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The 10 Most Innovative Filmmakers Working Today

08 June 2014 | Features, People Lists, test | by Sumner Forbes

innovative filmmakers

Cinema is well over a century old now and we have been blessed to experience the films of several masters over this time period. Breaking new ground was relatively natural in the early parts of the past century because of the relative youth of the art form. While cinema is still much younger than the traditional fine arts, it has become more difficult for filmmakers to distinguish themselves from their predecessors (CGI and modern technology notwithstanding).

Most aspiring filmmakers recognize and acknowledge their influences; they also want to be identified as unique artists who aren’t relying too heavily upon the practices of those who came before. This list of 10 filmmakers is just a few of the artists who are succeeding in that regard. Most of these directors are well known, but a few are up-and-comers in the industry.

It should be noted that this list is not all-inclusive by any means. There are a vast number of original filmmakers who are not listed here for the purpose of brevity. Also, innovation is not synonymous with quality. Some of these filmmakers bit off more than they could chew on some of their projects and made poor films, even if they were innovative in their construction.

 

10. Darren Aronofsky

Darren-Aronofsky

Aronofsky is on the short list of filmmakers who are hard to categorize, as his films tend to be quite distinct from each other. In 1998, he made waves with his feature-length debut Pi, a taut 84-minute film that tells the story of a partially insane mathematician who believes the world and its activity can be explained through patterns of numbers.

While Pi was certainly an eye-opening film to many filmgoers, Aronofsky truly broke out with Requiem For a Dream in 2000. The film benefited from spectacular performances (especially Ellen Burstyn as an elderly woman obsessed with infomercials), great editing, and of course superb direction from Aronofsky. His innovative screenplay combined with his brilliant use of cutting (especially in the film’s final act), helped elevate the film into one of the most memorable films of the 2000s.

His next film, The Fountain (2006), is seemingly a meditation on the cycle of life, death and the passing of time as it follows a doctor desperately trying to save his wife from a brain tumor. The film was not received as well as his previous efforts, though much of Aronofsky’s ambitions were praised. The film makes for an interesting viewing because of the film’s nontraditional narrative and impressive use of different filmmaking techniques including frequent match cutting. In recent years, the film has seen a resurgence in popular appeal, so perhaps the film will be regarded more highly in the future.

In 2008, The Wrestler marked a distinct departure from his previous work. Inherently a character study of a professional wrestler named Randy, ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke in perhaps his best role), Aronofsky brilliantly eschews the stylistic visuals associated with his previous successes and instead lets Rourke carry the film with his heartbreaking performance. The film is an excellent character study and is also a rare glimpse into the world of professional wrestling.

Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan (2010) was a worthy successor (or companion piece) to The Wrestler and also a return to the more visually and narratively challenging themes introduced in Aronofsky’s earlier work. Natalie Portman’s portrayal of an overworked and desperate ballet dancer is remarkable and is probably her best performance. Aronofsky was inspired by Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, The Double, among others.

Like The Wrestler, the film was shot using Super 16 which gives the film a realist / documentary visual style vice the 35mm film more commonly used on other big budget films. Ironically, the grainer Super 16 film allows the effects-laden sequences in the film to feel more organic and thus more believable for the audience.

Aronosky’s latest film, Noah (2014), is his most ambitious project to date. The film is a retelling of Noah’s portion of the Old Testament and is a project that Aronofsky had always dreamed of. Noah’s place in the actual scripture is rather minimal, so Aronofsky inevitably had to take some artistic liberties with the story and characters. Public and critical reception was surprisingly positive considering that films of the Bible are bound to attract controversy. While not as innovative as most of his earlier films, the film is structurally sound (not unlike the Ark itself) and is driven by strong performances and impressive special effects.

Noah leaves cineastes wondering if Aronofsky will continue pushing the envelope or become more comfortable working on high budget projects. Either way, the past 15 years have been quite the ride.

