This article is part of a three-part series about the best Hollywood directors of all time, stretching from the birth of sound films until the modern day. This is the third and final part of that series where I will list the Top 25 Modern Hollywood Directors who are making their mark on the industry today. I have ranked them by their recent impact on Hollywood, general audiences, American culture, my own appreciation of film, as well as their upward career trajectory and consistent body of work at the present time. Considering the wide range of technology and techniques available for Modern directors, I will also consider those who have made use of these innovations to develop their own distinct style and that use that to make their mark on the industry. For the purposes of this list I have defined Modern Hollywood as beginning the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and lasting until the present day. Many of these filmmakers may have gotten their start as early as the mid 80’s, but by and large many of them started out in the 1990’s or reached peak form between then and the early 21st century. These directors remain our best artists working in the film industry today.
Modern Hollywood filmmaking began in the aftermath of the rise of the blockbuster in the 1980’s and the rise of the independent film scene in the 1990’s. This has lead to many major Hollywood studios dividing their efforts between large blockbuster releases in the Spring and Summer to rake in big bucks off of known properties, and then to produce small-to-mid-budget films in the Fall and Winter to win awards and prestige. Many of these directors are experts at walking the narrow line between these two types of films and have established their own brand that allows them to remain financially successful even as their budget sizes vary. While directors in Classical Hollywood largely got their start in the early industry and New Hollywood directors got their starts on television or in film school, many Modern Hollywood directors got started in a variety of other areas like commercials, music videos, or even just teaching themselves how to make movies by watching a lot of them. Regardless of what you think the current state of Hollywood is, these filmmakers continue to forge their own paths and make a mark on the industry. The first two parts of the series can be found here for Classical Hollywood (1940’s-1960’s) or New Hollywood (1960’s-1980’s). Without further ado, here’s the list:
J. J. Abrams (1966-present): Although J. J. Abrams knew from a young age that he wanted to make movies, he went to Sarah Lawrence College rather than film school because his father told him “It’s more important that you go off and learn what to make movies about than how to make movies.” Abrams began working in film in high school when he began to write film treatments, and then in 1994 began working for “Propellerheads,” a computer animation team that was eventually hired to work on Shrek. In 1998 Abrams and Matt Reeves created the hit TV series Felicity, and then founded his production company Bad Robot along with Bryan Burk in 2001. After creating the TV series Alias in 2001 and then Lost in 2004, Abrams turned to feature films in 2006 with Mission: Impossible III. Soon Abrams’ career took off and in 2008 he produced Cloverfield, beginning the signature anthology series of his production company, and then directed the 2009 remake of Star Trek and its 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness. He also brought a more personal project to theaters in 2011 with the film Super 8. After reviving Star Trek, Abrams revived another classic film series when he directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015. As much a force as a director as he is a producer, Abrams has become a growing name in the industry, especially in recent years.
Best Film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
James Cameron (1954-present): More of a groundbreaking visual effects artist than a qualified director, James Cameron got his start directing under Roger Corman with Piranha II: The Spawning in 1981. While making that film, Cameron had a nightmare that he developed into a multi-million dollar film franchise with The Terminator in 1984 and its Oscar-winning sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 1991. Between those two films Cameron made waves in the sci-fi and visual effects fields with 1986’s Aliens and 1989’s The Abyss, both of which made huge strides forward in film technology like CGI. Cameron then directed the 1994 action comedy True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis before directing 1997’s Titanic, a technical marvel of every sort. Titanic won Cameron an Oscar and made enough money to fuel him on the twelve-year project that lead to 2009’s Avatar. Although both films have been disparaged for their limited storytelling, both produced major advances in CGI and motion-capture. Cameron is now caught up developing the next three Avatar movies, with the next scheduled for release in December 2018. We’ll just have to see if audiences are ready for a sequel after nine years.
Best Film: Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Damien Chazelle (1985-present): With just three feature films under his belt, Damien Chazelle has already established himself as one of the best rising talents in Hollywood. Before graduating from Harvard, Chazelle produced his thesis project in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, his first of many films inspired by his history with jazz music. For the next few years Chazelle worked as a script doctor, fixing horror and thriller movie scripts like 2013’s Grand Piano, also about a musician. Chazelle then produced a short film based on a scene from his project entitled Whiplash, made as a proof-of-concept film for a larger movie that was submitted for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The film won a major prize and allowed Chazelle to make the feature-length version of the film starring Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons, which went on to win three Oscars and saw Chazelle get nominated for Adapted Screenplay. Before working on Whiplash, Chazelle and Harvard friend Justin Hurwitz began developing an idea for a movie entitled La La Land that was made after Whiplash and has made waves across the industry. A wonderful original film musical, the film is now an Oscar frontrunner and has cemented Chazelle among the cream of a rising crop of American filmmakers. Just this past December, William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) called Chazelle “the future of American filmmaking.”
Best Film: La La Land
Sofia Coppola (1971-present): Sofia Coppola’s father Francis Ford Coppola originally tried to make his daughter a successful actress including in his 1990 film The Godfather Part III in which Sofia starred as Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary. The performance was not well received and Sofia Coppola won the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actress, not an auspicious start for her film career. Coppola then turned to directing like her father, and her 1999 film The Virgin Suicides began her upward climb among modern American directors. Coppola followed up on that film with 2003’s Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, which at 32 made Coppola the third woman ever nominated for Best Director and won her the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Her third movie, Marie Antoinette divided critics at Cannes and elsewhere, while Coppola’s 2010 film Somewhere was better received but seen by few people. Coppola’s 2013 film The Bling Ring opened the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, starring Emma Watson as a member of a group of young girls who rob celebrity homes. Coppola is now working on a 2017 release called The Beguiled, set for release in June 2o17, and starring Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, and Nicole Kidman. The film is one of my most anticipated of the year, and can hopefully turn around Coppola’s career after a string of near-misses.
