With the abundance of franchise films, reboots and spin off movies, it’s often very easy to wonder where the creativity is in the film industry. A lot of movies we look forward to tend to open to underwhelming receptions or fail to meet our expectations, and while the law of averages would suggest that’s bound to be the case, it seems to be happening more and more each year.
While there are a million different lists or opinion pieces that this could evoke, today I’m going to be focusing on those movies – no matter how few and far between – which do meet or even exceed our expectations and keep us going back to the cinema through all the disappointments, and more specifically, the people most consistent at directing them.
It’s worth noting that this list is based on current form (last 10 years) and not overall success or career longevity. As such, the films mentioned to support my choices will have been released in the last decade and no further in the past. Please bear this in mind when wondering why certain directors may or may not be on the list, or why when talking about Martin Scorsese I don’t mention Goodfellas, for example. With that said, let’s get into the top 10 best directors working right now.
10. Martin Scorsese
Even in his 70’s Martin Scorsese is producing some of the best work in the film industry. From psychological thrillers to religion-based passion projects, Scorsese clearly still has range, and his relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio continues to reap great rewards. The duo also has another two films in the pipeline, with Killers of the Flower Moon and The Devil in the White City scheduled for 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Scorsese proved with his last two films, The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, that he still has heaps to offer. The former being a universally-loved, entertaining as hell movie with some career-best performances, and the latter (despite being underseen and pretty far from the mainstream with its subject matter) being an absolute master work.
Still going strong and with little sign of slowing down, Martin Scorsese is continuing to prove why he is so widely revered, with even his lesser-received films like Shutter Island still being a fan favourite.
While it does seem his strongest films are behind him, the work he is putting out is still far above most directors working today, and not only does he consistently bring us solid movie after solid movie, but it would be naive to believe he isn’t capable of giving us another truly great one at any time.
9. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Both Birdman and The Revenant showcase Inarritu’s innate ability and technical prowess to bring us ‘films’ in the most traditional sense of the word. His films tend to be thought-provoking, layered and poignant, while all the while being beautifully-crafted to the point of artistry. Take Birdman for example, a film whereby the entire thing is created to look like one continuous tracking shot, or The Revenant which features some of the most mind-boggling shots put to film in recent memory.
On top of his great work with cinematographers and choreographers, he is also very good at bringing out great performances from actors. The Revenant was the film that finally earned Leonardo DiCaprio his long-awaited Oscar, and it’s not hard to see why. Similarly, the entire cast of Birdman brought their A-game, from big names Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton, to Zach Galifianakis who at the time was best known for playing the slapstick role of Alan Garner in the Hangover trilogy.
While there are those who might label Inarritu’s works as pretentious, I believe that his work tackles a lot of issues and themes that are going otherwise untouched, and this can only be a good thing when said films are executed so well and so differently.
8. Edgar Wright
While I might be a little biased here as Wright is probably my favourite director and Baby Driver is certainly my favourite film of the year so far, I think I’m justified in saying that the Dorset-born writer-director-producer is one of the best working right now, and has been since he burst onto the movie scene in 2004.
His films are so intricately woven, wittily written and kinetically edited that every scene is a delight to watch. His visceral action scenes are shot with his signature style of whip pans, crash zooms and quick cuts, but never in a way that feels cheap or gimmicky.
He only has five films to his name, choosing to space his films out in favour of maintaining quality and generally being very picky with his projects, but when you watch his films you can see where that extra time and effort went. Mark Kermode put it best when reviewing Baby Driver earlier in the year, when he said something along the lines of ‘Watching [Baby Driver] is like watching an immensely talented director who is in love with his own movie say ‘Look, look what I can do with a camera’’. The energy and passion just oozes off the screen and you can’t help but admire the level of detail he commits to every single second of his films.
7. Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson is one of the most stylish and unique writer-directors in Hollywood right now, with his fun, quirky sense of humour and staple cast members making all of his movies feel like they exist in the same delightful universe.
While these are certainly hallmarks of Anderson’s work, nothing says ‘Wes Anderson’ more than watching an entire film which is set to a specific colour scheme and which rarely features a single frame that isn’t symmetrical or perfectly-composited. This could easily become a matter of style-over-substance, but thanks to his heart-warming stories and well-written scripts, this is rarely the case.
