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The Criticwire Survey: The Best Young Director Working Today

The Criticwire Survey: The Best Young Director Working Today

Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week’s question:

Q: Who’s the best director working today under the age of 40?

The critics’ answers:

Michael J. AndersonTativille:

“Argentina’s Lisandro Alonso, for his creation of an original idiom (beginning with ‘La Libertad’) that advanced the post-Kiarostami fiction/non-fiction hybrid mode. Honorable mention goes to Germany’s Maren Ade largely on the strength of ‘Everyone Else.'”

Edwin ArnaudinAshvegas:

“It’s a toss-up between Rian Johnson and Jeff Nichols. Each have made three extraordinary films, but Johnson gets the edge for being a little more inventive with his visuals, narratives, and dialogue. The team of Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, also with three fine films to their credit, likewise deserve mention.”

Miriam BaleJoan’s Digest:

“The loss of Les Blank a few weeks ago hit me hard, personally at first, but then with the shock of what a gaping absence he has left as an artist. Who else is is so confident in every single choice he makes, but would never think of sacrificing that independence for stardom? Who else lives in such an open, uncompromising and even genuinely bohemian way? I thought an era was over. Who now also has that sharp eye and weirdo curiosity? Then I remembered the Safdies, who are all those things, yet in a very New York instead of a Berkeley way. They, like Les, are under-the-radar, subtle geniuses, good people, and make loose, lyrical, perfect films. (I am also very excited to see what Amy Seimetz makes next, who has that same open generosity. And Alex Ross Perry, though a more misanthropic, odd genius, is also exciting.)”

Monika BartyzelTheWeek:

Sarah Polley. She’s shown such beautiful range and skill in just three feature films, delving into silence and memory (‘Away From Her’), frenetic and imbalanced passion (‘Take This Waltz’), and now the nature of storytelling and how truth morphs through recollection (‘Stories We Tell’). Especially the latter. Her first stab at a documentary is just stunning, the rare doc that has myriad layers to dig through, ponder, and enjoy, structured and filmed like the best narrative features. It hits U.S. screens soon, so go see it; it’s infinitely more worthwhile than many of this month’s films.”

Adam BattyHope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second:

“This question serves as something of a wake up call to the fact that not many young filmmakers feature on my radar. Miguel Gomes, James Gray, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Paul Thomas Anderson, filmmakers with whom I traditionally associate the contemporary cinema, are all now a couple of years over the benchmark, with Mia Hansen-Love and Xavier Dolan the two figures under 40 who come to mind. For the record, the best ever filmmaker under 40 would be Jean-Luc Godard, who had directed no less than fifteen stone-cold masterpieces by the age of 37.”

Jeff Berg, Local iQ/Las Cruces Bulletin:

Jason Reitman (with a nod to Adam Leon, but I don’t know how old he is; he has to be less than 40!).”

Danny BowesMovie Mezzanine/Movies By Bowes:

“The thing, inevitably, that comes up with questions like ‘who’s the best director working today under the age of 40?’ is limited bodies of work, since the Steven Soderberghs who have thirteen pictures under their belt by the time they turn 40 are rare (and there was only one Fassbinder, believe). So, my choice, Farhan Akhtar, has but three features to his name. But one of them is best-of-the-decade material, among the best debuts ever, and the other two were unique aesthetic challenges. Akhtar’s debut feature, ‘Dil Chahta Hai,’ was really great, and had a terrific cast (Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshaye Khanna, Dimple Kapadia) from whom Akhtar got career-best or near performances across the board. Then, later, in a bold/quixotic move, Akhtar remade the Amitabh Bachchan classic ‘Don’ with Shahrukh Khan in the lead. It’s a bit unwieldy, but Akhtar’s boldness in modernizing an all-time classic (in particular, his twist ending) carries the picture through some of its slower parts. Then, finally, there was the sequel to ‘Don’ (‘Don 2’), as fine an action thriller as there’s been anywhere in the world the last five years (and, no small feat, features the most consistent and least frustrating Shahrukh Khan performance in at least five years). All three feature a sure directorial hand, ambition, and a certain ineffable flair. (And his twin sister Zoya is a terrific writer and producer as well.)”