Best Film: Lost in Translation
Ava DuVernay (1972-present): Originally working as a journalist, Ava DuVernay was inspired to work in film by her childhood growing up and travelling with her aunt. DuVernay made her debut as a filmmaker with the documentary This Is the Life, about Los Angeles’ Good Life Cafe art movement, which premiered in 2008. DuVernay made a huge leap forward with a very personal narrative film in 2011 called I Will Follow, based on her relationship with her aunt as a young girl. The film, along with her next film Middle of Nowhere, quickly established DuVernay as a name to watch and she followed up on her promise with 2014’s Selma. Widely touted as one of the best films of recent years, seen by too few audience members and unfortunately too few Academy members, the film established DuVernay as among the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood. 2016 saw DuVernay release the documentary 13TH, about mass incarceration, with Netflix, and the premiere of her TV series Queen Sugar, both to critical acclaim. DuVernay’s next project is the 2018 film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, so keep her on your mind as she builds an even more amazing resume.
Best Film: Selma
Ron Howard (1954-present): Originally known for his child acting on TV shows like The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, Ron Howard made the transition to directing in 1977 with the low-budget action comedy Grand Theft Auto, under the tutelage of Roger Corman. The film ended up as a minor financial success, and Howard followed up on that film in the 1980’s with films like the romantic comedy Splash in 1984, Cocoon in 1985, Willow in 1988, The Paper in 1994, and then making it big with the 1995 film Apollo 13, which got nominated for nine Academy Awards. Howard followed up on Apollo 13 with his Best Picture-winning 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe in an award-winning performance as the late mathematician John Forbes Nash. After that career peak, Ron Howard has made films like Cinderella Man in 2005, also starring Crowe, Frost/Nixon in 2008, and Rush in 2013, proving that he still has talent outside of making Da Vinci Code sequels. He’s lower than others on this list as the peak years of his career may be behind him and he hasn’t had a runaway success in quite a while, but I would love to be proven wrong in the coming years.
Best Film: A Beautiful Mind
Michael Mann (1943-present): The definition of a stylized director, Michael Mann originally became interested in making movies after he saw Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Mann spent the late 1960’s and 1970’s working in Europe and on a variety of television and other projects before directing his first feature in 1981 called Thief. Afterwards Mann directed the 1983 horror adventure film The Keep and then the first adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon in the 1986 film Manhunter. In 1992 Mann stepped into the mainstream with the Daniel Day-Lewis adventure film Last of the Mohicans, and then in 1995 with his amazing crime drama Heat, which put Al Pacino and Robert De Niro opposite each other in a film for the first time ever. After the critical and commercial success of Heat, Mann directed another major success with 1999’s The Insider, also starring Pacino along with Russell Crowe, and Mann was nominated for Best Director. Mann followed up on that film with the 2001 film Ali, starring Will Smith and Jon Voight and the 2004 thriller Collateral, starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise. Another wonderful thriller, Collateral was a financial and critical success for Mann before a string of flops like Miami Vice and Blackhat with the ray of hope Public Enemies tucked in there. Mann is now working on a biopic about Enzo Ferrari for 2018, let’s hope it brings him back to his past degree of quality.
Best Film: Heat
Gus Van Sant (1952-present): Gus Van Sant became interested in moviemaking while growing up with an interest in both painting as well as making shorts with his Super 8 camera. After graduating college Van Sant moved to Los Angeles, where he became accustomed to portraying the more marginalized parts of LA society before his 1985 feature debut Mala Noche. Refusing to use his open homosexuality as “fodder” for his storytelling, in his words, Van Sant moved to Portland and made two excellent arthouse indie films with Drugstore Cowboy in 1989 and My Own Private Idaho in 1991. Van Sant broke into mainstream success with the 1995 To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon, before agreeing to direct a script written by two young Bostonians named Ben Affleck and Matt Damon called Good Will Hunting in 1997. After Good Will Hunting‘s success, Van Sant made films like Finding Forrester in 2000, Elephant in 2003, and another major success with 2008’s Milk starring an Oscar-winning performance by Sean Penn. Van Sant’s career is now in limbo after critics have panned his latest Sea of Trees, but he has a new biopic about cartoonist John Callahan starring Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, and Jonah Hill on the horizon so hopefully there’s room for recovery in the near future.
Best Film: Good Will Hunting
Denis Villeneuve (1967-present): This Quebec-born filmmaker began making shorts in the early 1990’s before his 2001 breakout film Maelstrom, and then the controversial 2009 film Polytechnique, about the 1989 Montreal University shootings. The next year Villeneuve released the film Incendies, a French-language film nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, before transitioning to Hollywood and now hitting it out of the park with a string of successful movies. Villeneuve’s recent films have included Prisoners in 2013, starring Hugh Jackman as a man searching for his kidnapped children, Enemy in 2014, starring Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as a man and his doppelganger, and now Sicario in 2015 and Arrival in 2016, both considered among the best films of their respective years. Villeneuve is seeking to keep his career on the up-and-up with Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sci-fi sequel starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, set for release this October. Villeneuve is also supposedly seeking to adapt the novel Dune for the big screen in the next few years, so it appears that there really is no stopping him.
