Which directors have dominated the movie landscape for the past couple of decades? Since we rolled over into the new millennium, Spielberg certainly hasn’t had the success he enjoyed during the 70s, 80s and 90s , but he has still given us Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Munich, War Horse, Lincoln and Catch Me If You Can, so he can hardly be accused of having entirely lost his touch.
Comic book movies have been very much the tale of the last two decades, but (with the exception of the Russos and Bryan Singer) very few directors have made that their sole (or even predominant) focus. That has meant that very few of the directors who have worked within that genre have managed to raise their own profiles. Instead, MCU has become a juggernaut and for the most part, the individual styles of the directors have felt subsumed into the broader MCU in-house style.
Even more distinctive directors like Ryan Coogler and James Gunn, whilst undeniably putting their own stamps on their MCU films, still haven’t made names for themselves so much as burnished the success story of Marvel. Coogler and Gunn have of course brought in billions for Marvel, but Coogler arguably made his name through Fruitvale Station and Creed, whereas Gunn’s stylistic calling cards are Slither and Super. What is hard to discern moving forward, is how well positioned the directors who have had success within the MCU are to sustained success outside of it.
One notable exception is, of course, Christopher Nolan, who managed to create a matchless comic book trilogy whilst still finding time to craft some of the most interesting, affecting, accomplished and visually arresting films of the past 20 years. The Prestige, Inception, Memento, Interstellar, Dunkirk – it is a resumé to die for. Nolan is still 6 months shy of his half-century, so there is undoubtedly plenty of life left in the old dog yet and no-one is for a moment suggesting that his best is behind him, or anything like that.
Rather, we want to look at who is a little more on the “up and coming” side of things, rather than the “well established” side of things. David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Denis Villeneuve, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson (and so on) have all been working for many years and although every director knows that success can be fleeting, they have had strong careers over a long time span. Who has started creating really interesting work more recently, has yet to establish themselves and looks set to carve out a name for themselves over the next ten years (assuming, hopefully correctly, that before too long directors will actually be able to get back to making films)?
Greta Gerwig is the very definition of what we’re talking about with this list. Her debut feature, Ladybird, was critically acclaimed and landed writing, acting and directing Oscar nominations to boot. It was an interesting and quirky film, but accessible and genuinely funny rather than twee – an excellent way for any director to put themselves on the map.
Her follow up was Little Women, which could have been lost, being the umpteenth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel. Instead it arrived amidst what could easily have been dismissed as a hyperbolic response, but turns out to have been bang on the money – charming, witty, intelligently adapted, moving and (again) nominated for a whole slew of Oscars (acting, writing and best film this time).
It is rare indeed for any director’s first two films to land with such a bang and it bodes well for the future. Given that Gerwig’s next project has been announced as a live action Barbie film, one’s expectations can be said to be well and truly raised. It’s too simplistic and reductive to say that Gerwig has an eye for female characters and stories. Far more accurate is to say that she is an observant and intelligent writer and director and based on what she has made so far, it seems realistic to expect awards, accolades and critical success to dog her every move for the decade to come.
Everyone, this writer included, has been waxing eloquent about Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers latest project, which did the festival rounds, enjoyed a limited theatrical release and then almost immediately landed on Netflix. A disarmingly simple premise (a New York jeweller wheels and deals his way through loan sharks, an NBA star and a possibly hugely valuable uncut gem from Ethiopia) is given electrifyingly tense treatment, with Adam Sandler’s career-high performance matched by a dissonant soundtrack that leaves you gasping for breath as the tension mounts. Just a 10-minute out of context snippet left my wife feeling physically unwell and my son complaining of a racing pulse.
This is not your average film and these are not your average directors. Of course, there are plenty of seemingly gifted directors who struggle to match the promise of their early output and it is one of the potential pitfalls of an article like this, that directors like the Safdies might turn out to have peaked too soon. But their previous film Good Time is also well-regarded and Uncut Gems doesn’t rely on gimmicks or lightning-in-a-bottle flourishes, so there is every reason to believe that we are witnessing the beginning of a phenomenal career, especially given their evident screenwriting prowess too.
