Much can be said about the cinema of the 2010s, from Oscars drama and the legacy of #MeToo to the dominance of Disney and emergence of streaming platforms in film distribution. The films driving and reacting to these forces are a varied bunch, and the same can be said of its directors. With the little hindsight 2019 offers, it is impossible to adequately quantify or give credit to the innumerable voices that have shaped cinema since 2010.
With that in mind, the ORWAV team have assembled for an in-depth exploration of five favourite directors who have impacted and influenced the decade’s cultural landscape. Whether they have been working since the 1970s or found success within the last five years, the quality, variety, and innovation of these directors’ output has enriched cinematic storytelling, putting their own stamp on a diverse decade.
Taika Waititi by Alex Goldstein
In five films, Taika Waititi rose from quirky auteur to Hollywood power broker (and from the dead in one of them). With his sixth, Jojo Rabbit, he even took on the role of Führer – which, as the man himself observed, was a pointed choice for a Polynesian Jew.
That delight in absurdity is at the core of what makes Waititi such a beloved creative force. His staunch refusal to take anything seriously, ever, emerged early on when he feigned napping during the Oscars (where he was nominated for short film Two Cars, One Night). Some speculate that Jojo Rabbit might be the film to snag him a second nomination, though its advertising campaign was riddled with rumours that Disney execs – who acquired the project along with Fox Searchlight – drew the line at combining Hitler and comedy (perhaps they had never seen The Producers). If true, it is possible they reckoned without Waititi’s knack for tempering irreverence with solid gold heart.
It is hard to imagine any other writer-director getting away with Waititi’s earnestness. Well before Jojo’s bittersweet mix of first love and wartime horror, Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople shone the lens directly on abandonment and loss among the slapstick and hijinks. His surprising entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Ragnarok, completely realigned the Thor franchise from space Othello to something closer to Spaceballs – but still broke hearts. It also added a note of sweetness with kindly Korg, whose innate goodness Waititi unpacked in forensic comedy podcast Good One.
There’s a rich vein of adolescent awkwardness running through Waititi’s work, all of which features either a young lead or a self-centred manchild (often both). Even in What We Do in the Shadows – the hit vampire horror comedy resonant with co-creator Jemaine Clement’s more acerbic humour – Waititi’s own Viago exhibits wide-eyed naivety even while covered in the blood of some unfortunate dinner guest. Incompetent, reluctant or absent fathers are a recurring theme; Boy’s Alamein is among the most devastating, a thick mantle of selfishness keeping his grief at bay and forcing his son to overtake him in maturity.
In truth, women are not always served as well; their characters are often absent as a plot point, or they lack depth – though collaborations with the likes of Loren Horsley help. Waititi regular Rachel House often creates a symphony from what could easily read as a single note on paper; it’s hard to imagine anyone else making so much of a comically misguided child services agent in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Time after time the key female presence is an untouchable older girl on whom the main character has an awkward crush – although with Jojo Rabbit there’s a concerted push to balance this with a richer maternal presence (Scarlett Johansson’s Rosie).
For all this, Waititi has a devoted following among both men and women, and it’s perhaps because his protagonists are generally delusional bumblers, so women are never the punchline. And though his films are unmistakably male-dominated, they’re also steeped in unfiltered emotion. Sentimentality is something he occasionally cops criticism for, but in a world now all too aware of both the meaning of ‘toxic masculinity’ and its consequences, it feels like a much-needed antidote. And there’s that keen eye for the ridiculous adding yet another dimension; others can bottle sweetness with an acid tang (it’s what made Richard Curtis’ Four Weddings and a Funeral an instant classic), but Waititi shakes it up and pulls the cork out with his teeth.
Crucially, that fondness for spraying cruelty with kindness provides an essential release valve after a decade drenched in instant political commentary. His compassionate clowning around won’t lose relevance any time soon – and with a slate so packed things keep falling off it, the best might be yet to come.
James Wan by Katy Moon
At the dawn of 2010, James Wan was in something of a professional doldrum. After 2004’s genre-defining hit Saw, his followups, horror Dead Silence and action drama Death Sentence, were flops – either barely scraping back their budget or failing to recoup it entirely. Little did anyone know that by the decade’s end, he’d join the likes of James Cameron, Peter Jackson and the Russo brothers as one of a handful of directors who could boast not just one but two movies to gross over $1 billion. Starting with 2010’s Insidious, Wan kicked off a wildly successful decade that cemented his status as one of the industry’s most successful directors.
From 2010 to 2014 Wan was primarily known as a purveyor of crowd-pleasing horror, taking miniscule budgets and turning them alchemically into box office gold. With little more than some red face paint and a Tiny Tim record, Wan’s Insidious scared up a mammoth $54 million return on a mere $1.5 million budget. In 2013, he debuted the first of his two Conjuring films to enormous success, introducing audiences to demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren – and, savvily, a whole range of franchise-ready spinoff ghouls. Produced by Wan’s company Atomic Monster Production, critical reactions to Annabelle, The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona have varied, and certainly never reached the heights of his own Conjuring films. But nevertheless, they are a proven hit with audiences. The Conjuring Cinematic Universe has collectively made nearly $2 billion – with not a speck of spandex in sight. But in 2015 a change of pace presented itself.
