Making a masterpiece is a lofty achievement. Doing two is showing off. But then there are those rare filmmakers who are around long enough to keep dropping great films across many decades – apparently blessed with the ability to keep their creativity and inspiration at an endless roiling boil.
Are there directors who’ve made classics in five or more decades? This idle game came to mind because there’s a new Agnès Varda film in cinemas. Met with critical adoration, Faces Places is the celebrated French-Belgian director’s first feature since 2008’s wonderful The Beaches of Agnès, and it arrives more than 60 years since her debut La Pointe Courte sounded an early warning of the French New Wave about to break.
In the intervening years, the Varda mojo has rarely deserted her. There are truly great Varda films from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s too – more of which below.
This kind of creative longevity is a scarce thing. More likely, talent wanes. More sadly, health does. But we put it to the test and found a number of other celebrated directors who our writers argue would pass the five-plus decades challenge…
1970s: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
1980s: Toute une nuit (1982)
1990s: D’est (1993)
2000s: La Captive (2000)
2010s: La Folie Almayer (2011)
A masterpiece a decade is a tall order, so it’s best to get the first one under your belt early. Chantal Akerman was 24 when she made Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a unique epic following the routine of a housewife over three days. On day one we witness a weirdly mesmerising catalogue of banal housework. On day two, things start to fall apart. And on day three, events really spiral out of control. It’s a brilliant critique of female oppression.
1982’s Toute une nuit is a poignant, humour-laced exploration of liaisons and aborted potential romances throughout one hot night in Brussels, which shows Akerman at her most playful. D’est (1993) is her very best documentary, a haunting odyssey through eastern Europe shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, told mainly through lengthy tracking shots of people in the act of waiting.
Two of her final triumphs are literary adaptations. La Captive (2000) is an unnervingly intense tale of male obsession and dependence, inspired by Marcel Proust’s La Prisonnière. La Folie Almayer (2011) shares similar themes, about a man desperate to keep his daughter close to him, based on Joseph Conrad’s debut novel. These five masterpieces, released across 36 years, all feature extraordinary final shots.
1950s: The Seventh Seal (1957)
1960s: Persona (1966)
1970s: Scenes from a Marriage (1974)
1980s: Fanny and Alexander (1982)
2000s: Saraband (2003)
Although he’s one of the medium’s most celebrated directors, Ingmar Bergman wasn’t someone who made a splash with a great debut. In fact, not even the most dedicated Bergman fan would claim that any of the seven films he made at the dawn of his career in the 1940s rank among his finest work. It was in the 1950s that the seminal Bergman films began appearing – The Seventh Seal (1957), pitting a medieval knight against Death himself, is the most iconic, though Wild Strawberries, from the same year, arguably proved more influential on subsequent world cinema.
The 1960s and 70s found Bergman drilling further into questions of faith, adult relationships and the anxiety of modern existence than any director before (or perhaps since). Persona (1966) may be his greatest and also most experimental film, while 1974’s Scenes from a Marriage – which was done as a TV series and edited down for cinemas – is one of the most penetrating and realistic depictions of a fractious marriage that you could hope to see.
Fanny and Alexander (1982), which was also made for both mediums, is a good deal warmer: an autobiographical period film based on Bergman’s own childhood. For ages, it looked like it would be his last film as director, but Bergman made an unexpected return to the big screen in 2003 with Saraband. This was a belated sequel to Scenes from a Marriage and showed his unflinching ability to get under the skin of human interaction to be astonishingly undimmed.
1940s: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
1950s: A Man Escaped (1956)
1960s: Au hasard Balthazar (1966)
1970s: Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)
1980s: L’Argent (1983)
Robert Bresson was one of those precious few filmmakers who, with one or two possible exceptions, left behind nothing but great films. So playing stepping stones through the five decades in which he made 13 feature films, there are a few options about where to land.
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), his second feature, finds the Frenchman’s growing taste for abstraction straining at the limits of an exquisite 1940s melodrama. A decade later, the Bresson style had fully bloomed, his distilled focus on faces, hands and detail finding its most heart-stopping (and joyous) expression in the prisoner-of-war story A Man Escaped (1956). Ten years later still, Bresson’s storytelling had achieved a black-star-like density, such that Jean-Luc Godard could acclaim his tragic donkey movie Au hasard Balthazar (1966) as “the world in an hour and a half”.
