors the no bullshit, steely persona he forged over the decades. There’s a simple elegance to Eastwood’s best films. Nothing flashy or overwrought, just good, efficient craftsmanship that regularly pays off in emotional potency.

The Best: Unforgiven

The Undervalued: A Perfect World; Space Cowboys

The Worst: Changeling

David Fincher
Many people admire David Fincher as a stylist. There is no question the grit-soaked veneer and uninhibited camera/visual-effect movements of Fincher’s films influenced countless movies over the last 15 years. Yet, stylists come and go. Fincher remains, and his style has evolved far past ’90s’ grunge. Unlike most stylists who rely solely on visual panache to carry their films, Fincher imbues his movies with a sense of unwavering confidence, fierce intelligence, and subversive undercurrents. In many ways, he is the closest thing we have to Stanley Kubrick these days.

The Best: Zodiac

The Undervalued: The Game

The Worst: Alien 3

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