Every Movie That Won the Best Director Oscar and Nothing Else

In light of the recent 2024 Oscar nominations, the history of the Academy Awards, particularly their wins and nominations throughout the years, has regained relevance. There’s one award in particular which is among the most coveted in the film industry: Best Director, for the filmmaker who shows the most artistic prowess in a particular year. Most often, this award goes hand in hand with multiple others (typically Best Picture, though definitely not always). On certain rare occasions, however, a director has been the sole Oscar winner for their movie.

A film winning the Best Director award and nothing more is certainly not common, but it’s fascinating when it does happen. From iconic classics like George Stevens‘s Giant, to the most recent case of this instance, Jane Campion‘s The Power of the Dog, these are movies that prove that pretty much anything can happen at Hollywood’s most prestigious night of the year.

8 ‘Two Arabian Knights’ (1927)

Directed by Lewis Milestone

On the very first Academy Awards, held in July of 1928, the movie that won the Best Directing (Comedy Picture) category was not only not nominated for Best Picture, but actually not nominated for any other award. It was Lewis Milestone that won this Oscar for Two Arabian Knights, a silent comedy about two American soldiers fighting to escape the Germans during World War I, while quarreling over a beautiful young woman.

For the second Academy Awards, the Best Directing categories were merged, making Milestone the sole winner of this award. It couldn’t have been a more deserving film, either: Two Arabian Knights is one of the most underrated silent comedies of all time, with a sense of suspense and adventure that’s refreshing for films of the era. This is, quite appropriately, a milestone in the history of the Academy Awards.

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7 ‘The Divine Lady’ (1929)

Directed by Frank Lloyd

Image via Warner Bros.

The second Academy Awards were held in 1930, and there were just as many interesting surprises as there were during its predecessor. It was the only time when not a single film won more than one Oscar (the Best Picture recipient, The Broadway Melody, being among the least-liked winners of the award), including The Divine Lady‘s lonely Best Director win for Frank Lloyd, one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that gives out the Oscars.

The Divine Lady, the tale of a romance between two women and a British war hero, has faded into relative obscurity, and those who have seen it tend to think that it’s not such a tragedy. It’s a pretty serviceable silent romance with a great performance by Corine Griffith (who was nominated for Best Actress, one of the two nominations that the movie got aside from Best Director), and Lloyd’s direction is certainly very impressive for the period. However, there’s a reason why this is the only movie in Oscars history that won Best Director without a Best Picture nomination. Its melodrama is stilted, its tone is rather dull, and its main redeeming qualities are only its striking battle sequences and Griffith’s performance.

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6 ‘Skippy’ (1931)

Directed by Norman Taurog

Jackie Cooper and Robert Coogan on Skippy
Image via Paramount

To this day, Jackie Cooper is the youngest Best Actor Oscar nominee of all time at 9 years of age. However, that’s not the only notable Oscar nomination that Skippy, a comedy about the mischievous son of a wealthy doctor trying to save a friend’s pet from a cruel dogcatcher, can brag about having. Of the four categories it received a nod in at the 4th Academy Awards, it only won one: Best Director for Norman Taurog, who for a long time was the youngest-ever recipient of the award at 32 years and 260 days old, before Damien Chazelle took the record in 2017 (at 32 years and 39 days old) with his win for La La Land.

Skippy is a charming, sweet, and amusing classic family movie based on the highly popular comic strip of the same title. Taurog’s grasp on the childlike feeling of wonder and innocence is admirable, resulting in one of the most enjoyable and sadly underrated comedies of the time. Cooper is the one who really sells the film, but the director laid some really strong foundations for him to do that.

Editor’s Note: Not available for streaming or purchase.



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5 ‘Mr. Deed Goes to Town’ (1936)

Directed by Frank Capra

Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town - 1936
Image via Columbia Pictures Corporation

Not to be confused with the Adam Sandler remake whose inexplicable existence is better left ignored, Mr. Deed Goes to Town was one of the first comedies made after the enforcement of the Hays Code. This, however, in no way diminished this delightful screwball comedy about an unassuming greeting card poet from small-town Vermont, who goes to New York upon inheriting a massive fortune and is immediately hounded by those who want to take advantage of him. The movie received five Oscar nominations at the 9th Academy Awards, but its only win was for Frank Capra as Best Director.

