1. Gregg Araki
Araki, who is Japanese-American, is a pioneer of the New Queer Cinema movement of the ’90s. He really established his career on the provocations of his “teen apocalypse trilogy,” a trio of movies from the ’90s about sex, violence, and alienation featuring increasingly famous and soon-to-be-famous casts, including Rose McGowan (who’s spoken about her experiences shooting The Doom Generation), Johnathon Schaech, Heather Graham, Christina Applegate, Ryan Phillippe, and Kathleen Robertson. Since, he’s expanded into an examination of the dynamics of a “throuple” (Splendor), a drama about the effects of sexual abuse on a pair of young men (Mysterious Skin), a combination college/end of the world movie (Kaboom), and a thriller and coming-of-age story starring Shailene Woodley (White Bird in a Blizzard).
Where to start: It may not be obviously representative of his career as a whole, but Araki’s 2007 Smiley Face is the best damn pot comedy ever made, and features Anna Faris in her funniest film role.
2. Jon M. Chu
Was Chu’s finest moment when he documented Justin Bieber’s then-iconic bowl cut being shaken out in luxuriant 3D slow motion in 2011’s Justin Bieber: Never Say Never? Or when he sent Moose (Adam G. Sevani) and Camille (Alyson Stoner) shuffling delightfully down the sidewalk to a remixed Frank Sinatra in 2010’s Step Up 3D? Chu’s ascendance to big-studio director has been tied to music and dance since his creation of web series The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. Now the Taiwanese-American filmmaker is trying to bring the same sense of spectacle to magician heist sequels Now You See Me 2 and 3, and after that, he’s been in talks to take on the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians, having promised on Twitter that there will be “amazing Asian actors cast in EVERY SINGLE ROLE.”
Where to start: Chu’s Step Up franchise contributions — he did 2: The Streets and 3D — are a good time, with or without Channing Tatum.
3. Destin Daniel Cretton
Cretton, who is half Japanese, made his feature debut with I Am Not a Hipster, a film about a talented and troubled indie musician living in San Diego, which is not nearly as obnoxious as its title might have you expect. But it’s the 2013 feature Short Term 12 — which the filmmaker adapted from a short film he’d made a few years before — that drew a great amount of attention, thanks to fantastic performances and a deftly drawn story about a group home that offers deep empathy to all of its characters. Next up, Cretton’s due to reunite with his Short Term 12 star Brie Larson for The Glass Castle, an adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ memoir.
Where to start: Short Term 12 showcases Cretton’s eye for talent. In addition to standout acting from Larson (who went on to win an Oscar three years later), the film shines a light on pre–Brooklyn Nine-Nine Stephanie Beatriz, pre–Mr. Robot Rami Malek, and Keith Stanfield in his first feature role.
4. Cary Joji Fukunaga
The Oakland-born, half-Japanese director made his feature debut in Spanish with Sin Nombre, a drama about a Honduran girl (Paulina Gaitán) and a Mexican gang member (Edgar Flores) attempting a dangerous border crossing into the U.S. Fukunaga continued to roam the earth in subsequent films, to England for Jane Eyre with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender; and to Africa for child soldier story Beasts of No Nation, with Idris Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah. But Fukunaga made the biggest splash of his career so far on TV, directing every episode of Season 1 of True Detective, creating the show’s distinctively cinematic look (and rocking some serious man bun while promoting it), and then wisely hopping off before Season 2.
Where to start: Beasts of No Nation, which Fukunaga also shot, turns the visual lushness he brought to True Detective into a dreamlike haze in order to represent how a young boy surrenders to the unanchored, violent life he’s been forced into.
5. Vikram Gandhi
For his 2011 doc Kumaré, Gandhi adopted a heavy Indian accent, invented a mystic persona, and then headed to Arizona to see if he could pass himself off as a guru of Eastern wisdom…despite simply being a regular Indian-American dude from New Jersey. The resulting film is both disturbing and uncomfortable: He finds a group of people who are appallingly willing to follow someone who fits into their idea of what a guru looks like, though at times the film feels exploitative of a vulnerable sliver of the American population. Gandhi’s point is nevertheless a resonant one. Whole portions of the wellness industry sell invented spirituality and bullshit exoticism to unquestioning consumers. Gandhi is now a correspondent for Vice and is finishing up his scripted debut Barry, the second film this year centered on the life of a young Barack Obama (Devon Terrell). For this take on the future POTUS, the feature is set during the time Obama was in college in New York; he befriends a fellow student played by The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy.
Where to start: Kumaré.
