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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

10. Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity – 2013

His father is a nuclear physicist… not quite rocket science but near enough for him to make “Gravity”! Alfonso Cuarón studied philosophy and cinematography at the University of Mexico. At the beginning of the 1980s, he began his career as a director making short films while also working in television. His first feature film was “Sólo Con Tu Pareja” in 1991, a comedy in which he also worked on production, photography and editing.

The script was written by his brother Carlos. This film opened the doors of Hollywood to him, catching the eye of Sydney Pollack who invited him to do some TV work and got him to work with actors like Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise.

In 1995, he made his Hollywood film debut with “A Little Princess,” adapted from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which received an excellent critical reception, although not commercial. Three years later he adapted Charles Dickens’ classic “Great Expectations” with Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, Anne Bancroft and Robert De Niro.

Another three years passed and along comes “Y Tu Mamá También,” a road movie full of humour and enough sex to get it an 18+ rating in Mexico which, in turn, led to a an anti-censorship court case. His next project was the film adaptation of the third Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Then he dipped his toe into the sci-fi pool with “Children of Men,” which was very well received. Maybe enough for him to have another go with “Gravity.”

Worth the Oscar? Well, it was a spectacle and made good use of the available effects. There are a few times when a willing suspension of disbelief is pushed to the limits both scientifically and with regards to the story, but ultimately, put those aside and enjoy the ride.


9. Clint Eastwood – Million Dollar Baby – 2004

And now we come to the last of the six men best known as actors who went on to win the Best Director Oscar as mentioned in the 80’s and 90’s articles.

This one could be tricky… I mean, who doesn’t know everything there is to know about Clinton Eastwood Jr.? He worked odd jobs during and after high school, with stints as a hay baler, logger, truck driver and steel furnace stoker. In 1950, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed at Fort Ord where he served as a swimming instructor.

After his discharge in 1953, Eastwood went to Los Angeles where he took classes at Los Angeles City College and worked at a gas station. Tall and handsome, he landed a screen test with Universal and signed a contract despite minimal acting experience… but this isn’t about his acting.

His directorial debut was 1971’s “Play Misty For Me,” to my mind one hell of a start! That was followed by, among others, “High Plains Drifter,” “The Eiger Sanction,” “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” ‘Bird,” “Pale Rider”… not a bad canon of work for an actor working as a director! And he didn’t stop there… “Unforgiven,” “Gran Torino,” “Invictus,” and my all time favourite Eastwood directed film, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”


8. Martin Scorsese – The Departed – 2006

As far back as Martin Scorsese can remember, he always wanted to be a filmmaker. Growing up in New York’s Little Italy, the young Scorsese was prevented from playing sports by severe asthma, so he fell in love with movies instead. From Ingmar Bergman to Federico Fellini, his tastes were as wide ranging as the films he would come to make, leaving no genre untapped or unmastered.

After film school and the Roger Corman apprenticeship common among the 1970s “movie brats,” he began making New York tales of battered machismo and bloody redemption such as “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” all three starring Robert De Niro. The 80s brought dark laughs from “The King of Comedy,” dense literary adaptations such as “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and classic crime epics such as “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

The new millennium saw him looking back at the power struggles of the previous one with ‘Gangs of New York” and “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” both starring new muse Leonardo DiCaprio. The exuberance of his technique – all blaring rock ’n roll soundtracks, jarring jump cuts and ambitious tracking shots like the famous Copacabana club walk-through in “Goodfellas” – is matched by a real sense of character. Who can forget the threatening to-the-mirror monologues of Travis Bickle (“You talkin’ to me?”) or Jake LaMotta (“I coulda been a contender…”), the latter a quote from Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront.”

Scorsese’s characters seem to love movies as much as he does. Pivotal scenes in “Taxi Driver” and double-crossing cop thriller “The Departed” take place at the movies, while the children’s adventure “Hugo” is an ode to a forgotten hero of silent cinema. In 1990 Scorsese founded The Film Foundation, which is “dedicated to protecting and preserving motion-picture history.” Few would dispute that he is now an essential part of it himself.