1971’s Four Nights of a Dreamer is a Parisian romance that deserves rediscovery as one of the director’s warmest pictures (not a closely fought competition, admittedly). And L’Argent (1983), his swansong, is among the finest films of the 1980s: a Tolstoy-derived round of devastating outcomes kicked off by the passing of a forged banknote.
1920s: Un chien andalou (1929)
1930s: Land without Bread (1933)
1950s: Los olvidados (1950)
1960s: Belle de Jour (1967)
1970s: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Slice through any cross-section of Luis Buñuel’s long career and you’ll find the same lethal venom coursing through.
As a young surrealist and provocateur, the Spaniard announced himself as a key figure in the Parisian avant-garde with the incendiary Un chien andalou (1929) – still a touchstone 90 years later for its shocking images and radical dream-logic. The roots of mockumentary can be found in Land without Bread (1933), a stark and brutal piece of ethnography set among the peasants in a desolate mountain region of Spain.
Across the ocean, a long spell working during Mexico’s 1950s golden age quickened Buñuel’s productivity, yielding many classics. Foremost of his 50s films is perhaps Los olvidados (1950), a tale of Mexico City street kids in which neorealism is spiked with surreal Buñuelian touches. In the 60s, he made masterpieces in Spain (Viridiana), Mexico (The Exterminating Angel) and France (Belle de Jour) – take your pick. The sly erotic fable Belle de Jour is probably the most famous.
There are no lax or less than delicious films in his final working decade either, his achievement being crowned – much to his amusement – by that most establishment of honours, an Oscar, for 1972’s savage comedy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
1910s: Easy Street (1917)
1920s: The Kid (1921)
1930s: Modern Times (1936)
1940s: The Great Dictator (1940)
1950s: Limelight (1952)
Over the course of Charlie Chaplin’s film career, the industry went through unimaginable change, and although he famously resisted the coming of sound, he proved himself ahead of the game time and again.
Any one of a number of his films from the 1910s marked him as a master of his craft, but 1917’s Easy Street expertly mapped the hardships of the Little Tramp’s south London childhood onto a side-splitting slapstick romp. At the dawn of the 1920s, he retooled this streetwise sentimentality into the heartbreaking The Kid (1921) with child actor Jackie Coogan at his side – one of several first-class features he made in the silent era. Still refusing to speak for the camera by 1936, Chaplin produced Modern Times, a work of unforgettable techno-angst imagery and biting humour.
His greatest audacity came when he found his voice in 1940. With The Great Dictator, Chaplin poked fun at the pomposities of the Third Reich and made one of the most passionate political speeches of his career. By 1952, Chaplin directed himself as the washed-up clown Calvero, master of an “obsolete” art. With cameos from his silent-era comrades and suffused with melancholy nostalgia, Limelight will always be his cinematic swansong.
Manoel De Oliveira
1930s: Douro Faina Fluvial (1931)
1940s: Aniki-Bóbó (1942)
1960s: Rites of Spring (1963)
1980s: The Cannibals (1988)
1990s: Abraham Valley (1993)
2000s: A Talking Picture (2003)
Given that he lived to the age of 106, Manoel De Oliveira stood a better chance than most of making great films across several decades. Indeed, but for the infamous inaccessibility of his canon, we might add the Tetralogy of Frustrated Love (1972-81) to the above list.
There’s no doubting the brilliance of Douro Faina Fluvial (1931), a silent snapshot of daily life in De Oliveira’s home city of Porto that overcame booing at its premiere to be recognised as a masterwork. The same setting provided the backdrop for Aniki-Bóbó (1942), a precursor to neorealism that explores a street kid’s sense of guilt after love prompts him to steal a doll and challenge the authority of a gang leader.
Dismayed by the commercial failure of his full-length debut, De Oliveira didn’t make another film for 11 years and only returned to features with Rite of Spring (1963), a vérité record of the annual Passion Play enacted by the villagers of Curalha whose insights into its own making bind together the biblical storyline, the traditional ritual and contemporaneous world events.
