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On The Rise 2015: 20 Directors To Watch

On The Rise 2015: 20 Directors To Watch

It’s that time of year again, when the blockbusters start to lull, the fall festival season hasn’t quite begun, and when the movies on release tend to be slim pickings. And that’s when we like to look to the future, and the talents who’ll be shaping it, with our On The Rise season of actors, actresses, writers, directors, cinematographers and composers to watch.

A month or so on, our On The Rise season draws to a close, and after actors, actresses, cinematographers, composers and screenwriters, there was only one category left —the directors. Film is undoubtedly a director’s medium: you could give the same script and same actors to a hundred different filmmakers, and end up with a hundred wildly different versions, each one reflecting the tastes and personality of the director behind it.

Perhaps even more so than with actors, the film business is always on the look out for new directors, and festivals and other outlets are happy to oblige. In the past, we’ve tipped the likes of Dee Rees (“Bessie”), Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”), Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts Of The Southern Wild”), Haifaa Al-Mansour (“Wadjda”), Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”), Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”), Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) and Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”). Who have we gone for this year? Take a look below and find out.

Ana Lily Amirpour

We’re not always quite as ahead of the curve as we’d like to be. To wit: few Playlisters had caught up with “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” the buzzy genre-bender marking Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature debut, by the time this list came together last year. Consider that state of affairs to be rectified, because ‘A Girl…’ was one of the most exciting debuts of the last few years, and Amirpour is now firmly on our radar. Born in the U.K. by Iranian parents but raised in Florida and then California, Amirpour has a string of commercials and shorts on her CV, including the Berlinale-selected “Pashmaloo,” before turning the short of the same name into her stunning, black-and-white, Jarmuschian Iranian vampire tale, a meld of diverse pop culture influences and sheer invention that showed a fearsome command of mood and a hugely exciting new voice. And it’s found her fans quickly: Megan Ellison’s Annapurna are backing her follow-up, a post-apocalyptic cannibal romanceA Bad Batch, starring Jason Momoa, Jim Carrey, Keanu Reeves and Suki Waterhouse.

Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe

Perhaps the most thrilling, surprising and extraordinary documentary we’ve seen in 2015, “(T)error” is the story of an FBI counterterrorism informant doing one last job for the bureau —the film involves extraordinary, almost unprecedented access to its subjects and rightly won directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe a Special Jury Award for Break Out First Feature at Sundance this year. Cabral’s background is in photojournalism (she has worked in the Smithsonian), Sutcliffe’s in film, and they met when both teaching at Harlem afterschool arts program TRUCE. They first collaborated on Sutcliffe’s film “Adama,” about one of his students who was accused of being a potential terrorist, but teamed in earnest for the astonishing “(T)error,” which follows a character that Cabral has known for a decade and which both serves as a crackling thriller while examining the wider implications of its story. There’s no news on what they’ll do next, but they did just successfully Kickstart enough money to ensure a theatrical release next month.

Andrew Cividino

The coming-of-age movie is such well-trodden ground that it takes real skill to find something new to say in the genre, which is one of the reasons we’re so excited by Andrew Cividino. Hailing from Canada, Cividino’s been racking up credits for a while at home in commercials and TV (including the Yann Martel adaptation “We Ate The Children Last”), and was set to make his feature debut with “Sleeping Giant” when the funding fell through. Unbowed, he used what he had to make a short version of the story, and when that won a prize at Locarno (and played TIFF and AFI Fest), Cividino used the momentum to get the full-length version going again. The film premiered at Critics’ Week in Cannes this year, and proved to be an utterly beguiling debut: as our review said, this “anti-‘Stand By Me’ is a “heartbreaking and truthful” tale that can deftly switch tones on a dime, and bears comparison to “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Virgin Suicides.”


Though we amuse ourselves with the idea that the above is the director of “The Butler” trying to make his name even more prominent, DANIELS are actually some of the most prominent music video helmers of the last few years who are about to move into features in a big way. Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (see how they got the name?) have slightly different backgrounds: the former comes from an improv comedy background, the latter from animation and graphics, but the pair met at film school and became fast friends, kicking off their career with music videos (including for The Shins, a Grammy nominated one for Foster The People, and DJ Snake and Lil Jon‘s VMA-winning “Turn Down For What” clip, in which Kwan also stars). But their narrative work, including web series for XBox Live and Instagram and the stunning short Interesting Ball,” has been even more interesting and distinctive, and as such, we can’t wait to see their feature debut, the Sundance Labs-approved Swiss Army Man,” with Daniel Radcliffe, Paul Dano and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Robert Eggers

