Sight & Sound, Part Three: Who is the Greatest Director?

Part one of this series, focusing on the perceived static nature of the list, is here.

Part two, looking at the films that made the list, is here.

NOTE: With the help of a couple readers, totals have been readjusted.

Now that the Sight & Sound poll is out in all of its glory and we have had time to digest the greatest films of all time (according to this particular list), it’s probably time to turn out attention toward the directors. According to this same poll, who are the greatest directors of all time? Below is a list of the 25 directors with the most votes, followed by how many films they have in the top 100 and how many of the votes went toward films in the top 100 (not top 250). With the top 250, this is somewhat outdated information (we have a better idea of where the votes went), but I put all of it together before that was available, and hope you find it fascinating nonetheless.

1.Hitchcock – 318 votes (4 films accounting for 281 of those votes)
2.Godard 233? (4 films, 161)
3.Welles 231 (3 films, 203)
4.Ozu 189 (2 films, 157)
5.Renoir 179 (3 films, 140)
6. Ford 158 (1 film, 78)
6. Dreyer 158 (3 films, 138)
8.Kubrick 157 (2 films, 115)
9.Tarkovsky 153 (3 films, 127)
10.Bresson 149 (3 films, 96)
11.Coppola 145 (3 films, 144)
12.Bergman 143 (4 films, 108)
13.Murnau 134 (1 film, 93)
14.Fellini 129 (2 films, 97)
15.Kurosawa 127 (2 films, 89)
16.Bunuel; 114 (1 film, 17)
17.Antonioni 110 (2 films, 65)
18.Chaplin 98 (2 films, 43)
19.Scorsese 97 (2 films, 66)
20.Lynch 92 (2 films, 63)
21.Lang 91 (2 films, 60)
22.Eisenstein 88 (1 film, 63)
EDIT: 22 (tie) Hawks 88 (1 film, 24)
23.Mizoguchi 85 (2 films, 54)
24.Powell, Pressburger 84 (2 films, 35)
25.Rossellini 83 (1 film, 32)

The director with the most votes is, by a wide margin, Alfred Hitchcock, who also has as many films in the top 100 as any other director (tied with Godard and Bergman). It is worth noting, however, that all four of Godard’s films are in the top 50, while two of Hitchcock’s and three of Bergman’s are in the back-half of the top 100. We can also see that support for a few filmmakers (most notably Bunuel, but also Rossellini, Chaplin, and Ford) is spread across a very large number of films. Bunuel has the notable distinction of least votes per film. 19 of Bunuel’s films received votes, an average of 6 votes per film. As far as I can see, no other director receiving a significant number of votes had support spread so widely across his filmography, nor was any other director so far away from a consensus title. Is there a more heralded director to not appear in the top 50?

Okay, the top 100 stuff is all well and good, but what about the top 250? Well, the folks at The Playlist have taken good care of that. Most of what you want is there, but because not every film to receive 7 votes (and tie for 235th place) is actually listed on the BFI’s website, there are a few errors. Bunuel squeezed in a 7th film with Belle de Jour tying for 235th place, meaning he has as many films on the list as Robert Bresson, and it also helps put his massive vote split mentioned above in better perspective.  The other films that tie for this place, in addition to those listed under the top 250, are:

  • The Flowers of Shanghai  (Hou)
  • The Puppetmaster (Hou)
  • The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini)
  • All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
  • Husbands (Cassavetes)
  • Shadows (Cassavetes)
  • All About Eve (Mankiewicz)
  • How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
  • Sicilia (Huillet/Straub)
  • The Band Wagon (Minnelli)
  • The White Ribbon (Haneke)
  • F For Fake (Welles)
  • A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf)
  • The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami)
  • Where Is My Friend’s House (Kiarostami)
  • The Big Lebowski (Coen Brothers)
  • Rocco and his Brothers (Visconti)
  • Death in Venice (Visconti)
  • Blissfully Yours (Weerasethakul)
  • Colossal Youth (Costa)
  • All About My Mother (Almodovar)
  • The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatek)
  • Pandora’s Box (Pabst)
  • Le Samourai (Melville)
  • By The Bluest of Seas (Barnet)
  • Stromboli (Rossellini)
  • A nos Amours (Pialat)
  • Throne of Blood (Kurosawa)
  • Umberto D (De Sica)
  • Les demoiselles de Rochefort (Demy)
  • Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges)