McQueen has been around for a little longer, but would still be considered to be relatively early in his career, given that he only has four features on his resume to date. But those four are pretty sensational. Hunger is as effective and affecting a calling card as you could hope for – intense, compelling and brutal. Shame went off in a different direction, but kudos to McQueen and Fassbender for telling a complicated story about an unlikeable character. 12 Years a Slave picked up the Oscars and made the leap into the broader consciousness, before Widows showed that McQueen is just as adept with more mainstream material and a more predominantly female cast.
Compared to some on this list, McQueen probably feels like a safer bet in terms of expecting sustained success, simply because his talent and success have already been demonstrated and over a longer period. Like Villeneuve, he gets so much out of his actors and puts so much beauty up on screen, whether it is the simplicity of Hunger, or the bleak but bright contrasts of cotton fields, swamps and blue skies in 12 Years a Slave. McQueen is a director with seemingly no shortage of ideas and an eye for beautiful detail.
Bong Joon Ho
Parasite very much deserved to be the winner of best film at this year’s Oscars, though of course there’s no good reason why Cinema Paradiso, Roma, Funny Games, Hidden or a host of others couldn’t or shouldn’t have achieved that milestone many years ago. Bong Joon Ho has been unfairly pigeon-holed by some as a class-warfare specialist and although of course there are seams of that mentality running through Parasite, Snowpiercer and (to a lesser extent) The Host, family, the environment and the scourge of multinational corporations are just as much on his mind.
Bong has referred himself to the so-called “one-inch barrier” of subtitles, which all of us need to very much get over, if we haven’t already. Bong may now venture more boldly into English-language film-making and will undoubtedly have plenty of offers off the back of his deserved Oscar glory, but of course he shouldn’t have to. Despite Hollywood continuing to be the behemoth of global film production, there is clearly a plentiful appetite for quality films in languages other than English and frankly, we all need to be watching whatever Bong puts out there, regardless of subtitles.
Okay, so this is a tougher one to try to call. Olivia Wilde showed with her debut Booksmart that she is a talented director, with ideas to spare. Booksmart also benefited from blistering performances and a thoroughly superb script, so as always it is hard to tell on such a limited sample how much credit Wilde should get, but let’s assume that she hasn’t exhausted her bag of tricks just yet.
If for no other reason, Booksmart’s one-two punch of the delirious doll/mannequin tripping scene and then the horrifying lesbian porn bluetooth episode marks Wilde out as someone to watch for the forseeable future. Her next project? A biopic about a US gymnast struggling to recover from injury in time to compete in the 1996 Olympics.
Chazelle looked like he was going to be narrowly focused on music, following up his thrilling debut Whiplash with the incredibly beautiful and accomplished La La Land. But then he went and directed First Man about the Apollo 11 moon landing (as well as turning in the script for claustrophobic thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane) and it became clear that he is one of those directors that whatever his preferences or defaults might be, he can turn his hand to whatever style he pleases and deliver something wonderful.
Like all of the other film-makers on this list, Chazelle has a phenomenal eye for a shot, whether it is blood on ice in Whiplash, the Vertigo-channeling green tints of La La Land or the thrilling flames and panoramic vistas of First Man. All directors would concede how heavily they lean on their DoPs for so much of the look of their films, but it would be a disservice to these directors to downplay their individual talent. Chazelle is just as comfortable with a full-face tear-streaked close up of Emma Stone as he is assembling a good old-fashioned freeway blocking song and dance number, before flipping to two-handed intense stand-offs. There’s so much variance in style between (for example) J.K. Simmons yelling “not my tempo” at Miles Teller in Whiplash and then Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling skipping across an “American in Paris”-inspired set in the heartbreaking finale of La La Land, yet Chazelle makes it all look so effortless and is so clearly at home in any and every setup. So many film-makers struggle outside their comfort zone and then someone like Chazelle comes along whose comfort zone seems for all intents and purposes to be “the breadth of cinema”. And he’s still only 35 years old. Makes you sick.