Every year, film buffs get themselves in a lather over the latest from their favorite experienced directors. The calendar is marked for the next Spielberg, I’ll be there opening day for Scorsese’s latest, I am all about Spike Lee, etc. But the real pleasure in being a film fan is stumbling upon the undiscovered, lifting a rock and uncovering a new talent, a new voice, with a brand new vocabulary for us to learn. The Scorsese films will be there for us to discover and rediscover whenever we want. In 2013, however, there was only one Shaka King picture, there was only one Lake Bell joint.
What’s exciting about catching a filmmaker with their debut or breakout movie is seeing the birth of a new cinematic language. Not every filmmaker has all the pieces in place so quickly: Brandon Cronenberg’s “Antiviral” was one of the year’s clunkier debuts, but it was considerably more polished than the early experimental fare from his father David. Even the more modest debuts could foretell the filmmakers that will be running Hollywood a decade from now. And when the earlier films are as accomplished as the ones featured in the following piece, it paints a rosy picture for the future of the industry, one we just don’t get to see very often.
Here are a few fresh and emerging faces in filmmaking who provided 2013 with some of its cinematic highlights. If you haven’t seen these films yet, make sure you rectify this soon.
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Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”)
Expanding upon his short, Cretton’s “Short Term 12” has become one of those summertime indie hits that, as the end of the year approaches, many can’t stop talking about. Cretton tackles some sobering material in this, his second film, dealing with troubled youth in a group home. But it’s also not a bummer. Cretton doesn’t skimp on the ugly details from which these children are superficially isolated, and the area itself is a depressing, paint-chipped summer camp of restrictions, rules, and maximum supervision. But thanks to the warmth of a cast with great chemistry, he emphasizes not just the everyday clock-punching struggles of this staff, but also the illustration of people making changes in the world, chisel by chisel. Rarely do you see independent films with this sense of time and place, but “Short Term 12” feels both confident and relaxed, emotionally specific without being overtly somber or intense. “Short Term 12” is very much like the best of crowd-pleasers, a warm, funny and inviting film that earns its keep by taking an incisive but heartfelt look at a difficult subject, and for Cretton, who is attached to the high-profile “The Glass Castle” starring Jennifer Lawrence next, it’s a helluva calling card.
Lake Bell (“In A World…”)
Lake Bell pulled quadruple duty on her directorial debut, “In A World…” clocking in credits as writer, director, star and producer, giving real credence to the saying “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” And the result is a vastly charming comedy that also injects the film with a real world dose of feminist subtext. Set in the highly competitive movie voiceover world, Bell manages to gently skewer Hollywood cliches (“Amazon Games,” anyone?) and workplace sexism. She also manages a hell of a cast, stacked with character actor heavyweights (including Bell herself) such as Fred Melamed, Ken Marino, Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry, Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman and Alexandra Holden (with notable cameos from Eva Longoria and Geena Davis). With that group, how can you go wrong? But Bell does much of the heavy lifting with regard to performance as well, as the dizzy but determined Carol, and the result is one of the most satisfying comedies in years, with an ending that will make you want to shout “PREACH!” in a crowded theater. Her comedic voice is a welcome, and needed, one indeed.
David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”)
Lowery is no newbie: the indie film lifer has been working under the radar for years now, and carries an editing credit on two of the year’s finest independent films, “Upstream Color” and “Sun Don’t Shine,” as well as the moody, as-yet-unreleased “Nor’easter.” But it’s his latest film, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” that has placed him on the map. A lot of that is due to a relatively high wattage of stars in the picture, all doing terrific work: Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are heartbreaking as a separated couple of criminal lovers, and as voices of conscience, Keith Carradine, Ben Foster and Nate Parker are excellent in one of the year’s finest ensembles. But it’s not necessarily the depth of their work as much as how they’re used by Lowery. His approach echoes Terrence Malick in its emphasis on the fluidity of nature and the inner monologue of voiceover sifting through the story like fingers through grass. The actors themselves are forces of nature, with Affleck and Mara distant buoys in the ocean, and others representing nature’s obstacles to keep them apart. A movie like “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” doesn’t announce itself loudly as it merely wafts through the air, reminding moviegoers of an earlier time, a combination of the romantic outlaw poetry of “Badlands” but also the neo-contemporary western slant of John Milius’ “Dillinger.” This is no throwback, but rather a moment in time, one that envelopes the audience. Lowery’s picture isn’t one you watch, but one you get inside, only able to walk out of hours later, long after you’ve physically left the theater.
