In the world of film there are few accolades higher than being considered a venerable director; be it a ‘genre master’, like John Ford with his westerns, or a jack of all trades such as Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott. If there’s one thing film history shows us it is that some directors have that knack for making great film after great film.
However, there is also a rich vein of historical one hit wonder directors, those who hit one film out of the park and then never repeat that success, whether due to self-indulgence, directing only a very small number of films, or having fluked their one triumph.
Here’s our top ten masters of that brief shining moment.
10. Tony Kaye
A truly interesting one, you could debate whether Tony Kaye deserves to be on the list on the basis of never truly having a hit. Having just directed three feature films in his career, with one, Black Water Transit, never having been given a wide release. His most recent effort, Detachment, was well received but was largely unnoticed.
It is his debut film, American History X that warrants his inclusion on the list, although Kaye himself would probably argue against that. His final cut was vastly reedited by lead actor Edward Norton, and Kaye disowned the film, despite its success and lasting legacy.
9. Michel Gondry
Michel Gondry stuck gold when he directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, recasting Jim Carrey (who’d proven his credentials with The Truman Show) from zany funnyman to serious actor in a story of a couple who erase each other from their memories.
However, since then Gondry’s directorial stock has gone the same way as Carrey’s reputation as anything other than a comedian (see The Number 23, or rather…don’t). Be Kind Rewind was received relatively well by critics, but largely left audiences cold, and The Green Hornet fared even worse. Granted, Gondry has only had a short career, and may well have more good work left in him, but it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll ever come close to eclipsing Eternal Sunshine.
8. Michael Curtiz
Not to do Michael Curtiz a disservice, as he had a hugely successful career through the studio era and beyond, but in film history, Casablanca is only rivalled by Citizen Kane and The Godfather in terms of historical reverence.
A tall order for any director.
7. Charles Laughton
Whilst the film didn’t do well at the box office or with critics at the time of release (hence the presumable reason that Laughton was never given a chance to direct again), it has come to be regarded as a classic, famed for its stylish direction heavily influenced by German Expressionism. It made number 2 on the Cahiers du Cinema list of the most beautiful films.
6. Jan de Bont
A successful cinematographer for a variety of well-known action films (Die Hard, Basic Instinct, The Hunt for Red October), everything seemed to be going according to the script for Jan de Bont when he moved into directing with the classic Speed, which remains the film to have squeezed the most fun out of public transport.
His next effort was the average-yet-successful Twister, but then it started to go seriously wrong. Speed 2: Cruise Control (the title should have given everyone a hint at how exciting the premise was) was critically savaged, as was The Haunting. His last film was 2003’s Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.
To give de Bont his dues, Cradle of Life received better reviews than the first Tomb Raider, but that’s really not saying much.