What’s the best year a director ever had?

From the director who in one year had three films in the running for the major Oscars to the pioneering woman who released, oh, 13 pictures in 12 months…

Alex Barrett , Pamela Hutchinson , David Parkinson , Matthew Thrift , Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, released in the same year that the director made six further productions for stage and screen

Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, released in the same year that the director made six further productions for stage and screen

What’s the best year a director ever had? And who are we to judge? Without access to their diaries or private thoughts, who knows what personal calamities may have befallen our favourite filmmakers during any given turn of the calendar – no matter what levels of success or acclaim washed their way at the time.

Take Ingmar Bergman in 1957. It was a time in which the Swedish director suffered acute stomach pains and angst – as a new documentary, Bergman: A Year in a Life, lays bare. But it was also a year of profuse creativity, in which he’d mount no fewer than seven productions on stage and screen.

Ingmar Bergman on location for Wild Strawberries (1957)

Ingmar Bergman on location for Wild Strawberries (1957)

These were bookended by the releases of two films that still feature in best-films-ever polls to this day: the medieval parable The Seventh Seal and the roadtrip reverie Wild Strawberries. And such was the speed of Bergman’s invention during this period that, according to Jane Magnusson’s documentary, when the former came out in February, the latter was not yet even so much as a twinkle in the Swede’s eye.

Removed from the anguish of their creation, therefore, it’s easy to take a swig of Bergman ’57, nod appreciatively and agree that, yes, it was a very good year. So Magnusson’s film got us wondering: can other directors claim years like this? Who else has had a year of such concentrated brilliance that it resulted in two (or more?) landmark films being issued into the world, or in which some other high-bar of artistic achievement was cleared?

It’s an idle game, and one that, by default, privileges those directors who’ve had the privilege of being prolific, who’ve had an industry supportive enough of their talents to enable them to craft their classics in quick succession. Historically, this has applied to men far more than women – so the list below unfortunately reflects that bias. But we begin with a woman who defied all that…  SW

Lois Weber’s 1916

Lois Weber with dancer Anna Pavlova on the set of The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916)

Lois Weber with dancer Anna Pavlova on the set of The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916)

Discontent - released January 1916
Hop, the Devil’s Brew - released February 1916
The Flirt - released March 1916
There is No Place Like Home - released March 1916
The Dumb Girl of Portici - released April 1916
John Needham’s Double - released April 1916
Where Are My Children? - released May 1916
The Eye of God - released June 1916
Shoes - released June 1916
Saving the Family Name - released September 1916
Idle Wives - released September 1916
Wanted — A Home - released October 1916
The People vs John Doe - released December 1916

Silent era auteur Lois Weber had great ambitions for the cinema, and for society. In 1916 she released 13 new films, from Discontent in January to The People vs John Doe in December. She also re-released six more, to keep up with demand. Not all of these films survive, but among those that do we find some of her finest, most enduring and important work.

The previous year, she and her husband Phillips Smalley had made a much-publicised return to the Universal studio, but in 1916 Weber’s directorial credit gained more prominence, and as she said herself said that year: “A real director should be absolute.”

Shoes (1916)

Shoes (1916)

Once again enjoying the support of producer Carl Laemmle, Weber devoted herself largely to the social-problem films that were close to her heart. In 1916 alone, she tackled wage inequality and sex work in Shoes, opium trafficking in Hop, the Devil’s Brew, capital punishment in The People vs John Doe and, most controversially, birth control in Where Are My Children?

In Idle Wives, Weber pointedly dramatised the stories of three people inspired to change their lives for the better after seeing a movie. Alongside these films, which she later called “heavy dinners”, she released her great revolutionary drama The Dumb Girl of Portici, starring none other than Anna Pavlova. A century later, this may still be the only true epic movie directed by a woman, and it’s a stirringly beautiful film with a unique lead performance from the great prima ballerina.  PH

Michael Curtiz’s 1938

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Gold Is Where You Find It – released February 1938
The Adventures of Robin Hood – released May 1938, four Oscar nominations (including best picture), three Oscars
Four’s a Crowd – released August 1938
Four Daughters – released August 1938, five Oscar nominations (including best picture and best director)
Angels with Dirty Faces – released November 1938, three Oscar nominations (including best director)

In compiling this list, things looked a darn sight rosier for those old-time Hollywood directors caught up in the assembly-line ethos of the old studio system. In those days, films were often written and wrapped in a matter of weeks, and then directors under contract would be on to the next project. It was not unusual for one man – and in those days, it was nearly always a man – to get ‘Directed by’ credits on two, three, four or more films in one year.

This was certainly true of the ultra-prolific Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz, who has multiple films for Warner Bros to his name each year throughout the 1930s and 40s (with such cinematic sausages as Casablanca and Mildred Pierce among their number).

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

But his annus mirabilis must be 1938. For his work that year, he would compete against himself for the best director Oscar, having been nominated for both his spiritually-inflected James Cagney gangster classic Angels with Dirty Faces and the musical drama Four Daughters.

The latter of these was also nominated for best picture, alongside yet another Curtiz production: the immortal Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood. He’d also made two further films that year – Four’s a Crowd and Gold Is Where You Find It – which didn’t trouble the Academy at all.

