Like it or not, filmmaking is undeniably a director’s medium. It wasn’t always like that, of course: it was only the coming of the auteur theory in the 1950s and 1960s that popularized the idea of the director as the person responsible for all that was great and terrible about a picture. And while anyone who’s worked in film knows that it’s a collaborative medium, there’s still no better way of seeing where the form might be going in the next few years than by looking at the directors who’ve been making splashes of late.
So, hot on the heels of our On The Rise pieces focusing on actors, actresses and screenwriters, we’ve picked out ten directors who’ve arrived in a big way in the last year or so, and look set for even greater things in the near future. Any tips of your own? Let us know in the comments section below.
One of the best films of the year so far is one that first appeared right at the beginning of 2011: Zal Batmanglij‘s “Sound Of My Voice.” The film premiered at Sundance in January 2011, part of a double-header with “Another Earth,” both co-written by and starring new indie darling Brit Marling. The box office has been pretty disappointing, but the few who have seen the film, which follows a pair of amateur documentary filmmakers investigating a mysterious cult run by a woman who claims to be from the future, know that it marks Batmanglij as a serious talent. The son of famous Persian food writer Najmieh Batmanglij (and brother of Vampire Weekend member Rostam, who scored “Sound Of My Voice”), he met Marling and “Another Earth” director Mike Cahill at Georgetown, before going on to AFI film school, where he graduated in 2006. Marling and Batmanglij started writing their project in 2008, and when financing fell through, they decided to make it with what little resources they had. You wouldn’t know it to watch the film: it’s a remarkably confident and complex debut, with a script that’s not quite like anything you’ve seen, and focused, taut direction. The film landed the duo on radars in a big way, and Fox Searchlight soon snapped up their next project, “The East” (a film that they’d tried to get made before “Sound Of My Voice,” with a cast including Andrew Garfield and Rooney Mara, names that financiers felt weren’t big enough at the time. Oops…) Starring Marling as a woman who infiltrates an anarchist terrorist group, and with Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell and Patricia Clarkson among the cast, the film is being edited, and we’re guessing will hit festivals by the end of the year. From there, the sky’s the limit.
As far as saviors of action cinema go, Gareth Evans is an unlikely one. The 31-year-old hails from the tiny Welsh village of Hirwaun, and only five years ago was teaching Welsh as a foreign language over the internet while trying to get his micro-budget debut “Footsteps” completed. Unable to get any traction in the British film industry, the director moved with his wife to her original home of Indonesia, and found work making a documentary about the country’s martial art pencak silat, which was virtually unknown outside the nation. It was there that he met Iko Uwais, a diminuitive practicioner who was working as a driver for a telecom company at the time. The duo teamed up for 2009’s “Merantau,” an actioner that proved to be a hit at home and on the festival circuit, but it was nothing compared to the sensation caused by their follow-up “The Raid,” which premiered at TIFF last year. The film, made for a relatively meager budget, is a tight-as-a-drum actioner starring Uwais as a SWAT team member stranded in a tower block full of drug lord henchmen that are ready to murder the hell out of him, and it sent genre fans ballistic immediately, with comparisons to “Die Hard” and “Hard Boiled” flowing freely. And they’re entirely justified: the film isn’t just brilliantly choreographed, but thrillingly shot, the camera ever moving, but always keeping the ass-kicking clear as day. It’s made Evans an overnight star, and while he’s prepping a sequel to “The Raid” with Uwais, “Berental,” he’s starting to make inroads into Hollywood, signing on to direct former Darren Aronofsky heist project “Breaking The Bank” at Universal.
Right now, Australian film is the most exciting it’s been since the 1970s, when directors like Peter Weir, George Miller, Gillian Armstrong and Phillip Noyce were first emerging. And over the last few years, names like David Michod, Spencer Susser, Kieran Darcy-Smith and Nash Edgerton have made waves internationally thanks to films like “Animal Kingdom,” “Hesher,” “Wish You Were Here” and “The Square.” But nothing within New Australian Cinema so far could have prepared audiences last year for “Snowtown” (or “The Snowtown Murders” in the U.S.), the debut feature from director Justin Kurzel. The helmer started off as a designer for theater and film before heading to film school at the Victorian College of Arts. His graduation film, “Blue Tongue,” (which coincidentally shares its name with the production company behind “Animal Kingdom” & co, which Kurzel isn’t involved in), about two teenagers and a lizard, saw him win the prize for Best Australian Short Film, and the project ended up selected for Critic’s Week at Cannes 2011. Since then, he mostly directed music videos for bands like The Vines and The Sleepy Jackson, but when Warp Films, the British company behind films like “Dead Man’s Shoes” and “Kill List,” opened an Australian offshoot, Kurzel was the first person they came to. The result was “Snowtown,” an unrelentingly bleak examination of the real-life Snowtown murders, where killer John Justin Bunting was responsible for a ring that led to the death of at least eleven victims in the 1990s. The killings took place near where Kurzel grew up, in Adelaide, and it’s clear from the finished film the extent to which the events haunt him, and there’s an extraordinary matter-of-fact feel to the movie, reminiscent of Gus Van Sant‘s more experimental work. It was one of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences of the last twelve months, and marked Kurzel as one of the most thrilling talents in world cinema right now. The director had been developing a feature film expanding on the themes of “Blue Tongue” at one point, but he’ll join Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, among others, as one of the directors of portmanteau picture “The Turning,” as well as writing a dark coming-of-age comedy set in the tennis world called “Ivan Lendly Never Learned To Borrow,” also with Warp Films. But it looks like his next feature will be his first step into Hollywood territory — he recently signed on to direct the John Le Carre adaptation “Our Kind of Traitor,” penned by “Drive” writer Hossein Amini, with production aiming to start this fall.