There’s also a sly satirical undertone to The Cannibals (1988), a Buñuelian adaptation of an Antonio Carvajal novel about a bride making a shocking wedding-night discovery. This one not only boasts a singing narrator, but also marked the first of De Oliveira’s collaborations with muse Leonor Silveira. She contracts another unwise marriage in Abraham Valley (1993), a take on Madame Bovary whose measured minimalism anticipates the slow cinema movement, while she gets to take her daughter on a Grand Tour in A Talking Picture (2003), which culminates in a cruise aboard John Malkovich’s doomed liner.
Carl Theodor Dreyer
1920s: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
1930s: Vampyr (1932)
1940s: Day of Wrath (1943)
1950s: Ordet (1955)
1960s: Gertrud (1964)
Carl Dreyer once stated that silent films require a quick editing pace because, to use his example, if a man is tied to a train track you have to cut back and forth between the man and the approaching train in order to build suspense. In sound cinema, however, you can simply show the man while using sound effects to create the tension.
Such a forward-thinking approach to sound was one of the many reasons that Dreyer’s career lasted for over 45 years, during which time he successfully made the transition from silents to talkies. It also explains why his hagiographic masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) contains quick-cut montages worthy of Eisenstein, while his achingly romantic swansong, Gertrud (1964), is almost statuesque in recounting the life and loves of its titular heroine.
In the years between Joan and Gertrud, Dreyer honed his mature style by making a creepy gothic horror, Vampyr (1932); a striking witchcraft drama, Day of Wrath (1943); and a miraculously spiritual examination into earthly love, Ordet (1955). Dreyer imbued each film with its own unique rhythm but, when taken together, an overall slowing of pace emerges, as if Dreyer was preparing viewers for Gertrud. It’s the type of coup that only a director as exacting and as masterful as Dreyer could achieve.
1950s: La strada (1954)
1960s: La dolce vita (1960)
1970s: Amarcord (1973)
1980s: City of Women (1980)
1990s: The Voice of the Moon (1990)
Much of the acclaim for Fellini focuses on the first half of his career, but the truth is he never really had a bad decade. Each film supplies a piece in a puzzle, allowing us in to Fellini’s personal inner world.
The 50s found the Italian maestro in particularly fine fettle, however, with the decade’s pinnacle arguably La strada. The film stars Fellini’s wife and lifetime muse Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina, who, much like the central character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, touches the lives of everyone around her because of her purity and innocence.
In the 60s the director’s La dolce vita helped take Italian cinema into a cool class of its own, with its star-making turn from Marcello Mastroianni and the truly iconic moment of his kiss with Anita Ekberg in the Trevi fountain.
By the 70s Fellini’s films became more surreal and perhaps less accessible, yet he found international success with Amarcord, based on the director’s childhood in Rimini, growing up under fascism.
Mastroianni was back for 1980’s City of Women, exploring the director’s own complicated relationship with sex and women, while Fellini’s final film – 1990’s The Voice of the Moon – also edges in here. It might be more obscure than his earlier work, but it’s no less powerful. Drawing on themes also found in La strada and Juliet of the Spirits (1965), it’s the perfect swansong.
1920s: The Lodger (1927)
1930s: The 39 Steps (1935)
1940s: Rope (1948)
1950s: Vertigo (1958)
1960s: Psycho (1960)
1970s: Frenzy (1972)
Determined to “make the audience suffer as much as possible” from an young age, Hitchcock inflicted his own brand of torture in scores of films, most of which warrant a mention here. The Lodger (1927) was the purest example of his pain principle in the silent era, with murder, doubt and sexual confusion lurking in every shadow. In the 1930s, Hitchcock produced a MacGuffin to toy with the audience’s comfort and his leading man’s rationality in espionage thriller The 39 Steps (1935). In 1948 he forced his public to squirm through apparently unbroken takes of a callous murder and its aftermath in Rope.