 

9. Carlos Reygadas

Carlos-Reygadas

One of the most acclaimed directors to come out of Mexico in generations, Reygadas’ four films to date have received recognition for their ambition and the craft that has gone into them. Known for his brave approach to cinema, Reygadas has not shied away from the depiction of controversial subject matter to include graphic sexuality, involving characters and physiques we aren’t used to seeing in cinema.

Whether or not one agrees with what is depicted in his films, Reygadas has made a conscious effort to capture life as it is. His propensity for using non-professional actors in his some of his films, recalling the work of Bresson and De Sica, brings a feeling of social realism to some of his work, yet he is as equally willing to dabble into the surreal.

Japón (2004), his feature-length debut, was well received at Cannes in 2004. He tells the story of a character that, unsatisfied by his current life, leaves Mexico City and travels to the countryside in order to end his life on his own terms. He bonds with a Native American widow and he subsequently contemplates the direction that his life has taken. The film was received with acclaim and also acquired a bit of notoriety with the depiction of perceived animal abuse that forced Reygadas to make cuts (rather insignificant cuts thankfully) to the film.

Battle in Heaven (2005) is Reygadas’ personal favorite from his filmography. The narrative involves Marcos, a low-level employee for a character named only as “The General”. Marcos is plagued by guilt because a young girl that he and his wife have adopted has died.

The film is mediation on Marcos and how he approaches the guilt that plagues him, in addition to his relationship with The General’s beautiful daughter (Anapola Mushkadiz). The film received mixed reviews, and most critics were unable to get over the explicit sexuality seen in the film (including fellatio). Either way, Reygadas’ use of editing and music as well as his ability to draw extraordinary performances from non-professional actors is remarkable.

Silent Light

Silent Light (2007) is a brilliant film that received almost universal acclaim. A rare glimpse of the German Mennonite community in Mexico, the film is as of yet the highlight of Reygadas’ work. Like his previous work, the film is methodical and shows a patience and understanding of cinematic techniques reminiscent of Ozu. The film is sparse on dialog and instead Reygadas uses nuanced performances and beautiful cinematography to tell the story of a man who is having an open affair with another woman. Plot descriptions do little justice to this brilliant film.

His latest, Post Tenebras Lux (2012), helped Reygadas win the Cannes Best Director Award in 2012. Using a non-traditional narrative, the film follows Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and his family (and various other cast members) as they experience life, heartbreak and death.

Shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio to highlight the beautiful mountains in the Mexican setting, the film has gorgeous cinematography. Reygadas was inspired by the landscape surrounding his home. Reygadas also shows a rare ability to weave the surreal into his films seamlessly without drawing overdue notice to it. After yet another masterpiece, Reygadas is on the short list of young foreign filmmakers making waves around the festival circuit.

 

8. Steve McQueen

steve_mcqueen

Starting his cinematic career with a multitude of arthouse shorts, McQueen has only made three feature-length films. Rarely have only three films helped to solidify a filmmaker’s career like McQueen’s films have. As a director, McQueen doesn’t utilize special effects or narrative tricks to compel audiences. Instead, he pushes his actors to dark and desperate places to bring out the absolute best from his cast. His three feature-length films include some of the most memorable performances from the past twenty years.

Hunger (2008) tells the story of Bobby Sands, an Irish nationalist who goes on a hunger strike in prison in order to influence the British government. The film rarely leaves the prison and McQueen does not spare the audience any grisly detail of the acts that the Irish nationalist prisoners were willing to do in order to make a statement of protest.

Some of which includes rubbing their own feces on the walls of their prison cell, or receiving messages by swallowing paper and passing it later. The most disturbing segments of the film involve Michael Fassbender’s as Bobby Sands undergoing his hunger strike. Fassbender, truly dedicated to his role, starved himself in order to film these scenes, and his physical condition is disturbing to see on film.

