The 10 Most Exciting Directors Working Today

Sarah Polley

One of my favorite film writers, Brad Brevet (RopeofSilicon), recently wrote an article titled, “Top Ten Most Exciting Directors Working Today”. The article is based on a comment made by lauded filmmaker Quentin Tarantino at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where he mentioned taking part in an e-mail chain discussing the most exciting directors currently making films — and defined what exactly he means by “most exciting.”

“I think what that means,” Tarantino began, “is you feel that their best work is still in front of them. That’s what makes a filmmaker exciting, that’s what makes you anticipate a new movie coming out. Because the new movie could be their best one.”

He continued, “From this day on that will be the new barometer from which they’re judged. We could be wrong, and their best movie could be behind them, but we don’t know that so there is an excitement towards their work, as opposed to an older filmmaker, who’s terrific and you’re excited to see their movies, but you’re not expecting it to be as great as their best movie.”

During the discussion, Tarantino mentions filmmakers like David Fincher, Richard Linklater, and Pedro Almodovar. Fincher’s Gone Girl and Linklater’s Boyhood are both due in theaters later this year, with the latter already released on the festival circuit to high acclaim.

Now, whether or not Tarantino’s definition fits our own idea of what makes a filmmaker “exciting” or not is up for debate, but it’s an interesting place to begin the discussion. Brevet clarified his own list of ten, too, stating that he approached the idea more specifically by asking himself, “Which director still has work ahead of them that can and will be judged alongside their best?”

I probably fall a bit closer to Tarantino’s idea of what makes a director exciting, because I don’t think we can assume for certain that a director’s best work is still to come, as Brad’s approach may imply. Either way, I’ve got to give Brad props on diving head first into a list of working directors he considers most exciting, which includes well-known directors the Coen brothers (#6) alongside newer filmmakers Xavier Dolan (#1) and J.C. Chandor (#2), and even Cary Fukunaga (#9), who directed the entire first season of HBO’s dramatic miniseries “True Detective.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any films by some of the directors Brad listed, such as Dolan, Michael Haneke (#8), and Jacques Audiard (#6), or several directors he gave Honorable Mention status, including Lynne Ramsay, Todd Haynes, or Joon-ho Bong, among others. However, that doesn’t preclude me from putting together my own list — it just means I have a lot of directors whose work I have yet to discover, and thus, a lot more films to add to my watchlist.

All that said, here is my list of the ten directors working today I consider most exciting, as well as a few Honorable Mentions to whom I couldn’t help but give a shout-out at the bottom of the list. We begin with…

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10. Christopher Nolan
Maybe Christopher Nolan will never make a film better than Memento or The Dark Knight, but he damn sure isn’t afraid of trying. Inception proved to be an excellent sci-fi epic — widely considered among his best — and even though The Dark Knight Rises fell a bit flat, it wasn’t for lack of effort. Nolan’s next film, Interstellar, which hits theaters this November, looks as though it has just as much ambition as Nolan’s previous works, and if he continues putting forth every ounce of himself into each new project he makes, Christopher Nolan could well end up with one of the most impressive filmographies of any filmmaker on this list.

9. David O. Russell
Some people will lament a mention of Russell, and others will love it — such is the nature of his films and his filmmaking style. I, however, enjoy all the films of Russell’s that I’ve seen, and while I can’t say for sure that he’ll ever top Silver Linings Playbook (my favorite film of 2012 and one I’ve returned to over a dozen times), I’d like to see him continue to try by making free-flowing character-driven films. American Hustle felt a bit rushed, hitting theaters just one year after Silver Linings Playbook, and because of that the film can be a bit of a mess, but it’s a lovely mess, one that gets better with each watch. Despite my love for Silver Linings Playbook, and also the magnificent Three Kings, I think Russell has quite a few great films in his arsenal, films that could well outdo his earlier triumphs.

8. Kathryn Bigelow
Zero Dark Thirty is fantastic — and The Hurt Locker before it was quite good as well — but Bigelow, I can only think, has a lot more great filmmaking left in the tank. It might be easy for some to be worn out by her seeming insistence on making political thrillers, but I for one love a good political thriller. So to her, I say, keep ’em coming, and keep on improving. Her next project, The True American — which recounts the tale of now-executed “American Terrorist” Mark Stroman and one of the men he shot, Rais Bhuiyan — sees Bigelow re-teaming with Megan Ellison’s production company Annapurna Pictures, and with Tom Hardy set to star, it seems we may have yet another gripping project to feast our eyes upon, guided by the vision of an Oscar-winning female auteur.

