10. Claire Denis
For so long the exception that proved the female-filmmaker rule, French director Claire Denis has quietly, but to widespread cinephile adoration, amassed an amazing career of 11, soon to be 12 peerlessly intelligent, uncompromising titles. Her debut “Chocolat,” like many of her films, is about colonialism (Denis’ perspective on class and racial divisions in French society is informed by her own upbringing in a white French family in various African countries), and is a shimmeringly ambiguous yet clear-sighted and accessible entry point into her fascinating filmography. “Beau Travail,” starring Denis Lavant, might well be her first real masterpiece, though, with “White Material,” “35 Shots of Rum” and the much-misunderstood “Trouble Every Day” not far behind. In fact, while we may not have liked 2013’s “Bastards” as much, really Denis has never made an uninteresting film, and her next project, Robert Pattinson-starring sci-fi “High Life” is one of our most anticipated titles of next year.
9. Mia Hansen-Løve
Still only 35 but with five films behind her, Mia Hansen-Løve has grown in both skill and stature with every subsequent film, which is impressive given that she started with some pretty remarkable work. An actor in her teenage years, then a Cahiers Du Cinéma critic, Hansen-Løve broke through with the impressive “All Is Forgiven,” followed swiftly by the devastatingly, remarkably mature “The Father Of My Children” and melancholy romance “Goodbye First Love.” Her last couple of films have truly confirmed her as one of the best we have right now: first with “Eden,” an epic, decades-spanning look at the French house music scene and arrested development; then this year’s “Things To Come,” a sublime, deceptively funny, intimate character study which might be the best-edited movie we’ve seen in years, among its many virtues. Each of her films has been so compassionate, so finely written and perfectly directed, that it’s frankly a little terrifying to think of how good she might be in another few years.
8. Jonathan Glazer
It’s a lazy byword for greatness, but sometimes it’s difficult to avoid invoking Stanley Kubrick as a laudatory comparison. And there is something in the meticulous craft and minute, hold-your-breath attention to detail that Jonathan Glazer can achieve that calls Kubrick to mind — never more so than during his third and greatest film to date, “Under The Skin.” Creating an uncanny, otherworldly atmosphere, and showcasing an astonishing turn from Scarlett Johansson, where his previous titles, the highly enjoyable sunshine gangster film “Sexy Beast” and the criminally underrated reincarnation mystery “Birth,” impressed us deeply, it was “Under The Skin” nine years after the latter that made us full converts. With a clutch of the most iconic music videos in recent memory to his name, and a venerable career in commercials (here are his 10 best), Glazer’s been working more consistently than his three-feature filmography suggests, but we have to hope it won’t be another decade before we see his next big-screen outing.
7. Denis Villeneuve
There’s a certain kind of movie that some claim aren’t being made, or that just aren’t successful, that have shifted entirely to television: smart, grown-up, star-driven thrillers, artfully made and rarely if ever insulting the intelligence. Those who claim that they’ve vanished haven’t been paying attention to Denis Villeneuve. The French-Canadian director won acclaim at home with films like “Maelstrom” and “Polytechnique” before gripping drama “Incendies” became a worldwide hit and an Oscar nominee. English-language debut “Prisoners” was pulp executed at the highest level, and he’s only grown from there: The much smaller “Enemy” was a vice-tight, bizarre thriller that went to much stranger places than you might have expected; while “Sicario” brought a haunting abstraction to the war-on-drugs actioner. His latest, “Arrival,” might be his best film yet, playing the heartstrings as well as the nervous system like a fiddle. We never thought we’d be optimistic about a “Blade Runner” sequel (especially one with Jared Leto in it…), but in Villeneuve’s hands, we can’t wait.
