1. Richard Linklater
Recent Highlights: A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Before Sunset
A role model for indie filmmakers who follow the
one-for-them, one-for-me strategy, Linklater has slalomed between Hollywood and the art house—between School of Rock and Before Sunrise—with surprising ease. This year he aimed right up the middle with not one but two films. We’d wait for his movies, but we’re glad we don’t have to.
2. Michel Gondry
Recent Highlights: The Science of Sleep, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Upcoming: Be Kind Rewind
Innovative, quirky and constantly surprising, this year Gondry applied the directing skills that thrilled audiences in Eternal Sunshine to screenwriting with Sleep, his ethereal film exploring a young man’s dreamscapes. Always willing to try something new—whether in film, art or his beloved music videos—he continues to exceed visual expectations.
3. Ang Lee
Recent Highlights: Brokeback Mountain
Upcoming: Lust, Caution
It seemed like a strange idea for a Taiwanese-American director previously known best for a magical kung-fu film to make a movie about gay cowboys. But it no longer seems quite so strange. In fact, most filmgoers will happily trust Ang Lee with any story he cares to tell, including his next (Lust, Caution), a Mandarin-language spy thriller set in WWII-era Shanghai.
4. Christopher Guest
Recent Highlights: For Your Consideration, A Mighty Wind
Guest, who became British royalty in 1996 upon the death of his father, the 4th Baron Haden-Guest, has long been regarded as such in the comedic realm. With his performance in This Is Spinal Tap—and later with his own films Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and now For Your Consideration—he brought the concept of unscripted dialogue to the screen in an unforgettable way, surrounding himself with top-shelf improvisers and allowing the humor to flow out of each actor’s phenomenal comedic instincts.
5. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Recent Highlights: Babel, 21 Grams
When Iñárritu moved his films from Mexico to the States, he brought their puzzle-like plots along, too. But this year his characters outgrew his structural ingenuity—he’s become a director of actors, not just situations. Babel—his fourth collaboration with writer Guillermo Arriaga—is his best work to date, leaving us eager to see what’s next.
6. Alfonso Cuarón
Recent Highlights: Children of Men; paris, je t’aime
Upcoming: México ‘68, The History of Love, The Memory of Running
With only two films to his credit between 1999 and 2005 (the Oscar-winning Y tu mamá también and box-office biggie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), director Cuarón began making up for lost time this year with two excellent new projects, and he’s got three more on the way, including Children of Men, which stars enduring indie favorites Julianne Moore, Clive Owen and Michael Caine.
7. Kevin Macdonald
Recent Highlights: The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void
Upcoming: The 28th Amendment
Having earned his stripes as a documentarian, Oscar winner Macdonald successfully branched out into fiction filmmaking with the fact-based Last King of Scotland, about a Scottish doctor who falls into the orbit of manipulative, bloodthirsty Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Skillfully evoking a lost era of African optimism and squandered opportunity, Macdonald has found a new way to document the truth—through fiction.
8. Spike Lee
Recent Highlights: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Inside Man
Upcoming: Selling Time, NoLa
It’s been 20 years since She’s Gotta Have It, and almost as many since he proved to be a major talent with Do the Right Thing. But if we needed a reminder that Lee still has his finger on the pulse of urban America, we got it, in an urgent, angry, loving tribute to the people of New Orleans. From a proud New Yorker, no less.
9. Pedro Almodóvar
Recent Highlights: Volver, Bad Education
Expanding from his early stint as a creator of campy, outrageously funny comedies, Almodóvar has grown impressively as a filmmaker, getting deeper and more moving without losing his charm. All About My Mother and Talk to Her led the charge; his latest, Volver, won awards at Cannes for best screenplay and best actress (shared by the film’s entire ensemble).
10. Stephen Frears
Recent Highlights: The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents
Getting the best performance of Jack Black’s career in High Fidelity is one thing, but doing the same for Helen Mirren is quite a bigger accomplishment, considering the latter’s turn in Calendar Girls. Frears’ latest comes on the heels of a collaboration with another estimable British dame, Judi Dench, in Mrs. Henderson Presents.