6. Joseph Kahn
Korean-American Kahn is better known for music videos than for his films — last year he was all but on call for Taylor Swift, serving behind the camera for “Out of the Woods,” “Wildest Dreams,” and “Bad Blood,” after having helmed “Blank Space” the year before. But Kahn’s made a few ventures into feature films as well. First was Torque in 2004, a motorcycle-centric action flick that feels like a Fast and the Furious spoof, complete with a Saltine-bland lead (Martin Henderson). Then there was Detention, an indescribably odd, tongue-in-cheek 2011 high school horror film starring Josh Hutcherson that Kahn largely funded himself.
Where to start: Detention, though you should also take a gander at Power/Rangers, Kahn’s hilariously dark, unauthorized Mighty Morphin Power Rangers fan film starring James Van Der Beek and Katee Sackhoff. It manages to serve both as a parody of gritty reimaginings and as a fairly convincing audition tape for one.
7. Michael Kang
Kang made what may be the only film set in New York City’s compact, lively Koreatown: West 32nd. The thriller stars John Cho as a lawyer who gets mixed up with a gangster (Jun-seong Kim) after he takes on a pro-bono murder case in which the accused is a 14-year-old boy. The Korean-American filmmaker has made two movies with another Better Luck Tomorrow alum, Sung Kang — in his 2005 debut The Motel, and again in the 2011 Hawaii-set comedy 4 Wedding Planners.
Where to start: The Motel is a poignantly off-kilter coming-of-age story about a winningly awkward 13-year-old (Jeffrey Chyau) who rattles around his family’s sketchy by-the-hour motel. He eventually befriends a charismatic guest (Kang) whose marriage is on the rocks and who’s speeding toward rock bottom.
8. So Yong Kim
Kim, who is Korean-American, and her husband, Bradley Rust Gray, are a filmmaking couple whose movies are intertwined. They don’t just work on each other’s films, they even made a pair of features named after a Cure single and its B side — Kim’s In Between Days, about a Korean teenager feeling disconnected from her new Canadian surroundings; and Gray’s The Exploding Girl, starring Zoe Kazan as a college student with epilepsy home from school on break. Kim’s four features have favored intense intimacy with their subjects, from the abandoned children in 2008’s Treeless Mountain to the unhappy musician (Paul Dano) in 2012’s For Ellen to the friends-or-maybe-more-than-friends (Jena Malone and Riley Keough) in this year’s Lovesong.
Where to start: In Between Days. Kim’s 2006 debut is still her best film, especially in how it captures the adolescent angst of an ambiguous male-female friendship in which neither party communicates feelings clearly.
9. Karyn Kusama
Kusama made her debut with the terrific 2000 indie Girlfight, about a Brooklyn teenager who channels her rage into boxing. The film introduced Michelle Rodriguez to the world and earned the half-Japanese director plenty of acclaim, but her follow-ups were financial failures. Æon Flux and then Jennifer’s Body landed her in movie jail for a while. She’s since made a return with dinner party thriller The Invitation, a film that’s won fans in both arthouse and horror circles.
Where to start: Girlfight, which in addition to gender-flipping a classic boxing movie features a salty-sweet romance with a fellow boxer that plays out, perfectly, in the ring.
10. Dan Kwan
Kwan is one-half of Daniels, the filmmaking duo behind Swiss Army Man, the movie that stars Daniel Radcliffe as a talking, farting, magical realist corpse, which was hands down the strangest thing at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. With his directing partner Daniel Scheinert, Kwan’s also made some fabulously idiosyncratic shorts and music videos, including the one for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” (485 million views and counting!) in which Kwan plays a dancer who smashes through a concrete floor with his musically enhanced erection. “In retrospect, it’s really exciting for me that I get to be the person who portrays this super sexualized masculine lead male character,” he said of the video, “because I think the only times Asian males are ever sexualized are in gay porn.”
Where to start: Swiss Army Man opens in limited release on June 24.
11. Ang Lee
Lee is the first and — so far — only Asian to win an Oscar for Best Director, and he’s done it twice with 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and 2012’s Life of Pi. He also nabbed a nomination (but not the win) with 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Taiwanese-American has been the most successful Asian filmmaker within the bounds of prestige cinema. His acclaimed career has encompassed Jane Austen adaptations, ’70s family dramas, gay cowboy romances, and an ill-fated superhero movie. However, he got his start with a trio of movies — Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman — about generational divides in Taiwanese, Chinese, and immigrant communities. His forthcoming movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is about a group of soldiers back from Iraq on a publicity tour where they’re being celebrated as war heroes: It already looks like an awards contender as well as a potential technological leap forward for the helmer, as it was filmed at 120 frames per second.