What does this mean? First of all, that the Top 250 is more accurately a top 281, but it also means that Kurosawa has just as many as Ozu and Mizoguchi after all, and that Welles, Ford, and Rossellini actually have five films. Bunuel is tied for the lead with seven, and Cassavetes (and perhaps someone else, whom I missed) also joins the fairly long list of directors with four films. EDIT: John Cassavetes actually has five films: A Woman Under The Influence is 144th, Faces is 183rd, Love Streams is 202nd, and Husbands and Shadows join the giant tie for 235th.

Some more interesting trivia that this gives us? Howard Hawks has 6 films in the top 250 that helped him toward 88 votes, but only one (Rio Bravo) entered the top 100. The directors who placed between 19th and 23rd on the list all have less than four films (Lynch, Lang, and Eisenstein have two, Scorsese has three). Which directors have the most number of films receiving at least one vote? Godard has 27, Ford has 21, and Bunuel and Hitchcock have 19 each. I didn’t check all 25 of the directors in the top 25, but I do feel confident that in saying that these directors had the most.

So, who is the best director of all time? It depends very much on your point of view, but the Sight & Sound poll builds a lot of credibility for an argument for:

  • Alfred Hitchcock: He has the #1 film, his films received more votes than any director by a significant margin, he has more films receiving votes than almost any director, and although there are a handful of directors with more films in the top 250, four of Hitchcock’s five are in the top 100.
  • Jean-Luc Godard: Second highest vote getter, more films in the top 50 than anyone else, six films in the top 250 (bested only by Bunuel and Bresson), and more films receiving votes than any director.
  • Luis Bunuel: Tied for the lead for most films in the top 250 with Bresson, but Bunuel had more films receive votes than Bresson made and more than all but two directors.
  • Robert Bresson: Tied for the lead for most films in the top 250, more votes overall than Bunuel and more films in the top 100.

Of course, this is just an arbitrary summing of votes. With so many voters remarking on how their list would be different tomorrow and almost all refusing to give one director two nods with only ten spots overall, there’s no way to know that these results would be the same or even very similar if just a few things were changed. Even so, film, as an art, is subjective, and although I would like to be able to make a case for my own favorite director, Ingmar Bergman, these numbers don’t agree. That won’t make me love Bergman any less, however; it’s all fun and games, and interesting trivia for cinephiles who love to devour lists.

On a closing note, if you are unsurprised by these results, tired of being told that Hitchcock and Godard are the greatest, and would like to see some newer directors for you to discover, stay tuned. Up next is a look at which modern directors can battle for the title of greatest. Until then, Bunuel had 19! Godard had 27! Go watch one!

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4 comments

  1. [...] Part three, focusing on the most revered directors, is here. [...]

  2. Lee Chang · · Reply

    Thanks for the information! But there’s some errors or questions I found. I counted by myself and checked the results two more times. I think Howard Hawks has 88 votes and should be among the top 25 vote-getting directors. Godard, on the other hand, has 233 votes, which is 5 votes less than your result. Some of Godard’s films do not have pages to see how many votes they got, except “Histoire(s) du cinéma”, which is in the top 50 so we can see its number of votes. According to the films I can know the number of votes, I suggest Godard get 233 votes.

  3. I also counted 88 votes for Hawks. What’s the deal here?

    1. Thank you for checking. I must have somehow missed a film when I was counting. When I made this, it was a lot of work, and nobody else had the numbers so I ran them all myself. I was bound to make a few mistakes, and I did so thank you both for catching them.

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