More torment was to come in the 1950s with films investigating guilt, obsession and voyeurism, but none more sickening than the groggy, emotionally gruesome Vertigo (1958), again starring James Stewart. In contrast to that film’s woozy Technicolor nightmare, Hitchcock opened his 1960s with a short, sharp shock in monochrome – the sleazy, uncompromising Psycho (1960), which so memorably led the audience astray.
That’s more than enough sadism for any one man’s career, but in the 1970s, Hitchcock returned to London to unleash the ‘necktie murderer’ in Frenzy (1972), proving there was plenty of bite left in this dog.
1940s: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
1950s: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
1960s: The Misfits (1961)
1970s: Fat City (1972)
1980s: Under the Volcano (1984)
Beginning as a screenwriter in 1930s Hollywood, John Huston quickly graduated to become an acclaimed director, with a taste for both adventure and literary adaptation. His career was still going strong in the 1980s, when most fellow golden-age filmmakers were long retired or no longer with us.
Most acclaimed of his 1940s films is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a venomous study of greed that provided Humphrey Bogart with one of his finest roles as a doomed prospector eaten alive by gold fever and paranoia.
1950’s The Asphalt Jungle looks like the model for every ‘heist gone wrong’ flick made in its wake, while 1961’s The Misfits has only grown in stature since its release. Clark Gable gives a career-best performance as a lonesome cowboy disturbed by his feelings for a woman (played by Marilyn Monroe) after years of bachelorhood.
Moving into the New Hollywood era, Fat City (1972) is a boxing picture simply unlike any other. Another of Huston’s resolutely pessimistic movies about outsiders, it’s as good a film as any made by the industry’s younger upstarts. Finally, while 1987’s The Dead may be the canonical one, 1984’s deeply melancholic Under the Volcano is also first grade, starring Albert Finney as a fellow drinking himself to death against the backdrop of the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations.
1950s: Paths of Glory (1957)
1960s: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
1970s: Barry Lyndon (1975)
1980s: The Shining (1980)
1990s: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Kubrick aced every decade of his career, with perhaps only his still-divisive 1999 swansong Eyes Wide Shut remotely contentious in the classic stakes. Paths of Glory (1957) sits at the top table of anti-war movies, while 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) occupies such an imposing status in sci-fi that it brings to mind the mysterious monolith at the centre of its story.
Barry Lyndon (1975) is a masterful period film, an odyssey back into Europe’s past that’s prompted dumbstruck reddits pondering whether this is the most beautiful film ever made. And The Shining (1980) needs little introduction as the haunted-house movie par excellence – a canonical horror.
That leaves Eyes Wide Shut, an erotic mystery released into the world when the 20th century had just months left to run. Lukewarm reviews followed, although critic Michel Ciment has pointed out that previous Kubricks met similar fates before commentators later realised the films were “like nothing else before or since”. Are we there yet?
1970s: Taxi Driver (1976)
1980s: Raging Bull (1980)
1990s: GoodFellas (1990)
2000s: The Aviator (2004)
2010s: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
For half a century, Martin Scorsese has never failed to excite, provoke and surprise audiences, his major works featuring men who hunger for the trappings of American success, even as they find themselves alienated from what they seek to dominate.
1976’s Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or, blending an amalgamation of influences – including Hitchcock, Dostoevsky and the scuzzy enclaves of 70s Manhattan – in a hitherto unseen style. The bravura sequences of Raging Bull (1980) combine expressionistic black and white with a near-anthropological eye for the detail and slang of Italian-American city living. That observational tendency would later morph into GoodFellas (1990), a big-time gangster saga about small-time schnucks. Based on low-level mafioso Henry Hill, it’s a masterpiece of swirling colour, music, dialogue and voiceover.
In 2004, Scorsese would return to his love for Hollywood history in The Aviator, a glitzy, epic biopic of movie and aviation magnate Howard Hughes, even utilising two-strip Technicolor in his exacting recreation of the past. Finally, in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Scorsese would masterfully walk a tightrope between queasiness and hilarity in his story of Jordan Belfort’s penny-stock empire.
The seemingly ceaseless energy, innovation and dark humour in Marty’s work belies his 75 years of age. Here’s to at least another decade of his genius.