Where to start: A CONTROVERSIAL PICK, but there’s a case to be made for Hulk, Lee’s 2003 attempt at a Marvel adaptation before superhero movies reached their current level of highly connected big business. It’s a strange, fascinating, dark take on Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) that tries to re-create the sense of comic book panels on screen.
12. Grace Lee
Lee set out to make a documentary about the diversity of other women named Grace Lee around the country, interviewing subjects from a gothy teen to a broadcast journalist to a fellow filmmaker, all in the effort to buck the studious, quiet, religious, well-behaved Asian girl stereotypes. The witty result, The Grace Lee Project, kicked off a career for the Korean-American filmmaker that’s included both docs and mockumentaries.
Where to start: While making The Grace Lee Project, Lee met Grace Lee Boggs, a fiery Detroit-based activist in the civil rights and Black Power movements. She ended up making a separate film about the then 98-year-old Chinese-American woman, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, an inspiring, spiky portrait.
13. Evan Jackson Leong
After making 1040, a documentary about the growth of Christianity in Asia, Leong spent several years making a film about basketball phenom Jeremy Lin, documenting the athlete’s rise to fame, faith, and experiences as an Asian-American in the NBA, with Daniel Dae Kim narrating. Leong, who is Chinese-American, is a protégé of Justin Lin, another filmmaker on this list; he is next slated to make his scripted debut directing Lucy Liu in Snakehead, about a human smuggler in New York’s Chinatown. “I wanted to make a story about a strong female Asian female character,” he’s said of the project. “Mainly because we don’t have much middle ground. Often Asian female characters are either seen as submissive or the ‘Dragon Lady’ and nothing in between.”
Where to start: Linsanity, which is more than a hurried attempt to capitalize on Lin’s flash of fame.
14. Justin Lin
Lin is the most successful Asian-American director working today. The Taiwanese-American filmmaker is responsible for saving the Fast and the Furious films from the direct-to-DVD dustheap and transforming them into the monster skyscraper-hopping franchise it is today. He has now moved on to the rebooted Star Trek movies, having been passed the reins by J.J. Abrams for Star Trek Beyond. But before he headed into the realm of big-studio series, Lin exploded onto the scene with Better Luck Tomorrow, a 2002 film about the escalating misdeeds of a group of bored, Asian-American overachievers that was acquired by MTV Films and that seemed to herald a new age of Asian-American cinema that never materialized. In between larger movies, Lin did make Finishing the Game: The Search for a New Bruce Lee, a mockumentary about the search for a Bruce Lee double after the martial arts legend died during the filming of his last feature. He was also one of the founders of the (now defunct?) Asian-American YouTube channel YOMYOMF.
Where to start: Better Luck Tomorrow didn’t just aim to explode model minority myths, it also makes a compelling case for the talents of its roster of Asian-American actors — like John Cho, who played the smug rich kid romantic rival to one of the main characters, or Sung Kang, whom Lin would introduce as a stealth Asian lead in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and who’d become the coolest character in the franchise. Kang’s character even has the same name as his Better Luck Tomorrow one — Han, suggesting that it’s all a Better Luck Tomorrow shared cinematic universe, and we’re just living in it.
15. Adam Bhala Lough
Lough made his debut at 23 with the eye-catching 2002 drama Bomb the System, with Mark Webber playing a teenage graffiti artist clashing with cops and leaving his mark all over a New York City sanitized by Rudy Giuliani. Since then, the Punjabi-American filmmaker has brought his sense of visual style to work that’s ranged from fiction (like 2007’s Weapons, which paired Webber with Nick Cannon and Paul Dano) to nonfiction, with a tendency toward documentary portraits of musical artists like Lil Wayne, Lee Scratch Perry, and Hot Sugar.
Where to start: The Carter, Lough’s film about Lil Wayne, is legit one of the greatest hip-hop docs ever made, but it’s not easy to (legally) see. After allowing Lough incredible fly-on-the-wall access, Wayne seemed to lose his nerve about the finished project, maybe because of how frank it is in showcasing his drug use as well as his astounding productivity. Wayne tried to block the film from premiering at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and while he wasn’t successful, the movie’s not available for sale anywhere, which is a shame — it’s a fascinating portrayal of a rapper at the peak of his game, aware of everyone circling below him, waiting for him to fall.
16. H.P. Mendoza
Filipino-American filmmaker Mendoza kicked off his career with a pair of lo-fi musicals. First, he wrote and composed the music for the totally wonderful 2006 Colma: The Musical, about a trio of teens growing up in the San Francisco Peninsula town of the title. He did the same for 2010’s Fruit Fly, and then took over directing duties as well for the film about a performance artist (L.A. Renigen) who finds herself ensconced in a community of gay men.
