10 movies by great directors

What makes a great director? A long career of great movies? More good movies than bad ones? Lots of Oscars? It’s not so easy to define. But one that that is consistent with the great ones is a certain depth of emotion; you can just feel when you’re in the hands of someone great. These 10 films were made by 10 directors that just might qualify.

Young Mr. Lincoln

★★★★★

John Ford was the great director that all other great directors looked up to. He somehow managed to remain an artist while working within the Hollywood system, making popular hits and still winning respect and Oscars. (He earned a record-holding four Best Director awards.) His Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) is still one of his finest achievements, easily mixing his passions for mythology, storytelling, and humor. Unlike Spielberg’s recent look at the 16th president, Ford’s tale is somewhat fictional, but is also based on Abraham Lincoln’s time as a young lawyer. In the story, Abe (Henry Fonda) uses his laconic wisdom to help free a couple of wrongly accused murderers during a highly entertaining trial. Fonda is terrific underneath a pile of makeup, and even gives Daniel Day-Lewis a run for his money.

Roman Holiday

★★★★★

William Wyler received three Best Director Oscars (out of an astounding 12 nominations). He was considered a high-class director, a smooth handler of grade-A material, yet he was arguably more impersonal than Ford overall. One possible exception was the lovely Roman Holiday (1953), perhaps the loosest and most purely enjoyable of Wyler’s films. Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar for her portrayal of a bored princess who goes undercover among the common people of Rome and falls for an American reporter (Gregory Peck). The great Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay, but was blacklisted at the time and received no credit. Thanks to DVD technology, his name has recently been added back.

Carrie

★★★★★

Brian De Palma is often considered a Hitchcock ripoff and a second-rate hack, but he routinely shows very impressive skills in his visualizations of paranoia and voyeurism; he seems to be an artist working out his demons on film. His Carrie (1976), based on Stephen King’s novel, was one of his biggest successes. Cineastes today still discuss his remarkable and shocking use of split-screen for the finale, which has Carrie (Sissy Spacek) doused in pig’s blood at the prom. However, it remains a striking depiction of unrealized teenage fears and desires, made worse by a sinister, domineering mother (Piper Laurie). Both Spacek and Laurie received Oscar nominations for their performances. John Travolta, P.J. Soles, Nancy Allen, and Amy Irving co-star.

The Dead

★★★★★

John Huston made one of the most assured movie debuts in history (The Maltese Falcon) and subsequently spent more than 40 years as a maverick, taking risks with challenging, powerful material and failing perhaps more often than succeeding. But when he succeeded, he did so wonderfully, as in his final film, the quiet, touching The Dead (1987), based on James Joyce’s short story. Gabriel (Donal McCann) attends a Christmas dinner with his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston), and frets about the speech he’s going to give. The evening goes as many family gatherings do, with food, drink, and tense conversations, but the other shoe drops when Gabriel learns a heartbreaking secret from his wife’s past.

The Last Temptation of Christ

★★★★★

Martin Scorsese is one of today’s most respected directors, the leader of a generation raised on watching movies. He incorporated his Italian-American upbringing on the streets of New York into many of his movies, resulting in many classics. But he never had more trouble than when he adapted Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel to the screen as The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Despite the movie’s physical, ground-level approach and open-hearted, open-minded attitude toward Jesus, the Catholic Church went nuts and protested the film into oblivion (without actually seeing it). Despite the controversy, the film remains a powerful and spiritual experience (and much better than Mel Gibson’s church-endorsed hit). Willem Dafoe (at top) gives a terrific performance as Jesus, with Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, and Davie Bowie in supporting parts.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (expiring 4/16)

★★★★★

Joel and Ethan Coen seem to have complete control over their unique filmic universes—realism is not their forte—and no two of their movies so far have been alike. They also have a specific, dry sense of humor, supported by a gift for snappy, memorable dialogue. Photographed in black-and-white and set in the 1940s, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is probably their most misunderstood movie to date. Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber who learns that his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini). He tries a blackmail scheme that turns into murder. The movie is like a sideways film noir, more deadpan than usual and purposely baffling, but always great. The amazing cinematography is by Roger Deakins. Scarlett Johansson co-stars.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (expiring 4/16)

