The landscape of cinema in 2021 is a busy picture, presenting an industry in flux, still healing from the monumental toll of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, forcing the big screen to squeeze down into the digital streaming services of our own homes. With Disney+ and HBO Max now operating a platform that sees simultaneous releases both in cinemas and on streaming, the fabric of the industry is certainly changing alongside the hasty popularity of serialised television.
Superhero success seems to be on the decline and a taste for the sublime is in favour, with Denis Villeneuve’s Dune having been the most anticipated film of both 2020 and 2021, though with streaming services also more inclined to take low-budget risks, an eclectic picture of cinema is being painted. With television now able to match cinema in terms of size and scope, the medium has taken on a more experimental direction, driven by filmmakers with a passion for innovation, elevating the art form to new ambitious heights.
Listing our comprehensive collection of the forty most important working directors was no easy feat, favouring those at the forefront of technological or creative change, reminding us not of the cinema of old, but showing us where the future of the medium may take us.
The 40 most important working directors:
40. Chang-dong Lee
The cinema of South Korean director Chang-dong Lee is enigmatic, to say the least, asking the audience to unpick the story rather than for the filmmaker to lay it all out on a plate.
2018s Burning and 2007s Secret Sunshine are both heart-wrenching dramas in which to understand a character is to fully deconstruct their every move and every decision. Chang-dong Lee doesn’t make it easy either, often slicing the narrative to follow a non-linear path. Whilst he often does not rear his head in the industry, whenever he does you better take note of his ingenious complexity.
39. Lulu Wang
Director of 2019s heartbreaking family drama The Farewell, Lulu Wang immediately established herself among the highest echelons of working filmmakers.
With several projects on the horizon for the up-and-coming filmmaker, including an untitled feature film and TV series titled Expats, looking into the personal lives of Expats living in Hong Kong, we can’t wait to see her career flourish.
38. Jonathan Glazer
Creative visionary Jonathan Glazer is one of the best directors currently working in the industry, bringing technical and storytelling innovation to every project he takes on.
Following his science fiction gamechanger Under the Skin in 2013, the director has since produced two excellent short films, The Fall and Strasbourg 1518. His next untitled project we await with bated breath.
37. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
There was a moment in time when Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was the most influential director in the industry, that time was likely 2015, though his incredible contemporary legacy remains untarnished.
With an impressive track record that includes The Revenant, Best Picture winner Birdman, Biutiful and Babel, the films of Inarritu are often emotionally raw and cinematically breathtaking. His latest film, Limbo, is currently in production, and according to an early synopsis, “Explores the political and social modernity of Mexico”.
36. Alfonso Cuarón
A curious director that has come to define some of the greatest innovations in 21st-century filmmaking, Alfonso Cuarón has not directed since 2018s Roma, though has an exciting TV series, Ascension, in the works.
Throughout his filmography, Cuarón and long-time cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have helped craft some of the most technically impressive modern era films, including Gravity and Children of Men.
35. Luca Guadagnino
In the romantic world of Luca Guadagnino, the filmmaker has crafted a unique cinematic voice, creating the groundbreaking cultural phenomenon Call Me by Your Name in 2017.
Whilst this may be Guadagnino’s most popular release, he has many strings to his filmmaking bow, having made A Bigger Splash starring Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes as well as the experimental horror remake Suspiria starring Dakota Johnson. His upcoming slate includes horror, romance Bones & All along with a, yet untitled, Call Me by Your Name sequel.
34. Jennifer Kent
Horror is going through a major revival that is truly exciting to witness, with Jennifer Kent being one of the genres leading alternative voices.
2014s dark, fantastical horror The Babadook was an utterly compelling debut effort, which was followed up by the harrowing and brutal The Nightingale in 2018. Her latest film, Alice + Freda Forever, looks to abandon the genre, though we’ll no doubt be keeping a close eye on it thanks to her immaculate track record.
33. Claire Denis
“I’m not so sure films should be made to soothe people’s pain. I don’t want to be a social worker. I want to share something that is a vision, or a feeling,” Denis commented in a conversation with cléo magazine.
An influential filmmaker particularly of the 1990s, Claire Denis has since reinvigorated her career with 2018s abstract science fiction, High Life, with evidence of further innovation in the near future with Fire, starring Juliette Binoche released later this year.
