2016 is only halfway done, and it’s already proven to be one for the cinematic history books. Giant sequels (Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War) and original films (Zootopia, The Witch) both have either exploded profitability or charted new courses for their respective genres to take – or both. Deadpool has given birth to a whole new subset of that most lucrative type of film, the superhero blockbuster, while 10 Cloverfield Lane sketched out a (slightly) new way to unfurl sequels – and that doesn’t even begin to take into consideration what the year’s remaining entries, such as Doctor Strange, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Assassin’s Creed, can do for post-modern storytelling.
Such movies bring along with them another, even bigger element: their directors. Once a filmmaker, whether an excitable first-timer or an established name, makes his bona fides with the mainstream culture, the sky is potentially the limit, heralding stellar careers that can continue to dazzle audiences and push the cinematic envelope for decades to come.
Here are our best guesses as to which helmers will use this year as a launch pad to even greater and grander endeavors – call them the 15 Hottest Directors of 2016.
15 Nate Parker
Movie: The Birth of a Nation
Release date: October 7
Nate Parker may not be a new name for most filmgoers – he’s been acting for the past 12 years, starting with the television series Cold Case and progressing to such films as The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Red Tails (2012) – but The Birth of a Nation marks his first turn behind the camera as director. It also marks something of a passion project for Parker – in addition to serving as writer, director, producer, and star, he also began the whole endeavor with money out of his own pocket, ultimately leading to its appearance (and financially lucrative performance, in terms of a distribution deal) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The film is a thematic and cultural inversion of the original, 1915 Birth of a Nation, which depicted African Americans as a scourge on society and the Ku Klux Klan as America’s saviors: this rendition follows Nat Turner, a slave who is taught to read – and then preach – by his master. The education and subsequent national religious tour backfire, however, leading Turner to head up a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
14 Tate Taylor
Movie: The Girl on the Train
Release date: October 7
The Girl on the Train is a thriller based upon the 2015 novel, written by Paula Hawkins. It follows a young woman, Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), who creates a perfect dream life for a couple she passes on the train every day to work – and then is distraught when she discovers that the girl, Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), goes missing one morning. Even worse: Rachel herself awakens hungover and injured, unable to remember the night before.
The movie marks something of a departure for Tate Taylor (another actor-turned-director), as his previous work includes such entries as The Help (2011) and Get on Up (2014), period films with a heavy emphasis on drama (the latter of which doubling as a biopic of James Brown, who is portrayed by Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman). The Girl on the Train, given its literary pedigree and ensemble cast, could mark the point at which Taylor transitions into the mainstream.
13 Damien Chazelle
Movie: La La Land
Release date: December 2
Despite his incredibly short filmography (which consists of just two films since 2009), Damien Chazelle is already something of a critical darling, having helmed the lauded indie picture Whiplash (2014) and having written this year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (a film which he was also initially supposed to direct, until funding was secured for his pet project, Whiplash).
La La Land looks to continue this trend (though it should also continue his streak of non-commercially-performing releases, as well, unfortunately). Another musical, like Chazelle’s directorial debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), La La Land follows a young couple – a waitress (Emma Stone) and a jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) – who are scraping by as they attempt to realize their artistic dreams (which are being an actress and musical god, respectively). Success eventually arrives, and with it, of course, comes disillusionment and divorce (figuratively, not necessarily literally).
12 John Musker and Ron Clements
Release date: November 23
John Musker and Ron Clements are a dynamic duo that have been working together in one form or another since 1981, when Clements was the supervising animator on The Fox and the Hound and Musker was a character animator on his team. The two would go on to direct The Little Mermaid (1989) together, which would not only become a hallmark in animation, but which would also single-handedly give Walt Disney Animation Studios a new lease on life.
Following their directorial duties on everything from Aladdin (1992) to The Princess and the Frog (2009), Moana serves as their first foray into the world of CG animation. It also comes in a year when Disney has seen unbelievable success, particularly on the animated front with both Zootopia and, of course, Finding Dory. Whether the original story (that is to say, it’s neither a sequel nor an adaptation) can hold a financial candle to 2016’s heavy hitters or Clements and Musker’s previous works is very much an open question – but if it can, expect to see much greater things from the veteran animators.
11 Justin Kurzel
Movie: Assassin’s Creed
Release date: December 21
Justin Kurzel is a relatively new name to Americans – his first domestic picture, the stylish Macbeth, only released last December. And he’s even something of a newcomer in his native Australia, having arrived on its scene just five years ago, with Snowtown.
