It’s never been easy for a filmmaker with zero track record to launch a first feature into the world, but 2020 really deepened the challenge. With distributors scrambling for new release plans and film festivals wandering into the unknown terrain of virtual events, the last few months have made it harder than ever for newcomers to make a mark.
Fortunately, there were no shortage of debuts worthy of celebration, and many of them did find their way to audiences. This year’s best first films tackled a wide range of subjects and styles, introducing filmmakers that we know we’ll be tracking in the years to come. But no matter what the future brings, their legacies are secure thanks to these stellar achievements.
When it comes to the concept of the directorial debut, we like to take a purist approach. It’s certainly commendable when filmmakers who make documentaries venture into the narrative realm, and encourage audiences to seek out 2020 highlights like “I Carry You With Me” and “The Assistant” for that reason alone, but their directors aren’t exactly first-timers like the finalists for this list. See them all and stay tuned, because you’ll want to hear from them again.
Ryan Lattanzio contributed to this list.
Rooted to the bloody tissue of real life and enameled with traces of early Jane Campion, “Babyteeth” is the kind of soft-hearted tearjerker that does everything in its power to rescue beauty from pain; the kind that feels like it would lose its balance and tip right off the screen if it stopped being able to walk the line between the two. And yet Shannon Murphy’s primal and surefooted debut never falls into either mawkishness or sadism. “Sharp Objects” breakout Eliza Scanlen stars as a feral and resilient 16-year-old Australian girl who’s been sick for so long that she can hardly remember being anything else. But just as things take a turn for the worse, our gal stumbles upon an unlikely (and potentially improper) source of joy: A rat-tailed, face-tattooed, 23-year-old drug addict played by Toby Wallace who strikes a friendship with the heroine at a time when her long-suffering parents (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn) are too exhausted to push back.
The dynamic between them — along with the palpable love that Murphy displays for the characters that Rita Kalnejais has adapted from her own novel — is enough to make this familiar melodrama feel like a true one-of-a-kind romance. Shot with cock-eyed style and layered with a visceral soundtrack, Murphy’s ultra-promising debut is the rare cancer drama that bursts with life, breaks your heart, and moves to its own spirited beat. —DE
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
©Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection
There is much to celebrate about the glorious satire of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”: Sacha Baron Cohen resurrecting his hapless fake Kazakh journalist at the pandemic-ridden center of Trump’s America; astonishing newcomer Maria Bakalova as Borat’s daughter matching wits with the performance artist and holding her own; that news-making Giuliani scene in a hotel room. But another important accomplishment that may be lost in some of the noise is that “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” is a directorial debut. Filmmaker Jason Woliner (of comedy group Human Giant fame) has done his time in TV, and his work on the camera-prank-based “Nathan For You” may have been something of an audition for the high-stakes documentary-narrative hybrid he’s pulled off here. But the complex balance of emotional storytelling — Borat gets woke! — and covert gimmicky (how the hell did they film Borat for five days of life with Jim and Jerry?) is no easy feat, and someone had to decide to keep the cameras rolling. Whatever Woliner does next, his achievement here suggests genuine artistry unique to the realm of cutting-edge comedy. Very niiiiice. —EK
Courtesy of Box Hill Films
While some audiences might have balked at the promise of a new “Emma” when the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring ‘90s dramedy still looms so large (not to mention Amy Heckerling’s amusing modern riff, “Clueless”), first-time filmmaker Autumn de Wilde’s sumptuous take on the material soon allayed any concerns. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the eponymous heroine, the film is a mostly faithful take on the Regency-era story of a delightful heiress who dabbles in matchmaking, resulting in both wonderful and just awful pairings.
Livened up with de Wilde’s keen eye (she’s best known for her photography and music video directing, so she knows style) and a sharp script from Man Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton, the film is a more biting, sexy, and funny take than most other Austen adaptations. It’s also a bit sweeter, as de Wilde was intent on digging deeper into the story’s many supporting characters, including a winning exploration of Emma’s hapless best friend Harriet Smith and a riotous take on the devious Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor).
