Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Photo: Getty Images)
A.V. To ZAn alphabetical survey of pop culture  

Tough decisions are what A.V. To Z is all about. How do you choose between Sleater-Kinney and Spoon? What’s the deciding factor in a tag-team square off between Ren and Stimpy and Rocky and Bullwinkle? It gets agonizing, folks. But few of the judgment calls necessitated by this feature inspired more hand wringing, hair pulling, and heated debate than the selection of America’s greatest movie directors. Studio darlings were pitted against avant-garde trailblazers. Giants of the silent era went toe to toe with modern masters. And letters like C and S produced no fewer than six or seven viable candidates, the staff divided down different lines of allegiance. Thankfully, after weeks—okay, maybe just an hour or two—of discussion, we emerged with the following list, a highly scientific and indisputably definitive alphabet of auteurs. It was tough work, but we did it. No need to check our math.

Before leaping into the list—and then down to the comment section to remind us of some towering genius we idiotically ignored—consider a few of the ground rules we established. To narrow the field, we excluded documentarians from competition, saving ourselves the trouble, for example, of fitting Morris and Maysles onto the already crowded M ballot. And while you didn’t need to have been born in the States for us to consider you an “American” director (hence Billy Wilder), you did have to do almost all of your work in America or for an American studio (hence no Hitchcock, who had a thriving career in the U.K. before decamping for Hollywood). Did we miss a master? You know where to let us know.

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A: Robert Altman

Altman was rarely flashy. He lacks the punch of a John Ford, or the “can-you-top-this?” dazzle of a D.W. Griffith. What he did, steadily and assuredly, was work his way through nearly every genre of cinema, refashioning and deconstructing traditional Hollywood narratives into something more open, more challenging, more… Altman-esque. He was a superior visual stylist—just look at what the blinding sun does to the ramshackle motel of 3 Women, or the “old postcard” look of The Long Goodbye’s Los Angeles—but his fascination always stayed with the people that populated these locales. Sprawling ensembles and overlapping dialogue might be the stereotypical hallmarks of an Altman film, but his treatment of every character with a deep and abiding care (even the satirical bite of something like Nashville doesn’t reduce its denizens) testifies to his concern with even the smallest of roles. He famously said all of his work was essentially one long film, and the way his camera will drift restlessly through a room, as though patiently waiting for a moment that will give its presence meaning, makes a compelling case for the claim. But his acolyte Paul Thomas Anderson said it best, in describing watching Altman film the last shot of A Prairie Home Companion: “I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Fuck, do it again, do it… do more, do more.’” With Altman, there can never be enough. [Alex McCown]

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Runner-up: Paul Thomas Anderson

P.T. Anderson would probably admit that Robert Altman deserves the gold medal here, considering how great Altman’s influence was on his own sprawling movies like There Will Be Blood and Magnolia. But Anderson has yet to make a bad (or even iffy) film; if he continues that streak, the student will surpass the master at some point. [Josh Modell]

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Runner-up: Wes Anderson

The perfect example of a filmmaker leaning into rather than “maturing” out of his distinctive style, Wes Anderson has so fully populated his carefully arranged world that it can accommodate anything from childhood romance to screwball farce to WWII-era tragedies, sometimes within the same film. [Jesse Hassenger]

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B: Stan Brakhage

If avant-garde cinema has a household name, it’s probably Stan Brakhage: Two extensive Criterion sets, scores of famous fans (like Martin Scorsese), and countless film-school screenings of “Mothlight” have made “Brakhage” synonymous with “experimental film.” And why shouldn’t he be? Few directors have done more to release the medium from the rigid shackles of narrative storytelling. Brakhage made close to 400 movies in half a century, on subjects as varied as the amorality of the Vietnam War, the inner workings of a Pittsburgh morgue, and the way light refracts across a glass ashtray. His films range in length from a few seconds to several hours. Many are silent. Nearly all are plotless. Literalizing the idea of film as a canvas, the director played with the very properties of celluloid—scratching, painting, and even pasting insect wings to the individual frames. His great interest was not what we see, but how. Fittingly, his legacy rests on helping reprogram the eyes of the audience: To acclimate to Brakhage’s expressive barrage of imagery is to teach oneself a new way of watching. [A.A. Dowd]