It would be fair to say that Anderson doesn’t have a bad film to his name, or even a film that is less than good. Not only that but as someone whose movies seem to be going from strength to strength, with his latest effort, The Grand Budapest Hotel, arguably being his best, the release of his 2018 stop-motion animated comedy Isle of Dogs can’t come soon enough.
6. Quentin Tarantino
Often cited as one of cinema’s great auteurs, Quentin Tarantino’s name is as high in the stratosphere as any director living or dead. While he’s certainly a causer of controversy and can often be overly self-indulgent, there’s no denying that QT is one of the greatest directors working today, and one of the greatest screenwriters to date.
Within the last 10 years he has made the war/mission movie Inglourious Basterds, a movie everybody wanted to hate due to its controversial subject matter (Jews killing Nazis), and yet one that is universally loved and even extremely critically acclaimed because it’s just that good. Similarly, Django Unchained, a movie about a slave who is freed in exchange for killing white folk, not only garnered critical acclaim, but even won Tarantino his second Oscar for ‘Best Original Screenplay’. Only Tarantino could get the Academy Award’s recognition with scripts of that nature.
One mark of a great director is someone who can make great movies across multiple genres, and though there is an argument to be made that Tarantino has created his own genre, within the constructs of traditional film genres he has taken on heist, crime, blaxploitation, kung-fu/martial arts, action-adventure, slasher/horror, war, western and mystery, and with his next two films will add historical and science-fiction to that list. Let’s hope he can continue to keep reaching those lofty heights.
5. Damien Chazelle
If Chazelle had more films to his name he’d probably be even higher on this list, but to have only two professional directing credits and be as well-recognised as he is speaks volumes about his potential. To have directed two movies that are as masterful as Whiplash and La La Land is one thing, but to have done so and won a ‘Best Director’ Oscar by the age of 32 is, quite literally, record breaking.
Much like Edgar Wright, Chazelle’s directing style is one filled to the brim with energy and passion. One only has to look as far as Whiplash – a music-based/thriller/drama that is essentially shot as though it were a sports movie – to experience the types of controlled close-ups and fast-paced editing (which Chazelle does himself) that goes into his films.
That said, on La La Land he showed that he is also more than capable of shooting extended dance sequences and musical numbers with long, unbroken shots.
People everywhere are excited to see what Chazelle can do with his upcoming film First Man starring Ryan Gosling, as well as a film he’s written but that is being helmed by Ericson Core entitled The Claim. One of the strongest starts to any writer-director’s filmography, let’s just hope his career trajectory goes something like that of Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino, and not like that of M. Night Shyamalan.
4. Paul Thomas Anderson
Although Anderson’s more recent films have leaned heavily in the direction of esoteric in comparison with his more mainstream earlier works, there is still an immense amount of talent and work going into them.
Anderson is one of the best filmmakers – I would argue maybe the best filmmaker – working today when it comes to bringing terrific performances from actors. If you look at some of the best performances in the last ten years, Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood would be in serious contention to top the list, while Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performances in The Master wouldn’t be far behind, and if early buzz surrounding Vicky Krieps’ performance in Phantom Thread is to be believed, then add that to the list too.
He has written all of his own movies (some adapted from books) as well as directing them, and on his new movie Phantom Thread even acted as his own cinematographer. He’s an auteur if ever there was one, and his technical abilities are abundantly clear (as the film isn’t out yet, it’s too early to comment on his skills as a DOP, though I suspect they may not quite be up to the standard of long time collaborator Robert Elswit).
PTA specialises in dark, twisted character studies that often deal with damaged characters in the ‘rise and fall’ story, often looking for some sort of redemption. This is a type of depth that you simply don’t see in 99% of movies today and while definitely not for everyone, Anderson’s films really do offer something different to what the average movie-goer is looking for, so if you find yourself wanting a deeper film experience that will stay with you long after the film is over, look no further.
