Movies & TV / Columns

The Top 10 Films From Four Legendary Directors

October 31, 2022 | Posted by Rob Stewart
Saving Private Ryan Image Credit: DreamWorks Pictures

I’m stealing ideas again!

This one in particular comes from my buddies Paul and Wayne over at The Countdown Podcast where they were challenged to count down their top ten movies from four legendary directors: Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. By all means, give that show of theirs a listen and see how their lists came out!

The thing is… this is HARD. You could do a top ten of just any TWO of those four and get a list full of great movies. But to count the entire filmography of all four of them? You’re looking at a Top Ten list full of movies that bottom out at, what? Four-and-a-half stars out of five? Maybe Four-Point-Seven-Five.

So yeah… this is challenging. And there are going to be movies you love that aren’t on this list. You have to just accept that. It’s hardly an indictment of, like, Indiana Jones that he doesn’t make this list. Treasure Adventure typically isn’t my favorite genre, so while I like those movies, they just don’t score as high for me personally as they might for you.

What DOES score high for me? Let’s see!

10. Schindler’s List

Here’s the crazy thing about this list: I was EXTREMELY worried it might end up imbalanced. There are ten spots for four directors. What if I looked at what I loved and realized I went 5-4-1-0? That would be embarrassing! But lucky though it may seem, this actually shook out to an incredibly balanced 3-3-2-2, and there is a definitive top ten for me before a gap that would see a drop in preference quality for a hypothetical #11. Showing that, at least for me, all four of these men deserve their reputations!

Anyway, Spielberg starts off the list with, well, someone else’s list. Why this movie at #10? Because it NEEDED to be included since it is incredible and powerful in a way few other movies are. But it’s also not exactly a pleasant watch by any stretch. I am not sure I’ll ever watch Schindler’s List again in my life, but just one watch is going to stay with me forever. This should be mandatory viewing for everyone in the world.

9. Django Unchained

The first of two QT movies to make the list, we have Django Unchained: a movie whose first two hours are so potent, so engrossing, and so entertaining, that I barely even care that it takes a weird and unnecessary waste-of-time left turn in the third act.

Jamie Foxx has the perfect blend of charming charisma and simmering rage. Kristoph Waltz goes from despicable in QT’s Inglourious Basterds to lovable here, and both performances are equally brilliant. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie when I was drafted by another podcast to watch it and talk about it for their show. Tarantino is the most uneven director of these four for me, but this jumped straight to #2 on my list of his work.

Everything here is just so visceral and hard to watch knowing that, while the STORY is made up, the reality of a lot of what you see is true. Tarantino just did a fantastic job at making this painful in all the right ways. Except, you know, for that weird shit about the Australian miners that no one needed. Oh well!

8. Jurassic Park

Having recently rewatched Jurassic Park, here’s what dawned on me that so many JP sequels and spin-off franchises have screwed up. The story here works even without the dinosaurs. The gigantic prehistoric monsters are THERE, sure; and they look unbelievably great, even all these years later. But the story is a very Spielbergian one of a man (Alan Grant) who doesn’t particularly like or want children being forced by a disaster to protect and bond with two of them. Then there is also the more Crichtonian story of man playing god behind that, too!

Other JP movies have either poorly aged or left out those elements entirely. But the first of the series stands as a movie that perfectly combines spectacle and substance.

7. Aliens

James Cameron makes his first appearance on the list at #7, with his follow up to a good horror movie by making a fantastic action movie. Everything about Aliens is just so well made. Ripley is given a real character arc of tragedy and reclamation. After everything she went through in the first movie, Cameron just takes the rest of her life away by having her miss the life of her own child and having to live in a cold world where everyone she knows and loves is dead!

And then, when she has nothing left to lose (except her cat, who thankfully gets to sit this one out), she gets put face to face against the species responsible for it all. AND SHE KICKS THEIR ASS TO SAVE A SURROGATE DAUGHTER, thereby emotionally redeeming herself for not being there for her own child!