1960s: Black Girl (1966)
1970s: Xala (1974)
1980s: Camp de Thiaroye (1988)
1990s: Guelwaar (1992)
2000s: Moolaadé (2004)
Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène would have made many more great films if he had come to cinema sooner. Instead, he spent his first four decades working in factories, foundries and dockyards before he started writing. As his reputation grew, however, Sembène realised that low literacy levels were restricting his reach and he trained at the VGIK in Moscow to become a cine-griot.
Taking his cues from neorealism and the French New Wave, he exposed a new form of slavery in Black Girl (1966), which shows how a babysitter loses her identity and dignity when she becomes an expat couple’s status symbol. Sembène turned his ire on the Senegalese bourgeoisie in Xala (1974), which focused on the impotence of a polygamous Muslim businessman after he takes a third wife to celebrate being elected to the Chamber of Commerce.
Kept off screen for a decade after the provocative discussion of religion in Ceddo (1977), Sembène upset the French with Camp de Thiaroye (1988), a brutal account of a mutiny among African troops in a repatriation camp at the end of the Second World War. But he refused to back down and criticised fundamentalism and an over-reliance on foreign aid in the satirical study of a disappeared corpse, Guelwaar (1992), and later denounced female genital mutilation in a final feature set in a Burkinabé village, Mooladé (2004).
1970s: Jaws (1975)
1980s: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
1990s: Jurassic Park (1993)
2000s: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
2010s: The BFG (2016)
The name Steven Spielberg would have meant little to viewers settling down to the broadcast of his 1971 TV film Duel, but there was no escaping it by 1975, during the commercial bombardment for Jaws. This was the first modern blockbuster – and the wunderkind’s first masterpiece in the bag.
Cut to seven years later and the Spielberg industry was in full effect. Raiders of the Lost Ark proved another commercial smash, but E.T. the Extra Terrestrial went stratospheric. It remains one of cinema’s great films about childhood.
The early 90s saw Spielberg finally take home the best director Oscar for Schindler’s List, although Spielberg’s pop triumph of the decade was Jurassic Park, which tore through the summer box office like a famished velociraptor.
Post-9/11, Spielberg’s CV took on a darker hue, and few came any darker than A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). A profoundly disturbing study in empathy and abandonment, and the font of a thousand bad takes re its misunderstood ending, it remains the director’s crowning achievement.
With West Side Story and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara still to play for, Spielberg may still eclipse this decade’s greats. Given the state we’re in, the excellent Lincoln (2012) is a tempting pick, but there’s even greater moral certitude to be found in his wondrous Roald Dahl adaptation, The BFG (2016).
1950s: La Pointe Courte (1955)
1960s: Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
1970s: Daguerréotypes (1976)
1980s: Vagabond (1985)
1990s: Jacquot de Nantes (1991)
2000s: The Gleaners and I (2000)
2010s: Faces Places (2017)
Faces Places, voted sixth best film of 2017 in the Sight & Sound poll, marks both the finale and the restart of an unprecedented seven-decade career. While Agnès Varda’s 2008 biodoc The Beaches of Agnès seemed to set the seal on her 60 years in cinema, Faces Places returned to her magically imaginative investigations of everyday people in places.
It all started with her documentary/fiction fusion first feature, La Pointe Courte (1955), whose influence on the French New Wave cannot be overestimated. From Sète, where she had spent the war, Varda returned (like her characters) to Paris in Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), with its era-defining fashion and proto-feminist heroine. Daguerréotypes (1976), shot on Varda’s street, is the official film of Paris’ 14th arrondissement, while Vagabond (1985) – made after Varda’s own wanderings abroad – is a fierce excoriation of neo-conservatism in rural France.
Contrast the warm yet anti-nostalgic Jacquot des Nantes (1991), surely the greatest gift given by one filmmaker to another, in which Varda envisions her husband Jacques Demy’s childhood. A lover of all things visual, Varda was the first truly great filmmaker to pick up digital, and The Gleaners and I (2000) met the new millennium, in its technological advances and social crises, head-on, making her one of the defining filmmakers of the second half of the long 20th century.