7. Ang Lee – Brokeback Mountain – 2005 & Life Of Pi – 2012

“Every movie I make. That’s my hideout, the place I don’t quite understand, but feel most at home.” So says self-confessed outsider Ang Lee, a man whose films move from genre to genre so often it’s as though he can’t bear to stay in one spot.

Born in Taiwan but transplanted to China and then the United States, Lee “was never a citizen of any particular place,” he told Roger Ebert. He studied film in New York, where he worked on Spike Lee’s graduate movie (although it is hard to imagine two filmmakers with more different temperaments), and submitted two screenplays to a competition sponsored by the Taiwanese government.

They took first and second prizes, and became his directorial debut; “Pushing Hands” and its follow-up “The Wedding Banquet” are thoughtful culture clash dramas about Asians coming to grips with America. “Eat Drink Man Woman,” set in Taipei, completed a loose thematic trilogy.

Lee’s wandering muse took him to 19th century England for an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” the suburbs of 1970s America for “The Ice Storm,” and Qing dynasty China for the martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Aside from the clarity with which these disparate worlds are conjured, each film dramatises the tension between repression and self-expression. The aging lovers Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat in “Crouching Tiger” can’t show their feelings for each other; they are too proper, so they sublimate them in extraordinary, featherlight fight sequences.

The hero of comic book blockbuster “Hulk” had repression problems all his own. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain” is a tale of forbidden love between sheep herders in the 1960’s American West, and is proven to be Lee’s masterpiece. A film, like lead actor Heath Ledger, that is hoarse with unspoken feelings. It won Lee a Best Director Oscar, which he earned again for 3D adventure “Life of Pi.” Professional acceptance does not come much more emphatic, but whether Lee feels at home yet is another matter.


6. Peter Jackson – The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King – 2003

When a family friend saw how much an eight-year-old Peter Jackson loved taking photos, they bought him a super 8 cine camera and that’s how he began his career as a director. It wasn’t long before he started to develop his own special effects, made at a very low cost. For example, in his film “World War Two,” he simulated a firing gun by punching pinholes into the celluloid, so that, once projected, the gun gave the impression of displaying a small fire.

At 22 he started making another of his films in an amateur style, on a low budget, and using friends and local people to star in his film. It took four years to finish, and what had started out as a bit of fun amongst friends got a boost when one of Jackson’s film industry friends arranged for it to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. That film was “Bad Taste”; it won a lot of acclaim, a few prizes, and became a cult classic. The next 10 years saw him establishing himself as a top line director; “Meet The Feebles,” “Braindead,” “Heavenly Creatures,” “The Frighteners,” and then came the big one.

“The Lord of the Rings” is one of the best selling novels ever written, with more than 150 million copies sold, and is obvious adaptation fodder. The problem lay in the scope and nature of the source material. I mean… dwarves, dragons, goblins and elves? How are you supposed to bring those to life? The obvious first choice is radio and two versions were made within a couple of years of publication.

Another two were recorded in the 60s and 70s; the last one had Ian Holm, voicing Frodo Baggins and going on to play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. The other choice was animation and Ralph Bakshi started on his two-part adaptation but only completed the first half. The Beatles looked into making a live action film and approached Stanley Kubrick as a director; however, Kubrick turned down the offer, explaining to John Lennon that he thought the novel could not be adapted into a film due to its immensity.

It was a new millennium with new effects technology and the prince of low tech special effects to actually bring it to the screen. That and a bowel-quaking budget of $281 million. The three parts were filmed concurrently and hammered the Christmas box office for three years running. There were also 30 Oscar nominations (17 wins), spread over the three films, but it was only “The Return of the King” that really did well, scooping all 11 of the categories in which it was nominated. Oh… as for that huge production budget… the trilogy took in just short of $3 billion.



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