6. Pablo Larraín
Our Oli Lyttelton said it best when he tweeted “Internet: Movies are dead; Pablo Larraín: Here’s my third awesome film in 18 months.” Chilean director Larraín, whose first three films “Tony Manero,” “Post-Mortem” and “No” would themselves have been the crowning achievements of a lesser filmmaker’s oeuvre, has doubled his filmography in under two years, with each new film a progression in terms of confidence. After the Oscar-nominated “No,” he delivered eviscerating disgraced-priest parable “The Club;” playful, frenetic, deconstructed biopic “Neruda;” and his English-language debut, hotly tipped as an Oscar player in 2017, “Jackie.” But what’s most exciting is that while his lively intelligence remains, Larraín challenges himself with new aesthetics and approaches each time, whether it’s the VHS fuzziness of “No,” the crepuscular low-contrast palette of “The Club” or the bright, steady, full-face close-ups of Natalie Portman in “Jackie.” Of all the future greats to emerge in the last five years, none energizes us like Larraín.
5. Martin Scorsese
You may have heard of this guy. But when we reworked this list to favor “exciting,” and many of his similarly famous contemporaries took a tumble down the rankings as a result, Scorsese stayed more or less where he was. Not only is he essentially the patron saint of independent cinema, and a tireless evangelist for film appreciation; not only is his name synonymous with an entire style of vibrant, violent, irresistibly exuberant filmmaking; not only has he roughly 10 undeniable classics under his belt (here’s our retrospective), but at 73 he’s managed to retain his relevance. There have been lulls, like the solid but worthy “Hugo,” and recent TV misfire “Vinyl,” but with the ferociously funny “The Wolf of Wall Street” seeing him back on snarling form, and upcoming passion project “Silence” bowing in December, not to mention all the documentaries, producing and preservation projects he’s involved in, Scorsese remains American cinema’s most precious natural resource.
4. Todd Haynes
A career that starts with a virtually banned art project about Karen Carpenter told with Barbie dolls, went through some seminal works of New Queer Cinema, and has gone on to take in some of the most acclaimed films of the last 25 years is an unlikely one, but you suspect Todd Haynes wouldn’t have done it any other way. He’s never been fully embraced by the establishment — “Carol” was one of the best films of last year, but ultimately failed to pick up a Best Picture nomination. But whether he’s paying homage to glam rock with “Velvet Goldmine,” updating Sirk with “Far From Heaven,” making one of the most unconventional and fascinating biopics ever with Bob Dylan pic “I’m Not There,” or digging deep into a melodrama classic with his HBO miniseries re-do of “Mildred Pierce,” Haynes is consistently surprising and utterly in love with cinema. We’ve become sadly used to long gaps between his films — he only has three features this century — but he’s already wrapped his “Carol” follow-up “Wonderstruck,” and that’s the best news we’ve heard in a while.
3. The Coen Brothers
Were it not for that unpleasant mid-’00s blip of “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” (and the former is better than some suggest), we’d probably think of the Coens as having one of the most flawless filmographies in the history of the medium. Over 30 years, they’ve built up a catalogue of work of near-unfathomable cleverness, ranging from broad, Preston Sturges-esque screwball (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) to bleak neo-Westerns (“No Country For Old Men”), and yet every one of their films could only have come from them (just watch almost anything described as Coen-esque and watch how hard it fails for further proof of this), and feel utterly of a piece with each other. They’re capable of inducing such delight and such darkness, of building even a character with one scene into a memorable person, of wrangling language into something utterly quotable, and of using the unlikeliest premises — with their last two films, a folk-music road movie and a Hollywood mystery — to tackle the biggest questions of existence. For all the film-is-dead panicking of late, it’s never going away as long as the Coens are here.
2. Kathryn Bigelow
While it is astounding and galling that she is still the only woman ever to have won a Best Director Oscar, it’s not at all surprising that the honor went to Kathryn Bigelow. Having graduated from the grungy nihilism of her first features, “The Loveless” and vampire flick “Near Dark,” to slicker genre titles “Blue Steel” and “Point Break,” in 1995 she turned in sorely undervalued sci-fi “Strange Days.” The ’00s were patchy, featuring largely forgotten misfires “The Weight Of Water” and “K-19: The Widowmaker” before Bigelow exploded back onto the scene, quite literally, with the taut, topical “The Hurt Locker.” That film’s Oscar triumph opened doors, but Bigelow stuck to her newfound guns for “Zero Dark Thirty” — possibly her best film to date — ambiguous, muscular and morally murky. Her terse, politically charged sensibility seem perfect for her 2017 Detroit riots picture: If there is anyone who can do justice to such a controversial incident 50 years on, it’s the committed, fiercely uncompromising Bigelow.
