The 2010s were a great decade for cinema, and while filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan, Denis Villeneuve, and Quentin Tarantino flew close to the sun, many others flew under the radar. Over the last 10 years, both good and bad things have happened in Hollywood which ultimately led to more inclusion in movies, and while there’s still a way to go, it’s fair to say events and movements have helped enable storytellers from all different backgrounds to have their voices heard.
This list will be mostly comprised of filmmakers whose careers started in the 2010s, however, it will also include those whose careers started before the 2010s, so long as they didn’t make their first feature film until then. It won’t, however, include filmmakers that are deemed to be either household names or majorly accomplished already, as this list is meant to shine a light on some lesser-known filmmakers. Damien Chazelle, Jordan Peele, and Barry Jenkins are just a few examples of directors who had to be left off this list as they’re essentially past being ‘promising’.
1. Robert Eggers
The VVitch (2015), The Lighthouse (2019)
Robert Eggers’ films have a timeless quality to them and feel, simultaneously, like they’re from another era whilst also feeling like something fresh for the current era. Along with a few other filmmakers (Aster included), Eggers has helped to improve the quality of horror movies, choosing to focus on human stories with authentic settings and archaic dialogue, rather than prioritizing jump scares and shamelessly trying to set up the next big horror franchise. His films feel more like the product of an auteur’s singular vision than a corporate studio looking to cash in. He makes bold choices and executes them with the skill, precision, and confidence of someone who’s been making films for decades.
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Originally a production designer and director of theater, the 37-year-old is a master of tone, using music, imagery, and locations to create an atmosphere. The VVitch and The Lighthouse are two very good modern horrors who stand on their own, but who also share a sense of dread. The use of weather and environments, be it a sinister forest or a desolate lighthouse, really helps give credence to the story at hand, and makes the characters – and more importantly, the audience – feel lost or trapped. It also provides an external obstacle to parallel (or contrast) the characters’ internal struggles. The wealth of knowledge Eggers has access to about all things concerning the story he’s telling, combined with the artistic approach he takes with his films and the sheer technical ability of those in his cast and crew, leads to his films feeling less like horrors and more like moody dramas.
2. Ari Aster
Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019)
In 2017, nobody even knew who Ari Aster was, and by 2019 he’d directed two of the most critically-acclaimed horror-thrillers in recent memory (Hereditary and Midsommar). His shot composition, precise editing, and downright horrifying imagery got people talking about him, and his layered, metaphorical storytelling kept people going back to rewatch his filmography to see what else they could mine from it.
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Something else Aster does very well is pulling performances from actors, and in particular, young actors. Yes, Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary was great and her exclusion at the Oscars was one of the biggest snubs that year, but Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, and Florence Pugh all gave brilliantly haunting portrayals and, arguably, the best performances of their careers under Aster’s direction.
Aster’s next project is said to be a “contemporary ensemble western-noir dark comedy, set in New Mexico” which could see the director show some versatility and explore some new genres, and if it’s even nearly as good as Hereditary or Midsommar, it’s sure to be among the best of the year.
3. Greta Gerwig
Lady Bird (2017), Little Women (2019)
Technically, Gerwig co-directed the 2008 film Nights and Weekends, but directing a movie by yourself is a very different and doubly-challenging experience, and as Gerwig didn’t do this until 2017, she still qualifies for this list. As a talented writer and actor with an already-distinctive voice, it seemed almost inevitable that she’d end up in the director’s chair at some point.
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Her two solo outings as a director so far (Lady Bird and Little Women) have both received overwhelming praise from fans and critics alike, and it’s little wonder when she creates such real, flawed, and relatable characters, and deals in rich emotional complexity. Her films have a subtlety to them that’s rare to see in someone as new to the role as she is. She’s a mature artist and she knows how to tell a story, no matter whether she’s telling it from in front of or behind the camera.
Her next project is a live-action Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie, which doesn’t sound as grounded and emotional as her previous works, but she’ll surely add some nuance and social commentary in there as the very notion of the Barbie doll is inherently rich with themes such as body image, femininity, and materialism.