Sebastian Lelio (“Gloria”)
You often see the phrase “celebration of life” as a way of describing a film or book, and it never really makes much sense. Every time we take a breath, it’s a celebration of life. Every time we kiss someone, it’s a celebration of life. We really don’t need to gather together and actually celebrate life because we go around doing it every day of our lives. That being said (caveat time!), Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria” is a celebration of a specific person’s life, so it certainly makes sense that one would be so ebullient about the subject matter. The Spanish-language picture, Lelio’s fifth, was quickly snapped up for an Oscar-qualifying run by Roadside Attractions, and it’s easy to see why. The title character, a middle-aged woman a decade removed from a divorce, remains oblivious that she’s consistently the last one at the party, drinking herself to the bottom of a glass each and every night. It’s mere happenstance that a chance meeting with an older man gives her the opportunity to be an important part of someone else’s life, but of course there are various challenges. From Gloria’s perspective, her time is being wasted by a schleppy Romeo who doesn’t have his affairs in order. But “Gloria,” slyly, is also about the compromises we make when we’re with someone else, when love and affection is no match for chance, opportunity and circumstance. Lelio could have made an oppressive, downbeat picture, but “Gloria” is packed with spicy humor and a playful spirit that never lets Gloria (as played by an excellent Paulina Garcia) become a victim.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts “The Kings of Summer”
Emerging from the comedy world, Vogt-Roberts is a veteran of Funny Or Die sketches, though he caught most people’s attentions with the short “Successful Alcoholics.” While that film had a broadly comedic tone, it showed enough of a handling of actors and themes enough to bode well for his inevitable big screen debut. That approached in the form of “The Kings of Summer,” and while he enlisted comic veterans like Nick Offerman, Allison Brie, Tony Hale, Thomas Middleditch and Hannibal Burress, the core of the picture are the three young boys at the center. ‘Kings,’ which features a trio of kids building their own four-wall sanctuary in the woods away from civilization, feels like a spiritual relative to children’s films of the ’80s, which weren’t beholden to demographics and catchphrases and featured oddballs and outsiders with filthy vocabularies. But while Vogt-Roberts can’t resist the allure of a good gag, and arguably gives Offerman enough improv time to sidetrack the story, he’s clearly got an aptitude for building onscreen relationships and depicting natural conflict that goes beyond simple sketch-comedy prowess. While watching “The Kings of Summer” you get the sense that there’s a funnier—not better—version of the film sitting on the cutting room floor. Which is, if anything, exciting, as he’ll likely learn to mesh comedic and drama elements in a clearer way with his follow-up effort.
Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight”)
While the ’90s saw a new wave of directors emerging from the world of music videos, the aughts have seen more and more filmmakers crossing over from the small screen (and in some cases, pinging back and forth between the two). “Community” directors Joe and Anthony Russo landed the upcoming “Captain America” sequel, “Game of Thrones” director Alan Taylor just crushed the global box office with “Thor: The Dark World,” and on a smaller scale, earlier this year “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara” writer/producer Jill Soloway made her big screen debut with “Afternoon Delight.” Judging the film’s log line—a bored Silverlake couple hires a stripper to be their nanny—you would think you might be in for a broadly sketched comedy, as we did when we sat down for the film’s Sundance premiere. But we quickly learned that Soloway was a filmmaker determined to keep it real. The film is ostensibly a comedy, but one with careful shading unafraid to explore real issues and perhaps ironically for someone coming from TV, it plays less like a sitcom than 99% of rom-coms these days. Like Lisa Cholodenko or Nicole Holofcener (who have also both also dabbled in TV) before her, Soloway is willing to hang her vision on a somewhat commercial hook but unafraid to color outside the lines too (just watch for that Cassavetes-inspired third act). The jury at Sundance recognized this and Soloway took home the Directing Award for the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Though her debut was regrettably underappreciated while in theatres, we’re still expecting big things from her in the future. Best case scenario: Kathryn Hahn becomes her full-time muse (Keener to her Holofcener) and they make a dozen more films together.
