Ranked: The Best Film Directors of the 21st Century (So Far)

  • Comments: ↓ 16 user comments
  • Publish Date: October 12, 2011

The best directors since 2000

Which film directors have received the best reviews from professional critics over the past dozen years? That is the question we address below, where we rank the top directors since 2000 by average Metascore. Note that:

  • Only directors with at least four films released in the U.S. since January 1, 2000 were considered. (All release years listed below are U.S. dates.)
  • A film must have at least seven reviews from critics to be eligible.
  • Documentaries, direct-to-video titles, and multi-director anthologies are excluded.
  • The director scores are averages of their individual film Metascores prior to rounding.

1. Laurent Cantet
Average Score: 82.8 for 4 films

France's Laurent Cantet has directed just four films in his career, but they have all been hits with the critic community. The Class, his most recent film, was nominated for the foreign language Oscar, and won the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Up next for the director is a segment in the upcoming Spanish-language anthology film 7 Days in Havana, and a new film, Foxfire, based on Joyce Carol Oates' 1950s-set novel Foxfire: Confessions Of A Girl Gang. Both are due in 2012, and the latter film, like The Class before it, finds Cantet working with a group of adolescents making their acting debuts.

"There's piercing sadness, and fury, too, in this Everyman's isolation, and Cantet is singularly skilled at evoking the universal condition of such tragic ordinariness."

—Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
Writing about Time Out

Films:
78 Human Resources (2000)
88 Time Out (2002)
73 Heading South (2006)
92 The Class (2008)

2. Pedro Almodóvar
Average Score: 81.7 for 4 films

The veteran Spanish director looks likely to lose his lofty #2 ranking by the end of this week when the final reviews come in for his latest film, The Skin I Live In, which underwhelmed some critics at its Cannes debut earlier this year. That film reunites Almodóvar with star Antonio Banderas, who appeared in many of the director's early releases, but none since 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. While the latter film remains one of the director's best-known works (along with 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and 1999's Oscar-winning All About My Mother 87), Almodóvar's output over the past decade (until this week) has continued to impress reviewers, with his films also picking up numerous awards along the way (including an unexpected original screenplay Oscar for the Spanish-language Talk to Her, the first non-English-language film to win that honor).

"It's very difficult to mesh fantasy with reality, but with great charm and a light touch, Almodovar shows exactly how it should be done."

—Ray Bennett, The Hollywood Reporter
Writing about Volver

Films:
86 Talk to Her (2002)
81 Bad Education (2004)
84 Volver (2006)
76 Broken Embraces (2009)

3. Guy Maddin
Average Score: 81.1 for 5 films

Whether they are ballet-filled takes on the Dracula story, or psuedo-autobiographical tales of growing up in Winnipeg, Guy Maddin movies might be an acquired taste (and that acquisition will be helped if you are predisposed to liking surreal, hyper-stylized, black-and-white, silent melodramas), but critics continue to reward them with stellar reviews, and we can guarantee you won't see anything like them from any other director. Next up for the Canadian filmmaker is the crime drama Keyhole, which follows a gangster (Jason Patric) on a Ulysses-like odyssey ... through the rooms of a house.

"Shot for shot, Maddin can be as surprising and delightful as any filmmaker has ever been."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Writing about My Winnipeg

Films:
84 Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2003)
78 The Saddest Music in the World (2004)
82 Cowards Bend the Knee (2004)
79 Brand Upon the Brain! (2007)
84 My Winnipeg (2008)

4. Paul Greengrass
Average Score: 80.3 for 5 films

Known for his documentary-like style (especially his use of handheld cameras), Englishman Paul Greengrass has been directing films since the late 1980s, but his name didn't begin to register with moviegoers in the U.S. until the past decade, thanks to a string of impressive films. While his two Bourne movies were his biggest commercial hits, Greengrass wowed critics even more with a pair of films based on real events: the 9/11 tale United 93, and Bloody Sunday, based on the 1972 shootings in Northern Ireland. His last film, the Iraq-set thriller Green Zone, was a rare misfire, but expect him to bounce back with his next project, A Captain's Duty, a thriller about a 2009 Somali pirate attack (likely starring Tom Hanks).