But expect all that to change this Christmas, when the long-awaited Assassin’s Creed hits theaters. This film could potentially break all sorts of new molds, including the dreaded videogame-adaptation curse (not even the mighty Warcraft  could make much of a dent at the box office) and, even, represent something of a next step for the shared cinematic universe paradigm, as the movie is an original story meant to build on the games’ mythology instead of simply retelling it. Developer Ubisoft is obviously keen on having this experiment prove successful, as it already has its own film production studio in place.
10 Dan Trachtenberg
Movie: 10 Cloverfield Lane
Release date: March 11
10 Cloverfield Lane is a weird beast, a slight combination of Cloverfield creepiness or moodiness and a walloping helping of original horror storytelling. It is by no means a standard-bearer for the still-nascent Cloverfield franchise, but it is nonetheless a superb start for what looks to be a promising career for Dan Trachtenberg.
Yes, that’s right – 10 Cloverfield Lane is the directorial debut for young Trachtenberg, an individual who had actually been involved on both sides of the Hollywood divide before getting the opportunity to helm his own “big budget” film: he was a podcast host (such as The Totally Rad Show) as well as a commercial director (he’s worked for Coca-Cola and Nike, among others) and, even the director of the fan-made short Portal: No Escape, based upon Valve’s legendary video game series. Given the strength and reception of Cloverfield Lane – as well as the promise of his other, non-film work – we’re expecting to see a lot more of Trachtenberg over the course of the next few years.
9 Jaume Collet-Serra
Movie: The Shallows
Release date: June 24
The Shallows is a worthy successor in this regard, though its short running time and emphasis of atmosphere and scares over character development leaves something to be desired. But think of this as more a recipe for potential course corrections than a stinging rebuke, and be prepared to see even more polished actioners from Collet-Serra as the decade continues to unspool. Even better, the Spanish director has founded his own production house, Ombra Films, with the intent of giving other up-and-coming Spanish directors a platform from which to launch into Hollywood.
Yes, sir – the cinematic future looks much brighter with Collet-Serra around.
8 Morten Tyldum
Release date: December 21
Morten Tyldum isn’t anywhere near a household name, but his last film, The Imitation Game (2014) – something of a biopic of Alan Turing, the famous cryptanalyst who helped the United Kingdom emerge victorious from World War II – certain became one, starring the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and going to make a nice little profit off of its meager budget.
Passengers looks to build on this success and, potentially, blow it wide open. Featuring Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) and an intriguing premise – two astronauts awaken from their hibernation pods three decades early on their 120-year voyage to a far-flung colony and, as such, are forced to deal with one another, along with their situation – the sci-fi film could be a considerable sleeper hit, at the least, or something of a follow-up to Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Interstellar, at the most.
7 Peter Berg
Movie: Deepwater Horizon
Release date: September 30
Deepwater Horizon is exactly what it sounds like – a retelling of the massive 2010 oil leak that resulted from an explosion aboard the real-life Deepwater Horizon mobile offshore drilling unit, which was stationed not far off the coast of Louisiana (where the film was largely shot, incidentally). When combined with the likes of Patriots’ Day (which will see limited release this December before going wide early next year), a filmic account of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, it marks something of a new bent for long-time director Peter Berg.
Though such a statement might be selling the venerable filmmaker short: across his 19-year directing career, he has helmed everything from Friday Night Lights (2004) (both the movie and TV incarnations), Hancock (2008), and Battleship (2012) to Lone Survivor (2013). That’s quite the impressive resume, and we’re expecting even better, bigger, and more different stories from Berg moving forward.
6 David Ayer
Movie: Suicide Squad
Release date: August 5
Given David Ayer’s service in the Navy as a submarine sailor, it’s unsurprising that the vast bulk of his film work, whether as a writer or as a director, has revolved around the military; everything from U-571 (2000) to Training Day (2001) to SWAT (2003), and even Harsh Times (2005) and End of Watch (2012), deals with active-duty or former servicemen, and typically how these military experiences inform their civilian pasts, presents, and futures.
Neither is it surprising that Ayer would be selected by Warner Bros. to tackle Suicide Squad, both the riskiest and, arguably, most important release in the DC Extended Universe; following a group of supervillains who are coerced into forming a type of paramilitary unit that is both utterly dangerous and expendable, this entirely different take on the superhero genre can redeem the questionable box office performance of Batman v Superman and chart a whole new course for comic book adaptations, more broadly speaking.