32. Lynne Ramsay
The track record of Lynne Ramsay is nothing short of stupendous, responsible for some of modern cinema’s finest films, from 1999s Ratcatcher to 2017s You Were Never Really Here.
Working closely with the most influential actor of current cinema, Joaquin Phoenix, Lynne Ramsay’s unique, hard-hitting visual creativity adds a disturbing layer of emotional density to her uncompromising dramas. We Need to Talk About Kevin is quite simply a modern masterpiece.
31. Pedro Almodóvar
One of Spain’s most iconic filmmakers, Pedro Almodóvar is a directing powerhouse, releasing multiple films across the course of a decade, including 2019s excellent Pain and Glory.
“The moral of all my films is to get to a stage of greater freedom,” Almodóvar stated in discussion with Marvin D’Lugo. With a bevvy of films scheduled for release in the near future, including the completed Parallel Mothers, the filmmakers presence in European cinema is particularly influential.
30. Quentin Tarantino
No list of the finest directors of the contemporary era would be complete without Quentin Tarantino, as whilst his contributions may be few and far between, they are so monumental whenever they land that his influence knows no bounds.
His latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is his best film of the 21st century, with supposedly just one more on the way to cap off his illustrious career. His snappy, violent pulp aesthetic has inspired everything from crime cinema to the sharp comic wit of mainstream superhero filmmaking.
29. Kelly Reichardt
Quiet, subtle, and yet powerfully hard-hitting, Kelly Reichardt’s filmography is curious and deeply varied, with her latest film, First Cow, our favourite film of 2020.
Tackling pertinent issues of contemporary life with grace and beauty, Night Moves, Meek’s Cutoff and Old Joy stand as three of the best films of the 21st century, with her latest film Showing Up, starring Michelle Williams, currently in post-production.
28. David Lynch
Not just one of the most important working directors, but one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, David Lynch’s unique take on experimental filmmaking is truly revolutionary.
The return of Twin Peaks in 2017 was the director’s most recent project of significance, though he has certainly been keeping busy with several short films and documentaries. Inspiring the likes of The Safdie Brothers and Denis Villeneuve, his influence on modern filmmaking cannot be understated. Bring on his next TV project, titled Unrecorded Nights.
27. David Lowery
Editor and filmmaker, David Lowery has made his name on multiple projects throughout the 21st century, though has most notably created cinematic magic on films such as 2017s A Ghost Story and 2021s The Green Knight.
Previously known for his tender, emotionally powerful independent dramas, the low-key fantasy adventure The Green Knight bucks this trend and suggests that Lowery’s future filmography, already marked with the release of Peter Pan in the coming years, could be grand and spectacular.
26. Jia Zhangke
Perhaps China’s most influential contemporary filmmaker, the films of Jia Zhangke often dissect and deconstruct the politics and sociology of one of the world’s most important and enigmatic countries.
Shaping how modern life is perceived and understood in the context of the past, Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures, The World, 24 City and most recent documentary, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue critically analyse contemporary China. Not only this, but Zhangke will also come out with influential films of action cinema, including A Touch of Sin and Ash is the Purest White, transcending the borders of Chinese filmmaking.
25. Robert Eggers
Seemingly a champion of independent filmmaking from the distant blue of the cinematic landscape, Robert Eggers has come from almost total obscurity to seize modern filmmaking by the throat.
Releasing The Witch in 2015 followed by The Lighthouse four years later, both of Eggers’ films capture a certain visceral terror and unique identity that makes him a favourite of obscure film fans across the world. His latest action-adventure film The Northman looks to take this gritty attitude to the world of Viking warfare. Bring it on.
24. Ava DuVernay
An influential advocate for civil rights, the films and TV projects of Ava DuVernay are known for casting light and rousing discussion on previously under-publicised events, from the treatment of black people in modern prisons in 13th to the wrongdoing of the justice system in When They See Us.
Such has led DuVernay to take on several exciting projects, such as 2018s Wrinkle in Time, along with the upcoming TV series DMZ about a future American civil war. With a career spanning fantasy fiction, documentary filmmaking and Television, Ava DuVernay is a truly eclectic creative.
23. Ruben Östlund
Redefining the world of contemporary European filmmaking, Swedish director Ruben Östlund is certainly a product of his country’s identity, eliciting the same dry humour and appreciation for life’s sober truths as the great Roy Andersson.