Best Film: Prisoners
The Top 25:
25) Edgar Wright (1974-present): Edgar Wright got his start in filmmaking while working with a Super 8 and a camcorder when he was a kid and got a degree in Visual Design in 1994. The same year he made his debut with the low-budget parody Western A Fistful of Fingers before he began to work in television for the BBC. While working on the 1996 series Asylum, Wright met Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, who both asked him to direct their new TV series Spaced, through which Wright also met Simon Pegg’s friend Nick Frost. Spaced was soon a huge success on Channel 4, and it allowed Edgar Wright to begin work on his first major feature film in 2003 on what would become Shaun of the Dead, starring Pegg and Frost as slackers caught up in a hilarious version of a zombie apocalypse. This became the first film in a trilogy called the “Cornetto Trilogy” after a flavor of ice cream representative of each entry in the series. The next two entries in the series, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End continued Wright’s success, as did his 2010 adaptation of the comic book series Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Wright has made his mark as one of our finest comedy directors and will hopefully continue to work his magic on the 2017 release Baby Driver and his first animated film, 2019’s Shadows.
Best Film: Hot Fuzz
24) Paul Greengrass (1955-present): Another Englishman with his roots in television for the series World in Action before he directed the non-fiction TV film The One That Got Away. Always concerned with real-life events and government secrets, he followed up on his TV debut with the 1998 feature film The Theory of Flight, starring Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter before his 2002 film Bloody Sunday made him a well-known name in the industry. In 2004 Greengrass was hired to replace Doug Liman directing The Bourne Supremacy, the sequel to Liman’s 2002 film The Bourne Identity. For better or worse the film popularized shaky-cam in action films, although to Greengrass’ credit, he uses it with a much higher quality and skill-level than most other action directors. In addition to the third film in the trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum, which was released in 2007, Greengrass truly made a name for himself in 2006 with the film United 93, based on the real-life events of the one flight that didn’t hit its target on 9/11, and earning Greengrass an Oscar nomination. 2010’s Green Zone received mixed reviews, but Greengrass proved himself again in 2013 with Captain Phillips. Although Jason Bourne wasn’t the hit like its predecessors, Greengrass continues his work and is slated to direct a 2018 adaptation of the George Orwell novel 1984. Sounds right up his alley.
Best Film: United 93
23) Todd Haynes (1961-present): Todd Haynes became interested in movies at an early age and graduated with a degree in Arts and Semiotics from Brown, during which he made a number of student films. After graduating, Haynes moved to New York City and began working on independent films like Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story before making his feature debut in 1991 with Poison, drawing on the works of gay writer Jean Genet. The film earned some controversy but Haynes continued working with the 1995 film Safe, his first collaboration with Julianne Moore, and then in 1998 with Velvet Goldmine, which starred Christian Bale and Ewan McGregor. Haynes’ career took a huge leap forward in 2002 with Far From Heaven, a 1950’s period drama about a woman, played by Moore, who finds out that her husband, played by Dennis Quaid, is gay and then begins an affair with her African-American gardener, played by Dennis Haysbert. The film’s theme of forbidden love is a familiar one for Haynes, and he made another major step forward in 2007 with I’m Not There, a biopic about Boby Dylan starring six actors as Dylan: Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, the late Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, and Christian Bale. After directing the Emmy-winning HBO series Mildred Pierce, Haynes directed his best and most well-crafted film yet in 2015 with Carol, starring Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lesbian lovers in the 1950’s. Haynes is set to return in 2017 with Wonderstruck, also starring Moore and hopefully again proving Haynes as one of our best and most underrated talents.
Best Film: Carol
22) David O. Russell (1958-present): Raised in a middle-class New York household, David O. Russell got into filmmaking after picking up a Super 8 around the time he fell in love with films like Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Shampoo. Russell then directed a couple of shorts that were screened at Sundance before making his feature debut in 1994 called Spanking the Monkey, representative of his darkly comical early efforts and winning serious acclaim. Russell followed his debut with the 1996 Ben Stiller film Flirting with Disaster and then the Gulf War comedy Three Kings. However, after videos emerged of him yelling and arguing with actors on the set of his next comedy, I ♥ Huckabees, Russell’s career began to sink, although his future muse, Jennifer Lawrence saw the film and loved it. It took Russell six years to complete another film, but his 2010 film The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg as welterweight boxer Mickey Ward and Christian Bale as his trainer and half-brother Dickie Eklund, as well as an Oscar-winning turn from Melissa Leo as his mother Alice, Russell was back in top form and found major success. Russell soon met Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, both featured in his next two successes, Silver Linings Playbook in 2012 and American Hustle in 2013, as well as Joy in 2015. Although those films have walked a narrow line between Russell’s trademark humor and Scorsese rip-offs, Russell continues to be a major name among Hollywood directors to this day.