★★★★☆

Sidney Lumet began working in live television and made a most memorable feature debut with 12 Angry Men. His career lasted fifty years, and was filled with very reliable, professional filmmaking, and always slightly irreverent; he had a predilection for crime stories. His final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), was also one of his best. It tells the story of two brothers who agree to rob their parents’ jewelry store, planning a “perfect” and “victimless” crime. Of course everything goes wrong. Lumet and rookie screenwriter Kelly Masterson tell the story through a series of exceedingly complex flashbacks, with certain characters’ secrets withheld from other characters. Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney provide compelling support.

Survival of the Dead

★★★★☆

George A. Romero may not get much respect these days, but anyone who makes a zombie movie owes everything to him. His original Night of the Living Dead was one of the all-time great groundbreaking debut features, both for independent film in general and horror in particular. And, despite appearances, even his sixth zombie movie, Survival of the Dead (2009), was quite a bit more inventive than many other, more popular modern zombie films. Shot in widescreen with a bold color scheme, it’s a semi-silly mashup of the old “feud” genre, Westerns, cartoons, and adventure films; if you surrender expectations, it’s highly enjoyable.

Cosmopolis

★★★★★

David Cronenberg is one of the few makers of horror films that managed to “go mainstream,” although he has been very clever about maintaining a personal vision as he pushes ahead into more thematically ambitious projects. Adapted from a Don DeLillo novel, Cosmopolis (2012) was one of his most daring, complex, and alienating films. Robert Pattinson stars as a billionaire who decides to take his limo across New York City to get a haircut, a seemingly simple task that ends up taking place over a long and complicated day, involving his wife (Sarah Gadon), two mistresses, and a killer. As always, Cronenberg draws fascinating lines between the physical experiences of humans on earth and the ideas we form about ourselves.

Holy Motors

★★★★☆

Leos Carax made the second “riding around in a limo” feature of the year with the amazing Holy Motors (2012). Denis Lavant stars as a kind of actor/performer who rides around to peculiar, real-life gigs throughout the course of a long day. He puts on makeup and costumes and plays different parts, ranging from an old beggar woman on the street, to a gangster and a dying old man. His roles require great physicality, which Lavant has in spades. Carax was a former film critic in France before embarking upon a mysterious and potent movie career, making just five films in 30 years. But each is full-blooded, half-mad, and passionate, bursting with ideas and love for cinema.

What’s new

  • Another Day in Paradise
  • Arthur and the Invisibles
  • Bad Company
  • Bowling for Columbine
  • Braveheart
  • But I’m a Cheerleader
  • Clear and Present Danger
  • Dead Again
  • The Dead Zone
  • Dr. No
  • Fatal Attraction
  • For Your Eyes Only
  • 48 Hrs
  • Footloose [1984]
  • Goldfinger
  • GoldenEye
  • The Good Thief
  • The Hunger Games
  • The Hunting Party
  • License to Kill
  • Live and Let Die
  • Love and a .45
  • Man on the Moon
  • Octopussy
  • Overboard
  • Pi
  • Play It Again Sam
  • Rain Man
  • The Rules of Attraction
  • Scream 4
  • Sex and Lucia
  • The Spy Who Loved Me
  • Streets of Fire
  • Thunderball
  • Tomorrow Never Dies
  • A View to a Kill
  • Witness
  • The World Is Not Enough
  • You Only Live Twice
  • Young@Heart

Expiring soon

  • Donnie Darko (4/15)
  • Marwencol (4/20)
  • Southern Comfort (4/15)
  • Treeless Mountain (4/25)
  • Uncertainty (4/20)
  • Y Tu Mama Tambien (4/26)

Subscribe to the Now Playing Newsletter

Comments