After looking at musicians, cinematographers, actors, actresses and screenwriters, there was only one natural place to go with our On The Rise series: directors. After all, film is still an auteur’s medium, and the director is the one who hires all of the above, stitching together the various elements to create a final product that only they could have made.
One of the things that gets us up in the morning with this job is the idea of discovering new and talented filmmakers, and every year brings a huge selection, which we’ve winnowed down to twelve for the list below. Who joins our previous picks, which have included Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, David Lowery, Morten Tyldum, Gareth Evans, Justin Kurzel, Adam Wingard and Colin Trevorrow? Find out below, and let us know your picks in the comments section.
Given its Brooklyn setting and frank depiction of sex, the specter of being “the next Lena Dunham” always threatened to follow Desiree Akhavan, the 29-year-old Iranian-American filmmaker behind “Appropriate Behavior.” Fortunately, the comparison is more than superficial, and according to most, the film only shares the strengths of Dunham’s work—sharp, acerbic humor, autobiographical, painfully true situations and a fresh and unique voice.
The New York-raised daughter of Iranian immigrants, Akhavan studied film at Tisch, and was best known, before now, for web series “The Slope.” But “Appropriate Behavior,” in which she also stars as a bisexual Brooklyn girl reeling from a break-up, should, at the very least, be a “Tiny Furniture”-style boost up for her. Katie Walsh wrote in her review from Sundance that its “light and ironic outlook on the things that make Brooklyn life what it is” is balanced by “the very real issues of culture, identity and sexuality, and the two work so well together due to the genuine honesty that Akhavan brings to the material.” Drawing comparisons to Louis C.K. and Noah Baumbach, Akhavan looks to be a real comic talent going forward, and the Dunham comparisons are only likely to continue in the short-term, as she joins the cast of “Girls” for the fourth season. That’s only as an actress at this point, but as a filmmaker, Akhavan has plenty in the works too. She’s developing an animated web series, a TV pilot about the bisexual dating world, and another feature with “Appropriate Behavior” producer Cecilia Frugiuele. Get on board now, or at least when Gravitas Ventures releases it next year, and you can tell everyone else you were an early adopter once she has the million-dollar-book-deal and the Vogue cover.
Anyone who saw “Grand Piano,” a kind of miniaturized Brian De Palma movie that starred Elijah Wood as a tortured ivory-tickler, probably wouldn’t guess that the man behind that film’s screenplay would, in the same year, beguile Sundance and Cannes, and become a festival staple in the pivotal months leading up to Oscar consideration. But that’s just what Damien Chazelle accomplished in 2014. The writer of “Grand Piano” went on to write and direct “Whiplash,” the tale of a young musician (Miles Teller) who struggles to make it as a jazz drummer under the tutelage of a relentless instructor (J.K. Simmons). The film started out as a Black List-approved screenplay in 2012. Chazelle took fifteen pages of the script and adapted it as a short film, which wowed audiences at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (Johnny Simmons played the Miles Teller role in that version). A year later, Chazelle returned to Park City with the feature length version, which picked up the Audience and Grand Jury awards, and the film went on to play Cannes (it will also screen at the Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival). What makes Chazelle such an exciting young filmmaker is his ability to handle diverse material; “Grand Piano” and “Whiplash” couldn’t be any different, aside from an interest in music and a blackened sense of humor. It’s that wild unpredictability that adds an electric spark to whatever he gets up to next. Right now, it looks like it’s going to be a full-on musical, “La La Land,” starring Teller and Emma Watson, and though it sounds ambitious, we have full faith that he’ll be able to pull it off.
Filmmaker Josephine Decker seemingly came out of nowhere this year, scoring a unprecedented double-header debut at the Berlin Film Festival. Dubbed her “Double Decker” premiere, she had the honor of showcasing her first two features, “Butter On The Latch“ and “Thou Wast Mild & Lovely,” at the same time. While both films were met with mixed reviews (wildly enthusiastic or not so much, including Playlist reviews), it’s undeniable that she has talent, wild and unformed inchoate talent.
