The Living Directors (1986–2019)

Film From The Lens Of An American Under 40

Welcome to The Living Directors (1986–2019) which, for the time being, is an ongoing document meant to be amended. The rules are set, but additions and retractions can and will be made as new shit comes to light. Links to new media will be posted, podcasts will be recorded, and YouTube videos will be published. Enjoy.

The Rules

  1. No films before 1986

This isn’t a best-of list for American directors, but it is made from an American perspective. There are plenty of international greats who missed the cut, but at least that gives us another list to make.

Why 1986–2019?

33 years ago I was in a Maryland suburb going back and forth between parents. I was six going on seven, the age when a turn of awareness begins for many. Sports in the yard were a thrill and necessity, but movies were as important as anything else. Moonstruck, Wall Street, and The Untouchables were above my capacity, but The Fly, Top Gun, Labyrinth, Stand By Me, Ferris Bueller, Karate Kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Crocodile Dundee, Short Circuit, Three Amigos!, Little Shop of Horrors, An American Tail, Howard the Duck, The Golden Child, The Last Emperor — seven-year-old me was obsessed with these movies.

What Makes a Film Great?

In order,

  1. Story (director as teacher)

Like a teacher, the director’s job is to bring something new to the viewer’s life. It is to shock and wow them. It is to expand upon what they know and what they think they know. This begins with story. Any director will tell you that the script dictates the potential of the film.

Next comes the ability to inspire and facilitate great acting performances. A director is like the coach of a sports team in this way. Players and actors must give their greatest efforts, and it is a skill to foster an environment that enables this. I think it comes down to a simple combination of being smart and likable, but such simplicities are not so common.

The third element of greatness lies in the cinematography of the film. Directors are artists; film is a moving canvas with sound. The visual decisions of a director are his fingerprints. The cinematography is the physicality of a film. One of the wonderful things about a long career is the ability to take on different shapes, and the best directors create a new and unique one with every effort.

Lenny Abrahamson

  1. Room (2015)

J.J. Abrams

  1. Tommaso (2019)

David Fincher

  1. The Social Network (2010)

James Foley

  1. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Marc Forster

  1. Monster’s Ball (2002)

Stephen Frears

  1. Fail Safe (2000)

Cary Joji Fukunaga

  1. Beasts Of No Nation (2015)

Antoine Fuqua

  1. Training Day (2001)

Greta Gerwig

  1. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Zach Snyder

  1. Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Steven Soderbergh

  1. King Of The Hill (1993)

Steven Spielberg

  1. Schindler’s List (1993)

Ben Stiller

  1. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Edward Zwick

  1. Glory (1989)

15 Films or More

Woody Allen (34), Steven Soderbergh (30), Clint Eastwood (26), Stephen Frears (23), Spike Lee (23), Barry Levinson (23), Steven Spielberg (23), Ron Howard (21), Ridley Scott (21), Joel Schumacher (20), Bruce Beresford (19), Tim Burton (19), Richard Linklater (19), Joel and Ethan Coen (18), Rob Reiner (18), Oliver Stone (18), Robert Rodriguez (17), Pedro Almodóvar (16), Luc Besson (16), Martin Scorsese (16), Gus Van Zant (16), Abel Ferrara (15), Robert Zemekis (15)

Five Films or Less

Judd Apatow (5), James L. Brooks (5), Stephen Daldry (5), Mel Gibson (5), Yorgos Lanthimos (5), Baz Luhrmann (5), Edgar Wright (5), Lenny Abrahamson (4), Ben Affleck (4), Brad Bird (4), Martin Brest (4), Craig Brewer (4), Damien Chazelle (4), Frank Darabont (4), Ava Duvernay (4), Barry Jenkins (4), Rian Johnson (4), Spike Jonze (4), Steve McQueen (4), Lynne Ramsay (4), Ryan Coogler (3), Andrew Dominik (3), Cary Joji Fukunaga (3), Greta Gerwig (3), Tony Gilroy (3), George Lucas (3), Tom McCarthy (3), Martin McDonagh (3), Bennett Miller (3), George Miller (3), Dee Rees (3), Ari Aster (2), Robert Eggers (2), Jonathan Glazer (2), Patty Jenkins (2), Jordan Peele (2)