Best Film: American Hustle
21) Bennett Miller (1966-present): As a young man, Bennett Miller had the luck of meeting a young actor named Philip Seymour Hoffman, and both ended up at the Tisch School at NYU, with Miller dropping out just before graduating. Even without a degree, Miller began working as a filmmaker with the 1998 documentary film The Cruise, about life on New York City buses, which surprised even Miller with its success. Afterwards Miller chose to work on his narrative debut with Hoffman for the film Capote, in which Hoffman played legendary writer Truman Capote. The film was a financial and critical success, with Hoffman winning Best Actor and Miller nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. Six years later Miller worked with another of Hollywood’s best actors, Brad Pitt, to make the film Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’ novel and with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. The late Hoffman also appeared in the film along with Jonah Hill, Chris Pratt, and Robin Wright and the film proved another all-around success for Miller. Miller was nominated for Best Director a second time for his 2014 film Foxcatcher, which starred a transformative Steve Carell, as well as Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Although not financially successful, critics liked the film and now Miller is working on a Tom Stoppard-penned adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Best Film: Moneyball
20) Jason Reitman (1977-present): There are few people born to make films like Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman the director of Ghostbusters, Stripes, and Kindergarten Cop. From a young age Jason Reitman was a movie geek and his father taught him everything he needed to know about making movies. Soon enough the young Reitman began writing film scripts, then working on commercials and short films of his own. In 2006 Reitman directed his first feature film, Thank You For Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley’s novel of the same name and starring Aaron Eckhart as a tobacco lobbyist. The film was critically and commercially well-received, and around this time film producer Mason Novick sent Reitman a script by Diablo Cody called Juno that Reitman soon adapted into a feature film starring Ellen Page in 2007. The film made Reitman a household name overnight and he followed it up with another great film called Up in the Air, which followed George Clooney as a man whose job is to fire people amid the Great Recession, with the film released in 2009. For those two films Reitman got nominated both times for Best Director, and despite the limited success of Young Adult in 2011 he’s currently on a trough in his career, with his 2017 film Tully also written by Cody, and very much awaited.
Best Film: Juno
19) Peter Jackson (1961-present): There are few minds as creative and inspired in Hollywood today as Peter Jackson. Inspired by the TV shows Thunderbirds and Monty Python’s Flying Circus as a child, Jackson began making short films with his friends with a specialty in “splatter” comedies filled with fake blood like Bad Taste, Braindead, and Meet the Feebles in the 1980’s. In 1994 Jackson became an international success with the film Heavenly Creatures, based on the real-life Parker-Hulme murder case and starring young actresses Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey in the leads. After Jackson’s next picture, 1996’s The Frighteners, he won the rights in 1997 to adapt J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy for the screen, with the films shot back-to-back between October 1999 and December 2000. The films speak for themselves as each one of them became a smash success both financially and critically, winning Jackson the Oscar for Best Director in 2004 for the final entry in the series, Return of the King, which also won a record-tying 11 Oscars. Jackson also remade the classic monster film King Kong in 2005 to great success again, but has since struggled finding good material to work with like with The Lovely Bones and now the Hobbit trilogy, which has the commercial but not quite the financial success of his earlier trilogy. However, Jackson remains a popular name in Hollywood and he has many potential projects on the horizon.
Best Film: Return of the King
18) Guillermo del Toro (1964-present): Guillermo del Toro began his filmmaking passion with a Super 8 camera as a child, playing with Planet of the Apes toys, before he grew up and began making short films. In this time he met other up-and-coming Mexican filmmakers like Emmanuel Lubezki and Alfonso Cuarón, and studied make-up and special effects under Dick Smith. In 1997 del Toro was able to make his first feature film, Mimic, which received positive reviews, and allowed del Toro to pursue comic book adaptations like Blade II and Hellboy, as well as its sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Around that time del Toro was able to explore his fascination with monsters and fairy tales in films like The Devil’s Backbone in 2001, his masterful Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006, Pacific Rim in 2013, and Crimson Peak in 2015. Pan’s Labyrinth saw del Toro nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and has become emblematic of his trademark horror-driven style. Guillermo del Toro continues to be one of the most innovative and well-liked filmmakers in Hollywood, and look for his next film The Shape of Water, scheduled for release sometime later this year.
Best Film: Pan’s Labyrinth
17) Kathryn Bigelow (1951-present): Kathryn Bigelow wanted to be an artist for most of her youth before graduating with with an MFA from Columbia University, and her early film The Set-Up was appreciated by professor and legendary filmmaker Miloš Forman. After graduating, Bigelow directed her first feature film The Loveless in 1982 and then Near Dark in 1987 before hitting it big with Blue Steel in 1990, Point Break in 1991, and Strange Days in 1995. Bigelow’s films took a turn for the more personal and less conventional in 2000 with her adaptation of The Weight of Water, about two women suffocated by their relationships. Eight years later Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker premiered at the Venice Film Festival to rave reviews before its theatrical release in June 2009. The film made Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie into stars, but the film had no bigger star than Bigelow herself. Bigelow’s film went on to win six Oscars, including a win for Best Director, making her the award’s first female winner. Bigelow followed up on The Hurt Locker with another major war drama, Zero Dark Thirty, in 2012, that saw her get serious acclaim once more. Bigelow is now working on a film set in the 1967 Detroit Riots, which is set for release sometime this year.
Best Film: Zero Dark Thirty
16) Danny Boyle (1956-present): Like Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle originally wanted to be a priest when he was a child before later studying English and Drama in college, and got his start directing theatre in 1982. Five years later Boyle began working for BBC Northern Ireland on television, directing a number of popular TV programs before his 1994 feature debut Shallow Grave, a black comedy crime film starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston. Two years later Boyle and Shallow Grave screenwriter John Hodge earned international success with the film Trainspotting, also starring McGregor, which Boyle followed by adapting the novel The Beach for the screen starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Boyle then worked adapting Alex Garland’s screenplay 28 Days Later for the screen, which became an international success and an instant classic of the horror genre. After directing the film Sunshine in 2007, Boyle directed the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win Best Picture and Boyle Best Director, in addition to massive financial and critical acclaim. Boyle has continued to do great work with 127 Hours in 2010 and Steve Jobs in 2015, and is now working on a sequel to Trainspotting called T2, set for release this February.