She’s had a pretty diverse career so far, and originally wanted to be a conductor, but while studying at Princeton, was inspired to go into filmmaking by the unlikely turning point of watching Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.” Since then, she’s been a performance artist, worked with the Pig Iron Theatre Company, stripped in front of Marina Abramovic and made shorts and music videos. While she first turned heads with the 2008 documentary “Bi The Way,” about bisexuality, it’s her 2014 double-bill that’s really brought her to our attention. Featuring a striking experimental and feverishly nightmarish bent, Deckers films are also tactile, sensual and arresting, with a strong emphasis on mood and tenor over narrative. In particular, “Thou Wast Mild & Lovely” is especially memorable with its mix of sexuality, atmosphere and slowly unraveling disquiet and horror. “Butter On The Latch,” more of an opaque dream with narrative incoherence, took cues from early David Lynch while still maintaining Decker’s distinctive voice. And though her vision so far is a little feral and undisciplined, these two works, successful to critics or not, still announced the arrival of a bold new presence in indie cinema. We’re very curious as to what comes next—Decker says she’s planning a film “exploring clown, country and the three little pigs,” and has another in the works about the Main Squeeze Accordion Orchestra, which she plays in.
Berlinale breakout “’71” is a hell of showcase for its star Jack O’Connell, one of our Actor On The Rise picks for this year, but it also demonstrates the arrival of another huge big-screen talent: director Yann Demange. The filmmaker studied first at the London School Of Printing, and then at the prestigious National Film And Television School (whose other graduates include David Yates, Roger Deakins and Lynne Ramsay), where he made two shorts, “Incomplete,” and “Alan & Samir.” These quickly brought him to the attention of producers, and within months of graduating, he’d helmed comedy-drama “A Man In A Box” for Channel 4’s “Coming Up” series, before directing the first four episodes of “Secret Diary Of A Call Girl” (which aired on Showtime in the U.S). More high-profile TV gigs followed, including Charlie Brooker’s reality/zombie hybrid “Dead Set,” the second season of the acclaimed miniseries “Criminal Justice” (being remade in the U.S. for HBO) and gritty drama “Top Boy” in 2011. But “’71” marks his feature debut, and it’s one hell of a debut at that, a visceral, powerful drama about a young British soldier (O’Connell) lost on the hostile streets of Belfast and fighting for survival. Almost unbearably tense, yet both impressionistic and character-driven, it’s a fantastic a directorial calling card, and will only lead to bigger and better things. Demange is fielding offers right now, but says he’s considering returning to his roots for a French-language project that would be very different from “’71.” That said, he seems ripe for a tentpole gig in the next few years, too.
Among all the buzzier films at Sundance this year was one that didn’t have the big-name casts or bite size logline that some of the would-be breakouts did, but has lingered long after many of the others faded away. That film was “The Sleepwalker,” a provocative, dreamlike and opaque drama/thriller that marks filmmaker Mona Fastvold as a serious talent for the future. The Norwegian-born, Brooklyn-based 33-year-old got her start as an actress back in Scandinavia, starring in Italian film “Cape North” and on long-running soap “Hotel Caesar.” Once she moved stateside, she appeared alongside Natalie Portman in Don Roos’ “The Other Woman,” and modeled for Bloomingdales, but she was already focused on filmmaking, starting off with music videos for Norwegian artists like Maribel and Sondre Lerche (the latter of composed the excellent soundtrack to “The Sleepwalker”). But it’s her friendship with actor Brady Corbet (“Mysterious Skin,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) that’s proved the most crucial. After he collaborated with director Antonio Campos on the screenplay for “Simon Killer,” Corbet teamed with Fastvold to pen “The Sleepwalker,” in which he also appears alongside Christopher Abbott, Stephanie Ellis and Gitte Witt. A chilly Bergmanish drama with surreal touches, the film (about a young couple disrupted by the arrival of her sister and his fiance) is a remarkably assured and controlled piece of direction, with terrific cinematography and sound design and a killer sense of mood. The duo have a pair of projects coming up. They co-wrote “Childhood Of A Leader,” a period drama that will mark Corbet’s feature directorial debut, and has attracted the impressive cast of Robert Pattinson, Berenice Bejo and Tim Roth, while another project’s being cooked up as Fastvold’s second feature.
