Best Director’s Cuts of All Time

Last Updated on March 11, 2022

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The best director’s cuts of all time actually come from a relatively small list. It’s one thing for a director to actually get a film produced, shot and finished; let alone getting another bite at the apple when the initial theatrical cut doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Studio interference is often to blame for ‘lame-duck’ theatrical cuts, usually in response to test screenings that judge the effectiveness of a motion picture on the opinions of a random assortment of people off the street (many of whom are extremely casual movie-goers).

Once in a blue moon, a director gets to re-cut their movie, usually resulting in a longer, more nuanced version of the story they actually wanted to tell. There have been more than a few of these exercises in artistic expression, and there are a good amount of them more than worth your time. Very soon we’ll be getting Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the director’s opportunity to finish the movie he started until the tragic passing of his daughter forced him off the project. While you wait for the bombastic, moody director’s four-hour epic, here’s a rundown of the best director’s cuts of all time, to whet your appetite.  And – make sure to let us know below which director’s cut move is your absolute fave!

The Lord of the Rings – Extended Editions

So you want to adapt an almost 600,000 word trilogy of beloved fantasy novels? Do you think you can achieve it in three movies with a combined runtime of just over nine hours? Or would you want an extra hour and forty-five minutes? Peter Jackson – much to the pleasure of The Lord of the Rings fans everywhere – ultimately pushed for the latter. The extended editions of The Fellowship of the RingThe Two Towers and The Return of the King allow for not only a more accurate adaptation of the beloved source material by JRR Tolkien, but a more complete motion picture experience.

It’ll completely write off a day to watch them all in one sitting, but by gum you might have the most perfect cinematic fantasy experience of your life. The theatrical cuts of the respective Lord of the Rings movies are great; the extended editions are damn near perfect. From Galadriel’s gifts to Saruman’s demise, true fans won’t want to miss the Extended Editions, but then again true fans will already have borne witness to the greatness of three of the best director’s cuts of all time.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

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One of the earliest examples of a director’s cut being done well, Blade Runner changed the game. Ridley Scott made a mind-bending sci-fi pic that blew people away in 1982. Although well-received by those who saw it, Blade Runner was actually a box office bomb. Teasing the idea that Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard was a replicant – just like those he was chasing – this idea wasn’t followed through on until the eventual director’s cut. In the original, financiers demanded that Blade Runner have narration from Ford that expounded the elements of the plot they felt were harder to grasp for Joe Q. Public. The narration ended up having the opposite effect, widely derided to this day.

Ridley Scott never got over his vision being tampered with, and all these decades later audiences have received no less than seven different versions of Blade Runner. Scott, after much finagling with the studio, managed to release his ‘Final Cut’ in 2007, 25 years after its original release. There’s more evidence to support Deckard being a replicant, there’s no narration and there’s no studio-mandated happy ending. Just the way the fans like it. Blade Runner: The Final Cut is potentially the greatest director’s cut of all time.

Kingdom of Heaven: Ultimate Edition

Ridley Scott’s second appearance on this list says something about the legendary British director; perhaps that he’s better left to his own devices, not having his work chopped apart and scaled back by quote-unquote creative executives. Scott’s crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, for all the money it cost ($130 million), landed with a thud in 2005. Part of the criticism levied at Kingdom of Heaven derives from the scope of its story being jammed into two hours and fifteen minutes; which might seem like a lot, but when you consider that the studio cut fifty minutes of footage out, and you start to get the idea that you’re missing a huge chunk of the story.

With the cut footage restored in the director’s cut, Kingdom of Heaven becomes a complete movie. Most importantly, the main character of the story – the young knight Bailan (Orlando Bloom) – gets more of his backstory explained and his motivation for even embarking on the Crusades rounded out. Without, the theatrical cut fails to make a compelling link between audience and character. The restoration of this attachment and understanding of Bailan elevates Kindom of Heaven to being one of the greatest director’s cuts of all time.

Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut

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If like most people you were confused as hell by cult classic Donnie Darko, the director’s cut goes a long way to revealing the inner workings of the plot – which I guarantee will have passed you by in the theatrical cut. The more complicated elements of the time travel/alternate universe plot points are expounded upon and explained. Some might accuse the director’s cut of doing too much ‘handholding’ for the audience, but some audience members dislike ambiguity and prefer the assist. You can decide for yourself, as and when you choose to watch one of the best director’s cuts of all time; Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut.

Daredevil: Director’s Cut

Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil is a fun slice of mid-2000s superhero fun that tries to turn the Man Without Fear into an edgelord version of Spider-Man (largely thanks to the success of the Sam Raimi movies). Ben Affleck is more than fine as Matt Murdock, while Jennifer Garner gives good action stunts as a whitewashed Elektra Natchios. Most people tend to look down on this almost-campy iteration of Daredevil, with its soft rock soundtrack and bald Colin Farrell, but the movie holds a place in the hearts of some fans. A lot of that is because of its director’s cut.

