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7 best director’s cuts, ranked

A man points a gun in Blade Runner.
Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

For most movies, the only cut that we get the chance to see is the one that’s released in theaters. Sometimes, a Blu-ray release will include some deleted scenes, but it’s rare for those scenes to be reintegrated into the film. On some rare occasions, though, we get a chance to see what a director would have done with a movie if they had been granted final cut. Usually, these director’s cuts come from some of the best directors ever to work in Hollywood, and they’re sometimes even directorial debuts.

Sometimes, these director’s cuts aren’t that different from the theatrical versions, or it turns out that those cuts are actually worse than the ones we saw in theaters. Other times, though, we get cuts that are genuine improvements on the original film. We’ve compiled seven of the best director’s cuts that ever saw the light of day for this list and ranked them below.

7. I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend (2007) Official Trailer #1 - Sci-Fi Thriller

Usually, test audiences give you a sense of whether the movie you’ve been working on is in good shape or not. Sometimes, as was the case with I Am Legend, they can lead you astray. Director Francis Lawrence’s original vision for the film was for it to end on something of a twist.

Will Smith’s survivor was meant to discover that the zombies he had been hunting for the duration of the film were more intelligent than he imagined, and that to them, he was a terrifying threat to their survival. Instead, he simply sacrifices himself to save his newfound family, a cop-out ending that robs us of an understanding of why the movie is even called I Am Legend. Thankfully, you can now watch the correct ending on YouTube.

6. Justice League (2017)

Ah, The Snyder Cut. This may be the most divisive director’s cut in the history of cinema, and it honestly stretches the definition of the term. Most of the time, directors are working with footage that was already shot when they release their own edits of the film.

In this case, though, Snyder was given the resources to make a version of Justice League that was closer to his actual vision for the project, which he stepped away from early because of a personal tragedy. The Snyder Cut is almost undeniably better than the theatrically released version of Justice League. Whether that means it’s good or not is up to the viewer.

5. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now | Official Trailer

Francis Ford Coppola is one of those directors who may never be done tinkering with his movies, and, that tinkering is often all for the better. Apocalypse Now was famously a difficult shoot, and it polarized critics when it arrived in theaters.

In 2001, Coppola introduced an alternate version, Apocalypse Now Redux, that added more than 40 minutes of new footage, offering additional shading on certain scenes and adding more humanity to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Coppola tinkered again in 2019, introducing the Final Cut, which trimmed 11 minutes off of the Redux, and it is now seen by most fans as the definitive, 182-minute version of this masterpiece.

4. Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

James Cameron’s instincts to cut a movie down to the right length are usually correct, but in the case of Aliens, there’s more debate over the footage that Cameron left out of the theatrical version.

The director’s cut runs an additional 17 minutes, and almost all of the additional scenes are quieter character moments, including one where Ripley finds out about the death of her daughter, and another where we see what Newt’s life was like before the xenomorphs descended. While some people think that the theatrical cut is tighter and more suspenseful, others prefer the additional emotional context that these scenes provide.

3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001) Official Trailer #1 - Ian McKellen Movie HD

The Lord of the Rings movies were already good enough to be box office smashes and Oscar juggernauts, but many true fans of the series swear by the extended editions. Each of the three movies gets at least 20 minutes of additional footage, and if you’re the kind of person who loves the books, they’ve long since eclipsed the cuts that were released in theaters.

This additional footage does slow the pace down a bit, but they also add so much richness to the films. You get to see Saruman’s death, learn more about Hobbiton and Faramir, and view a scene with the Mouth of Sauron, among other treasures.

2. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Once Upon a Time in America Trailer

Maybe the movie on this list that was messed with the most, Once Upon a Time in America premiered at 269 minutes to a rapturous audience at Cannes, but was eventually butchered down to just over two hours for its release in the U.S. That version of the film earned a pretty tepid response, and much of the missing footage was eventually restored for a 251-minute extended director’s cut that was released in 2012.

The extended version may not be quite as long as the Cannes edition, but it at least features a story that’s intact, and includes all of the elements that made the film be called a masterpiece when it premiered in France.

1. Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (1982) Official Trailer - Ridley Scott, Harrison Ford Movie

This is a case where the director’s cut is just better, and there’s really no way around it. In another case of test screenings screwing things up, voice-over was added to the theatrical cut of Blade Runner following some audience confusion, and the movie also gets a forced happy ending.

A director’s cut was released a decade later that Ridley Scott still didn’t have full control over, and Scott’s ultimate cut is treated as the definitive one today. It cuts the voice-over and the happy ending, and also includes the unicorn dream that is so central to the movie’s defining question: Is Deckard, a replicant hunter, actually a replicant himself?

Editors' Recommendations

Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.

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