6. Inception

Christopher Nolan is the last director of the quartet to appear on the list, as his lowest ranked movie hits us at #6. It took me a WHILE to get around to Inception, and I have no excuses. I just caught it for the first time in January of 2022. It was well worth the wait when I was going in afraid I would find it to be overhyped after a whole decade of hearing about its greatness.

The story is deep, but far easier to keep up with than Memento, and more palatable than, say, Tenet (from what I’ve heard; I never watched it). The entire idea is just so bizarrely imaginative, yet somehow believable. I love the layering of how time works throughout the dreams, as well as the slow burn reveal of what became of Leo’s wife.

5. Saving Private Ryan

Well, we are at the final Spielberg already, and WHAT a movie to go out on. Saving Private Ryan is, for my money, maybe the most perfectly made movie on a technical level. Like… not on this list. I mean EVER. It feels like all movie making was eventually building to give us this. The shots. The tension. The score. Is this my favorite movie on the list? Definitely not (obviously, since it’s 5th), but I think it’s the most well-made and the greatest directorial achievement.

The story is a bit maudlin and forced at points. It’s not a movie I will watch over and over as much as I would/have with entries #4-#1. And… that’s it. That’s all the complaints I can even pretend to dredge up for this flick. It’s… it’s just SO WELL DONE. Spielberg may be the first guy to tap out in this list, but I think SPR proves he is actually the best at his craft of these four.

4. True Lies

I know that going from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN to True Lies is a bit of a “wait, what?” kind of moment, but you know what? I fucking love this movie.

True Lies is one of the most fun movies ever made, and inarguably a top Action-Comedy of all time (I’d personally put Hot Fuzz above it, and that’s all). Everything about this flick just oozes joy and bombast. The horse chase. The Jamie Lee Curtis striptease dance. The multiple climaxes involving blowing up bridges and fighting a bad guy on a jet.

Cameron finds the exact line that a movie can get to in absurdity before it falls apart, and he lets Schwarzenegger, Curtis, Carrere, and Tom Arnold get close enough to lick it.

3. Inglourious Basterds

My favorite Quentin Tarantino movie, and QT makes his way into the top three movies of the list! And you know what? It turns out I might like good World War II movies.

As with Django, Basterds works because it takes horrible, uncomfortable, real-life subject matter and turns it into a fulfilling revenge fantasy centered around larger-than-life characters. And he manages to fit in not just ONE, but TWO of the kinds of scenes that make your arm hair stand upright. They can be easily summed up as just “The Milk Scene” and “The Bar Scene”. Most films aren’t good enough to make one scene even close to as good as either of those!

2. The Dark Knight

Wait… wait a minute…This feels familiar…

1. Terminator 2

This is the THIRD DIFFERENT TOP TEN LIST I’ve ever made where The Dark Knight and Terminator 2 finished at #2 and #1 respectively… and that’s a really strange coincidence.

The Top Ten Summer Blockbusters list!

The Top Ten Sequels list!

(Note to self: disqualify TDK and T2 from any future lists they might qualify for)

Anyway, yeah, I love these movies. Both are probably in my top 15 favorites ever. They just happen to keep meeting like this, and it makes me feel kind of bad for The Dark Knight.

So if you are scoring at home, we have:

T-3) QUENTIN TARANTINO: Two entries, #9 and #3 (Scoring 2 + 8 = TEN POINTS)

T-3) STEVEN SPIELBERG: Three entries, #10, #8, and #5 (Scoring 1 + 3 + 6 = TEN POINTS)

2) CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: Two entries, #6 and #2 (Scoring 5 + 9 = FOURTEEN POINTS)

CHAMP: JAMES CAMERON: Three entries, #7, #4, and #1 (Scoring 4 + 7 + 10 = TWENTY-ONE POINTS)

But that’s just my list, and like I said… there are SO MANY CLASSIC MOVIES that didn’t even break this murderer’s row! And if you ask me to restack these in, like, a week, the order my well change (there’s already a HUGE part of me that says “Why is Schindler’s ListTENTH?!”). But let me know how what your top ten movies for these studs would be! How do your scores shake out for them?

Until next time… take care!