Winning the Palme d’Or at 2017s Cannes Film Festival for his art satire The Square, Östlund has since been working on his latest project Triangle of Sadness with Woody Harrelson and Harris Dickinson. Though, it is his early films such as 2014s Force Majeure that would have the biggest impact on filmmaking with the hard-hitting drama embedded by male anxiety being remade into a comedy starring Will Ferrell called Downhill.
22. Guillermo del Toro
Master of fantasy, putting Guillermo del Toro’s name on a film poster is sure to garner attention from lovers of creature features and European romance.
Forever having fingers in several pies at once, the Best Picture-winning director of The Shape of Water has helped to create numerous fantasy series’ for Netflix, whilst also creating his own action film Nightmare Alley and dark reimagining of Pinocchio for Disney.
21. The Coen Brothers
The most famous filmmaking duo ever to grace the directorial chair(s), the Coen brothers are true masters of cinema, responsible for classics including The Big Lebowski, Fargo and No Country for Old Men.
With Fargo now a major TV series, the Coen Brothers continue to influence and inspire filmmakers to this day, even if their own prominence may have decreased a little in value, having not made anything of true critical acclaim since 2013s Inside Llewyn Davis. Their upcoming project, Macbeth, may just turn the tide on this, however.
20. Hirokazu Koreeda
Winner of the celebrated Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for his film Shoplifters, Hirokazu Koreeda’s unique form of poetic storytelling ranks him among the most influential directors working today.
Crafting stories stripped that seem extracted from the very source, Koreeda’s family dramas are soft, tender and heartfelt, creating several of the century’s most acclaimed films, including Nobody Knows, Still Walking and After Life. His latest film The Truth was his first in the English language as he looks to expand his cinematic boundaries.
19. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Operating in the cinematic form of the dreamscape, the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is particularly ethereal, often telling stories of the ponderous, existential conversations regarding spirits, realism and consciousness.
His latest film, Memoria, starring Tilda Swinton caused sparks at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival for its strange emotional power, whilst his previous films have acted as quiet landmarks for the legacy of independent film. It could certainly be considered that Apichatpong Weerasethakul works under the same frame of thought as David Lynch, with both promoting stories that operate on a different plane of awareness.
18. Ryan Coogler
Yet to make a critical bad film, garnering international success for each of Fruitvale Station, Creed, and the Oscar-nominated Black Panther. His debut picture, Fruitvale Station, remains his very best and would establish the director in the highest echelons of contemporary filmmakers.
Since then he has worked closely with Michael B. Jordan, as well as the late Chadwick Boseman, whose 2018 appearance in Black Panther would trigger a cultural phenomenon. Coogler has to approach the sequel to the Marvel film without Boseman and with all eyes on him as fans and critics alike eagerly await the sequel.
17. Yorgos Lanthimos
One of the most exciting working directors, the Greek Yorgos Lanthimos rose to prominence in the mid-2000s with 2009s provocative Dogtooth and Alps two years later. 2015 effort The Lobster would put him on the radar of cinephiles worldwide, though his follow up The Killing of a Sacred Deer felt like a more compelling tale.
He joins Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund in a particular group of European directors that are approaching cinema from a particularly experimental and provocative angle, challenging the medium rather than going along with its flow. Each of his films seems to grab hold of the cultural zeitgeist, whether it be The Lobster or 2018 Oscar-winner The Favourite, bring on Poor Things, scheduled for release in 2022.
16. Christopher Nolan
Known for his embrace of the spectacular high-concept blockbuster, Christopher Nolan is perhaps one of the most well-known and most challenging mainstream filmmakers.
Releasing time-bender Tenet amidst the very peak of the Coronavirus pandemic, Nolan’s pioneering voice in modern cinema is certainly admirable, with recent films such as Dunkirk and Interstellar showing that his cinematic vision truly has no bounds.
15. Martin Scorsese
As a student, critic and practitioner of film, Martin Scorsese is more than just a director. The iconic director is actively engaging with the world of cinema, helping to steer it in a beneficial direction.
His influence on modern cinema is unquestionable, though his role in the contemporary industry seems to lean more towards producing rather than directing. His importance to the modern landscape of cinema remains pivotal, however, with the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Brendan Fraiser looking likely to once again reimagine the cinematic form.
