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Tuesday
Apr022013

Team Top Ten: Best Directors of the 21st Century

Steve McQueen didn't make the list but Fassy still loves him (as do many of our contributors)Amir here, to bring you the first edition of Team Top Ten, a communal list by all of Film Experience’s contributors that will sit in for our regular Tuesday Top Ten list once a month. For our first episode, we’ve decided to rank the best new directors of the 21st century. These are all directors who have made their first film after 2000. (Short films, TV and theatre work didn’t render anyone ineligible. Only feature length fiction and documentary films were considered.)  

I had a blast compiling the 18 lists of our contributors to arrive at the final ten because their submissions were incredibly eclectic and surprising. I’d made a bet with myself that Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) would top the list, and lo and behold, he failed to make the cut altogether, though by a very fine margin. Korean director Bong Joon Ho was also left off, despite showing up on more than a handful of lists. Jason Reitman, Joshua Marston, Rian Johnson and David Gordon Green all came very close too but this was a tightly contested race, evidenced by the three-way tie for our tenth spot. Overall, 71 directors got at least one vote. We travelled all the way from Japan to Portugal, from Greece to Mexico, via documentaries, comedies and superhero films. We loved stories about Muslim families, gay romances, World War II and the beautifully painted worlds of Sylvain Chomet. What we didn't like very much turned out to be actors-turned-directors, as current Oscar champ Ben Affleck got only a single vote, and George Clooney and Tommy Lee Jones failed to manage even that.

In the end, these are the twelve men and women Team Experience considers the best (thus far) of the 21st century crop:

=10. Michel Gondry
Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine, The Sciene of Sleep, Block Party, Be Kind Rewind, etcetera

Gondry's films are shaggy fantasies powered by a boundless imagination. They're more than a little goofy, speaking quirky as if it were a language, and they have an endearing handmade quality, with their maker's fingerprints visible around the rough edges. Bent as they are toward romance and optimism, Gondry's miniature worlds provide a little solace from reality.
- Andreas Stoehr

11 more directors after the jump

=10. Andrea Arnold
Wasp, Red Road, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights

It's tempting to sum Andrea Arnold up by reducing her women to the sum of their mistakes - cuz boy, do her women make some bad decisions - but the films themselves resist that simplification at every turn. From the get-go she's been dedicated to rendering "difficult" women with an almost journalistic flatness - there's nothing in the way of the usual sorts of judgement, not for these women or her men it should be noted; can you think of a film that's sexualized its sexual predator as much as Fish Tank did Michael Fassbender? Arnold never looks for the easy way out - she's much more interested in the fog on the moors.
- Jason Adams

=10. Joachim Trier
Reprise, Oslo August 31st

Joaquim Trier has, in a remarkably short time, established himself as a filmmaker who I think has the ability and the considerable talents to become the next great European auteur. In Reprise, he lends a frenzied, impassioned wholly unique style to the story of two friends looking to make it as writers. And with Oslo, August 31st, his keen perception and remarkable empathy for the lead character makes the film as frank and honest about the subject of depression as any I've ever seen. Two pictures in, and it's enough to know we've got something special on our hands. I can't wait to watch him grow.
- Beau McCoy 

9. Sarah Polley
Away From Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell

She makes movies that feel traditional and familiar but also inventive, and she fills a gap in filmmaker voices we didn't even know existed. She went from artful, chilly restraint in Away From Her to florid, high emotions in Take This Waltz to playful historical excavation in Stories We Tell-- an incredible amount of range for her first three films, and a strong sign that she's only going to get better and more fascinating going forward.
- Katey Rich

8. Lucrecia Martel
La Ciénaga (The Swamp), The Holy Girl, The Headless Woman

Lucrecia Martel's films are like conduits to sensuous experience. Everything is close to the skin; all is felt. Her cinema comes direct with an in-built arousal of near-fragrant, elusive human interaction – whether you are of her world or distant from it. She stirs in us an innate response. The visual-aural textures disorient our vision and distort our hearing; they prod and grasp us deep down, somewhere between the heart and the gut. The hothouse poison of La ciénaga, the clammy resistance of The Holy Girl and the woozy torpidity of The Headless Woman all draw us into an orbit of social flux and personal despair. Her films slip us into and out of uncertain intoxication.
- Craig Bloomfield

