The year is 2020, a number that belongs to a sci-fi film in itself. I do not wish to summon these 20 directors for the sake of discussing the future of cinema. I simply wish to discuss the films they have already created (even though it may only be two or three films). But in the end, this inevitably concerns the future of cinema. Because, when we watched Wong Kar Wai’s second film Days of Being Wild (1990), we might have already dreamed of In the Mood for Love (2000) in our minds. Or… when we watched Blood Simple (1985) by the Coen brothers, we might have already been experiencing No Country for Old Men (2007), which would come two decades later.
So what can we expect to unfold over the next 20 years for the 20 directors listed here?
The compulsive visuals of Midsommar (2019), the pitch-black ocean that meets the quiet gaze of Asako I & II (2018), the beauty of The Lighthouse (2019) emitting black-and-white light beyond that ocean, the children’s endless chatter in Yoon Gaeun’s films, the astonishing cinematic miracle that is Happy as Lazzaro (2018). What future do these films suggest for their directors? One thing remains certain: they will continue to shoot films.
1. Ali Abbasi
Selected directing credits: Officer Relaxing After Duty (2008, short), M for Markus (2011, short), Shelley (2016), Border (2018)
The story so far: Born in Iran, Abbasi abandoned his studies at Tehran Polytechnic University in 2002 and moved to Sweden, before enrolling at the National Film School of Denmark, where he studied directing. His Danish-language first feature, Shelley, premiered at the 2016 Berlinale.
But it was his hugely inventive, barely categorisable Swedish-language second feature Border that really marked him out. Adapted by Abbasi and his co-writer Isabella Eklöf from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of the novel that inspired Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008), Border is a dark Nordic fable that weaves in Abbasi’s fondness for Latin American magic realism, and rests on a gloriously singular premise that we wouldn’t dream of ruining by giving away here. Bong says of Abbasi: “Border is a brilliantly unique movie. I love the way he has created his own small universe.”
2. Ari Aster
Selected directing credits: The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011, short), Munchausen (2013, short), Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019)
The story so far: “I met Ari Aster once in New York. He’s a unique guy. I love his talent,” says Bong Joon Ho, who didn’t hesitate to nominate Aster as one of his 20 directors to watch. With his shorts – especially the astonishingly confident The Strange Thing About the Johnsons – and his two features to date, Aster has given horror cinema a shot in the arm just as jolting as Jordan Peele has.
Hereditary was hailed as one of the most frightening films in years, with its wall-climbingly effective tale of horror in the family home, at the centre of which is Toni Collette’s astonishing performance. His follow-up, Midsommar, confirmed that his debut was no one-off, with its inventive take on ‘daylight horror’, and once again with an outstanding performance, this time from Florence Pugh.
Aster has said that he now plans to move into different genres. Who’d bet against Aster, like Bong, making those genres his own?
3. Bi Gan
Selected directing credits: Kaili Blues (2015), Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018)
The story so far: Bi’s two elliptical, woozy features are as haunted by their cinematic precedents as his protagonists are by their memories of past lovers. The ghosts of film noir and Wong Kar Wai’s moody blues, Vertigo (1958) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s caverns of time, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s long encounters and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mystic reveries are refracted in Bi’s cinematic hall of mirrors. He calls both his films to date portraits of the “shadows” of his hometown, Kaili in the south-eastern province of Guizhou.
He made Kaili Blues on a slender budget, with his uncle in one of the main roles. Long Day’s Journey into Night, its second half a single, hour-long roving 3D take, is another order of production, testament to the first film’s success and to an appetite for investment in China, where Bi – self-taught via the internet – is leading a new, self-consciously expressionist generation of filmmaking.
The story so far: After winning a Berlinale Silver Bear and providing his country’s first-ever Oscar submission for his magic-realist Kaqchikel debut Ixcanul (Volcano), Mayan-heritage Guatemalan Bustamante returned last year with two new dramas, both hits at international festivals. Ixcanul put his background on screen, with its portrait of coffee farmers in the Guatemalan highlands and its 17-year-old protagonist’s struggles to own her sexuality and pregnancy.
Tremors dramatised repression among a well-to-do evangelical family in Guatemala City, with the coming-out of their beloved family head and their attempts to ‘heal’ him. La Llorona tackled the political scars of the country’s 1980s genocidal civil war, and its continuing search for justice, through the genre of the ghost story. Founder of film production and distribution companies and an independent film theatre, he’s a dynamo for Guatemalan cinema.
