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The 25 Best Movie Directors of the 21st Century

08 March 2017 | Features, People Lists | by Andre Watkins

8. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan & Michael Caine

21st Century notable films include: Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan is among the most popular directors in contemporary cinema, making films that appeal to both mainstream and art-house audiences. Nolan burst onto the film scene with 2000’s Memento, a nonlinear mystery-thriller of man suffering from short-term memory loss while searching for his wife’s killer. Nolan would continue on to direct acclaimed films such as The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight, and Interstellar, and become one of the highest grossing directors of all time.

Nolan’s films have received 26 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Screenplay nominations for Inception, and a Best Screenplay nomination for Memento. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight is rated as the #4 greatest movie of all time on the film website IMDB.

 

7. Denis Villeneuve

21st Century notable films include: Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016)

Denis Villeneuve’s 21st century filmography is different in subject matter, scope, and budget. These films include a foreign language family mystery (Incendies), a crime drama (Prisoners), a U.S.-Mexico border action thriller (Sicario), and one of the most critically acclaim sci-fi films in recent years (Arrival).

Villeneuve’s accolades for these films include a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards for Incendies, a nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for Sicario, and a Best Picture nomination at the 2017 Academy Awards along with a Best Director nomination for Arrival. Villeneuve will direct the sequel to Blade Runner which will be released in 2017.

 

6. Joel & Etan Coen

Best-Coen-Brothers-Movies

21st Century notable films include: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), A Serious Man (2009), True Grit (2010), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Hail Caesar! (2016)

Brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen write, direct, and produce their films and are known for their vivid characters and witty dialogue. Their most acclaimed film, No Country for Old Men, is a dark noir thriller-western that helped to bring the Coen’s back to the forefront of contemporary cinema. The film includes career defining performances by Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, and Josh Brolin, of which Bardem won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Joel & Ethan Coen’s 21st century accolades include winning the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay Oscars for No Country for Old Men; and winning the Grand Jury Prize for Inside Llewyn Davis and Best Director for The Man Who Wasn’t There at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Coen brothers also received Best Picture Oscar nominations for A Serious Man and True Grit, and Best Screenplay nominations for O Brother Where Art Thou?, A Serious Man, and True Grit. In their 2016 poll the BBC named No Country for Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis the #10 and #11 greatest films of the 21st century.

 

5. Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino

21st Century notable films include: Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012), The Hateful Eight (2015)

Quentin Tarantino’s films are heavily influenced and pay homage to blaxploitation films, spaghetti westerns, and samurai cinema. Tarantino’s stories are distinguished by their non-linear structure, ensemble casts, and unique music soundtracks. His films also typically feature witty dialogue, dark humor, and extreme violence. Tarantino’s films have garnered both commercial and critical success, including winning 2 Oscars for his screen writing.

Tarantino won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Django Unchained, and received Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture Oscar nominations for Inglourious Basterds. Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor Oscars for his performances in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.

 

4. Alfonso Cuaron

alfonso_cuaron

21st Century notable films include: Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), Children of Men (2006), Gravity (2013)

Director Alfonso Cuaron has made some of the most visual stunning, technically challenging films of the 21st century. His 2013 Gravity was acclaimed as a technical marvel upon its release, and received 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Gravity won seven Oscars with Cuaron winning Best Director.

Cuaron’s 2001 Y tu Mama Tambien tells a coming of age story of two teenage boys who take a road trip with an attractive older woman. The film portrays humor and sexuality with a backdrop of political and economic modern day Mexico. Cuaron’s 2006 Children of Men is regarded for its cutting edge cinematography, including an iconic 3 ½ minute long single take of a car chase, where the camera moving inside the car as the attack occurs.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki collaborated with Cuaron on Y tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity, winning an Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work in Gravity.

Cuaron received Best Screenplay Oscar nominations for Y tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men, and both films consistently appear on lists of the top films of the 21st century. Y tu Mama Tambien ranks among the top 50 films of the 21st century on the list compilation website They Shoot Pictures Don’t They, and Children of Mean ranked 13th in BBC’s 2016 poll of the top films of the 21st century.

