The 25 Best Movie Directors of the 21st Century
17. Terrence Malick
21st Century notable films include: The New World (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), Voyage of Time (2016)
Known for his reclusive habits and films with philosophical and spiritual overtones, Terrence Malick is one of the most mysterious figures in modern film. Malick’s films place an emphasis on cinematography and experimental techniques over plot and characters. Making only 3 films from 1973-1998, Malick’s filmography increased during the 21st century along with further critical recognition.
Malick’s 2005 The New World tells the story of Pocahontas and John Smith with the backdrop of breathtaking cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki’s work was nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar for The New World, and he would also be Oscar nominated for The Tree of Life. Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life tells an impressionistic story of a man’s childhood memories as he seeks answers to the meaning of life.
The Tree of Life was nominated for Oscars in Best Picture, Best Cinematography, and Best Director. The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, was voted as the 102nd greatest movie of all time by the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound Poll, and voted the 7th greatest film of the 21st century by the BBC in 2016.
16. Pedro Almodovar
21st Century notable films include: Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004), Volver (2006), Broken Embraces (2009), The Skin I Live In (2011), Julieta (2016)
Pedro Almodovar, known for his self-described “cinema of women” is one of the great directors in the history of cinema when it comes to telling stories driven by female characters. These characters are usually mysterious, passionate, and leave memorable impressions long after the film has ended. His films are lush in visual, many times over-the-top in plot, and express a vibrancy of Spanish culture like no other film maker.
Almodovar films have feature many great Spanish actors of this generation including Gael Garcia Bernal, Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, and Carmen Maura. Almodovar won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2003 Academy Awards for Talk to Her, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this century for Volver, Broken Embraces, The Skin I Live In, and Julieta.
15. David Fincher
21st Century notable films include: Panic Room (2002), Zodiac (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Social Network (2010), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher is known for is often dark, emotionally intense, skillful thrillers. His films range from psychological thrillers Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), and Gone Girl (2014), to mystery thrillers Zodiac (2007) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Describing his films Fincher has said, “Entertainment has to come hand in hand with a little bit of medicine. Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything’s okay. I don’t make those kinds of movies.”
Fincher’s Zodiac was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network were both nominated for Best Picture Oscars, and Fincher was also nominated for Best Director Oscars for both films.
14. Lars von Trier
21st Century notable films include: Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005), Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), Nymphomaniac Vol. I-II (2013)
Danish director Lars von Trier gained international prominence with the Dogme 95 film movement, who along with director Thomas Vinterberg vowed to create films which focus on the story and actors’ performance, and excludes special effects and post-production changes.
These films became known for their use of hand-held cameras, natural lighting, on location shooting, and little to no music. The movement broke up in the early 21st century, and Trier’s films became more stylized, exploring darker themes and explicit images, particularly with 2009’s Antichrist and 2013’s Nymphomaniac.
Trier is known to suffer from depression, and his 2011 film Melancholia used depression as a backdrop to tell the story of an impending catastrophic event. Trier is known to collaborate with the same actors in many of his films, among these include Charlotte Gainsbourgh, Stellan Skarsgard, and Willem Dafoe who have appeared in multiple 21st century films from Trier.
Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay, Antichrist, and Melancholia were all nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, with Dancer in the Dark winning the Palme d’Or in 2000.
13. Darren Aronofsky
21st Century notable films include: Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010)
Darren Aronofsky’s films often portray flawed characters with addition and some form of paranoia. His films are gritty, with characters who are often self-isolated and whose situations do not end well. Requiem for a Dream, perhaps Aronofsky’s most acclaimed film to date, is a brutally raw depiction of four people and their different types of drug addiction.
Aronofsky’s more mainstream films, 2008’s The Wrestler and 2010’s Black Swan also depict fragile characters struggling with the demands of different forms of art. Aronofsky sited Black Swan as a connection to The Wrestler, “I’ve always considered the two films companion pieces. They are really connected and people will see the connections.
It’s funny, because wrestling some consider the lowest art — if they would even call it art — and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.”
Ellen Burstyn was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in Requiem for a Dream. Both Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei were Oscar nominated for their performances in The Wrester. Black Swan was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, along with Aronofsky being nominated for Best Director. Natalie Portman won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the film.
12. David Lynch
21st Century notable films include: Mulholland Drive (2001), Inland Empire (2006)
With only 2 feature films in the 21st century it may seem strange to see David Lynch so high on this list compared to other directors with a more active filmography, however Lynch’s advantage comes with having one of the most critically acclaimed films of the 21st century.
2001’s Mulholland Drive is a surreal psychological thriller-mystery that tells the story of an aspiring actress who arrives in Los Angeles and befriends a woman with amnesia. Mulholland Drive helped to launch the career of Naomi Watts, and her performance in the film has since been hailed as one of the best of the 21st century.
David Lynch was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for Mulholland Drive, and won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. Mulholland Drive was also nominated for Palme d’Or at Cannes. Mulholland Drive is listed as the #2 film of the 21st century on the film list compilation website ‘They Shoot Pictures Don’t They’. Mulholland Drive was listed as the 28th greatest film of all time in BFI’s prestigious Sight & Sound Top 250 poll, and the BBC named Mulholland Drive the #1 film of the 21st century in 2016.
11. Wong Kar-Wai
21st Century notable films include: In the Mood or Love (2000), 2046 (2004), My Blueberry Nights (2007), The Grandmaster (2013)
Director Wong Kar-Wai’s films are renowned for their vivid imagery, non-linear stories, and stylized expression and camerawork. Wong’s critically acclaimed filmography dates back to the 1990’s with films like Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, and Happy Together. Wong’s 21st century films continued with 2000’s In the Mood for Love and its loose sequel 2004’s 2046.
In the Mood for Love in particular was a landmark achievement which has been a stylistic influence in 21st century film. The film tells the story of newspaper editor Chow Mo-Wan, and secretary Su Li-zhen who both move into an apartment complex at the same time with their respective spouses. The two spend much of their time together as their spouses are away, and soon make a discovery about their spouses that creates an even stronger bond between them.
In the Mood for Love, 2046, and My Blueberry Nights were all nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In the Mood for Love was listed as the 24th greatest film of all time in BFI’s prestigious Sight & Sound Top 250 poll, the highest placement for a 21st century film on the list.
The BBC named In the Mood for Love the #2 film of the 21st century in their 2016 poll. In the Mood for Love is also listed as the 45th greatest film of all time, and the #1 film of the 21st century on the film list compilation website ‘They Shoot Pictures Don’t They’.
10. Asghar Farhadi
21st Century notable films include: Fireworks Wednesday (2006), About Elly (2009), A Separation (2011), The Past (2013), The Salesman (2016)
Iranian direction Asghar Farhadi has established himself as one of the prominent directors on the world stage today. His 2011 film A Separation won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and consistently appears on lists of the top films of the decade. His other films including About Elly and The Past have strengthened his reputation as a director commenting on domestic complications including class and gender differences in modern Iran.
Farhadi won his second Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2017 with The Salesman, a story of a husband and wife whose relationship deteriorates after an incident occurs to the wife in their apartment.
9. Martin Scorsese
21st Century notable films include: Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), Hugo (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Silence (2016)
With a career that spans more than 50 years, Martin Scorsese is no stranger to best director lists. Scorsese’s 21st century work is most notable for his collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio, directing him in five films.
Scorsese’s 21st century accolades include Best Picture and Best Director Oscar wins for The Departed, and Best Director Oscar nominations for Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street were also nominated for Best Picture Oscars.