5. Mati Diop
The story so far: Diop shot to attention playing the daughter in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and has acted alongside directing ever since. Her films are docufiction hybrids, often concerned with migration and marked by a sense of ghostly longing. Atlantiques, which followed a young man crossing from West Africa to Europe, won the Tiger Award at Rotterdam. For A Thousand Suns she tracked down the lead actor from the landmark 1973 film Touki Bouki made by her uncle, the great Senegalese cinema pioneer Djibril Diop Mambéty.
Her first fiction feature, the Cannes Grand Prix winner Atlantics, expanded on her first short, but flipped the focus to tell a fable of migration from the unusual perspective of the sisters, mothers and lovers left behind. Diop’s inspired use of the supernatural to emphasise their sense of loss stood out even at a time when many directors are turning to genre.
Selected directing credits: The Witch (2016), The Lighthouse (2019)
The story so far: Robert Eggers has had the kind of career trajectory that filmmakers dream of: a breakout debut – the supernatural chiller The Witch – and a follow-up The Lighthouse, with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two lighthouse-keepers in the 1890s, that was the talk of Cannes last year. While Eggers was getting his debut off the ground he worked as a production designer, and his meticulous attention to visual detail helps make his films so effective. At a time when folk horror is undergoing a resurgence, his heavily researched period gothic tales stand out with their singularly eerie atmospheres.
In The Witch, Eggers plunged viewers into the harsh world of early English settlers in the New World in the 1630s. In The Lighthouse, he turned the assault up a notch with a near square aspect ratio, black-as-coal monochrome palette and full-on cacophonous soundtrack.
To quote its gloriously bawdy and colourful script, it “sparkles like a sperm whale’s pecker”.
7. Rose Glass
Selected directing credits: Moths (2010, short), Storm House (2011, short), The Silken Strand (2013, short), Room 55 (2014, short), Bath Time (2015, short), Saint Maud (2019)
The story so far: One of the most exciting new British talents, Glass has made bold interventions to genre tropes, of a kind that Bong would surely approve. Inspired by visual effects master Ray Harryhausen, she began making home movies as a teenager, before attending the National Film and Television School in 2014.
Her short films carved a distinct space for themselves in contemporary horror, often focusing on female protagonists: Room 55 explored the sexual awakening of an English housewife in the 1950s, while Bath Time concerned a woman suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Her highly original first feature Saint Maud, which premiered at festivals last year and is released in the UK in May, is a psychological gothic horror about a nurse (Morfydd Clark) who becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of a hedonistic dancer suffering from cancer (Jennifer Ehle).
“Sometimes the scariest place to get trapped is inside your own mind”: Rose Glass on Saint Maud
By Mike Williams
Saint Maud: a heady British horror duet, up close and devoted
By Ela Bittencourt
Selected directing credits: Passion (2008), The Depths (2010), Touching the Skin of Eeriness (2013), Voices from the Waves (2013), Storytellers (2013), Happy Hour (2015), Asako I & II (2018)
The story so far: Hamaguchi’s graduation film, Passion, was entered into competition at the Tokyo FILMeX festival in 2008, and he has been notably prolific since, but his international breakthrough came in 2015 with Happy Hour, a masterful epic – nearly five-and-a-half hours long – about four female friends. With its naturalistic pace and part-improvised scenes, the film drew comparisons to Jacques Rivette.
The textures of Happy Hour were given a more contained form in the two-hour Asako I & II, a doppelganger romance about memory and romantic delusion based on a novel by Shibasaki Tomoka. Asako is a woman who falls for a handsome, caddish man, only for him to leave as abruptly as he took up with her. Two years later, she meets a man who looks identical to her departed lover but is his opposite in personality. Always inventive, wrong-footing and surprising, Hamaguchi’s work constantly leaves you wondering where it will turn next, anxious to follow it wherever it goes.
9. Alma Har’el
The story so far: Har’el’s sensuous, exuberant movie-making verve was apparent from her first music videos for the band Beirut and others, but it was her first feature, Bombay Beach – a documentary set on California’s backwater Salton Sea, in which her subjects performed their feelings in breakout dance numbers that made clear this was not a filmmaker who was going to stay inside the lines.
She’s since found common cause with Shia LaBeouf, who performed nude in her video for Sigur Rós’s ‘Fjögur Píanó’, produced her second doc LoveTrue – another performative triptych, this time exploring modern conundrums of young love across the US – and wrote and starred (as his own abusive dad) in last year’s autobiographical traumatic-childhood drama Honey Boy. Har’el’s formal flamboyance, it turns out, is a sign of hunger for real feeling. She also made her mark in advertising, not only winning awards but pushing her #FreeTheBid campaign to open doors for female directors.
