Ridley Scott, a master of film noir direction, created a masterpiece with his version of Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" -- Blade Runner. This film is one of my top 5 favorites; the visuals and music (it took 12 YEARS for Vangelis to put out an OST album) are mind- blowing. I first saw this film in Dallas in 1982; it was a screening called the 'test release' which is now well-known as the 'Director's Cut'. This film marks the first time I ever sat stunned in a theatre for 10 minutes after the end of the film. (Rutger Hauer's self-redeeming scene at the end was something I was not prepared for, and it was a key educational tool in my learning how to create self-redeeming characters. I know a lot about the composition of this film, talk to me about it on IRC sometime.)
Stanley Kubrick has the best natural sense of visual symbology of the the group. His visual illustrations in Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange (to name a few) are unmatched in cinema. His collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke created another of my top 5 films: 2001, A Space Odyessy. The use of geometric shapes coupled with the stark, realistic look of objects in space creates a texture that has to be, well, absorbed to be understood. The film itself moves slowly, but Kubrick's goal was to let the little details seep into the unconscious and let the story unfold at that subliminal level. In 2001, he also gave us the single greatest cinematic scene cut in film history. You can figure out what it is.
The best director in terms of cinematography is John Boorman. His films illustrate the strength of a story as supported by convincing location work. For instance, in his film Excalibur, the scenery is so convincing that it is easy to forget this particular page in the history of England never really happened. Other films, like his visually impressive Zardoz or Emerald Forest further show this attention to cinematography--he takes us there and manages to make us believe in these places.
Of my group of preferred directors, the one with the most lyrical storytelling ability is Phil Alden Robinson. It is almost impossible to describe 'how' something like Field of Dreams manages to work; all I can say is that he manages to create a story that makes no logical sense at all but makes perfect sense to the heart. This film was the second time I ever sat for 10 minutes afterward, stunned--it is another of my top five films.