The greatest film directors of all time – but no Peter Jackson?


Firstly, an apology. We tried to get him in. We really did. But the brief was just too brutal. For new book The A-Z Of Great Film Directors Andy Tuohy, whose portraits grace each page, myself, and our editor, Hannah, had to reduce the field from EVERYONE IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE WHO’S EVER DIRECTED A FILM to a more manageable 52 names (roughly two per letter).

We weren’t trying to cause clickbait controversy, but to distill 120-ish years of film history into something that could sit – and, indeed, fit – proudly on your coffee table. Of course, there were casualties: PJ, PTA, Michael Haneke. Perhaps if I explain the process, it’ll be easier to understand. Or perhaps I should just hand in my NZ film critic gun and badge (NB they don’t actually give us guns. I made the badge myself).

In order to give the book as much scope as possible, we wanted to draw directors from all seven continents. Antarctica, it’s fair to say, proved tricky. We made an early, non-negotiable “no sex criminals” rule, which left out a certain brilliant but ethically despicable Polish film-maker. And we made sure not to be snobby about blockbuster artists such as Steven Spielberg or lazy in seeking out obscure talents like Ousmane Sembène, “the godfather of African cinema”. Some of the latter’s pioneering works are only available on YouTube, in French. Perhaps our efforts will go some way towards changing that.

There was also a conscious decision to positively discriminate in favour of female directors. If you were to group the 52 people in history who made the largest number of great films, almost all of them would be men. But that reflects the sexism of the industry, not the talents of the individuals. Perhaps it’s patronising, but it’s 1,000 times harder to be Kathryn Bigelow (in) than it is to be James Cameron (not in), and we wanted to acknowledge that. Underappreciated Jane Campion, for example, was chosen ahead of Peter Jackson to represent NZ. Campion was only the second woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar (in 1993!). She’s recently moved back to TV. Frankly, she deserves the oxygen.

Image via Big Screen Symposium

When we weren’t sure, we invoked the Five Great Films rule. Zefferelli, for example, seemed like a shoo-in, especially with that surname. But look closely at his filmography and it just doesn’t have the breadth or depth of a Fellini (in) or a Herzog (also in). Paul Thomas Anderson is, without question, a fantastic director. But he hasn’t yet made five great films. If we compile a similar list ten years from now, I have no doubt he’ll be on it.

So what did make it in? Everyone from Woody Allen to Zhang Yimou; works spanning George Méliès’ marvelous The Four Troublesome Heads (1898) to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s breath-taking Birdman (2015); plus often-ignored genre aces such as Dario Argento and John Carpenter. Not to mention Andy’s gorgeous portraits (see andytuohy.co.uk for more), the very definition of pictures that paint a thousand words, and my accompanying text, which attempts to do the opposite.

For my part, I learned more about cinema in several – blissful – months than I have in the decade or so since I studied it. I learned that Stanley Donen is the filmic equivalent of serotonin; that the works of Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang are so snappy they could have been made yesterday; that I prefer the intimacy of Yasujirõ Ozu to the epics of Akira Kurosawa. But most of all, I learned that not being included in an A-Z of great film directors doesn’t mean you aren’t a great film director. Sorry Pete. No hard feelings, right?


The A-Z Of Great Film Directors is on sale now.

We’ve got five copies to give away to Flicks readers voting in our poll of the greatest directors below.