Where to start: 2012’s I Am a Ghost isn’t a musical, but it is an inventive microbudget horror movie about a ghost (Anna Ishida) and the psychic (Jeannie Barroga) trying to help her move on.
17. Meera Menon
Indian-American Menon premiered her women-centric finance drama Equity at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The thriller stars Anna Gunn as a steely investment banker who serves as an answer to the testosterone-heavy likes of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short. Her 2013 movie Farah Goes Bang was a similarly female-led film about a young Iranian woman hoping to lose her virginity while road-tripping with two friends. The trio is campaigning for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign while traveling through states that are decidedly unfriendly to their message.
Where to start: Equity, which is due out in theaters on July 29.
18. Mira Nair
Nair’s arguably the foremost Indian-American director working today. Over 30-plus years of filmmaking, she’s examined the Indian experience both in India and abroad, while also making time to slip a Bollywoodesque dance number into a British costume drama. Her breakout was 1988’s acclaimed Salaam Bombay!, about the lives of street children in Mumbai, though 2001’s Monsoon Wedding was the crowd-pleaser, a warm ensemble movie set during the chaos of a Punjabi wedding that was an indie hit and that’s the inspiration for an upcoming stage musical. In 2006, Kal Penn got serious in Nair’s adaptation of the Jhumpa Lahiri novel The Namesake, while in Nair’s forthcoming Queen of Katwe, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo star alongside Madina Nalwanga in the story of Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutesi; its trailer alone might make you well up.
Where to start: Nair’s made a bunch of fine films, but 1991’s Mississippi Masala is a particularly underappreciated romance. It’s set in the South, pairing Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury as two immensely hot lovers trying to weather racism, colorism, and the tensions of an insular immigrant community. Nothing, it turns out, creates common ground like people disapproving of a relationship.
19. Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Nelson, a Korean-American director and storyboard artist, is the first woman to get sole directing credit for a big-budget animated feature, for 2011’s Kung Fu Panda 2. She returned to co-direct Kung Fu Panda 3 for DreamWorks, making her one of the box office champs of this list.
Where to start: Kung Fu Panda 2, which played at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and got an Oscar nomination.
20. Geeta and Ravi Patel
Siblings Geeta (a filmmaker) and Ravi Patel (an actor who played the Indian-American in competition with Aziz Ansari’s character in Master of None’s “Indians on TV” episode), teamed up to make this documentary. It follows Ravi, who, after breaking up with his girlfriend, has agreed to let their parents attempt to arrange a marriage for him, and the result is an enjoyable exploration of not just the world of matchmaking and a singles convention, but of a family.
Where to start: Meet the Patels, obvi, but Geeta also co-directed 2008’s Project Kashmir with Pakistani-American filmmaker Senain Kheshgi, a doc about the Kashmiri war. And the Patel siblings are slated to remake their film as a scripted comedy for Fox Searchlight.
21. Jennifer Phang
Phang, who is Chinese-Malaysian and Vietnamese, has taken two savvy pre-apocalyptic movies to the Sundance Film Festival. Half-Life (2008) is a family drama filtered through the eyes of two children (Alexander Agate and Sanoe Lake) dealing with an outside world that seems to be slowly falling apart, and a domestic one that’s none too stable either. And 2015’s Advantageous takes place in a near future in which the gap between haves and have-nots is widening dramatically. As a result, a single mother (Jacqueline Kim) makes a horrific sacrifice in order to continue being able to support her daughter (Samantha Kim). These films aren’t explicitly about race, but the fact that their protagonists are Asian informs their experiences in perceptible ways, attesting to how much more interesting sci-fi is when it’s opened up to more points of view.
Where to start: Advantageous, which showed up the similar Ryan Reynolds movie Self/less at the whole body-swapping conceit.
22. M. Night Shyamalan
Before Shyamalan became the King of Twists, he made his debut at 22 with a semi-autobiographical movie Praying With Anger, in which he also starred. The film, about an Indian-American man who, following his mother’s wishes, goes to India for a year and struggles to connect with his parents’ culture, is almost impossible to see now. But it’s a fascinating side note in the conflicting career of the man who remains one of the most prominent South Asian directors in Hollywood, and who was behind the movie The Last Airbender, one of the biggest whitewashing controversies in recent history. Shyamalan’s still climbing his way back from that film and from After Earth. Last year’s found footage horror flick The Visit was pretty good, and next year Shyamalan’s low-budget redemption plan will continue with Split, another Blumhouse Production.
Where to start: The Sixth Sense — still scary, even with a twist that’s been turned into a pop culture punch line.