Anderson has made one of the very best films of the 21st century so far with 2007’s There Will Be Blood, as well as his 2012 masterpiece The Master, which I honestly believe is almost as good and deserves tonnes more attention than it receives. While the Coen brothers-esque Inherent Vice wasn’t necessarily everything everyone wanted it to be, it did show Anderson’s ability to be versatile and take on a more light-hearted project, and if that’s the weakest film in his filmography then that right there warrants his place on this list.
3. David Fincher
In the last decade David Fincher has brought to us a wealth of deservedly acclaimed films, including Zodiac, The Social Network and Gone Girl. With such intricate, dramatic and thematically rich films already in his filmography, it comes as a shock to most that his next venture will be that of the zombie sequel World War Z 2. Still, if it’s half as good as his other movies, we’ll be watching with eagle eyes.
Fincher has turned his efforts to television recently with the hit show Mindhunter, but will be back to direct on the big screen in 2019. Though often going unmentioned on these types of lists, Fincher really is one of the best directors working today, and his efforts often go overlooked due to the fact that he is an ‘invisible director’, in that he likes to give audiences as seamless an experience as possible, and so you never look at the direction or notice how well executed his movies are, because you fall into their stories and forget that you’re watching them.
One of the most prominent criticisms of films at the moment is the use of CGI, but Fincher is a perfect example of why that criticism should actually be ‘the use of noticeable CGI’. Take The Social Network, for example: there’s a tonne of CGI in that, but you’d never know, because it’s so well-incorporated, and as such, doesn’t come across as cheap or take you out of the experience. A truly underrated director in my opinion, and one of the very best in the world (and has been for 20+ years), David Fincher gets third spot on the list.
2. Christopher Nolan
Ever since his debut feature film, Memento, back in 2000, Christopher Nolan has been the name on a lot of people’s lips, but when The Dark Knight came out in 2008 and changed the superhero game forever, he was destined to go on to great things. Since then he has made the inventive and intelligent blockbuster Inception, as well as one of this year’s best films (and one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema) with Dunkirk.
While Interstellar was polarising, with some people maligning it due to its expositional dialogue, sentimentality and overall likeness to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, you can’t help but marvel at the technical brilliance, visual effects and sheer scale of this space epic. Nolan did insane amounts of research and the film is generally cited as one of the most scientifically accurate films out there. He also worked hard on improving upon the criticism most often levelled at him which is that his films are often not very emotionally investing. It seems he maybe overshot the ending but the relationship between Cooper and Murph is a touching one and definitely shows that he has that in his locker.
Nolan also has a very efficient output-rate, with nine films in seventeen years, averaging more than a film every other year since he burst onto the scene with his aforementioned neo-noir crime-thriller.
1. Denis Villeneuve
In the last 8 years, Villeneuve has made seven films. Not only is that a hell of an output rate, with some of his movies even being made and released in the same year as each other, but it’s also an extremely high and consistent quality of film that he is bringing us.
Villeneuve’s first few films were smaller, more personal stories, and have since grown in size to big sci-fi films with universal messages and themes about language, time and what it means to have a soul. While there are people out there hoping that Villeneuve doesn’t just become some big sci-fi blockbuster director (his next movie is a remake of Dune), and while I can entirely see those people’s points of view, if he can continue to make them as well as he made Blade Runner 2049, you won’t catch me complaining.
No matter how big his films are, they always manage to somehow be small. Blade Runner 2049 might be a futuristic, 2 hour 45 minute science fiction epic, but really it’s about one man’s journey (both inward and outward) to discover who he really is. Arrival – while appearing to be an alien-invasion movie on the surface – is (spoilers) really a movie about a mother and daughter. This emotion is what grounds these huge films and makes them relatable, engaging and real. This is the type of emotion and humanity that
Christopher Nolan is criticised for not having, but the fact is very few directors do, because it’s extremely difficult to do without coming across sentimental or manipulative. Prisoners, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 could all be called the best film of the year they were released, and Denis Villeneuve certainly is the best director of the 2010s, and therefore the best director working in the world right now. Hopefully he can keep his focus, maintain his work ethic and collaborate again with the surely soon-to-be-Oscar-winner Roger Deakins.
I’d like to give five honourable mentions to Steven Spielberg (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight, Boyhood), Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Drive) and the Coen brothers (No Country For Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis), all of whom nearly made the list. Of course there are others, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.
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