How does one become a successful filmmaker? It could mean securing critical acclaim and financial success, or simply creating something that the director is passionate about. In this article, we present to you some of the most renowned movie directors in film history, from contemporary releases to older classics. No matter how these figures attained fame, all are deservedly celebrated for their immensely impressive bodies of work.
What credentials does a filmmaker need to be considered great? Being proficient in the technical aspects of filmmaking, such as cinematography and editing, is a given. But that alone does not define greatness; creativity, storytelling ability and an eye for detail are also essential requirements. Taking risks, being imaginative and having a true passion for the craft are further qualities that make a great filmmaker stand out.
Qualities that define the best filmmakers
These famous filmmakers have gone above and beyond what was expected. With true passion, they have created lasting changes in the world of cinema. Their vision, commitment and enthusiasm are qualities that make them excellent directors.
The story of Martin Scorsese’s passion for his film ‘Taxi Driver’ is iconic. After it initially received an NC-17 rating, the director was not pleased and refused to let the studio release it at that age rating. In his anger, he stayed up all night in his apartment until sunrise when he was struck with inspiration. He changed the colour grading on the film to make the blood more difficult to see, and had it reclassified to R (15). It has since become a part of cinema urban legend.
Whether this story is accurate or not is another matter, but it portrays the passion Martin Scorsese had for his art and how he deemed it ideal. This is similar to every director on our list as they all lived and breathed their movies. It didn’t matter if they went to film school or not; they all put a piece of themselves in their work. So let’s take a dive into our pick of the best famous filmmakers!
We have created a list of our favourite filmmakers who have made incredible movies. These directors have all left their mark on the cinematic landscape and have crafted masterpieces for generations to enjoy.
Christopher Nolan is a renowned British film director and writer. Being an acclaimed filmmaker, renowned for his imaginative works, he has crafted a number of unique and captivating films that have been universally applauded.
Christopher Nolan is amongst the most victorious filmmakers of recent times – his films having grossed over $4.7 billion across the globe! He has gained much praise for his 11 films, and has been granted 34 Oscar nominations – despite never attending film school. Additionally, Nolan is surrounded by his family when it comes to filmmaking; alongside his wife Emma Thomas co-producing all of his features and his brother Jonathan Nolan as a long-standing screenwriter. It’s easy to see why Blade Runner (Final Cut) is one of his most beloved films – its impact on time-twisting genre movies influencing Nolan’s works tremendously.
Quentin Tarantino is a unique filmmaker and a well-respected director. Unconventional, unorthodox and unconventional, his films stand apart from the rest. He is highly regarded for his unique and interesting films. Critics and movie goers alike have praised his work. Tarantino is one of those names most would instantly recognise in the list of all-time great directors. His movies’ stylised dialogue, constant references and blood-ridden gunfights have made him renowned around the world. As controversial as his works are, he still managed to establish himself as the main asset of his films. The renowned “written and directed by Quentin Tarantino” seal draws more attention than any actor could possibly do. He dropped out of school at fifteen, but during a masterclass he once said: “Trying to make a feature film with no money is the best film school you can do”.
Buster Keaton was a famous silent movie star. He was an extremely talented actor and had incredible comedic timing. He was considered to be one of the most influential people in the history of film. Without Buster Keaton, modern film wouldn’t be where it is today. He stands out in the world of cinema as a pioneer, having a deep understanding of comedy since childhood thanks to his upbringing in Vaudeville theatre. Unlike others on this list, Keaton usually took on the main role in his films – a factor that contributed to his rising star power in the 1920s and placed him alongside Charlie Chaplin in terms of notoriety.
This renowned silent film star was an unprecedented director, creating motion pictures before both the Academy’s establishment in 1929 and film school as a concept. Keaton had no structured training: his prodigious skills for eliciting laughter from viewers with films such as One Week (1920) and Cops (1922) were self-taught. Acknowledging his tremendous influence on cinema, the Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar in 1960. To the present day, he remains one of the founding fathers of filmmaking.
