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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

5. Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire – 2008

There is something irrepressible about Danny Boyle’s work; a “Lust for Life,” to quote the surging soundtrack of “Trainspotting,” featuring Iggy Pop’s 1977 song. Flitting from genre to genre, each of his films is alive with possibility. From the opening sprint from the law in “Trainspotting” to the Bollywood dance number closing “Slumdog Millionaire,” these are movies that really move. Even “127 Hours,” the true-life tale of a man with his arm stuck under a rock, has an overcaffeinated energy all its own.

Brought up in a working class Irish Catholic household in Radcliffe, Lancashire, Boyle saw Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and found himself “sandblasted by the power of cinema,” as he told journalist Robert K. Elder. He directed theatre for the Royal Shakespeare Company, among others, and produced Alan Clarke’s short “Elephant” (1989) before embarking on his own in TV and film. “Shallow Grave” is a vicious little tale of flatmates fighting over a windfall, but it showcased Boyle’s largesse, especially when they start spending.

“Trainspotting” turned Irvine Welsh’s novel of Edinburgh heroin addicts into an amphetamine-infused Britpop masterpiece. Whether lovers on the run in “A Life Less Ordinary,” restless travellers in “The Beach” or sprinting “zombies” in “28 Days Later,” Boyle’s characters refuse to sit still — even the gentle “Millions” becomes a race against time for two schoolboys who stumble upon a fortune. No wonder Boyle disliked making the gorgeous “Sunshine,” a tribute to the lite-giving qualities of light; the locked-down sci-fi setting proved too restrictive for his roving camera.

With “Slumdog Millionaire,” the rags-to-riches tale of a Mumbai orphan on a high-stakes TV quiz show, Boyle hit the Oscar jackpot: the film was nominated for 10 Oscars and won eight, including Best Director. Criticised by some for what was seen as its heavily Westernised view of India, it nonetheless enjoyed massive worldwide success, grossing $2.2 million on its opening weekend in China alone.

Boyle kept up the momentum with “127 Hours,” nominated for six Academy Awards. and then headed back to Blighty to make “Trance” (2013), a psycho-thriller that travels at several times the speed of sense. Perhaps he works best when he is at the centre of the maelstrom, like the character in “Sunshine” who relaxes amid crashing, computer-generated seas, reasoning, “the waves make me feel peaceful.”


4. Ron Howard – A Beautiful Mind – 2001

An actor/director born into an acting family, Ron Howard found success at an early age; he was tutored at Desilu Studios in his younger years. At age six he was cast as young Opie Taylor in the sitcom The Andy Griffith Show,” and as someone born and raised outside of the United States this is all theory to me. The first time I became aware of him was as teenager Richie Cunningham in “Happy Days.”

He was still acting in “Happy Days” when he made his directorial debut with the 1977 low budget comedy/action film “Grand Theft Auto.” He got some experience directing TV movies and his big theatrical break came in 1982 with “Night Shift,” starring Michael Keaton, Shelley Long and Henry Winkler.

This has been followed by 25 films which nearly everybody will have seen at least some of – “Splash,” “Cocoon,” “Willow,” “Backdraft” and “The Da Vinci Code,” to name a few. He also has a knack of taking a subject which has a well known ending but still manages to have you leaning forward and wondering how things are going to turn out – “Apollo 13,” “Cinderella Man,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Rush,” and to a certain extent, “A Beautiful Mind.”

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,” and I am looking forward to seeing how he tackles the upcoming, as yet untitled, Young Han project.


3. Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman – 2014 & The Revenant – 2015

No matter where in the world he makes movies, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work has a hectic, randomly hewn rhythm that evokes Mexico City, his hometown. Juggling interconnected tales of happenstance and fate, he not only keeps all the balls in the air, but he does so with style to spare.

After working his way across Europe and Africa as a teenager, Iñárritu became a radio DJ, where he must have learned to balance all kinds of contrasting voices, then station director. He created his own production company and made his first feature, “Amores Perros,” in partnership with scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who penned all of the so-called Death Trilogy.

Beginning with a car crash, this Scorsese-esque drama about illegal dogfights showed different lives clattering together and was a critical and commercial success. “21 Grams,” another look at the spiralling consequences of an accident, transplanted the action to the United States and featured big name actors such as Sean Penn and even bigger themes such as parenthood, addiction and guilt.