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Runner-up: Kathryn Bigelow

The breadth of Kathryn Bigelow’s filmography is massively impressive, from the vampire Western cult classic Near Dark to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. (Plus, Point Break!) In each, she somehow balances a merciless eye for tense action and attention to the kind of performances only the best directors can elicit from their actors. [Josh Modell]

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C: Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin was born in England, but it was in America that he became a star. At once a perfectionist and a compulsive improviser, he combined comic genius with an unparalleled sense for how and why viewers relate to the things they see on-screen. He spent the early part of his career refining his iconic screen persona—the Tramp, with his bowler, mustache, and baggy pants—and the latter part deconstructing it. Intensely prolific in those early years, the actor-director slowed down in the mid-’20s; every new Chaplin film became a major cultural event, and, despite the transition to sound, he remained massively popular, all the while developing such masterpieces as City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. His late work—most of it made in Europe, after his politics made him persona non grata in the United States—was at once sensitive and caustic, composed of deeply personal works like Monsieur Verdoux and A King In New York. He defined what screen comedy could mean, and how it could affect people. Heck, even A Countess From Hong Kong, his only color feature, has its share of brilliant moments. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Runner-up: Joel (and Ethan) Coen

Though their earlier films credit solely Joel as director, the Coen brothers have worked in tandem on an astonishing run of often brilliant and always distinctive films; even at their weakest, there’s no mistaking their work for anyone else’s. Though capable of orchestrating wild, memorable shots (and of composing dialogue with an obvious love of language), the Coens can also utilize heartbreaking restraint and subtlety, making them, essentially, the world’s most audacious screwballs. [Jesse Hassenger]

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Runner-up: John Carpenter

A master genre stylist, John Carpenter makes creating edge-of-your-seat terror (Halloween), grotesque body horror (The Thing), colorful martial-arts fantasy (Big Trouble In Little China), and knowing sci-fi satire (They Live) all look equally effortless. He also has a distinct take on the movie soundtrack, the area where his influence is perhaps most profoundly felt. [Katie Rife]

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D: Maya Deren

To fully appreciate Maya Deren as a filmmaker, you also have to understand her as a dancer, a poet, and a mystic, all disciplines that informed her cinematic work. Working completely outside the commercial filmmaking system, Deren combined rhythm, movement, and repetition with an Eisenstein-influenced approach to editing to capture simple physical gestures that hint at deeper psychological truths. Her masterwork, 1943’s Meshes Of The Afternoon, is notable for its surreal, dreamlike imagery—including a doubling and tripling of herself within the film—typical of Deren’s desire to use the medium to express the rich complexity of her own inner life. Deren’s place as a godmother of the American avant-garde is secure, but she deserves to reach a wider audience, not only as a rare female filmmaker in the male-dominated mid-century experimental-film world, but as one whose intimately personal, yet universally relatable symbolic language makes her one of the more accessible filmmakers of that movement. [Katie Rife]

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Runner-up: Brian De Palma

It’s easy to dismiss Brian De Palma as a pretender to Hitchcock’s throne, but as the cliché says, good artists borrow and great artists steal. De Palma’s masterful use of suspense features prominently in Body Double, Blow Out, and Dressed To Kill, but it’s his ’70s work—Phantom Of The Paradise, Carrie—that shows a truly innovative director who can spin weird tales with precision while drawing out the best possible performances from his actors. [Mike Vanderbilt]

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E: Clint Eastwood

Having already established himself as an icon of neo-Western ruggedness and cool through his collaborations with Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood began, with 1971’s Play Misty For Me, to take control of his big-screen persona by turning to directing. It was a shrewd transition, as his subsequent work behind the camera proved that he was far more than just The Man With No Name. Whether examining and deconstructing his own big-screen persona (Bronco Billy, Unforgiven, Gran Torino), or investigating his favorite theme—the consequences of violence—in projects where he stays only behind the camera (such as his most recent blockbuster, American Sniper), Eastwood exhibits a classicist’s command of the medium. Employing a meticulously old-school formula of evocative compositions and lean structure, he continues to enliven a wide range of projects with his efficiently executed aesthetics, from prestige productions (Mystic River) to comedies (Honkeytonk Man) to oaters (The Outlaw Josey Wales) to musicals (Jersey Boys) to wartime dramas (Letters From Iwo Jima). [Nick Schager]