7. Cristian Mungiu
4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Beyond the Hills

I have to fess up that I didn't vote for Mungiu in isolation, but as part of a foursome I dubbed 'Romanians I Have Known and Loved' that also included his countrymen Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Radu Muntean; I did this because I know Nathaniel loves ties on lists, and I try to gratify him wherever possible. But even among such distinguished company (or any company, really), Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days stands out as an especially rigorous, incisive, and perfectly shaped vision.  Neither so austere as to lose the breath and flesh of life, nor so restricted to its characters' POVs as to limit the scope of its historical vision, nor so self-aggrandizing in technique as to promote Mungiu over the story he is telling, 4 Months evokes in nightmarish tandem, but also at human scale, both a brutally no-win dramatic episode and an asphyxiating political regime.  It's pretty unbeatable as a portrait of how iron-fisted, paranoid ideologies make themselves felt within day-to-day experience.  I don't think Mungiu's Beyond the Hills attains nearly the same economy or insight, though its best scenes evoke temperament, politics, and tough environments with impressive force.  I haven't seen Mungiu's other films thus far, but there's no way I'd miss anything he does from here onward.
- Nick Davis

6. John Cameron Mitchell
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus, Rabbit Hole

There are worse fates for an artist than being forever associated with one creation... if that one creation is as indelible, flexible and fascinating as "Hedwig", that is. Hedwig's transition from slip of a German girlie boy to ex-pat army wife was infamously botched (hence, the angry inch) but Hedwig had no such misshaps while leaping from the spontaneous excitement of the stage to the preserved creativity of the cinema. When I think of Hedwig (the film) I always think of "Wig in a Box" and John Cameron Mitchell's glittery ingenuity as the humble trailer  "opens" up, transforming itself into a stage. His next two films -- quite different in tone but no less concerned with personal reinvention and artistic expression -- proved that Mitchell was no one-trick flash in the pan but a world class magician.
-Nathaniel R.

5. Charlie Kaufman
Synecdoche New York

The Night of the HunterBadlandsEraserheadCitizen KaneSynecdoche, New York. Directorial debuts rarely amount to anything close to a masterpiece. But a handful of artists have managed to create transcendent cinema from their first time in the director's chair. Charlie Kaufman is probably better known as the writer of Eternal SunshineBeing John Malkovich, and Adaptation. But it was with Synecdoche, New York, his first attempt at direction, that he reached some kind of unthinkable intellectual and experiential apex. The film is certainly demanding, but it is also breathtaking in its ability to meld compassion, intellect, and heartbreak into a tender series of variations on the theme of death. Without much visual flourish, Kaufman elevates cinema to its highest place among the greatest works of art. Sometimes, one film is all it takes.
- Matt Zurcher

4. Asghar Farhadi
Dancing in the Dust, Beautiful City, Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly, A Separation

I have a confession to make: Of Farhadi's five films as a Director, I have only seen one. That one, A Separation, is a flat-out, no-holds-barred, exceeds-sky-high-expectations masterpiece. So much so, that even if none of his previous films were any good (and I hear that they are all, in fact, quite good), I probably still would have given him my #1 spot. There may be other filmmakers on this list whose next films I anticipate more eagerly, but there isn't one whose work I respect more. They have the potential for greatness. Farhadi has already achieved it.
- Daniel Bayer

3. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, etcetera

Thailand’s best-known cinematic son, Weerasethakul - “Joe” to his Anglophone fans - is a master of creating feelings through otherworldly imagery and sound: everything from red-eyed monkey ghosts to sterile hospitals to languid riverside sexual assignations is filtered through his camera with an impressionistic, dreamy detachment like nothing else in contemporary cinema.
- Tim Brayton