14. Wes Anderson
Known for his twee, quirky tales of criminal mischief, the films of Wes Anderson present life in its most colourful form, expressed in fruitful language and gorgeous punchy hue. From 2009s animated homemade tale Fantastic Mr. Fox to the upcoming pastel-coloured French Dispatch celebrating the freedom of journalism, Anderson is quite simply one of cinema’s greatest working directors.
Inspiring the films of independent directors around the world, Anderson’s unique quirky style lends itself to strange offbeat tales, with his visual style copied by everyone from Taika Waititi to Limbo’s Ben Sharrock.
13. Paul Thomas Anderson
American director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most celebrated filmmakers of our time, having helmed There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread among many others.
Perhaps the very best contemporary director, based on modern track record, Anderson is close to Stanley Kubrick in his meticulous deconstruction of narrative, cinematography and sound, orchestrating cinematic magic by directing some of the screen’s finest actors. His influence on the industry is truly impressive, having inspired a particular style for frank, honest, almost documentary-esque filmmaking techniques.
12. Edgar Wright
English filmmaker Edgar Wright has garnered a devout following worldwide due to the immense success of his comedic masterpieces Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, among others.
Like a refined James Gunn, Edgar Wright approaches his projects with a finessed creativity and true passion for cinema, with his frenetic energy self-evident from comedies like Hot Fuzz, to his most recent music documentary The Sparks Brothers. Pioneer of modern cinema, Wright was perhaps the most important voice in the early 21st century, having now established himself as an industry powerhouse.
11. Julia Ducournau
The latest recipient of the coveted Palme D’or, Julia Ducournau’s Cronenberg-esque sci-fi terror, Titane still remains shrouded in significant mystery despite having been celebrated at the Cannes Film Festival.
A visionary filmmaker, Ducournau’s Titane joins 2016s gruesome coming-of-age tale Raw, which changed the thinking behind the usually emotionally charged sub-genre. Bringing a significant sense of punk style to her feature films, the French director and screenwriter looks to be primed to influence modern cinema well into the future.
10. Ari Aster
Ari Aster, along with Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers, has had a pivotal role in the recent revival of horror, bringing a renewed sense of sophistication and grounded terror to the once floundering genre.
Whilst Hereditary wasn’t groundbreaking, its filmmaking excellence helped to elevate the genre almost single-handedly. Suddenly horror audiences were asking far more from their beloved genre. Midsommar continued this trend, bringing independent terror to the big screen, once again grounded in a rich subtext that made reference to some of cinema’s finest films.
9. Céline Sciamma
Intellectually stirring and persistently challenging, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an erotic examination of the danger of desire and passion within the realm of a taboo relationship. It is Sciamma’s masterpiece; finally, a film that looks at a lesbian relationship via a woman’s eyes.
Her film is a masterpiece but was also the latest in a long line of classic 21st-century titles, including Girlhood, Tomboy and Water Lilies. Each film is intrinsically linked with the idea of female identity in contemporary life, acting as pertinent anecdotes to the nationwide tales of anxiety, trauma and celebration that the LGBTQ community faces.
8. Jordan Peele
It’s important to take note of significant cinematic events whenever they come around, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out was certainly a major moment for both Jordan Peele and the modern industry. Fusing independent ideas with a grand Hollywood spectacle.
Peele has since become an icon for contemporary change, telling stories that challenge popular opinion, whilst reviving a strange sub-genre of sci-fi thrillers, long-thought forgotten. His latest horror effort, Nope, will be awaited with bated breath.
7. Sean Baker
Slowly rising the ranks of the entertainment industry, Sean Baker has earned his salt in cinema, rewarded by his current status as one of the most compassionate and intuitive filmmakers working today. Crafting organic, sensitive stories that are not afraid to tackle contentious topics Baker’s The Florida Project is his finest film to date.
Seeming to capture the emotional heart of a cultural zeitgeist, Baker is at the very forefront of independent cinema, with his latest film, Red Rocket seeing great critical acclaim at Cannes Film Festival. It’s the director’s constant innovations that really capture his genius, filming much of his 2015 release Tangerine, following two hookers walking the streets of Hollywood on Christmas eve, with an iPhone.