While it was far from deliberate, having the two Cuban stars of her debut feature “Una Noche” go missing on their way to the Tribeca Film Festival premiere, only for them to resurface and claim asylum in the United States, was a pretty good way to get publicity. It’s fortunate, then, that “Una Noche,” the first film from 32-year-old director Lucy Mulloy, turned out to be the best thing we saw at Tribeca this year by about a million miles, with the helmer walking away with the Best Director prize from the festival. Mulloy has filmmaking in her genes: while New York born, she’s the son of two acclaimed animators, Britain’s Phil Mulloy and the Czech-born Vera Neubauer (her brother, Daniel, is also an award-winning filmmaker, who served as a producer on “Una Noche,” and is developing his own debut feature, the Melissa Leo-starring “A Cold Day,” at Focus Features). Mulloy studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, before heading to Tisch in New York to study film. While there, her film “This Morning” was short-listed for a Student Academy Award, following in the footsteps of directors like Robert Zemeckis, John Lasseter and Cary Fukunaga. After graduating, she went to Havana to research “Una Noche,” about a group of young Cubans planning to escape to Miami. Production was underway early in 2008, and the work-in-progress saw her get the attention of Spike Lee, who mentored the young filmmaker, and in 2010, she was also given a Creative Promise Emerging Narrative Award by Tribeca to help her complete the film. And it’s paid off in spades: the film is vibrant, funny, tender, exciting and moving. It premiered at the Berlinale in February to huge acclaim, which was mirrored at Tribeca (you can read our review from there here). The film is still awaiting distribution, but we’re sure a deal isn’t too far away, and Mulloy will surely be a much sought-after name in the years to come. We just hope it doesn’t take her four years to film her next project…
Bowing to well-deserved acclaim at Sundance in 2011, the excellent lesbian coming-of-age drama “Pariah” failed to match Focus Features‘ hopes and cross over to a wider audience, but regardless, the film has certainly put Nashville-born 34-year-old director Dee Rees on the map. Like Lucy Mulloy, she’s both a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School Of The Arts and a protege of Spike Lee (indeed, the two interned together on his documentary “When The Levees Break“), before coming to attention with her short films “Orange Bow” and “Pariah.” The latter saw her win awards at 25 film festivals around the world, and soon a feature version was in development, with Rees invited to the 2008 Sundance Labs. She kept busy in the meantime, directing the short “Colonial Gods” for the BBC, and the Sundance Channel documentary “Eventual Salvation,” which followed her grandmother’s journey back to Liberia, in 2009, each to much acclaim. But the feature version of “Pariah” finally got before cameras in 2010, and when it debuted, it earned instant praise, and rightly so. It’s a tender, honest, beautifully acted film that looks absolutely stunning (it rightly won the Cinematography awards at Sundance that year), and is powered by a breathtaking performance by Adepero Oduye. Focus didn’t wait long to work with Rees again, snapping up another project from her, a Southern-set thriller called “Bolo,” which she’s now finished writing, while she has another script ready to go, “Large Print,” about a recently divorced fifty-something black woman. Furthermore, she’s developing an HBO series with Oscar-nominee Viola Davis, set in a prep school, and recently signed to direct love story “This Man, This Woman,” written by veteran Frederic Raphael (“Darling,” “Eyes Wide Shut“). It’s unclear at this point what her next project is, but whatever it turns out to be, we can’t wait to see it.