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Runner-up: Blake Edwards

A critical darling who fell on hard times by the late ’80s, Edwards had a well deserved reputation as a master of slapstick comedy: Pratfalls abound in The Pink Panther and The Party, and there are some great sight gags in 10. But toward the beginning of his career, he also brought off some fine dramatic features, including two in 1962: the wrenching Days Of Wine And Roses, with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as an alcoholic couple, and Experiment In Terror, with Remick playing a bank teller manipulated by a killer. [Adam Nayman]

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F: John Ford

Few directors are more synonymous with the American Western—or with American cinema, period—than John Ford, who remains the only filmmaker ever to win four Academy Awards for Best Director. With a career that saw him helm an astonishing number of films (over 140, including a sizable collection of silent films), Ford was a pioneer many times over, most notably for his leading role in the transition to talking pictures. He also helped popularize location shooting and long shots, the latter of which became his stylistic hallmark, framing lone figures in and against imposing landscapes. Best known for collaborating with a stock company of actors (including John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and Harry Carey Jr.), Ford made more classics than just about anybody, including (to name only a few) The Grapes Of Wrath, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley, My Darling Clementine, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. On the Mount Rushmore of American directors, he gets a prime spot. [Nick Schager]

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G: D.W. Griffith

David Wark Griffith, architect of the American movie, created a modern idiom while trying to follow the narrative traditions of the 19th century. He took the scope and ambition of the serialized novel and the drama of popular theater, and turned it into a visual language. By the time Griffith made Birth Of A Nation—a fantasy of Confederate victimhood that remains a cornerstone of American filmmaking—he’d already helmed hundreds of shorts, which found him innovating genre and style. From one-reelers (The Musketeers Of Pig Alley, A Corner In Wheat) and sweeping historical epics (Intolerance, Orphans Of The Storm) to sublime rural pieces (True Heart Susie) and late-career experiments in raw drama (The Struggle), his vast and varied filmography represents nearly everything movies could do. A sentimentalist and a reactionary who could be boldly radical when it came to style, he is both one of the great creative forces in the history of American film, and one of the most problematic. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Runner-up: James Gray

Gray might be American cinema’s greatest living humanist. In films like The Immigrant and Two Lovers, he focuses on the most intimate of human feelings, with results that never come across as less than operatically large and ambitious. It’s no coincidence he’s also arguably the most underrated—like all real human emotion, his films fly below the radar. [Alex McCown]

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H: Howard Hawks

There’s something to be said for doing one thing, and doing it well. But that thing is less impressive compared with a director like Howard Hawks, who could not only make a film in pretty much any genre, but could do it better than pretty much anyone else. One of the true giants of golden-age Hollywood, Hawks directed all-time classics of the Western (Rio Bravo), screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), noir (The Big Sleep), musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and gangster (Scarface) genres, all told in a deceptively straightforward manner that belied the high level of craftsmanship in his work. Hawks’ films subtly inverted the social norms of the era, most notably in the form of the “Hawksian woman,” a stubbornly independent, sharp-tongued figure who is more than equal to her male counterparts. Perhaps because of his subtle directorial hand, Hawks was not recognized as a great talent until later in his career. But his influence can bee seen in the work of acolytes like John Carpenter (who remade Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing From Another World as The Thing), Brian De Palma (who famously remade Scarface in 1983), Peter Bogdanovich (who wrote a book about Hawks in 1962), and Quentin Tarantino (who cites Rio Bravo as one of his favorite films). [Katie Rife]

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Runner-up: Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’ films don’t have a ton in common with each other—he’s made a Karen Carpenter biopic with Barbie dolls and a brutal examination of culture sickness with Julianne Moore—except that they’re all brilliantly observed. Every one is worth seeing. [Josh Modell]

