It can be argued that every film is a fantasy one, in a way. Everything shown on-screen is recreated artificially for the purposes of making a film, and outside the documentary genre, the lack of reality is just the way it is, or arguably its own reality. Films replicate and reproduce truths, whether it be recounting a true story or conveying true-to-life emotions, but even realistic movies are their own kind of fantasy.
Going one step further, some films fall into either the science-fiction or fantasy genres, and will present unusual worlds, sights, or experiences within the already semi-fantastical worlds that exist because films do. Both these genres are appealing to filmmakers who want to stretch their imaginations and do something unlike anything else in real life, but not all acclaimed filmmakers like to work within such genres. What follows are some well-known directors who, to this date, have never made a movie that’s classifiable as fantasy or science-fiction (at least according to genre tags on Letterboxd).
10 Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese has been a staple of American cinema for well over 50 years at this point. He first rose to prominence in the 1970s, thanks to gritty crime dramas like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), and is a beloved filmmaker due to his unique style, his empathetic approach towards challenging, flawed characters, and his knack for choosing great music for his soundtracks.
He’s tackled a variety of genres, most notably crime, but also has proven adept at making historical dramas, comedies, and even horror/thriller movies, as was the case with 1991’s Cape Fear. He’s never made something clearly identifiable as a sci-fi or fantasy movie though, with perhaps the somewhat fantastical Hugo (2011) being the closest he has to the latter.
9 Alfred Hitchcock
Few directors are as closely associated with the psychological thriller genre as Alfred Hitchcock was, whose perfectionist tendencies enabled him to make numerous classics within the genre. He could get viewers’ hearts racing with films like Vertigo, Rope, and Rear Window, and also proved to be a master of horror movies (The Birds and Psycho) and comedies, thanks to his dark sense of humor.
It’s surprising that in a career with approximately 60 directorial credits to his name, Hitchcock didn’t make anything that belongs in either the sci-fi or fantasy genre. He seemed most concerned with getting inside the minds of his characters, and exploring what made them tick while they went on high-stakes adventures that took place in heightened realities partly comparable to the real world.
8 Spike Lee
Spike Lee has been a prolific filmmaker since the mid-1980s, and has made numerous classics during that time. He directs more than one title a year on average, and proves able to fluctuate between feature film directing and making documentaries.
His films often tackle real-world issues, particularly around racial topics, and sometimes his approach is satirical and funny, while at other times his films have a more serious tone. He’s managed to go as far as directing a war movie (Da 5 Bloods) and a heist movie (Inside Man), but still hasn’t made anything that’s clearly designated as a sci-fi or fantasy film.
7 Quentin Tarantino
It’s fair to say that Quentin Tarantino’s films exist in their own reality. That reality is tied together by certain Easter eggs (like the Red Apple cigarette brand that appears in multiple films of his), and the world of Tarantino is also identifiable as one that’s perhaps even more violent and deadly for its inhabitants than the real world.
Though something like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood deliberately recalls certain fairytale tropes, and something like Kill Bill Vol. 1 is so violent and cartoonish it’s clearly divorced from reality, none of his films can be considered true fantasy movies. Similarly, none could even charitably be called science-fiction movies, and it’s safe to assume that his upcoming (supposedly final) film The Movie Critic won’t be either.
6 Damien Chazelle
Damien Chazelle has only made five feature films in his career so far, but they’ve generally all been very exciting and ambitious. He’s clearly a director with a passion for music (especially jazz), with Whiplash, La La Land, and parts of his most recent film, Babylon, all demonstrating this well.
His films are sometimes romantic, sometimes tragic, and sometimes funny, and even an unexpected title like 2018’s First Man was quite good. He’s never fully embraced the sci-fi or fantasy genres completely, but there are certainly fantastical elements to the dreamy final sequence of La La Land, and time will tell whether the still-young director makes a full-blown sci-fi or fantasy film eventually.
5 Sergio Leone
Unfortunately, Sergio Leone only made seven films in his entire directing career, with five of them coming out in the 1960s (and four of those were Westerns). He had another Western in the early 1970s with Duck, You Sucker, and then his final film came out in 1984: the sprawling and haunting crime epic, Once Upon a Time in America.
He’ll likely always be known for his Westerns, but it’s important to note he ended his career with a crime film, and began it in 1961 with the fairly obscure The Colossus of Rhodes, a historical drama/adventure movie. The brevity of his career means it’s hard to know whether he never had an interest in sci-fi or fantasy, or might have made one had he lived longer (he was only 60 when he passed away in 1989).
4 Bob Fosse
A master of making dark, gritty musicals, Bob Fosse only directed five feature films and a one-off TV special during his film career, but all stand as genuine classics or underrated gems. His style is best seen in either 1972’s Cabaret or 1979’s All That Jazz, which are undoubtedly up there as two of the very best musicals of the 1970s.
His character-focused dramas (like Star 80 and Lenny) are also very striking and memorable, and High Charity – though a little lighter than his best-known musicals – is still very solid overall. He never made a sci-fi film, and the most fantastical he got was probably the finale of All That Jazz, which largely takes place inside the mind of the film’s protagonist.
3 Sam Peckinpah
Few directors in the 1960s and 1970s knew how to make Westerns that were as gritty and action-packed as Sam Peckinpah did. His crowning achievement according to most is likely to be 1969’s The Wild Bunch, though other Westerns like 1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) are also very good.
Beyond the Western genre, he was also skilled at making contemporary thrillers like The Getaway and Straw Dogs, and even made a powerful war film with Cross of Iron in 1977. He’s not the kind of director who you’d ever expect to find wading his way into the sci-fi or fantasy genres, and indeed, among the dozen or so features he ever directed, none ever got fantastical or futuristic.
2 Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader’s well known for making films that are intensely psychological and/or very dark and gritty. He’s perhaps best known as a screenwriter, given he was involved in writing fantastic films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but has also had a remarkable career as a director, and has directed more than 20 films since the late 1970s.
Something like 1985’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters certainly has surreal moments and scenes that feel like they take place outside of reality, but it still remains a biopic and not a fantasy film. He’s never tackled that genre or sci-fi in any other ways either, and seems content with mostly focusing on crime films, psychological thrillers, and occasionally horror (as seen with 1982’s Cat People).
1 The Coen Brothers
Surprisingly, The Coen Brothers have made about 20 films over almost 40 years, and haven’t once made a clear example of a sci-fi or fantasy movie. That being said, they’re like Tarantino in that their films often seem to take place in a heightened reality or a world not quite like the real one, but not to the extent that it feels like a completely fantastical or alien one.
Their films are characterized by cruel twists of fate, dark comedy, genuinely gripping suspense, and sometimes larger-than-life characters, but things never quite stray too far into being otherworldly. It doesn’t feel completely implausible that they’ll eventually make something that feels like a fantasy film (sci-fi seems less likely), but only time will tell.
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