2. Joe Wright
Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, The Soloist, Anna Karenina, Hanna

Is it okay to have ranked Joe Wright so high while completely discounting The Soloist? It is if you take into account the four achievements he bookended around that 2009 non-event. With a steadily-more-ambitious series of films, Wright reveled in Jane Austen, showboated in Atonement, and took real chances with Anna Karenina and especially Hanna, his best and least typical film. The best thing about him is the sense that, despite the laurels for his first two features, he's still growing.
- Joe Reid

1. Kenneth Lonergan
You Can Count On Me, Margaret

You Can Count On Me, Kenneth Lonergan's intimate marvel of a debut film, came as the millennium kicked off, and, despite its piquant, tragic undertones, still glows with an innocent warmth. That's almost entirely due to the long shadows cast by the tortured process that his sophomore effort Margaret took to the screen, potent and dense with human politics post-9/11. That Lonergan's complex yet seemingly effortless comprehension of the timbres of youth and family still towers through the years between filming and release is a testament to his immense, understated talent, and to his own stubborn ideals.
- David Upton

Let us know what you think of the list. Who do you think is missing? Share your top tens in the comments.

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Reader Comments (70)

Nice list! I probably would have found spots for Steve McQueen and Jeff Nichols. I love Lonergan at number 1.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHannes

Good list, but you must have forgotten about Jason Reitman.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

Should have read the whole thing, I see you mentioned him. Sorry, he should have been in the top 5 at least.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

The idea that 18 ballots could produce 71 (!) eligible directors bodes well for the next couple of decades of film.
Kenneth Lonergan is an excellent number-one, as well. Hopefully we aren't waiting 12 years for his Margaret follow-up.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Oh, also happy to see that a quarter of the directors in the list are women, and that one of those women is Martel.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Brad Bird? Oh right, I guess he doesn't count.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJulien Faddoul

love the love for Farhadi - a Separation is such a great accomplishment that it warrantes his inclusion in all lists for a very long time.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

Hooray for Joe Wright at #2. LOVE his work. Great list overall.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

murtada- as I tell everyone who loves A Separation, you must watch his previous film, About Elly. It's at least as good, if not better, than A Separation.

Mike- Agreed. The takeaway for me was that exciting times are ahead for cinema. All in all we discussed over 130 directors(!), 71 of which got votes, including 12 women (not in the final top ten= Satrapi, Granik, July, Dunham, Shortland, Shelton, Ade, Kedar and Hausner)

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Thanks for getting this all together, Amir!

Matt's mention of The Night of the Hunter in his write-up of Charlie Kaufman (who was my #1) is a comparison I always think of slash fear - that CK will have a filmography exactly as long as Charles Laughton ended up having. I mean masterpieces they both are, but I need more from Kaufman! Although while I'm here making wishes I'll also make one that resurrects Laughton and gets him to make another movie, too.

Oh and Martel didn't make my list only because all I've seen is The Headless Woman but I LOVE that film and am ashamed that I haven't sat myself down with her other ones yet. Hopefully this list sets a fire under me to do some catching up!

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJA

Wonderful list, truly. My only quibble, at least off my head because he jumped to mind first for me, is Ramon Bahrani. I know the buzz for his new one is so-so, but for me, Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo are amongst the best films of this young century.

But again, lovely list. Not mine, but mine wouldn't include some of these wonderful directors. Cinema is dead? Ha!

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

Sofia Coppola? Lars von Trier? Terrence Malick? Michael Haneke?

How is Joe Wright number two?

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZach

Zach, the criteria was that these are all directors who have made their first film after 2000.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Zach -- all of those people you mentioned have been making films since earlier than this "new" directors list.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

Considering the sort of difficult qualifications this does feel like a really impressive, definitive list. The only one I would add, and he even be my number 1, would be Andrei Zvyagintsev, who totally gives off "future legendary auteur" vibes in 'The Return' and 'Elena,' particularly the former. I imagine he got some votes, I know Tim Brayton's a fan.

Zvyagintsev, Weerasethakul, Farhadi, Arnold, and Polley are probably my top five...