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I: James Ivory

James Ivory is American, and—programming note—one of just a small number of American directors whose last name starts with the letter “I.” Along with his producing (and life) partner Ismail Merchant, Ivory made a ton of movies, not all of them great. But with the right material (specifically E.M. Forster novels) and actors, he created masterpieces: Both A Room With A View and Howards End are nearly perfect, and it’s no wonder they’re the calling cards—along with The Remains Of The Day—for Merchant-Ivory Productions. [Josh Modell]

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Runner-up: Thomas Ince

Long before Skywalker Ranch, coal-miner-turned-impressario Thomas Ince built the first American movie studio in his own image—a sprawling stretch of Santa Monica mountain range colloquially dubbed “Inceville.” In 1912, there was simply nothing like it, and for presiding over the primal scene of standardized American film production—and for helping to popularize the feature-length format with the early five-reeler The Battle Of Gettysburg—Ince belongs on this list. [Adam Nayman]

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J: Spike Jonze

Discounting a library of amazing music video and commercial work, Spike Jonze’s claim to greatness rests on a mere four movies. Thankfully, every one of them is a mind-boggling triumph. Working with mad-scientist screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Jonze created two turn-of-the-millennium comic masterpieces: Being John Malkovich, a screwball plunge through the crawlspaces of identity; and Adaptation, one of the essential movies about creative agony, starring a never-funnier Nicolas Cage. Since then, the director has gone deeper down the rabbit hole of his own melancholy, emerging with a pair of achingly sad companion pieces: While Where The Wild Things Are daringly twists a kid-lit classic into a haunting vision of divorce, Her finds the piercing emotional truth in a premise that could easily have been played for the cheapest of laughs. If this is what comes from taking your time and choosing your projects wisely, maybe more directors should be content with a filmography you can count on one hand. Of course, they’d also have to possess the idiosyncratic genius of Spike Jonze… [A.A. Dowd]

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Runner-up: Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch doesn’t make perfect movies, but his gorgeously messy, massively unusual ideas make them indelible. Bill Murray talks to RZA and GZA. Johnny Depp meets a literature-loving Native American. Forest Whitaker is a samurai. Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, and John Lurie sit in a jail cell. [Josh Modell]

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K: Stanley Kubrick

Choosing Stanley Kubrick for “K” was the easiest of all the votes for this feature. Consensus among our voters was so strong, the fact that Kubrick lived and worked in England for much of his career didn’t even come up until after a unanimous vote in his favor. But Kubrick was born in America, began his career with a string of American films, and continued to work for American studios even after he decamped to Pinewood, so we’re going to claim him as one of our own. A legendary perfectionist, Kubrick’s absolute dedication to his vision is evident in his immaculate composition and strict attention to detail, as well as in the many technical innovations he and his crew created. Kubrick was a true master: He could make a great film in any genre on the first try, and rarely repeated himself in terms of subject matter. If fault can be found with his work, it’s that its perfection can make it seem a bit chilly at times, although with an actor like Jack Nicholson in The Shining or Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, that factor is more than mitigated. [Katie Rife]

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L: David Lynch

At some point in their careers, every great director has it said about them: “There’s no one else quite like ____.” David Lynch makes those directors look like interchangeable Lego blocks. The word “auteur” doesn’t quite convey the deep idiosyncrasy and blazing originality of Lynch’s vision. Nearly every cineaste can tell a story of the first time they encountered his work: the unsettling dreamscapes of Eraserhead, the harrowing anti-eroticism of Blue Velvet, the rabbit-hole logics of Mulholland Drive. These are images no one else would think to film, because they’re images no one else would think, period. Lynch expanded the boundaries of what cinema was capable of achieving, and in so doing, has demonstrated the truth of the wisdom about the singular containing the seeds of the universal. He has made audiences collectively vibrate on a wavelength all his own, because there’s no one else—no, really this time—quite like David Lynch. [Alex McCown]

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Runner up: Spike Lee

He’s made plenty of bad joints over the years, but when Spike is on, he’s really on: Do The Right Thing remains one of the most ecstatically, passionately alive portraits of American life ever put to celluloid, while films like Clockers, 25th Hour, and Bamboozled offer their own bold diagnoses on the state of our nation. Extra points for moving fluidly between studio work and DIY indies. [A.A. Dowd]

