Pedro Almodovar (Spain) – Almodovar has long been a staple of world cinema, with his classic ’80s films like Matador and Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. His films can be grouped into two broad categories: his more controversial work of the ’80s, and everything post-Live Flesh (1997).
Joon-ho Bong (South Korea) – Bong’s appeal lies in his ability to create works that are sincere, campy, and scary all at the same time. His latest film, Mother (2009), is a classic reworking of Hitchcockien suspense, and includes an allusion to the classic closet scene in Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
Alfonso Cuarón (Mexico) — Cuarón is interesting because he directs successful mainstream films like Children of Men that are undeniably also serious works.
Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (Belgium) – The Dardenne brothers’ simple, stripped-down style of filmmaking has consistently won over critics and the juries of high-profile festivals. They seem to combine a kind of Italian neo-realist aesthetic with the style of Robert Bresson. Their films include: Rosetta, The Son, L’Enfant, and The Silence of Lorna.
Claire Denis (France) — Denis is unquestionably one of the world’s leading filmmakers. Her last film, White Material (2010) continues her interest in colonial and post-colonial Francophone Africa (she was born there) and manages to be topical, socially and politically relevant, and aesthetically compelling all at the same time. Sometimes she is considered one of the “transcendental” filmmakers in that many of her films (Beau Travail and The Intruder being the two best examples) are relentlessly enigmatic and oblique and rely far more on images and sounds than on dialogue.
David Fincher (US) – Fincher might not be the most idiosyncratic or singular voice in current cinema, but he makes entertaining and rich mainstream films like Zodiac and The Social Network.
Michael Haneke (Austria, Germany, France) – Haneke, like Denis, is one of Europe’s leading directors, and like Denis he’s capable of making social and moral commentary through highly enigmatic and oblique films. Recently, The White Ribbon has brought him a lot of attention, but earlier films like Code Unknown (2001) and The Time of the Wolf (2003) are complex, rich statements on racism, immigration, cruelty, and in general, human nature.
Werner Herzog (Germany, US) – Unlike the two other prominent figures of Germany’s New Wave (Wim Wenders, whose films have declined in quality, and Rainer Warner Fassbinder, who died), Herzog has continually put out both fascinating documentaries and narrative films. Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, What have Ye Done?, his colloboration with David Lynch, were two of the best films of 2009.
Hsiao-hsien Hou (Taiwan, France) – Perhaps most famous for his French-Chinese co-production The Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou is one of Asia’s leading filmmakers and a disciple of Ozu, who makes cerebral, understated films with long takes and musical scores that lull the viewer into a kind of trance.
Shohei Imamura (Japan) — Imamura is one of the few directors in the history of cinema to win two Palm d’Ors at Cannes, for The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and The Eel (1997). His films show a dark, twisted, and sometimes comical view of contemporary Japan.
Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexico) – Iñárritu is known for his episodic way of telling typically heavy, depressing stories. His latest film, Biutiful, is relentlessly bleak and I cried at least 50% of the time, in part because its story is tragic, and in part because of the sheer beauty of its images, sounds, and music.
Kazuo Hara (Japan) – Hara is easily one of the most interesting documentary filmmakers out there. In his intensely personal films, Hara plays a role in the actions he documents to an extent that one questions his ethics as a documentarian. His most startling film is surely The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), which follows a violent, aging anarchist and convicted murderer investigating war crimes he witnessed during WWII.
Wong Kar-Wai (China) – Wai is a staple of world cinema, and his films consistently receive widespread acclaim. 2001’s In the Mood for Love is generally considered one of the best film’s of the last decade.
Lodge Kerrigan (US) – Kerrigan makes little-known films about people going insane. 2004’s Keane follows a middle-aged man adrift in New York as he slowly unravels while looking for his young daughter who he supposedly lost at a Port Authority Bus stop. Kerrigan films with a stripped-down, documentary style, and the viewer feels so intimately close to the events on screen that a palpable discomfort is created.
Abbas Kiarostami (Iran, France) – Right up there with Denis and Haneke in terms of his worldwide acclaim, Kiarostami’s films are all incredibly clever, self-reflexive meditations on the nature of art and cinema. In his latest, Certified Copy (2010), a man and woman pretend throughout the whole film that they know each other and have been married for 15 years. The lie is kept up so well that we begin to question whether it’s a lie at all, the ultimate conclusion being that it makes no difference; the emotional resonance is the same either way.
