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Critic's Notebook: The Next Great Filmmakers Are Everywhere, If You Know Where To Look

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 21, 2014 at 10:14AM

In the shadow of established virtuosos, few original voices can stand out without inviting comparisons to their precedents. So who are the new masters?

A decade ago, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater were some of the strongest American filmmakers working outside Hollywood. Anderson had churned out three distinctive visions ("Rushmore,” "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou") while Linklater was entrenched in a career steeped in talky, deeply introspective works, from "Slacker" to "Waking Life," not to mention "Before Sunrise" and its equally popular sequel, "Before Sunset."

Now? Last weekend, when both men won top prizes at the Berlin Film Festival for their latest features, it looked as though nothing had changed. If anything, the filmmakers' accomplishments suggested that they have achieved greater autonomy than ever before, and that's saying something.

Anderson took home the runner-up Silver Bear for his fantastical period comedy "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a slick but unapologetically self-indulgent achievement by a director who has earned the right to operate on his own stylistic wavelength. Linklater's epic "Boyhood" -- shot with the same cast over the course of 12 years -- consolidates the director’s experimental uses of communication and the role of popular culture in forming American sensibilities. Viewed together, these films represent vital sources of unconventional storytelling at the core of American cinema.

But what about everyone else? At Berlin, a number of the movies programmed in competition alongside Linklater and Anderson were first-timers. Although the gathering showcased previously unknown talent, it largely heralded the names that were firmly established at its start.

This reflects less of a shortcoming on the festival's part than a global trend afflicting film culture: the growing chasm between veteran filmmakers and newcomers. The strong first features in Berlin's lineup didn’t (couldn’t?) express cohesive visions on par with Anderson and Linklater.

In the shadow of these virtuosos, few original voices could stand out without inviting comparisons to their precedents — and to be fair, they helped shepherd them to fruition. New York drama "She's Lost Control," from Anja Marjuardt, was considered in the tradition of "Clean, Shaven" director Lodge Kerrigan, who aided in the production. Likewise, David Zellners' "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” was compared with the oeuvre of Alexander Payne, an executive producer. 

Markus Schreiber Greta Gerwig in Berlin last week.

You can consider one of two possibilities: Either these filmmakers are ripoff artists or the density of new movies has made it increasingly difficult to view them outside the context of their precedents. Either way, it's enough to make the accused copycats lash out. When Berlin jury member and actress Greta Gerwig read Anderson's acceptance at the awards ceremony (he left town days earlier), she prefaced it with a sly joke. "This is appropriate," she said, brandishing a page with his remarks, "because I'm often mistaken for him.”

In an increasingly dense marketplace for emerging filmmakers, many are fleeing to an adjacent medium. Indeed, a few days earlier news broke that Gerwig -- one of few young American faces to recently break out of the insular festival scene as both actor and director -- would write and star in the television spinoff "How I Met Your Dad."

Nonetheless, the opportunities to discover new filmmakers are greater than ever — but to fully recognize the character of new voices in American cinema, it helps to see that the idea of regional filmmaking has become something of a misnomer.

The next generation doesn't look anything like Anderson or Linklater. Instead, they have more in common with their international brethren, reflecting a genuine global village mentality that defines today's best artists. Indeed, if the search for the next American masters has been overshadowed by existing masters, more fertile ground lies overseas, where fresh visions stand out: Operating outside of commercial standards for storytelling, these filmmakers have nothing to lose -- and show little in the way of compromise.

While few paid close attention, Berlin's competition harbored one distinctive first feature indicative of a promising newcomer: Argentinian director Benjamin Naishtat's "History of Fear,” a compelling allegorical horror movie without a tangible threat. In Naishtat's suspenseful, quasi-experimental feature, residents of a gated community gradually sense the darker qualities assailing the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding them. While it borrows certain aspects of its plot from the tropes of a disaster movie, "History of Fear" never gives the threat a name. Instead, we witness a series of bizarre events -- locals gradually losing their minds, buildings abruptly losing power -- yielding a compelling illustration of the disconnect between the country's upper and lower classes.

But that didn't make "History of Fear" an instant breakout. Defying expectations to the point where it boldly denies a payoff for its audience, Naishtat's feature was bound to face a divisive reaction. "My film's not everybody's cup of tea," Naishtat told me over coffee in Berlin the day after his premiere. "I always knew that some people would like it, and some people wouldn't, because I tried to experiment -- some things worked well, others less, and the rhythms are irregular."

Naishtat, who's 26 and previously attended a fine arts school in France, speaks in monotone and shoots furtive glances left and right while he speaks, like one of the paranoid subjects of his movie. He cites Michael Haneke and Lucretia Martel as influences — not the most marketable names in the business. He's clearly not comfortable in the posh environment of a major film festival, where he arrived after working on "History of Fear" on and off for four years, and had low expectations. "I think it's better to expect the worst in some cases," he said. "It was a good experience. Of course, commercial prospects are very limited this kind of film."

"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night."

While "History of Fear" left Berlin without a U.S. distribution deal, it will open in Buenos Aires this month, and Naishtat already has plans for a bigger project that probes the political environment of Argentina under the dictatorship in the 1970s. In other words, don't expect Naishtat to sign with some big agency and work with Hollywood studios in his next endeavors. "I would love to work elsewhere," he admitted, "but the thing is, I think you need to work within a context you can handle, with elements you know well."

Naishtat's perspective is echoed by another filmmaker who made her debut this year: Ana Lily Amirpour, whose dreamlike black-and-white "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” came out of nowhere at Sundance with a truly unique vision. Ostensibly the tale of an Iranian ghost town haunted by a vampire, it gradually turns into a love story about the desire to escape isolation. Like Naishtat's film, Amirpour riddles her movie with ambiguity at every turn.  

Amirpour -- born in England, raised in the U.S. and who made a movie entirely in Farsi -- shows a similar eye for experimental storytelling that's difficult to pin down but unapologetically innovative. In an email, Amirpour likened her experience unveiling her oddball debut at Sundance to "dancing naked in front of a bunch of people." Like Naishtat, she didn't conceive of her movie with commercial expectations in play. "I really was lucky that I made this film," she said. "It's not a reproduction of something else, or doing what I thought people would want to see, it’s just something I wanted to see."

There might not be another Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater, but first two months of 2014 have presented one of the richest troves of newcomers from around the world in recent memory. In addition to Benjamin Naishtat and Ana Lily Amirpour, in Berlin also premiered Anja Marquardt's "She's Lost Control," which explores the compelling plight of a New York-based sex surrogate in surprisingly effective intellectual terms. Executive produced by Lodge Kerrigan, the movie echoes some of the "Clean, Shaven" and "Keane" director's unique means of turning the city into a reflection of interior anguish, but finds a rhythm of its own.

Appropriately, all three debuts are programmed in the upcoming edition of New Directors/New Films series in New York next month, with "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" serving as the opening night selection. It's going to be a creepy year for discoveries. Each of these works depict abstract threats, tapping into the strange fusion of curiosity and paranoia that many would associate with the zeitgeist. They harbor compelling visions of conflict in the present, but no certainty about the future. Their directors can no doubt relate.

This article is related to: Critic's Notebook, New Directors/New Films, Berlin 2014, Berlin International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, History of Fear, She's Lost Control, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Ana Lily Amirpour, Benjamin Naishtat, Anja Marquardt