1. Martin Scorsese- It may seem unimaginable that nearly three years ago director Martin Scorsese had yet to hold an Academy Award in his hands, but it is the disappointing truth. The once would-be Catholic priest entered the film making world with hits like Boxcar Bertha and Mean Streets which put him at the forefront of New Hollywood with his violent, audience-specific films. Though Francis Ford Coppola felt he was unfit to helm The Godfather: Part III, Scorsese quickly overshadowed Coppola to become an icon of his own, creating films filled with themes related to violence, machismo, Italian-American identity, immigration, Catholicism and New York City. Five decades of classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed, Scorsese set a style of quick editing, rock and roll soundtrack and frequent collaboration with actors and editors who claim Scorsese to be a living encyclopedia of film history. The film that did it for us: Though he’s created modern epics including a personal favorite, Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s talents are most apparent in Taxi Driver, a film with some of the most carefully constructed technical detail and powerful themes of isolation, violence, sex and how they are related and lead to destruction.
2. Stanley Kubrick– One of the unprecedented visual artists in all of cinema, it’s hard to not love movies when Stanley Kubrick makes them. His gift for telling a compelling story is aided by those infamous distant shots, able to encompass the idiocy in The War Room (Dr. Strangelove) or gravity-defying in the great beyond (2001: A Space Odyssey). He never told the same story twice, but each film carries with it his distinct visual flair, helping him to create some of the most fully realized worlds the movies have ever seen. Kubrick is one of the biggest influences on American cinema not only because of his artistic genius, though. His ruthless dedication to his vision of the material led to feuds with his actors and the writers of the source material (both on The Shining.) Perfectionism is costly, but with it he created many things that are, in fact, perfect. The film that did it for us: There’s never been a more beautifully filmed comedy than Dr. Strangelove, and there are few as horrific.
3. The Coen Brothers– Wielding their whip-smart black humor as an unprecedented weapon, the Coen Brothers give us familiar film set-ups, and then wryly deconstruct them. Whether it be the Western (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) or the detective story (The Big Lebowski), they subvert the genres of their films by twisting the story and the pacing, and then playing the audience expectations against them. However different their movies may be, there is always a dark sense of irony or a foreboding air of impending doom. Keeping the audience thinking Armageddon is a hell of a mood to conjure up and sustain. They’ve been doing it for more than 20 years. The film that did it for us: No Country for Old Men was our first real exposure to the brothers. The music-free film is an astonishing example of film making technique merging with a compelling story.
4. Alfred Hitchcock– Though there is more than one now, Hitchcock remains the original “Master of Suspense.” Despite the countless innovators that have followed him, he remains one of the most effective directors to use cutting between shots to build suspense. From that infamous shower stabbing sequence in Psycho to the climax in North by Northwest, he paced his stories perfectly, and knew when to ratchet up the tension and reel the audience in. The film that did it for us: After 50 years, Psycho remains one of the most influential horror films of all time. From its complex cast of characters, especially the chilling Norman Bates, to its relentlessly suspenseful story and still-astonishing conclusion, its influences on the best horror films that followed is evident. More evident though, is its lack of influence on all of the shitty ones released nearly every weekend now.
5. Christopher Nolan- Chronologically speaking, Memento was Nolan’s first real staple in film making. But as we would soon come to find out, Nolan wouldn’t do things in order. In 2005, he made surprisingly good reboot of the Batman franchise, but it didn’t exactly wow moviegoers the same way it wowed critics and others on DVD over the next few years. It was perhaps one of the most thoughtful, thematic and carefully directed pieces to enter blockbuster status in a while, bringing Nolan to the front of neo-realistic cinema in America. It wouldn’t be until its follow up, The Dark Knight, until he received official “genius” status. With the film being a huge commercial hit, a critical darling, a new definition of blockbuster and big contender at the Oscars, Nolan and his previous work earned a second wave of respect. His Inception follow up would not reach the same levels, but again proved he is one of the most talented modern directors. The film that did it for us: It would be so easy to say Memento was an absolute storytelling masterpiece, but so was The Dark Knight, a film with far superior performances, breathtaking scenes and culture-impact.