11. Werner Herzog
Recent Highlights: Rescue Dawn, The Wild Blue Yonder, Grizzly Man, The White Diamond
Herzog—once best known as a maker of hypnotic, beautiful films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God—has reinvented himself in recent years as an iconoclastic documentarian. His 2005 film, Grizzly Man, was his best effort in years, a spellbinding account of a tragically misguided man’s desire to commune with a decidedly unfriendly natural world.
12. Robert Altman
Recent Highlights: A Prairie Home Companion
Upcoming: Untitled dramatization of Hands on a Hard Body
This year has proven kind to the 81-year-old director of classics like M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player and Gosford Park. After over 40 films and seven Oscar nominations, Altman finally took home Hollywood’s most prestigious statue (albeit an honorary award) for “a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike.” He followed up by revisiting the dying art form of the radio variety show in one his most successful films to date.
13. Darren Aronofsky
Recent Highlights: The Fountain
Upcoming: Flicker, Lone Wolf and Cub
The boy-wonder director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream is a nervy original with a knack for trippy visuals and stories that push characters to the physical and psychological brink—whether they’re in outer space or on Coney Island. When he has the right project, not even the sky’s the limit. SD
14. Michael Winterbottom
Recent Highlights: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, The Road to Guantanamo, 9 Songs
Upcoming: A Mighty Heart, Genova, Murder in Samarkand
Making three films in the time span it takes other directors to croak out one, the prolific Winterbottom dropped two this year, including the hilarious Tristram Shandy, simultaneously an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s legendarily unfilmable novel and a comic showcase for star Steve Coogan. Next up: a film about murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, with Angelina Jolie as his wife Mariane.
15. Zhang Yimou
Recent Highlights: Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, House of Flying Daggers
Upcoming: Curse of the Golden Flower
Visual opulence has always been this historically minded director’s calling card, from 1990’s Ju Dou (who knew freshly dyed fabric hung out to dry could be so striking?) and 1991’s Raise the Red Lantern all the way to the heady Daggers. But the true value of this venerable Chinese director is his persistence in proving the emotional conflicts that rule our times have always been with us.
16. Steven Soderbergh
Recent Highlights: Bubble, The Good German
Upcoming: Life Interrupted, Ocean’s Thirteen
He guides single-facet actors like Julia Roberts to the finest performances of their handsomely salaried careers. He makes message movies for the masses (Traffic) and frothy films for the discerning viewer (the Ocean's franchise). And he takes risks: With 2005’s Bubble, Soderbergh floated the idea of simultaneously releasing a movie to theaters, cable and DVD. For a studio player, he plays by his own rules.
17. Sofia Coppola
Recent Highlights: Marie Antoinette,
Lost in Translation
It’s shameful that it took until 2004 for a woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, as was Coppola for Lost in Translation. But she’s much more than a history-book headline. With that understated moodpiece, as well as 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, Coppola set herself apart not just from her prestigious papa but also from her contemporaries, burnishing her characters’ quirks to an illuminating luster.
18. Marc Forster
Recent Highlights: Stranger Than Fiction, Stay, Finding Neverland
Upcoming: The Kite Runner, 36, Dallas Buyer’s Club
Forster’s talent for turning intelligent films into Oscar nominees has given him an opportunity to stretch. Casting Will Ferrell with Emma Thompson in the Eternal Sun-shiny Stranger Than Fiction may be Forster’s bravest leap yet.
19. John Madden
Recent Highlights: Killshot, Proof
British theater met film-noir pulp when executive producer Quentin Tarantino convinced Madden to direct Killshot, based on the Elmore Leonard novel. The Oscar-nominated director (Shakespeare in Love) may not always reach perfection, but he continues to make films with heart and imagination.
20. Kevin Smith
Recent Highlights: Clerks II
In Clerks II—through characters like Dante, Randal, and Jay and Silent Bob—Smith continues championing today’s everyman: the simple mind of a simple man in an even simpler job. Over the course of his decade-plus career, Smith has continually piloted art-house films through the indie tributaries to the edge of—and occasionally straight into—the mainstream.