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All 15 Best Director Oscar Winners From The 21st Century Ranked From Worst To Best

09 November 2017 | Features, People Lists | by Rob Williams

So here is my list of the winners of the Best Director Oscar for the current millennium. Now before you start saying that it is completely wrong, can I just say that this is my opinion in an opinion piece. If it is different from yours then so it goes, it’s allowed to be! I’m not a cinema scholar; my degrees are in Design, Applied Maths, and Computer Science.

I just like going to the cinema and now that I’m retired I go several times a week. I’ve been twice today – “Murder on the Orient Express’ and “Ferrari: Race to Immortality” before you ask! If you have studied film and filmmaking and draw something different from films that I do, then that’s great. I envy you and if I had my time over again I might go down that line.

Anyway… here are my thoughts.


15. Damien Chazelle – La La Land – 2016

I’m starting with the least experienced director who has a mere three feature films under his belt. As a child, Damien Chazelle had an interest in the arts, despite having a father who taught computer science and a mother who taught Medieval history. He nearly went into music as he was trained to be a jazz drummer at school, where he was tormented by a teacher from whom he developed the Terence Fletcher character in “Whiplash.” Abandoning music after he realised he didn’t have enough talent, he returned to film.

He started off with “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” in 2009. If it wasn’t for the actors, it would almost be a one man project – directed, written, produced, shot, and co-edited by Chazelle. He takes a look back at the old MGM musicals and brings them up to date in a gritty vérité style. Then comes the aforementioned “Whiplash,” first as a short, then as a feature. The film is about the relationship between an ambitious jazz student and an aggressive, abusive instructor. Both of his films so far dip into his love of jazz.

Then… bam! Here comes “La La Land.” It features a (surprise!) jazz pianist and an actress. To say it did well is an understatement. Financially it made $445.7 million off a budget of $30 million. Worldwide it was nominated for 248 awards and won 212… famously nearly including the Best Picture Oscar!

His next film is “First Man” and is currently being filmed. It tells the story of the first man to set up a jazz academy… my mistake… it’s a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon.


14. Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist – 2011

Born into a formerly Lithuanian family (his grandparents arrived in France in 1920), he is the brother of actor Serge Hazanavicius. Michel Hazanavicius began his career in 1988 on a small screen, working for Canal+. On the encrypted channel, he climbed the ranks quickly, from intern to scriptwriter, and also realised his gift for radio writing. Very soon he started to develop his directing skills and worked on a number of shorts, films and series for television.

For the big screen, he started in 1994 as an actor in “Le Film de les Nuls” as Regis, then as co-writer on “Delphine 1 – Yvan 0,” directed by Dominique Farrugia. He directed his first feature, “Mes Amis,” in 2004, for which he gave the lead role to his brother Serge. In 2006, his career crossed an additional milestone with the production of the spy film “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” starring Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. He worked with Dujardin again three years later on “OSS 117: Lost in Rio.”

Little surprise that he casts not only Dujardin but also Bejo in “The Artist. This ambitious black-and-white silent film follows the trajectory of George Valentin, actor of the silent movies of the Hollywood of the 1920s, ousted at the arrival of talking films. It can’t just be the use of silent, black-and-white techniques that won so many prizes – 189 nominations and 151 wins. As well as harking back to a simpler time it was a fine story, well told, and the absence of language meant that his innate Frenchness could show through.

The year 2014 sees a complete switch of register with a poignant drama set in Chechnya, “The Search,” a remake of “The Search” by Fred Zinnemann. While this 1948 feature features the story of an American soldier trying to help a boy find his mother in postwar Berlin, Hazanavicius looks at the second Chechen war in 1999. His most recent film is a biopic of Jean-Luc Godard called “Redoubtable.” Entered in the Cannes Film Festival for the 2017 Palme d’Or, it lost out to Ruben Östlund’s “The Square.”


13. Tom Hooper – The King’s Speech – 2010

Tom Hooper studied at the Highgate School and then Westminster School. At the age of 12, he read a book titled “How to Make Film and Television” and decided that this would be his future. At age 13, he made his first film using a clockwork 16mm Bolex camera that his uncle had given him. After graduating from Oxford, Hooper continued to direct television commercials, and began working as a director of various programs and shows for the BBC and Granada.