Michael-Fassbender-as-Brandon-in-Shame

Shame (2011), again starring Michael Fassbender, highlights sexual obsession and the damage it can wreak on every aspect of life. Fassbender plays Brandon, who is battling a chronic sex addiction, and thus struggles to maintain any personal relationships in his life outside of sex. His world comes crashing down when his problematic sister (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his New York apartment and interferes with his life needing a place to sleep and indirectly interfering with his addictions. The NC-17 rating inevitably hurt any chance of major financial success, but the film is a vivid and powerful portrayal of the dangers of oversexualization.

12 Years a Slave (2013) was a massive success and made McQueen one of the more popular filmmakers in the U.S. A disturbing account of Soloman Northrup’s true story of a man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the southern U.S. Again, McQueen holds no punches. In this film the brutality of slavery is filmed in the most convincing manner yet seen. Featuring a breakout performance from Lupita Nyong’o and another excellent roll for Michael Fassbender as a slave owner, the film was near-universally acclaimed as a masterpiece. Steve McQueen, with his three brilliant films, now has astronomical expectations for the rest of his career.

 

7. Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze

As versatile a filmmaker as they come, Spike Jonze has been a prolific writer, music video director, short film director and feature-length film director. His feature films have set the standard for films with brilliant scripts, topical themes, and moving performances.

Being John Malkovich (1999) was Jonze’s long-awaited feature-length debut. Charlie Kaufman, a good friend of Jonze, was credited with writing the script, but given the work that these two have done together; it is possible that Jonze was also heavily involved in the script. Either way, the film is about a puppeteer who finds a hole through into which he can go inside the mind of John Malkovich (who plays himself), a truly unique concept. The film met with rave reception and was later called on of the best films of the 1990s.

Her-Spike-Jonze-love-story

Adaptation(2002) had understandably high expectations after the success of his previous film Jonze delivered another masterpiece of modern cinema. In the film, Charlie Kaufman (who was responsible for the script) is attempting to adapt the non-fiction classic novel The Orchid Thief but is trouble by writer’s block. The narrative of the film has echoes of Fellini’s 81/2 and is equally entertaining to watch. The brilliant performances and unique narrative were universally celebrated.

Jonze’s latest, Her (2013), is probably his also his greatest. A film with an especially relevant theme in the modern age, the film is a meditation on the eroding person-to-person communication. The film takes place in the near future and chronicles Teddy (in a miraculous performance by Joaqin Phoenix) as he falls in love with an OS in the immediate aftermath of the his divorce.

It is later revealed that multiple people are falling in love or having serious relationships with their personal OS. The depth of feeling involving his failed marriage and subsequent relationship with the OS is not often reached in artistic endeavors. The film was an instant classic and was among the best films of 2013.

 

6. Shane Carruth

Shane Carruth

Shane Carruth, a writer, director, actor and composer for only two feature-length films, is one of the most promising young filmmakers in the industry. His two films, Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013), are among the most intelligent and well-made science fiction films made in the past 20 years. Made on relatively small budgets, the films eschew the CGI that grace (or plague, depending upon your point of view) modern science fiction films for unique plots and an organic style. He has flown under the radar thus far in his career, but it’s only a matter of time before he gets more mainstream recognition.

Primer was completed with only about $7000 and Carruth was responsible nearly every aspect in its creation, to include composing an original score. Not only is this the mark of a remarkable talent, it also acts as a reassurance to young filmmakers that a large budget is not mandatory to create a successful film.

The basic premise of the film is the accidental creation of a time machine in a personal garage. Once two people enter in the machine, they remain separate from the same two people outside of the machine, so by the end of the film there are multiple duplicates populating the setting. The film requires more than one viewing because of the complexity of the narrative and the multitude of scenarios involved. The film’s reception was overwhelmingly positive and was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.

UpstreamColor

His next project, Upstream Color (2013) was another critical success that involves a microorganism that passes between humans, pigs and orchids and blots out the human’s memory and makes him or her receptive to hypnosis. The effect of sound on microorganisms is also examined. With a variety of complex themes, this is another film that requires multiple viewings. The film was even better received than its predecessor and was praised as one of the most inventive science fiction films since 2001. Carruth has effectively cemented himself as a highly creative and intelligence science fiction director.