10. Kirsten Johnson
Selected directing credits: Cameraperson (2016), Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)
The story so far: Cinematographers who become great directors are few and far between, and Johnson – a go-to DP for documentarians including Michael Moore, Laura Poitras and more – has so far directed just one film on which we can judge her. (Her tantalising-sounding second, exploring ideas about death with her now-late father, was about to unspool at Sundance as we went to press).
Cameraperson was one of the revelations of the decade, a weave of repurposed offcuts from her career filming the newsworthy and the vulnerable, mixed with diary footage of her own family, to create a lucid interrogation of the ethics of filming and watching, and an often very moving expression of solidarity across the lens and around the world. On film and in person, Johnson displays an acute filmmaking intelligence, and we hope she’ll keep on surprising and inspiring us.
Dick Johnson Is Dead: resurrections beat the blues
By Hannah McGill
Watching the watchers: how Cameraperson enriches the act of filming
By So Mayer
The myth of authenticity and the limits of access: Under the Sun, Cameraperson and the Kiarostami-esque sublime
By Robert Greene
11. Jennifer Kent
The story so far: “I loved The Babadook – a great horror film,” says Bong. Few would dispute that Kent’s debut was one of the most impactful of the last decade. Rooted in a single mother’s dysfunctional relationship with her turbulent son (Noah Wiseman, giving one of the most chillingly intense performances by a child-actor you’re ever likely to see), the Freudian plot is set in motion by a simple reading of a children’s storybook which unleashes the eponymous supernatural entity.
Kent’s ability to build claustrophobic tension carried over into her next film, The Nightingale, a violent anti-colonial revenge tale set in Australia in 1825 that centred on the relationship between a racist white woman and a Tasmanian Aboriginal man, pitched together by the murder of their respective family members.
12. Oliver Laxe
The story so far: Born in France but brought up in Spain, Laxe is a leading light in the formally inventive filmmaking scene in Galicia, alongside the likes of Eloy Enciso, Lois Patiño and Xacio Baño.
His first two features were shot in Morocco. You All Are Captains is a poised meditation on the filmmaking process starring Laxe himself as a teacher in Tangier to pupils who become his collaborators and guides. His second film, Mimosas, was a cryptic, time-slipping tale set in the Atlas Mountains, where a dying sheikh is being transported to his final resting place.
His latest, Fire Will Come, is arguably his most fully achieved work; it won the Jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes last year and will be released in the UK soon. Laxe’s films invite us to dwell on faith and mysticism through a constant blurring of the lines between fiction and documentary, filmmaker and subject, landscape and figure, interior and exterior, and spiritual and material worlds.
13. Francis Lee
The story so far: After years as an actor, Yorkshireborn Lee made one of the most exciting British feature debuts of the decade, God’s Own Country, about a love affair between a Yorkshire farmer and his Romanian co-worker. Parallels with Brokeback Mountain (2005), were inevitably drawn, but in God’s Own Country the farmers’ sexuality was a welcome non-issue. Instead, Lee puts the spotlight on the issue of freedom of movement in Brexit Britain. As you might expect from an actor, Lee has a knack for drawing out raw and naturalistic performances (this was the film that announced the acting talents of both Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu) but he captures the Yorkshire landscape in all its severe beauty, too.
His next feature, Ammonite (due this year), takes him away from the dales and to the sea; it will be fascinating to see where a queer period love story (starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan) takes him.
“I’m drawn to survivors”: Francis Lee on Ammonite
By Isabel Stevens
“Cinema is my happy place”: Francis Lee celebrates cinemas as community spaces
By Francis Lee
14. Pietro Marcello
The story so far: Marcello began his career with a series of hypnotic, unclassifiable films which collage documentary, fictional elements and archival inserts to create fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narratives. The most beguiling of these was The Mouth of the Wolf, about a prison inmate and his heroin-addict transsexual lover on the outside who share a dream of living together when the convict is released.
Six years later, Lost and Beautiful, a state-of-Italy lament for a lost golden age, pushed docufiction even further, adding mythical dimensions and a commedia dell’arte character to potent effect. Marcello’s most recent film Martin Eden is a bigger-budget affair and one of the best films of the last decade – a spellbinding adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel about the formation of an impoverished writer, relocated to mid-century Naples, that complicates and deepens its ostensibly fictional register with uncanny insertions of archive footage. It’ll be released later this year in the UK.
The story so far: It’s not easy to wring new ways of seeing out of a well-trodden genre such as the coming-of-age film, but Mitchell’s debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, managed just such a reinvigoration. It focuses on the last weekend of summer as experienced by Michigan teens grappling with their unruly desires as they do the rounds of parties and sleepovers. The film had charm in abundance, part of which was down to its gentleness, its off-kilter, low-key atmosphere and its casting of unknowns.