Haifaa Al Mansour (“Wadjda”)
“Wadjda” was always going to get a certain amount of attention on the festival circuit: it was the first ever film made in Saudi Arabia, and directed by a female filmmaker, no less. But there’s a difference between a well-meaning novelty and a legitimately great piece of work, and it was thanks to director Haifaa Al-Mansour that her debut fell into the latter category. Al-Mansour, the daughter of Saudi poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, and a former oil industry executive, had made a few splashes at festivals with shorts and documentaries before now, but “Wadjda” is an extraordinary calling card going forward—gorgeously shot, delicately balanced, always humane, and summoning up rich performances from a not-massively experienced cast. There’s a confidence shot through the picture that never makes it feel like a debut, let alone a debut that was often directed while Al-Mansour was in a car communicating with the crew by walkie-talkie, lest she be seen mixing with men in public. For all the restrictions, it’s a film of immense freedom and humanity, and we can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Don Jon”)
Who knew that sinewy, heartthrobby body behind hits like “Looper” and “Inception” had a brain behind him? Gordon-Levitt tends to play characters who are a couple of moves ahead of the competition, but you wouldn’t figure the young child star of capturing a major unspoken facet about a large chunk of the population. As writer, director and star, Gordon-Levitt deceives by setting up “Don Jon” as a standard romantic comedy: he’s broken, and his tough-talking counterpart (Scarlett Johansson) can’t be seduced until he fixes himself. The character’s step-by-step process of fixing his inadequacies would be rousing montage material in another, simpler romance (perhaps like the ones Gordon-Levitt parodies in the film, starring the likes of a humorously clock-punching Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway). Here, however, Gordon-Levitt gets to the heart of why most relationships, romantic or otherwise, fail, largely due to one side completely dismissing the other. Most of the pleasures of “Don Jon” come from Gordon-Levitt setting up expectations and then softly deflating them: the blustery father figure played by Tony Danza starts out as a “type” before he begins to reveal layers of cultural and sexual identity that complicate a simpler interpretation. And what the narrative does with Johansson’s Barbara isn’t quite expected either, providing an honest-to-god talking point between couples who caught the film upon release. It’s a stretch to say Gordon-Levitt has shown a strong authorial stamp this first time around, but when he decides to halt his promising leading man career to get behind the camera once again, it’s bound to be interesting.
Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”)
For some in Hollywood, success is an escalator, and it there isn’t much space for reflection as one slowly rises to the top. That wasn’t the case for Coogler, who happened to board a fairly speedy escalator when “Fruitvale Station” was named the Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. But Coogler couldn’t let it go to his head; like his father, he has spent time working with incarcerated youth, experiences that likely fueled the story of Oscar Grant, a young man felled by an inadvertent bullet fired by a BART cop on New Year’s Eve in Oakland in 2009. “Fruitvale Station” attempts to humanize Grant beyond being a statistic, another innocent young black man killed by an armed white man with no one held accountable, and by doing so, creates something entirely different: this is a remarkable story about an unremarkable man, a gentle spirit barely getting by, failing to support his young child but touching those around him with a sweet smile and a fraternal spirit. Deifying Grant would have been easy, but Coogler has great weapons at his disposal: as his loving but disapproving mother, Octavia Spencer reveals several layers of expectation, love and regret both in her interactions with her son as well as during the film’s fateful climax. “Fruitvale Station” isn’t so much about a man as it is about a community, and the extraction of one of its vital cogs: when a life is lost so needlessly, the ripple effect can be overwhelming. Coogler’s moving to a much loftier goal, attached to direct the “Rocky” spinoff “Creed,” which might re-team him with ‘Fruitvale’ collaborator Michael B. Jordan. The thought of Coogler’s skills used to finally portray the absence of a figure like Apollo Creed, who died in that series’ fourth film, makes one think it will be the most humane manner the boxing world will have been seen in years on the big screen.
Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”)
Few documentaries burst onto the scene quite like Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing.” Then again, few also boast the approval of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, both of whom produced this epic. It’s not a confusing picture at all: in fact, Oppenheimer’s camera is rarely confrontational and never manipulative, capturing the frank horrors of the subject matter. But “The Act of Killing” is an impossible film to summarize because of the topics addressed by its controversial subject matter, the type that have lingered for months after the film’s release. Firstly, Oppenheimer’s camera address veterans of Indonesian genocide, asking of them what it’s like to emerge the victor, to be the killer and the hero. But it’s not muckracking of any sort, because these “survivors” are more than willing to talk. What Oppenheimer does next is cinematic subversion of the most eye-opening kind, allowing these admitted murderers to re-create this violence for the camera in the form of a congratulatory film that is at points brilliant, terrible, hypnotic and upsettingly revealing. Oppenheimer’s unobtrusiveness allows him to capture moments like the leader of a “death squad” instructing the real life killers to not celebrate so much for the camera, either because that isn’t how he remembers it, or because of the fear that the camera captures the sort of truth no one wants to preserve. It’s the strongest doc of the year, and proof that Oppenheimer is one of the year’s boldest, bravest new filmmaking voices.
