Here’s my annual stab at listing and ranking the best directors on the planet. Usually I look at the last 10 years’ worth of work with a heavy emphasis on even more recent work in the last 3-5 years. I am a massive believer in the auteur theory so I take into account not only who directed great films but the level of personal visual style and reoccurring themes.
- Nolan (6)– It took an auteur like Nolan and a film like Dunkirk to supplant Iñárritu for the #1 slot on this list. Dunkirk takes Nolan’s parallel editing (I think the greatest of his many strengths as an auteur) and instead of putting 20 minutes of it in a 140 minute film there’s 106 minutes of it in a 106 minute film. It gives him multiple “best films of the year” this decade (just like Iñárritu except in addition he also has interstellar and the dark knight rises to add to his resume).
- Iñárritu (1)- Birdman and The Revenant compare well with Nolan’s two masterpieces but Nolan is simply more prolific so he’s overtaken the #1 slot. Still—it’s so incredibly rare to have the best films in back to back years so Iñárritu easily comes in at #2 here since 2014 and 2015 are so close in the rearview still.
- Chazelle-(3) Whiplash falls in the last five years which helps but really he’s here because of the stylistic atom bomb he dropped in 2016. La La Land is so damn chalk full of film style. It’s an all-timer and we’re only a year removed
- PT Anderson- (8) Phantom Thread is a bounce-back from Inherent Vice so PT moves up my list from last year. Still, I know I’m nit-picking with this all-time great auteur but his only top five of the year film in the last five years is Phantom Thread here at #4 from 2017 so I can’t put him any higher.
- Wes Anderson-(2) I’ve recently moved Moonrise to #2 from 2012 but still- he has the #2 film from 2012 and 2014. Unfortunately for the purposes of this list we’re a week or so removed from his latest offering (Isle of Dogs) which happens to hall at the longest gap between films in his career. It seems impossible that he pass Nolan or Iñárritu on this list but if Isle of Dogs is better than First Man (Chazelle) he could move up as high as #3.
- Linklater-(5) If there’s somebody with a beef on this top 10 it’s probably Linklater. I’m overly hard on him because he’s not the visual master that the others on this list are (Coen’s maybe the other outlier). That said, Last Flag Flying was not good so this is not the year to overcompensate and champion for Linklater
- Villeneuve-(HM) He has three top 10 films in the last 4 years and two of them were in the top 5. Blade Runner 2049 is his greatest work. He’s prolific (6 archiveable films this decade) and getting better.
- Cuaron-(4) Cuaron has made 1 film in the last 10 years: Gravity. I could see arguments on both sides on why he should be off the list completely and why he should be higher (per movie average would be the best of course even ahead of his fellow countryman Inarritu or Nolan). Roma comes out in 2018 so next year he’ll have another film to help analyze and decide on his spot.
- Coen-(7) If the brothers had just taken the last 5 years off since the brilliant Llweyn Davis in 2013 I think I would have them a little higher but I have a bad taste in my mouth from Hail Caesar (nowhere on my top 10 of 2016).
- Jarmusch (not on list)– Jarmusch didn’t have a 2017 release but Paterson missed my cutoff date last year. It’s a masterpiece with an abundance of Jarmuschian authorship and a formal rigor that plays in your mind weeks and even month’s after you’ve seen it.
- Malick- Like Cuaron he’s tough to discuss. Tree of Life is such a rare masterpiece that it’s hard to penalize him too much even though he’s been a pretty mediocre director over the past five years. He’s been working (unlike Cuaron) and has nothing to show for it in any of those year’s top 10’s.
- Baumbach– He added another borderline top 10 film in 2017 with the Meyerowitz Stories. It seems doubtful that Baumbach is ever going to have a La La Land or Tree of life so he’s an auteur that needs to be judged by his accumulative work (closer to Linklater) and productivity (and he is prolific).
- Fincher– a failed tv series project (Steve McQueen also hurt by this— off this list for the year) has sidelined Fincher who is normally very prolific. His only archiveable film in the last 5 years is the underrated Gone Girl.
- Tarantino – We’re another year removed from Django which means we’re another year removed from him having a top 10 film (none in the last 5 years but he had a good stretch before that (2009-2012) which is the only thing keeping him above like del Toro who blew me away with The Shape of Water in 2017).
- del Toro- speak of the devil. I don’t think he’s quite on the level yet of Inarritu or Cuaron but the Mexican new wave is alive and well with another top-tier film (#3) in 2017. If The Shape of Water were a little closer together paired with Pan’s Labyrinth he’d be solidly on the top 10.