 

3. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

alejandro-inarritu

21st Century notable films include: Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), Biutiful (2010), Birdman (2014), The Revenant (2015)

Gonzalez Inarritu may be the 21st century’s most ambitious director, creating films that cross-cultural barriers and deal with themes of loyalty, humanity, and human connectedness. Inarritu’s films have garnered critical acclaim and numerous accolades.

His first three feature films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) have been described as a “death trilogy” due to their underlying tones of morality, human choices, and resilience. Inarritu’s 2014 Birdman was constructed to appear to be filmed in one continuous shot, a feat assisted by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki won Best Cinematography Oscars for his work with Inarritu on both Birdman and The Revenant.

Inarritu’s accolades include Best Picture and Best Screenplay Oscar wins for Birdman, and two Best Director Oscar wins for Birdman and The Revenant. Inarritu’s back to back Best Director wins were the first since 1950, and made him only the third director to receive such an honor.

Inarritu also won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for Babel, and received Palme d’Or nominations for Biutiful and Babel. Amores Perros was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, along with Babel and The Revenant being nominated for Best Picture Oscars.

 

2. Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson & Joaquin Phoenix

21st Century notable films include: Punch-Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014)

Paul Thomas Anderson emerged as one of the most exciting young director in cinema with the films Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999). Anderson’s 21st century output has solidified his status as one of the great directors in contemporary cinema, exploring themes like family, loneliness, and morality with flawed characters, long tracking shots, and strong musical soundtracks.

Anderson has frequently collaborated with the same actors in his films, including Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Luis Guzman, and most prominently, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Punch-Drunk Love was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, with Anderson winning Best Director at Cannes for the film. There Will Be Blood received a Best Picture Oscar nomination along with Best Director and Best Screenplay nominations for Anderson. Anderson also received a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for Inherent Vice.

There Will Be Blood is widely considered among the greatest films of the 21st century, and appears at #4 of the top films of the 21st century on the film poll compilation website They Shoot Pictures Don’t They. There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice were all included among BBC’s 2016 poll of the top 100 films of the 21st century, with There Will Be Blood ranked at #3.

 

1. Michael Haneke

best Michael Haneke films

21st Century notable films include: Code Unknown (2000), The Piano Teacher (2001), Cache (2005), Funny Games (2007), The White Ribbon (2009), Amour (2012)

Michael Haneke has described his films as, “for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.” And indeed, Haneke’s films can be provocative and challenging to the viewer. Films like Cache and The White Ribbon may spark endless dialogue and theories after their viewing.

The Piano Teacher shows the dynamics between a sexually repressed teacher and her younger student. Amour tells the story of an elderly couple and the husband’s unbearable task of watching the gradual decline of his wife after she suffers a stroke.

Haneke’s films can be emotionally devastating in their stories, and leave an imprint among their viewers long after the film has ended. Jonathon Jones of The Guardian may have said it best in describing Haneke’s work: “His films are classics: they are perfect and they are profound… the visual beauty of his cinema is beguiling: he achieves a photographic and theatrical clarity that is somehow quintessentially of our time, of the digital age, and yet as rich as anything in cinematic history.”

Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Cache, The White Ribbon, and Amour were all nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, with The White Ribbon and Amour both winning the prize. Haneke won Best Director at Cannes for Cache, and The Piano Teacher won the Grand Jury Prize along with Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel winning Best Actress and Best Actor.

The White Ribbon received a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination; and Amour won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress. The White Ribbon, Cache, and Amour were all included among BBC’s 2016 poll of the top 100 films of the 21st century, and Cache appears at #5 of the top films of the 21st century on the film poll compilation website They Shoot Pictures Don’t They.