Hooper made his feature film directorial debut with the 2004 drama “Red Dust” starring Hilary Swank, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jamie Bartlett. The next five years saw him doing a lot of TV work for which he was racking up awards, so many that it was a bit of a surprise that he went back to the big screen. He did though with the feature film “The Damned United,” a fictional version of the 44 turbulent days Brian Clough spent as manager of Leeds United. Despite the fact that I loathe and despise football with a passion, I was entranced by this film partly because of Michael Sheen, but Hooper has to take some credit too.

Work on Hooper’s next film, “The King’s Speech,” began right after “The Damned United.” Based on a play, the film deals with the relationship between King George VI and his Australian speech language pathologist. This is his most successful film to date; half of all his Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations have been for “The King’s Speech,” with the rest being shared among “Les Misérables” and “The Danish Girl.”


12. Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker – 2009

In the gender-restrictive world of action cinema, Kathryn Bigelow has taken on the Hollywood patriarchy and succeeded. Born in San Carlos, California, she studied fine art and then film under cultural theorist Susan Sontag. Her first effort was a 1978 short called “The Set-Up” which shows two men fighting while intellectuals discuss, in voiceover, what is happening on screen.

Her best work continues this line of enquiry, centring on fringe groups engaged in conflicts without end. In her 1982 feature debut “The Loveless” (co-directed with Monty Montgomery), it is Willem Dafoe’s bikers; in “Near Dark” it is Lance Henriksen’s nomadic vampires. “Blue Steel” showed rookie cop Jamie Lee Curtis fighting to survive in a man’s world, but it was the one-two punch of “Point Break” and “Strange Days” that crystallised Bigelow’s themes.

In the former, a gloriously over-pumped testosterone fest, undercover cop Keanu Reeves becomes enamoured with Patrick Swayze’s bank-robbing surfers. In the latter, an ambitious sci-fi, Ralph Fiennes sells secondhand memory recordings that users can experience vicariously, like action junkies seeking the next high. The opening Steadicam sequence, which shows a botched robbery entirely from the robber’s point of view, is a masterclass in immersive filmmaking.

In “The Hurt Locker”, it is war itself that is the addictive drug, dragging bomb disposal expert Jeremy Renner back to the Iraqi frontline for another fix, no matter the cost. The companion piece to “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” is about the ClA’s relentless hunt for Osama bin Laden, torture and all, and was equally wired into but also wary of the evil that men do in such situations. At the 82nd Academy Awards, Bigelow beat ex-husband and Tinseltown alpha male James Cameron to the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” becoming the first woman ever to win.


11. Steven Soderbergh – Traffic – 2000

Steven Andrew Soderbergh was the second of six children of Mary Ann and Peter Soderbergh. While he was still at a very young age, his family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where his father was a professor and the dean of the College of Education at Louisiana State University.

While still in high school, Soderbergh enrolled in the university’s film animation class and began making short 16mm films with secondhand equipment. After completing his studies, Soderbergh spread his artistic activities: working as an independent editor in Hollywood, writing scripts, shooting short films, and setting up a video production house.

This must have been a good grounding as his debut feature in 1989 was “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” rewarded with a Palme d’Or. He worked steadily in TV and film, and then the approaching new millennium saw him hit his commercial peak with “The Limey,” “Erin Brockovich” and the start of the “Oceans” trilogy.

Between all of this came his Oscar winner “Traffic,” based on a UK TV series “Traffik.” Intertwining tales of the drug scene from a variety of viewpoints, locations and characters, Soderbergh’s version moved from the perspectives of Afghan and Pakistani growers, dealers and manufacturers, German dealers, and British users over to the manufacture, distribution, sales, and use in North and South America.

Following “Traffic” he has been kept busy both on the big and small screens with “Syriana,” “Contagion” and his two part biopic of Che Guevara being the high spots. Oh… “Magic Mike” is in there too.



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  • Zwei

    WTF? hahahaha Ron Howard and Boyle almost at number one

    • Opie over Ang Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, and Martin Scorsese? Oh fuck off. That movie was dull as fuck.