Best Film: Trainspotting
15) Clint Eastwood (1930-present): Clint Eastwood has some of the other directors on this list beat by about twenty-five years, Eastwood making his name as a famous actor before he turned to directing in 1971 with the film Play Misty For Me, in which he also starred as a radio DJ stalked by an obsessed fan. Almost instantly Eastwood became a popular director, although his career would not hit its stride until the 1990’s, which is why he’s on this list. In 1992 Eastwood directed the film Unforgiven, now a classic of the Western genre, and one of the first modern Westerns to win Best Picture, with Eastwood winning his first Oscar for Best Director. Eastwood continued with success after success like The Bridges of Madison County in 1995, Mystic River in 2003, and winning Best Director again for Million Dollar Baby, released in 2004. Eastwood remains one of modern Hollywood’s most consistent and popular directors with films like Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, and more recently with American Sniper and now Sully. He has consistently featured great acting in his movies, whether his own or others, that has made Eastwood the director he is today. Like him or not it’s hard to doubt Clint Eastwood’s success and talent with an output better than many directors half of his age.
Best Film: Million Dollar Baby
14) Steven Soderbergh (1963-present): After graduating high school, Steven Soderbergh moved to Hollywood and got his start there editing films and then directing for television. He soon returned to his native Louisiana, and over eight days wrote the script for what would become Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which would go on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. At 26, Soderbergh became the second-youngest winner of the prestigious award, and followed it up with films like Kafka in 1991, King of the Hill in 1993, and Schizopolis in 1996 before making Out of Sight in 1998. Soderbergh’s banner year came in 2000 when he directed two major films: Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts as a woman fighting for the families of a small town, and Traffic, a masterfully-made film examining the War on Drugs from every angle. Nominated for the Oscar for Best Director twice in the same year, Soderbergh won for Traffic at age 37, making him among the award’s youngest winners. Soderbergh followed it up with commercial success in the Ocean’s trilogy starring George Clooney, and more recently Contagion in 2011, Magic Mike in 2012, and Side Effects in 2013, before turning to television to make The Knick. Although Soderbergh alleged that he would retire from filmmaking, he is returning this year with Logan Lucky, a heist comedy starring Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig, set for release this year.
Best Film: Traffic
13) Steve McQueen (1969-present): Born and raised in London and suffering from poor health in his youth, Steve McQueen took to the arts while in high school and college before going to Tisch to study filmmaking in NYU. After graduating, McQueen made his first major film, entitled Bear, in 1993, and then a number of short films or lesser-known films until finally achieving mainstream success in 2008 with Hunger, starring Michael Fassbender as Provisional IRA member Bobby Sands, who goes on a hunger strike. The film became a critical darling the world over and McQueen’s next feature, Shame, released in 2011, also starred Michael Fassbender, this time as a man with sex addiction. But it was McQueen’s next work with Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave, that cemented him firmly among the upper echelon of modern directors with a striking and terrifying look at American slavery starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. McQueen lost Best Director, but the film won Best Picture, and his next film, Widows, is set to be released sometime in 2018. Although Steve McQueen doesn’t have as large of a body of work as others on this list, his consistent quality is admirable.
Best Film: 12 Years a Slave
12) Alfonso Cuarón (1961-present): Like Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón grew up in Mexico City and met cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki while in college. Together Cuarón and Lubezki made a short film together called Vengeance is Mine, and after working some years as a technician, Cuarón became a film director and in 1991 released his feature debut Solo Con Tu Pareja. The film was successful and Cuarón then moved to the United States and released A Little Princess in 1995, Great Expectations in 1998, and then his breakout hit Y Tu Mamá También in 2001, for which Alfonso and his brother Carlos were nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Cuarón then achieved major financial success in 2004 with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hailed by many as the best film in the series. Cuarón’s next film, 2006’s Children of Men, has aged very well and since become a modern classic of science fiction, earning Cuarón an Oscar nomination for editing the film before Cuarón won Best Director in 2013 for Gravity, for which Lubezki won his first of three straight Oscars for his cinematography. Alfonso Cuarón is a unique talent among modern directors and is currently working on a new Spanish-language film, Roma, set for release sometime in 2017.
Best Film: Children of Men
11) Ang Lee (1954-present): Ang Lee grew up in Taiwan and was inspired to become a filmmaker when he saw the Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring. After serving in the military, Lee studied theatre at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign before getting a degree from Tisch and moving into feature films after his thesis attracted the William Morris Agency. In 1992 his film Pushing Hands was well-received, as was his 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman, before his breakout film, 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, adapted and starring Emma Thompson, as well as Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant. In 1999 Ang Lee’s old friend Li-Kong Hsu invited him to make a film based on the wuxia martial arts genre, and the result was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which got Lee his first Best Director nomination. After delving into big-budget filmmaking with 2003’s Hulk, Ang Lee returned to smaller pictures with 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, for which he won his first Directing Oscar. After the moderate success of his next film, 2007’s Lust, Caution, Lee made another groundbreaking film in 2012’s Life of Pi, an adapation of the popular Yann Martel novel that won four Oscars, including Lee’s second Best Director award. In 2016 Lee experienced outright failure for the first time with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, but still created a film that tried to use revolutionary technology to tell an engaging story as always. Lee is still trudging ahead, however, with his next project called Thrilla in Manila, to star David Oyelowo and Ray Fisher.