"It is the highest compliment I can pay Greengrass to say that he is a master of the mundane, the routine and the everyday."

—Scott Foundas, L.A. Weekly
Writing about United 93

Films:
90 Bloody Sunday (2002)
73 The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
90 United 93 (2006)
85 The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
63 Green Zone (2010)

5. Aleksandr Sokurov
Average Score: 79.9 for 4 films

The veteran Russian director made a name for himself on the international scene with his 2002 film Russian Ark, which used a single, unbroken, 96-minute shot that moved from room to room in the Hermitage Museum to tell 300 years of Russian history. Since then, Sokurov has been a regular at the Cannes Film Festival, though he debuted his newest film, Faust, at this year's Venice festival instead, where it won the Golden Lion as the festival's best film.

"In the hands of visionary filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, this simple material makes for a haunting drama about war, generational relationships and the human condition."

—Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle
Writing about Alexandra

Films:
86 Russian Ark (2002)
64 Father and Son (2004)
85 Alexandra (2008)
85 The Sun (2009)

6. Hsiao-hsien Hou
Average Score: 79.7 for 4 films

Born in China, Hou is now known as one of Taiwan's top directors, though some of his best known films have been made in other countries (including Café Lumière in Japan and Flight of the Red Balloon in France). He has attracted an international following (at least among the film critic community) as well, and after being named the best director of the 1990s in a poll of leading critics, he has continued to earn raves for his more recent work, including 2008's poetic Balloon, which references the classic French short film (which you likely watched when you were a kid) to tell the story of a young boy, his mom, and his new caretaker.

"In the end what elevates Mr. Hou's films to the sublime—and this one comes close at times—are not the stories but their telling."

—Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
Writing about Flight of the Red Balloon

Films:
73 Millennium Mambo (2003)
80 Café Lumière (2005)
80 Three Times (2006)
86 Flight of the Red Balloon (2008)

7. Mike Leigh
Average Score: 79.6 for 4 films

English director Mike Leigh has been working in film and theater for forty years, earning critical acclaim for character-driven films like 1988's High Hopes, 1990's Life Is Sweet, 1993's Naked, and 1996's Secrets & Lies 91. In fact, if we had to choose, we'd probably pick the 1990s as his most productive decade, but the 21st century has also been good to Leigh, who has received five Oscar nominations (four for screenplay, one directing) since 2000.

"Leigh has a knack of making the ordinary extraordinary."

—Richard Mowe, Boxoffice Magazine
Writing about Another Year

Films:
72 All or Nothing (2002)
83 Vera Drake (2004)
84 Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
80 Another Year (2010)

8. Peter Jackson
Average Score: 79.3 for 5 films

While the 1980s and 1990s saw the New Zealand native helming low-budget horror films and black comedies—plus the critically acclaimed 1994 gem Heavenly Creatures—Jackson was little known outside of the art house and horror community. The past decade, of course, has been another story altogether. His three Lord of the Rings films earned nearly $3 billion worldwide in ticket sales alone, and earned Jackson a place in cinema history (and three Oscar trophies). A remake of King Kong ultimately proved to be another success, though his most recent film, an adaptation of the novel The Lovely Bones, was a rare commercial and critical dud. Next up for Jackson, of course, is a return to Middle-earth; the first of his two Hobbit films arrives on December 14, 2012.

"Jackson is a visionary filmmaker who is not only a technical wizard but also a master storyteller."