But her heart obviously belongs to Emma, who remains a fascinating character with untold facets to explore. De Wilde’s flashy background might have initially recommended her for the material (the costumes have never been better, the country houses have never been this divine), but her desire to turn long-recognizable characters into brand-new versions is perhaps her greatest skill as a filmmaker, and one that should take her very far indeed. —KE
Sony Pictures Classics
At once both an unsettlingly accurate simulation of what it’s like to love someone with dementia, and also a strikingly believable conception of what it’s like to live as someone with dementia, Florian Zeller’s “The Father” envisions senility as a house of mirrors in which everyone loses sight of themselves. Zeller adapts his award-winning play of the same name with steely vision and remarkable confidence, as the writer-director makes use of the camera like he’s been standing behind one for his entire life. His debut is an M.C. Escher drawing of a movie, one that chips away at the austerity of the Euro-dramas that inform its style until every shot betrays the promise of its objectivity, and reality itself becomes destabilized. In Zeller’s hands, what appears to be a conventional-seeming portrait of an unmoored old man (Anthony Hopkins) as he rages against his daughter (Olivia Colman) and caretaker (Imogen Poots) slowly reveals itself to be the brilliant study of a mind at sea, and of the indescribable pain of watching someone drown. —DE
“The 40-Year-Old Version”
The essence of “The 40-Year-Old Version” comes early, when Radha Blank, playing a fictionalized version of herself, sobs in the corner of her apartment. A soggy rib dangles from one hand as she melts into her chair. “I just wanna be an artist!” she cries, touching on the legitimate anxieties of the Black woman at its center, and poking fun at them at the same time. Much about Blank’s smart and funny crowd-pleasing directorial debut negotiates that tricky balance, with an engaging riff on real-world frustrations about the impact of race and age on the storytelling process. A scrappy black-and-white New York movie in the grand tradition of black-and-white New York movies, Blank’s endearing quasi-autobiographical character study maintains the rascally energy of an early Spike Lee joint while channeling a fresh new voice.
“The 40-Year-Old Version” isn’t exactly optimistic about the state of black artistry, but Blank’s final confrontation with her biggest fears takes a common cliché — the confessional moment before a captive audience — and gives it fresh flavor, with a mic drop for the ages. “The 40-Year-Old Version” doesn’t overcome all of its rough edges, but they’re so closely tied to the personality of the creator that it’s hard to shake the underlying appeal. “The 40-Year-Old Version” has a fascinating meta quality lurking just beneath its playful surface, as it documents a creative crisis on the brink of a solution — and, with this charming first feature, finds that solution with its very existence. —EK
An under-the-radar Sundance gem that gradually emerged as one of the year’s best debuts, Remi Weekes’ shrewd, tender, and often terrifying “His House” begins with a clever premise — the immigrant experience as a horror movie — and expands on that idea in knowing and unexpected ways. Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku star as a married pair of asylum-seekers who arrive in a cold pocket of Britain after surviving a journey from war-torn South Sudan that was even more harrowing and tragic than it seems on the surface. It isn’t long before the indignities they suffer in their new country threaten to become as inhumane as the process of getting there, and to make matters even worse, the dilapidated council estate where these characters are housed while the British government decides their status is haunted by a Babadook-like spirit that embodies their most painful trauma.
Whereas a lesser film might have condescended to these characters and mined generic scares from their situation, Weekes’ chiller taps into the indignities of the assimilation process and the horrors of fleeing one’s homeland, and uses traditional horror tropes to make such things viscerally real onscreen. A powerful human drama that doubles as a testament to what the horror genre can do, “His House” resolves into an urgent and spine-tingling ghost story about what it means to begin anew in a home that may not want you to live in it. —DE
“The Florida Project” excelled at showing how a child’s imagination can provide the mental armor necessary to endure impoverished circumstances, but it never had a monopoly on the concept. “Los Lobos,” the bittersweet new feature from director Samuel Kishi, plays like a thematic variation on the same beguiling premise in the context of the American immigrant experience. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age story about migrant life through the prism of its most innocent figures.
That means eight-year-old Max (Maximiliano Nájar Márquez) and five-year-old Leo (Leonardo Nájar Márquez) guide the story through a series of drab environments using the only tools at their disposal. Promised by single mom Lucía (Martha Reyes Arias) that their move from Mexico to Albuquerque will result in a trip to Disneyland, they instead find themselves locked in a squalid apartment all day while she juggles a pair of low-income jobs. Based in part on the filmmaker’s own experiences (his mother obtained a travel visa for a Disneyland trip), “Los Lobos” unfolds with a sharp naturalism even as it burrows into the way the boys’ imagination helps them process the challenges around them. It’s a sharp debut attuned to an underrepresented side of America with many more stories to tell. —EK
A smash hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Max Barbakow’s first feature broke records by fetching the highest price ever for a Sundance pickup, with Neon and Hulu snapping it up for a reported $17,500,000.69, placing it just a smidge above the previous record-holder, “Birth of a Nation,” which went to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million in 2016. In the (very strange) months that followed, the comedy threatened to become one of the timeliest movies of the year, with its “Groundhog Day”-esque plot surrounding two characters (Andy Samberg, who also produced, and Cristin Milioti) stuck in an endless time loop, living through the same day again and again.
