We may say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to!” but the state of American cinema really hasn’t diminished so much as film distribution has faltered. Plenty of contemporary directors continue to deliver high-quality films, breathing new life into a medium that has yet to stop thriving.
There will always be room for discussion of the Kubricks and the Scorseses, but this list is focusing on directors who have not peaked any earlier than the nineties, and whose best work may very well still be ahead of them. Their contributions are always fresh and exciting even when they don’t reach masterpiece status, and they each could indeed birth a future classic at any moment in the coming years – in fact, some of them already have.
10. Jeff Nichols
Unlike the following nine filmmakers on this list, Jeff Nichols is a director whose style is not easily identified as uniquely his own. That isn’t necessarily a negative, however, because it’s his versatility that makes him shine. While his approach to stories remains pretty restrained throughout his work, the stories themselves are so different from one another that even the genre of his next output is totally unpredictable.
Just last year, he released two films with almost nothing in common aside from a couple of returning cast members. First was Midnight Special, an almost 80s-esque sci-fi thriller with a heart. It was a refreshingly original father-son tale that flew somewhat under the radar, while his second 2016 effort, Loving, has garnered awards recognition as a performance-driven historical drama.
Despite striking no resemblance in the content of their plots, both of these films are quietly effective and surprisingly similar in the softness of their tone. His three prior films were impressive as well, with Take Shelter being his most memorable work to date.
Nichols never opts for the traditional beats one would find in these genres, whether they be enormous action set-pieces or aggrandized powerhouse emotion. Instead he focuses on character, and just good old-fashioned storytelling. That sounds like it would be common, but it really isn’t in major films these days. Plus, this guy puts Michael Shannon in every movie he makes, which is already enough to build anticipation for each of his ventures.
9. Damien Chazelle
Likely on his way to becoming the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar in history, Damien Chazelle has proven in just the beginning of his filmography that he is ready for the big leagues. His work sort of mirrors his young age, with such youthful energy exuding through each vibrant sequence he creates. His writing has yet to be perfected but he more than makes up for it with symphonies of music set to fast-paced imagery, giving his films a beating pulse that reminds us of the magic of movies.
Following his jazz-themed debut, he set the scene with another film about the music he so loves, with Whiplash. Taking a story about becoming a drummer and turning it into a heart-pounding thriller (without any violence), Chazelle fused his adoration for the art of jazz with the power of film.
Then of course, he made La La Land, completing his trilogy of music-themed projects. It’s a modern musical that flies off the screen with its delicious colors and detailed choreography of not only the performers, but the camera itself. While one of these films is rivetingly suspenseful and the other is contagiously joyous, he applies to each of them the same ambitious directorial flair to provide an experience that stimulates the senses better than most films can achieve.
The filmmaker’s next effort is First Man with Ryan Gosling, which will deviate from the music genre to tell the story of Neil Armstrong and his space mission. Given the viscera scattered throughout his two prior efforts, there is no doubt that he will be able to make an audience feel as though they are walking on the moon.
8. Spike Jonze
With only four films under his directorial belt in an 18-year career, Spike Jonze’s pure originality is more than one could ask for in the vast majority of films. For a while there, it would have been easy to credit Charlie Kaufman with half the work for his ingeniously creative screenplays – and it would have been well-earned praise – but Jonze has since shown himself to be just as innovative with his ideas, and has yet to express them in a way that isn’t downright extraordinary.
Earning an Oscar nomination in the nineties for his feature debut, Being John Malkovich, he immediately showcased his eye for quirky worlds and magical realism, involving a portal into the mind of an actor. With Adaptation. in the 2000s, he went deeper into the psyche of an artist in a film so mind-bogglingly brilliant and meta that it would seem impossible to handle without turning into a mess, but he brought his A-game and drove its themes home with as much attention to detail as Kaufman’s script.
Best of all, though, is Her, which remains one of the cinematic highlights of the 2010s. Not only does it confirm his abilities as an innovative writer, but it further cements his talent as a director as he builds another universe of his own, balancing comedy and drama to create a melancholic atmosphere that perfectly suits its message about love and technology.
He spends more time making short videos than feature-length films, but the time gaps between each one only heightens expectations for each future project. No matter what he does, it is sure to be intelligently written, well-acted and beautifully directed. What more can you ask for?
7. David Fincher
The technical prowess of this man is undeniable. The perfectionist of his time, David Fincher’s work is without exception absolutely proficient from its editing and cinematography all the way down to its sound design. One or two pieces aside, he uses these elements to create a tone of darkness and dreariness, and he’s pretty darn effective at it.
This perfectionism is oftentimes met with meticulously structured stories, which is of course suitable to his style. But Fincher is at his best when he gets a little messy. Perhaps the most common favorite of his oeuvre is Fight Club, for which the praise is totally merited as it is a balls-to-the-wall darkly comedic explosion of mayhem, which contrasts delectably with Fincher’s precise techniques. His closest return to such a hectic meshing of tones and loose structure was with his most recent film, Gone Girl.
It is another example of his talents working most effectively with material that is slightly self-aware and – well, fun, than when he takes on stories with a more self-serious nature. That isn’t to say things like The Social Network aren’t great as well, though.
Rumored to helm the sequel to World War Z, any job Fincher takes is certain to be done better than just about any other director-for-hire can accomplish. It’s nice to know that he chooses projects he’s interested in as opposed to what will win him his (hopefully inevitable) Academy Award.
6. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
Speaking of Academy Awards, here’s the first director to win two consecutive Best Director Oscars since 1950. The interesting thing about Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu with respect to the others on this list, is that half of his filmography consists of foreign-language films. He’s kicking ass in Hollywood now, though, so he’s an easy inclusion. His films are thematically rich and powerfully acted on top of being so masterfully constructed by Iñárritu and his team.
Prior to his foray into American productions, his visual style was grounded in a rough sense of reality, with perhaps the most effective use of handheld camerawork in modern film. 21 Grams managed to be simultaneously gritty and emotionally impactful even without a chronological narrative structure.
Babel showcased this style to great effect with a frenetic urgency outlining humanity’s struggle to connect and communicate. All of his films up to this point were quite exceedingly depressing, which made it a surprise to see him pull off a comedy for his next piece: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
With Emmanuel Lubezki taking over the DP position to create a dreamier floating rhythm as opposed to the grittier work of Rodrigo Prieto, Iñárritu’s stamp still seeped through the film in a new kind of way, winning him three Oscars. Most recently, The Revenant mixed the new with the old as its breathtaking visuals were displayed against an exhaustively heavy journey at its center.
It’s a hard wait to see what Alejandro does next, and whom he will cast into likely career-best performances. Most exciting of all is his ambition to do whatever it takes to achieve something unlike anything that’s been done before. He’s had some excellent efforts so far but his total dedication may just lead to his best work yet in the future.