Katie Calautti, Movies.com:

“Darren Aronofsky and Shane Carruth are just beyond the cutoff for this one, but Sarah Polley is firmly in the under-40 set of incredibly brilliant, promising filmmakers working today. It’s mind-boggling that she’s already got stunningly mature, technically deft, emotionally intricate films like ‘Away From Her’ and ‘Take This Waltz’ under her belt at the tender age of 34 — even more so that her upcoming documentary feature ‘Stories We Tell,’ an alarmingly personal journey for the filmmaker, is perhaps her most moving, engrossing, funny, bold and endearing film to date. I’ll see anything Polley creates, from now until the end of what will surely be her very long and illustrious career.”

Francisco J. CangianoCineXpress:

“With a resume that includes ‘Brick,’ ‘The Brothers Bloom,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Looper,’ I’d have to go with Rian Johnson. Johnson has already shown that he’s a very talented director and writer. I’m really looking forward to his continuing improvement and evolution — especially with his original material.”

Sean ChavelFlick Minute:

Sarah Polley. At 34, the one-time actress has evolved into a filmmaker that can capture a mood and a visual bravado that equals both Wong Kar-wai and early ’70s Martin Scorsese. This is evident after only two films: ‘Away from Her’ and ‘Take This Waltz.’ Her third film, a documentary called ‘Stories We Tell,’ comes out in mid-May.”

Jaime ChristleySlant Magazine:

“This proved to be a difficult question. As someone who proudly compiles lists of things like ‘Favorite Filmmakers’ and has a numerical matrix designed to rank them in a precise order, I jumped at the chance to record the ages of all of my favorite living filmmakers. Guess what? Not one of them is under 40, and my list runs well past 100 names. Further nerdliness: the oldest name on the master list is Louis Feuillade, who comes in at #8 overall; if we were living in Old Testament times he’d be a spry 140 and kicking all our butts. Stubbornly vital Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira throws off the average age of the Top 50. However, even without him those guys would be an average of 65.4 years old. I traveled down the rest of the list in vain: bad news, everybody, the directors we thought would never grow old, are doing just that: the Wachowskis, Whit Stillman, the Anderson Trio (Paul W.S., Paul Thomas, and Wes), Louis C.K., Quentin Tarantino. All past 40 — some more than others. Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart. Just as I was about to give up and submit what I imagined would be almost everyone’s default answer — Rian Johnson, who hasn’t made a less-than-terrific movie since he arrived on the scene with 2005’s ‘Brick’ — I decided to pull a fast one (wicked obscure answer, intended with 100% sincerity). My pick is Mariano Llinas, director of the epic, 2008 whatzit, ‘Historias extraordinarias.’ If you haven’t seen it, but get the opportunity, do yourself a favor and set aside the necessary 245 minutes to take in this spellbinding mosaic of lonely lives, forgotten crimes, lost loves, and long-held grudges. Llinas doesn’t turn 40 for another two years, but with only one full-length feature to his name (that I know of), that happens to be one of my favorites of the last ten or so years, he’s my answer.”

Marc CiafardiniGoSeeTalk.com:

“Just making it in the under 40 category is Rian Johnson. While it’s tough to forecast the future of a gifted filmmaker there’s no denying Johnson is an established property and someone who’s star isn’t going anywhere but up. His three films ‘Brick,’ ‘The Brothers Bloom,’ and ‘Looper’ pretty much speak for themselves. So wildly different, and embodying a Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle level of sophistication, diversity and craftsmanship, he is a filmmaker who will in all likelihood never be pigeonholed. Runner-up is Zal Batmanglij who (along with the hypnotic Brit Marling) made waves with ‘Sound of my Voice’ last year and will again stun audiences with ‘The East’ (also starring the magnetic Marling; ok I have a crush on her, what of it?) this month. Can’t wait to see what else he will share with the world in the future.”