      • shamim ahmed

        Slumdog millionaire is the worst movie to won an Oscar in any category

  • shane scott-travis

    For Polanski should read; “…a traumatic life that also includes statutory rape and sexual predation of young girls…”
    Very tone deaf to place him at the top.

    • lamarkeith

      There’s no such thing as “tone deaf” when plainly ranking (or discussing opinions on) films and their presumed merits. Self-editing your own writing (i.e., your own opinions) in order to appease — pander — to current volatile politics of a potential audience is what should be avoided. The author’s choice to standby their thoughts on someone’s work during a time of hasty detraction is much appreciated.

      • Logan

        Finding the current much-needed focus on the sexual crimes of particular directors/producers relevant, and Polanski’s first place positioning tone deaf – especially given the field of directors, is spot on.

        • lamarkeith

          Again, you seem to be in favor of people editing their opinion’s towards film in order to make the audience feel better, when the two underlying ideas have nothing to do with each other. To say they’re connected is silly projection.

          • Logan

            Did not say that. No dialogue here worth pursuing.

  • Logan

    This seems eccentric and somewhat questionable judgement in film, especially putting Polanski at the top, now.

    • lamarkeith

      What does “judgment in film” have to do with current media and industry scandals — or with Polanski’s legal history specifically in context with The Pianist? At the very least, how is putting The Pianist at the top “eccentric”? Giving high praise to that film is one of the most conventional opinions in the film community, within both (casual and hardcore) audience and critic circles.

      • ray gudel

        It’s probably a little morbid though to use use a picture of Harrison Ford handing him his Oscar in his hideout. Also, making no mention of the controversy surrounding him while bringing up his hardships makes him seem like a hero.

        • lamarkeith

          Every single picture in this list is of the directors receiving their awards…

          His hardships were brought up because they are directly relevant to that film, while his controversy’s are completely irrelevant. As a survivor with the platform to tell of the Holocaust’s atrocities with personal experience, he is indeed a hero in that regard. People, especially artists, are not one-dimensional or exclusively defined, despite how much some would like them to.

          • ray gudel

            I stand by what I said. I know every picture is of the directors receiving their awards. The difference is that they didn’t need Harrison Ford to fly it out to them due to sex crimes. Polanski did. I’ll never deny his filmmaking abilities, but when you do what he did, then you deserve to have that brought up whenever your work is brought up. Our actions deserve consequences and that is his, especially since he’s hiding from his legal ones. The writer brought up Sharon Tate’s murder, the deaths of his parents, and other hardships he’s faced, but nothing at all about his controversy. That means that anyone who reads this article and doesn’t know his story will actually believe this man is a hero. They will come to that conclusion due to a complete lack of information. In today’s climate, that is unacceptable.

          • lamarkeith

            If you think there is anyone who visits a site exclusively dedicated to film lists who also doesn’t know about Polanski’s recently revived scandal, then you are delusionally militant. Not to mention the unfortunately shallow perspective on human beings implicitly saturating your comment.
            Your distinction about the images is contrived.

          • ray gudel

            Unfortunately shallow perspective on human beings? We aren’t discussing Rob Lowe’s sex tape here, this was explicitly predatory behaviour and cowardice Ina the face of the consequences. We pretend to live in a society where we won’t accept that, and then we defend the artists we like for the very same behaviour. Why are so many others disgraced right now while Polanski gets defended? Is anything about what you are saying not in his defense? Your debate with me is based entirely on the fact that you don’t agree that his controversies don’t belong in this article with his triumphs and hardships. I’m not going to pretend to know how we should all deal with this now that it’s all coming out the way it is, but I will say that continuing to praise and defend people like that is only going to keep the sickness going. It’s why people like Matt Damon have been swept up in it, because by allowing it to continue, he made himself complicit.

          • lamarkeith

            Stay in context if you’re going to reply to me please. I don’t care about your off-base, faux-morality presentation.

      • Logan

        Two ideas in one sentence. Disagree with ranking and find the timing of Polanski first quite odd. I read it as a ranking of Best Directors. Whether you dissect each word and sentence, I still find the ranking questionable and I’m not the only one.