 

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  • lin

    it’s like female filmmakers don’t even exist…

    • James

      Female filmmakers exist, just none of note LMAO!!!!

    • Bo Nicholson

      I agree that sexism and racism exists in the film community – but can you put forward an example of who you think should be on this list that is female?

      • Kathryn Bigelow, Andrea Arnold…

        • Bo Nicholson

          I don’t agree with Bigelow, she’s not in this class, particularly for innovation.

      • Nancy Hall

        Sofia Coppola, Celine Sciama

      • Ruchit Negotia

        lynn ramsay…..please look her up and be astonished. She is quite innovated and best female director working today imo.

    • Tim Schösta Karlsson

      There is alot of male directors that is missing from this list to and i would put them before all of these female directors.

  • Matthew

    No ‘Bong Joon-ho’? Come on guy….

  • César Montgomery Segura Gómez

    This page is focus in most filmakers from Hollywood, where are Guy Maddin, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Park Chan Wook, Carlos Reygadas, etc.?

    • bitterboyblue

      isn’t reygadas in this list?

    • Leon Horka

      Von Trier, Winding Refn, McQueen, Reygadas and Noé. All foreigners.

  • Shteno

    List is excellent – even though it should have had Fatih Akin, Emir Kusturica and Andriej Zwiagincew on it too, but than again…One important remark (about my favorite director), when you analyze REFN, it is unforgivable not to (even) mention his best work, “Valhalla Rising”. As far as Lin’s comment (bellow) that as if there are no female directors, i would just add – yes there are, but not that important so that they should be on the list amongst such Maestros (and do not think of me as a sexist, it is simply the truth).

    • Arnob Shamanta

      Claudia Llosa is there . and Claire Denis is one of the best maker of all time. and Dorota Kedzierzawska too is there…!!

  • aegan red

    No Nolan???Cumon

  • Rafael Ramz R

    Harmony Korine.
    Leos Carax.

  • bitterboyblue

    No Gondry?

    • Maarten Kuhr

      thats what i thought !

  • Meg

    It’s disappointing that you couldn’t even find one female director to mention. Glad to see Steve McQueen included though.

    • James

      We noticed you couldn’t mention a female director either. That must speak for itself.

      • Renato

        Kelly Reichardt, Claire Denis, Naomi Kawase, Lucrecia Martel

        • Have to check their work out. Thanks

  • Giulio

    Asian filmakers???
    (Lav Diaz, Wang Bing, Jia Zhangke, Kawase Naomi, Tsai Mingliang, Raya Martin…)

    • Rafael Ramz R

      Koreeda.

  • This article, while interesting, could have used an editor. Just in the last bit about “Her,” this: “…as he falls in love with an OS in the immediate aftermath of *the his* divorce.” I’m not saying this is a bad writer, just that an editor would catch the typos, flaws, and strange bits of grammar.

  • Beck Potucek

    Great list! I missed Todd Solondz though 🙁

  • Beck Potucek

    You might have made Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman a set. That’s what I would have done.

  • K07

    No Richard Linklater?

    • HLLH

      The title says “innovative”.

      • Nancy Hall

        Boyhood was nothing if not innovative. I don’t see anyone else on the list who took twelve years to make a movie in which the cast ages right along with the characters.

        • HLLH

          It didn’t take 12 years to make, it was made over the course of 12 years. There’s a difference. Plus the thing about the cast aging along with the characters it has already done before: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_shot_over_three_or_more_years

          • Nancy Hall

            You’re quibbling. It was made over the course of twelve years. Whether or not it was done in the past, it was done well in this instance and I didn’t see another on your list that was done in quite the same way. Many are documentaries. I get that you don’t like it or have some other problem with Linklater, but that doesn’t diminish what he did with Boyhood.