One of the absolute highlights of Sundance this year was “The Witch,” an artful period horror movie about a family of New Englanders in the 1600s whose infant is abducted, a blend of “The Shining” and Ingmar Bergman, according to director Robert Eggers The film is his first feature, but he’s been working in film for a little while, principally as a costume and production designer, while also directing some decidedly Gothic shorts, including takes on “Hansel & Gretel” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,”and working as a stage director. His third short “Brothers,” a spin on Cain & Abel, landed in 2013, and that helped lead to “The Witch,” a terrifying, beautifully made picture that won him the Directing Award at Sundance. A24 won’t put the film out until next year, but Eggers is already lining up his next move: he’s helming a remake of “Nosferatu (having directed it for the stage), and the medieval story “The Knight,” both for new company Studio 8.

Rick Famuyiwa

It’d be a mistake to describe Rick Famuyiwa as a newcomer —he has three features behind him, which were well-received and even popular, beginning with “The Wood” in 1999, then “Brown Sugar” in 2002, and more recently, “Our Family Wedding” in 2010 (he also co-wrote the underrated “Talk To Me” for Kasi Lemmons). But the LA-raised son of Nigerian immigrants and USC grad has given his career a whole new lease of life this year with the raucous “Dope.” Having premiered at Sundance to glowing notices and proving an indie crossover hit over the summer, the coming-of-age comedy-drama is one of the most energetic movies we’ve seen in a long time —it’s propulsive, fuelled by a terrific soundtrack and is never anything less than entertaining and thoughtful. He moved straight on to HBO movie Confirmation,” which is about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hll and starring Wendell Pierce, Kerry Washington and Greg Kinnear, and may have even bigger things coming up: he’s said to be the frontrunner, after Ava DuVernay passed, for Marvel’sBlack Panther.”

Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz

Making waves in both genre and arthouse circles since premiering at Venice last year, “Goodnight Mommyis one of the best-reviewed horror movies in a long while, and looks to launch its directing duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz into the limelight. Though they’ve known each other for nearly two decades (Fiala would babysit Franz’s children when he was a film student), the Austrian pair only worked together for the first time on 2012’s “Kern,” a documentary about an Austrian actor-director, but made their fiction feature debut with the chilling “Goodnight Mommy,” about two young boys who aren’t sure if their bandaged mother is the same after she returns home from plastic surgery. Comparisons to fellow Austrians Michael Haneke and Franz’s husband Ulrich Seidl have abounded, but Fiala and Franz have their own thing going on, and aside from two homegrown projects, including “By The Hand Of The Executioner,” about a spate of murders committed by women attempting to do the 18th-century equivalent of suicide-by-cop, they’re also reportedly meeting with U.S. studios.

Nisha Ganatra

Though TV is still seen as a writer’s medium in contrast to films, it’s become easier for a filmmaker to stand out with small-screen fare than it used to be —going from indies to acclaimed television series and back to movies is happening more and more frequently, and Nisha Ganatra is one of the big beneficiaries of this. Ganatra’s 1999 debut “Chutney Popcorn” won an award at Berlin, follow up “Cosmopolitan” hit at SXSW, and she helmed “Cake,” starring Heather Graham in 2005, but Ganatra’s had a major second act in the last twelve months —she’s both a consulting producer and a director on Amazon’s transcendent “Transparent,” helming the only three episodes that creator Jill Soloway didn’t direct herself. She’s followed it up with work on the hottest TV show of the summer “Mr. Robot” (which Steven Soderbergh has said is the best-directed show on television), as well as episodes of “Married” and “The Mindy Project.” With a couple of features in development, things look better than ever for her.

Sarah Gavron

She might not be a big name at this point, but given that neither was Tom Hooper before “The King’s Speech” arrived, Sarah Gavron’s likely to be a much more familiar face in the near future, if the reaction from Telluride to “Suffragette” is anything to go by. Trained at the National Film and Television School (home to Terence Davies, David Yates, Lynne Ramsay and Joachim Trier, among others), the British helmer worked on shorts “Losing Touch” and “The Girl In The Lay-By” before moving into feature-length territory with much-praised TV one-off drama “This Little Life,” starring Kate Ashfield and David Morrissey as the parents of a prematurely-born child. Next up was feature debut “Brick Lane,” an acclaimed adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel that earned her a BAFTA Best Newcomer nod, and in 2012 came documentary “The Village At The End Of The World.” “Suffragette” has been a passion project for Gavron, but given most of the reviews, it looks like it’s been worth the eight-year wait for a new feature.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