Michael DaltonMovie Parliament:

“Mine, at the age of 39, just makes it: Edgar Wright. In my eyes the man is three for three and will hopefully go four for four this summer with, ‘The World’s End.’ With ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ he delivered two of the most inventive and consistently amusing genre spoofs since ‘Airplane!’ ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World’ was an instant cult classic, not getting the box office attention it deserved for its vibrancy and vision. In this modern wave of comic book film adaptations, it is Wright’s ‘Scott Pilgrim’ which will go on to lead a healthier life than most.”

Edward DouglasComing Soon:

“I’m totally going to cheat and pick two directors who will be 39 for another 6 and 11 months respectively and go with Rian Johnson and Edgar Wright. I just can’t think of any other directors in their 20s or 30s who have made enough movies for me to consider them, but those two guys each have done three of the best movies of the last ten years and I think their intelligence and creativity will keep them making solid modern classics for many many years to come. We’ll get Wright’s fourth movie in a couple short months; Johnson’s might take a bit longer, but I feel these are both filmmakers who really proved themselves with their debuts and showed that they’re not one-trick ponies.”

Alonso DuraldeTheWrap/What The Flick?!:

“I was surprised to discover that Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola are past 40, so dang, I’m old. So let’s go with Dee Rees, whose feature debut ‘Pariah’ was a jolt of powerful storytelling, with characters and situations that felt completely new yet utterly believable. Can’t wait to see what she does next.”

Jessica ElgenstiernaThe Velvet Cafe:

“I never think about the age of directors, so this question forced me to check it up. I was surprised to see how few of my favorite directors that are below the 40 limit. First a few honorable mentions: Xavier Dolan, Jeff Nichols, Sean Durkin, Rian Johnson, and Richard Ayoade. I’ve only seen one movie each by those directors, which is too small a sample to make a call. But I’m looking forward to explore more of their work. My final vote will instead go to Mark Duplass. I wouldn’t claim that he’s the greatest of directors, but I happen to enjoy mumblecore a lot and share his sense of humor. I had a blast watching both ‘Humpday’ and ‘Jeff Who Lives at Home.’ I would mention his brother Jay if I could, but since he turned 40 in March I’m afraid he’s disqualified.”

Scott Foundas, Variety:

Denis Cote.”

Kenji FujishimaThe House Next Door:

“Well, technically I haven’t yet seen his debut feature, so take this with a grain of salt, but I’m going with Xavier Dolan, a Canadian filmmaker who is all of 24 years old and yet seems to evince a maturity that belies his young age and aesthetic brashness. ‘Heartbeats,’ his second feature, offered an intoxicating vision of infatuation that both exulted in and criticized his characters’ illusions, but if his formal playfulness — his Wong Kar-wai-like slow-motion montages, his bold uses of color — came off to some as a mere lack of discipline, then I urge you all to check out his (not-yet-released-in-the-U.S.-at-least) subsequent film ‘Laurence Anyways,’ which marks a major leap forward for Dolan as a dramatist. His talents may still be somewhat raw, but his films both show positive signs of development and are nothing if not bursting with passion — which is surely as good a place to start as any.”

Melissa HansonCinemit:

Jeff Nichols — writer and director of ‘Mud’ and ‘Take Shelter,’ both insightful dramas with a unique visual style.”

Eric HavensDownright Creepy:

“It felt a little stalker-ish, but after spending the morning searching for famous director’s birth dates I’ve chosen the one that I would classify as ‘best:’ Rian Johnson. With three separate films that work within three separate genre containers, all while respectfully subverting those genre conventions, Johnson has shown an incredible knack for deconstructing and reconstructing familiar story structures into something wholly new and identifiably Rian Johnson. If that doesn’t classify him as the best director, it has to mean he’s a pretty darn good one.”

Peter HowellToronto Star:

Sarah Polley: Rarely has the actor-to-director path been traversed with such skill and vision. Just three films in at age 34 — ‘Away From Her,’ ‘Take This Waltz’ and now the great ‘Stories We Tell’ — she’s already established herself as a unique eye and voice.”