—Claudia Puig, USA Today
Writing about King Kong

Films:
92 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
88 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
94 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
81 King Kong (2005)
42 The Lovely Bones (2009)

9. Bahman Ghobadi
Average Score: 78.5 for 5 films

The Kurdish-Iranian director has spent much of his film career (which kicked off in earnest with his debut feature, 2000's A Time for Drunken Horses) depicting the lives of modern-day Kurds living in Iran and Iraq. Music is another key interest for the filmmaker; many of his films feature musicians as major characters, including his most recent work, No One Knows About Persian Cats, which centers on an Iranian rock band facing censorship in their home country. Ghobadi's next film, a political romance called Rhinos Season, is due in 2012; Monica Bellucci is set to star.

"Ghobadi's genius seems supercharged rather than weighed down by his higher calling, and his imagery is so boilingly alive that we come away from it feeling exhilarated rather than depressed."

—David Chute, L.A. Weekly
Writing about Turtles Can Fly

Films:
78 A Time for Drunken Horses (2000)
86 Marooned in Iraq (2003)
85 Turtles Can Fly (2005)
72 Half Moon (2007)
71 No One Knows About Persian Cats (2010)

10. Fatih Akın *
Average Score: 77.6 for 4 films (* one additional film was unscored)

Born to Turkish parents in Germany, Fatih Akin has made all but one of his (German-language) feature films in the current century. The critics' apparent favorite, 2008's Edge of Heaven, appeared on numerous critic top 10 lists that year, and is often compared (favorably) to Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, which similarly intertwines multiple stories.

"Akin is clearly capable of bravura filmmaking (he favors long takes and masterful traveling shots) without showing off."

—Ann Hornaday, Washington Post
Writing about The Edge of Heaven

Films:
71 In July (2001)
n/a Solino (2002)
78 Head-On (2005)
85 The Edge of Heaven (2008)
76 Soul Kitchen (2010)

11. David Fincher
Average Score: 77.0 for 4 films

The first American director on our list, David Fincher got his start directing music videos for the likes of Madonna and George Michael, before moving into film with 1992's Alien 3. While we are still partial to his output during the 1990's—including Fight Club 66 and Seven65—Fincher received his first two career Oscar nominations for his two most recent films, including last year's hit The Social Network. His next project already has the makings of another runaway success: Fincher's take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo arrives in theaters on December 23. He is also one of the key figures behind Netflix's first original TV series, House of Cards, which is set to debut in 2012.

"[The Social Network] continues Fincher's fascinating transition from genre filmmaker extraordinaire to indelible chronicler of our times."

—Justin Chang, Variety

Films:
65 Panic Room (2002)
78 Zodiac (2007)
70 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
95 The Social Network (2010)

12. Claire Denis
Average Score: 75.7 for 6 films

It's almost shocking to see that red Metascore in Claire Denis' filmography; though some movie fans aren't fond of the French filmmaker's work, critics almost always are. (The existentialist horror of Trouble Every Day—complete with cannibalism—proved a tough sell, however.) Even with that black mark, she's the only female director to rank in our top 15, thanks to recent films like the Africa-set drama White Material and her minimalist character study 35 Shots of Rum.

"Ms. Denis has an extraordinary gift for finding the perfect image that expresses her ideas."

—Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
Writing about White Material

Films:
91 Beau travail (2000)
36 Trouble Every Day (2001)
69 Friday Night (2003)
85 The Intruder (2005)
92 35 Shots of Rum (2009)
81 White Material (2010)

13. Guillermo del Toro
Average Score: 75.6 for 5 films

The only director on our list working almost exclusively in the horror genre, Mexico's Guillermo del Toro has been impressing critics since his 1993 debut, Cronos 70. Since then, his best known films are the two Hellboy titles and the dark fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, which remains to this day the highest-scoring new film since Metacritic initiated coverage over a decade ago. Though del Toro backed out of directing the two Hobbit films, he remains credited as a co-screenwriter.

"Del Toro is almost alone in his ability to re-create on screen the wide-eyed exhilaration and disturbing grotesqueness that is the legacy of reading comics on the page."