There’s no better way to learn how to be a great filmmaker than to learn at the feet of great filmmakers, and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has done plenty of that. Getting his first credit as an intern on Alexandre Rockwell’s “In The Soup” in 1992, Gomez-Rejon went on to work for Martin Scorsese on “Casino” (the director even asked AFI if they’d defer the young filmmaker’s place so he could use him for another year), and later as an assistant to Nora Ephron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, eventually directing second unit for both, and for Kevin MacDonald. He finally got to direct on “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” winning particular acclaim and two Emmy nominations for the latter, before his little-heralded feature debut on the remake of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” But his Sundance feature “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl” got a lot more attention, and even if you have issues with it, you have to acknowledge the flair and attention to detail with which Gomez-Rejon helms it. Next up is buzzy fableCollateral Beauty starring Will Smith, Rooney Mara and Jason Segel.

Toby Haynes

Not all that many watched this summer’s BBC America minseries “Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell,” but those that did will have marked director Toby Haynes as someone to watch. Another National Film And Television School graduate, Haynes kicked off his directing career with BBC kids’ series “M.I. High” (which starred fellow On The Riser Bel Powley), before moving into more adult territory with cult hits like “Being Human,” some of the better recent “Doctor Who” episodes (the Michael Gambon-starring Christmas special was his work), and the second-season finale episode of “Sherlock,” “The Reichenbach Fall.” But “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” which Haynes directed all seven episodes of, was a passion project, and looked it: Haynes adeptly conjured everything from “Lord Of The Rings” to “Barry Lyndon” via a visually stunning epic that still beautifully handled its characters, and unsurprisingly, it’s put him in the big leagues: next, he’s directing a new big-screen version of musical “Oliver!” from the makers of “Billy Elliot” and “Les Miserables.”

Marielle Heller

It’s important for a filmmaker to really fall in love with their material, and few could doubt that that’s what Marielle Heller did. The then-actress read Phoebe Glockner’s graphic novel “Diary Of A Teenage Girl,” adored it, and pursued the author for a year until she gave her the stage rights to the material, for which she wrote and perfored in an acclaimed off-Broadway one-woman show. This launched a writing career for Heller, with a number of TV pilots, but she wasn’t done with ‘Diary’ character Minnie: she debuted her feature film version at Sundance this year to wild and deserved acclaim. It’s one of the most confident and finely wrought directorial debuts we’ve seen in years —it’s smart, sensitive, raw and stylish. Quite rightly, it’s getting Heller a lot of attention: she was approached for “Wonder Woman” when Michelle MacLaren dropped out, and will next direct Natalie Portman in Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic On The Basis Of Sex.”

Kahlil Joseph

In the 1990s, you couldn’t move for filmmakers that had graduated from the music video world, and some of the most exciting filmmakers, from David Fincher to Spike Jonze, came up that way. It seems to be a less popular path these days, but with DANIELS (above) and Kahlil Joseph, the music video director making a mark in cinema might be making a comeback. Joseph, who has his foot as firmly planted in the art scene as the film world, first emerged with clips for the likes of Shabazz Places and Aloe Blacc, but it was his stunning “Until The Quiet Comes,” for Flying Lotus in 2012 that marked him as something special. The Kendrick Lamar-inspired “m.A.A.d” might have been even better, andan FKA Twigs clip last year helped lead to a showcase at L.A’s MOCA this year. Joseph’s worked with Terrence Malick as an editor and counts Charles Burnett as one of his greatest influences, and his next step should be just as interesting: he directed the Arcade Fire documentary “The Reflektor Tapes.” Can a fiction feature be far away?

Paul King

The best movie of 2015 that you probably didn’t see unless you have kids, “Paddington” (an adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved character) looked from a distance like a “Garfield”/“Marmaduke”-style childhood-wrecking monstrosity, but turned out to be a Pixar-esque delight full of visual invention, great gags and a giant heart. The man responsible is Paul King, who got his start alongside Richard Ayoade & co., directing the original stage version of “Garth Marenghi” before moving on to helm the beloved surrealist BBC comedy “The Mighty Boosh.” His feature debut “The Bunny & The Bull” went underseen, but continued his love of absurd humor and a Michel Gondry-esque homemade aesthetic and boundless imagination, which all paid off beautifully in more mainstream form for “Paddington.” Next up, he’s directing Wonder,” a YA adaptation about a boy with facial deformities, and he’s also considering Thomas Edison movie The Current War,” a former Ben Stiller project, as well as developing a “Paddington” sequel.