4. Alex Garland
Ex Machina (2014), Annihilation (2018)
Garland is one of Britain’s most exciting storytellers and has been one of the leading voices in sci-fi cinema since the turn of the century, from films he wrote (28 Days Later, Sunshine) to films he produced/secretly-directed (Dredd), to films he wrote and directed (Ex Machine, Annihilation). His films aren’t mindless action movies or vehicles for special effects though; they’re headier than that, with many critics equating Annihilation’s themes and tone to those of 2001: A Spacey Odyssey. His work delves into both the dangers and the beauty of science, technology, space, drugs, and humanity.
While he might only have two directing credits to his name, he’ll surely make more ambitious, thematically-rich, and thought-provoking films in the future. He’s two for two so far and almost every movie he’s had any sort of involvement with has been well-received. Other than goliaths Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, and Denis Villeneuve, Garland might just be the most exciting, challenging, and reliable storyteller in the science-fiction genre right now.
5. Ryan Coogler
Fruitvale Station (2013), Creed (2015), Black Panther (2018)
Ryan Coogler came out of the gates swinging with Fruitvale Station, a powerful film that is unfortunately just as relevant and important today as it was upon its release in 2013. He then managed to go one better and take on the beloved Rocky franchise, reinvigorating it with fresh energy and delivering arguably the best film in the series since the original. He then took on Black Panther and made $1.3 billion, launching the character and franchise into the stratosphere.
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Not to mention he did all of this by age 32! Unfortunately, recent tragedies have left the future of Black Panther in uncertain hands, and the world is waiting to find out what direction Marvel is going to go with it. Coogler is currently attached as writer and director for Black Panther 2, which is undoubtedly what he’d have been working on for the foreseeable future, but now only time will tell. He’s likely to stay on as long as the studio wants to make the film, and he’s just as likely to knock it out of the park once again.
Coogler’s still young and has already achieved so much in the filmmaking world, that it’s hard to see a future for him that isn’t blindingly bright. Though he primarily directs action films, there’s always a real substance to his stories and his characters face adversities which are often reflections of the real world. He knows how to tell the emotion of a story just as well as he knows how to tell the action of it, and that bodes well for the future.
6. Lee Unkrich
Toy Story 3 (2010), Coco (2017)
Directors of animation seem to have a hard time when it comes to getting the recognition they deserve. Brad Bird, Pete Docter, and Hayao Miyazaki are just three examples of filmmakers working primarily (if not exclusively) in the animation genre, who are not only some of the best storytellers in the genre of animation, but in film in general. Lee Unkrich made his directorial debut in 2010 with the release of Toy Story 3, and went on to direct Coco; one of Pixar’s best since their golden age.
Both of his outings so far have explored heavy themes such as growing up, finding your place in the world, and even death. While Toy Story 3 and Coco both fall under the Pixar banner, it would be severely undercutting it to call them kids films. Not just because of the challenging ideas present in his work, but also because of the emotional core at the center.
Ask pretty much anyone to name a film that made them cry and they’ll likely say either Toy Story 3 or Coco as one of their answers. Perhaps only Up trumps them as Pixar’s most emotional film. Unfortunately for us, Unkrich announced in 2019 that he was leaving Pixar to spend time with his family. At 53, he’s still relatively young for a filmmaker who’s enjoyed the success that he has, so there’s still hope that he’ll return to the big screen, be it with or without Pixar.
7. S.Craig Zahler
Bone Tomahawk (2015), Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017), Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
Zahler’s films have a rare, almost refreshing brutality to them. He’s not afraid to tell dark stories and the violence that goes along with them, even if he knows it will make the audience uncomfortable. In fact, that’s the point. He makes provocative material and isn’t trying to make crowd-pleasing films. He’s even gone on record to say that he doesn’t care what people think of his movies. While this claim could be contested due to the very nature of what a provocateur is and does, it’s clear he makes the films that he wants to make, and he has a very identifiable style.
