Metacritic, the internet’s sort-of database for critical reviews, recently published its list of directors with the highest on-average score on the site.
Littered with names such as Edgar Wright, Richard Linklater and Ava DuVernay, the list is an interesting (if not comprehensive or completely correct) compilation, concluding that Alfonso Cuaron is in fact the filmmaker worthy of the title. But it does actually beg the question, who actually is the best director of the 21st century?
So, we thought we’d weigh in with our own suggestions. Some have been included in Metacritic’s list, others (because, God knows, critics aren’t always right, despite what we tell ourselves) are not.
Metacritic’s basic rules for its ranking stated that each director must have at least four or more theatrically released films, first released on or after January 1st, 2001 and were collated up until July 12th, 2017. Our own rule for this was that the director’s we picked shouldn’t be viewed as a legacy act, and must have been a cinematic talent that truly hit their stride in the 21st century. So, that discounts your Speilbergs, Tarantinos and your Lynchs.
So, with all of that in mind, away we go.
The director whom Metacritic names as the best director of the 21st century. You may well know Cuaron for directing the best Harry Potter film (the Prisoner of Azkaban, like you had to ask) but in the past decade-and-a-half, Cuaron has carved a place in Hollywood where he makes emotionally resonant, socially relevant films without sacrificing in terms of style or scale. He explored the resolution of determination of one woman alone in space, a microcosmic event that is a literal metaphor for the abandonment of women in the modern day film industry and society at large, in Gravity. That, of course, was bolstered by a sterling performance from one-woman powerhouse and landed ten record nominations, included Best Picture, Best Actress for Bullock and Best Director for Cuaron, who won. Underrated, however, is 2006’s Children of Men, a gritty dystopian thriller set in a near future where humanity has been infertile for two decades and society is on the brink of collapse. Cuaron deftly navigates a hefty plot and social commentary – can hope exist in a world where we are devoid of a biological future? Can the definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ even exist in such a world? – on top of a pesudo-religious heroic journey for the film’s central everyman that has its roots in Dante’s Divine Comedy. And that’s not even forgetting his Mexican road-trip movie Y Tu Mamá También which is both honest and explicit in its depiction of sex and drug use. Oh, and let’s just end this here: the introduction to the Dementors in the Prisoner of Azkaban is more tense and horrifying than yer da’s favourite horror movie. Cuaron literally turned twee little Harry Potter into a moody coming-of-age supernatural drama that every successive film in the franchise – and, tbh, every franchise that has tried and failed to fill that large Potter-sized gap in the public conscience – tried to emulate. And fell flat whilst doing so. The actual best director of the 21t century, though? We’re a little sceptical on that one.
An obvious choice, we think, but one that was entirely overlooked on Metacritic’s list. It’s a totally fair statement that Nolan has, more than any other modern filmmaker, mastered the art of the blockbuster. His Dark Knight trilogy of films is not just – in this critic’s humble opinion – the most consistent, brilliant superhero trilogy in modern cinema history, but is one of the great trifectas of cinema, full stop. Soaking up a variety of filmic influences from Hitchcock, Kubrick, Carpenter and Scorsese, Nolan taps the events of the film as a grandiose crime epic, with an ultimately un-knowable protagonist at its heart and with a bevy of supporting players (Caine, Freeman, Oldman, Ledger, Hathaway) at the top of their game. A spiritual and stylistic successor to Hitchcock, Nolan’s work has spanned various genres; from non- linear neo-noir, to supernatural period drama, to sci-fi, to historical epic. With each new film, he’s displayed a distinct sense of vision; one that aligns narrative and style. An auteur in the truest sense of the word, Nolan’s oeuvre may be more mainstream-leaning than many of his contemporary visionaries, but he deserves every inch of adoption from both worlds of the film industry. And it also helps that his latest film, Dunkirk, is his magnum opus. But, then again, we did say that about Interstellar.
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON:
There Will Be Blood. Thank you and good night.
A strange choice, for sure, given that, at the time of writing, Dolan is 27-years-old and has yet to release his English Language debut, but in the seven years since his startling debut film, I Killed My Mother, first debuted at Cannes, Dolan has quickly established himself as the enfant terrible of the art-house world. His first five movies, whilst all varying in quality, share a dedication to emotional honesty and a stark, oftentimes bleak, outlook into those pushed into the periphery by society. Admittedly, Dolan has just gotten into his groove and his still on his way into finding his voice (and his feet), but for an emerging film-maker that has been lauded, and subsequently spat out, by Cannes before even hitting thirty, the potential for a marked greatness is there. It can be glimpsed in his own acting, in the piercing auto-biographical I Killed My Mother – the most affecting directorial debut we’ve seen this past decade – the similarly themed but narratively un-hinged Mommy and his most recent film, the hallucinatory It’s Only The End of the World. Dolan’s English-Language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, is to be released later this year and is a thoroughly star-studded affair; from Natalie Portman, Room’s Jacob Trembley, Kathy Bates and Susan Sarandon among it’s cast. Oh, and he’s also best friends Jessica Chastain and, in terms of his honesty and sheer love of popular culture and the art of film-making, the only true Absolute Boy in Hollywood.
No, I’m just fucking with you. Sorry.
McQueen doesn’t fit in with Metacritic’s four film policy, but we’re willing to bend the rules since the three films he has released have all been absolutely, brain-stormingly brilliant. 12 Years A Slave is, obviously, a stand-out but it’s also one of those films so brutal in its honest and its harrowing portrayal of real-life events that we would struggle to actually watch it again. His two other features – Hunger and Shame – are both great star vehicles for McQueen’s muse Michael Fassbender, but also function as a (yet again) harrowing and un-flinchingly bleak historical drama that unearths the depravity humans suffer through and also a, let’s be honest here lads, completely uncompromising dive down into the depths of addiction and all its ups and downs. The mania, the depression, the sense of hopelessness and dependence and the suffocating feeling that you’re always one step further away from salvation no matter how hard you try. McQueen specialises in films that hook you in and, no matter how deep or dark they go, will not let you look away. They may not be re-watchable, but they certainly are memorable and show a director that is, from release to release, building on his craft and strengthening his vision. And if that doesn’t make you want to go and watch Shame again, McQueen’s next film comes out in 2018 and stars Viola Davis as a bank robber.
We think it’s fair to say there are no winners or losers here, but we also must highlight that whilst Metacritic may be a barometer for critical adoration, the reason why we get to enjoy filmmaking and its many nooks and crannies is because of the common people and the fact that they willed a new art-form into life on the strength of public demand and imagination. That still doesn’t excuse many of the crimes of modern cinema, but its a reminder that no director is undeserved of praise where it’s deserved.
Words by George Griffiths