23. Yen Tan
The Malaysian-born Tan made a series of delicate dramas centering on gay characters, from Happy Birthday, which weaves together the stories of five people with the same birthday, to Ciao, about men who meet while grieving the death of a mutual friend, to Pit Stop, a film about two North Texas men who are still living amid the remnants of past relationships, but who seem destined to eventually meet.
Where to start: Pit Stop, which Tan wrote with David Lowery (director of Disney’s upcoming Pete’s Dragon remake), is an insightful look at life as a gay man in a small town.
24. Kevin Tancharoen
After directing the 2009 remake of Fame at the age of 25, Thai-American dancer and choreographer turned filmmaker Tancharoen made an unauthorized short reimagining Mortal Kombat in a more realistic but equally dark mode. It was a bold act of geekery that didn’t work out, despite all the online love it received. But Tancharoen did get the greenlight to make a web series, Mortal Kombat: Legacy, featuring appearances by Mark Dacascos, Jeri Ryan, Harry Shum Jr., Michael Jai White, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, reprising the role of Shang Tsung he played in the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie. He’s also directed multiple episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., on which his big sister Maurissa Tancharoen is a showrunner.
Where to start: Fame, which proves Tancharoen’s talent for showcasing performances.
25. Patrick Wang
Wang’s 2011 directorial debut In the Family slipped past so many of the platforms meant to discover and draw attention to films of its quality — it didn’t go to the Sundance Film Festival, or the SXSW Film Festival, or the Tribeca Film Festival, or the Toronto International Film Festival. And it didn’t get picked up by a distributor, instead playing in a theater in New York because Wang paid for the release himself. It’s a gamble that worked — critics and other filmmakers championed the movie, which the Taiwanese-American Wang wrote, directed, and stars in as a gay man caught in a custody battle over his son when his partner, the boy’s biological father, dies. The film ended up earning Wang an Indie Spirit Award nomination, and his second film, The Grief of Others, made the festival rounds last year.
Where to start: In the Family, which is a work of social advocacy, certainly, but also a grown-up, intelligent drama that bypasses the expected beats, and that doesn’t sacrifice its artistic sensibility or its characters in order to underline its points.
26. Wayne Wang
Hong Kong-born Wang directed the graying matriarch of Asian-American cinema, The Joy Luck Club, but his career stretches before and long after the 1993 Amy Tan adaptation. Pre-Club — which is tearily effective at portraying the gap in expectations and aspirations between a quartet of immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters (but leans datedly into doleful Orientalism) — Wang made a few dramas set in San Francisco’s Chinatown that remain some of the most interesting Asian-American movies in existence. Post-Club, he’s seen the highs of Harvey Keitel Brooklyn hangout comedy Smoke, the lows of Because of Winn-Dixie, and the whatevers of Maid in Manhattan. But he’s never had another Asian-American hit.
Where to start: Chan Is Missing, Wang’s landmark 1982 mystery of sorts in which two Chinese-American cab drivers search San Francisco for a friend who owes them money. In doing so, Wang fleshes out a vital, contradictory, wry portrait of their community and of the idea of Chinese-American identity.
27. Alice Wu
There’s no justice in the universe (or the world of indie film), because Wu hasn’t made a film since her 2004 debut Saving Face. Wu drew from her own experiences to create the story of Wil (Michelle Krusiec), a closeted surgeon who falls for dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen), but is reluctant to go public with their relationship. Meanwhile, Wil’s widowed mother (Joan Chen) becomes the scandal of her Flushing, Queens, neighborhood when she reveals she’s pregnant but won’t say who the father is. She flees to Manhattan to seek refuge with her daughter, who’s preferred to keep the buffer of a borough between them.
Where to start: Saving Face, which isn’t just a nice romance, but is a finely wrought mother-daughter drama dealing with sexuality and shame within a close Chinese-American community.
28. Jessica Yu
Yu, a Chinese-American filmmaker, has mostly worked in nonfiction, from her 2004 Henry Darger documentary In the Realms of the Unreal (which was nominated for a Gotham Award and an Emmy), to Last Call at the Oasis, a 2011 film about the impending doom we’re facing from water shortages that will very efficiently scare the bejesus out of anyone watching. But Yu dipped a toe into scripted comedy with Ping Pong Playa, a 2008 movie about a belligerent but lovable loser (played by co-writer Jimmy Tsai) forced to do some growing up in order to help out his Ping-Pong-playing Southern California family.
Where to start: In the Realms of the Unreal is a spookily good portrait of an outsider artist who spent decades at home on an epic work that was only discovered shortly before he died.
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