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Finding mostly-comedic actor, Vince Vaughn, and giving him serious roles, Zahler has changed a lot of people’s perception of the Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball star. There’s already been controversy surrounding Zahler’s movies and there will likely be more in the future, but isn’t that somewhat necessary? Don’t we need a filmmaker who knows no bounds and who is not only willing to challenge audiences but who revels in it?
8. Chad Stahelski
John Wick (2014), John Wick Chapter 2 (2017), John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
As the only filmmaker on this list to have helmed a successful franchise (the world is still shaken by the tragic and unexpected death of Chadwick Boseman, so Ryan Coogler’s claim to the Black Panther franchise is currently up in the air while the studio decides how or if to continue with the character), Chad Stahelski has revived Keanu Reeves’ career and set the world alight with the action-bar-raising in-camera comic book-esque world that is John Wick.
While Stahelski might not be the most acclaimed director to appear on this list, he’s certainly achieved a lot and should be recognized for what he’s done for the action genre. Coming from a stunts background, Stahelski prefers to choreograph hand-to-hand combat or “gun-fu” and shoot it in-camera with minimal cuts, rather than taking the Michael Bay approach of feigning action and excitement in the editing room by semi-randomly assembling extreme close-ups, quick cuts, and explosions into something that’s barely anything more than messy incoherent noise.
Stahelski has made 3 John Wick films to date and all of them go for broke when it comes to the action set pieces. Largely shot in wide angles with Reeves performing as many real stunts as possible, the action looks visceral and has more of a narrative to it. The John Wick franchise has inspired many rip-offs since 2014, none of which have been as good as anything Stahelski has made, but it’s clear that between John Wick and Mission: Impossible, audiences have developed a taste for practical stunts and in-camera fight choreography, and hopefully, we’ll see more good examples in the future.
9. David Robert Mitchell
The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), It Follows (2014), Under The Silver Lake (2018)
One of many filmmakers on this list who specializes in telling dark stories, Mitchell utilizes setting to bring the mood down. Whether it be a dystopian, nightmarish take on Los Angeles in Under The Silver Lake or an enclosed location such as a school corridor in It Follows. Mitchell is a genre-blurr-er and often infuses mystery into other genres he’s working in, be it horror, thriller, drama, or crime.
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The atmospheric nature of his work combined with the mystery at the center (or periphery) or his stories means that his films keep you hooked from minute one, and never let up. He’s great at creating suspense and intrigue and has taken on a whole range of genres from thriller to romantic comedy.
Mitchell has a few proposed projects lined up including a “new take on superheroes” called Heroes & Villains and a science-fiction thriller he’s written about one man’s loneliness following an alien invasion, named Man Alive. Given the vast array of genres he’s already tackled and the variety present in the plethora of projects he has in the pipeline, it’s hard to predict where Mitchell’s career might go, but it’ll surely be interesting. While he may tackle a bunch of different genres, he’ll surely retain his cinematic voice.
10. Panos Cosmatos
Beyond The Black Rainbow (2010), Mandy (2018)
An exciting, dare I say ‘visionary’ filmmaker, Panos Cosmatos has made two stunning pieces of work to date, with Beyond The Black Rainbow and Mandy. Both are infused with science fiction elements and feature synthetic soundtracks with neon-drenched photography. Cosmatos already has a cult following and it’s not hard to see why.
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His moody, almost-fantastical films are so well-crafted that they are strangely spellbinding, beautifully bewitching, and harrowingly hypnotic. Mandy saw none other than Nicolas Cage give one of the best performances of his entire career while being filled with striking imagery that stays with you long after the film has ended, complemented by the late Johann Johannsson’s mesmeric, terrifying, magical score.
Cosmatos has only made 2 films to date, with an 8-year gap in between, but hopefully, his next film is also dripping with gorgeous cinematography and his distinctive style. He makes niche films that aren’t for everyone, but that’s to be applauded. His unapologetic, uncompromising vision makes it easy to already be excited about his next project.