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSean D

Sean- Agreed. I hesitated to ask Nathaniel to make this a top 20 just because the list of directors who JUST missed was so impressive: Zvyagintsev, Chomet, Lanthimos, etc.
The point being, he was right up there all along :)

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

ughhh I forgot about Lanthimos! wow i guess there were tons of great options.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSean D

First observation: not a lot of comedy directors in the top ten, so the list seems a tad self-important.

Second observation: no love for the two most reliably great cinematic genres of the new millennium: animation and documentary.

Hence: some glaring omissions:
- Pete Doctor: Monsters Inc. AND Up --> how is he NOT on the list???
- Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris: Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks
- James Marsh: Project Nim and Man on Wire
- Banksy: Exit through the Gift Shop
- Tom McCarthy: Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win
- Duncan Jones: Moon
- Edgar Wiright: Shaun of the Dead

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDieter

Pretty surprised Andrew Dominik missed. I had him pegged for the top 5.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

I can't keep this private so I'll make it public. Nathaniel I want an opportunity to write a piece for the site. Why are you keeping me in the reader's comments ghetto? I find my consistent bitching at some of the postings here out of general frustration with the rather dull perspectives.

To be fair to the author: you're missing Yorgos Lanthimos, he's Almodovarian in cinematic importance. He eclipses a lot of these people who'll struggle to find financing in the immediate future.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Todd McCarty - the station agent, the visitor and win win.
Three terrific films. Agreement w/Dieter he should be in the top ten.0

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Nate,
3rtful's comments on this site and many others are simply idiotic. I cringe at the thought of an entire article authored by him. Just say NO.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

"What we didn't like very much turned out to be actors-turned-directors"

*cough* Sarah Polley, John Cameron Mitchell.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Suzanne- I was hoping no one would catch that ;)

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

I would find a spot for SOFIA COPPOLA (I know "The Virgin Suicides" was in 1999, but still, we have "Lost In Translation", "Marie Antoinette" and "Somewhere"), JASON REITMAN ("Thank You For Smoking"), RYAN FLECK ("Half Nelson", "Sugar" and "It's Kind Funny Story"), STEVE MCQUEEN ("Hunger" and "Shame"), BEN AFFLECK ("Gone Baby Gone", "The Town" and "Argo"), BENNETT MILLER ("Capote" and "Moneyball") and DEBRA GRANIK ("Down to the Bone" and "Winter's Bone")

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd

What a pretentious list. McQeen, Nichols, Reitman, Refn, Reeves should've been there.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertr

No Stephen Daldry, no sale.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

I'm echoing everyone who's saying Tom McCarthy.

Also, I'd like to add Shane Carruth ('Primer', 'Upstream Color') to the list. Kudos for getting Sarah Polley on there.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

And WE complain about the Academy? lol

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Stephen Daldry and Andrew Dominik would be in my Top 5 personally, but I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by Netflix recommendations-I seem to be missing at least one big one from every major director I love. Great post Amir!

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

People clearly did not read the whole guidelines of the list.

My personal list.

The North Americans (because let's face it most of them play to a different standard and expectations of how they can grow):

Jeff Nichols
Cary Fukunaga
Ramin Bahrani
Shane Carruth
Sarah Polley
Tom McCarthy
Lynn Shelton
David Gordon Green- I still believe in DGG!!!!!!
Mark Romanek- Cheating, he made a shoe-string feature in the late 80s but Never Let Me Go and One-Hour Photo are great.
Joe Carnahan- Again cheating but a vulgar auteurist with actual depth needs some love.

The foreigners:

Steve McQueen
Andrea Arnold
Joon--ho Bong
Edgar Wright
Asghar Farhadi
Michel Gondry
Ben Wheatley
Joe Wright

Directors who I like but I am convinced have not even scratched the surface on their potential:

Ben Affleck
Ti West
Rian Johnson (although I oddly feel like it is his directed episodes of Breaking Bad where he comes closest)
John Cameron Mitchell
Duncan Jones
Xavier Dolan
David Chase
Dee Rees
Bennett Miller
Charlie Kaufman and the tragedy is we may never see it on the big screen

Blind spots:
Joshua Marston
Cristian Mungiu
Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Lucrecia Martel

Directors whose praise I will never get (and because Foxcatcher is coming out I will give Bennett Miller a break from being placed here):

Jason Reitman
Matt Reeves
JJ Abrams

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Awww, no Todd Field? First feature (In the Bedroom) was done in 2001. That and Little Children are among my favorite films of the 21st century.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I myself am fairly surprised by how completely off off off offf OFF hollywood this is. I feel like my votes must have been the most mainstream.