If you haven’t heard of Jennifer Kent, or her debut feature “The Babadook“ (about a mother and small son who battle an evil supernatural presence), don’t worry, you will, very, very soon. We have a feeling that once “The Babadook,” after making a string of festival appearances that started at Sundance, makes it’s official debut, Kent will be placed at the top of the go-to list for filmmakers capable of handling difficult genre material. What makes Kent such a fantastic filmmaker, which is evidenced in “The Babadook,” is her ability to create suitably scary DIY thrills while also incorporating a dreamlike visual aesthetic, offbeat humor and a totally unexpected, expertly calibrated sensitivity. “The Babadook” feels like the Australian version of an early Sam Raimi-film, in its low-budget sensation of “can we get away with this?” but there’s also something more going on psychologically, thematically and emotionally that completely takes you off guard. After working for many years as an actress in Australia (including putting in 31 appearances on “Murder Call“), in Kent made the short film version of “The Babadook” in 2005, entitled “Monster,” before working on the script and expanding it into feature-length form. The results are totally intoxicating and well worth the wait, and she has proven herself a director to watch, in any genre really. Just thinking about what she’ll be capable of with an actual budget is something quite dizzying indeed.
The last few years have seen some of the leading lights of the Korean New Wave head west to make their English-language debuts. None have had an easy time working with American producers, but Kim Ji-woon, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho all made a splash with, respectively, “The Last Stand,” “Stoker” and “Snowpiercer.” So it’s very possible we could see Kim Seong-hun follow in their footsteps soon, given the quality of his sure-to-be-breakout picture “A Hard Day.” Kim made his feature debut back in 2006 with oddball love triangle “How The Lack Of Love Affects Two Men,” a genre-blending broad comedy about a father and son who both fall in love with a female lodger. The film didn’t break out of Korea, but was a substantial hit at home, topping the box office in its first week. It’s taken eight years for him to follow it up, which was perhaps one of the reasons “A Hard Day” was under-the-radar when it was announced as part of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year. But the film turned out to be one of the most deeply pleasurable movies in the whole festival, per our review from Jessica Kiang. The film stars Lee Sun-kyun as a corrupt detective who accidentally runs over a man, tries to cover up the crime and is blackmailed by a mysterious figure. Melding Hitchcock and Coen influences with more traditional Korean action cinema, the script (also by Kim) is twisty and surprising, and the filmmaking inventive and stylish, but with a human touch. Expect this to become a huge genre favorite to match the earlier Korean New Wavers, and when it makes it to these shores, expect Kim to follow his namesake, Park and Bong over here with it.
Tribeca is becoming an increasingly important showcase for new talent on the festival calendar, often sweeping up cracking new films overlooked by Sundance and SXSW. This year, the big breakout was “Zero Motivation,” a dark comedy that won comparisons to “Girls,” “M*A*S*H” and “Catch-22,” and took the festival’s top narrative award. All being well, it’ll put debut director Talya Lavie firmly on the map. The Israeli helmer initially set out to be an animator, studying at the Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design before switching to broader filmmaking at the Sam Spiegel Film & TV School in Jerusalem. Her first live-action short, 2004’s “Sliding Flora,” screened at over forty festivals and was showcased at MoMA in New York, while her thesis film “The Substitute” took the Audience Award at Berlin in 2006. It took a while for her first feature to come together, but “Zero Motivation” was more than worth the wait. Based on her own experiences working in a military typing pool during her mandatory national service with the IDF, and loosely expanding on “The Substitute,” the film centers on three bored women in a remote desert outpost, in a low-key, smart and authentic manner. Compared to “Office Space” and Altman in our review, which called it “an exciting new original voice in cinema,” it won Lavie the festival’s Nora Ephron award in addition to the top prize, and was picked up by Zeitgeist Films, who’ll start rolling the film out on December 3rd, when it could end up picking up a sizable crowd, especially if Israel submit it as their pick for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Lavie’s got plenty of projects coming up too. She co-created TV show “Who Gave You A License?,” and is working on an adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s short story “My First Romance,” which is set in Brooklyn, and should bring even more people to her fan club.
