The 25 Best Movie Directors of the 21st Century
8. Christopher Nolan
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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)