Takashi “Beat” Kitano (Japan) – Kitano is one of Japan’s most popular celebrities, and he’s achieved success as a writer, actor (in film and television), and director. His films, such as Kikujiro or Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman aren’t heavy or serious like so many Japanese films that receive acclaim from the West, but instead have an off-beat, irreverent kind of quality to them.
Hirokazu Koreeda (Japan) – Koreeda is yet another disciple of the legendary Yasujiro Ozu. His sombre, poetic films consistently explore themes of loss, abandonment, absence, and death.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Japan) – Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) is one of the original directors to popularize “J-horror,” but his body of work shows that he’s no mere genre director, but that rather he sometimes works within genre to explore wider issues. My personal favorite is Cure from 1997, a metaphysical take on the serial killer genre about a man who uses hypnotism to reveal the inherent drive toward violence in his “victims,” who all go on to commit murder.
Mike Leigh (United Kingdom) – Leigh’s films typically explore class differences and the tension between people because of these differences. His films avoid, however, being mere social commentary. Leigh is known for bringing incredibly natural, partially improvised performances out of his actors and actresses, and his films are attuned to the subtleties of conversation in a way I’ve never seen before.
Lucrecia Martel (Argentina) – Martel’s films, inspired by the likes of Antonioni and Bunuel, are intense yet subtle critiques of the way class works in South America. In her latest film, The Headless Woman, Martel explores the nature of guilt through her main character, a wealthy, light-skinned dentist who may or may not have ran over a young boy in the street – we never actually find out, and neither does she, because a concussion from the car accident clouds her memory and the film takes on her distorted perspective.
Christopher Nolan (United Kingdom, US) – This is a no brainer. Nolan has gone from directing indie hits like Memento to endlessly entertaining Hollyood thrillers like Insomnia and, of course, the Batman series.
Chan-wook Park (South Korea) – Probably most famous for Oldboy, Chan-wook directs entertaining horror films that transcend their genre by exploring the nature of their brutality and violence.
Cristi Puiu (Romania) – Puiu has only directed one film that is available on DVD – The Death of Mr. Lazarescu – but on the strength of this alone, he definitely is an important, emerging voice in world cinema. Lazarescu is an absurdist comedy about a man obviously suffering from an alarming malady who cannot find medical help because nobody takes him seriously.
Nadir Moknèche (Algeria) – Moknèche, a disciple of Almodovar (he even uses some of the same actresses) directs melodramas and film noirs transplanted to post-colonial Algeria.
Carlos Reygadas (Mexico) — Reygadas’ films notoriously push the limits of what is acceptable to depict in mainstream cinema, and he uses non-professional actors and actresses, often in sexually explicit scenes or scenes of gruesome violence. Reygadas’ films are profoundly indebted to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, with their seemingly endless long takes and their slow pacing.
Bertrand Tavernier (France) — Tavernier can be hit or miss, and much of his work has not received much attention outside of France, but he shows a great affinity for adapting America pop literature, particularly with Clean Slate (1981), which takes the tale of a Texas sheriff and transplants it to Senegal, and more recently, In the Electric Mist (2009), based on the novel by James Lee Burke.
Moufida Tlatli (Tunisia) — Tlatli was the first woman from the Arab world to direct a feature film. The Silences of the Palace tells the tale of a young girl living with her mother in a wealthy Tunisian palace, where they are both essentially enslaved. Tlatli seems to have gone beneath the radar, and we can only hope that she returns to filmmaking.
Lars von Trier (Denmark, US) – Undoubtedly one of the most prominent (and loudest) voices in cinema today, Lars von Trier divides and challenges audiences with his flims. Antichrist was the the big scandal at the 2009 Cannes film fesetival, where some audience members couldn’t handle the graphic violence involving genital mutilation.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand) — Weereasethakul is probably my personal favorite in this list. Coming from an avant-garde tradition, he makes contemplative, cerebral films that fly in the face of convention.
Edward Yang (Taiwan) – The late Edward Yang’s last film was made in 2001, but on the strength of this film alone (the only one available to US audiences), Yi-Yi, he is surely one of the best Asian filmmakers. Yi-Yi, clocking in at around three hours, tells the tale of three different generations of a family.