        • lamarkeith

          You not being “the only one” is not justification, its deflection. The Pianist is ranked #50 on IMDB’s top 250 films of all time — arguably the most pedestrian measurement of film reception by largely casual consumers available — so that easily quanitifies the claim that ranking The Pianist that high is not suprising or out of the norm. It wasnt odd 4 years ago, and its not odd now just because Hollywood scandals are huge.

          You’re trying to think theoretically about a scenario’s basis when it has practical references to support its existence. Try not to do that.

          • Logan

            It’s not a deflection. One thing you missed in what I wrote is that I was looking at a ranking of directors, not films. Check your use of the word quantifies.

          • lamarkeith

            Its the ranking of “best director oscar winner” for films… They are saying thay The Pianist was the best directed film this century, not that Roman Polanski is the best director of all time. I don’t need to check anything. Every reply from you is off-base and fallacious. Don’t reply to me again unless you want to remain in context please.

  • Cristian Muñoz Levill


  • Mortimer

    Why is Ron Howard ranked so high ? His movies are one big MEH…

    • AmazingAmy

      I bet the writer put Damien in bottom simply because he defeats ToT golden boy, dennis whateverneuve.
      WTF Tom Hooper above Bigelow, Howard ranked so high

  • Emir Kusturica

    Ron Howard should have been at the bottom, A Beautiful Mind is a by-the-numbers biopic and famous for not being respectful with the real story. Danny Boyle should be lower as well, he’s a really good director but Slumdog Millionaire is one of his safest bets (all the merit goes to the editing really). Hazanavicius at least took a risk by doing a silent film and doing it right. Chazelle’s directing is the high point of La La Land, it’s the screenplay what’s bland.

  • Franco Gonzalez

    Who cares about this list

  • oscarseason

    Tom Hooper….lol

  • Christopher Milford

    Roman Polanski should not be given any accolades, awards, or even praise. He is a scumbag.

  • lamarkeith

    [17] The Hurt Locker
    [16] A Beautiful Mind
    [15] Million Dollar Baby
    [14] The Kings Speech
    [13] The Revenant
    [12] Slumdog Millionaire
    [11] Return of the King
    [10] Birdman
    [9] Gravity
    [8] The Artist
    [7] Life of Pi
    [6] The Departed
    [5] The Pianist
    [4] Traffic
    [3] La La Land
    [2] No Country for Old Men
    [1] Brokeback Mountain

    • Mortimer

      ‘La La Land’ isn’t that good, really. Not in the league of ‘Singing in the Rain’, ‘West Side Story’ and ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’.

      • lamarkeith

        I wouldn’t say it’s in league with those either. But for me it’s a nice, spiritual addition to the “Lola Universe” made by a fan of that series who understood the social and existential themes of its characters — which had to constitute the film’s text since the wartime political subtexts in a couple of Lola’s entries clearly aren’t applicable to our society at the moment — that I gladly welcomed.

        I didnt care all that much for Whiplash, and I’m not exactly looking forward to his upcoming Neil Armstrong biopic, but Chazelle hit nearly all the right buttons for me with La La Land’s take on the Lola-narratives. (And thats more than I can say for Mathieu’s Americano from several years back; it was okay but hardly satisfied the hope I held for it.)

        All the little sendups to song-and-dance Hollywood, various Godard films, and several unexpected, more recent films, were just added enjoyment in the background for me.

  • Joanna Żet

    He attended the State Film School in Todz –> it’s Łódź or just Lodz 🙂

  • David

    Inarritu so high?? LOL. Both Linklater (Boyhood) and Miller (Mad Max Fury Road) got robbed in 2014 and 2015.

  • Ricardo Correia

    In terms of direction

    1- Coens
    2- Bigelow
    3- Polanski
    4- Soderbergh
    5- Tom Hooper

    Overall terrible winners, and your list is aldo very bad let me be clear

  • Ricardo Correia

    Incredible how Taste Of Cinema is getting worst and worst every day
    “Personally speaking, I would have given him the win for at least three of his other films before I gave it for “A Beautiful Mind,””

    Just stupid