25. Wes Anderson
THE EVIDENCE: Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
WHY HIM: The knock on the corduroy-clad boy wonder is that his movies lack heart — that he’s more interested in set-design dioramas than the interior lives of his characters. We say, Baloney! Go back and watch Bill Murray in Rushmore or Gene Hackman in Tenenbaums again. Heck, he even eked emotion out of George Clooney as a stop-action fox. —Chris Nashawaty
23. Spike Lee
THE EVIDENCE: Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), When the Levees Broke (2006)
WHY HIM: A master stylist, Lee has carved out a niche for himself in American cinema as an activist filmmaker dedicated to social commentary as mythology. His masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, with its bold colors and thumping soundtrack, proves racism to be as unendingly cyclical as the phases of the giant moon hanging in the sky when Klansmen attack Malcolm’s family in Malcolm X. And he’s never lost his edge. Case in point: When the Levees Broke, Lee’s apocalyptic elegy to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, a documentary as epic poetry. —Christian Blauvelt
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Jonze had been known for directing visually tricky, pop culture-savvy music videos (Beastie Boys’ ”Sabotage,” Weezer’s ”Buddy Holly”), but in 1999, he broke into features in a big way: as an actor, playing a gung-ho soldier in Three Kings, and as a director, with this wild and sad Charlie Kaufman-scripted fantasy about celebrity, identity, and puppetry.
Jonze and Kaufman reunite for another meta-tale, a meditation on the nature of truth and art that’s also a wickedly funny parody of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep get to show off their versatility, but the film is stolen, aptly enough, by toothless orchid thief Chris Cooper, in his Oscar-winning performance.
10. HAYAO MIYAZAKI
THE EVIDENCE: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1999), Spirited Away (2002), Ponyo (2008)
WHY HIM: Most filmmakers would feel quite content to give audiences at least one thing — a story, a character, a place, an image — that we’ve never seen before. At his best (and he usually is), Miyazaki creates entire film experiences we’ve never seen before. From his films’ lushly tweaked landscapes to the sublimely eccentric creatures who populate them, there’s a reason the man is considered a true animation master by no less than the geniuses at Pixar. — Adam B. Vary
22. J.J. Abrams
THE EVIDENCE: Star Trek (2009), Mission: Impossible III (2006)
WHY HIM: Who else could have revived Star Trek as blockbuster mainstream entertainment? Thanks to Trek — not to mention TV shows like Lost and Fringe and the 2008 monster mash, Cloverfield, which he conceived and produced — Abrams is viewed as Hollywood’s go-to dude for making geek stuff cool and compelling for both genre fans and the masses. His storytelling voice is pure of-the-moment pop, but he also seems (for now) to have a sixth sense for what’s next. Upcoming: the Spielberg-inspired Super 8. —Jeff Jensen
22. Brad Bird
THE EVIDENCE: The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)
WHY HIM: Even in a place as hallowed as Pixar Animation, Bird’s got the Midas touch. After doing the impossible with the old-school toon The Iron Giant — he got us to shed real tears at a movie with Vin Diesel in it — the writer-director hatched a pair of Oscar winners for the CG dream factory. Then he made the leap to live-action — emphasis on the action — and revitalized Tom Cruise’s spy franchise. —Marc Bernardin
Annie Hall (1977)
After several very funny movies in which he directed and played the nebbishy romantic lead, Allen made a more serious, impressionistic romantic comedy-drama — and it was a rambling mess. He saved it in the editing room, cutting an hour and reshuffling the pieces to create this sparkling kaleidoscope about a mismatched New York couple (Allen and Diane Keaton, at their most autobiographical). Allen won Best Director and Best Picture for his first real masterpiece.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Allen not only cast his 1980s girlfriend/muse Mia Farrow as the Earth-mother-y Hannah, who tries to keep dithery sisters Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey grounded, but he also shot much of this delightful, poignant comedy-drama in her sprawling apartment.
Match Point (2005)
After years of hit-or-miss movies, Allen recharged his creative batteries by ditching New York for London and casting Scarlett Johansson as a tempestuous aspiring actress who has the bad luck to fall for an amoral social climber (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who’s already engaged to an heiress. A reworking of Allen’s 1989 drama Crimes and Misdemeanors, the movie is both a suspenseful thriller and a chilling meditation on a universe without justice. —Gary Susman