It's a clunky title, I know. But I didn't want to call these people the "best" directors of the decade, and certainly not the "most successful", for how do you define these things? Awards, critical praise, and box office only tell part of the story. In any case, these notable filmmakers were the most influential and most discussed and/or worshipped of the 2010s, each experiencing what is arguably the defining era of his or her career. (In comparison, Francis Ford Coppola's would have been the 1970s; for John Hughes, the 1980s.)
- Denis Villeneuve. Arguably the director of the decade, Villeneuve entered it as an obscure Québécois filmmaker with three little-seen features under his belt, and is leaving it as Hollywood's hottest sci fi visionary. You can chart the growth of Villeneuve's career by the chronology of his 2010s features: Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049. Next year brings his most grandiose project yet: a feature-length adaptation of Frank Herbert's untamable Dune. Will the project defeat Villeneuve like it did Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch? We will soon see.
- Yorgos Lanthimos. Though he remains more art house darling than crossover success, Greece's enfant terrible (or whatever the equivalent in Greek is) experienced a similar rise in fortunes. His breakthrough feature Dogtooth was technically a 2009 film, but it didn't come to the US until 2010. For those who quibble over this discrepency, I offer you his four inarguably 2010s releases: Alps, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and finally The Favourite, which scored Lanthimos his first Best Director Oscar nom. (He also earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination for The Lobster.) Keeping his scope relatively modest, Lanthimos's next project is Pop. 1280, about a corrupt sheriff in smalltown Texas.
- Damien Chazelle. The young jazz aficionado only made three features this decade, but they all made a splash: Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man. At the Academy Awards, La La Land missed out on Best Picture, but Chazelle did win Best Director. His fourth feature Babylon isn't due until 2021, reflecting the typical slowdown for ambitious filmmakers striving to make ever-bigger movies, often to their own detriment.
- Ava DuVernay. Working on screens both big and small, the former publicist directed her debut feature I Will Follow in 2010, but it was her Sundance-winning followup Middle of Nowhere which put her on the map. In short order she would direct Selma, the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, the Disney misfire A Wrinkle in Time, and finally the acclaimed Netflix miniseries When They See Us. Today, DuVernay is as much pundit as filmmaker, speaking out on race and feminism while developing at least two big-budget movies (DMZ and The New Gods).
- Ryan Coogler. Only 33 as of this writing, Coogler released his first feature Fruitvale Station in 2013, which made a leading man out of Michael B. Jordan and established Coogler as a major voice. Once handed the keys to Hollywood, Coogler didn't squander the opportunity, scoring huge with two franchise tentpoles: Creed and Black Panther. Up next: Black Panther II, of course, but that's not scheduled to come out until 2022. Coogler's next decade may be a struggle to stay relevant.
- The Russo Brothers. Like Coogler, Joe and Anthony Russo made it big with Marvel blockbusters – four of them, to be exact (two Captain America sequels and two Avengers sequels). Not bad for guys whose last big screen foray was the lame 2006 comedy You, Me and Dupree. It could be argued that Marvel über-producer Kevin Feige was the true auteur of these films – they do lack the personal imprint that Coogler put on Black Panther – but nevertheless, the Russos' work absolutely represents the 2010s.
- Taika Waititi. Marvel strikes again, but this time the New Zealand comedian/filmmaker had already earned a following with his TV comedy Flight of the Conchords. His debut feature Boy premiered at Sundance right at the beginning of the decade, and the prolific Kiwi next helmed the cult comedy What We Do in the Shadows (now a TV series), the indie hit Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the superhero blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, and finally the quirky Oscar bait Jojo Rabbit. Next Goal Wins and Thor: Love and Thunder are due shortly; Waititi's bloodstream must be half caffeine.
- James Wan. Only James Wan might call James Wan an "auteur", but he's been enormously influentual in genre cinema. After making his name with Saw in 2004, Wan treaded water until 2010, when he unleashed Insidious (followed by a sequel), then The Conjuring (followed by a sequel), then Furious 7. Finally, in 2018, he proved the naysayers wrong by making a hit out of Aquaman. He's been even busier as a producer. Up next: yet more sequels, and something called Malignant.
- Noah Baumbach. Several directors are poised to call the 2020s their defining decade, after garnering critical acclaim over the last few years (e.g., Greta Gerwig, Ben Wheatley, the Safdie Brothers, Ari Aster, Barry Jenkins, Robert Eggers). Although Baumbach made more films in the 2010s than any of them, he didn't get as much buzz until Marriage Story at the end of 2019. Nevertheless, now that Woody Allen has fallen into the #TimesUp abyss, Baumbach is the current torchbearer for movies about neurotic urbanites in crisis. This decade alone, he directed six features and a documentary (about Brian De Palma, of all people). With nothing on the docket as of this writing, Baumbach is apparently taking a well-deserved break.