In both categories, he’d lose to Frank Capra for You Can’t Take It with You, but this was all water off a duck’s back for Curtiz: he finished another five films the following year.  SW

Victor Fleming’s 1939

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

The Wizard of Oz – released August 1939, six Oscar nominations (including best picture), two Oscars
Gone with the Wind – released December 1939, 13 Oscar nominations, eight Oscars (including best picture and best director)

According to critic Gavin Lambert, Victor Fleming only directed 45% of Gone with the Wind. Yet as sole named director it was he who won the Oscar, after being asked to take over by producer David O. Selznick following George Cukor’s dismissal. Ironically, it was Cukor’s departure to mount this legendary Deep South epic that had allowed Fleming to direct an equally iconic title in the same year: MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, which had been started by Richard Thorpe before he was fired after a fortnight. Hollywood’s revolving door span wildly that year.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Having resorted to slapping Judy Garland across the face to impose his authority, Fleming left the shooting of the monochrome Kansas sequences to King Vidor, who followed his storyboards before Fleming returned to supervise the editing and ensure that the Oscar-winning ‘Over the Rainbow’ made the final cut. He found it harder to bend Selznick and Vivien Leigh (“Miss Leigh, you can stick this script up your royal British ass”) to his will on Gone with the Wind, however, and Sam Wood was hired in his stead after Fleming insisted he had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Even though Fleming considered the project “one of the biggest white elephants of all time”, he was persuaded to complete a picture that would go on to be the most successful film ever made until The Sound of Music came along in 1965.  DP

John Ford’s 1939

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach – released February 1939, seven Oscar nominations, two Oscars
Young Mr. Lincoln – released May 1939, one Oscar nomination
Drums along the Mohawk – released November 1939, two Oscar nominations
The Grapes of Wrath – in production October-November 1940, later resulting in seven Oscar nominations, two Oscars (including best director)

Having endured mixed fortunes since winning an Oscar for The Informer (1935), John Ford revitalised his reputation in 1939. Returning to westerns for the first time since the 1920s, he gave the genre a new respectability with Stagecoach, which no studio in Hollywood wanted to make before independent producer Walter Wanger intervened. Marking Ford’s first use of Monument Valley as a location and the first of his 24 collaborations with John Wayne, this trademark blend of the epic and the intimate had a profound influence on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

If Wayne was Ford’s action man, Henry Fonda was his man of principle, and he excelled in the same year’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which no less a filmmaker than Sergei Eisenstein lauded for its “unity, its artistry, its genuine beauty”, declaring it the only American film he wished he had made.

Fonda returned in Drums along the Mohawk, which saw Ford employ Technicolor for the first time for an account of the Saratoga campaign during the Revolutionary War. Despite lukewarm reviews, this rousing adventure proved a commercial hit and prompted Ford to cast Fonda as Tom Joad in his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, an apolitical paean to the American people which started and finished shooting that autumn and would earn Ford a second Oscar.  DP

Ida Lupino’s 1953

The Bigamist (1953)

The Bigamist (1953)

The Hitch-hiker - released March 1953
The Bigamist - released November 1953

In 1953, Ida Lupino released two of her very best films, both of which, in Richard Koszarski’s words “reduce the male to the same sort of dangerous, irrational force that woman represented in most male-directed examples of film noir”. She also starred in a third film.

This is a story where it proves almost impossible to detangle the personal from the professional. In 1952, Lupino gave birth to her first child, with her third husband, Howard Duff. Just months afterwards she began shooting her brilliantly tense film noir about two men trapped by a sadistic highway killer, The Hitch-hiker. When that film was released, in early 1953, the marriage was hitting some early rocks, although it would last another three decades more, and the couple had starred together in gothic melodrama Jennifer, in which Lupino plays a woman slowly suspecting her lover (Duff) is a murderer.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

She was also planning a new film with her producer Collier Young, which she would direct and star in – the wonderful The Bigamist. They promised “not the sordid story of a sex maniac, but the strangest story ever told with detection by the law coming closer every minute”. Edmond O’Brien plays a man who marries waitress Lupino behind the back of his business-like wife Joan Fontaine.

It just so happened that Young was Lupino’s ex-husband and Fontaine his new wife. While Lupino considered directing herself “the toughest thing I’ve ever attempted in my career”, working with Young and Fontaine didn’t faze her. “Since the divorce, the quality of our movies has actually improved,” quipped Young.  PH

Mikio Naruse’s 1960

Autumn Has Already Started (1960)

Autumn Has Already Started (1960)

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs - released January 1960
Daughters, Wives and a Mother - released May 1960
Evening Stream — released July 1960
Autumn Has Already Started - released October 1960

From the beginning of his directing career in 1930 to its end in 1967, there were only two years that didn’t see a new film by Mikio Naruse. You could throw a dart at his CV and chances are you’d hit something very special indeed, if not one of the bona fide, capital-M masterpieces he churned out with astonishing regularity. But with four features released, 1960 was to prove a banner year even by his prolific standards.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki, 1960)

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki, 1960)

All four films see a return to modern day Tokyo, following a series of rural dramas in the late 50s. Taken together, they form a crash course in Naruse’s recurring themes: from explicitly gendered social roles to the disintegration of the family unit, from the burgeoning generational divide to the insistent pressures of economic hardship.

