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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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  • 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

  • Youssef Rachad

    What the hell? Martin scorsese is below danny boyle and ron howard