Capra is an icon, one of the filmmakers who defined Hollywood’s Golden Age. His hilarious yet elegant style is in full force in Mr. Deed Goes to Town, a hilarious satire with some genuinely interesting things to say about wealth and corruption. Gary Cooper delivers a terrific performance, but it’s mainly Capra’s masterful way of conveying his vision and making it thoroughly entertaining that makes this a must-watch, proving it worthy of its only Oscar win.

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4 ‘The Awful Truth’ (1937)

Directed by Leo McCarey

a woman speaking on the phone next to a man in a suit, black and white
Image via Columbia Pictures

In the screwball rom-com The Awful Truth, a married couple file an amicable divorce, but find it much harder to let go of each other than they initially thought. It’s a simple enough premise, but with the charm of Irene Dunne (who got an Oscar nomination for her performance) and the legendary Cary Grant, as well as with the naturally humorous direction of Leo McCarey, you get one of the best in its genre from this period. Only one year after the phenomenon had last occurred, it was once again the case at the 10th Academy Awards that the Best Director recipient won nothing else. Even yet, McCarey certainly had it well deserved, giving his movie the only Oscar of the five it was nominated for.

This is one of Cary Grant’s best movies, but he’s not the main attraction here. Dunne’s performance elevates The Awful Truth to iconic status. Dunne simply steals the show as she is simultaneously hilarious and entirely believable. That’s also largely thanks to McCarey, who achieves the perfect balance between hilarious farce and emotional romance, having loads of fun examining marriage and human connections while also providing some nuanced, surprisingly complex discussions on the matter.

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3 ‘Giant’ (1956)

Directed by George Stevens

James Dean in a cowboy hat smoking a cigarette
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

It would take a long time before a movie won only the Best Director Oscar again. Whereas before it had usually happened with comedies, at the 29th Academy Awards it happened with the grand, sprawling Western epic that is Giant. The story unfolds across two generations, following the family of a Texas cattle rancher and their rivalry with cowboy and oil tycoon Jett Rink. Though it was nominated for a whopping ten Oscars, George Stevens‘s Best Director win was its only victory, and a well-deserved one, at that.

Giant is a massive film, visually striking and with a slow pace that really lets all its plot elements and characters simmer, resulting in a riveting narrative about generational conflicts, social change, and progress. It was the last of James Dean‘s three feature films, as he was tragically killed in a car crash before the movie’s release. Its legacy lives on as not only the swan song of a cinema legend, but as a magnificently made and beautifully directed picture in its own right, certainly one of the best of the 1950s.

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2 ‘The Graduate’ (1967)

Directed by Mike Nichols

Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin looking at a woman's leg in front of him in The Graduate
Image via Embassy Pictures

A seminal romantic dramedy that helped define the American New Wave, one of the most important film movements in cinema’s history, The Graduate is about a disillusioned college student who finds himself in the limbo between adulthood and teenagehood, which manifests as him being torn between his older lover and her daughter. The result is one of the most quotable, engaging, profoundly human comedies ever put to film, which won only the Best Director award for Mike Nichols of the seven it was nominated for at the 40th Academy Awards.

The Graduate finds humor in growing up, in twisting and subverting the typical rom-com and coming-of-age genre tropes, in exploring the anxious and aimless personality of its protagonist as he moves through a situation he definitely can’t handle. And yet, Nichols prevents the film from just feeling like a caricature. It’s a movie full of emotion and deep philosophical themes, with three outstanding lead performances by Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katherine Ross all at the top of their game.

The Graduate

Anne Bancroft , Dustin Hoffman , Katharine Ross , William Daniels , Murray Hamilton , Elizabeth Wilson

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1 ‘The Power of the Dog’ (2021)

Directed by Jane Campion

George and Rose holding teacups and looking to the distance in the open field in 'The Power of the Dog'
Image via Netflix

It took over half a century for this rare Oscars’ phenomenon to occur again. In 2021, the same The Power of the Dog that spent the entire awards race being the frontrunner for Hollywood’s biggest award ended up only winning Best Director. The tremendously acclaimed Jane Campion directs this subversive Western about a charismatic rancher who inspires fear in those around him, but when his brother brings home a new wife and her son, he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love as he endlessly torments them.

Campion’s latest film is a profoundly nuanced meditation on masculinity as it relates to notions of power and aggression, as well as a complex depiction of themes of sexuality and insecurity. It’s an enthralling psychological drama with an incredible ensemble, directed by a Campion in full dominance of her craft. Even if her Oscar win was the picture’s only victory, it will nevertheless live on as one of the best character studies of the 21st century.

power of the dog poster
The Power of the Dog
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NEXT:Every Best Picture Winner of the 2000s, Ranked


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