—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Writing about Hellboy II

Films:
77 The Devil's Backbone (2001)
52 Blade II (2002)
72 Hellboy (2004)
98 Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
78 Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

14. Robert Altman
Average Score: 75.4 for 4 films

After a career spanning six decades, the late Robert Altman directed his final four films in the early 2000s before his death in 2006. While these last films may not be representative of his finest work (think M*A*S*H, The Player, Nashville, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, among many others), their combined score is still high enough to land him on our list, thanks mainly to 2001's Oscar-nominated Gosford Park.

"Sometimes you forget how great an actor is, then he or she is reborn in an Altman movie."

—David Edelstein, New York
Writing about A Prairie Home Companion

Films:
64 Dr T and the Women (2000)
90 Gosford Park (2001)
73 The Company (2003)
75 A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

15. David Yates
Average Score: 75.2 for 4 films

The longtime English television director's feature film career consists of just four movies. But since those four films all start with the words "Harry Potter," that makes David Yates one of the more successful directors of the past decade. (The four Potter films not directed by Yates, by the way, averaged a slightly lower 72.5.) His next project, obviously, will find him tackling different material, though it may be another book adaptation: Stephen King's The Stand.

"Yates has finally come into his own in this last installment, orchestrating a massive chessboard of events with impressive finesse and a stronger sense of dramatic composition than he has previously displayed."

—Todd McCarthy, THR
Writing about HP8

Films:
71 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
78 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
65 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (2010)
87 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
More Top Directors Since 2000
  Director # Films Average Best Film
16 Christopher Nolan 6 75.0 The Dark Knight (2008) 82
17 Richard Linklater 8 74.9 Before Sunset (2004) 90
18 Zhang Ke Jia 5 74.7 Still Life (2008) 81
19 Martin Scorsese 4 74.4 The Departed (2006) 86
20 Sofia Coppola 4 74.3 Lost in Translation (2003) 89
  Stephen Frears 7 74.3 The Queen (2006) 91
22 Andrew Adamson 4 74.2 Shrek (2001) 84
23 Clint Eastwood 10 73.9 Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) 89
24 Joe Wright 4 73.1 Atonement (2007) 85
25 Joel and Ethan Coen 8 72.7 No Country for Old Men (2007) 91
  Phillip Noyce 4 72.7 The Quiet American (2002) 84
27 Zhang Yimou 8 72.5 House of Flying Daggers (2004) 89
28 Sam Raimi 5 72.1 Spider-Man 2 (2004) 83
29 Claude Chabrol 6 71.9 Merci pour le chocolat (2002) 82
30 Wes Anderson 4 71.7 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) 83
  Susanne Bier 5 71.7 After the Wedding (2007) 78
  Patrice Leconte 5 71.7 The Girl on the Bridge (2000) 75

What about the worst directors?

Tomorrow, we'll return with a look at the worst directors from the past dozen years.

What do you think?

What directors working today do you admire the most? Do you think that any of the directors listed above are overrated? Let us know in the comments section below.

Comments (16)

  • PvtJackson  

    I can't see Steven Spielberg on the list. Where's he ? He's supposed to be enlisted together with Martin Scorsese as two of the most influential directors of all times of American film industry.

    - Minority Report (2002): 80
    - Catch Me If You Can (2002): 76
    - Munich (2005): 74
    - Lincoln (2012): 86 - highest
    Average Score: 79

  • samirahills  

    The post is very informative. It is a pleasure reading it. I have also bookmarked you for checking out new posts. Flats in Indirapuram

  • JAM123  

    WHERE'S SPIELBERG!!!!!!!

  • jmccully61  

    How is Darren Aronofsky not listed in the Top 20

    - Pi
    - Requiem For a Dream
    - The Fountain
    - The Wrestler
    - Black Swan

    Aronofsky is one of the only directors that is willing to take a chance in today's "Hollywood" where just about every movie has to follow some type of formula. Instead, Aronofsky invents his own style, and pulls it off (Well, one could argue about The Fountain, but a lot of what happened during production was not his fault). All of his movies are original, except if one wants to argue that "RFAD" was a book. However, I would argue that Requiem is one of the few movies that is better than the book. All of his movies are multi-layered, not to mention he gets the most out of his actors/actresses. The only director I would say that is in the same "category" as him is Christopher Nolan. Hollywood needs more directors like these two that change stimulate our thoughts, rather than the typical recycled movies that come out year after year.


