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Best Movies by American Directors 35 or Under, from ‘Black Panther’ to ‘Training Day’

From hidden gems to modern classics, all the films on this ranking were made in the 21st century.

“The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Signs,” “Black Panther,” and “Brick”

James Hamilton/Touchstone/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, Touchstone/Blinding Edge/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, Marvel, Steve Yedlin/Focus Features/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Among the many impressive numbers associated with “Black Panther” is the director’s age. At just 31, Ryan Coogler has directed an historic, record-breaking blockbuster whose achievements will be studied for years by scholars and pop culture dabblers alike. He follows in the footsteps of such wunderkinds as Steven Spielberg and Orson Welles, who were respectively 28 (“Jaws”) and 25 (“Citizen Kane”) when they first helmed movies that were to become iconic cinema classics.

Coogler’s not the only young filmmaker to leave a mark at an early age in recent years. Thus, we present to you our ranking of the 25 best movies from 2000 to the present from filmmakers 35 and under. (Sorry, Jason Reitman and Xavier Dolan: you’re Canadian.) To keep the list manageable, we stuck to homegrown Americans only, and picked our favorite film from each early oeuvre. (If you disagree, feel free to share alternatives in the comments.)

25. “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008, Barry Jenkins, age 28)

“Medicine for Melancholy”

The first feature from “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins has been lazily summarized as a “black ‘Before Sunrise,’” but it’s much smarter than the gimmick implied by that description. Jenkins follows a couple of young, wistful San Francisco residents (Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins) after a one-night stand as they wander the city babbling on about race and gentrification in between just enjoying the city life. In addition to being dense with big ideas, it’s also a deeply romantic exploration of living in the moment. Shot in sepia tones as it oscillates between poignant moments and awkward spats, the movie showcases a director searching for sophisticated ways of exploring race in America through the unique medium at his disposal. It took years for him to complete his follow-up, but as the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” would eventually prove, that impulse was anything but a fluke. —Eric Kohn

24. “Drinking Buddies” (2013, Joe Swanberg, age 32)

Olivia Wilde Jake Johnson Drinking Buddies

“Drinking Buddies”

Magnolia Pictures

Hyper-prolific Joe Swanberg helped define the mumblecore genre, encouraging improvised dialogue and distilling life into quiet, more-than-meets-the-eye moments rarely seen in commercial Hollywood fare. After making 13 features in seven years — including “Nights and Weekends” with co-writer and co-director Greta Gerwig  Swanberg was regarded with a newfound respect for “Drinking Buddies,” an open-ended, SXSW premiere about co-workers (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson) kept from coupling by fear and practicality. Largely set at Revolution Brewing (a real-life Chicago beer haven) the film was shot by “Beasts of the Southern Wild” veteran Ben Richardson. Co-starring Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick against type, “Drinking Buddies” enlisted household names to draw critics, who responded well (83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 71 on Metacritic). However, those reviews failed to mobilize theater-goers: the character-study earned back a third of its $1 million budget at the box office. —Jenna Marotta

23. “Sun Don’t Shine” (2013, Amy Seimetz, age 32)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5867719b) Kate Lyn Sheil Sun Don't Shine - 2012 Director: Amy Seimetz Factory25 USA Scene Still Drama

“Sun Don’t Shine”

Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Amy Seimetz’s riveting debut is a sultry Florida noir about a young couple (Kate Lynn Sheil and Kentucker Audley) on the lam with a body in their trunk, the full nature of their crime only growing clearer as they continue to speed along. As they make their way to St. Petersberg, the taut atmosphere reaches a fever pitch, as tensions flair and questions of fidelity between the characters come to light. Add a mermaid parade plus a few violent showdowns and the movie’s peculiar form of suspense never lets up. Imagine “Bonnie and Clyde” with a fresh dimension of pulpy despair: That’s the original talent of writer-director Amy Seimetz, who was mainly known as a microbudget actress (“Alexander the Last”) prior to this astonishing debut. So far, it’s also the only feature Seimetz has to her name, though she’s made an impressive leap to television with “The Girlfriend Experience,” a fascinating narrative experiment that confirms her talent for eerie storytelling and suggests she has many more stories to tell. —EK

22. “Training Day” (2001, Antoine Fuqua, age 35)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Outlaw/Warner Bros/REX/Shutterstock (5883901y)Denzel Washington, Ethan HawkeTraining Day - 2001Director: Antoine FuquaOutlaw/Warner BrosUSAScene StillAction/Adventure

“Training Day”

Warner Bros/REX/Shutterstock

Pittsburgh R&B music video director Antoine Fuqua followed up his debut action caper “The Replacement Killers,” starring Hong Kong’s Chow Yun-Fat, with his best-reviewed movie to date, “Training Day” (Warner Bros.) a taut $45-million Los Angeles buddy police thriller. The movie starts off as Denzel Washington’s Alonzo, a narc sergeant gone rogue, gives Jake (Ethan Hawke), his idealistic rookie partner, a hit of PCP-laced weed. (“A good narcotics agent must have narcotics in his blood!”) That sets the tone for an increasingly agitated and surreal dive into LA’s underbelly as an increasingly unhinged Alonzo encounters various lowlifes (three are played by musician-actors Macy Gray, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg) as he chases the drug kingpin known as “the Sandman.” Fuqua knows his Sam Peckinpah –and “Bonnie and Clyde”– as he ratchets up the balletic violence. The movie scored $104.9 million at the global box office; Washington took home the Best Actor Oscar for his incendiary performance and Hawke scored his first Supporting Actor nomination. After “Training Day,” Fuqua was on his way, consistently helming big-budget actioners like “The Magnificent Seven,” and screenwriter David Ayer embarked on his own directing career (“Harsh Times,” “End of Watch,” “Fury”). —Anne Thompson

