Sometimes a director just cannot do wrong. Every project they pick, every decision they make on set, and every choice made in the edit combines to make a film which becomes beloved by both the audience and critics. But if doing this even once is rare enough, what about doing it again, and then another time?
This is when a director goes on a hot streak, creating several films in a row which become instant classics. Below are ten of these almost mythical beasts. The rules are simple: working within the Hollywood film industry, the director must have made at least three films released theatrically in a row agreed by the vast majority to be works of brilliance. Do feel free to add your own suggestions at the bottom of the article. But for now, here are my choices…
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979)
A young Coppola dominated the ’70s completely, winning five Oscars during the decade, and establishing himself as a legend while still in his 30s. Turning what was an enjoyable pulp novel into not only one of the best films of all time, but also the most widely acclaimed, greatest sequel ever, Coppola also found time to remake Blow Upas a twisted spy thriller touching neatly on the Watergate paranoia of the age, before finally breaking himself as a filmmaking force in the madness of Manila.
While he’s gone on to direct many films since (some even good…) none even come remotely close to his 70s output. A lesson in what it takes to create a true lasting legacy – yourself.
Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971)
I could have basically listed all of Stanley Kubrick’s career here really. Seemingly the man didn’t know how to make a bad film. So instead I have contented myself with this, his transition from the 60s to the 70s, which if you know your social history (and/or have watched Mad Men, which named a late episode in honor of 2001) you’ll know was a huge period of change in almost every facet of modern life. And when you consider that films are generally one or two years behind social changes with what they depict on-screen, you then fully appreciate just how visionary Kubrick truly was.
Dr. Strangelove should be taught on the curriculum, 2001defined how many of us imagined the future, for good or bad, at a time when man was about to land on the moon, and A Clockwork Orange was like a swift kick to the head, a wake-up call for a generation. Kubrick would never let up with future films, but these three offered a snapshot of the man working at the height of his powers.
Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963)
Arguably the greatest film ever made, a hugely commercially and critically successful thriller, and then two psychological thrillers which may never be bettered – is this the greatest directing streak of all time? This was the Hitch in his prime, able to do no wrong (while doing wrong to his cast). Hitchcock had 69 directing credits to his name (including several TV credits), and would regularly turn out classics.
But it was these four films, so close together that not only consolidated his reputation at the time as the master, but ensured his filmmaking legend for all time.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)
Spielberg is the master of modern cinema. More than anyone, he has defined the blockbuster, and repeatedly shows what it means for films to combine thrills and emotion effectively, in a way that almost every other director struggles with.
But his work rate sometimes counts against him.
But in the early ’80s, he was able to get it right three times in a row. He started with creating an icon, followed that up with the what has to be a contender for best family film ever, before returning to Indy (appreciating that it’s a fairly divisive film, not loved by Spielberg himself), and proving that you can go back after all. Even Spielberg’s misfires are beloved (Hook), but this streak remains arguably his most consistent work yet.
The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
I’d even argue you could put True Lies and Titanic at the end of this list. The only film of his I’m not advocating for also happens to be the biggest grossing film of all time, which demonstrates just how thoroughly Cameron has dominated the movie landscape in the last 30 years.
But these first four films (Piranha II doesn’t really count) remain his best I believe, films which brought back hard-edged dystopian sci-fi into the mainstream and offered audiences something different from the space-opera of Star Wars. The fact it also ushered in the new generation of CG effects is either a good or bad thing depending on your point of view, but there’s no denying that Cameron used the new technology to enhance his storytelling rather than detract from it, lifting The Abyss and T2 into something greater.
THX 1138 (1971), American Graffiti (1973), Star Wars (1977)
Proof that George Lucas once was a directing titan. THX 1138 is a strange sci-fi, heavily influenced by the French New Wave film Alphaville, and full of cold visuals, and pictures a dystopian world where emotions are forbidden and sex prohibited. A bit like the Star Wars prequels then (boom boom). American Graffiti on the other hand, is a riot of color and nostalgia, designed to make you fall in love with a time and place, which for many viewers never existed. It still retains its power to enthrall to this day, and offers a glimpse of the filmmaker Lucas could have been.
