Best Director’s Cuts: 15 Restored Movies

17 March 2021 |Kate Erbland | Indiewire

Best Director’s Cuts: 15 Movies Restored to Their Original Vision, from ‘Cotton Club’ to ‘Blade Runner’

With this week’s release of the long-anticipated “Snyder Cut” of “Justice League,” filmmaker Zack Snyder joins a long, distinguished list of directors who have fought for their final vision to make it to the screen. While Snyder’s path from the so-called “Whedon Cut” of his DCEU film (the theatrically released version of the film, both a box office bomb and a critical disaster) to the nearly four-hour version of his film, hitting both theaters and HBO Max, has been a relatively short (just four years between releases) one, it’s also been one of the most public.

Yet, in many ways, it’s not a new story: for as long as Hollywood has existed, creators have seen their original ideas snipped down, cut up, and presented for ready consumption. Over the decades, many filmmakers have attempted what Snyder has pulled off, often with very different results. Even the entries that appear on this list of best director’s cuts often come with an asterisk: yes, this cut is close to what its creator envisioned; no, it’s still not “perfect.”

In viewing Hollywood’s fraught history of director’s cuts, it’s also important to note that few filmmakers are immune from studio interference, and even heavy-hitters like Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Welles, and George Cukor have entries on this list (Coppola even has two!). Ridley Scott, who also appears on this list, has so many director’s cuts under his belt that those versions have even inspired their own rankings over the years.)

Other talents (typically not white males) have struggled even more to translate their own final visions to the screen. Directors like Charles Burnett and Elaine May both place on this list, but they each had to wait decades for their versions to be available to the public, often in limited fashion. And that’s to say nothing of the many filmmakers whose careers were entirely upended by unapproved versions of their films, from May’s “Ishtar” to Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate.”

Director’s cuts aren’t just curios, they’re part of a long (and often, quite painful) history of studio interventions, lost material, and fighting for a vision. Here are 15 of the best (and, oh yes, definitely complicated) director’s cuts in Hollywood history.

Eric Kohn, Christian Blauvelt, Chris O’Falt, Zack Sharf, and Ryan Lattanzio contributed to this article.

A STAR IS BORN, Judy Garland, 1954

Photo:Everett Collection

“A Star Is Born,” directed by George Cukor

Original release: 1954; director’s cut release: 1983

To be clear: there is still no perfect way to see this restored masterpiece, but the heroic work of a 1980s restoration brought us fairly close to it. After opening weekend, Warner Bros. sliced close to 30 minutes from George Cukor’s “A Star Is Born,” and put the shortened version back into theaters the following week. In addition to scraping two key musical numbers, the film lost some of the nuance and satire in the relationship between two lovers (James Mason and Judy Garland), whose careers were going in opposite directions.  

How Cukor — who actually died the night before the restoration screened in January 1983 — would have felt about the more controversial elements of his so-called “Director’s Cut” is unknown. In addition to two new musical numbers, there are also close to 8 minutes of dramatic scenes where the preservation team only found the soundtrack, not the picture, with the scenes brought to relative life (Ken Burns style) through black and white production stills. While no doubt these would be fascinating bonus features for the DVD, that this is how the fullest version of Cukor’s film lives remains controversial in the cinephile community. —CO

ALMOST FAMOUS, Billy Crudup, Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, 2000, (c)DreamWorks/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo:Everett Collection

“Almost Famous,” directed by Cameron Crowe

Original release: 2000; “The Bootleg Cut” release: 2017

Consider this one somewhat of a rarity: Cameron Crowe’s original “Almost Famous” ranks as one of his best and earned the filmmaker his first (and, for now, only) Oscar, yet even the critically hailed, semi-autobiographical film isn’t exactly indicative of Crowe’s overall vision. Even with an origianl running time of 122 minutes, Crowe was forced to leave plenty of footage on the table for the film’s theatrical release, 40 minutes of which was added back for a Blu-ray-only “Bootleg Cut” made available almost two decades later.

The additional material only deepens the film’s twin obsessions: rock music and the people it binds together. And, yes, that includes more time with William (Patrick Fugit), Russell (Billy Crudup), and Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), plus a nearly 11-minute sequence in which young William makes his mom (Frances McDormand) listen to “Stairway to Heaven” in its entirety (Crowe couldn’t get the rights to the song, and even in the “Bootleg Cut,” viewers are asked to play the song over the scene to capture what the hell is going on).

