The Filmmakers Who Defined the Decade in Cinema

Filmmakers That Defined the 2010s header

(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)

I moved to Hollywood ten years ago and have seen from the ground level how the industry has changed, in both tumultuous bursts (the decimation of the mid-budget film, the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements) and more gradual changes (the rise of streaming, the utter domination of Disney). But as tempting as it can be to refer to the film industry in monolithic terms, the truth is that it isn’t a monolith: it’s a collection of individual people, and a handful of those talented folks have made themselves known in a huge way over this past decade. I’d like to take a minute to track some of those directors’ career paths, from virtual unknowns all the way to becoming household names.

These are the filmmakers that defined the 2010s.

Rising Talents to Household Names

When I look back over the movies I loved from the 2010s, my first reaction is not to track the work of Hollywood’s biggest or most popular filmmakers. I don’t immediately think about the paths of accepted industry icons like Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, or Paul Thomas Anderson. It almost goes without saying that those familiar faces did great work, but I’d argue that none of them truly defined this past decade in a way that they had earlier in their careers. (J.J. Abrams had a hell of a decade, though, didn’t he?)

Still, I’m more excited by the newer voices, the ones I didn’t know (or barely knew about) back in 2009 who have cemented their names at or near the top of my personal “I can’t wait to see what they make next” list. It brings me joy to think about seeing even more movies from people like Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women), Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive MeA Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Girlhood, Tomboy), Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Olivia Wilde (Booksmart), Justin Simien (Dear White People), and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land, First Man), just to name a few.

When trying to narrow down the dozens of filmmakers whose work best reflects the trends of the past ten years, a few names kept rising to the top. I think of Barry Jenkins, who burst back onto the scene with the Oscar-winning Moonlight and followed it up with the sensual, powerful, heartbreaking If Beale Street Could Talk (which – hot take – I actually like even more than Moonlight). I think of Denis Villeneuve, who tackled a dazzling breadth of different types of projects, from Incendies to Prisoners to Enemy to Sicario to Arrival and finally Blade Runner 2049. I think of people like Edgar Wright, Rian Johnson, and Quentin Tarantino, whose simultaneous subversion of and embracing of familiar tropes throughout their ongoing top-tier original movies puts them in a class all to themselves. I think of James Wan, who launched his own cinematic universe without the foundation of recognizable intellectual property to build from (and who also slid into two different franchise machines by directing a Fast and Furious movie and an Aquaman film).

The Best Choice Isn’t Always the Right One

More than that, I think of the multi-talented Ava DuVernay, who started in the indie pool with Middle of Nowhere, graduated to an unconventional biopic (Selma), made a must-see Oscar-nominated documentary for a streaming service (13th), became the first black woman to make a movie that earned more than $100 million at the box office (A Wrinkle in Time), produced a hit television show (Queen Sugar), and made one of the most powerful limited series of all time (When They See Us), while also turning down the Black Panther director’s chair because she didn’t like the idea of possibly having to compromise. (Eventually, she was hired to direct a superhero movie for WB and DC instead: The New Gods.)

But while DuVernay’s accomplishments may be what I personally wish had defined the decade, she’s also doesn’t fit quite perfectly enough into the story of the 2010s. There was a larger pattern in the system which played out again and again that needs to be addressed, and I think I’ve narrowed down the two people who best represent that pattern.

The pattern itself should be familiar by now, but it was still novel at the start of this decade: yank a hot indie talent (or a director who’s proven themselves in television) up into a major franchise machine, toss them into the fray, and see what happens. Thanks to inherently flawed systems that have been in place for years, the people given these opportunities were most often white men, and their levels of success in these conditions varied wildly. The list is too long to recap here, but a few examples include Gareth Edwards (Monsters to Godzilla), Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World), and Josh Trank (Chronicle to Fantastic Four); perhaps even Joss Whedon (Serenity to The Avengers) could be counted among them. This trajectory also applies to Ryan Coogler, who began with the indie Fruitvale Station before transitioning to Creed and then eventually moving up to Black Panther. But let’s be real: while access to larger opportunities is getting better for directors of color, it’s been more of a gradual change than an opening of the floodgates.

The Filmmmakers That Defined the 2010s

For me, Anthony and Joe Russo are the most successful examples of this popular trend, and therefore representative of the past decade as a whole. (I could see a case being made for Phil Lord and Chris Miller to appear in this slot, but when you compare the result of Avengers: Endgame with Lord and Miller’s whole Star Wars fiasco, I think the choice is clear – even though I think not making a Star Wars movie may have ultimately been a good thing for them.)

The Russos were indie filmmakers who transitioned to become successful television directors and producers, overseeing two of the best comedies of the decade in Community and Happy Endings. (Don’t forget about their work on Arrested Development before that.) They were plucked from the TV world into the Marvel Studios machine, making four films of increasing size and ambition, culminating with the highest-grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation). They were the “best case scenario” for this trend: two guys who understood how to operate in a producer-driven, IP-first environment which, for better or worse, became a huge part of Hollywood studio filmmaking in the 2010s.

I don’t think anyone would suggest that the Russo Brothers were the best filmmakers of the 2010s (and I say that as someone who loved what they did with Avengers: Endgame), but they were the ones who figured out how to succeed on a huge scale while the landscape was shifting underneath their feet, and ultimately became the emblematic face of a trend which spanned the majority of the decade. I can’t wait to see how the landscape continues to shift over the next ten years and who emerges to adapt to it and succeed within it.

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