Will Sharpe & Tom Kingsley
Filmmaking is a young man (or woman)’s game, but no one on this list is quite as fresh-faced as British helmers Will Sharpe & Tom Kingsley, who are 25 and 26 respectively. The pair met at Cambridge University, where Kingsley was president of the famous Footlights (the legendary amateur-dramatics group whose illustrious members in the past include most of Monty Python, Peter Cook, Sacha Baron Cohen, Richard Ayoade, Julian Fellowes, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, John Oliver and Emma Thompson). After graduation, Sharpe joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, while Kingsley moved to music video direction, helming spots for the likes of Darwin Deez and Fatboy Slim. But they came back together to decamp to Japan in 2009 for the thirty-minute short “Cockroach,” which led a production company to offer £50,000 to finance a feature for the duo. While funding fell through, they managed to raise half that sum to make the script they’d written titled “Black Pond,” a firmly original pitch-black comedy about a decaying family accused of murder when a stranger dies at the dinner table. When it premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London last year, it managed to get an enormous amount of attention. It’s partly down to their leading man Chris Langham, the star of Armando Ianucci’s “The Thick Of It,” whose career had been wrecked after being convicted of downloading child pornography in 2007 (and who gives an excellent performance in the film). But the spotlight on the film was also as much because of the skills they displayed behind the camera. “Black Pond” is dextrously shot, cannily written and displays real visual invention, and it’s not quite like anything you’ve seen in the last few years. While it only received a very limited theatrical release in the U.K., it saw the duo receive nominations at the British Independent Film Awards, the Evening Standard Film Awards and the BAFTAs, where they were up for Outstanding Debut alongside the infinitely more famous likes of Ralph Fiennes, Richard Ayoade, Joe Cornish and Paddy Considine. And when it crossed the pond to screen at SXSW, it received equally good notices, even if U.S. distribution isn’t currently on the cards. Nevertheless, it’s been a hell of a calling card: they’ve signed to WME in the U.S., and are developing their second feature with Film4 and “Extras” producer Charlie Hanson — a take on classic novel “Candide” which Kingsley describes as “Michel Gondry crossed with ‘Monsters.’ We hope it will be charming and handmade but quite realistic.” There’s no start date on the film, but we’re certainly looking forward to hearing more.
Most of the directors on this list have only a single credit to their name, and most are barely out of their twenties, if that. Alan Taylor is very much the outlier: Taylor has credits going back nearly twenty years, and three feature films under his belt. And yet, he’s virtually unknown among movie fans, something that’s going to change very soon when he takes charge of one of 2013’s biggest movies. The 46-year-old Taylor (who like Zal Batmanglij, has a rock-star sibling — his sister is cult 80s artist Anna Domino) got his start with “Palookaville,” the underrated, sweet-natured 1995 indie crime comedy which despite a strong cast including William Forsythe, Vincent Gallo and Frances McDormand was overshadowed by the somewhat similar “Bottle Rocket.” Two decent but little-seen features would follow over the next few years: 2001’s Napoleon biopic “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and 2003’s Joel Rose adaptation “Kill The Poor,” but it was on the small screen that Taylor has had the most success, and particularly with HBO. His first credit was on a 1993 episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” and Taylor would go on to helm six further episodes of that show, as well as 2 on “Oz.” Over the decade in which HBO came to dominate TV drama, Taylor has worked on virtually every one of their key shows, with credits on “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under,” “Deadwood,” “Carnivale,” “In Treatment,” “Big Love,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Sopranos,” winning an Emmy for his helming of a final-season episode of the latter, “Kennedy and Heidi” (*spoiler* the one where Tony suffocates Christopher after their car accident). He’s also racked up credits on most of the other key drama shows around, including directing the pilot for “Mad Men.” Despite all of that, it’s the last couple of years that have really seen him gain attention, thanks to his work on “Game of Thrones.” Taylor directed the final two episodes of the first season of HBO’s smash-hit fantasy series, and has been an executive producer on the second season, as well as helming four episodes (1, 2, 8 and 10, as it happens). And it’s his excellent work on the series that landed him the job directing “Thor 2” for Marvel, which will go before cameras later in the year. It’s a very smart hire, and given that Taylor’s worked on some of the best TV shows of all time and displayed a consistently steady hand, it gives us hope that he’ll deliver something with real drama and substance when it hits theaters in 2013.