    Both, The Wrestler and Black Swan had Oscar nominations for three different actors/actresses, including one winner, and Black Swan was nominated for Best Picture. The only reason I mention the latter is to appease the critics that believe a movie is only "good" if it is nominated for some award.

  • blahblahblah  

    This a fun list for what it is. The four film requirement eliminates guys like Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson, which is obviously a shame. Aronofsky is not on it because The Fountain pulls his overall score way down, which is also a shame. The guys who do the Jason Bourne and Harry Potter movies are on it, although these are hardly intellectual (or interesting...) or artistic movies. Anyway, the criteria is very limiting and this type of scoring and compiling is obviously no way to judge which director is better than which. Also, the guys who write and direct their movies should be judged differently than those who direct adaptations of best sellers. Then again, this is simply an arbitrary crunching of numbers. Nobody actually believes that Fincher is a better director than the Coens, the Andersons, Tarantino, Jonze, and Aronofsky.

    The list is fun. It doesn't mean much.

  • DKay  

    Yes, I'm with Collin here: A best director list without Aronofsky is well, kind of, lame and pointless. And void. That said, Mr. Dietz, the Aronofsky omission only highlights the faults of this list and the ease (laziness, really) of which you put it together. Lemme explain in case you don't know who this works: Most of these director's films here are indie/foreign/limited release, which means the amount of critics reviewing them is lower (and more selective too). The (latter) is subjective, but what isn't is this:
    Total number of critic reviews for Maddin's 5 films: 101
    Total number of critic reviews for Ghobadi's 5 films: 101
    Total number of critic reviews for Aronofsky's 3 films: 114

    Now, with facts presented...If the same critics reviewing the much more mainstream and accessible Aronofsky films were reviewing (and most like forced to review) Maddin and Ghobadi films, then their "ratings" would drop considerably. Essentially, Aronofsky crosses over and many mainstream critics are either too stupid, too unobjective, too bias, or too lazy (Ahem, Mr. Dietz) to appreciate his work. Still love all the directors though (and you, Dietz). Just don't F with Darren.

  • hopelesspedant  

    Very interesting - hopefully this will get some attention for some of these less known directors.

    A couple of pedantic points:

    1) The 21st century began with 2001, not 2000. The 1st century was the year 1-100 (there is no year 0), and every century since follows suit

    2) The Taiwan director is universally, and correctly, known as Hou Hsiao-hsien, not Hsiao-hsien Hou, as IMDb idiotically lists. They also list Yung-Fat Chow, Tse-Tung Mao, Kai-Shek Chiang and other backwards and reversed wrong Chinese names.

  • cristane  

    So no answer from Metacritic about why Tarantino (74.5 metascore for movies after 2000) isn't on the list?

  • JM23  

    I don't think this is a fair indication of how good directors are necessarily. Your comparing directors that only do small budget and indie films with directors that do mainly big budget films. Also, a lot of the directors simply have high scores because they worked on one series. David Yates, Peter Jackson, and Paul Greengrass mostly worked on critically acclaimed series' that were based on great books, not that they are bad directors. Chris Nolan is my favorite director and I have a hard time believing he is the 16th best director this last decade. There must be a lot of foreign language films on here, because I haven't heard of many of these. This is an interesting list however, and the only factor being used is numbers so it's definitely understandable.

  • FreakyFraser  

    Interesting list....has given me some new director's movies to look for......but I'd be remiss if i didn't mention that Clint Eastwood has directed 10 (!) movies in that time. The only person in double digits on the list, and with a healthy 73.9 average. Well done old man

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