“Babel” travelled further afield, setting its stories in Morocco, Mexico, the United States and Japan, across three continents and in four languages. “Biutiful,” Iñárritu’s first solo effort, is calmer and more focused than the films he made with Arriaga. Praised for its melancholy poetry, the film nonetheless had some critics complaining that Iñárritu was stuck in an unrelentingly grim rut. This is to miss, however, the unexpectedly gracious ending.

Black comedy “Birdman,” the tale of a washed-up actor played by Michael Keaton, who’s haunted by his role as a blockbuster superhero many decades earlier, may be his most frenetic work yet. A behind-the-scenes expose of Broadway madness, it captures the backstage chaos with a roving camera that barely ever seems to cut, so the whole thing feels impossibly like it is being shot live. How’s that for hectic?

Which brings us to “The Revenant.” Iñárritu revisits the issues and concerns of intense parental and filial relations, which audiences of his previous films readily recognise as a recurrent theme in his previous work. Others have compared it to the works of James Fenimore Cooper. Regardless, it is quite the epic and deserved its success.


2. Joel and Ethan Coen – No Country For Old Men – 2007

Roderick Jaynes, the Coen brothers’ loyal editor, was nominated for Oscars for both “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.” The kicker? He doesn’t exist. Ignore the credits: Joel and Ethan write, direct, produce and edit their own films. Jaynes is just another example of how these arch contrarians have sneaked into the Hollywood hierarchy without compromising their quirks – or their mystique.

Ever since childhood, when Joel raised money to buy a camera by mowing the lawns of suburban Minneapolis, the Coens have trod a seemingly random trail to the top. Their 1984 debut “Blood Simple” was a gritty noir. Next came wacky comedy “Raising Arizona.” A gangster film in “Miller’s Crossing.” “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski,” both comedies with a twist. Unlikely remakes such as “True Grit” and “The Ladykillers” rub shoulders with ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a Depression-era bluegrass musical based on Homer’s “The Odyssey.” There is no telling what they are going to do next.

The Coens’ characters must feel the same way. Whether luckless antiheroes or lovable losers, they find themselves on wild goose chases, ending back where they began, like Oscar Isaac’s folk singer in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Try as they might, they can’t escape destiny — as unforgettably embodied by Javier Bardem’s hideously coiffed, coin-tossing assassin in “No Country for Old Men.” Theirs are chaotic, amoral worlds.

To keep us guessing, the brothers are happy to leave plot threads dangling. “The Big Lebowski” makes mention of a huge bowling contest that never happens; major characters in “No Country for Old Men” meet their (presumably messy) fates off screen; and who knows what becomes of the ransom money so bitterly fought for in “Fargo”? One of the most infamous Coen tricks was to introduce the events of “Fargo” as “based on a true story” when they are not in the least. But it is just another way of saying “we’re not going to give you what you expect, but something better.” Jaynes, you imagine, would approve.


1. Roman Polanski – The Pianist – 2002

I’ll be honest, I’ve been a fan of Polanski’s movies for more than 40 years. He’s the first person made me aware of being a director and what a director does and how he can shape a film. It started with “Dance of the Vampires,” went on to “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown,” “The Ninth Gate,” “Frantic,” and I could keep going on.

He has lived a life very much in the spotlight, for good or ill. Born in Paris to Polish parents, the family moved to Kraków prior to World War II. Although self-professed agnostics, his parents were sent to concentration camps; his mother was sent to Auschwitz. The 10-year-old Polanski adopted the name Romek Wilk and went to live with Catholic families for awhile before roaming the countryside, fending for himself.

He attended the State Film School in Todz, making a number of short films beginning with the uncompleted “Rower” (“The Bicycle”). His feature length début “Nóż W Wodzie” (“Knife in the Water”) brought him international recognition and he went on to work in London, Paris and Los Angeles on such films as “Repulsion,” “Cul de Sac,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown” and “Tess.”

A traumatic life that includes his internment in a German concentration camp, the early death of his mother and the horrifying murder of his second wife, Sharon Tate, has been reflected in his artistic concern with alienation, individual isolation and the understanding of evil.



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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