Mitchell’s follow-up was a surprise, a sidestep into horror that tapped into primal anxieties through its story of a curse that gets passed on through consensual sex: It Follows became an instant cult classic.
Under the Silver Lake switched into yet another genre – this time a labyrinthine film noir which received a more mixed critical response. What genre Mitchell will turn his attention to next is anyone’s guess, but we look forward to finding out.
16. Jordan Peele
The story so far: As one half of the comedy double act Key & Peele, Peele had already proved that he was capable of writing sketches that cut deep into issues of the day with an intelligence matched by their anger and their hilarity. Still, Get Out was something else – a brilliant “social thriller”, as Peele himself classed it, that addressed the pervasive racism in a supposedly more liberal era with a lacerating clarity. Last year’s Us again spoke to our times as few other films have.
With his company Monkeypaw Productions, Peele is also having a decisive influence on diversity in the industry – in cinema, with productions including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Nia DaCosta’s forthcoming Candyman remake, and on television, with the forthcoming Lovecraft Country and Peele’s rebooting of The Twilight Zone. One imagines that the pioneering creator of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, would have recognised in Peele a kindred spirit.
17. Jennifer Reeder
Selected directing credits: Accidents at Home and How They Happen (2008), Signature Move (2017), Knives and Skin (2019)
The story so far: A crossover artist and filmmaker who’s been ploughing the furrow of post-punk riot grrrl feminism since the mid-90s, Reeder has 40-plus films to her credit, most of them shorts. Her 1995 White Trash Girl video series conjured her as a flushed-away orphan superhero who turned her toxic inheritance back on the patriarchy in her Ohio backyard.
She’s been reclaiming the world – stories, bodies, music – for non-cookie-cutter young women ever since. Her stylised but stark films began to land at festivals with increasing regularity over the past decade – A Million Miles Away (2014) and Blood Below the Skin (2015) were back-to-back winners at Encounters, the UK’s foremost shorts festival.
While she hasn’t turned away from that form (she’s made another six since), she’s also stepped into features, with the cross-cultural lesbian wrestling romance Signature Move and last year’s Knives and Skin, a post-Twin Peaks teen murder mystery. She looks unstoppable.
18. Alice Rohrwacher
The story so far: Rohrwacher’s mysterious, dreamy coming-of-age tale Corpo Celeste contains the hallmarks of her cinema: a mix of magic realism and neorealism, innocent characters butting up against corrupt behemoths, and a mesmerising depiction of the everyday world in Hélène Louvart’s 16mm cinematography.
Her next two features felt even more like fairytales. The Wonders (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes) stars her sister Alba Rohrwacher as the mother of an off-grid beekeeper family whose bonds start to splinter when one of the daughters stars on a reality TV show. Happy as Lazzaro further probes the rift between agrarian and modern life, and contains one of the most dazzling twists – and tracking shots – in recent memory.
19. Yoon Gaeun
Selected directing credits: Proof (2010, short), Guest (2011, short), Sprout (2013, short), The World of Us (2016), The House of Us (2019)
The story so far: One of the most exciting of a new generation of female filmmakers in Korea, Yoon’s work has been characterised by its intimate, insightful observations about the lives of children and adolescents – a subject Yoon has pursued outside her filmmaking too, as a lecturer at film clubs in schools in Seoul, and as an educator with the Korean Film Museum. International recognition came in 2011 when Guest became the first Asian film ever to win the Grand Prix at the Clermont-Ferrand short film festival; then in 2013 Sprout took the Best Short Film Award at Berlin.
Her first feature, The World of Us, entered the world of a vulnerable, lonely ten-year-old girl, with great empathy. The follow-up last year, The House of Us, focused on three 12-year-old friends over one summer, drawing similarly wonderful performances from her child actors.
20. Chloé Zhao
The story so far: This will be the year that Chloé Zhao breaks out of the arthouse. With her Marvel movie The Eternals she joins Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler in the ranks of indie directors who have made the leap to directing comic-book franchise films. This tale of immortal superheroes battling each other couldn’t be more different from her work to date, about young people leading precarious lives in Trump’s heartland, all shot with skeletal crews and nonprofessional actors.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a melancholic study of life on a Native American reserve in South Dakota, but also an affecting portrait of a boy dreaming of escape but not wanting to abandon his sister. Her second feature, The Rider, about a rodeo rider named Brady (played by real-life horse wrangler Brady Jandreau) who suffers a debilitating head injury, took her back to the reservation. Authenticity and intimacy are the backbone of both films.
Zhao’s Nomadland will likely surface this year too – a story of the underbelly of the American West in the form of a road movie, starring Frances McDormand as a van-dwelling nomad who loses everything in the 2008 recession.
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Originally published: 25 February 2020