7. J.C. Chandor
Margin Call was good, All Is Lost was better, and Chandor’s next film A Most Violent Year feels like the film that could be J.C. Chandor’s true breakout hit. Chandor seems to have a way of working with some seriously great actors (Kevin Spacey, Robert Redford, and now Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain), and with both Margin Call and All Is Lost, he proved he could make gripping films no matter the story or structure, whether they were about the fast-talking world of investment banking or the almost wordless adventure of a man lost at sea. Suffice to say, Chandor has range, and I really think he’s a director we will be talking about many years down the road.

6. Joel & Ethan Coen
The Coens, who have already made more than a handful of highly-acclaimed films, make this list by virtue of being almost completely unpredictable; they’ve made westerns, stark dramas, slapstick comedies, music-driven films, and romantic comedies, and they’ve done it all while aligning themselves with a fantastic roster of actors to keep us even more on our toes. Most will point to The Big Lebowski or No Country for Old Men as the pair’s best film, but if last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis proved anything, it’s that these two men have plenty more great films left in them. It seems safe to say that each new Coen film could be considered among their best, and I hope my opinion of their unpredictability and talent remains for years to come.

5. Denis Villeneuve
I really enjoyed Prisoners and I absolutely adored Enemy, which hit theaters back in March, and with these two films it’s clear that Villeneuve has immense talent and a knack for eerie thrillers. What’s more, he isn’t afraid to go on a limb and make the film he wants to make. I haven’t seen his other works, which include the Oscar-nominated Incendies, but based on the promise Villeneuve has shown in both Prisoners and Enemy, I think he’s got a very interesting career ahead of him.

4. Spike Jonze
Being John Malkovich. Adaptation. Where the Wild Things Are. Her. Which of these is Jonze’s best? Ask four different people and you could well receive four different answers. The one thing we all can agree on, though, is that Jonze isn’t afraid to take his time putting together projects that tackle huge, weighty themes and do so with insane ambition. Maybe one of those four films is the best he will ever make, but it seems just as likely that his best work is still ahead of him — which is saying something, given my immense love for the visionary director’s most recent film, Her.

3. Richard Linklater
Each film in Richard Linklater’s Before… series — which moves from Sunrise (1995) to Sunset (2004) to Midnight (2013) to hopefully some other time-related descriptors — has improved upon the last, and with the interesting variety of other films Linklater has put out, including Dazed and Confused, Bad News Bears, and School of Rock — I think he’s got a long career of diverse, interesting filmmaking ahead of him. The lauded indie director understands how to tell stories, and each new story he tells seems to be just a bit more refined than the last, which makes me unbelievably excited for his upcoming film, Boyhood.

2. Bennett Miller
With Capote and Moneyball, Miller has shown a strong command in storytelling, particularly of the true-life persuasion, and with Foxcatcher opening to great reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it seems he is continuing to hone his craft with each new film. Not to mention, he has made films about an interesting variety of topics: an author attempting to write a book, a baseball GM trying to put together his best team, and now a film about a magnate-turned-killer. But of course, these films aren’t necessarily about the events their plots detail, which is what makes Miller’s films all the more interesting.

1. David Fincher
Frankly, I love damn near everything David Fincher has put out. In a five-year span, he directed a masterpiece slow-burn thriller (Zodiac), a sprawling romance epic (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), a gripping zeitgeist-y drama (The Social Network), and a bold adaptation of one of the most popular literary properties of the past decade (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Each of those films carry Fincher’s signature style, but they are all quite different — and that’s without mentioning films like Seven or Fight Club. He may never make a film better than 2007’s Zodiac, but each project he tackles has serious promise, making David Fincher the most exciting director currently making feature films.

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Of course, there are plenty of other filmmakers working today who I find exciting, some who barely missed the list, and below are 15 of them, listed as Honorable Mentions. Other directors I considered (listed with my favorite project of theirs in parentheses), in no particular order, include:

Wes Anderson (Rushmore); Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell); Steve McQueen (Shame); Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver); Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds); Asghar Farhadi (The Past); Destin Cretton (Short Term 12); David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints); Cary Fukunaga (“True Detective”); Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan); Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World); Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love); Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine); Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha); and Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris).

So, which directors make your list? Which current working directors do you consider most exciting? Let me know in the comments section below!

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