Evening Stream (co-directed with Yuzo Kawashima) is probably the least of the four, but When a Woman Ascends the Stairs – his best known film in the west – is one of the quintessential women’s pictures, starring Naruse’s long-time muse, Hideko Takamine, in perhaps her greatest role as Ginza mama, Keiko.

A brutally cynical family drama of protracted financial and emotional negotiations, Daughters, Wives and a Mother was his third colour picture, a star-studded gem (including Ozu fave Setsuko Hara) that feels particularly bleak by Naruse’s usual, cautiously hopeful standards.

In Naruse’s cinema, said hopefulness is always a matter for individual resilience, and even for the two young protagonists of Autumn Has Already Started, there’s no excuse made for age. Life is hard but goes on, whether you’re ready for it or not.  MT

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967

Week End (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

Week End (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

2 or 3 Things I Know about Her — released March 1967
La Chinoise — released August 1967
Week End — released December 1967

Having made his first feature in 1960, Jean-Luc Godard was already on to projects 13, 14 and 15 by 1967. Like Bob Dylan galloping through his mid-60s LPs, taking the tenor of the times with him, Godard’s output in this period demanded to be kept up with. Yet his 1967 trio suggested that the director had taken the stylistic experimentation of the French New Wave about as far as it could go. The curtain was coming down on the movement, the unrest of May ’68 in Paris was around the corner, and with it Godard would subsequently abandon narrative film altogether in favour of Marxist agit-filmmaking.

2 or 3 Things I Know about Her (1967)

2 or 3 Things I Know about Her (1967)

While still recognisable as feature films, 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her, La Chinoise and Week End are all steeped in this increasing radicalism. Godard wasn’t interested in movies for their own sake anymore, but used them instead like cultural grenades to lob at his favourite ideological targets: consumerism and western imperialism being top of the list.

From the brilliant world-in-a-coffee-cup shot in 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her to the long take through a traffic jam in Week End, Godard remained a dazzling image-maker in spite of himself. But his disdain for his chosen storytelling machine was now hidden in plain sight: Week End’s opening claims the film was found on a rubbish dump; its close sees its protagonist chopped up and cooked.  SW

Steven Spielberg’s 1993

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park – released June 1993
Schindler’s List – released November 1993, 12 Oscar nominations, seven Oscars (including best picture and best director)

Two Spielberg films came out in 1993: one won the Oscar for the year’s best picture and one became the most successful film ever made.

Of these twin achievements, you’d have to guess that it was the awards (including best director too) for Schindler’s List that brought him most pride. After all, he’d made the most successful film ever made twice before (with Jaws in 1975 and E.T. in 1982) and was by this point in his career competing mainly with himself. But Oscars had so far eluded him. Coupled with the wide acclaim for Schindler’s List, they helped cement his status as a ‘serious’ filmmaker as well as the showman with a Midas touch.

Steven Spielberg directing Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List (1993)

Steven Spielberg directing Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List (1993)

Not that this was a cut-and-dried case of one-for-me, one-for-the-box-office. Spielberg’s lauded Holocaust epic took some $322m at cinemas worldwide, a fraction of Jurassic Park’s $1bn but a fortune by any other standard.

You can only wonder at a man who could bring such radically different projects to the boil around the same time; he finished shooting Jurassic Park in late ’92 and went straight into his adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel. It looks a bit like he tried to repeat the trick in 1997 with his Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World and prestigious slavery drama Amistad, but this time – by his own high standards – to diminishing returns.  SW

Steven Soderbergh’s 2000

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich — released March 2000, five Oscar nominations (including best picture and best director), one Oscar
Traffic - released December 2000, five Oscar nominations (including best picture and best director), four Oscars (including best director)

Today, Steven Soderbergh is heralded as one of modern Hollywood’s most successful directors – but this wasn’t always the case. After exploding onto the scene, aged just 26, with the Palme d’Or-winning smash hit sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh fell from grace by making a string of left-field commercial failures. Things took an upturn with Out of Sight (1998) and The Limey (1999), but it wasn’t until 2000, with the overwhelming success of both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, that Soderbergh fully emerged from the wilderness.

Traffic (2000) poster

For Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh simplified his formal approach and foregrounded story and performance, while in Traffic he continued his earlier experiments in fragmented narratives. Taken together, the films can be seen as laying the foundations for the work that followed: abundant productivity balancing mainstream crowd-pleasers with experimental personal projects.

As if two films weren’t enough for one year, in 2000 Soderbergh was also writing Solaris (2002), planning Son of Schizopolis (never made), developing Leatherheads (2008, directed by George Clooney), and prepping Ocean’s Eleven, which shot in early 2001 – the year that Soderbergh was nominated for best director at the Academy Awards for both Erin Brockovich and Traffic. He won for Traffic.  AB

Read more

Further reading

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.