Swapping ghosts and demons for the increasingly bonkers world of The Fast and the Furious, Wan signed on to direct the franchise’s seventh installment. Juggling a behemoth budget, sky-high fan expectations, the clashing egos of its cast and the tragic death of its star was no mean feat. Nonetheless, Wan delivered one of the series’ most acclaimed and successful instalments to date, as well as a sweet swansong for late star Paul Walker.
Deftly moving from micro-budgeted horror to a blockbuster juggernaut proved Wan’s versatility, and would provide excellent training for the jewel of his decade, 2018’s Aquaman. Aquaman is not simply a kraken-sized blockbuster entrusted to a safe pair of hands. It represented the irresistible chance to build an entire fantasy world from the ground up – a process Wan took to like a drum-playing octopus to water. With dashes of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Romancing the Stone, and even The Fifth Element, Aquaman was unlike anything the director had made before.
Like its eponymous hero, the film is bombastic, fun, and earnest, turning DC’s biggest punchline into one of its most successful heroes. It may have baffled some critics, but it was another hit with audiences – to the tune of $1.148 billion. Aquaman’s unpredictable success means that, as of 2019, Wan is the only director aside from James Cameron to have helmed two billion-dollar movies from different properties.
Over the past decade, Wan has demonstrated an unparalleled understanding of what audiences want from genre pictures – and he shows no sign of slowing down. Over the next couple of years we can expect horrors both new (Malignant, an adaptation of his own graphic novel) and familiar (a fourth Insidious film), plus a likely return to the kingdom of Atlantis for Aquaman 2. Wan’s dominance shows no sign of slowing in the next decade.
Céline Sciamma by Calum Baker
Few filmmakers have had as clear a hit-rate this decade as Céline Sciamma. Even Film Twitter (and film bro) favourites like Nolan, Bong, Del Toro – whomever – have had “lesser works” and outright disasters among their recent gems. In contrast, Sciamma has written-directed three highly worthwhile, near flawless, films and found time to co-write Claude Barras’s animation Ma vie de Courgette, itself distinctive and true.
Tomboy, Sciamma’s 2011 feature debut, established her formidable formal capability and of-the-moment style, as well as her refreshing thematic content – a holy trinity of Good Filmmaking further developed in 2014’s critical smash Girlhood and this year’s potent period masterwork Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Each of these titles have shades of earlier breakthroughs by famous female filmmakers, but to compare Tomboy to Denis or Portrait to Campion does extreme disservice to everybody. Sciamma’s style essentially feels reactive, but to culture and character rather than the weight of film history.
At the same time, Sciamma’s consistent focus on female protagonists (and indeed ensembles) is crucial to her form. Portrait in particular feels like a mature summation of the director’s potent gaze, and her rare eye for gesture. If Girlhood derives appeal from its immersive tactility, Portrait delays this in favour of poise and deliberated composition. This is a film of reflections and rhythms – but, like Girlhood, when Sciamma wants to spill her characters’ emotions she does so with spectacular command of a good musical cue, swerving the cliché of this overused mannerism.
And this works because each film almost refuses to show the hand of its creator. Sciamma conceals herself beneath layers of emotional depth, bringing the viewer in and trapping them alongside her characters. This is rock-solid, psychologically truthful, storytelling, dealing always with the marginalised and unlistened-to. It’s a special kind of artist who can work so timelessly yet feel so moored to a specific moment – and we’re living in Sciamma’s moment.
Marielle Heller by Carmen Paddock
Compared to other entries on this list, Marielle Heller is a relative newcomer. She has only directed three films – all since 2015 – yet the heart she brings to each project and the nonpareil performances she draws from her stars marks her as one of the decade’s most prominent voices. Her projects may not register as exciting or ambitious when compared to the decade’s biggest innovations, but the human connection – often difficult, always kind – that she champions creates an almost radical sympathy that marks itself unique among the cinema of the 2010s.
Heller’s background is in acting: she trained exclusively in performance and worked in theatre and TV extensively before taking her skills behind the camera. Through this lens, her skill with human stories is unsurprising – she revels in the uncomfortable emotions and what remains unsaid and often elicits career-best performances from her cast – many of whom reveal new personas and skills in her hands. Comedy queens/SNL regulars Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are granted gravitas and dignity without losing their sharpness. Richard E. Grant has never been better, and screen legend Tom Hanks finds his best role in years.
Her directorial debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl was a passion project in the best sense of the term. Heller first adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel for the stage in 2010 in a production that she also performed in, and this familiarity with characters, themes, and stylistic choices of the source material are clear in her cinematic translation. The film’s subject matter makes it her least comfortable watch, but her signature warmth is evident in her refusal to pass judgement on Minnie’s often misguided search for love, sex, and independence.
