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Best Cannes Directors of the 21st Century

Check out the IndieWire film staff's countdown of 25 living auteurs who have thrilled and stirred us on the Croisette this century, undaunted by rigid festival etiquette and the massive international stage.

Xavier Dolan Lynne Ramsay Lars von Trier Pedro Almodóvar Wong Kar-wai Sofia Coppola

Xavier Dolan, Lynne Ramsay, Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar, Wong Kar-wai, and Sofia Coppola

Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock, Michael Buckner/Deadline/REX/Shutterstock, Rolf Konow/Zentropa Ents./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, Matt Sayles/AP/REX/Shutterstock, Christophe Karaba/EPA/REX/Shutterstock, Columbia/American Zoetrope/Sony/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

There’s nothing like a rousing walk up the Cannes red carpet, flashbulbs exploding, plus lengthy standing ovations after the premiere, to feed a filmmaker’s hungry ego. Although the world’s most glamorous film festival can be reticent to anoint new auteurs before they are given credit elsewhere, each year’s 20 directors competing for the Palme d’Or each comprise a class photo of master filmmakers with a far reach; they know building your foreign profile improves global box office returns.

Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux and his predecessor, Gilles Jacob, have nurtured generations of working auteurs. Check out the IndieWire film staff’s countdown of 25 living directors who have thrilled and stirred us on the Croisette this century, undaunted by rigid festival etiquette and the massive international stage.

25. Lee Chang-dong

Lee Chang Dong Palme d'Or Award Ceremony Photocall at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, Cannes, France - 23 May 2010

Lee Chang-dong at the Cannes Palme d’Or Award Ceremony photocall in 2010

AGF s.r.l./REX/Shutterstock

Lars von Trier may grab more headlines, but the real reason to get excited about this year’s Cannes lineup is the long-awaited return of Lee Chang-dong. Most recently on the Croisette with “Poetry” in 2010, the Korean auteur previously directed Jeon Do-yeon to a richly deserved Best Actress prize at the festival three years earlier. “Burning” is just his sixth film in 20 years, but his sparse filmography suggests that the wait will have been worth it. Lee is a director who burrows into his troubled characters’ inner lives, often in a way that makes us as uncomfortable as we are compelled — especially in “Oasis,” a romantic drama about a man who’s just been released from prison falling for a woman with cerebral palsy. That premise might sound conducive to either quirk or misery, but Lee makes it deeply humanist in a way that all his movies are. —Michael Nordine

24. Cristian Mungiu

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Fonds Eurimages Du Conseil De 'Europe/Les Du Fleuve/Mandragora Movies/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5871888c) Cristian Mungiu Beyond The Hills - 2012 Director: Cristian Mungiu Fonds Eurimages Du Conseil De 'Europe/Les Films Du Fleuve/Mandragora Movies ROMANIA/FRANCE/BELGIUM On/Off Set Drama Dupa Dealuri Au-delà des collines

Cristian Mungiu directing “Beyond The Hills” (2012)

Fonds Eurimages Du Conseil De 'Europe/Les Du Fleuve/Mandragora Movies/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The uncompromising Romanian auteur won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2007 for his relentless abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” using his customary long unedited sequences shot with natural light. And then, infamously, Romania’s Oscar submission was not nominated for the Oscar that year, which pushed the Academy to change the way it handles the foreign language voting–adding a committee to make sure such oversights do not occur again. Based on a true story told to the filmmaker, “4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days” is set in 1987, a bleak period before the end of the Ceaucescu regime, when abortions were banned, and follows Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) tries to obtain an illegal abortion. Mungiu tried to always show the inner state of mind of the character, tuning into her anxiety and fear. Mungiu’s rigorous aesthetic –followed in subsequent Cannes entries “Beyond the Hills” (which shared a Best Actress prize fin 2012 for two non-pros Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, as well as a screenplay prize for Mungiu) and director-prize-winner “The Graduation” (2016) requires that he not cut within a scene. He can trim the front or the back, but not the middle. The camera doesn’t move unless something triggers it. This forces Mungiu to be clever about choreographing 10-minute pieces of action, adding off-screen information, and relying heavily on the use of sound. And his actors are given space to develop emotions without cutting, sometimes via as many as 30 takes. The end result is packed with fierce energy and intense emotion. —Anne Thompson

Wong Kar-Wai In this May 16, 2007 Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai arrives for the screening of the film "My Blueberry Nights," at the 60th International film festival in Cannes, southern France. Organizers of the Berlin International Film Festival say Chinese director Wong Kar-wai will lead the jury at next year's event in February. Festival director Dieter Kosslick praised the 56-year-old Wong on for the "distinctive signature and the poetry of his worksGermany Berlin Film Festival, Cannes, France

Wong Kar-Wai at Cannes for the 2007 screening of his film “My Blueberry Nights”

Jeff Christensen/AP/REX/Shutterstock

23. Wong Kar-wai

The sunglass wearing auteur — with his glamorous casts and visually scrumptious, ephemeral films that are as postmodern cool as they are personal — is the very essence of the international star director Cannes loves to feature. While one of the leaders of Hong Kong’s second wave was building an incredibly deep and fascinating body of work in the late-1980s and throughout the ’90s, it wasn’t until 1997 with “Happy Together” that he “arrived” globally with the recognition of a Cannes competition invite. Since then, his output in the 21st Century has slowed and his larger canvas films have become the type of highly anticipated red carpet events Cannes loves, with “In the Mood for Love,” “2046,” and “My Blueberry Nights” all premiering in competition, while Wong served as the President of the Cannes Jury in 2006. —Chris O’Falt 