It’s hard to imagine a more quintessential representation of Crowe’s vision, and while it exists only in this limited version, the spirit of it runs through both the original and Crowe’s ideal take. —KE

APOCALYPSE NOW, Martin Sheen, 1979

Photo:Everett Collection

“Apocalypse Now,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Original release: 1979; “Final Cut” release: 2019

The first time Francis Ford Coppola gave his 1979 masterpiece “Apocalypse Now” a director’s cut, it was for the 2001 release of “Apocalypse Now Redux.” The director worked with the film’s original editor Walter Murch to add 49 minutes of cut footage into the film, including extended scenes with Colonel Kurtz and brand new scenes, such as an extended sequence where the film’s group of soldiers meet French colonists on a remote plantation.

Not all critics fell in love with the extra material, but the bloat that came from adding scenes like the plantation only heightened Coppola’s methodical, slow-burn descent into psychological madness. The “Redux” turns “Apocalypse Now” into a more meandering and more uncertain journey into the heart of darkness, which only boosts the film’s sense of danger.

Then came Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Final Cut” in April 2019, completed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the original theatrical release. With 20 minutes of footage shaved from “Redux” and a 4K restoration added to the visuals, this is the “Apocalypse Now” that Coppola considers the definitive version. —ZS

BLADE RUNNER, Harrison Ford, 1982, (c) Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Photo:Everett Collection

“Blade Runner,” directed by Ridley Scott

Original release: 1982; “The Final Cut” release: 2007

Ridley Scott has given 1982 science-fiction classic “Blade Runner” two new leases on life over the years. The first director’s cut, released with the official “Director’s Cut” subhead, opened in 1992 and ran three minutes longer than the original theatrical release. While Scott provided extensive notes, it was film preservationist Michael Arick who oversaw the changes, which famously included removing Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration and tweaking the ending by putting back in Scott’s unicorn sequence and taking out Warner Bros.’ happy ending.

“The Final Cut,” in which Scott had full creative control, was released in 2007 and ran one minute longer than the “Director’s Cut.” Featuring sound and visual effects restorations, plus the inclusion of the full unicorn dream sequence and more violence, this second director’s cut is widely viewed as the definitive iteration of “Blade Runner.” Warner Bros. cut out violence for the film’s 1982 release, but such moments are integral to Scott’s cold dystopian vision and became essential pieces to his larger scope in “The Final Cut.” —ZS


Photo:Everett Collection

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” directed by Steven Spielberg

Original release: 1977; director’s cut release: 1998

Hot off the smash of “Jaws,” Steven Spielberg had final cut at Columbia Pictures for the 1977 release of his hopeful extraterrestrials-among-us saga “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” But Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn (both of whom received Oscar nominations for the film) wrestled over the ending which, in a re-released 1980 version commissioned by the studio, included Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy actually going inside the UFO mothership.

The end product, lacking in the grandeur and mystery of the original film, left the filmmaker dissatisfied. The scene is also glaringly lacking the scene-stealing François Truffaut as French scientist Claude Lacombe, as the filmmaker was by then unavailable for pickups. 

“’Close Encounters’ was a huge financial success and I told [Columbia] I wanted to make my own director’s cut,” Spielberg said during a “making of” documentary. “They agreed on the condition that I show the inside of the mothership so they could have something to hang a [reissue marketing] campaign on. I never should have shown the inside of the mothership.” 

However, he found redemption by reissuing a definitive director’s cut in 1998, excising that added scene, and combining Spielberg’s favorite elements from the 1977 and 1980 versions for a 137-minute take that doesn’t take us inside a spaceship that only ended up cheapening the awe of everything before it. —RL

Photo:Everett Collection

“The Cotton Club,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Original release: 1984; director’s cut release: 2017

Set in the famed Harlem nightclub of the 1920s and 30s, Francis Ford Coppola’s shooting script was a symmetrically balanced story, centered around two parallel stories of a white (Richard Gere) and Black (Gregory Hines) performer. Through these two leads, the story weaved into each’s love and family life, the white and Black gangsters that controlled the power structures surrounding the club and impacted each’s career, and the segregated nature of the club that presented the best Black entertainers of the era, but had an all-white clientele.

Although Coppola had secured final cut, the ambitious production, like most of the director’s, was a battle, and his “unorthodox” investors threatened to sue and put heavy pressure on him to shorten the film — a message he knew translated to, “There’s too many Black people and there’s too much tap dancing.”