1. Paul Thomas Anderson
So here we are, four days and 99 filmmakers (plus probably three times as many that were under consideration at some point in the process) later, and while endless arguments ensued over much of the list placement, Paul Thomas Anderson always felt like the obvious choice for the number one slot. There are few filmmakers left for whom a new movie feels like a real event, but ever since his career began (at the terrifyingly prodigious age of 26 with “Hard Eight”), Anderson’s movies have felt major even when they’ve been minor-key (as with “Punch-Drunk Love”). “Boogie Nights” and then “Magnolia” confirmed him as a filmmaker of uncommon skill, but he’s somehow got even more promising as he’s gotten older, stepping away from his major influences — Scorsese, Altman, etc. — and, with “The Master,” “Inherent Vice” and “Junun” into territory that’s entirely his own, with rhythms that are entirely his own. Next year, he’ll reunite with Daniel Day-Lewis for a ’50s-set fashion-world movie we’re affectionately calling “Paul Thomas Anderson’s Next Top Model,” and it can’t get here soon enough.
As you might imagine, the process to get this list even down to 100 was a fraught one, and we could have filled a list of 500 filmmakers quite happily. We won’t list them all here, but there are plenty of directors that came close to making the cut that deserve attention. Among the ones most likely to get you lighting torches and clutching pitchforks are some veteran filmmakers who have storied careers behind them, who either haven’t been on great form of late, or don’t show much sign of still being active. Their numbers include Jean-Luc Godard, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, Agnès Varda, William Friedkin, Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen (plus those who’ve fully retired like Hayao Miyazaki, Stanley Donen or Alan Parker). Their lack of placement on a silly list like this is no comment on the greatness of their past works.
In terms of fresher faces, relatively speaking, there were some other heartbreaking exclusions. Among them were Bennett Miller, Paul Greengrass, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Fatih Akin, Arnaud Deplechin, Patricio Guzmán, Amy Berg, Danny Boyle, Brad Bird, Tomas Alfredson, Christian Petzold, David Mackenzie, David Cronenberg, Alex Ross Perry, Pawel Pawlikowski, Roy Andersson, Ira Sachs, Sion Sono, Cate Shortland, David Michôd, Corneliu Porumboiu, Lee Chang-Dong and Whit Stillman.
And there were more, like László Nemes, Steve James, J.A. Bayona, Peter Jackson, John Boorman, Terence Davies, Tsai Ming-Liang, The Wachowskis, Takashi Miike, Hong Sang-Soo, Gareth Edwards, Ridley Scott, Ken Loach, Joe Wright, Lenny Abrahamson, Warren Beatty, Peter Weir, Jennifer Kent, Jessica Hausner, Jonathan Demme, Sean Durkin, Paolo Sorrentino, Terry Gilliam, Noah Baumbach, Ruben Östlund, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Peter Strickland, Thomas Vinterberg, Damián Szifrón, J.C. Chandor, Tobias Lindholm, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Dee Rees, Lynn Shelton, Catherine Breillat, Mira Nair, Harmony Korine, David Gordon Green, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shane Meadows, Clint Eastwood, Tom McCarthy, Benh Zeitlin, J.J. Abrams, Joe Cornish, Alex Garland, Michel Gondry, Andrew Stanton, Dan Gilroy, Matt Reeves and many, many, many more. Who said film was dead?
And finally, a word for a filmmaker who, when we started putting the list together, was firmly placed inside the top 10, but sadly passed away not long after: Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. Here and elsewhere, he’s very sadly missed.