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M: Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick has managed one of the finest second acts in American cinema. After directing two indisputable classics—Badlands and Days Of Heaven—he disappeared for 20 years, an incredible vanishing act for a highly vaunted director, before resurfacing with The Thin Red Line. From there, it seems as though Malick took everything personal and unique to his style and blew it up to an immense scale. His films revel in imagery, almost luxuriating in the mere capture of a fleeting poetic moment. They’re less about story than they are about feeling—or, in the case of The Tree Of Life, The A.V. Club’s third-best film of the decade, about every feeling ever felt. Both ethereally dream-like and achingly real, his movies don’t balance the tension between outer life and inner grace so much as they reveal both as conjoined sides of a diaphanous whole. [Alex McCown]

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Runner-up: Michael Mann

Michael Mann is superficially known for almost singlehandedly creating what is commonly referred to as the ’80s aesthetic. His rain-soaked, neon-drenched mean streets are populated by hard-boiled cops and robbers living by their own code in films like Manhunter and Thief. However, it’s his themes of honor, loyalty, and fragile machismo that define his work and translate from the modern America of Heat to the Depression era in Public Enemies or even the 18th century depicted in The Last Of The Mohicans. [Mike Vanderbilt]

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Runner-up: Vincente Minnelli

Vincente Minnelli, expressive and colorful artist of the big screen, worked his way up from dressing windows for Marshall Field’s to designing Broadway sets before being offered a contract by MGM. Most of the masters of Hollywood’s studio era developed their styles slowly, but Minnelli came in as a pure aesthete, putting his sense of composition and color to use in some of the greatest musicals ever made (Meet Me In St. Louis, An American In Paris) and becoming one of the most gifted melodrama directors of the genre’s richest period. No one got more out of garishness. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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N: Christopher Nolan

British-born Christopher Nolan lives and makes films in America, a reversal of Stanley Kubrick, to whom he is often (and inaccurately) compared. Nolan’s big-studio thrillers aren’t especially cynical or satirical, though they do share with Kubrick’s work a sense of impending menace. Instead, they’re often heavy with literal-minded exposition, especially when he has a hand in their screenplays. But Nolan’s info-dumps have real purpose, because his obsessive protagonists are so often trying to work (and control) their way through logistically complicated situations: the time-warping planets of Interstellar, a corruption-and-madness-ridden Gotham City, the dreams within dreams of Inception, or a hell of a short-term memory problem in Memento. Though some found the worlds of Inception insufficiently surreal, there is something vividly dreamlike about Nolan’s celluloid-shot imagery, which has a physical and often emotional weight that most similarly scaled movies lack. He makes big movies that actually feel big, in both senses of the word. [Jesse Hassenger]

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Runner-up: Mike Nichols

An Oscar nominee straight out of the gate for his electrically staged version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichols only had to wait another year to win Best Director—his statuette at the tender age of 36 for The Graduate instantly made him the hottest thing in Hollywood. Over the next 45 years, the former sketch comic and sometime actor made films of varying quality, but the good ones—Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, and that triumphal capitalist-Cinderella story Working Girl—made him a sought-after collaborator for nearly every major movie star of the post-’60s period. [Adam Nayman]

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O: Frank Oz

Given his brilliance as a puppeteer, it’s no surprise that Oz was attracted to fantastical scenarios as a filmmaker: The Dark Crystal and Little Shop Of Horrors are both superbly realized special-effects showcases. At his best, however, Oz is able to transform flesh-and-blood actors into floppy, Muppet-like lunatics, as in What About Bob?—with its great seriocomic role for Bill Murray—and the timeless Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (“May I take your trident, sir?”). [Adam Nayman]

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P: Sam Peckinpah

An iconoclast whose ultra-violent works were rooted in knotty questions about masculinity, Sam Peckinpah helped rewrite the Western (and action cinema) rulebook with 1969’s The Wild Bunch. That film’s mixture of shocking bloodshed, manly mournfulness, and revisionist genre introspection made it an instant classic, as did Peckinpah’s then-revolutionary use of slow motion and jarring edits. Before succumbing to the alcoholism that helped partially define his against-the-grain persona, the director helmed a series of brutally vicious movies that, decades later, more than stand the test of time. Those include the elegiac Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, the lovers on the run in The Getaway, the machismo under attack in Straw Dogs, or the peerlessly weird, simultaneously ugly and beautiful Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. The latter is not only one of the strangest films in the history of American cinema, but also perhaps Peckinpah’s finest hour, given that it stands as such a raw, unvarnished, can’t-look-away encapsulation of the director’s outlook on life. [Nick Schager]