Best Film: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
10) Alejandro G. Iñárritu (1963-present): Alejandro González Iñárritu, like Cuarón and del Toro, is a member of the rising tide of successful Mexican directors, who traveled a lot in Africa and Europe in his childhood before returning home to study film. Originally a radio host known for using music to tell a narrative, Iñárritu began writing and directing films in the 1990’s and achieved his first major success in 2000 with Amores perros, an interweaving tale of Mexican society. Iñárritu would use a similar storytelling format in his next feature, 21 Grams, which starred Benicio del Toro, Naomi Watts, and Sean Penn, and then his 2006 feature Babel, which starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, and Koji Yakusho. Iñárritu was nominated for Best Director before directing his next film, 2010’s Biutiful, starring Javier Bardem, and then developing the film that would make him a household name, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The film was a comeback for Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, as well as a big step forward for Emma Stone and Iñárritu, who won Best Director and Original Screenplay for the film. Iñárritu’s next film, The Revenant, became known for its daunting shoot, and Iñárritu won his second Oscar. Iñárritu is now working on a television series while fans will continue to anticipate his awaited return to the big screen.
Best Film: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
9) Alexander Payne (1961-present): Alexander Payne began his career after studying Spanish and history, working with a Super 8 that his father gave to him when he was 14. Payne then got his MFA from UCLA Film School and his first film, The Passion of Martin, brought him to the attention of studio executives who financed his first major feature in 1996, Citizen Ruth. Although the film was financially unsuccessful, it was appreciated by critics and Payne’s next work was on the 1999 dark comedy satire Election, starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. Election got Payne an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and his next film, About Schmidt, was also a huge success. Payne’s fourth feature, 2004’s Sideways, won Payne the Adapted Screenplay Oscar and got him his first Best Director nod. Seven years later Payne won Adapted Screenplay again with 2011’s The Descendants, starring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, and then a third Directing nomination for 2013’s Nebraska. Payne’s unique and wonderful stories concerned with Midwest American life make him one of our most underrated directors and more than deserving off all of the praise that him and his films gets. Alexander Payne’s next film, Downsizing, is slated for a Christmas 2017 release and is among my most anticipated of this year.
Best Film: Election
8) Richard Linklater (1960-present): Richard Linklater dropped out of college to work on an oil rig, and during his time back on land spent much of his free time visiting movie theaters before he bought a Super 8 camera and began his career. From these modest beginnings, Linklater moved to Austin and with friend Lee Daniel founded the Austin Film Society. In 1988 Linklater finally finished his first film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books before making his first major film in 1991’s Slacker, which became the first of a number of films exploring Linklater’s laid back and philosophical take on life. He continued with films like the 1993 classic Dazed and Confused, the Before trilogy, as well as innovative films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Linklater also explored more mainstream filmmaking with movies like School of Rock, Bad News Bears, and Bernie before making his greatest film to-date: Boyhood. The film has since rightfully been deemed among the best of the 21st century for its unique portrayal of a modern coming-of-age tale, perfectly matched for Linklater’s style. A near-miss for Best Director, Richard Linklater continues to work, with films like 2016’s Everybody Wants Some!! and his newest Last Flag Flying, a sequel to The Last Detail, set for release sometime in 2017.
Best Film: Boyhood
7) Darren Aronofsky (1969-present): Darren Aronofsky grew up in Brooklyn and his parents would often take him to see Broadway shows that sparked his interest in show business. Aronofsky studied filmmaking at Harvard, where he met Sean Gullette, who starred in Aronofsky’s first feature film Pi, about a number theorist who becomes involved in a paranoid tale around unraveling a secret hidden in the number π. The film won Aronofsky the directing award at Sundance, and became a financial success on a very small budget that allowed Aronofsky to make his next feature film, Requiem for a Dream, starring Jared Leto and Ellen Burstyn as drug addicts. After the box office disappointment that was 2006’s The Fountain, Aronofsky entered the mainstream with 2008’s The Wrestler, which featured a comeback performance by Mickey Rourke, and then his 2010 film Black Swan, which won Natalie Portman Best Actress and saw Aronofsky nominated for Best Director. In 2014 Aronofsky moved in a bigger and bolder direction with the biblical epic Noah, and is now working on the 2017 drama Mother, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, set for release this year. Darren Aronofsky is one of modern Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors regardless of what genre he works in, and proves himself as a bold filmmaker with every new outing.
Best Film: Black Swan
6) Wes Anderson (1969-present): Wes Anderson grew up in a divided household, making silent films on his Super 8 camera and hoping one day to be a writer. Anderson attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he met friend and collaborator Owen Wilson, as well as his brother Luke, with whom he worked on his feature film debut, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, in which the Wilsons starred. Although well-reviewed, the film was a financial failure, but allowed Anderson to make his first major film in 1998, Rushmore, starring Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. The film introduced Anderson’s unique take on adolescence and children struggling with authority figures that would follow him into his next film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which starred Gene Hackman as the patriarch of the title family. The film was a financial success and earned Anderson and Owen Wilson a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. After Tenenbaums, Anderson made two less-than-successful films with 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a disappointment to critics and fans, and 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, his most criminally-underwatched film.
To renew his career Anderson began to work in animation with 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, featuring an all-star cast lead by George Clooney and Meryl Streep, which was nominated for Best Animated Feature. Anderson then made his most financially and critically-successful film yet in 2012 with Moonrise Kingdom, a delightful tale of young love in New England in the 1950’s, which got Anderson his second Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay along with friend Roman Coppola. After numerous collaborations with cinematographer Robert Yeoman and two collaborations with composer Alexandre Desplat, the three came together once more for Anderson’s biggest, and so far best film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Budapest got Anderson a long awaited Best Director nod and his third Original Screenplay nomination. Anderson’s trademark visual style have earned him the love of critics and an avid fanbase, including yours truly, who eagerly await his next films. Anderson is currently working on a return to animation, 2018’s Isle of Dogs, and he remains one of Hollywood’ best and most beloved talents.