Michael Larnell

His first feature might have been overshadowed a little at Sundance thanks to “Dope,” but that probably wasn’t too much of a problem for Michael J. Larnell, given that he was still several months away from graduating from film school when it screened. The NYU student’s “Cronies,” a St. Louis-set tale about male friendship between a young man and his weed-dealing childhood friend, isn’t even the first feature from the filmmaker (the hour-long “It Soothes My Soul” came first in 2010), but it gained the attention of Spike Lee before it even screened (he’s an executive producer on the movie), and the film, shot in striking black-and-white, proved one of the big hits in Sundance’s NEXT program, with our review calling it “an auspicious debut” that feels “alive and of-the-moment” with “terrific energy.’ Now that he’s finally graduating from his MFA program, the world must be his oyster.

László Nemes

Cannes tends to favor established auteurs rather than newcomers in its official competition, so just making the cut made László Nemes one to watch, even before his debut feature won the Grand Prix (the festival’s second prize, essentially) from the Coen Brothers’ jury. Born in Hungary but raised in Paris, Nemes is a second-generation filmmaker (his father András Jeles worked in theater and cinema) who worked as Béla Tarr’s assistant on the two-year production process for “The Man From London” a decade ago, before heading to NYU to study directing. His short “With A Little Patience” was selected for Venice, with two more following, but it’s his feature debut, the staggering “Son Of Saul, a verite look at a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz who discovers his son among the victims, directed with enormous visceral power and technical skill, that’s put him on everyone’s lips. Expect him to be, at minimum, an Oscar nominee by this time next year.

Leah Meyerhoff

Its title might be horrifically twee, but “I Believe In Unicorns is one of the freshest and most interesting takes on the teen love story in a long time, and will hopefully put writer/director Leah Meyerhoff on the map in a major way. Winning the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance and a Student Oscar nomination for debut short “Twitch” (her time at NYU was also documented in Nanette Burnstein’s IFC series “Film School”), Meyerhoff kept busy with music videos for artists like Joan As Police Woman, until her debut feature premiered at SXSW last year and then hit theaters this year. Following the fledgling affair between teens Davina and Sterling, it’s a rarity both in the depth in which it delves into its lead character’s burgeoning sexuality, and in the imagination that it brings to the story, with a magic-realist feel that makes it stand above the crowd. She also founded the collective the Film Fatales (which includes the likes of Marielle Heller, Josephine Decker and Eliza Hittman among its members), and we can’t wait to see what she does next.

Shira Piven

Not everyone was into “Welcome To Me,” a surprisingly raw Kristen Wiig vehicle that was more “King Of Comedy” than “Bridesmaids” —it’s been among the more divisive films of this year. But if you liked it, as we did, you really liked it, and the scabrous, wounded, wounding satire on our self-absorbed culture marked the arrival of director Shira Piven in the movie world. Drama’s always been in her blood —her parents are Chicago theater luminaries, her brother is “Entourage” star Jeremy —but aside from a small role in “Bob Roberts” and cameos in husband Adam McKay’s movies, she had mostly stuck to the stage until she helmed indie “Fully Loaded,” adapted from a play she’d worked on in 2011. But “Welcome To Me” marked a big step up, with Piven confidently marshalling a tricky selection of tones and getting some terrific performances out of her cast, especially Wiig, and the film deserved a bigger audience than it got. Hopefully Piven’s got more planned.

Sebastian Schipper

Some actors go into directing as a vanity project: they might make one movie and return to the day job, but others end up finding their true calling, and that certainly seems to be the case for Sebastian Schipper, whose latest film looks to introduce his work to a worldwide audience. The 47-year-old German actor has some impressive credits as a performer, including roles in “The English Patient” and “Run Lola Run” (Tom Tykwer, director of the latter, has become a regular collaborator), before moving into direction with “Absolute Giganten” in 1999. The Daniel Brühl-starring “A Friend Of Mine” and 2009’s Goethe adaptation “Sometime In August” followed, but at Berlin this year, he debuted “Victoria,” his staggering all-in-one-take drama of a young woman who becomes embroiled in a heist, a thrilling and textured achievement that out “Birdman”s “Birdman.” It’s heading to TIFF and Fantastic Fest shortly, so expect Hollywood to be knocking on his door soon.

