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Twelve directors and the movies that made them

April 24, 2014|By Christy Khoshaba

Directorial acclaim never comes easy. When it hits, though, the results can be significant not only for the helmer but for cinema itself. We take a look back at the films that propelled some of today’s most celebrated directors to prominence.

Steven Spielberg: The slew of television shows and short films directed by Ohio native Steven Spielberg was just a preview of things to come from a man who has become perhaps the most commercially successful director of all time. His first major directorial effort, "The Sugarland Express" (1974), an adventure comedy featuring Goldie Hawn, amassed enough attention to make Spielberg one to watch. But it was his mega-hit "Jaws" (1975) that garnered him international acclaim.

The film cast Roy Scheider in the lead, with Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss costarring. Noted composer John Williams served up the film’s score, which later as judged the sixth greatest score of all time, according to the American Film Institute. "Jaws" also helped kick off the tradition of the summer blockbuster -- the movie was the first to break $100 million at the U.S. box office and netted more than $470 million worldwide.

Which isn’t to say the film’s production was simple. Nicknamed “Flaws” by disgruntled crew members, the film engendered a painfully slow production process. But the troubled development led to decisions that proved wise in retrospect -- the movie's main threat, the shark suggested by the title, remained largely hidden because of logistical issues. But that proved to heighten the suspense; as Spielberg put it, the decision offered more of a Hitchcock feel, making it a "the-less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller.”

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James Cameron: The sci-fi thriller "The Terminator" (1984), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a robot from the future, was only Cameron's third film, but it proved to be a sensation. Cameron had been preparing himself for a career in visual effects, he said, by learning mold-making and sculpting while working for B-movie king Roger Corman. "The Terminator" showcased those skills and offered just a taste of what Cameron would continue to offer cinema, and what would become his specialty. "Terminator" springboarded him to become the director behind two of the highest grossing films ever -- his 1997 romance epic "Titanic" became the first film to earn more than $2.1 billion worldwide at the box office and his 2009 sci-fi adventure "Avatar" proved equally triumphant by taking in more than $2.6 billion worldwide. 

Martin Scorsese: As a young boy Martin Scorsese had asthma, which prevented him from playing sports and many other activities with other children. So his parents and older brother would take him to movie theaters, where he developed his passion for cinema. Scorsese later attended film school in New York and made a handful of award-winning shorts, and even directed his first feature film there. Soon he was introduced to the "movie brats" of the 1970s, including Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, eventually directing the Roger Corman-produced Depression-era drama "Boxcar Bertha." Tutelage from Corman helped Scorsese realize that he could create entertaining films with little money and time, and encouragement from actor-director John Cassavetes -- who believed Scorsese's talent didn't fully shine through in "Boxcar Bertha" -- pushed Scorsese to make films he was more passionate about.

This led to "Mean Streets" (1973), which gave him his breakthrough as a director. The crime drama cemented Scorsese's style, which includes sharp edits and bold musical choices, along with recurring themes of guilt, redemption, violence and machismo. The film also served as part of a group of unorthodox -- and landmark -- '70s pictures made by an emerging class of American directors. Scorsese would revisit the tone of “Mean Streets” in future work, including “Raging Bull” (1980), “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Gangs of New York” (2002).

Quentin Tarantino: When people ask Quentin Tarantino whether he went to film school, he often says he went to films instead. A stint as an employee at a video rental store also helped, enabling the pastiche of influences that he would incorporate into all his films. His signature style was evident in his debut, the heist thriller "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), which he wrote and directed and which played the Sundance Film Festival and immediately brought Tarantino critical acclaim. Tarantino was recruited to direct scripts he didn't write but instead chose to stick to his own work and came back with the crime drama "Pulp Fiction" (1994), which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won the highest honor at the event. The film would later win a screenplay Oscar and net an additional six nominations, including best picture. 

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