This warmth proves the surprise selling point of Can You Ever Forgive Me. A story about an acerbic writer’s forays on the forgery black market could easily have been salacious, perhaps cruel, but in Heller’s hands it becomes study in loneliness that nonetheless oozes care and kindness for its protagonists, flaws and all. Even though the film was overlooked at the 2019 Academy Awards – its stars deservedly nominated, no one coming home victorious – Can You Ever Forgive Me remains a triumph of storytelling – not to mention one of the most gorgeous, unglamourised recreations of a 1990s New York City winter.
Most recently, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood cements Heller as possibly the only director today to be trusted with a biopic. Through her camera, an American television icon receives neither deification nor desecration: Fred Rogers becomes human through his effect on those around him while Heller celebrates his extraordinary talents without seeking some dark side. As in Teenage Girl, Beautiful Day adheres to the stylings of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, with puppets and song telling the story as much as the central (human) performances. Somehow, the result is more transcendent than twee when contrasted against Matthew Rhys’ cantankerous journalist. With her artistic integrity and the uncompromisingly kind worldview she brings to the most difficult of her characters, Heller’s career will hopefully be bound for new heights in the next decade.
Steven Spielberg by Ben Flanagan
As the monoculture dissipates, no one director defined the decade. Although we may look back at the 2010s through the aesthetic lens of Barry Jenkins, Lena Dunham, and David Fincher, Steven Spielberg’s output provides a perfect representative picture of the tensions and pleasures of contemporary cinema.
Spielberg ended the 2000s on a career low with his fridge-hopping Indiana Jones calamity, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). The prolific director seemed rattled by the new IP-driven filmmaking that he had helped create in the 1980s. He responded by teaming up with Peter Jackson on Tintin (2011), an unwanted IP in the United States that becomes a fascinating exercise in emulating Max Ophuls and the Poetic Realists, framed by a camera unbound by physics. The central, single-take motorcycle chase is a masterclass in action filmmaking: the world melts away under a controlled camera viewpoint that zips around at will.
Spielberg used his tremendous clout to delve into new technologies with rigorous form and invention. The BFG (2016) is perhaps his most benign film but also his most functional. A single shot encompasses several variously sized people, readjusting the frame to shift the scale of the world from moment to moment. Technology is not used to show off but to tell stories more efficiently; Spielberg paves the way by using his blank cheques to refine the grammar of mo-cap filmmaking.
Spielberg’s more traditional films are essential too. The Post’s (2017) lifeless script is miraculously resurrected through delicate, gestural staging. A scene of furniture being moved around a house becomes a riveting study in human behaviour, as performed by Tom Hanks and Sarah Paulson. When Spielberg remains in the real world, the weight of every object is felt. The cold-war drama Bridge of Spies (2015) is his talky plea for diplomacy, coming across like a film by Billy Wilder or Frank Capra. A script punch-up by the Coen Brothers helps to extend the comedy of the film’s exasperating back-and-forth manoeuvres. Its European setting, like Tintin and parts of War Horse (2011), is a nod towards a pre-war style of image making, of meaning communicated through small movements and human expression that defined so much of European cinema in the early sound era.
Their sentimentality is their advantage, even if War Horse, the WWI equine fantasy, couldn’t match the innocent wit of the stage play. That said, it was favoured at the Oscars with 6 nominations. So too was Lincoln (2012), which translated a decade of Tony Kushner’s research through a litany of character performances, with Daniel Day-Lewis rightfully towering over them all as Honest Abe. Its meticulous study of congressional process and racial politics feels more relevant than ever in a decade dominated by the first African-American President, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Donald Trump. Spielberg’s timeless, humanist texts have become an outlier as reactionary films like The Shape of Water (2017), Three Billboards (2017) and Knives Out (2019) rely on topical commentary to make a splash in the shadow of the superhero machine.
Ready Player One (2018), Spielberg’s late decade masterpiece, attempts to confront this. It depicts a world overtaken by a VR game that emulates our lives through pop culture references. The Iron Giant fights alongside Chucky and characters from Overwatch, in a glorious parody of our cultural nostalgia obsession. The sheer exuberance through which the world is rendered comes to a head in the sequence in which the characters enter The Shining and defile it.
Like a Mark Fisher essay, Spielberg argues that cultural time has stopped, and it is decaying the physical space around us. His own cinema is conspicuous by its absence from the film’s discourse. The cultural legacy of Spielberg’s past work became an aesthetic shorthand for dozens of cynical filmmakers to evoke nostalgia, from Stranger Things and the simulacra of J.J. Abrams to the return of Jurassic Park as a world-dominating franchise. In Ready Player One, Spielberg wrestles with this problem, and is unable to solve it.
The 2010s was a decade of early career filmmakers being put at the helm of huge budget films and turning them into glorified TV episodes, Colin Trevorrow and Jon Watts among them. But Spielberg’s films are a case for the value in sustaining the creative scale of a major filmmaker. Scorsese’s films are harder to finance now, while De Palma and Coppola can barely make films at all. Spielberg will enter the 2020s with a Tony Kushner penned West Side Story take. The experiments continue on a grand scale, and we should hold that dear.