Trey Edward Shults

The surprise winner of the SXSW Grand Jury Prize this year and a hit at Cannes as well, “Krisha” is one of the most startling debuts of the year, and has already made Trey Edward Shults one of the most talked-about young filmmakers around. Shults has racked up credits working with some impressive filmmakers —he was an intern on “Tree Of Life” and worked on the camera team of Terrence Malick’s two upcoming movies, as well as on Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special,” but he debuted the short version of “Krisha” at SXSW in 2014 before following with the feature the next year. A family affair, the film stars the director’s aunt of the same name as a drug-addicted black sheep, with Shults’ mother and grandmother also in the cast, and the authenticity gives the movie a real freshness (think “August Osage County” if it was, you know, any good). With A24 picking up the movie and financing Shults’ next movie, psychological horror “It Comes At Night,” you’ll be hearing much more from the young director. 

Honorable Mentions: As ever, there’s a ton of other filmmakers we could have included. To name but a few, there’s Jennifer Phang, who had “Advantageous” at Sundance; Corin Hardy, who scared the pants off people with “The Hallow” and is attached to “The Crow”; “Ex Machina”’s Alex Garland; Patrick Brice, who went from horror “Creep” to “The Overnight”; Josh Mond‘s grueling “James White,” which coaxes out a career-best performance so far from the young and talented Christopher AbbottRebecca Thomas, who made “Electrick Children” and is doing the next John Green adaptation “Looking For Alaska”; Bong Joon-Ho protege Shim Sung-Bo; “Stanford Prison Experiment”’s Kyle Patrick Alvarez; and, of course, Jon Watts, whose “Cop Car” landed him the job as Marvel’s “Spider-Man” director.

There’s also Garth Davis, who did “Top Of The Lake” with Jane Campion and is now helming Weinstein awards hopeful “Lion” with Dev Patel, Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman; Benjamin Dickinson of SXSW hit “Creative Control”; Otto Bathurst, a “Doctor Who” veteran who’ll next make “Robin Hood: Origins” with Taron Egerton; “Cartel Land”’s Matthew HeinemanJake Szymanski, a Funny Or Die vet who did “7 Days In Hell” and is currently helming “Mike & David Need Wedding Dates” with Zac Efron and Anna Kendrick; and “Fort Tilden” director Sarah Violet-Bliss.

And there’s “Faults” helmer Riley Stearns; “Catch Me Daddy”’s Daniel Wolfe; “The Falling” helmer Carol Morley; Tangerine” director Sean Baker; Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead who made the terrifying “Spring”; “Slow West”’s John Maclean; “Daredevil” director Farren Blackburn who’s got Naomi Watts thriller “Shut In” coming up; “Take Me To The River”’s Matt Sobel; “Rich Hill” and “One & Two” director Andrew Droz Palermo; Brett Haley, who’s behind surprise indie sleeper “I’ll See You In My Dreams”; “Violet” director Bas Devos; and “A Prophet” co-writer Thomas Bidegain who made his directorial debut with “Cowboys.”

Not to forget Marc Munden, who did the original “Utopia” and is moving on to Black Listed sci-fi “Aether”; “Hyena”’s Gerard Johnson; producer-turned-director Bill Pohlad of “Love & Mercy”; Kris Swanberg of “Unexpected”; “Sweaty Betty” helmers Joe Frank & Zack Reed; “I Smile Back”’s Adam Salky; “Bridgend” director Jeppe Ronde; Dagur Kuri who made “Virgin Mountain”; Deniz Gamze Erguven, Ciro Guerra and Grimur Hakonarson of Cannes hits “Mustang,” “Embrace Of The Serpent” and “Rams”; “Gravity” co-writer and “Desierto” helmer Jonas Cuaron; “The Seven Five” helmer Tiller Russell; “White God”’s Kornel Mundruczo; “St. Vincent” director Ted Melfi; “Deadpool” helmer Tim Miller; Dan Trachtenberg, who’s surfed acclaimed shorts into a new Bad Robot thriller; “The Huntsman” director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan; “Key & Peele” veteran Peter Atencio, who’s helming their big-screen vehicle “Keanu”; and Nic Mathieu, who’s doing summer sci-fi “Spectral” next year.

Phew. Anyone we missed? Let us know in the comments.

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