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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

16. “Half Nelson” (2006, Ryan Fleck, age 34)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by c.ThinkFilm/Everett / Rex Features (634619c) 'Half Nelson', Ryan Gosling 'Half Nelson' film - 2006

“Half Nelson”


“Half Nelson” has a cloying logline: A drug-addicted middle-school teacher forges a friendship within one of his students and they try to find themselves. Luckily, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both 34 at the time, eschewed any corny sentimentality in favor of a warts-and-all portrait of a functioning addict. Anchored by a strong performance from Ryan Gosling as the teacher and Shareeka Epps as his student, the loose camerawork gives the film a distinct documentary feel. The emotions burn deep and small victories seem earned, which is a testament to the duo’s script and Fleck’s direction. By staring face-first into the void of addiction and not glamorizing it, the duo created a lasting portrait of an unlikely bond. —William Earl

15. “Tiny Furniture” (2010, Lena Dunham, age 24)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tiny Ponies/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5875871c) Laurie Simmons, Lena Dunham Tiny Furniture - 2010 Director: Lena Dunham Tiny Ponies USA Scene Still Comedy

“Tiny Furniture”

Tiny Ponies/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The discovery of SXSW 2010 (and best narrative feature winner) was 24-year-old New York writer-director Lena Dunham, who shot her semi-autobiographical micro-budget film for $65,000 at her family’s Tribeca loft with herself, her sister Grace and her artist mom Laurie Simmons in leading roles. Dunham cast her SXSW buddy Merritt Wever as well as Jemima Kirke and Alex Karpovsky. Shot in 15 days on a Canon EOS 7D by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, the movie was picked up out of SXSW by IFC. Instantly, Dunham found herself in demand as a screenwriter, from producer Scott Rudin (“How great is she? I think she’s a total star,” he wrote in an email) to Judd Apatow, who developed Dunham’s TV series “Girls” with producer Jenni Konner at HBO, also starring writer-director Dunham and Kirke, along with Allison Williams and Adam Driver. It lasted six seasons.

How autobiographical is “Tiny Furniture”? Like post-college grad Hannah, Dunham did return home after graduating from Oberlin College, where she majored in creative writing and created popular webisodes like “Delusional Downtown Divas,” working odd jobs as a clothing store clerk, secretary and babysitter and living with her parents until six months before “Tiny Furniture” sold. “I was not equipped for any other sort of job,” she told me. The male characters are composites who have “real aspects, like many men I’ve known. I blend reality and fiction in everything I write. This is a little less blurred.” AT

14. “Mud” (2013, Jeff Nichols, age 35)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everest Entertainment/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883373d) Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan Mud - 2012 Director: Jeff Nichols Everest Entertainment USA Scene Still Mud - Sur les rives du Mississippi


Everest Entertainment/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Like his University of North Carolina School of the Arts compatriot Green, Nichols was already an established indie auteur by the time he turned his attentions to slightly larger fare with his 2013 Matthew McConaughey-starring drama. Fans of Nichols’ work were already well-schooled on his many team-ups with Michael Shannon (who has a small role in “Mud”), but the film offered viewers the chance to get a look at Nichols’ unique worldview and his mighty talent working with actors  including established stars like McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, plus rising newbies like Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. The hazy Southern drama scans a bit like a coming of age tale told through backwards reflection, young tweens growing up when faced with harrowing circumstances, given over to the kind of contemplation that could only come after years of hard-won maturation. It’s not a happy story, but it’s one that opens up the possibility that life can be bigger  and harder  than originally expected, as wild and strange as a boat foisted up in tiny tree. —KE

13. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013, David Lowery, age 32)

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”

IFC Films

This intimate, romantic reinterpretation of the Bonnie and Clyde myth was warmly crafted by a 32-year-old David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a couple swept in both crime and romance, this gorgeous film (shot by Bradford Young) lifts generously from the Terrence Malick playbook, with sweeping western shots recalling “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven.” But Lowery’s control and vision also extend to smaller, more intimate moments, coaxing brilliance out of a stunning ensemble including Affleck, Mara, Ben Foster, and Keith Carradine. While his future projects like “A Ghost Story” and “Pete’s Dragon” are more wholly original works, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a true accomplishment of a young filmmaker finding his voice by standing on the shoulders of giants. —WE

12. “Sin Nombre“ (2009, Cary Fukunaga, age 31) 

Sin Nombre

“Sin Nombre”

Focus Features

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sundance-acclaimed debut is a wrenching tale of Mexican immigrants frantically attempting to get across the border with murderous gang members on their tail, but it’s also a first-rate adventure. The plight of Casper (Edgar Flores), who’s pursued by the same young boy (Kristyan Ferrer) he used to mentor, starts out as a gritty, neorealist depiction of life on the streets before Casper goes on the lam with a target on his back. Eventually, he joins forces with other immigrant stowaways on a fast-moving train, the setting of so many cinematic odysseys since the birth of the medium, but one that takes on striking immediacy thanks to Fukunaga’s daring guerilla filmmaking tactics. The director excelled at combining genre thrills with genuine ideas and a creeping sense of dread, setting the stage for his landmark first season of “True Detective” and “Beasts of No Nation,” another tale of young people struggling with their country’s war-torn chaos and a genuine desire to escape its clutches.  —EK

11. “Gone Baby Gone” (2007, Ben Affleck, age 35)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1590798a) Gone Baby Gone, Casey Affleck Film and Television

“Gone Baby Gone”


It can be easy to forget 10 years later, but Ben Affleck’s resurgence as a director was a genuine surprise — and a pleasant one at that. Who would have guessed that the once-loved actor, whose early-career goodwill had been practically hunted to extinction by the likes of “Gigli” and “Daredevil,” would prove so adept behind the camera? “Gone Baby Gone” was a standout in a year full of them, not least for the way it showed that, at least in front of the camera, the younger Affleck brother is the more gifted sibling. As a private investigator traversing Boston at its most neo-noirish, he helps his big bro’s directorial debut avoid the fate shared by so many other films in its genre: feeling like a feature-length episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” That’s a rare feat, and one that the future helmer of “The Town,” “Argo,” and “Live by Night” deserves credit for. —MN

10. “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001, Wes Anderson, age 32)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by James Hamilton/Touchstone/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884890h)Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill MurrayThe Royal Tenenbaums - 2001Director: Wes AndersonTouchstone PicturesUSAScene StillComedyLa Famille Tenenbaum

“The Royal Tenenbaums”

James Hamilton/Touchstone/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Wes Anderson’s third feature — and only New York City-shot film— is a patchwork of approximately 250 sets. Beyond his outsized ambition, obstacles awaiting “The Royal Tenenbaums” director and co-screenwriter included clashes with his lead (Gene Hackman, in a Golden Globe-winning performance), a kidnapped avian actor, and the lingering sting of his own parents’ break-up. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the dramedy follows a fibbing patriarch seeking an eleventh-hour reunion with his long-estranged wife (Angelica Houston), and their children, onetime math (Ben Stiller), playwrighting (Gwyneth Paltrow), and tennis (Luke Wilson) prodigies now floundering through adulthood. Perfectly-curated production design and chromatic costumes — which inspired a few IndieWire staffers this past Halloween — belie dark themes, explored with plot lines involving mental illness, drug abuse, sudden death, dogfighting, and incest. The droll script delivered Anderson the first of six Oscar nominations, and extended his now eight-film streak of Bill Murray collaborations.  —JM

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