When Janet Pierson, head of SXSW, introduced Gillian Robespierre‘s “Obvious Child,” she began by telling a story of how badly the festival wanted it to premiere in Austin, but how, after initially receiving the invite, they had gotten into Sundance. Thus began the tricky political square dance of getting the movie into both festivals, a distinction that is meted out judiciously and only in rare instances. When your debut film is being squabbled over by two of the biggest festivals in the country, you’re probably a very big deal. And Robespierre definitely is. By the time “Obvious Child” got to SXSW, it had already been snapped up by A24, the hottest boutique studio at the moment, and by the time it opened over the summer, Robespierre and her creative partner Elisabeth Holm, had been hired by Oddlot Entertainment to write an untitled comedy about divorce. The fact that “Obvious Child”—a cutting, deeply brilliant comedy about a stand-up comedian (Jenny Slate) who gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion—received so little controversy despite it’s still-touchy subject matter is a testament to how utterly enjoyable it is. There were silly flare-ups on the right about how the movie was “pro-abortion,” but it is such a wonderful, deft exploration of that decision, that it’s hard to argue with anything contained therein. The emotional truth of the movie trumps any political view. And Robespierre, who shot the picture in luxurious widescreen and on a miniscule budget, has created something deeply personal and profoundly universal. Few filmmakers have gotten us as excited about their potential careers as Robespierre did with all 83 minutes of “Obvious Child.”
Long before it premiered at Cannes, “The Tribe” was the talk of the festival. “Have you heard about the Ukranian movie that’s told entirely in sign language, without subtitles, and features explicit sex?” critics would ask, expecting it to be little more than a curio. But the buzz went from “isn’t this strange?” to “isn’t this fantastic?” as soon as the film unspooled, and it ended up taking the top prize at the Critics’ Week strand, as well as proving itself to be one of our Jessica Kiang’s highlights of the fest. And it should make director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy a major figure in world cinema moving forward. The 40-year-old Kiev native trained in at the State Institute Of Theatre and Arts, before working on sets and in TV scriptwriting, winning a prize for his screenplay “The Chernobyl Robinson.” He moved into directing with 2006’s short “The Incident,” which played 25 festivals worldwide, before he landed in the Berlinale competition with 2009’s “Diagnosis” and 2010’s “Deafness” (the latter is something of a prelude to “The Tribe”). His mid-length film “Nuclear Waste” took the Silver Leopard at Locarno in 2012, but by then he was already developing “The Tribe,” which landed to so much acclaim on the Croisette earlier this year. Set in a “Lord Of The Flies”-ish school for the deaf where the kids have formed a brutal microcosm of society, and daringly told without any aids for understanding to those who don’t speak sign language, it’s a film that could have been a disaster in most hands. But the spare storytelling talents of Slaboshpytskiy are in full evidence, complete with austere but assured photography and hugely clever, heightened sound design. It’s one of the very best films of the year (and, given its ties to current events in the Ukraine, hugely topical), and as it heads to TIFF, Telluride and Fantastic Fest, is only going to grow its cult. Slaboshpytskiy is unlikely to go and direct “Thor 3” or anything, but the thread from Michael Haneke to Yorgos Lanthimos looks to be continuing with him, and that’s something to be very thankful for.
