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The Criticwire Survey: The Best Young Director Working Today

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire May 6, 2013 at 10:02AM

Who's the best filmmaking in the world today under the age of 40? The critics weigh in.
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Rian Johnson (right), on the set of "Looper."
Rian Johnson (right), on the set of "Looper."
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."

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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