Honorable Mention:

Kathryn Bigelow: The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Luca Guadagnino: I Am Love (2009), A Bigger Splash (2015), Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Todd Haynes: Far from Heaven (2002), I’m Not There (2007), Carol (2015)
Spike Jonze: Adaptation (2002), Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Her (2013)
Ang Lee: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lust, Caution (2007), Life of Pi (2012)
Richard Linklater: Waking Life (2001), School of Rock (2003), Before Sunset (2004), Bernie (2011), Before Midnight (2013), Boyhood (2014), Everybody Wants Some (2016)
Alexander Payne: About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011), Nebraska (2013)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Cemetery of Splendor (2015)
Yimou Zhang: Happy Times (2000), Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009), The Flowers of War (2011), Coming Home (2014)
Jia Zhangke: Platform (2000), The World (2004), Still Life (2006), A Touch of Sin (2013), Mountains May Depart (2015)

 

 

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  • Furk

    Gasper Noe? Paolo Sorrentino? Richard Linklater? Jim Jarmusch? Jane Campion? Yorgos Lanthimos?

    • AmazingAmy

      Those name who you mentioned alongside honorable mention deserved to be this list over Eastwood or Villeneuve
      Where is Spielberg ????

      • Pica Lima

        no one is over Villeneuve rigth now…

      • Mäts Verschueren

        Spielberg hasn’t made anything notable in the 21st century, his days are looong gone mate 🙂

        • Franco Gonzalez

          Yeah sure, watch Lincoln for crist sake! Bridge of Spies too.. He has even become a more subtle filmmaker

  • Hank

    Without Linklater this list is a joke

  • Pingback: The 25 Best Movie Directors of the 21st Century | Roberto Cimatti()

  • AmazingAmy

    Villeneuve don’t deserve to be ranked top 10… Most People who ranked below him much better than him. He is type filmmaker who the films are elevated by great script and performance. His direction is lacking compared to someone like Nolan, Cuaron, Spielberg even Ridley Scott.

    I will rank Park Chan Wook, Lonnergan, Bigelow, Todd Haynes, Miller, McQueen, Fincher top ten over him. Esp Park Chan Wook and McQueen who consistently delivered fantastic film since their debut.

    Overrated Innaritu ranked top three ? Better than Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Scorsese, Nolan, Fincher even Linklater ?????!!!

  • Fincher at 15??? You must be Joking.

    • Hanz Offman.

      I thought so too, but sadly not.

  • Relf

    Wahahahaahaha This list is worth 0. Tarantino and Nolan are higher than Tarr, Malick, Lynch, Wong….? Whahaha Never do these hacks come even remotely close to these artits. Hahaha!

  • shane scott-travis

    Ridiculous. This list is a boy’s club. Weak.

    • D Train

      Totally agree. This list blows.

    • Onibabapapa

      I mean, if he thinks these are the best directors, he thinks these are the best directors. He shouldn’t just add a woman or two just so it looks better

      • D Train

        The title suggests “The 25 Best Movie Directors of the 21st Century” and doesn’t mince words. The misogyny, intentional or not, is there.

        • Nelsonoca Galvis

          Girls, how crazy are you like to thing this stupid list is misogyny, you even know the meaning of the word?

          • shane scott-travis

            The exclusion of any women creatives in a list that claims to detail the “best directors of the 21st century” but avoids mentioning ANY women (where the shit is Agnes Varda, for instance?), certainly suggests institutional misogyny as well as chauvinism, as does your aggressive and hostile rejoinder there, Nelsonica. And calling an adult a “girl”, a term suggesting childishness and immaturity points to your own misogyny and ignorance. So “thanks” for mansplaining your bityet

          • shane scott-travis

            Any list that purports to detail the “best directors of the 21st century” but fails to acknowledge a single woman—where the fudge is Agnes Varda, for instance—matter-of-factly DOES suggest institutionalized misogyny and chauvinism.
            While we’re here, your aggrandized response, which includes calling an adult a “girl”—this dismisses legitimate concerns as childish, juvenile, and I’ll-considered—is also suggesting not just a gender bias but also your own misogyny, arrogance and ignorance.
            So “thanks” for mansplaining your fragile facade. It sucks to be you.

          • shane scott-travis

            Any list that purports to detail the “best directors of the 21st century” but fails to acknowledge a single woman—where the fudge is Agnes Varda, for instance—matter-of-factly DOES suggest institutionalized misogyny and chauvinism.
            While we’re here, your aggrandized response, which includes calling an adult a “girl”—this dismisses legitimate concerns as childish, juvenile, and I’ll-considered—is also suggesting not just a gender bias but also your own misogyny, arrogance and ignorance.
            So “thanks” for mansplaining your fragile facade. It sucks to be you. 🙂

          • Nelsonoca Galvis

            Wow, you read your own text before send? because you are full of Misandry, you find misogyny in any detail, but i don´t know why, maybe your life like women has been hard; I recommend to you go to the psychologist you need it.