But instead his heart was drawn to the stars, and he turned his powers of creating powerful nostalgia which resonated with a vast number of people to a recreating the sci-fi serials of his youth. Thus Star Wars was born, and the pop culture of the western world was changed.
Manhunter (1986), The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995)
Once again, proof that great directors are not constrained by genre. Michael Mann, the director who gave us the crime genre as we know it (and to whom Christopher Nolan is surely indebted to) sandwiched his two classics of the genre with an historical epic, and one which is a classic of the genre too. Manhunter remains the best film representation of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books yet (sorry Silence Of The Lambs) and until the recent Hannibal TV series, the best representation of Hannibal Lecter himself (sorry Sir Anthony Hopkins).
The Last Of The Mohicans has Daniel Day Lewis throwing tomahawks, so that’s all good (it’s a sumptuous war story, with an incredible score and performances), while Heat is… well Heat. The most revered and fantastic crime film that’s ever been made, and features Al Pacino and Robert De Niro going full tilt while they were still good, and sharing an incredible scene together that people had waited decades to see.
You could argue too that the Mann hot streak extends to the chilling The Insider, too.
Monsters, Inc. (2001), Up (2009), Inside Out (2015)
It’s probably time for the world to fully embrace the directing genius of Pete Docter. Monsters, Inc. was the first non-John Lasseter directed effort at Pixar, and a step into a brave new world for the studio. It turned into a smash-hit, and remains one of the Pixar’s finest efforts. Up is a real deal heartbreaking work of staggering genius, which I’ve seen reduce hardened souls to tears on numerous occasions. Inside Out is considered a huge return to form from Pixar by all, and their best film since, well, Up.
So is Pete Docter the real genius behind Pixar? Possibly, but for certain he’s a genuine directing star whose next move must now be awaited with bated breath by every film fan. Will he continue in animation, or will he make the leap in to live-action like Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird (who could equally qualify for this list, after The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille)? Either way, let’s hope he can continue to harness the magic that made his first three efforts so special.
The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Misery (1990)
Rob Reiner is, in some quarters, a vastly underrated directing talent. That said, in the ’80s and ’90s, he was getting at least some of the credit he deserved, for a continual stream of excellent movies. Don’t forget that, on top of the films mentioned above, he also had This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, and Stand By Meimmediately before. There’s a case for arguing that Rob Reiner’s directing hot streak was as good as anybody’s.
Note too that A Few Good Men followed Misery, proving that no genre could withstand him, and arguably stretched his incredible run of form to seven movies.
And whatever you think of all of these films, and even if you haven’t seen them, you can easily recall key scenes. Reiner was a director who managed to infiltrate the culture with ease, crafting stories which resonated not only at the time, but with The Princess Bride, for decades. He drew great performances from actors that others struggled to do so with, and made a collection of films that’s worth celebrating.
The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010)
It was The Prestige that made me really realize that Christopher Nolan was actually a very, very good director. Stripped of the narrative tricks of Memento, the force of Al Pacino in Insomnia, and a cultural icon in Batman Begins, Nolan showed that he could craft something every special indeed. A personal movie, it seemed to prove to Nolan that he could take risks on future projects, and still succeed.
From it came The Dark Knight, a film which blew my proverbial mind when I first watched it (probably because I watched it on IMAX). A superhero movie genuinely unlike any other, it casts a long shadow over following Bat-films, including its own sequel. Then if that wasn’t enough, Nolan decided to bash out Inception, one of the most enjoyable pseudo-intellectual blockbusters of the 21st century. I’ve never heard an audience react like they did at the ending. Pure movie magic. And once again, it could be argued that Nolan’s hot streak has extended to more than three movies…