6. Peter Jackson- If there’s bonus points given for the director who took one of the most beloved book series of our time into arguably the most beloved film series of our time, then Peter Jackson would definitely be eligible for such honors. It is amazing New Line ever took the gamble on a relatively unknown director from New Zealand to lead the nearly half billion dollar project, but they must have seen what everyone else now sees in him: imagination. His retelling of King Kong might be the best of the bunch and despite harsh reviews of The Lovely Bones, admit that it’s not a letdown. Seeing Jackson take on some new or original material might be interesting, but we’ll have to settle for a Hobbit remake first. With a unique ability to apply special effects, introduce outcast characters, and find some of the most stunning visual settings and be all right with three-hour-long films, Jackson is on his way to becoming legendary himself. The film that did it for us: Out of the three Lord of the Rings films, Return of the King is the best culmination of everything he worked on in the series.
7. Darren Aronofsky- The order of this list was devised before his beautiful dark twisted fantasy, Black Swan, but had it been made post, Aronofsky may have well found himself gliding further up the list. Let the beauty and horror of Black Swan serve as further proof and perfection of what he was trying to achieve in his past films: Pi, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, or The Wrestler. Whatever the subject matter may be – time travel, addiction, a comeback, self destruction- Aronofsky handles it differently than most. Stylistically speaking, he is brilliant and a master at recreating reality even if that means making it more haunting. He knows how to get the most out of his actors by clawing deep down into character and taking the audience there with him. The film that did it for us: Requiem for a Dream stands out more so than his others even though Black Swan or The Wrestler had more success and spotlight. Aronofsky innovates, depresses and stops the blood in your body.
8. Quentin Tarantino– Had movies stayed in the Silent Era, we’d have completely missed out on Quentin Tarantino. Though he has evolved into a fully-functioning visual artist, the thing that got audiences talking was his dialogue. He shook up the film world with Reservoir Dogs, then shook it up even more with Pulp Fiction. Bombarding his viewers with slews of cleverly-written, pop-culture-laden spouts of dialogue isn’t all he does though. He uses it, along with fetishized violence and clever plot twists, to tell a story rather than tons of quick cutting or formulaic plot points. He includes those moments other directors would cut out, the drive to the assassination (Pulp Fiction) or the restaurant conversation before the car chase (Death Proof). By using these moments, he has made movies that are infinitely more entertaining than ones made by directors who would cut those scenes. The film that did it for us: Kill Bill shows Tarantino as a fully matured film maker, with a heart-pounding, bloody action film in Volume 1 and the semi-restrained, dialogue-ridden exercise in Volume 2. Pulp Fiction may be his legacy and his masterpiece, but he introduced his ways to the 21st century with this bloody revenge fantasy.
9. Francis Ford Coppola– Coppola could’ve made this list on the basis of just The Godfather. Its impact on the film world was staggering, and the fact that it continues to be endlessly referenced today further shows that. He hasn’t been content with just that milestone, though. His cinematic visions are never less than epic in scope. With that, he seeks to create worlds full of complexity where stories of equal intricacy can be told. From his epic gangster trilogy to the maddening jungles of literary adaptation (Apocalypse Now), Coppola has left his mark on movie history numerous times. The film that did it for us: The Godfather is the definitive story of America. Its debunking of the American Dream through generations of its wealthy Italian immigrant family is richly layered and drawn out, and its Roman Empire look at the mafia actually influenced the real-life organization. Now that’s cinematic power.
