While many directors made great films during this decade (Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Haynes, Michel Gondry, Lynne Ramsay, to name a few), only a handful put out work that was not only consistently interesting but also urged us (sometimes against our will) to think about cinema differently. So, here are ten or so gamechanging directors of the decade.
Chan-wook Park - Oldboy alone puts him on the list. The fact that his other work is equally audacious and vivacious makes him one of the most interesting filmmakers on the planet.
Lars von Trier - just when you thought he'd pushed cinema to its ethical limit with The Idiots, Trier slaps us all in the face with Dancer in the Dark (his sadistic musical) and Dogville (his more-Brechtian-than-Brecht melodrama), only to finish us off with Antichrist, a film that seems to have been made simply to make it on the Most Evil Film of All Time list. But perhaps his cruelest experiment of all is The Five Obstructions, in which he makes his idol Jorgen Leth remake his short film The Perfect Man five times.
Michael Winterbottom - what didn't this guy take on this decade? He adapted Thomas Hardy ... again (The Claim), made a film of Tristram Shandy, made two soul-rattling pseduo-documentaries (In This World & The Road to Guantanamo), and got a fantastic dramatic performance out of Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart. Oh, and there's the effervescent 24 Hour Party People, too. So what didn't he do? Get any recognition at all. This guy can't stay under the radar forever.
The Main List
10. Alfonso Cuaron - it's hard to think of a cooler one-two punch than Cuaron's move from Y Tu Mama Tambien to Harry Potter 3, and I'd argue that his film saved the H-Pott franchise from turning into an artless cash cow. However, it's his criminally underrated Children of Men that establishes him as the most exciting studio filmmaker we've got.
9. Brad Bird - the dude made Ratatouille ... does anything else have to be said? He breathed new life into the Pixar world by making a film about cooking with almost no merchandising potential and made it a smash hit commercially and critically. This guy could probably pitch a movie about a third-world sanitation crew and get $100 million to make it.
8. David Gordon Green - if you made a list of directors least likely to make an Apatow stoner comedy, Green with his meditative Cassavetes-meets-Malick filmography would put him near the top of the list, and yet in 2008 he turned out not only Pineapple Express but also the mature (and depressing as hell) Snow Angels. As impressive as his Hollywood crossover is, Green's "indie" work is what has made the real impact on cinema by revealing the poetry latent in the moving image and the truth in the small moment. And he did it just when these moments seemed in danger of passing away as studios gobbled up (and then shuttered) indie distributors.
7. Sofia Coppola - hate on her all you want, but her combination of hipster glam 'tude with a lonely Zen sensibility makes her less the heir apparent of her father but of Jim Jarmusch. She's gutsy, innovative, and makes some of the most personal films we can find.
6. Richard Linklater - he may be known more for his iconic 1990s output, but he's also been quietly altering the landscape of cinema in the 2000s. Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly represent a major breakthrough in the potential of animation, while Before Sunset may be one of the best sequels ever made, and Fast Food Nation stands as one of the most inventive adaptations to come around in some time.
5. Gus Van Sant - Wait ... is this a 90s list? No. Despite what F. Scott Fitzgerald said, some American lives do have second acts, even in Hollywood. At the start of the decade, it looked like he was set to remake Good Will Hunting for the rest of his life. Then he went and made the minimalist trilogy Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days; films that invited us to appreciate (or hate) film as what Andrei Tarkovsky called "sculpting in time." His success in making these films more than indulgent experiments is a testament to his continuing strength as a filmmaker, and the fact that he can go from that to a conventional biopic like Milk speaks volumes.
4. Paul Greengrass - have you recovered from motion sickness yet? It's rare to see a filmmaker top both himself and previous films in a franchise, but Greengrass did it on the Bourne films. It's even rarer to see a filmmaker tackle a national tragedy with honesty and reverence rather than cloying sentimentality, but Greengrass did it twice in one decade. Both Bloody Sunday and United 93 proved cinema can be a space for catharsis and reverence.
3. Christopher Nolan - though I'm not a huge fan personally, no one can deny the effect Nolan's films have had on studio filmmaking. Beginning with Memento and continuing through the uber-smash The Dark Knight, Nolan proved wrong the old Hollywood equation that dark + confusing = flop. For that, we should be truly grateful.
2. Michael Haneke - he's Hitchcock, Polanski, and Von Trier all rolled into one, the Master of Manipulation, the Prince of Punishment, the Auteur of ... you get the idea. There's hardly a false (or gentle) note in the whole decade, from Code Unknown to The Piano Teacher to Time of the Wolf to Cache to this year's The White Ribbon, Haneke has continually tested the patience and the conscience of his audience with one of the most uncompromising bodies of work to come around in a long time. Once you see a Haneke film, it never leaves you ... mainly because it either infuriates you or violates your sensibilities (or both), but regardless, his work -- even more than Von Trier's -- shows that the envelope can never be pushed far enough, which demonstrates cinema's unending, provocative vitality.
1. Steven Soderbergh - I know I'm not going out on a limb here, but it's hard to overlook what he's achieved this decade. Hit or miss, Clooney or no, no one has explored the boundaries of cinema in both form and content more than Soderbergh. He made 12 feature films, served as a producer on 24 more, made two TV shows, and caused an industry shitstorm when he released Bubble in theaters, on DVD, and PPV simultaneously. He did what he wanted and got box office talent to tag along.
But all of this would be for nothing if the work wasn't good, and it was. And even when the work wasn't good, it was at least interesting. While films like Traffic got their due immediately, we'll be looking at films like Solaris, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, and Che for some time. Even though the decade ended badly for him with the collapse of Moneyball, he still has the potential to change the film game all over again with one film.