Bong Joon Ho
Bong Joon Ho is a celebrated South Korean filmmaker who has achieved much acclaim within the realm of film. His films have been recognized globally for their intellectual depth, entertainment value and creative story-telling. He has received many awards in his career, most notably winning the prestigious Palme d’Or and four Academy Awards.
Moving on a hundred years from Buster Keaton, we find Bong Joon Ho’s filmmaking style to be quite different. But this doesn’t stop him from demonstrating that at the core of Cinema lies a good story. Such is certainly the case with his most successful work to date, Parasite (2019): its hilarious yet searing storytelling earned it wide acclaim, and even an Oscar for Best Picture – the first time ever for a foreign language film! In addition to making films, Joon-Ho comes from an artistic family: his grandfather was an author and his father an illustrator, ultimately inspiring him to earn degrees in both film and sociology. His early struggles with poverty inform his powerful dissections of class in such iconic films as Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017), ensuring he will remain a fixture on this list for years to come.
Asif Kapadia is a talented filmmaker who has produced some remarkable films. His movies have captivated audiences everywhere, making him a well-known name in the industry. Kapadia’s style of documentary-making has been incredibly influential, inspiring a new generation of directors. Senna (2010) was the starting point of his journey to stardom – a fascinating exploration of Formula One champion Ayrton Senna’s life. Kapadia continued to soar with Amy (2015), which became the highest-grossing UK documentary ever. In 2019, The Financial Times credited him with reinventing documentary filmmaking – a statement that is hard to argue against! Although he rarely features in his films, his signature editing style that involves carefully restoring and reconstructing footage is an integral part of his work and recognisable amongst most audiences. He stands unquestionably as one of the most renowned documentary filmmakers out there!
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David Lynch is a celebrated movie director and artist. He has achieved popular and critical acclaim for his work in the film industry. His movies are considered to be unique and often contain elements of surrealism. Moreover, he’s also renowned for his artwork, which have been exhibited in galleries around the world. David Lynch is a mainstay within film circles. His abstract and enigmatic films, such as Blue Velvet (1986) and The Elephant Man (1980), leave lasting impressions on their viewers. Lynch took up studies in film during the decade of the ’70s. Additionally, his “pre-verbal years” earlier in life might explain why his films are characterised by limited dialogue yet stimulated deep thought.
Greta Gerwig is the youngest director on this list, with only two feature films to her name so far. Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019), her acclaimed works, focus on themes of youth and family. She earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture in both, while Lady Bird also got a nod for Best Director. Contrary to many others here, Gerwig did not attend film school – she learned by acting and observing crew operations after being rejected from a program. Drawing from her own experiences as source material, her successful screenwriting has garnered much critical praise.
Gerwig’s writing is powerful and thought-provoking, her acting remarkable, her film directing inventive and captivating. Gerwig is an American filmmaker who has directed and written several critically appreciated films. She earned recognition for her role in the 2017 film Lady Bird, which she also wrote and directed. Her work as a filmmaker has gained widespread acclaim, with many of her movies receiving numerous awards and accolades.
James Cameron studied at the California State University, and afterwards he began his film career as a production assistant. After some time, James Cameron’s film career started to take off, so he moved to Los Angeles. Cameron’s brilliance is evident in his numerous blockbuster films such as Titanic, Avatar, and Terminator. His forte lies in the fact that he caters to a variety of audiences, making his stories seem timeless yet still packed with atmosphere. His adaptability to change is one of his greatest achievements with his films raking in more than $6 billion worldwide. Unbelievably, he did not pursue a degree for filmmaking but took up English and Physics at Fullerton College.