Either that or our mainstream votes never settled on the same directors.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Mike - great point about the future of film.

everyone -- i figure i'd share my ballot. The only reason i did not vote for asghar farhadi even though i thought his latest film a full stop masterpiece is that i have only seen that one film and I did not allow myself to vote for anyone who i'd only seen one picture from:

so my list went like so

1. John Cameron Mitchell
2. Joachim Trier
3. Steve McQueen
4. Jonathan Glazer
5. Miranda July
6. Joe Wright
7. Cary Fukunaga
8. Michel Gondry
9. Andrea Arnold
10. Apichatpong Weertahaskeul

April 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Adam -- lol. He is definitely underrated at this point. which seems like an insane thing to say given all the awards hoopla every time but people think he's terrible and he's actually gifted. Oscar madness really does create strange inhospitable environments among cinephiles (for some)

April 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I LOVE this list
LOVE that Martel is in it. and JCM, and Joe Wright.
LOVE that Lonergan is at the top.
Its not perfect cause Gondry apart from Eternal is meh.
Should watch Trier's films.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteragustin

Nathaniel, if you think YOUR list is mainstream, I am NEVER showing you mine.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Reid

I was greatly annoyed when I realized Tom Alfredson was disqualified. Between Tinker Tailor and Let the Right One In he would have been near the top of my list.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Nathaniel, that reminds me, Jonathan Glazer's new movie is going to be at Cannes.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

This post finally convinced me to buckle down and watch Hedwig.

Holy amazeballs. I think I've watched the Wig in a Box sequence over fifteen times already. I can't believe I've gone so long without catching any of Mitchell's films, and I'm fairly certain I'm going to try to remedy that by the end of the week.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterReggina

Great list (to which I partook, but many of my choices failed to make the final ten i think). I am surprised by the inclusion of Martel most of all.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

AMAZED that Kenneth Lonergan turned out to be #1. Margaret must really be something. That's on my watch list, as are the oeuvres of Lucrecia Martel and "Thai Joe".

Oh, and on Amir's recommendation after sending him my Farhadi write-up, I watched About Elly, and he's absolutely right about it. Knocked my socks off. I'm even happier that I put him in the top spot now (Wright was #2).

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Love this post, especially for write-ups for Joe Wright (my #1), Sarah Polley (my #2) and Andrea Arnold (my #?). I would add Todd Field (prob my #3), Vadim Perelman (okay, 'In Bloom' isn't great, but 'House of Sand and Fog' is a killer), Debra Granik, Zacharius Kunuk, and Tom McCarthy.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPat

I don't know if anyone has mentioned him, and even though he has only made one feature, but Sean Durkin impressed me tremendously with Martha Marcy May Marlene.

April 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLars

Surprised nobody has mentioned Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu or Richard Kelly; both would be in my top 3 along with Todd Field.

April 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDean

Here's my ballot if it makes a difference. I tried to mix populism with pretentiousness and just plain trolling.

Rian Johnson
Bong Joon-ho
Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu
Edgar Wright
Kenneth Lonergan
Lena Dunham
Oren Moverman
Marjane Satrapi
Asghar Farhadi
Cristian Mingiu

Also, if I wasn't already officially afraid of you people, I am right now.

April 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Lars & Dean - Both Durkin and Innaritu had plenty of support. Durkin was on my own ballot as well.

April 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

I would have only put Inarritu on my list if I enjoyed convoluted sadism as an art form.

April 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeau:

Purely out of curiosity I would have loved an inclusion of the 59 directors that didn't make the cut. Or perhaps a list of all the contributors respective lists. Or both, nerdy purist that I am...

April 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter_MissBroadway

Second MissBroadway's suggestion :)

April 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLars

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