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Runner-up: Otto Preminger

Austrian-born Preminger invested bestseller material with critical intelligence, all the while pushing the boundaries of what American movies could show on screen. But though ’50s hits like The Man With The Golden Arm and Anatomy Of A Murder remain his most enduringly popular works, viewers shouldn’t overlook his early noirs (Laura, Whirlpool) or the work he made in the later decades of his career (The Human Factor, Such Good Friends). [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Q: Richard Quine

Richard Quine reps not only the letter Q, but the confident and versatile directors that have gone overlooked since Hollywood history was rewritten according to auteurist values. Best known for entertaining trifles like Bell Book And Candle and My Sister Eileen and for his once-popular adaptation of The World Of Suzie Wong, Quine more than proved his mettle as a filmmaker with Strangers When We Meet, the most expressively and purposefully styled domestic drama this side of Douglas Sirk. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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R: Nicholas Ray

A director whose works are marked by their piercing empathy for their protagonists, Nicholas Ray is a titan whose career was, among other things, a primary influence on the French New Wave, and whose most famous hit—1955’s Rebel Without A Cause—made James Dean an icon of youthful discontent. Though Ray is best known for Rebel, it was far from his only triumph, as the director’s canon also includes the phenomenal noirs They Live By Night (his debut) and In A Lonely Place, the police thriller On Dangerous Ground, the Joan Crawford Western Johnny Guitar, and the madness-infected Bigger Than Life. All are enhanced by Ray’s trademark compositions, in which vivid colors and environmental structures help create strikingly taut panoramas that reflect his characters’ tumultuous emotional states. Few directors have ever used the widescreen form with as much explosive vitality as Ray, whose style is still unparalleled in terms of grace, beauty, and evocative power. [Nick Schager]

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Runner-up: Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt captures the psyche of fractured American identity with the vitality of a raw nerve. Her films contain quiet and meticulous moments of beauty, which turn out to be a blind behind which the director smuggles in some of the most affecting emotional turbulence in contemporary cinema. Just try to watch Wendy And Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff and deny the potency of her austere vision. No list of the greatest living American filmmakers should exist without her name attached. [Alex McCown]

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S: Martin Scorsese

Marty could probably claim this one on the strength of just three movies, a trifecta of dorm-room favorites. But even if you took Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas out of the equation, his legacy as a living legend—the motor-mouthed master of American sin, our most rock ’n’ roll auteur—would remain intact. In half a century of filmmaking, Martin Scorsese has never rested on his laurels, even as he’s built a body of work around consistent obsessions: the magnetic draw of repellant men, the violence of the city, the timeless build and release of “Gimme Shelter.” Scorsese has made cringe comedies, religious epics, 3-D family films, tender period romances, biopics, nutty thrillers, and some of the greatest crime sagas in movie history. What he’s never made is a boring film, though he has inspired quite a few bad imitations. Now in his 70s, the director is still sparking outrage and debate: His most recent movie, The Wolf Of Wall Street, feels like the work of a young and hungry maverick, not some past-his-prime icon. Scorsese’s prime is five decades and counting. [A.A. Dowd]

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Runner-up: Preston Sturges

Directing films was but one chapter in Preston Sturges’ colorful life, and his best run was over the brief five-year period of 1940 to 1944. But what a run—a near-flawless string of screwball comedies like Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve, overflowing with wacky misunderstandings, frantic montages, saucy women, and long overlapping dialogue scenes that might lead you to believe that everyone must have been fantastically witty back then. They weren’t, but Sturges was. [Katie Rife]

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Runner-up: Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are the two principal competitors in the field of most intuitively visual and kinetic American filmmaker, and Spielberg still sometimes gets underestimated, probably due to his blockbusting. His technique is dazzling, whether in service of dinosaur-centric set pieces or politically charged dramas, and he remains an exciting, challenging filmmaker; none of the other ’70s movie brats have made as many good-to-great movies in the past 15 years. [Jesse Hassenger]