Best Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel
5) Quentin Tarantino (1963-present): While young and growing up in Los Angeles, it might not surprise you to know that Quentin Tarantino saw films for those well beyond his years like Deliverance and Carnal Knowledge. Tarantino dropped out of high school and began working at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California, where he watched almost every film he could get his hands on and thus developed a near-encyclopedic knowledge of movies. After he met producer Lawrence Bender at a party, Tarantino was inspired to become a screenwriter, originally developing a script called My Best Friends Birthday that later became the basis for True Romance, to be directed by Tony Scott. One day while working at Video Archives, a misheard recommendation inspired the name for Tarantino’s filmmaking debut, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, which earned Tarantino instant success. After optioning off his scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers to big-name directors, Tarantino began working on his own next film, Pulp Fiction, starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and Bruce Willis. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Tarantino won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and a star was born.
Tarantino followed up on Pulp Fiction with films like Jackie Brown, which developed his keen sense of complex storytelling, and then Kill Bill, which in two parts became an action movie classic, as well as Tarantino’s first works with veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson. After helping make the Grindhouse double-feature with friend Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino adapted his long-awaited screenplay Inglorious Basterds for the screen, starring Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, and Diane Kruger in his most complex, well-crafted, and beautifully-made film yet. Three years later, Tarantino nearly topped himself again with Django Unchained, earning his best box office returns to date, and his second screenplay Oscar. After that Tarantino only slightly missed the mark with The Hateful Eight, and has said numerous times that he only plans to make ten films, although I’ll believe it when I see it. Tarantino has often been at the center of controversy for one thing or another, but he remains one of the most challenging and skilled writer-directors in Hollywood. Regardless of the era in which they are set, Tarantino’s films are always well-directed, well-acted, and certainly well-scripted.
Best Film: Inglorious Basterds
4) Christopher Nolan (1970-present): Like many filmmakers on this list, Christopher Nolan got his start playing with his father’s Super 8 camera when he was seven. Nolan began studying filmmaking while in college, where he met his future wife and collaborator Emma Thomas, before making his first feature film, 1997’s Doodlebug, which was followed by a lack of success and endless rejection. Nolan then made another film, funded by himself and starring his friends, called Following, shot on film stock over weekends for about a year. The film was picked up and gave Nolan’s career the momentum he needed to adapt the story “Memento Mori” by his brother Jonathan to film in 2000’s Memento, which starred Guy Pearce as a man who is pursuing his wife’s killer while also suffering from a form of amnesia that makes him unable to form new memories. The film became a major financial and critical success and earned Nolan an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, catapulting his career forward. Nolan then made the 2002 thriller Insomnia, personally picked by Steven Soderbergh, for which he fought for his choice of collaborators, cinematographer Wally Pfister and editor Dody Dorn. Warner Brothers then gave Nolan the pick of any project he wanted, and he decided to revive the Batman film franchise with Batman Begins in 2005, beginning the modern era of superhero films.
Between Batman Begins and its sequel, the even more groundbreaking The Dark Knight, Nolan laid out his signature style for deep and sophisticated storytelling with The Prestige, and then between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises with Inception. Inception became Nolan’s most acclaimed film by audiences and critics alike, winning four Oscars and getting Nolan his second Original Screenplay nomination. After Pfister stopped working with Nolan to direct his own films, Nolan hired Hoyte van Hoytema to DP his next film, 2014’s Interstellar, a film that also made big money at the box office even if it didn’t dazzle fans and critics like his previous outings. Nolan is now working on his next feature, the highly-anticipated Dunkirk, set for a July 2017 release, and delving into new territory for the still-young director. Christopher Nolan has succeeded like others near the top of this list because, as Mark Kermode said while reviewing Inception, proving “that it is possible for blockbusters and art to be the same thing.” He remains one of Hollywood’s most appreciated and noteworthy young talents for that reason.
Best Film: The Dark Knight
3) Paul Thomas Anderson (1970-present): Paul Thomas Anderson planned to become a filmmaker when he was eight years old, using a Betamax video camera and then an 8 mm to make his first movies. While in high school he made a short film called The Dirk Diggler Story, about a fictional pornography star, that would became the basis for his later film Boogie Nights. Before that, Anderson dropped out of NYU film school to work in movies and television, developing the film Cigarattes & Coffee in 1993, before expanding it into a feature film for 1994’s Sundance Film Festival. After receiving enough funding, Anderson made his feature debut in 1996 with Hard Eight, which was screened at Cannes and starred Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly, and launched Anderson’s career. Anderson’s next film, Boogie Nights, earned him a penchant for making excellent ensemble dramas, reviving Burt Reynolds’ career, and creating breakout roles for Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore, as well as earning Anderson an Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay. After Boogie Nights, Anderson was inspired by the music of Aimee Mann to make a much larger and more bold film called Magnolia, about interconnecting lives in the San Fernando Valley. The film earned Anderson another screenplay nomination and even more acclaim.
Going in a different direction, Anderson’s next film was 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, which proved Adam Sandler’s rare talent for dramatic acting, as well as starring Emily Watson and frequent Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anderson then spent the next five years working on a passion project after reading the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, which he adapted for the screen as There Will Be Blood. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his best role yet, with amazing music by Johnny Greenwood and cinematography by Robert Elswit, the film has since been hailed by critics and audiences as among the best films of the 21st century and among the best ever made. Anderson’s direction earned him his first Best Directing nod, and the film won two Oscars for Best Actor and Best Cinematography. Quotes like “I drink your milkshake” quickly became assimilated into the American cultural lexicon. Five years later, Anderson delivered another complex and well-made drama with The Master, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who were all nominated for their roles. Anderson’s most recent film, Inherent Vice proved the director a match for the complex storytelling of Thomas Pynchon, and his next film, an untitled fashion drama starring Daniel Day-Lewis, has cinemaphiles drooling at the mouth. Anderson has proven himself among the world’s most innovative and excellent filmmakers with plenty of his career still ahead of him.