Decades later, Coppola watched an earlier cut of “Cotton Club” that he’d preserved on beta tape, and, with the benefit of hindsight, saw clearly how he had ruined his film. With $500,000, he added back 25 minutes of cut scenes, thus restoring the balance and the dramatic thrust of the film, plus crafting a joyful celebration of the incredible performers. 35 years later, “Cotton Club” went from an ambitious failure to belonging alongside the great Coppola films that immediate proceeded it. —CO

THE DEVILS, from left, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Gothard, 1971

Photo:Everett Collection

“The Devils,” directed by Ken Russell

Original release: 1971; director’s cut release: 2002

Ken Russell served up one of the most uncompromising movies ever made in this historical horror film, so of course British film censors and studio Warner Bros. wanted to compromise it. Based on a real incident in the 1630s in which a witch hunter sent by Cardinal Richelieu ordered a priest burned at the stake after a series of alleged demonic possessions, “The Devils” featured shocking depictions of torture and sex: the accused priest (Oliver Reed) is shown having pins stuck into his tongue, while the nuns who claimed they were possessed by forces from Hell symbolically rape a statue of Christ.

This was never going to pass with anything less than an “X” rating. But it was an effort even to cut it down to that: in Britain, about six minutes of the 117 minute running time were excised, while Warner Bros. trimmed almost 10 minutes for the U.S. release. The full, uncut version was only restored in 2002, thanks to the efforts of UK film critic Mark Kermode, who scoured the Warner Bros. vault for the full negative. —CB

HEAVEN'S GATE, Isabelle Huppert, Kris Kirstofferson, 1980. (c) United Artists/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Photo:Everett Collection

“Heaven’s Gate,” directed by Michael Cimino

Original release: 1980; director’s cut release: 2012

“Heaven’s Gate” is all but considered to be the death knell of studio lassitude for the kind of idiosyncratic, auteur-driven films that made the ‘70s one of the most vital movie decades ever. Transamerica Corporation, which owned United Artists, sold the studio to MGM owner Kirk Kerkorian after an intense flood of negative publicity generated by the Michael Cimino film grossed just $3.5 million against a $44 million budget.

Given the investment involved, the studio put pressure on Cimino to turn around the film as quickly as possible for Oscars consideration in 1980, which was challenging, given that the workprint cut he screened for UA executives was five hours and 25 minutes long. That ultimately wasn’t his director’s cut — the version he more or less preferred screened as a 219-minute cut for one week in New York in the fall of 1980, before being taken out of his hands and whittled down to 149 minutes by the studio for wide release the next year.

The truncated version was incomprehensible to many and deemed an artistic, as well as financial, disaster. But Z Channel, the beloved TV network for cinephiles, screened the 219 minute version in 1982 and labeled it as the “Director’s Cut” of the film — one of the first times the term “Director’s Cut” had been used in order to distinguish a definitive cut from another version of a film.

Regardless of that label, that iteration was still not Cimino’s preferred “Heaven’s Gate.” The one he released as a 216-minute cut via the Criterion Collection in 2012 was the one he endorsed. He even supervised its transfer for the release, and the result was a sweeping reappraisal. In 2015, it even made BBC Culture’s critics poll of the 100 greatest American films of all time, appearing at #98. —CB 

ISHTAR, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, 1987

Photo:Everett Collection

“Ishtar,” directed by Elaine May

Original release: 1987; director’s cut release: 2013

Elaine May’s complicated relationship with Hollywood has taken many turns over the course of her long and lauded career, but none perhaps as notorious as what happened with her “Ishtar.”

After taking a break from directing for nearly a decade, May returned in 1987 with the action-comedy “Ishtar,” starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. While it was arguably her previous film “Mikey and Nicky” that sunk May’s promising film career, “Ishtar” — one of those reviled bombs that actually earned positive reviews and mostly suffered from a botched release and a negative press blitz before it even hit screens — that most people still associate (unfairly) with her screen work.

While there’s been some debate over how much sway May held over the original cut — she originally lensed a staggering 108 hours of raw footage, and the studio scrambled for a releasable version to be ready for a planned Christmas date, which was then still pushed — there’s little doubt this is her film.

Hilariously, a director’s cut that was first shown in 2011 and later released on Blu-ray two years later clocked in at two minutes shorter than the theatrical version. The lesson is a weird one, but still telling: May’s vision is intact, just a little tightened up; the issue was never the film itself or its creator, but how it was presented to an audience already primed to dislike it. Basically: see for yourself, that’s the vision any creator wants to present, the one a willing audience wants to enjoy. —KE


Photo:Everett Collection

“Metropolis,” directed by Fritz Lang

Original release: 1927; director’s cut release: 2010

Perhaps not a case of a Director’s Cut so much as a restoration, as Fritz Lang’s intended version of the film did indeed premiere in Berlin in 1927 (complete with a full symphony orchestra playing an original score live), but what an act of restoration. As has been the case with so many silent films — the vast majority of which are believed to be lost — the original negatives were damaged when being reprocessed for release in other countries. Not to mention that changes to Lang’s original vision were made to suit the interests of different markets.