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T: Quentin Tarantino

To talk about Quentin Tarantino is to talk about all the directors who influenced him—Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Kinji Fukasaku, Sergio Leone (especially Sergio Leone), just to name a few. That’s true of all directors to an extent, but especially true for Tarantino, whose genius is in his ability not only to recall every film he’s ever seen down to the specific shot, but to reinterpret those films in a way that feels fresh. Over the course of his career, Tarantino has assembled a sort of cinematic map of his unconscious by sampling his influences in a manner not unlike a hip-hop artist, with his profane, funny, pop-culture-reference-laden dialogue layered over a scene like verses over a beat. He ceased to be an indie maverick a long time ago—although people are still ripping off his ’90s oeuvre—but even as he enters the Old Master phase of his career, don’t expect Tarantino to become complacent. Above all, he loves movies, from art films to exploitation trash (like, really loves them—recent test footage of The Hateful Eight reportedly had him “bouncing in his seat” like a little kid) and that excitement will always come through in his films. It certainly helps him get career-best performances out of his actors—there’s a reason everyone in Hollywood wants to work with Tarantino. [Katie Rife]

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Runner-up: Jacques Tourneur

When it comes to elevating the disreputable genre of B-movie horror, Jacques Tourneur has few equals. He took potentially bargain-basement fare like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie and turned them into pure cinematic brilliance. It’s a lot easier to make a great film when you have a great script; what Tourneur did was more akin to waking the dead, and no less miraculous. He may have been born in France, but he has the soul—and career—of a visionary American auteur. [Alex McCown]

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U: Edgar G. Ulmer

Shunned out of the studio mainstream, Edgar G. Ulmer became the definitive artist of the Hollywood fringe, directing Poverty Row noirs, shoestring sci-fi flicks, creaky Westerns, and Yiddish-language melodramas. The patron saint of low-budget stylization, Ulmer could take comatose actors, minimalist sets, and shoddy rear-projection screens and turn out them into works of art as delirious and dreamlike as Detour and Strange Illusion. A onetime architecture student and set designer, he had a gift for creating and deconstructing moods and environments on-screen. His second feature, the classic The Black Cat, was a box office hit, and should have ensured his career in Hollywood, but his marriage to the ex-wife of a well-connected producer relegated him to the margins. The intentional sabotaging of Ulmer’s career, orchestrated by Universal head Carl Laemmle, provides Hollywood history with one of its great what-ifs. Who knows what Ulmer would have accomplished had he continued in the studio system; as it stands, his career remains an object lesson in how a filmmaker can express themselves fully and personally despite non-existent budgets and indifferent collaborators. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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V: King Vidor

Ambitious, all-American King Vidor drove from Texas to Hollywood in a Model T, sleeping outdoors and paying his way by shooting and selling newsreel footage of the trip. He worked odd jobs in the industry, became a director, and then ascended to pantheon of silent-era greats with movies like The Crowd and The Big Parade, masterpieces that combined dynamic big-screen sweep with a sensitivity toward the concerns of everyday people. His made movies about idealists and individualists in concert and conflict with the larger forces of society, history, and war; no surprise, then, that his personal and overtly sexual adaptation of The Fountainhead stands as the one great thing to come out of Ayn Rand’s writing. Though he remained a marquee name into the age of Cinemascope, Vidor felt alienated by Hollywood, and spent the latter part of his career—which spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s—focused on documentary shorts that explored his metaphysical beliefs and the work of his favorite painters. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Runner-up: Josef Von Sternberg

Josef Von Sternberg’s name will forever be associated with that of his muse Marlene Dietrich, who he cast in The Blue Angel five years into his Hollywood career. Together, they created some of the most sumptuous, stylish films ever made, with Dietrich, the blond goddess, rendered in exquisite black and white under Von Sternberg’s lens. [Katie Rife]