6. Chloé Zhao
Chloé Zhao’s 2021 Best Picture winner, Nomadland, is nothing short of a masterpiece, a painting of both the landscape of contemporary periphery America and a portrait of those that inhabit its space. Crafted with a gentle passionate lyricism, Nomadland bypasses the futility of the American dream and accesses the very heart of the American soul.
Shaking up the world of independent film, her latest project looks to rock the world of Marvel’s cinematic universe, with The Eternals boasting a massive ensemble cast including Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie and Kit Harington. Due to be a pivotal lynchpin in Disney’s superhero universe, Chloé Zhao looks to be sitting right at the centre of modern cinema.
5. Greta Gerwig
Although Greta Gerwig was certainly finding success with screenplays for Frances Ha and Mistress America, it wasn’t until 2017s fantastic Lady Bird that she was truly recognised as a filmmaker.
One of the greatest contemporary coming-of-age tales, Lady Bird was formed by delicate familial relationships that told of a heartbreaking tale of the adolescent transition. Such a sensitive film would allow Gerwig to go on to adapt the classic American novel Little Women in 2019 which was met with overwhelming critical acclaim. Her latest project is the upcoming film, Barbie, inspired by the classic Mattel doll, which is sure to subvert initial expectations, providing a contemporary spin on the traditional icon.
4. Denis Villeneuve
To revisit the great spectacle of classic cinema, Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan are two filmmakers you’d be quick to turn to. Over the course of 21st-century cinema to date, Denis Villeneuve has steadily established himself as one of the industry’s leading directors.
Films such as Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 have set him aside as the sort of classy auteur who transcends usual genre boundaries with extraordinary narrative depth and unprecedented sci-fi design. His latest film, the long, long-awaited Dune is due to captivate both critics and audiences, whilst his next project, Cleopatra is set to take on one of history’s most iconic individuals.
3. Bong Joon-Ho
One of the most successful independent films of recent memory, Parasite won both Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language film to win the award, as well as the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Parasite is remarkable partly because it is so strikingly original; it doesn’t remind you of any other film or category and doesn’t seem to mimic or borrow from anything else. It is difficult even to classify; Bong has referred to it as a tragi-comedy, but it does not fit easily into any particular genre, defying categorisation and evading film conventions as easily as its storyline continually defies expectations. The film joins modern classics of his including Memories of Murder, The Host and Okja, as the director builds a shining filmography with a sequel to Parasite on the horizon.
2. Barry Jenkins
Creating a coming-of-age film exploring themes of identity, sexuality and physical abuse in the youth of the Moonlight’s main character, Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece certainly ranks in the highest echelons of modern filmmaking.
Pioneering in every sense, Moonlight became the first film with an all-black cast, the first LGBTQ-related film to win Best Picture and, while they’re breaking records, Joi McMillon became the first black woman to be nominated for an editing Oscar. With a passion for telling stories of the struggle of civil rights, Jenkins’ follow-up film If Beale Street Could Talk garnered similar praise, with his unique form of poetic storytelling becoming a pertinent feature of modern independent filmmaking.
His latest film sees a collaboration with Disney as he takes on a prequel for The Lion King, remaining firmly in the public eye.
1. The Safdie Brothers
With wild, frenzied electricity Josh and Benny Safdie present a New York bustling with fury and excitement in Uncut Gems, a 21st-century thriller masterpiece. Together with 2017s frenetic Good Time, the Safdie brothers have solidified themselves as icons of contemporary cinema.
Stalking the movements of Adam Sandler’s scatty Howard Ratner, a jeweller with mounting debts to pay as he risks his life and finances to stay afloat, Uncut Gems pierces the retinas with an adrenaline rush born from the streets of New York. An astonishing kinetic vitality fuels this romp around America’s busiest city, where directors Josh and Benny Safdie perfectly capture the city’s look and feel, all whilst sculpting characters that feel as if they’ve just walked off Diamond Jewelry Way.
They’re filmmakers born from the stylistic influence of classic American directors Martin Scorsese and The Coen Brothers, with a significant European inspiration galvanizing their characters and stories. Revitalising the career of Adam Sandler as an eccentric American living on a constant knife-edge and loving every minute of it, The Safdie Brothers are riding at the very brink of the industry’s innovation. Who knows where they could lead it.