The director’s cut of Daredevil includes an extricated subplot featuring Coolio as one of Matt Murdock’s legal clients; more of the friendship and camraderie between Murdock and Foggy Nelson (a pitch-perfect Jon Favreau); more of Matt’s relationship with his father and a larger insight into his faith. Oh yeah, and it’s a bunch more violent, if you’re into that kind of thing. If you wrote off the MSJ Daredevil as a pale Spider-Man ripoff, give the director’s cut a chance; you may just wind up thinking it’s one of the best director’s cuts of all time.

I Am Legend: Director’s Cut

Based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson, the Will Smith-starring dystopian movie had its theatrical cut reduced to a so-so sort-of zombie movie where Smith’s character helps ferry Alice Braga to a settlement of survivors with a potential cure for the virus that’s changed so many people around the planet. This, however, completely misses the point of the original novel.

The original cut of I Am Legend preserved the core concept of the novel; that Smith’s character, for all his abduction and experimentation of the creatures which mankind have turned into, is actually the ‘legend’ of the title. He is the thing that goes bump in the night for this newly-evolved species; who have developed a community and bonds of their own. He is the thing standing in their way, not the other way around. These creatures only pursue him because he continues to kidnap them. This ironic and heartbreaking realization is restored in the I Am Legend director’s cut, elevating it to one of the best director’s cuts of all time. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime in the U.S.

Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut

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Sergio Leone’s 1984 New York gangster epic was cut down from a whopping four hours and change (from what was actually eight to ten hours of footage) to around half that amount when it hit U.S. theater screens. The cut so broke Leone’s heart that he didn’t make another movie until his death in 1989. In 2014, Warner Bros released the restored four hour and eleven minute version known as the Extended Director’s Cut, and the result – like with many of the director’s cuts on this list – is a more complete story that provides deeper understanding of the main characters, Noodles and Max (Robert de Niro and James Woods, respectively). Anything less than the four-hour version fails to be a complete movie, earning the Once Upon a Time in America Extended Director’s Cut a spot on the list of best director’s cuts of all time.

Apocalypse Now Redux

In 2001, Francis Ford Coppola returned his ponderous Vietnam war picture to iron out his vision, which obviously plagued him from the day of the film’s release in 1979. Restoring much “lost” footage with help from the returning editor Walter Murch and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Apocalypse Now Redux is often regarded as an improvement of an already near-perfect movie. 49 additional minutes help Coppola finish the work of art he felt was incomplete with the theatrical cut. Apocalypse Now Redux has already gone down in history, and rightfully so.

The Hateful Eight: Extended Version (Netflix)

For all of Quentin Tarantino’s love of cinema, of filming on celluloid, of preserving the theatrical experience of classic movies – right down to purchasing and curating the New Beverley Cinema in Los Angeles – it was surprising then that he went to Netflix with an Extended Version of The Hateful Eight… this time, presented as a four-part miniseries. Re-edited with the help of Fred Raskin, Tarantino says that the new cut gives the film a different “feeling”, but offered little additional explanation. In the age of streaming and binging shows and miniseries, The Hateful Eight: Extended Version has carved its own little niche. Whether you prefer it to the theatrical cut or not is entirely up to you.

Almost Famous: Untitled

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Cameron Crowe’s seminal film about the “death rattle” of the rock-and-roll scene in ear;y 1970s America, seen through the eyes of an idyllic young wannabe rock journo based on Crowe himself is damn near perfect; many fans like myself reckon you can omit the “near” from that sentence, too. But Crowe expounds, expands and improves upon his 2000 classic.

Intended as an ode to the bootleg records of his youth, Almost Famous: Untitled adds almost 40 minutes of additional footage, which don’t add much of anything apart from flavor. One of the best elements of Almost Famous is its ability to transplant you to a time, place and culture that you might be 100% removed from, but welcomes you with open arms. The extra 40 minutes or so add to that feeling, just letting you bask in this world for a little while longer.

Also included is the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ scene which Crowe couldn’t include because he couldn’t license the song, but he helpfully tells you when to press play on your own copy in sync with the movie. Come for the extra footage, and stay for the insightful commentary where he gets his mother to talk with him – the same woman whom the amazing Frances McDormand plays a facsimile of in the film.

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

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Richard Donner’s two Superman movies were famously filmed back-to-back to save money, but when Donner clashed with Warner Bros. on the direction of the second movie, he was sadly removed and replaced by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night). Lester filled the movie with more campy humor, to the chagrin of fans everywhere. Thankfully, Donner was able to return to the movie and restore most of his original version, creating a more well-received and darker (more realistic?) take on the Man on Steel, known as ‘The Richard Donner Cut’. The seeds of Zack Snyder’s Justice League were planted here, and Richard Donner deserves his place on every list of the best director’s cuts of all time.


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