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W: Orson Welles

The archetypal boy genius, Orson Welles’ reputation was first established on radio, where his Mercury Theatre produced the infamous 1938 War Of The Worlds Halloween broadcast. Welles was 23 at the time. He made his directorial debut at 25 with Citizen Kane, casting himself in the lead role of Charles Foster Kane, a corrupt newspaper mogul audaciously modeled after powerful publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. An enraged Hearst tried to bury Kane, and—aside from an Oscar for Best Screenplay for Welles—was largely successful. Welles would fight the Hollywood system for the rest of his life, battling RKO over final cut of The Magnificent Ambersons and spending much of the late ’40s and ’50s in self-imposed exile. Welles’ career is marked by commercial failures and artistic triumphs, and it wasn’t until late in his life that he was acknowledged by the filmmaking establishment as one of its most talented members. Still, the half-century that Citizen Kane spent at the top of Sight & Sound’s list of the greatest films of all time, and its current status at the top of the American Film Institute’s similar list, has to make up for that somewhat. [Katie Rife]

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Runner-up: Billy Wilder

A great master of classic Hollywood like our “H” pick, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder’s filmography reads like a Screenwriting 101 syllabus: Double Indemnity. Sunset Blvd. Some Like It Hot. The Apartment. Wilder began his career as a writer and remained one to the end, although he didn’t direct his first feature until after fleeing Germany for the U.S. after the Nazis rose to power. And we were happy to have him. [Katie Rife]

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X: Francis X. Ploitation (Herschell Gordon Lewis)

Frankly, there was no way the Godfather Of Gore was going to make it onto this list under his given name. His movies are just too ramshackle for that. So it’s lucky for Herschell Gordon Lewis that he would occasionally go by the pseudonym of Francis X. Ploitation (and that the music-video director Director X is Canadian). One thing we will say for Lewis, though—while cheap, frequently silly (an Egyptian caterer? Really?), and plagued by amateur performances, his work has been influential, and splatter-film aficionados have HGL to thank for every graphic disembowelment, mutilation, and beheading that came in his wake. [Katie Rife]

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Y: Peter Yates

Never quite distinctive enough to be labeled an “auteur,” Peter Yates nonetheless enjoyed a thriving career of feature-film work, with a number of standouts in varied genres illustrating his assured craftsmanship. Yates’ most notable effort was likely 1968’s Bullitt, which helped coronate Steve McQueen as the undisputed King Of Cool. In subsequent years, Yates made superlative vehicles for many stars, including the Robert Redford/George Segal heist saga The Hot Rock, the Robert Mitchum crime gem The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, and the peerlessly titled Bill Cosby-Raquel Welch-Harvey Keitel comedy Mother, Jugs & Speed. Hot on the heels of Jaws, 1977’s underwater thriller The Deep was a box-office hit (thanks in large part to the sight of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt), and 1979’s Breaking Away was an Oscar contender, winning for Best Original Screenplay. While his ’80s output wasn’t quite as illustrious, Krull is a particularly beloved cheeseball fantasy, and exhibits Yates’ skill as a director of large-scale action. [Nick Schager]

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Z: Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis never wanted to make art films. He wanted to make Hollywood movies, and as a result a generation grew up on Back To The Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Zemeckis is known as one of the best visual storytellers in the business, and his use of elaborate special effects—particularly in Death Becomes Her and the climax of Back To The Future IIfor simple, throwaway jokes is masterful. While Zemeckis works within the Hollywood system, he isn’t afraid to take chances: He decided to adapt The Polar Express as a completely motion-capture film when it easily could have been animated, and made a movie starring Tom Hanks and a volleyball work so well that audiences wept when Wilson was swept away to sea. It would be easy to dismiss Zemeckis as saccharine if it weren’t for his cynicism—Forrest Gump critiques the free-love movement, Used Cars shows the slobs beating the snobs by cheating just a little bit better, and even Flight features a scene where a sleazy drug dealer is called in to save the day. Zemeckis makes all this work by approaching everything with a light touch; how else could he make (potential) incest between Marty McFly and his mother so charming? [Mike Vanderbilt]

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Runner-up: David (and Jerry) Zucker

Before David Zucker went off the deep end, he earned his bona fides as the co-director (along with his brother Jerry and their friend Jim Abrahams) of Airplane!, along with the lesser but still great Top Secret!. Solo, David Zucker also directed The Naked Gun. This doesn’t entirely forgive An American Carol, but it’s good for something. [Josh Modell]

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