5 Robert Eggers
Movie: The Witch
Release date: February 19
Robert Eggers seemingly appeared out of nowhere with a low-budget horror film that ended up screening extremely well at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival – so well, in fact, that Hollywood not only scooped up the movie fairly quickly, it also decided to go with a wide release. The move paid off, with The Witch netting $40 million against its $1 million budget – though not the sort of blockbuster money that, say, Captain America: Civil War amasses, its profit margin is the stuff of filmmaking legend.
Given the slow-burn, psychological pressure cooker that Eggers’s debut movie proved to be, his is a style and a tenor that gets us extremely excited, especially considering that big-budget superhero extravaganzas continue to clog movie theaters, making the quieter, quirkier films harder to come by. And given that the fledgling director has already lined up a remake of the classic Nosferatu, we’re both delighted at the direction he’s continuing to take and excited for what he will continue to produce, years and years from now.
4 Scott Derrickson
Movie: Doctor Strange
Release date: November 4
Even though the picture will be the 14th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange contains a lot of firsts for the meta-franchise, including the the introduction of the supernatural and magical and a visual style that’s vintage 60s psychedelia. The film promises to turn the MCU, specifically, and comic book adaptations, generally, on their heads, and to inject a whole new set of life into a library of films that might otherwise be starting to grow a bit stale with the average moviegoer.
That Scott Derrickson would be behind such a move is both surprising and understandable. The director got a (slow) start in horror cinema, bringing such films as Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) to bear before jumping to the sci-fi remake The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) (and then jumping back to horror for the next several years). Through his entire filmography, Derrickson has striven for even the slightest of original slants on even well-trodden material, and in delivering a certain level of emotional authenticity to the material and characters both. While not all of the finished products are flawless, they present a yearning for insight and quality that means that, once mainstream audiences discover him with Strange, his career can really take off.
3 Gareth Edwards
Movie: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Release date: December 16
Although Gareth Edwards first garnered attention and acclaim for his 2010 independent feature Monsters, it wouldn’t be until four years later that he became a mainstream player with the (second) American remake of Godzilla. The film blended character, action, and, of course, visual effects so well, it instantly grabbed the attention of Lucasfilm, which was only too happy to scoop him up for the first-ever Star Wars “Anthology” film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
It’s no understatement to claim that most of the venerable franchise’s future rests in Edwards’s hands; although there are only a finite number of sequels in the main SW narrative that can be produced (just how many generations of Skywalkers can turn to the dark side only to redeem the galaxy?), the so-called “Anthologies” can literally go on forever, exploring every last nook and cranny across several thousand years. Even though Edwards’s filmography is short, we’re happy that he was selected to serve as the tone-setter – and we’re even more excited to see what he’ll tackle afterwards.
2 Tim Miller
Release date: February 12
What can be said about Deadpool that hasn’t been said already? Let’s just settle for this: it managed to inject new life into the superhero genre that has already resulted in vast dividends (both a sequel and future R-rated comic book films have already been announced) and which made the movie a vast success (its $781 million worldwide gross is only $92 million less than the much-mightier Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – and on a meager $58 million budget, to boot).
It’s no surprise that such a picture was helmed by Tim Miller. Even though Deadpool served as his directorial debut, he’s been involved with a number of Hollywood projects for the past 21 years, working in visual effects (he actually co-founded his own VFX company, Blur Studio) and animation before moving up to a second-unit director (including on the opening sequence of Thor: The Dark World ); over all this time, he’s more than crafted his own unique voice and take on whatever source material he’s working on.
It’s no exaggeration to say that 2016 could very well end up being remembered as the year of Tim Miller.
1 James Wan
Movie: The Conjuring 2
Release date: June 10
James Wan is easily one of the hottest names in Hollywood so far this century, forget this year; after originating the perennially popular Saw franchise (an eighth installment was recently announced for next year), he went on to create a new series in Insidious and has dipped his toe in big-budget action properties in the form of Furious 7 (2015) and the upcoming Aquaman (2018).
But it’s The Conjuring where Wan seems to be the most red-hot right now; with the original 2013 film having won many accolades for its throwback horror sensibilities and with The Conjuring 2 attaining much critical and commercial success both (there’s even a spinoff in the works!), this is one horror franchise that may become just as hallowed as Saw and one of the most influential new overall properties of the 21st century.
Is there a burning-hot director we’ve missed? Do you think there’s someone more appropriate for the top spot than James Wan? Be sure to throw in your two cents in the comments.