Oscar recollections: 10 favorite Best Director winners

The following is an alphabetical list (by first name) of my 10 favorite Best Director winners. (Only awards for direction are included this list, though many of these directors have also been nominated in other areas.)

1. Elia Kazan – Elia Kazan made a lot of great movies, both as an actor and as a director. My personal favorites are A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, but it would be a great injustice to recognize only those two films as his “greats.” All of his nominations and wins were very well-deserved.

Nominated for:
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
On the Waterfront (1954)
East of Eden
(1955)
America, America
(1963)
Won for:
Gentleman’s Agreement
On the Waterfront
Honorary award received in 1999

2. Frank Capra – Capra is one of those directors whose films are immediately recognizable. When you watch a Capra film, you know that it is a Capra film. I’ve seen him criticized quite a bit for making films that are sometimes too sentimental, but I’ve seen very few films from him that I didn’t like.

Nominated for:
Lady for a Day (1933)
It Happened One Night (1934)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Won for:
It Happened One Night
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
You Can’t Take It With You

3. George Cukor – George Cukor definitely holds a spot on my “top five favorite directors of all time” list. From The Women to the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, Cukor must have made about a million fantastic films during his career. Check out my tribute to Cukor from his 113th birthday last year: here.

Nominated for:
Little Women (1933)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
A Double Life (1947)
Born Yesterday (1950)
My Fair Lady (1964)
Won for:
My Fair Lady

4. John Ford – There’s one reason that I really love John Ford: The Grapes of Wrath. I think it’s one of the most beautiful films ever made, and Ford’s direction has a lot to do with that. Acting talent alone couldn’t have brought Steinbeck’s words to life so successfully; the film needed Ford’s touch. I must admit I haven’t seen as much of his work as I probably should have (only a handful!), but I’m very glad he won for The Grapes of Wrath.

Nominated for:
The Informer (1935)
Stagecoach (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
The Quiet Man (1952)
Won for:
The Informer
The Grapes of Wrath
How Green Was My Valley
The Quiet Man

5. Joseph L. Mankiewicz – This is another director I’ve seen a criminally small amount of films from, but those that I have seen have all been highly enjoyable. All About Eve is a favorite of mine and a true “classic.”

Nominated for:
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
All About Eve (1950)
5 Fingers (1952)
The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
Sleuth (1972)
Won for:
A Letter to Three Wives
All About Eve

6. Leo McCarey – The Awful Truth was, I believe, the first McCarey film that I saw. It remains a favorite both of mine both for the director and its stars, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. McCarey’s name isn’t the first that immediately comes to mind when I think “favorite directors,” but looking over his filmography, he directed so many great ones.

Nominated for:
The Awful Truth (1937)
Going My Way (1944)
The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
Won for:
The Awful Truth
Going My Way

7. Martin Scorsese – Martin Scorsese is my favorite director who is still working today, which sounds kind of typical since a lot of people love his work, but I really do love him. His passion for cinema as an art really comes through in a lot of his work – even in films like Shutter Island, which is a thriller but is such a throwback to some of my favorite classics.

Nominated for:
Raging Bull (1980)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Goodfellas (1990)
Gangs of New York (2002)
The Aviator (2004)
The Departed (2006)
Hugo (2011)
Won for:
The Departed
Hugo

8. Michael Curtiz – I find it kind of unbelievable that Michael Curtiz only won a single Oscar, but how fitting that the Oscar is for Casablanca, which is not only his most legendary work but also one of the greatest films ever produced. Casablanca included, Curtiz has directed some of my favorites: Four Wives, Mildred Pierce, Doctor X, The Keyhole.

Nominated for:
Captain Blood (1935)
Four Daughters (1938)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Casablanca (1942)
Won for:
Casablanca

9. Vincente Minnelli – If I’m surprised that Curtiz only won a single Oscar, I’m completely floored that Vincente Minnelli only won one and was only nominated twice! While both of his nominations and his win weren’t without merit, I see Meet Me in St. Louis as his best work. Minnelli made that film damn near perfect.

Nominated for:
An American in Paris (1951)
Gigi (1958)
Won for:
Gigi

10. William Wyler – William Wyler has the most nominations of any director listed here, and with good reason. He was at the top of the crop throughout his entire career. He worked with so many phenomenal performers and always managed to enhance their performances even further into the realm of greatness: a near-impossible task when you’re working with such talent as Bette Davis or Olivia de Havilland. Some of my favorite performances of all time (including Bette in The Letter and Olivia in The Heiress) were directed by Wyler.

Nominated for:
Dodsworth (1936)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
The Letter (1940)
The Little Foxes (1941)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
The Best Years of our Lives (1946)
The Heiress (1949)
Detective Story (1951)
Roman Holiday (1953)
Friendly Persusasion (1956)
Ben-Hur (1959)
The Collector (1965)
Won for:
Mrs. Miniver
The Best Years of Our Lives
Ben-Hur
Irving Thalberg Memorial Award received in 1966

This post was written for the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon.

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13 thoughts on “Oscar recollections: 10 favorite Best Director winners

    • Maybe it’s just because I study classic film/20th century pop culture in retrospect, but I definitely feel like directors had more of a presence back then, more stardom of their own. There are a few big-time directors nowadays, but many of them haven’t racked up the same kind of credentials that directors used to. Thanks for checking out my list!

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  1. Hard to argue with any of your choices — there’s at least one film of each of those directors that is a favorite of mine! Except for John Ford, I haven’t seen a single one of his films, I think – so I’d add Billy Wilder in his place. Special love for Cukor, Kazan, Capra, and Scorsese. Also, you have quite a tremendous site, Lindsey!

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  2. Great list! Amazing picks. Wyler, Curtiz and Minnelli were all such incredible talents. I had no idea that Wyler was nominated so many times. Great post, thanks!

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  3. Pingback: Oscar recollections: 15 favorite Best Picture winners | the motion pictures

  4. Interesting list. I really am surprised about Curtiz and Minnelli. Happy to see another fan of THE LETTER though :) To be fair, I think part of the reason we don’t see as many nominated films from today’s directors is that in the studio system a director would work on more films throughout a career…several in a year was the norm. They wouldn’t all be Oscar-calibre but generally they improved with experienced. That’s virtually unheard-of today; one a year is an incredible pace now.

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    • That’s a great point, Paula! I tend to become so frustrated with the Academy that I’m prone to blaming their bad taste rather than the number of films created when it comes to snubs of my favorite modern directors. :P Thanks for reading!

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      • Of course, i very much enjoyed. I get frustrated too, didn’t mean to suggest that i don’t. I would never dispute that the Academy lacks taste ;)

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  5. Such an amazing amount of quality from those gentlemen.

    We hear a lot of complaining from those with a cynical frame of mind about Frank Capra. Those people need to take a second look. They may not “approve” of his content, but his cinematic eye is practically unequaled.

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