Best Film: There Will Be Blood
2) Joel and Ethan Coen (1954/1957-present): Joel and Ethan Coen got their start by remaking films they saw on television with some neighborhood kids before Joel got a degree from NYU in filmmaking and Ethan degree from Princeton in philosophy. Joel began working in films as a production assistant and helped Sam Raimi finish The Evil Dead before the brothers made their first official film in 1984 entitled Blood Simple. The film starred Joel’s future wife Frances McDormand in a crime thriller set in rural Texas, a common setting for their films. The Coens began working for years on small projects like Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy, all of which have become classics in the grand body of work made by the brothers Coen. The Coens finally made it big in 1996 with the premiere of their groundbreaking film Fargo, starring McDorman, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi, by then already a standard in their films. The movie’s particular mix of drama, humor, and wonderful mise-en-scène has become the director’s trademark, and Fargo won McDormand an Oscar for Best Actress and the Coens Best Original Screenplay. And what a follow-up, as their next film was The Big Lebowski, starring Jeff Bridges in his signature role, as well as John Goodman and Buscemi. Although the film was nominated for few awards, it has since become a major cult classic, inspiring its own festival and philosophy.
The Coens continued their work into the 2000’s with O Brother, Where Art Thou? starring George Clooney, melding bluegrass music and the American South into a wonderful tale of runaway chain-gang members. After the well-made The Man Who Wasn’t There, the less successful Intolerable Cruelty, and the downright failure of The Ladykillers, the Coens came back in a big way with their 2007 film No Country For Old Men, adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. The film earned unanimous critical and audience acclaim, since becoming a modern classic, and winning the brothers their only Best Director Oscars so far, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. Since then films like Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, True Grit, and Inside Llewyn Davis have maintained the Coen brothers’ brand and made them some of the best and most recognizable filmmakers in modern Hollywood. Although Hail, Caesar! was more of an inside joke, the Coens continue to dazzle audiences with their excellent screenplays and penchant for great direction. Their body of work is unique in its size, lack of definable genres, and despite at times inconsistent quality, there is something wonderful and lovable about every one of them.
Best Film: Fargo
1) David Fincher (1962-present): Another artist inspired to make films with a Super 8 as a child, David Fincher decided he wanted to make films after seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Fincher worked as a set designer and director for the stage while in high school, before graduating and then going to work for Industrial Light & Magic, eventually working on the special effects for films like Return of the Jedi and Temple of Doom. Fincher then took his talents into making commercials and then music videos, including “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” by Jermaine Stewart, as well as “Express Yourself,” “Oh Father,” “Vogue,” and “Bad Girl” for Madonna. Fincher then founded Propaganda Films with some friends in the 1983, allowing him to hone his talents as a filmmaker before finally getting to direct for the first time on the floundering and often flustering environment of Alien 3. Oft-considered his worst film by fans and Fincher himself, Fincher considered quitting the industry until he came across the script for a film called Se7en by Andrew Kevin Walker, which he liked enough to direct. The film starred Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and its runaway critical and financial success salvaged Fincher’s young career.
After Se7en, Fincher worked on The Game, starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, about a man whose brother buys him a dangerous real-life game to teach him the meaning of living. Another critical success, Fincher then broke his rule about not reading books to read and then adapt the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club, again starring Pitt, as well as Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter. Although not Fincher’s best work and disliked by some critics, Fight Club became a cult classic and remains one of the most oft-referenced films of the 1990’s. Fincher’s next film was the more conventional Jodie Foster vehicle Panic Room, starring Foster, Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, and a young Kristen Stewart. Fincher’s style helped elevate the film, although he felt unsatisfied with the film and returned to making commercials and music videos for five years. Fincher spent those years developing his talent with CGI and digital video cameras, which came in handy for Fincher’s comeback with the 2007 film Zodiac. The film was underappreciated at the time, but has since become recognized as one of Fincher’s best and one of the best films of its time, starring Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Downey, Jr. in the Moby Dick-esque tale of the hunt for San Francisco’s Zodiac killer. Fincher was back, and his next film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, earned Fincher his first Oscar nomination for Best Director.
Although his career didn’t need much more forward momentum, Fincher signed on to helm a film based on Ben Mezrich’s novel The Accidental Billionaires, called The Social Network, adapted by Aaron Sorkin. Bringing his own distinct style and talent, Sorkin’s writing, great performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara, and Justin Timberlake, as well as music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and editing by Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, the film is damn-near perfect. Not a shot out of place and not anyone out of their element, Fincher became an instant frontrunner for Best Director, although he would only be nominated for his work. The film went on to win three Oscars, and Fincher has since enjoyed a career Renaissance, unbounded by any sort of genre or medium. He followed The Social Network with films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, also starring Mara, and Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Fincher has also found success on the small screen with the hit Netflix series House of Cards, for which he won an Emmy for directing the pilot. Fincher has not yet announced his next film, choosing to continue developing television shows like the upcoming Mindhunter, but he remains our best modern director for his talent at his craft, wonderful style, and consistently rewarding results.
Best Film: The Social Network
Make sure to check out the other two entries in this series with Classical Directors here and New Hollywood Directors here. If you don’t agree with any of the above rankings comment below and discuss them!