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10 Most Influential Filmmakers of the 2010s

These filmmakers made waves in the past decade — for better or worse.

This past decade as been a whilrwind for the film industry. With a lack of diversity beginning to be acknowledged, things are starting to change. New stories are being told, and the current socio-political climate has created some well founded anger in those stories. It’s impossible to know for sure, but the 2010s may be the decade that film scholars look back on as the one that filmmakers decided to take on issues of class division, race relations, and tapped into copious amounts of childhood nostalgia. Here are some of the filmmakers that made the biggest impact in the past decade, and why their respective impacts are positive or not.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller

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Who would have thought that two dudes working exclusively with major studio IP would have one of the most distinct cinematic voices of the 2010s? None of their films should have been as good as they were — a reboot of a forgotten television series (21 Jump Street), a movie based on a children’s toy brand (The Lego Movie), and a multiverse-introducing animated film (Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse). Yet, Phil Lord and Chris Miller managed to spin these horrible-on-paper ideas into cinematic gold every single time. And as if that’s not enough, they managed to make sequels to three of their films that still felt as fresh a second time around.

For better or for worse? Lord and Miller have created a new type of tentpole film that is self-aware and funny while having a tremendous amount of heart. Pale imitators like The Emoji Movie and Baywatch have been spawned due to this, so the argument could definitely be made for worse. However, when they’ve managed to craft three of the finest films of the decade — Spider-Verse being the best of the batch — their influence is undeniably for the better.

Ryan Coogler

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From Fruitvale Station to Creed to the record-breaking blockbuster Black Panther, Ryan Coogler has become a name synonymous with good filmmaking. He’s only directed three films, but they have endless style and rich themes involving overlooked cultures and the struggles people of color face. His work has consistently created conversation around racial issues, and has also lent frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan opportunity for great performances.

For better or for worse? There’s no denying that we need more diverse voices in cinema, and when it comes to quality, Coogler has proven that he can deliver the goods. When Black Panther became the first comic book film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, it was a sign that the cinematic landscape is shifting. Coogler’s influence on cinema is obviously for the better.

Robert Eggers

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I hate period pieces, so I skipped Robert Eggers’ The Witch when it came to a theater near me, a decision I instantly regretted upon watching it on Netflix. His new film, The Lighthouse, which is also a period-horror flick, has not come anywhere near me (damn Midwest), but has been making a lot of waves in the horror community. Eggers is in the business of making daring, unconventional, and meticulously crafted horror films, and from what I can tell, it pays off.

For better or for worse? Even if you don’t watch horror films, the trailer style of The Witch has been aped by every studio since, the most recent example being the upcoming Gretel and Hansel, which looks…pretty similar to the aforementioned film. Eggers’ debut is one of the films that initially put indie studio A24 on the map, and the studio has been getting a lot of attention, despite making low to mid-budget films. I’d say Eggers’ influence is for the better, even with the cheap copycat films.

David Fincher

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I suppose that Alan Sorkin could go into this slot just as easily, because the reason I included Fincher on this list is his 2010 film The Social Network. Directing an airtight screenplay by Sorkin, Fincher took what could have been a boring legal drama and turned it into a tense, engrossing thriller. All about the nerd that created Facebook. It was prophetic, in a decade that saw many films surrounding flawed protagonists getting rich by screwing over others. Class warfare remains a huge issue as we enter 2020, and The Social Network was a film that helped spark that conversation.

For better or for worse? The reach of Fincher’s work goes beyond the themes of wealth disparity. The moody, electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross was groundbreaking at the time, deservingly winning Best Original Score at the Oscars that year and sparking many imitators. In a decade far removed from mafia films, The Social Network felt like the modern age equivalent of Goodfellas. And like the latter film, it sparked a lot of discussion. Therefore, Fincher’s influence falls under my “for the better” category.

J.J. Abrams

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Boy, it’s clear that Abrams likes Spielberg, isn’t it? And lens flares. And space. Seriously, would Stranger Things exist without Abrams’ 80s-inspired films? From his Star Trek movies, to Super 8, to his two contributions to Star Wars, Abrams has been digging up our nostalgia for an entire decade. While his ideas don’t necessary bring anything new to the table (he’s more like a really good Spielberg cover band), there’s no denying that he reminded an entire generation that they still love the glory days of family science-fiction. Nostalgia is one hell of a drug.

For better or for worse? Look, I love what Abrams has done, because I grew up on the movies that he so lovingly steals from — er, I mean, pays “homage.” Therefore, I’m personally inclined to say that his influence is good. However, the argument could be (and probably should be) made that Abrams’ work has contributed to the glut of hollow nostalgia grabs currently plaguing the box office. So let’s call this one a draw and move on, shall we?

Taika Waititi

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From the opening scene of What We Do in the Shadows, I knew I was watching something special. Waititi and his friend Jermaine Clement crafted a vampire comedy that managed to be funny and clever, giving a new shot of life into the arm of a genre that Twilight had threatened to destroy. Moving forward, he also gave the Thor franchise a much needed revival with the exuberant Thor: Ragnarok, giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe one of its best entries. He also wrote an early draft of Disney’s excellent Moana, bringing diversity to a genre largely dominated by white princesses. He cashed his studio chips in for the anti-hate satire JoJo Rabbit this year, garnering awards season buzz for the divisive film.