Sean HutchinsonLatino Review:

“I’m gonna go ahead and say that Cary Fukanaga is the best working director under 40. He seems to be this Ang Lee-type of director that can lose himself in and perfectly direct different genres of film projects. His debut feature ‘Sin Nombre’ was an understated drama about a Honduran teenager trying to illegally enter the U.S., while his adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’ was a great take on a classic tale. The guy’s obvious talent is working towards a masterpiece, and hopefully he gets there soon. Also worth mentioning is former ‘IT Crowd’ star Richard Ayoade, whose directorial debut ‘Submarine’ was so assured in its influences but unique in its execution that I’ve vowed see anything that he’s involved with.”

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting:

“Finally, an easy one! Though it’s tough enough that I have to cheat… I’m not choosing between Rian Johnson and Jeff Nichols.”

Chris Klimek, Village Voice/NPR Monkey See:

Jeff Nichols. I haven’t even seen ‘Mud’ yet, but ‘Take Shelter’ was my favorite film of 2011.”

Peter LabuzaLabuzaMovies.com/The Cinephiliacs:

“Discounting directors who only have a single credit to their name, I’ll go with the South Korean director Jang Kun-jae. Working with low quality digital video, Jang’s films are a monumental shift toward a low stakes, authentic portrayal of contemporary life in the Asian country, and his shots have a beautiful symmetry to their compositions. Alternate choices: Corneliu Porumboiu, Alex Ross Perry, and Sarah Polley.”

Q: Who’s the best director working today under the age of 40?

The rest of the critics’ answers:

John LichmanFreelance:

“Because I’d rather not check and I’m fairly certain he’s not that much older than me but below 40 I’ll just say Alex Ross Perry (‘Impolex,’ ‘The Color Wheel,’ ‘Untitled HBO Series’). I guess if I were really non-committed I’d say Lucas Cruikshank. Either of them.”

Adam LowesHey U Guys:

“This is a toughie since the likes of Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson are now in their early forties. David Gordon Green has gone a little off-track  recently but he was once a contender. Maybe Jason Reitman, particularly if he can slot in a couple of films of the same quality as ‘Young Adult’ before he hits the big 4-0.”

Joey MagidsonThe Awards Circuit:

“Among the under 40 crowd, I have to go with Jason Reitman. I’d consider him one of the ten best directors working today in general, so when you shrink it to those with impending midlife crises, Reitman really moves to the head of the class for me. He’s also continuously improving, so he’s also still one of the most promising young filmmakers around, which is a definite bonus.”

Calum MarshFilm.com/Slant Magazine:

Alex Ross Perry.”

Mike McGranaghanThe Aisle Seat:

“My pick would be Jason Reitman. He’s only directed four films so far (‘Thank You For Smoking,’ ‘Juno,’ ‘Up in the Air,’ and ‘Young Adult’), but they’ve all been home runs in my book. Reitman has the admirable ability to make movies that are commercial, but not mindless; emotional, but not manipulative; and funny, but not contrived. He is a true slice-of-life filmmaker. Plus — for reasons I don’t have time to go into here — ‘Juno’ is my favorite movie of the past decade. I’m very excited to see where Reitman will go with the rest of his career.”

Ryan McNeilThe Matinee:

“I’m a big fan of what Sarah Polley has been able to do over the last six years with ‘Away From Her,’ ‘Take This Waltz,’ ‘Stories We Tell.’ She has a great eye for cinema, likely influenced by working with directors like Bigelow, Gilliam, and Egoyan as a juvenile actor.”

Jana J. MonjiThe Demanders/Pasadena Art Beat/Examiner.com:

“Why 40? Of course, it’s not good form to answer a question with a question. The dogs commented, ‘What does it matter because you’d be dead in dog years.’ I now also know that Matt Singer is all of 32. Not being particularly age conscious except in dog years, I checked the age of some directors who I might consider only to find that they (e.g. Joss Whedon and Ben Affleck) won’t make the cut. Affleck at 40 is just barely out of the running, but he impressed me greatly with ‘Argo’ despite some minor historical quibbles. Whedon created ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and the TV series ‘Firefly,’ but it’s the mad genius of ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’ that really has me smitten. (Joss, No chance of being a groupie background extra for future episodes?)