Alexandre Moors (“Blue Caprice”)
You can’t easily explain or map out a disassociated mind, as much as you can be sympathetic towards it. What’s curious about Moors’ debut, the upsetting true-life story “Blue Caprice,” is that, upon first glance, it’s a horror film, depicting the twisted bond between a man and child in a way that led to the Beltway sniper incidents of the mid ’00s. But behind the gathering storm is the sense of humanity being lost, a tragedy in three acts, the vanishing connection tethering two men to society; perhaps it plays like a horror film because it’s almost like a vampire picture without vampires. Moors, a commercial and music video veteran, takes a psychosexual view of the tragedies, depicting John Allen Muhammed (Isaiah Washington) as a virile man who observes women as subjects to be conquered, fools to be shown a light that only he can comprehend, despite his abstract teachings to the young teenager he’s taken under the fold. One is likely to know the true story walking into “Blue Caprice,” as they would when seeing any true story-based film. But what “Blue Caprice” does is subtle, in how you forget that the bloodshed and anger is coming, instead getting wrapped up in a tense two-hander where one man quietly twists and manipulates another for morbid gain. Moors as made a truly upsetting film, one that frustrates those looking for answers. What it does is raise questions instead, suggesting that the story goes on in the thoughts of the viewer, a true sign of respect between artist and audience.
Amy Seimetz (“Sun Don’t Shine”)
Some people act, write and direct, and some people tell the story of the year in film all their own, “Zelig”-style. In 2013, Seimetz was one of those people in the independent world. As a member of the ensemble of cheeky no-fi horror crossover “You’re Next,” Seimetz ended up cavorting with contemporaries Ti West and Joe Swanberg through a relatively mainstream-y slasher. She also became an unlikely love interest in Shane Carruth’s bewitching “Upstream Color,” giving one of the year’s strongest lead performances. And Seimetz (who also popped up in Ti West’s as-yet-unreleased “The Sacrament”) made her mark as a director as well, helming the sweaty, steamy no-budget noir “Sun Don’t Shine.” It’s a film that plays out as a mystery, gradually unpeeling itself to reach a charred core, except that one can’t help but notice you’ll keep unpeeling long after the movie is over. Seimetz has made a disquieting debut, a tense picture where not much of consequence happens, but the audience remains riveted to their seats, as if one wrong move while watching the picture could yield a nasty punishment for the characters in front of you. It’s a small film, but once that announces a major talent behind the screen, one who isn’t beholden to small budgets, but rather enthralled by them. “Sun Don’t Shine” never feels slight, and never feels less than vital.
Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”)
NYU grad Shaka King’s debut feature is unclassifiable, if only because it so successfully melds two things mainstream filmgoers love. One is the romantic comedy, and King scored heavily with unknowns Trae Harris and Amari Cheatom as a married couple who rely on each other for companionship, love and understanding. And also bud, since the other thing filmgoers love is comedic drug use. There’s a catharsis to watching others onscreen interact with a controlled substance, and in “Newlyweeds” there’s no shortage of the sticky icky to please the potheads in the audience. But it’s not all jokes for this film, as King has to measure the balancing act of carefree pot use and pot-fueled gags and fantasies, but also the realities of when a vice starts to pry at the relationship between two people. It’s essentially a love triangle where one part of the tripod doesn’t speak, allowing the film to reflect on the social realities of being middle-to-lower-middle class in New York City and wanting to indulge in a bit of luxury once in awhile. King’s first film is an absolute pleasure from beginning to end, and earlier this year we named it one of the all-time great pot films, but it’s also one of the year’s best films full stop.
There were many filmmakers we liked whom we nonetheless felt made films that straddled the line between 2012 and 2013, including Adam Leon (“Gimme The Loot”), Lucy Molloy (“Una Noche”), Andrew Semans (“Nancy, Please”) and Terence Nance (“An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty”). Among this year’s rookies, there were strong debuts we felt we should mention from the likes of Stace Passon (“Concussion”), John Krokidas (“Kill Your Darlings”), Kieran Darcy-Smith (“Wish You Were Here”), Rebecca Thomas (“Electrick Children”), Aaron Schimberg (“Go Down Death”), Andrew Dosunmu (“Mother Of George“), Jim Mickles (“We Are What We Are“) and Ana Piterbarg (“Everyone Has A Plan”).
Among bigger names, the team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg scored a $100 million hit their first time out with the very funny “This Is The End,” while Keanu Reeves revealed some interesting action chops with the diverting “Man Of Tai Chi.” It can be intimidating making your big screen debut on a studio level, but that didn’t stop Fede Alvarez (“The Evil Dead”) and Andres Muschietti (“Mama”) from making an impression, and while their films slightly falter in the third acts, they’ve deservedly become in-demand names with the studios. James DeMonaco also used the horror genre to prop up his career with his second film, “The Purge,” and should note the efforts from second-time filmmakers Hannah Fidell (“A Teacher”) and Jeremy Sauliner (festival fave “Blue Ruin,” coming in ‘14). — Jessica Kiang, Gabe Toro, Katie Walsh, Cory Everett