For better or for worse? There’s no denying that Waititi has his own unimitable style of filmmaking. But What We Do in the Shadows lives on as a television show on FX. Moana is one of Disney’s best animated features, bringing an actually independent female protagonist front and center — and one of color, to boot. Without his contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, their epic two-part Avengers films wouldn’t have the impact that they did. Waititi has put in some seriously great work in the past ten years, crafting some of the funniest — and sweetest — cinematic moments of the decade.

Ava DuVernay

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With determination and a powerful voice, Ava DuVernay has been toiling away this decade. Her 2014 film Selma made her the first African-American female to be nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes. It’s Best Picture nomination at the Oscars was also the first time for a film directed by a black woman. Using that clout, DuVernay landed a job directing Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, becoming the first black woman to direct a movie with a nine-digit budget. It’s unfortunate that the film didn’t fare well critically or commercially, but DuVernay didn’t let that get her down. Later, she went on to create, co-write, and direct the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which premiered to critical acclaim.

For better or for worse? Is there really any question here? DuVernay has cut a path for women of color in Hollywood, one that hopefully helps diversify the voices behind the industry. She doesn’t take her platform lightly, and makes sure that she uses it to give voice to the oppressed and downtrodden (see her documentary 13th). DuVernay is working tirelessly, and we need more filmmakers like her behind the camera. She’s inarguably changed the film industry for the better, and I take umbridge with anyone that disagrees.

Jordan Peele

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Graduating from Comedy Central and jumping into the horror genre, Jordan Peele blew the public’s collective minds with his feature film debut. A humorous yet terrifying takedown of racial issues and the micro-agressions African Americans get even among liberal “woke” types, Get Out was the conversation starter of 2017. After taking on racial issues, Peele followed it up with Us, a film which still had a lot to say, but mostly settled for scaring the pants of the audience. Peele’s casting of a black family in a story where race didn’t necessarily play a big role was inspired, and a great step forward for representation onscreen.

For better or for worse? Peele not only settled for proving his masterful filmmaking skills twice, but he also started a production company that takes pitches from the general public. He’s been a champion of diversity, lifting up voices that he feels need to be heard, and producing films and television that push boundaries and move the industry forward. From comedian to auteur, Peele has made a positive impact on the film industry.

Adam McKay

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You know that guy who made Anchorman 2? Yeah, he’s on this list for a reason. He’s also the guy that directed The Big Short, an Oscar-winner about the housing bubble caused by the 2007 financial crisis and the dudes that got rich because they saw what was coming. Even before that, he made The Other Guys, a send up of buddy cops that, instead of focusing on violent crime, focused on the rich skimming money off of police pensions. Just last year, he made Vice, a dark comedy about the crimes of former VP Dick Cheney. Simply put, Adam McKay has moved away from the goofy comedies that he and Will Ferrell collaborated on. He’s now a “serious director” who makes films about the wealthy and corrupt, and to say his films are divisive would be an understatement.

For better or for worse? With two Oscar-winners under his belt, McKay has officially joined the “prestige filmmakers” club. Expect his next film to be an awards contender; that’s just how it works. Be on the lookout for more screwball comedy directors trying their hands at “serious filmmaking” in the upcoming years, especially after Peter Farrelly won a Best Picture Oscar for his role-reversed Driving Ms. Daisy. Despite that outcome being less than desirable, I loved Vice, and The Big Short, and The Other Guys, and I hope that McKay continues to take the piss out of corrupt elites. His influence is positive, even if a handful of the consequences aren’t.

Kevin Feige

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The only person on this list that didn’t direct a film in the past decade, Kevin Feige is nonetheless the person who has perhaps had the most conspicuous impact on the film industry this decade. As the mastermind behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Feige brought comic book movies to the forefront of the public consciousness and created a multi-billion dollar franchise in the process. His episodic approach to filmmaking has been attempted by many studios and producers, but no one has succeeded in replicating his success. Now that the MCU brand is an automatic audience seal of approval, Feige has started diversifying his casts and crews in new and exciting ways.

For better or for worse? The Marvel Cinematic Universe has definitely had more hits than misses recently, and the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame proves that audiences love what Feige is doing. That being said, one singular person running the show tends to make some of the Marvel movies seem homogenic. And studios trying to replicate the success of Feige’s studio have rushed to get the job done, ignoring exactly what made Feige’s formula work so well. The glut of superhero films also tend to edge out smaller, filmmaker-driven cinema. The opening week of Endgame, theaters cut the number of screenings for everything else, damaging the chances of any competition to succeed. I get that it’s a supply and demand issue, and these movies bring myself and other comic-lovers so much joy, but it’s hard to ignore the ramifications of Feige’s MCU on the wider industry. That being said, the fact that Feige is now using his influence to bring more diversity to his blockbuster franchise says a lot. I mean, who else is excited to see Kumail Nanjiani as a superhero?! I’m very split. Feige is either a saint or the devil.

In Conclusion…

There were a lot of drastic changes, both good and bad, to the film industry this year. While most of these filmmakers that made the list had a somewhat positive influence on the industry at large, there are some trends that spell doom for small studio films (looking at you, Disney). Of course, we probably won’t know for sure what all of the long term effects of these filmmakers are for another decade or so. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how these filmmakers continue to push boundaries in the upcoming decade.

A film critic with a taste for genre fare, living in Sioux Falls, SD. If you love movies, we’ll get along just fine.

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