By what seems no more than sheer luck, I’ve hit upon two directors: Rian Johnson and Jon M. Chu. If this question had been asked in late December, Johnson would have missed the mark. He is 39 now and best known for writing and directing that 2012 time travel movie ‘Looper’ which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the young a regular Joe assassin and Bruce Willis as his older self in the future. The beauty of the intricate plot and its gruesome logic along with the seamless inclusion of a love story won me over. The gritty 1950s gone wrong in the future sensibility also charmed this fan of that dance era. Jon M. Chu, 33 but still dead in dog years,  hasn’t impressed me with his writing, but he understands dance and has good sensibilities in how he uses dance and records, including in 3D. I didn’t watch ‘Step Up 2: The Streets’ for the plot or the acting. You knew how the story was going to play out pretty much after the first 15 minutes or so. The same can be said for ‘Step Up 3D.’ A purer expression of Chu’s gift for recording dance and encouraging creativity is his online series, ‘The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.’ I’m certain in the future, when dancers research aspects of today’s dance and they will be turning to footage caught by Chu. In the interest of full disclosure, both Johnson and Chu attended the University of Southern California where they studied cinema. I also attended USC and will do so again.”

Zac OldenburgHaving Said That:

“Just sneaking in there, I’m going to go with Rian Johnson. He only has three films, but I would count them all as great, plus each film is his own as a writer/director. On top of this, all of his films feel different and his craft has only grown stronger with each film/budget. Can’t wait till he gets to make a 100 million dollar film.”

John OurslerIn Review Online:

“There may be young directors with more experience, but the one I’m most excited about is Xavier Dolan. His newest film, ‘Laurence Anyways,’ is a gorgeously filmed epic that establishes him as a major force. At just 24 he’s already directed three films, and yeah he may be sort of an unknowing egomaniac in interviews, but that’s par for the course with young geniuses.”

Jordan RaupThe Film Stage:

“If one asked me a few years ago I would have certainly said David Gordon Green, but as of now it has to be Sean Durkin. He perhaps many not be the ‘best’ yet, but he holds the most promise with his stunning debut, ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ — a film which I prefer over any other output from a current under-40 director. As for runner-ups, I can’t wait to see where the careers of Cary Fukunaga, Edgar Wright, Rian Johnson and Jeff Nichols go.”

Katey RichCinema Blend:

Sarah Polley. Sure, she’s only made three movies, but each of them has been uniquely wonderful, and more importantly very different from each other. She’s interested in the kinds of characters who almost never fit into conventional films, and she’s clearly got a wide range of stories she plans to tell (including ‘Stories We Tell,’ which comes out soon).”

Rania RichardsonCommunity Media:

Edgar Wright.”

Andrew RobinsongmanReviews:

“I’m going to go ahead and take a two-fer here. Between the 36-year-old Cary Fukunaga (‘Sin Nombre,’ ‘Jane Eyre’) and the 34-year-old Sarah Polley (‘Away From Her,’ ‘Take This Waltz’) we’ve got both genders lined up.”

Jason ShawhanNashville Scene/Interface 2037:

Asia Argento.”

Don SimpsonSmells Like Screen Spirit:

“Even though I limited myself to only considering directors who have released at least three feature-length films, this still turned out to be an incredibly difficult decision. If you ask me (which you are), we are looking at the most talented crop of under 40 filmmakers of the last few decades, so this bodes quite well for the future of cinema. Mark Duplass (alongside his over-40 brother, Jay Duplass) ended up being the most consistent of the young directors on my final list. Though I still consider the Duplass Brothers‘ first two features — ‘The Puffy Chair’ and ‘Baghead’ — to be their best films to date, I have truly loved all of their five of their features. Oh, and I have a couple of honorable mentions: Joe Swanberg and Frank V. Ross.”