      • Completely agree.

  • D Train

    No women directors? And publishing this list on International Women’s Day to boot? Shitty thing to do. 🙁

    • Hanz Offman.

      better lift their game then, hadn’t they?

      • shane scott-travis

        Really? This list’s author obviously has a biased. Any of the following should top the list: Marne Ade, Andrea Arnold, Anna Biller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Ana Lily Amirpour, Ava DuVernay, Marielle Heller, Patty Jenkins, Alison Lowe, Sarah Polley, Ann Hui, Kelly Reichardt, Jen and Sylvia Soska, Tian-yi Yan, Agnès Varda, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

      • D Train

        Hanz, is your maleness privilege in jeopardy? Maybe you need to watch more films? Loser.

        • Hanz Offman.

          Ha, I’m more woman than you’ll ever be, sister.

          • shane scott-travis

            I did write a list with many of those fine directors on it.
            bit.ly/2gm2wBM ♀

          • Sarita CL

            calling 911, we have a burn victim….

  • Hanz Offman.

    Great list. Now please let me take it as a personal insult when I disagree with your choices, instead of viewing the list as your opinion, or as the starting point for a discussion here.

  • Franco Gonzalez

    Im not a fan, but i think Nicolas Winding Refn should be here, at least in honorable mention. The guy is divisive, but he has a strong personal style and that’s something that separates good directors from great ones.

  • Nelsonoca Galvis

    Quentin Tarantino n°5? you don´t know what means direct

    • sailor monsoon

      You don’t know what means English

      • Nelsonoca Galvis

        Si bueno, eso puede ser cierto, pero Tarantino sigue siendo un director del monton

  • Tiago Couto

    The lack of maturity on comment sections with lists like this is always the same but it is still astonishing.
    This list is a person´s opinion and this person actually tries to justify why instead of shitting out some typical bullshit internet nomenclature like ”omg he is so overrated” ”what a joke of list”…if you disagree expose your opinion respectfully and introduce reasons why you do to solify your argumentation do not act like a fucking prick.
    You,random person on the internet you DON´T OWN the truth especially when it regards subjective matters like art,in this case cinema.

  • colonelkurtz

    I find it refreshing to not see purely American/British directors on this list. Surprised by some of the names (Eastwood, Tarantino, and Nolen I consider good directors at best, the latter two overcome by their own pompousness), but enjoyed seeing the Spanish and Korean influences here.

  • Logan

    The author is trolling, right? International Women’s Day, and not one – not one – woman on the list, out of 25 ‘best of’. You know better, everyone knows better at this point.

  • I thought this was a pretty damn good list. Very difficult to narrow it down. There’s definitely some choices I strongly disagree with, but overall very good job.
    Very glad you included the Korean powerhouses. It’s just incredible some of the quality of films coming out of there past 12-15 years.

  • Abhishek

    Why is Linklater in the Honorable mentions. He could easily replace some of the directors you have kept in the 25. Even if I have enjoyed Spielberg’s movies from before 21st century he still could be included because of AI, Minority Report, Lincoln, Catch me if you can, Bridge of Spies.

  • The Dardenne brothers and Xavier Dolan

  • Chrisychipz

    Andrea Arnold really should’ve been here. Fish Tank and American Honey??? Come on. But touché on Haneke at #1.

  • Dreaming Wanderer

    It’s a good list. Linklater should be in it though. Mallick’s movies lately are very disappointing for me. Eastwood very uneven, Fincher has some disappointments as well but I’m glad to see Tar here. The order of the list could be a little different but i guess everyone would like that. I would very much like to see Peter Jackson here as well, Lord of the Rings and King Kong are among my favorite Hollywood blockbuster and personally I even enjoy The Hobbit a lot. Not many directors can make fantasy movies like that.
    My personal No1 is definitely Villeneuve.

  • Logan

    All guys. 2017.