2020 and Beyond

Ben Affleck, Ghost Army; Woody Allen, Rifkin’s Festival; Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch; Craig Brewer, Coming 2 America; Tim Burton, Beetlejuice 2; James Cameron, Avatar 2; Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog; Damien Chazelle, Babylon; George Clooney, Good Morning, Midnight; Coen Brothers, Macbeth; Ryan Coogler, Black Panther 2; Francis Ford Coppola, Megalopolis; Sofia Coppola, On the Rocks; Stephen Daldry, Wicked; Brian De Palma, Sweet Vengeance; Guillermo Del Toro, Pinocchio; Ava DuVernay, The New Gods; Jon Favreau, Jungle Book 2; David Fincher, Mank; Cary Joji Fukunaga, No Time To Die; Antoine Fuqua, Infinite; Mel Gibson, The Wild Bunch; Paul Greengrass, News of the World; Taylor Hackford, Signal Hill; Ron Howard, Hillbilly Elegy; Peter Jackson, Adventures of Tintin 2; Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman 1984; Ang Lee, Thrilla in Manilla; Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods; Barry Levinson, Harry Haft; Richard Linklater, Merrily We Roll Along; Terrence Malick, The Last Planet; James Mangold, Juliet; Rob Marshall, The Little Mermaid; Adam McKay, Bad Blood; John McTiernan, Tau Ceti Four; Bennett Miller, A Christmas Carol; Christopher Nolan, Tenet; Alexander Payne, The Menu; Sam Raimi, The Kingkiller Chronicle; Dee Rees, The Last Thing He Wanted; Ivan Reitman, Triplets; Jason Reitman, Ghostbusters 2020; Guy Ritchie, The Gentleman; Paul Schrader, The Card Counter; Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon; Ridley Scott, The Last Duel; Steven Soderbergh, Let Them All Talk; Steven Spielberg, West Side Story; Oliver Stone, White Lies; Denis Villeneuve, Dune; Joe Wright, The Woman in the Window; Robert Zemekis, The Witches

Passed Away

Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999), Milos Forman (1932–2018), Robert Altman (1925–2006), Jonathan Demme (1944–2017), Harold Ramis (1944–2014), Mike Nichols (1931–2014), Anthony Minghella (1954–2008), Nora Ephron (1941–2012), John Hughes (1950–2009), John Singleton (1968 — 2019), Tony Scott (1944–2012), John Hughes (1950–2009), Sidney Lumet (1924–2011), Sydney Pollack (1934–2008), Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941–1996), Penny Marshall (1943–2018)

Before ‘86

Martin Scorsese directed Taxi Driver and Raging Bull during the second half of the 70s. Francis Ford Coppola finished the first two Godfathers by 1974. Diane Keaton jumped from Kay Adams-Corleone to Annie Hall in 1977. From 1978–1983 John Landis made the iconic comedies Animal House, American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, and Blues Brothers, but none of these classics make the list.


There is no Michael Moore, no Werner Herzog, no Errol Morris. There are great documentaries made by the directors here, and it was a difficult decision to exclude them, but the fact is that docs are a different art form that need their own Ahlswede Collection column some day.

Legacy Cases

Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas have all-time great careers, but the past 33 have not been great. We know what they did before ’86, but after that Coppola made Peggy Sue Got Married, Tucker, The Godfather III, and Dracula, while Lucas made the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The two iconic directors make the list, but the bottom line is that these guys have not aged like their contemporaries Scorsese, Spielberg, and Eastwood. Coppola’s vineyard has developed some unfortunate irony that I’m sure the auteur can appreciate, even if it isn’t in his favor. At least he didn’t completely give up like Lucas.

We should also add John Landis and Joe Dante to this group old white dudes who peaked before the ‘90s. Landis made Coming To America and Three Amigos! after ‘86, while Dante made Innerspace and The Burbs, but neither has recaptured what they did in Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Gremlins, and Twilight Zone: The Movie.


Have some directors made their last film? Peter Weir and James L. Brooks seem unlikely to give it another go. Ivan Reitman is surprisingly slated for another in Triplets. Landis? Probably not. Lucas won’t direct again. How many more does Woody have in him after making a film every single year over this era? Rifkin’s Festival comes in 2020. I believe Martin Brest was sentenced to life in prison after Gigli, which is a shame.

In Consideration

The Wachowskis, Neill Blomkamp, Paul Feig, George Lucas, Jonathan Lynn, M. Night Shyamalan, Lulu Wang, Wes Craven, Kevin Smith, Michael Bay, Bradley Cooper, Peter Berg, Mike Flanagan, Drew Goddard, Mike Figgis, Cristian Mungiu, Sarah Polley, Joss Whedon, Charlie Kaufman, Joe and Anthony Russo, John Woo, Matthew Vaughn, Paolo Sorrentino, Armando Iannucci, Peter Segal, Alex Garland, Mike Judge, Shane Black, David Michôd, Scott Cooper, Dan Gilroy, David Mackenzie, Boots Riley

Race and Gender

There are 143 directors listed (duos are counted as one). 111 are white men. Only 12 are women. Nine are black. Six are Latino. Six are East Asian, and one is Pacific Islander.

Imagination is so valuable. We must use it constantly, because it is open-ended. Our quality of life relies on imagination. We change societies with thoughts that lead to action that lead to productivity. We are all desperate for a new reality. Imagination rescues us from misery, failure, tragedy, and fear, and the best directors understand that. They show us what personal and societal progress looks like. Good directors are good teachers. Good films are educational. We leave watching them smarter. They change our lives for the better.

Medieval, Environment, Modern Lit and Critical Theory

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