Stanley Kubrick is one of the most famous directors and cinematographers in Hollywood. He has created some of the most memorable films, such as Jaws and E.T., and is widely considered to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. It’s very hard to know where to start with Stanley Kubrick. He was a true creative force in the film industry, and his revolutionary technical achievements are undeniable. The final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey is an iconic example of his pioneering use of slit scan photography and front screen projection, which will be remembered for as long as movies are being made. Not having gone to film school, it’s even more remarkable that he had such tremendous success – his IQ is believed to have been an astonishing 200! Kubrick tackled nearly every genre of the medium, from science fiction to historical epics and drama – truly a one-of-a-kind filmmaker.
Steven Spielberg is a hugely successful director and producer who has made a number of popular films. His career has spanned over four decades and he has acquired an impressive body of critical acclaim, with much praise for the way in which his movies have been able to capture both nostalgia and the human condition. Throughout his esteemed career, spanning more than 30 feature films, Spielberg revolutionized motion picture making and transformed the traditional Hollywood of the 1950s and 60s. His understanding of audience emotions and desire for catharsis has established him as a beloved figure among families worldwide, with many classics so well-known even someone unfamiliar with movies can name them. Beyond his formidable cinematic achievements, the director has impressed through his ethical choices: he received nothing in payment for Schindler’s List (1993) and established The Righteous Persons Foundation with a donation of $53 million. Quite remarkably, despite having no film degree until 2002 – twenty years after the release of E.T. – Spielberg had already conquered Hollywood.
Jordan Peele is a young American filmmaker with just two features, Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), to his name. However, he has been incredibly successful – Get Out even scooped the 90th Academy Award for best original screenplay – making him the first person of colour to win the award. His importance in the film industry is undeniable, due to his dedication to diversity in his works. He made a dramatic shift from acting to directing. When asked why, he responded that directing was simply more fun. From starring roles in Toy Story 4 and Key and Peele to becoming one of most renowned directors on this list, Peele’s career can only be described as impressive.
Lynne Ramsay’s films blend the surreal quality of David Lynch with a somewhat stark and hard-edged realism. This is evidenced in such award-worthy works like We Need To Talk About Kevin, among her other contemporary classics. An alum of film school, she achieved a Photography degree before finishing studies at the National School of Film and Television with a degree in Film. While Ramsay has only made four films in the last two decades, each has been richly praised by critics and earned multiple nominations for BAFTAs and Palme D’ors. A filmmaker who shuns quantity in favor of detail and quality, she never ceases to tantalize audiences with her unconventional approach to cinema.
Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola is a critically acclaimed director, producer and screenwriter whose films have won numerous awards. His works in the genres of drama, crime and war films have been embraced by critics and audiences alike. The 70s was an era defined by Francis Ford Coppola. Along with New Hollywood, he left a lasting impact on the film industry – an effective representation of his hugely successful career. Indeed, two of his most acclaimed films The Godfather and its sequel The Godfather Part II respectively claim the number 2 and 3 spots in IMDB’s popular all time rankings, only behind The Shawshank Redemption. Notably, The Godfather Part II is the first ever sequel to win Best Picture and one of just two (the other being Lord of the Rings: Return of The King) to have done so. Coppola retired from filmmaking in 2015 but his influence will always remain palpable – even within his own family. His nephews Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwartzman are both actors, while his daughter Sofia Coppola is an esteemed director in her own right.
In a stagnant era, Alfred Hitchcock pioneered a new wave of filmmaking with his use of the camera. This unique style was so widely embraced and admired, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the term ‘Hitchcockian’ is now ubiquitous within film studies. His memorable works like Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959) introduced audacious point-of-view shots which challenged the status quo of studio filmmaking. A year before his death, Hitchcock was knighted in honour of all he had achieved in his lifetime, setting the stage for numerous other filmmakers who have since been inspired by and taken ownership of his groundbreaking craftsmanship.
Martin Scorsese’s rise to cinematic prominence began when he conceived the film Taxi Driver. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and throughout his career, he tallied up a total of 90 Oscar nominations, 20 of which were awarded to him. He has never been one to shy away from controversy, yet there is absolutely no doubt that this man is a true master of filmmaking with his extraordinary gift for creating captivating and multifaceted characters. Scorsese graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1966.