I recently wrote a piece choosing the four most significant directors from each of eleven countries. I referred to the lists as Mount Rushmores. (You can read it here, if so interested). The response I got, with dozens of fans telling me just how wrong I was, has inspired me to do it again. This time however, I am breaking it down, not by nation, but by age. Looking at current directors by decade – from those in their 20s to those in their 80s. Here are the best of each generation.
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 24. What have the current crop of 20-somethings done? Maybe not Kane, but there are still some kids out there making powerful movies.
Xavier Dolan (Canada, 26)
Dolan’s films have won awards and ovations at Cannes and beyond. His latest, Mommy, shared the Jury Prize with the latest film from legendary director Jean-Luc Godard. That’s a pretty good start to a career.
Hannah Fidell (America, 29)
A lot of people did not like 2013’s A Teacher, but it is impossible to deny to evocative simplicity of Fidell’s work. She built on that with 2015’s 6 Years.
Ryan Coogler (America, 29)
Coogler has made one feature so far, 2013’s Fruitvale Station. It was good enough to put him on my list. He next tackles the Rocky universe with Creed, starring Fruitvale’s Michael B. Jordan. It is due out later this year.
Lena Dunham (America, 29)
If her reputation rested solely on her one feature, Tiny Furniture, she’d be under strong consideration. Add the phenomenon of Girls to the mix, and she secures that spot. The fact that she has only been permitted to write and direct for TV over the past several years is one of the most damning pieces of evidence regarding American film’s inability to encourage strong female voices.
By the time they enter their fourth decade, budding filmmakers should have several strong credits on their resumes.
Jeff Nichols (America, 36)
Note to young filmmakers: get Michael Shannon to be in your movie. Nichols opened his career with the outstanding one-two punch of Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, both starring Shannon. In 2012, he had even more mainstream success with the fine coming-of-age story Mud.
Sarah Polley (Canada, 36)
Note to young filmmakers: act for Atom Egoyan, preferably in brilliant movies like The Sweet Hereafter, and soak up whatever you can. Polley did that as an actress, then went on to make the Oscar-nominated Away From Her and the excellent personal documentary Stories We Tell.
Damien Chazelle (America, 30)
Rhode Island’s own made the stylish jazz piece Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench before he turned 25, then followed it up with the best American movie of 2014, Whiplash.
Pablo Larrain (Chile, 38)
Had he only made the searing story of loner obsession Tony Manero (2008), Larrain would merit consideration. Following that up with politically charged dramas Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012) locks up his spot.
Now we’re in the prime years. This is the toughest decade. Many great directors making many great movies. McQueen, Wes Anderson, Vinterberg, Aronofsky – none of them made it. That’s because of these guys.
Paul Thomas Anderson (America, 45)
I think Inherent Vice was a huge misstep, and The Master had its share of problems. No matter. Nobody challenges an audience quite like Anderson. Magnolia and There Will Be Blood are as good as any American film made in the last twenty years, and Hard Eight and Boogie Nights aren’t that far behind.
Asghar Farhadi (Iran, 43)
If you read my recent post in which I suggested Farhadi might be the best filmmaker in the world today, this probably doesn’t come as a shock. I have never seen his first three movies. Of his last three, The Past is excellent. About Elly is even better. And A Separation is one of the two best movies made thus far in the 21st century.
Denis Villeneuve (Canada, 47)
2000’s Maelstrom cleaned up at the Genie Awards. The sophisticated and complex Incendies was Oscar-nominated 2010. But it was Prisoners, the best film of 2013, that put Villeneuve over the top. His latest movie, Sicario, with Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro, and filmed by Roger Deakins, is due out this Fall.
Christopher Nolan (England, 44)
I’ll admit it. I prefer Nolan’s early movie Memento to anything he has done since. But The Dark Knight is pretty stunning and Inception is audacious enough to deserve at least some of its high praise. It’s a formidable career thus far.
We’re clearly in power-hitting territory here, but what I found most interesting about this group is that had I been choosing ten years ago, I very well might have had four different names. Back then, Spike Lee and Peter Jackson might have been on this list. But the calendar turns, and some directors grow more interesting over time.
Quentin Tarantino (America, 52)
Tarantino, of course, started out interesting. Many have thought over the years that his movies represented the triumph of style over substance. Whether Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained changed that perception is debatable. But they made his films an event once again, as The Hateful Eight will no doubt be this Christmas.
