Escape From Tomorrow
"Escape From Tomorrow."

This is not an easy season for first-time filmmakers.

As the awards race heats up and top 10 lists grow ubiquitous, new voices tend to get pushed to the sidelines to make room for more familiar ones. There are notable exceptions, of course: Last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” erupted onto the scene like some kind of alien discovery at the Sundance Film Festival and sustained its dazzling platform all the way through Oscar time; this time around, the formidable "Fruitvale Station" is poised to do the same. But not every original or bold new feature has such luck, simply because not every great movie opens itself up to a robot publicity campaign. The issue is compounded by the inherent challenge of recognizing a new filmmaking presence in the work itself: Some debuts are simply outstanding irrespective of whether or not their directors have been at bat before, but other quirkier achievements may stand out predominantly because of their newness.

My own list of noteworthy debuts includes a couple of familiar names alongside some of the sleeper hits of the festival circuit. They’ve been ranked, but it goes without saying that it’s an inexact science, and every filmmaker represented by these works stands a good chance of producing more work deserving a place on more year-end accolades. I've only selected debuts that stand more than anything else because they announce potential above all else ("The Act of Killing," a brilliant first feature not mentioned here, is much more than that). The placement of certain films here not only singles them out in the present -- it points to a couple of promising futures at once.

5. "The History of Future Folk"

A microbudget Brooklyn-set adventure co-directed by J. Anderson Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker, "The History of Future Folk" works so well partly because it carries the energy of the real musicians featured in it. Stars Nils d'Aulaire and Jay Klaitz have formed the bluegrass duo Future Folk for roughly a decade, and their comfort with their goofy stage personas as finger-picking extraterrestrial invaders holds the movie's ridiculous premise together, as does a compelling plot that never completely devolves into parody. Or, rather, it takes the ridiculous premise very seriously.

Indeed, the movie presents a fairly straightforward sci-fi story in which the far-off planet Hondo, facing imminent extinction by way of an incoming comet, sends its trenchant General Trius (d'Aulaire) to wipe out Earthlings with a deadly virus so his fellow Hondonians can take over the planet. Instead, Trius falls in love with Earth's music, settles down with a wife and kid, adopts the bland alter ego Bill, and spends his evenings singing narcissistic songs about his past to bored Brooklynites at the grimy Williamsburg pub Trash Bar. The arrival of clumsy assassin Kevin (Klaitz), sent to Earth from Hondo to kill Bill and let loose the virus himself, gives Bill the opportunity to enlist a partner in crime. Hoping to keep his stable life with his wife Holly (Julie Ann Emery) and young daughter Wren (Onata Aprile, recently seen in "What Maisie Knew"), Bill plans to launch a rocket from Earth to stop the comet.

The filmmakers position this legitimate sci-fi backdrop against a slapstick narrative that gives Bill an excuse to school Kevin in the ways of bluegrass (strapping him to a chair and subjecting the other man to a medley of Earthly tunes) and before long they've joined forces onstage for a show-stopping song about our planet's lack of space worms. The sweet, catchy melodies in "Future Folk" celebrate the sincerity lurking beneath the ironic facade of Brooklyn's scrappier bohemian crowds. But the characters are so well crafted that it's easy to get drawn into the high stakes plot as well.  "Future Folk" lacks the scale and marketing budget of countless other movies released this year, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of unadulterated escapism in which the craftsmanship lies not in visual polish but the universal appeal of a catchy tune.

4. "Sun Don’t Shine"

Amy Seimetz, previously known only for acting work, delivers her directorial debut in the form of a vivid, suspenseful noir that effectively funnels the sweltering backdrop of the Florida landscape into a swift crime saga. "Two-Lane Blacktop" by way of "Bonnie and Clyde," Seimetz's pulpy tale follows lovers Crystal and Leo (perennial character actress Kate Lyn Sheil and microbudget filmmaker Kentucker Audley) on the lam for mysterious reasons only vaguely made clear near the end of the first act. But even then much of the drama remains deeply ambiguous. Sheil's performance, all scowls and muffled shrieks, provides the ideal counterpoint to Audley's muted delivery. From the shock of its opening shot to the tension of its closing moments, "Sun Don't Shine" (which won Indiewire’s Best Undistributed Film poll last year before making its way to theaters at the start of this one) conveys a gripping mood so elegantly that it's easy to get lost in the proceedings without realizing that so little has happened. More than that, “Sun Don’t Shine” transcends its brooding genre roots by making the fates of its wandering anti-heroes into a deeply engrossing relationship drama so physically intense it practically explodes into a dark form of crackling slapstick comedy. Yet the final moments are so sharply rendered they arrive with an emotional finality that reverberates long after the credits roll. I first saw “Sun Don’t Shine” at the SXSW Film Festival in 2012 and it still haunts me.