10. Lars von Trier– One of the most controversial filmmakers in the history of cinema, Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s films always have a flock of anxious people around them at film festivals. They have been known to draw equal boos and cheers of praise at festivals like Cannes, and among American critics and their reviews of his work it is no different. One thing you cannot deny, though, is his ability to draw emotions from his films in an almost primitive way. He will give us characters of pure goodness (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) and then set up his movies around destroying them. Sadistic, maybe, but this sadism is born out of a contempt for a movie audiences’ complacency and expectations. He means to shake you, and few directors have been more successful at it. The film that did it for us: Dancer in the Dark paved the way for modern musicals like Chicago and Sweeney Todd, where musical numbers are often expressed as inner turmoil. Here we see Selma (in an extraordinary performance from Bjork) retreat into a world of music while her life crumbles around her as she goes blind. Ultimately persecuted for protecting her son, it becomes more and more difficult for her to distinguish reality from fantasy. Filmed with the impatience of a nervous young child, von Trier still manages to catch every harrowing detail.
11. David Lynch– Screw the rabbit hole, I’d rather spend my time diving through the endless abyss of this director’s imagination. You wander many of his films like a tourist in a strange land, discovering the dark corners of the human psyche and the world of dreams and nightmares brought to life. Lynch creates his worlds, and we fill them with our own imagination. Why watch Leo do it in Inception when you can do it for yourself? The film tat did it for us: Mulholland Drive is one of the most fascinating movies ever made. It’s a movie that gets more complex the more times you watch it. You can see it as an identity-morphing dream, a fantastic nightmare, a murder mystery before Pandora’s Box, or countless other interpretations. The beauty, and terror for some, is, that they all work.
12. Tim Burton- Odd haircuts and poor remakes aside, Burton is one of the most imaginative directors working today. Closely working with art directors, composers, set designers and his entire creative team, Burton carries out a style, a visual world which is transparent through the different stories, characters and themes he explores. His best examples of those include his collaborations with Johnny Depp, which include one of the closest cut films ever made, Edward Scissorhands or Sweeney Todd. Despite his recent critical disappointments Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the films at least have been commercially successful and boasted impressive art direction. The film that did it for us: Easily the masterpiece of Burton is his somewhat underrated adaptation of Sweeney Todd. Never has one of his sets been more harrowing and creative and never has he had such great performances out of Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The songs, the montages, the style are precslicely heaven.
13. Guillermo Del Torro- His own brand is coming forth like Jackson or Burton in terms of style. The real trademark for Del Torro so far has been the creation of the creatures in his films. The gargoyles in Hellboy or the mythical creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth are great examples of this. What often goes unnoticed with Del Torro however, is his wonderfully amazing ability to reach the heart of the audience. The film that did it for us: An instant classic and a film that will most likely withstand the test of time, Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the most enchanting surprises of the last decade.
14. Alfonso Cuaron- His name isn’t exactly a household name at this point like most of the others, but that doesn’t mean his work should be overlooked. He arguably made the best Harry Potter film in the series with The Prisoner of Azkaban by inducing reality and maturity into the series. Even more proof of his talent lies with the bliss of the Mexican teen road trip flick, Y Tu Mama Tambien, which is one of the most fantastic takes on youth, sex, friendship and escape. Cuaron is a master storyteller and knows his setting very well. He explores these settings in whatever new way he can whether it is through reinventing cinematography or using clever editing tricks. The film that did it for us: No film made by Cuaron, nay, no film made by anybody in the best ten years does a better job than Children for Men in showing how technical aspects of film making can completely change the way the story is told. And damn, those tracking shots are amazing.
15. Ridley Scott– No matter what genre he operates in, Scott is a master of the epic. His scale is grandiose, but his stories are almost always intimate human dramas. He can stage one man’s quest for revenge in the golden age of the Roman Empire (Gladiator), or show a culture clash on board a doomed spaceship (Alien). Scott is consistently working, putting out a film almost every year or two. They may not all be great, or even good, but when he’s on target, there are few who can match his skill for entertainment. The film that did it for us: Gladiator is a revenge story that sticks with you. It shows a man completely stripped of meaning in life, doing one last dirty deed before kicking the bloody bucket. The action sequences are breathtaking, even if they aren’t on a grand Lord of the Rings scale. This is a human drama and an action film, both at their greatest.