Kevin Bacon once said, “A good director creates an environment, which gives the actor the encouragement to fly.” As for the performers associated with the directors on this list, there’s no doubt several sets of wings were grown.
These creators have depicted the struggles of young artists in Hollywood, a cursed oil man in the early 20th century, and a boy with super-heroic abilities. They’ve challenged the conventions of genre and character construction, while immersing us in environments many rarely witness.
This list revolves around directors with various backgrounds and levels of experience. They’ve positioned themselves to join an elite class of directors, yet they all stand apart because of their vastly different styles and subjects. Some of them have delivered Oscar speeches, and others are just breaking onto the scene, but they’re all equipped to grab hold of a generation.
This is simply about ten directors at the front-end of their careers, who are ready to take the next step toward greatness, becoming the Scorsese, Kubrick, Lynch, or Hitchcock of their time. Or at least getting in the ballpark.
Before we start, here’s some others who could’ve just as easily made the list: Ava DuVernay, Cary Fukunaga, Fede Alvarez, Jordan Peele, Jonathan Glazer, and David F. Sandberg.
10. Edgar Wright
Not only does this director somehow match his eye-catching style with substance, but he’s able to find substance within the style itself.
Edgar Wright seems to be on the tip of every executive’s tongue these days, yet he has yet to make his first major blockbuster. He was in the middle of directing Ant-Man, but when Marvel executives continually opposed his vision, he was driven away from the project. Beside the fact it would’ve been a resume-builder unlike any other, Wright was in no worse shape after his departure.
He instead came back with Baby Driver, which was the talk of the SXSW Festival this spring. Across the board, critics have pointed out the unrivaled coolness, the quality of pace, and the fact Wright has still yet to have a sub-par project on the big screen.
The Cornetto trilogy was beloved in Wright’s native Britain, even if it didn’t find a mass appeal in the States. Even Shaun of the Dead, one of the better horror comedies ever, barely made over $30 million. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World turned him into a geek favorite, but that film also wasn’t very bankable. Perhaps Baby Driver will finally be the one that combines critical reception with much-deserved cashflow.
For as stylish as Wright is in his films, they never possess an aesthetic overload. For as young as he was when he started the Cornetto trilogy, he never seemed hesitant or naïve behind the lens. Instead, he delivered sharp satire amid films full of rewatchable entertainment.
Who knows when or if Wright will try to helm another tentpole franchise. But with his track record and Baby Driver on the way to theaters June 28th (Shadows coming in 2019), we’ll be just as happy if he never does.
9. Alex Garland
A successful screenwriter since the early part of the century, Alex Garland decided to make a small sci-fi film in 2014. It may’ve just been the best work the genre had seen since Moon or District 9 five years before it.
After penning such critical successes as Sunshine, Dredd, and 28 Days Later, it was only natural for Garland to create Ex Machina. Dredd had the perfect amount and type of humor to fit the gruff title character, along with biting satire. Meanwhile, the 2002 zombie-filled 28 Days Later brought subtle political themes to the table. And Sunshine, another Danny Boyle direction starring Cillian Murphy, even managed to get cerebral despite its thrilling adventure action.
Garland has been weaving deeper themes and sharp dialogue throughout the last 15 years, but Ex Machina gives them more time to simmer before any action takes place. The buildup is tremendous and uncertainties bountiful. The film has a bit of a Denis Villeneuve design to it, and likewise often evokes David Fincher.
Annihilation is Garland’s newest, and hopefully the director can explore deeper into a book that was mysterious, atmospheric, and at times, completely bonkers. It follows an expedition led by four women to a place on Earth called Area X, where many fellow explorers have gone but never returned. It sounds like a great fit, as Garland should be able to apply his tension-building and world-building skills to the film.
Expect an early 2018 opening, but it could hit limited release near the end of the year for prime award season hype. It very well could also end up being this year’s Arrival.
8. Barry Jenkins
Whether the majority of people agree Moonlight should’ve won best picture or not, Barry Jenkins is a force when it comes to developing and dissecting his characters.