Few films connected with an audience at Sundance this year in the way that Colin Trevorrow‘s “Safety Not Guaranteed” did. Based on a real life classifed ad, it follows a group of journalists (including Jake Johnson and Aubrey Plaza) investigating a man (Mark Duplass) who claims to have means to travel back in time, and is looking for a companion. The film became a bona-fide crowd-pleaser at the festival, and everywhere its played since, and could be something of a sleeper hit when it hits later in the summer. And while the film has its flaws, it marks a real calling card for Trevorrow, and should launch him into bigger and better things. Trevorrow is an NYU grad who met co-writer Derek Connolly while interning at “Saturday Night Live,” and the duo soon formed a screenwriting partnership, selling a number of projects, including “Blood Brothers,” “Cocked & Loaded” and “World War X” to major studios. But their feature debut was a smaller, quirkier beast, written by Connolly (solo), and put together on a relatively meager budget, and finished by the skin of its teeth in time for Sundance (indeed, the film had a different ending when originally submitted). While it falters a little towards the finish, Trevorrow for the most part does a terrific job at balancing a tricky meld of tones, all while extracting career-best performances from his cast and displaying a nifty visual sense that, unlike many first-time filmmakers, doesn’t feel like he’s showing off. It’s unclear what Trevorrow has planned, but a recent Sundance London Q&A suggested that he’s not planning on jumping on the first studio rom-com that comes calling: “I’ve been a screenwriter in the Hollywood studio system for a while now, and I’m very familiar with how long it takes to put a larger studio picture together. So I’m certainly motivated to find ways to make my next film outside of that system, even if it does have a larger budget. Even if some day, I’m lucky enough to be given tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, I think the number one goal is to keep these movies honest and good.”
Few would deny that the horror genre needs a serious shake-up: while each year brings one or two gems, for the most part, what we get are strings of sequels, remakes and derivative rip-offs borrowing from the same “The Exorcist” or “Halloween” template that’s dominated cinemas for decades. But could Adam Wingard be the next leading light of the genre? The director, a Full Sail University grad, has been working for some time, mostly on the fringes of the festival circuit, winning acclaim for 2007’s hallucinogenic “Pop Skull.” Several impressive short films followed (so much so that he got his own sidebar at the 2011 Fantasia Film Festival focusing on his work), but the last couple of years have really seen him gain traction. First up was 2010’s “A Horrible Way To Die,” about a serial killer stalking his alcohlic ex-girlfriend, which premiered at TIFF to raves from horror fans. Then he co-directed “Autoerotic” with friend and collaborator Joe Swanberg: a portmanteau picture about four sexually confused Chicago couples that’s the best thing that Swanberg’s been involved with in recent years, and showed that Wingard has talents beyond the horror world. And it looks like he might be set to cross over to the mainstream before the end of the year. His latest, “You’re Next,” about a family reunion interrupted by a home invasion, premiered at TIFF last year to strong notices. The film might sound rote, but by all accounts, Wingard gives the genre a fresh spin with crowd-pleasing thrills, and the film was snapped up by Lionsgate, which hopes that it’ll become the same kind of sleeper hit that festival pick ups “Saw,” “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” have all been in recent years. The company still haven’t set a release date, but it’s suspected that it’ll land in time for Halloween, and the delay shouldn’t ring alarm bells — nearly two years passed between Paramount buying “Paranormal Activity” and the film becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Either way, Wingard has continued to work, contributing segments to Sundance horror hits “V/H/S” and “The ABCs of Death,” which are both also set to land in the fall.
For all the films with buzz coming out of Sundance this year, none were as rapturously received as Benh Zeitlin‘s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a magic-realist tale of a father and daughter battling for survival in a landscape of Biblical floods and mythical creatures. The film walked away from Park City with critical raves, the Dramatic Jury Prize and a distribution deal from Fox Searchlight, and has meant that film writers everywhere have had to start spelling Ben with an ‘h’. Zeitlin is a Wesleyan grad whose parents are both folklorists, and that’s an interest that seems to loom large in his own work, from his “Moby Dick“-esque short “Egg” to ‘Beasts,’ which displays an ambition virtually unheard of in low-budget cinema. After graduation, Zeitlin moved to New Orleans, where he helped to found the independent collective Court 13, whose members include Spike Jonze protege Ray Tintori (“Death To The Tinman“). With them, he made the half-hour short “Glory At Sea,” a precursor to “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” with similar fantasy-elements and a tone haunted by the effects of Hurricane Katrina on his adopted city, and when it premiered at SXSW in 2008, it won the Wholphin Award (which was pretty much invented entirely to honor the film’s ambition). Soon after, Zeitlin started working on his feature debut, and after an epic, almost Herzogian production, it bowed in Park City this January, and went on to follow the footsteps of festival grads “Precious” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” in being selected for the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes — it’ll show at the festival on Friday. Where Zeitlin goes from here is unclear. He seems far too idiosyncratic to sell out to the studio system, but his talent is so immense that companies like Fox Searchlight will surely be lining up to finance whatever he decides to do next. Back around the time of “Glory At Sea,” he mentioned another potential feature project, called “Santa Maria,” which “takes place in 90 minutes of real time aboard a boat led by a maniac who has acquired all the ingredients for a new civilization but has gotten stranded in the middle of the Arctic ocean.” Could that be the next step? Either way, we’ll be watching.