22. Xavier Dolan

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Shayne Laverdiere/Metafilms/Sodec/Sons Of Manual/Super Ecran/Telefilm Canada/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5880903h) Anne Dorval, Xavier Dolan Mommy - 2014 Director: Xavier Dolan Metafilms/Sodec/Sons Of Manual/Super Ecran/Telefilm Canada CANADA On/Off Set Drama

Anne Dorval and her “Mommy” director Xavier Dolan on the film’s set in 2014

Shayne Laverdiere/Metafilms/Sodec/Sons Of Manual/Super Ecran/Telefilm Canada/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Xavier Dolan is only 29 years old, and yet he’s easily one of the most prolific Cannes filmmakers of the last decade. Before competing for the Palme d’Or, Dolan’s breakout “I Killed My Mother” won three prizes at Directors’ Fortnight, while both “Heartbeats” and “Laurence Anyways” found accolades in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Dolan made his Competition debut with “Mommy” in 2014, which earned the Jury Prize. Dolan won the Grand Prix in 2016 with “It’s Only the End of the World.” Few filmmakers this century have had such a consistent and prosperous relationship with Cannes as Dolan has over the last several years. With nearly all of his films premiering in some section at Cannes and winning top prizes, it’s no wonder Dolan has cemented himself as one of the world’s most popular voices. —Zack Sharf

21. Alejandro González Iñárritu

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock (2208148e) Alejandro González Iñárritu 21 Grams - 2003

Alejandro González Iñárritu directing “21 Grams” (2003)

Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

The innovative Mexican auteur is unafraid to push the emotional and thematic envelope, putting the often ordinary people in his films through extraordinary tests of character. Cannes helped to break out Iñárritu with his debut triptych “Amores Perros” (2000), slotting its three interlocking Mexico City narratives in Critics Week 2000, where the violent movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal as a dogfighter in love with his brother’s wife won the Grand Prize and was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar. With Competition film “Babel” (2006), Iñárritu again resisted ingratiating himself to audiences– his oeuvre has been described as misery porn –as he achieves a level of on-screen intensity rare in current cinema. Exerting imperious control over minute details, the filmmaker puts his sprawling casts through the wringer, drawing out dramatic feats. Sprawling multi-cultural drama “Babel” stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal and Oscar-nominated actresses Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi in four narratives that culminate with a stunning shot of Kikuchi’s naked deaf teenager cradled her father’s arms on a balcony overlooking Tokyo. The filmmaker returned to Cannes Competition in 2010 with dark Spanish melodrama “Biutiful,” which garnered an Oscar nomination for Javier Bardem, but made a small splash in global arthouses. After that, Iñárritu did not look back as he embraced his own version of mainstream commerciality with Oscar winners “Birdman” and “The Revenant.” —AT

20. Jia Zhangke

Actress Zhao Tao, left, and director Jia Zhangke pose for photographers during a photo call for the film Shan He Gu Ren (Mountains May Depart), at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, southern France France Cannes Mountains May Depart Photo Call, Cannes, France

“Mountains May Depart” actress Zhao Tao and Jia Zhangke at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival

Lionel Cironneau/AP/REX/Shutterstock

One of China’s leading filmmakers, Jia has been grappling with censorship for years even as he has emerged as the country’s foremost chronicler of changing times. Jia’s generation-defining “Unknown Pleasures” marked his Cannes debut in 2002, and each time he has returned with another trenchant look at the interplay of Chinese personal and national identity through complex ensemble-driven narratives. A great Jia film draws you into one intimate drama of a character working against difficult odds only to change up the perspective in surprising ways that deepen the movie’s themes. His masterful 2013 “A Touch of Sin” (a Cannes screenplay winner) is a staggering, complex undertaking that cycles through several mini-stories of struggling Chinese working class characters whose frustrations with the system lead to violence. The jarring ambition of 2015’s “Mountains May Depart” starts in the country’s past and ends in its future, exploring both family ties and the isolating effect of modern technology with a genre-defying approach (and the best use of a Pet Shop Boys song in a movie, ever). He’s back at the festival with “Ash is the Purest White,” another violent and romantic story about a couple rekindling their bond after one of them does jail time. While many Chinese directors avoid some of the touchier issues facing the country, Jia confronts them head-on, and his movies are bracing statements on a superpower from the inside out. —Eric Kohn

19. Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-Wook In the Fade Premiere - 70th Cannes Film Festival, France - 26 May 2017South-Korean director Park Chan-Wook arrives for the premiere of 'Aus dem Nichts' (In the Fade) during the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France, 26 May 2017. The movie is presented in the Official Competition of the festival which runs from 17 to 28 May.

Park Chan-wook at Cannes in 2017 for the premiere of “In the Fade”

Ian Langsdon/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook may not fit the description of your average Cannes — his moral operas are a little pulpier than the average Competition fare, not to mention a lot more fun — but his path to international acclaim has taken him straight through the French Riviera. In fact, it was at the 2004 festival that the world got its first real taste of Park’s singular virtuosity, as Quentin Tarantino’s jury awarded “Oldboy” the Grand Prix. The rest was history, as that undeniable revenge thriller became a fanboy favorite, sparking an interest in Park’s previous work (“Joint Security Area” rules!) and a feverish anticipation for whatever he made next. “Lady Vengeance” never played at the fest (which is dumb, because that movie RULES), but Park returned with his bitingly perverse vampire romance “Thirst,” and made an even bigger splash in 2016 with his sapphic period masterpiece, “The Handmaiden.” Should Park return to the big screen after his upcoming dalliance on the small one, there’s no doubt that Cannes will have a spot in the Competition with his name on it. —David Ehrlich

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