          • HLLH

            Ok, ok, don’t cry… I’m not diminishing anybody’s work, I’m just being brutally honest. Make a list of your own and include him in it.

          • Nancy Hall

            I see you take yourself and your opinion pretty seriously. Are you always this big a jerk when somebody disagrees with you? It doesn’t matter to me whether you “diminish” anything. I’m stating my opinion. Yours is irrelevant.

          • HLLH

            Oh the irony… You also take yourself and your opinion very seriously, you hypocritical cunt! And for the record I do like Linklater but when he makes films like Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly or even Bernie, not when he makes gimmicky crap like Boyhood. Go make your own list and STFU.

          • Nancy Hall

            I don’t know what your problem is, but you really need to get a grip.

          • HLLH

            Ok, bye.

          • fitzrite

            Your problem is you don’t know when to quit.

          • fitzrite

            You’re asking for it now. You should have stopped with your last posting.

          • fitzrite

            Okay, you’ve made your point. Let it go.

  • Rosebeamy

    Are women not allowed to direct? Seriously, the sexism in the film industry is ridiculous.

    • James

      Should a woman director be placed on the list just for being a woman? Hogwash! Let a woman consistently make films worth watching, then maybe her name will be on a list somewhere.

  • Miroslav Karas

    P.T Anderson, N. W. Refn, Gaspar Noé, Terrence Malick, Steve Mcqueen are the best in present.

  • Little Richard

    kathryn bigelow isn´t in the list, why???? Why is it a woman?

    • ‫אלון י‬‎

      no, because shes bad.

    • glebsky

      Could you elaborate what is so innovative about Bigelow’s filmmaking? Or is she just the only female director you know and now want to play an outraged feminist?

  • Facundo

    Edgar Wright?? Martin Mcdonagh!??

  • Michael Caffee

    No mention of Derek Cianfrance or Jeff Nichols? Cianfrance has made Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines–one of the innovative films of the 2010s so far. And Nichols has made Shotgun Stories, Mud, and the excellent Take Shelter (with Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, a great movie). Would’ve been nice to see them get a shout out.

  • Ian Paul

    Lenny Abramson (Frank, Room)?

  • garden variety

    Terrible choices ezcept for Wes and Refn, really shallow…and
    To leave out Guy Richie in this catagory is absurd, also Luc Beson, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and if he had more films -Johnathan Glazer

  • lauramoreaux

    Christopher Nolan

  • Filo

    XAVIER DOLAN !

  • Carlo Beer

    Don’t say that Under the Skin isn’t very special, therefore Jonathan Glazer.

  • Gordon Morgans

    Alejandro G. Innurittu. But still a great list!

    • glebsky

      We need a head doctor.

  • Timelover

    URGH ! Lars Von BorespeopletoTriers

  • Nancy Hall

    Yorgos Lanthimos, Jafar Panahi (deserves to be on the list just for coming up with ways to make movies while technically not making movies so he can game the Iranian censors).

  • Abhishek

    Like there aren’t any other film-makers outside hollywood

  • Lio Mustoni

    I would add Yorgos Lanthimos, Jeremy Saulnier and Martin McDonagh as far as “new” directors go. And as for the classics, Terry Gilliam, Terrence Malick, and David Cronenberg should definitely be on the list.

  • Raul F. Manfredini

    ¿Guillermo del Toro? ¿Fabian Bielisnky?

  • Steve

    Claire Denis, Jane Campion, Miranda July, Sarah Polley, Ana Lily Amirpour, Jane Campion, Lena Wertmuller — just to mention a random few of, you know, that other gender…

  • glebsky

    Darren Aronofsky!? Are you *bleepin’* kidding me!?

    Obviously the author is no cinephile. These names are rather mainstream, Oscar-nominated and well known. Moreover, most of them are quite conservative filmmakers. Why not someone less known? Why no women and no East Europeans or Asians? Why no experimentalists or avant-gardists?

    I would have started with György Pálfi, for example.