Aki Kaurismaki (Finland, 58)
Among the most intriguing of all directors over the past 25 years, Kaurismaki has woven his unique sense of whimsy through a wide range of shorts, documentaries and features. From the exquisite absurdism of his Leningrad Cowboys movies to the beautiful humanity of The Man Without a Past, he is always worth watching.
Alfonso Cuaron (Mexico, 53)
Cuaron, Inarritu, del Toro. Who have you got? The three Mexican directors have been a dynamic force in world cinema in the 21st century. I can barely choose between Cuaron and Inarritu. Cuaron is here primarily on the strength of one film – 2006’s Children of Men – which I prefer to Inarritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman and del Toro’s beloved Pan’s Labyrinth (which Cuaron co-produced.)
David Fincher (America, 52)
I swore off Fincher after 1997’s The Game. Life seemed too short for his brand of manipulative misanthropy. That boycott lasted exactly zero movies, because his next one was Fight Club. Despite a misstep or two along the way (did not like Benjamin Button at all) he has continued to grow, with fine movies like Zodiac, The Social Network, and Gone Girl.
BTW – if not for 2013’s Nymphomaniac, I would have had Lars von Trier in this group. But the calendar does turn.
A lot of great directors have slowed down when they reach this age. Not these guys.
Ang Lee (Taiwan, 60)
Lee started late but strong and has continued to make one interesting movie after another. From comedy to alienation to action to parable, he keeps hitting winners. (We won’t talk about Hulk.)
Steven Spielberg (America, 68)
There was a time when people argued whether Spielberg was simply a great craftsman. I never bought into that. Jaws is a brilliant movie. But with his serious historical epics now comfortably co-mingling with his big fantasies, it’s hard to deny his place in film history. You may think he’s overrated and I won’t deny there have been failures along the way, but he remains the biggest player in the game.
The Dardenne Brothers (Belgium, Jean-Pierre, 64; Luc, 61)
The Coens confused my life because Joel turned 60 while Ethan remains in his fifties. But the Dardennes would have made my list regardless. They have been the most successful antidote to Hollywood excess, crafting beautiful portraits of regular people for twenty years. Last year’s Two Days, One Night was just another in a potent chain.
Pedro Almodovar (Spain, 65)
I anguished over this pick for minutes. Truth be told, I have not liked an Almodovar movie for at least a decade. And yet, he still matters a great deal. No other director has been able to translate transgressive absurdism into mainstream success the way he has. I’m not about to stop seeing his films. (This is the spot I might have given to the Coens had their ages lined up properly.)
Well, 70 is the new 50. The wealth of talent in this age group is extraordinary. I’m leaving out Hayao Miyazaki, Roy Andersson, David Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott among others.
Martin Scorsese (America, 72)
Gangs of New York (2002) is one of the greatest flawed movies ever made. It sums up Scorsese’s career beautifully. Great ambition. Plenty of missteps. But so many thrilling moments. He has been aiming high since the early 1970s. And his energy appears to be as strong as ever.
Michael Haneke (born Germany, Austrian citizenship, 73)
In my Mt. Rushmores-by-country piece, I chose Werner Herzog over Haneke for the German team. That’s in part because Haneke is self-identified as Austrian. And in part because I think Herzog has had a more significant career. But I choose Haneke over Herzog here because he has made more interesting features in the last decade. The Piano Teacher and Cache are strong movies, and The White Ribbon and Amour are special achievements at any age. Though his Flashmob movie has now been scrapped, he is back at work on his next, as-yet-unannounced project.
Ken Loach (England, 79)
His latest, and possibly his last, Jimmy’s Hall, is not a great movie. But it’s still pretty darn good. He has made so many powerful films over the years, so many films that no one else would have made. Along the way, he has angered quite a few people, myself occasionally included. But if Jimmy’s Hall was indeed his last, I will miss him.
Woody Allen (America, 79)
Allen has been buried and resurrected so many times by now that it is pointless to wonder how long he will continue. I imagine he will be putting out movies at least five years after his death. There’s something to be said for an artist who simply goes about his business, turning out original movies every year for about a half century. There have been valleys, but the peaks – as recently as 2013’s Blue Jasmine – have been a joy to behold.
You’ve read a lot by now and I thank you for sticking around. So I’ll make this quick.
Eastwood, Godard, Polanski, Maysles
When you’ve ascended Olympus, you don’t really need an introduction.