It’ll be difficult to follow up a story so near and dear to him, especially after he spent so much time (no directing or writing credits between 2012-2015) perfecting it. But he doesn’t need four or five movies over the next decade to make a maximum impact. Medicine for Melancholy, his only other feature-length directorial, was a socially enriched slice of life fully aware of its surroundings.
Moonlight was even more conscious, as the director painted his protagonist’s colorful Miami setting as a “beautiful nightmare.” There’s proof all through the movie that Jenkins drew influence from his own background for the film, but walked the fine line of “inspired by” and a biography.
His follow-up to Moonlight will be a TV series, The Underground Railroad. It’s based on a novel by Colson Whitehead, but still revolves around the history of the secret routes and safehouses that protected escaped slaves in 19th century America. Jenkins is also hard at work on his next movie with production company Annapurna. Founded in 2011, they’ve yet to produce or co-produce a poor flick since their inception.
Expect Jenkins to continue making smaller, intimate films focused on current social issues. And if he does, he very well could find himself back on the Oscar stage by 2019.
7. Jeff Nichols
We’re probably a little late to Jeff Nichols’ coming-out-party, but better late than never. The director quietly had one of the best 2016’s anyone in this industry could ask for. Unfortunately, it was a little too quiet.
Midnight Special showed the expansion of his capabilities as a director, bringing out the best in an already lauded cast and displaying ample amounts of creativity. Trying to hide a child with special abilities isn’t unfamiliar territory, but Nichols brought a more grounded approach with this film that worked exponentially. It may draw homage to many films in the past, but it did them all justice.
Nichols also brought Loving to the big screen, teaming with Joel Edgerton and Michael Shannon once more, along with newly Oscar-nominated Ruth Negga. Loving managed to not bathe in oversentimentality and explored the fragility of the times with incredible grace. It certainly rivals Mud as Nichols’ best. Unfortunately, neither movie had much financial success, as Loving got lost behind many Oscar favorites and Midnight Special was considered a bomb despite solid reviews.
But Nichols is building a strong reputation for intimate storytelling and being an actor’s dream director. He has a great rapport with Shannon and Edgerton, two late-blooming stars who seem to be in everything these days. Those are great talents to be associated with, but some of their success has to be credited to the director as well.
Nichols will now return to science fiction with Alien: Nation, a surprising remake of a neo-noir buddy-cop film that didn’t land with audiences in the late-80’s. But the premise involves the unlikely combo of a racist (toward aliens) cop and one that is an alien. It sounds both timely and entertaining, if done right.
6. Damien Chazelle
Whether you thought La La Land was a breath of fresh air or the unworthy glorification of Hollywood, you must admit Damien Chazelle has talent.
In ways, he resurrected a dying breed: original musicals. Sure, he pays homage to a number of classics in the genre, but he didn’t entirely put them all into a blender and serve up whatever result came out. Call it pretentious, but there’s no doubting it’s beautiful, with two stars who establish great chemistry. Their arcs don’t travel too far, but their struggles in Hollywood come with a sincere payoff in the end.
Chazelle taps into an incredible vibrancy with his movies and gets the best out of the talent. He portrays the artistic dreamer with depth and great consideration, and that’s why he could develop a character like Andrew Nieman.
Andrew is the focus of Chazelle’s better film, Whiplash. Once again traveling into the realm of music, Chazelle created a determined drummer (Miles Teller) who is impossible to not root for. The film is nearly as fast as the drum sticks in the final scene, but it focuses on exactly what it should be: music, and the protagonist’s obsession with it. Aside from that, J.K. Simmons’ role was written to perfection, and he only elevates that as our favorite captivating enemy.
So the question is, can Chazelle expand into new topics? Well, he did write a draft of 10 Cloverfield Lane, much of which still ended up in the movie despite him moving on to do Whiplash. And he’ll be out with a Neill Armstrong biopic, First Man, come October 12th, 2018. It seems like a large step for his career, but it may only seem like a small one for a talent like Chazelle.