Josh SpiegelMousterpiece Cinema/Sound on Sight:

“A couple of years ago, I’d have said Paul Thomas Anderson, but he’s passed the 40-year threshold. There are still a number of impressive contenders to this title, but I’m going with Edgar Wright. Over his first three films, he’s tapped into a generational ADD mentality without going so far overboard as to alienate the audience. His ultra-fast pacing coupled with rapid-fire visual and verbal humor, as well as a running theme of the man-child being forced to grow up (if only slightly) have proved a winning combination through riffs on zombie films, action movies, and cult horror. Hopefully ‘The World’s End,’ his upcoming capper to the trilogy that began with ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ is as enjoyable as what he’s made already.”

Brad Sturdivant, Flix66:

“The problem with choosing a favorite young director is that their body of work is so limited. Guys like Steve McQueen, Jeff Nichols, and Andrew Dominick all have good films, but I don’t think any of them have hit their stride yet. But if I have to choose a director under 40 that has some consistency, style and potential, I’ll go with Jason Reitman. ‘Thank You For Smoking,’ ‘Juno’ and ‘Up In The Air’ (I wasn’t a fan of ‘Young Adult’) were all good to great films and as Reitman develops his style even more, I think he’s going to develop into a great director.”

R. Emmet SweeneyMovie Morlocks:

“I’m going with Lisandro Alonso, that deadpan Argentinian explorer. His interest in the mysteries of isolated landscapes and their closed-lipped residents, whether in the icy windswept climes of Patagonia (‘Liverpool’) or the sweltering jungle (‘Los Muertos’), revived the creatively adventurous spirit of Robert Flaherty, setting the stage for the flood of doc-fiction hybrids to come. It’s been five years since ‘Liverpool,’ but he’s working on a film with Viggo Mortensen now that is my most anticipated film of whichever year it comes out.Tentatively titled ‘Sin Titulo,’ an early summary described it thusly: ‘Time and space utterly blend together and become suspended around a dog that mutates until it turns into what may be the very enigma of creation.'”

Ian ThomasThe Flicksation Podcast:

“There isn’t another director under 40 producing more exciting work than writer/director Derek Cianfrance has though his first two (released) feature films. He shows a passion to tell personal stories about unglamorous people and places, real people I can recognize, and exactly the ones most others have no interest in depicting. His films and characters exude an often raw, emotional truth that is unmatched. He offers plenty of style, with huge Scorsese and Cassavetes influences, but his focus is clearly on characters, which is why he gets such quality actors giving beautifully naturalistic performances. Four years ago I didn’t know who Derek Cianfrance was and now I’m not sure there is a director whose next film I more eagerly anticipate.”

Luke Y. ThompsonTopless Robot:

“I’m gonna say it’s a tie between my pals Lucky McKee and Rian Johnson.”

Anne-Katrin TitzeEye For Film:

“No symbolism, no foreshadowing, no filmic tricks to manipulate the audience into believing sentimental rewriting of personal histories for the director of ‘Goodbye First Love’ or ‘Father of My Children.’ Mia Hansen-Love paints a picture of time and adolescent longings in as real a film about first love as it gets. She never gives information, she creates a mood and colors a moment. I remarked to Hansen-Love at the 2011 New York Film Festival about her painterly use of colors, specifically the way she positions objects and clothes in reds, blues, and whites. She was happy that I did not mistake it for metaphor, as it is the sensual quality that makes her place a red bikini in front of a bright blue summer sky. She referred to Eric Rohmer, who once said, that every film has a color. ‘Obviously, this one is red.'”

Mark YoungSound on Sight/New York Movie Klub:

Rian Johnson gets in just under the wire, as he turns 40 in December of this year according to Wikipedia. I think his debut ‘Brick’ is one of the top 10 films of the ’00s, and it would probably be enough to make him my favorite even if ‘The Brothers Bloom’ and ‘Looper’ were not also great.”

Alan ZilbermanBrightest Young Things/Tiny Mix Tapes:

“The best director under 40 is Jeff Nichols. He has only three films under his belt, but they’re all fantastic and with a distinctive voice. ‘Take Shelter’ is a goddamn masterpiece.”

The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on May 6th, 2013:
The Most Popular Response: “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Upstream Color.” (tie)
Other Titles Receiving Multiple Votes:Something in the Air,” “To the Wonder,” “Iron Man 3,” “Post Tenebras Lux,” “Spring Breakers.”

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