21. “Pineapple Express” (2008, David Gordon Green, age 33)

"Pineapple Express"

“Pineapple Express”

Columbia Pictures

Green had already established his indie bonafides long before he turned to studio comedies with his wild stoner romp starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, thanks to small-scale dramas like “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls.” Yet even in those heartstring-tugging intimate offerings, it seemed Green was hiding a secret: what he really wanted to do was comedy. His post-“Pineapple” laffers haven’t been hits, from the rangy “Your Highness” to the limp “The Sitter,” and Green has mostly steered himself back to darker films (his TV credits, however, tend to still be very funny indeed), but this first one is the best proof yet of his incredible range. It giddily combines all the hallmarks of the genre — bad ideas, munchies, harebrained schemes, low self-esteem, more munchies — before jazzing them up with some seriously high stakes and an unexpectedly squishy heart. On the surface, it’s the funniest thing Green has made yet, but it’s also not nearly as far removed from his previous efforts as it initially looked. —Kate Erbland

20. “Donnie Darko” (2001, Richard Kelly, age 26)

Donnie Darko

“Donnie Darko”

Newmarket Films

But seriously, why are you wearing that stupid man suit? Richard Kelly’s coming-of-age curio remains undamaged by time, which is fitting for a movie about, among other things, the philosophy of time travel. As strange and compelling now as it was back in 2001, the film vacillates between the comic and tragic in much the same way as its wayward hero. Jake Gyllenhaal makes Donnie feel like any other teenager and a singular character all at once: wise beyond his years but, like most other precocious kids, not quite as smart as he thinks he is, and angst-ridden in a way that can only end badly. Gyllenhaal gave his first great performance in the film, which Kelly followed up with the considerably more polarizing “Southland Tales”; beloved by some but baffling to most others, it proved what many may have already suspected: “Donnie Darko” was lightning in a bottle. —Michael Nordine

19. “The Spectacular Now” (2013, James Ponsoldt, age 34 or 35)

The Spectacular Now

“The Spectacular Now”

A24

James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now” is a coming-of-age high school romance that possesses a depth and maturity that most adult dramas don’t successfully achieve. Featuring the gifted Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as the romantic leads, “Spectacular” has a kind of naturalness that is uncanny. The characters feel like real people and the scenes boast a heightened sensitivity because Ponsoldt chooses to direct many moments using long takes. The film proved that Ponsoldt is one of the most humanist filmmakers working today. —Zack Scharf

18. “Pariah” (2011, Dee Rees, age 34)

Pariah

“Pariah”

Focus Features

Humming with the electricity of repressed sexuality and packing the heat of a Brooklyn summer, “Pariah” follows teenage Alike (Adepero Oduye) as she embraces her queerness and masculine gender expression. We melt alongside Alike as she lights up with the first tingles of love, seeing herself for the first time through the desiring eyes of Bina (Aasha Davis). The camera practically aches as Alike changes out of her baseball hat and t-shirt on the train home to Brooklyn, donning a girly sweater in order to calm her parents’ suspicions (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell). Cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival”) films Alike’s first nights out at the club in rich, saturated colors. Initially, the long break between “Pariah” and “Bessie” had Rees fans wringing their hands, but those fears were assuaged when “Mudbound” earned four Oscar nominations this year. With its tale of first love and self-discovery, “Pariah” remains her most personal film to date. —Jude Dry

17. “Signs” (2002, M. Night Shyamalan, age 31)

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“Signs”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

It’s hard to overstate how well M. Night Shyamalan’s career was going back in 2002. After blowing everybody’s mind (and breaking box office records) with “The Sixth Sense,” and then successfully using “Unbreakable” to lead a newly intrigued audience out of their comfort zone, even the country’s most casual moviegoers were eager to see what he would do next. Shyamalan was even on the cover of Newsweek, standing next to a headline that read “The Next Spielberg.” No question mark. With hype like that, the most shocking twist about “Signs” is that it actually turned out to be good. A back-to-basics alien invasion story that married the filmmaker’s slow-burn approach to some unforgettable moments of genre suspense, the late summer blockbuster allows Shyamalan to do what he does best: Make us afraid of what’s right off-screen. Say what you will about Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix playing brothers on a Pennsylvanian corn farm (it was a different time), or the dopey fatalism of the big reveal at the end, there’s no taking away from that killer sequence with the alien in the pantry, or the one at the birthday party, or how all of the film’s best moments come together to create the wonderfully dreadful feeling that we’re seeing things from inside the eye of the storm. —David Ehrlich

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