You’ll be seeing “Wild Tales” shortly—the film’s about to hit Telluride and TIFF before a full release, likely early next year—but believe us when we say this raucous, inventive and beautifully made little comedy is one of the most enjoyable experiences we’ve had in a cinema all year. And the man responsible is 39-year-old Argentinean helmer Damián Szifrón. The Buenos Aries native has been a well-known figure at home for a while. After making a series of shorts in his early twenties, he created popular con-artist series “Los Simuladores” (or “Pretenders”) in 2002, an homage to 80s action series about a group of grifters-for-hire who run simulated cons for clients, that he wrote, directed and edited. The show was a critical and commercial success, and has gone on to be remade in Chile, Spain, Russia and Mexico. In between the first and second seasons, Szifron made his feature directorial debut, with 2003’s atmospheric and stylish, if uneven, “After Hours”-ish thriller “The Bottom Of The Sea.” 2005’s buddy-cop comedy “On Probation,” a sort of South American “Hot Fuzz,” was more successful, and Szifron’s run of TV luck continued with “Hermanos Y Detective,” about an orphan cop who discovers he has an eleven-year-old half-brother. It was also a hit and remade around the world, but Szifron stepped away from television to focus on features, and the glorious result (made with the help of producer Pedro Almodovar, who clearly has an eye for talent) is “Wild Tales.” An anthology picture combining six Roald Dahl-ish shorts united by a common theme of inequality and injustice, it’s a little hit-and-miss, as all such films are, but even the lesser segments are beautifully directed. The film looks gorgeous, and Szifron has a rare sense of how to stage action (one scene has a gleeful fight in and around a car that any filmmaker would be proud of), and a truly visual sense of comedy in a way that recalls a director like Edgar Wright. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film, which has real crossover potential, and it’s easy to imagine Szifron getting high profile Hollywood gigs very, very soon.
Joe Cornish gets the bulk of the credit for discovering John Boyega and putting him in “Attack The Block,” but writer/director Malik Vitthal probably deserves some of the praise for giving the actor the boost required to land him the lead role in the upcoming mega-blockbuster “Star Wars: Episode VII.” “Imperial Dreams,” a prize-winner at Sundance this year, features Boyega in his first major American role, and helped to renew faith in his star power after two-and-a-half fairly quiet years. But Vitthal deserves to be watched for much more than just a canny eye for casting. The filmmaker is an L.A. native, but is no industry insider. His mother raised him in a series of ashrams all around the globe, giving him a childhood which, in his own words, let him “travel the world exploring other cultures.” Vitthal returned home to study at the prestigious USC, and helmed a number of shorts including 2009’s “Watts And Volts,” before “Imperial Dreams” came to the attention of the Sundance Labs. The film is the tough but moving story of a reformed gangster (Boyega) trying to forge a career as a writer while protecting his young son, despite the influence of family members and his environment. It manages to break away from precursors like “Boyz N The Hood” and carve out its territory, thanks in large part to sensitive, unshowy helming from Vitthal that belies his first-time feature status. The film took the top prize in Sundance’s fiercely competitive NEXT strand, so it’s particularly curious that it hasn’t been picked up for distribution yet. But given Boyega’s impending adventures in a galaxy far, far away, we can’t imagine it’ll stay that way.
Honorable Mentions: So many other names could have made this list that it could have been ten times the size, but in brief there’s Sarah-Violet Bliss, prize-winner for “Fort Tilden” at SXSW; Lance Edmunds, of Playlist favorite “Bluebird“; Eskil Vogt, who made a very fine debut with “Blind“; the Zellner Brothers, who did “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter“; animation breakouts Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee of mega-hit “Frozen“; “Coherence” helmer James Ward Byrkit; “Faults“‘ Riley Stearns and David Robert Mitchell, who went from “Myth Of The American Sleepover” to ace horror “It Follows.”
Also catching our attention: Angus MacLachlan (“Goodbye To All That”), Jen McGowan (“Kelly & Cal“), Josef Wladyka (“Manos Sucias“) Jeremy Saulnier (“Blue Ruin“), Hugh Sullivan (“The Infinite Man“), Kat Candler (“Hellion“), Daniel Wolfe (“Catch Me Daddy“), Keith Miller (“Five Star“), Kornel Mondruczo (“White God“), Ruben Ostlund (“Force Majeure“), Noah Buschel (“Glass Chin“), Stephane LaFleur (“Tu Dors Nicole“), Yuval Adler (“Bethelhem“), Steven Knight (“Locke“), Anthony Chen (“Ilo Ilo“), Daniel Patrick Carbone (“Hide Your Smiling Faces“), Charlie McDowell (“The One I Love“), E.L. Katz (“Cheap Thrills“), Dean Israelite (“Project Almanac“), Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins“), Aaron Schimberg (“Go Down Death“), Eliza Hittman (“It Felt Like Love“) and Amma Asante (“Belle“).
Anyone else you’re keeping an eye on? Let us know in the comments. — Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez