Top 15 Best Living Directors


April 21, 2009 by MK

In response to the tepid list over at Entertainment Weekly (Zack Snyder better than Paul Thomas Anderson!!!), The MDL breaks down a worthy Top 15.  To be specific, the “living” list is judged on a combination of two factors:

1) Great resume (accomplishment) and 2) Excitement for work yet to come (expectations).  Here we go:

15.  Richard Linklater


The oft-forgotten Texan has proven surprisingly versatile over an 18-year career of the commercial (School of Rock) and the experimental (Waking Life) .  But he does need to get his act together quickly (I’m looking at you Fast Food Nation!).

Best WorkBefore Sunrise/Sunset

14.  Danny Boyle


Pure adrenaline.  Without him, Slumdog doesn’t make it out of the film festival circuit.

Best WorkSlumdog Millionaire

13.  Alexander Payne


The most consistently intelligent comedic director around.

Best WorkAbout Schmidt

12.  Darren Aronofsky


The Wrestler could have been made by Hal Ashby (think Last Detail, Coming Home) and Requiem for a Dream could have been made by David Fincher (think Fight Club).  That puts him in great company.

Best WorkThe Wrestler

11.  Alfonso Cuaron


Might have the most potential of anyone on this list.  A master with the camera.

Best WorkChildren of Men

10.  Judd Apatow


Perhaps nothing could justify the amount of hype the Apatow factory has gotten over the last few years, but he certainly makes a great case (and don’t forget Freaks and Geeks).

Best Work40-Year Old Virgin

9.  Steven Spielberg


A man who should be in the top 5 slips because of the dross/dreck/abomination that was Indiana Jones and The I Want My Money Back.  No more sequels please.

Best WorkSchindler’s List

8.  Christopher Nolan


Made the best comic book movie ever and still finds the time for intriguing work outside the Bat franchise (see Memento, Insomnia, Prestige).

Best WorkMemento

7.  Steven Soderbergh


Yes, he will fail (Full Frontal), sometimes epically (The Good German) and twice in a way that hurts your soul (Oceans 12, 13).  BUT I’d take adventurous over boring any day and Soderbergh hasn’t got any quit in him.  You don’t make a film like Che if you’re out of gas.

Best WorkThe Limey

6.  Quentin Tarantino


Invigorating.  No one’s better at the “inside baseball” side of movies.  Even if it’s Death Proof.

Best WorkPulp Fiction

5.  David Fincher


He’s a technical wizard who can pack a punch (unless his main character is aging backwards).  It looked like he would do a certain type of movie well forever until he took the proverbial next step with Zodiac.

Best WorkZodiac

And when it comes to CGI, he’s about the only one who demands subtlety:

4.  Michael Mann


The guy is just a pro.  Not many movies are as well-paced as The Insider, look as good as Heat and thrill as much as Last of the Mohicans.

Best WorkThe Insider

And what more do you want out of a movie than this:

3.  Martin Scorsese


As The Departed showed, he’s still got it.  Unlike his contemporaries (Coppola, Lucas, De Palma), he has remained relevant after almost 40 years of work.  Here’s hoping he’s one of those guys who just can’t retire.

Best WorkRaging Bull

As relayed before, the man knows his way around a tune:

2.  The Coen Brothers


You never know what they’re going to do next.  Everything they’ve done is worth watching, even if it misses the mark (okay, maybe not Intolerable Cruelty – but everything else).

Best WorkFargo

Somehow, this sums up the movie (NSFW):

1.  Paul Thomas Anderson


The most ambitious, vibrant and just plain talented filmmaker working today.  Where others fail to take chances, Anderson presses on — frogs will fall from the sky, one way or another.  But his movies aren’t simply an exercise in technique (though there’s plenty of that).  Anderson never forgets the beating-heart humanity of his characters.  Here is a director who feels on film.  From the desperation of Dirk Diggler to the seekers of Magnolia to the stifled Barry Egan to the misanthropic Daniel Plainview, Anderson lets you in.  It’s a world of “big, bright shining stars.”

As if all that wasn’t enough, the man’s achieved one of the best opening scenes in movie history (Boogie Nights) and one of the best final scenes in movie history (“I’m finished.”):


Falling (for Various Reasons): Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Tim Burton, Cameron Crowe, David O. Russell

Work More!: James L. Brooks

You Too!: Peter Weir

Most Overrated: Peter Jackson

Most Underrated: Mike Judge

Somehow Became Boring: Oliver Stone

Meh: Ron Howard

Most Inventive: Michel Gondry

No More: Kevin Smith

Please Stop: Zack Snyder

Deserves Second Chance: Martin Brest

Still Interested Every Year: Woody Allen

Up & Comer: Martin McDonagh

In Own Universe: David Lynch

Everyone Stop Foaming at the Mouth Already: Clint Eastwood

Best Dead Director: Stanley Kubrick


7 thoughts on “Top 15 Best Living Directors

  1. R. A. Montalvo Jr. says:

    It’s an interesting list, though I’m more than a bit surprised to see Michael Mann so high. But our choices and favs always seem strange to others.

    Have you considered Atom Agoyan? I recommend “The Sweet Hereafter” if you’ve not seen it. Another director I believe is Robert Benton, but now it seems were going into my list.

    Thanks for this. Great list.

    • T. Slow says:

      True, Robert Benton has done some good work as a director, specifically Kramer vs. Kramer and Nobody’s Fool. The problem is, it’s been 15 years since he’s done a movie I’ve really liked. I would argue that he’s a better writer than he is a director.

      And I haven’t seen enough of Egoyan’s work, though Sweet Hereafter is a good call.

  2. Jerry MaDick says:

    Other than some of your choices for best work, its a tough list to argue against. You did leave of Pat Riley. I’ll forgive you.

  3. Davey J says:

    Pretty white list there, and pretty male. Reflects the business (and, for the most part, audiences).

  4. I surprisingly agreed with the majority of your choices on here. I agree with R. A. Montalvo Jr’s comment about having Michael Mann so high up. Yesterday I went to see Public Enemies, and although the action sequences were epic (which should be expected from the directed of Heat), the cinematography was terrible. I agree on your statement about Alfonso Cuaron’s potential, Children of Men is in my Top 3 films list. I’ll definitely be sure to stay posted to your blog.

  5. Jas says:

    Raging Bull sucks.

  6. Mecha says:

    Tarantino #6?

    You must be choking

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