A lot of detail about the title city’s underworld pleasure district, Yoshiwara, was lost, among other elements of the film (about 30 minutes’ worth) and a decades-long search to find the missing material began. In the 2000s, prints from Argentina and New Zealand were discovered to make up all about five minutes of the missing footage. Kino Lorber released this restoration as “The Complete Metropolis” in 2010. —CB 


“My Brother’s Wedding,” directed by Charles Burnett

Original release: 1983; director’s cut release: 2007

After his seminal 1977 debut “Killer of Sheep,” L.A. Rebellion legend Charles Burnett continued his textured approach to exploring the nuances of underrepresented African American life with the story of Pierce Mundy (Everette Silas), a young man at a fascinating crossroads in life in South Central Los Angeles. While his older brother prepares to marry a snooty woman and his parents judge him for failing to get his act together, Pierce falls back on the messy exploits available to him with his lifelong friend.

The movie assembles a riveting snapshot of a Black identity crisis, though Burnett intended the blend of humor and tragedy to open up his style to a new audience — but he hadn’t finished polishing up that approach when producers forced a 115-minute rough cut to screen at the New York Film Festival, deterring buyers sending the movie careening into distribution limbo.

It wasn’t until 2007, when Burnett shaved off around 30 minutes for a Milestone release, that the full intent of the scrappy project came together. Now clocking in at under 90 minutes, “My Brother’s Wedding” is a sweet, involving slice-of-life dramedy that doesn’t waste a frame. —EK

THE NEW WORLD, Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, 2005, © New Line / courtesy Everett Collection

Photo:Everett Collection

“The New World,” directed by Terrence Malick

Original release: 2005; director’s cut release: 2006

There are three known versions of Terrence Malick’s epic poem about the founding of Jamestown, based on the stories of such historical icons as Pocahontas and John Smith. Malick is notorious for his meandering approach to material, and for tinkering in the edit until the end of time, but an extended cut of 2005’s “The New World” that runs a whopping 170-plus minutes offers something like redemption for fans and for the filmmaker. That’s because Malick compiled this version without studio influence from distributor New Line. 

Originally, a 150-minute version of the film was released for awards consideration over Christmas before a 135-minute cut rolled out in theaters in early 2006. Malick wasn’t satisfied with either.

His more indulgent, 172-minute “New World” emits that dreamy, grandiose aura that can only ever come from a Terrence Malick movie. And it offers plenty more of the movie’s painstaking period costumes and lush art direction. But Christopher Plummer, who played Captain Christopher Newport, begged to differ when he said that Malick “edits his films in such a way where he cuts everybody out of the story, Terry gets terribly involved in poetic shots… which are gorgeous, but they’re paintings. All of them. He gets lost in that, and the stories get diffused, particularly in our film.” —RL

RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, from left: Skeet Ulrich, Jewel, Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, 1999, © USA Films/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo:Everett Collection

“Ride with the Devil,” directed by Ang Lee

Original release: 1999; director’s cut release: 2010

The eclecticism of the first half of Ang Lee’s career really can’t be celebrated enough: somehow, after making a delicate cross-cultural story of gay love in “The Wedding Banquet,” delivering a fantastic slice of food porn in “Eat Drink Man Woman,” reinventing Jane Austen for the big screen in “Sense and Sensibility,” and tackling suburban ennui in “The Ice Storm,” the Taiwanese filmmaker then set his sights on the American Civil War.

Universal’s 138-minute cut of “Ride with the Devil” felt oddly truncated to many viewers, though. The film was praised for its historical accuracy but criticized for being a tad inert. So for his Director’s Cut, released by the Criterion Collection in 2010, Lee didn’t just add more footage (10 minutes’ worth), he rearranged part of what he already had. The result was much more cinematically arresting.

Plus, with the perspective of hindsight, “Ride with the Devil” became an essential film to get a glimpse of Tobey Maguire, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and James Caviezel as they just were starting out. And it retained its unique accuracy, particularly in the rhythms of Civil War combat: that soldiers would sometimes take months off at a time during the winter, only to resume their battles in the spring. —CB 


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