The film was the brainchild of Barbakow and his writing partner and fellow AFI alum, Andy Siara, and went through a number of permutations over the years before landing on the film’s clever mix of comedy and drama, with a generous dash of good, old-fashioned science wonder to round it out. “Palm Springs” follows Samberg as Nyles, a restless young man stuck enduring the same desert-set wedding day over and over again (and over and over again) after encountering an unexplained phenomena in a nearby cave. After he inadvertently brings Sarah (Milioti), another wedding guest, into the same conundrum, the movie’s playful time-based twist brings a clever new dimension to the rom-com formula. It’s clearly the work of someone who knows (and loves) movies, but is wholly unafraid to jazz them up into something fresh and new, the kind of talent Hollywood (understandably) is still eager to pay a pretty penny for. —KE
“Promising Young Woman”
Emerald Fennell’s raucous debut twists its buzzword-laden, spoiler-free synopsis — it’s a #MeToo rape revenge thriller with bite! — into something fresh and totally wild. Thank both Fennell’s wicked mind and star Carey Mulligan’s somehow even more wicked performance for that: cooked up by Fennell (best known to American audiences for her go-round as the second season showrunner for clever spy hit “Killing Eve,” and this year also starring in “The Crown” as Camilla, what a talent) and dizzyingly embodied by an incendiary Mulligan, Cassie is an anti-heroine for our times, and a wholly unique one at that.
The Sundance hit follows Mulligan’s Cassie as she embarks on a revenge tour inspired by a horrible tragedy that upended her (promising) young life many years earlier. Fennell and Mulligan take their time revealing the full truth (and its insane final chapter), unspooling a candy-colored, deeply unsettling, and often quite funny tale along the way. Fennell’s flair for visual humor is apparent throughout the film — the rococo nightmare that is Cassie’s parents’ house is ten times funnier than it needs to be, only getting better and weirder with each visit — but she saves her best bits for last, when her most ambitious ideas coalesce into a wicked final twist that leaves one hell of a mark and proves she’s undoubtedly one to watch. —KE
First-time feature director Natalie Erika James channels both J-horror and body horror for her atmospheric dissection of a matriarch’s madness wrought on her adult brood, “Relic.” Co-written with James and Christian White, this freaky window into intergenerational trauma starring Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote delivers serious scares, and even a few of the jump variety. But beyond all the peeling skin and decomposing flesh, it’s more interested in the terror that lies in what’s unknown, and what can only be represented visually through allegory. “Relic” is also effective as a parable on an aging parent slipping away to dementia, concluding with a disturbing and oddly touching finale that brings all the film’s themes into play. James is poised to be next in line to helm the kinds of personal horror stories that fascinate filmmakers like Jennifer Kent and Ari Aster, and is already developing another project about a fertility sacrifice gone awry. —RL
It’s a shame that Cooper Raiff’s “Shithouse” didn’t get a chance to screen at this year’s SXSW, because this knowing and funny nano-budget debut is exactly the kind of film the Austin festival exists to showcase (the jurors agreed, awarding “Shithouse” the grand jury prize in absentia). Written, directed, and co-edited by its reluctant 22-year-old star with some help from his friends, Raiff’s vulnerable DIY gem tells a coming-of-age story about a mopey college freshman who’s struggling with the whiplash of leaving home. He meets a girl (a nuanced and natural Dylan Gelula), they spend a magical night together, things get awkward in the morning but maybe they’ll still be able to help each other figure things out… you know how it goes. It’s basically the platonic ideal of the movie you’d expect from a suburban white American softboy who’s been raised on Richard Linklater and “Sex Education.”
But here’s the catch: It’s good. Like, really good. And more than that, it somehow feels completely singular despite its lo-fi approach and even lower-concept premise.
That starts with Raiff’s palpable disinterest in seeming cool. Don’t be fooled by the look-at-me edginess of its title — “Shithouse” is guileless and sincere in a way that would get it bullied at school. Shot at a static remove that reflects the indifference of the outside world, but still beating with the open-heartedness of a video diary, Raiff’s debut pushes back against the general patois of zoomer disaffection to endearing effect, in order to reckon with the idea that growing up into the people they’re supposed to become should require kids to shrink away from away from the people they already are. We can’t wait to see the filmmaker who Raiff matures into from here. —DE
“Sound of Metal”
Yes, Riz Ahmed gives his best performance in “Sound of Metal” as Ruben, the heavy-metal drummer going deaf at the center of Darius Marder’s mesmerizing debut. But nobody should be surprised that Ahmed can deliver on good material. Marder, best known as the screenwriter of “The Place Beyond the Pines,” has crafted a delicate movie deeply invested in getting inside its main character’s headspace. The soundscape conveys the complex frustrations of losing touch with the world and grasping onto it on the way out. Marder immerses viewers within the confines of Ruben’s deteriorating condition, and he sorts through the wreckage to construct a new life. The complex soundscape resonates even in total silence as Marder takes what could easily have become a cheesy story about second chances and turns it into a bracing cinematic survival story. —EK
A stomach-churning debut that evokes Todd Haynes’ “Safe” while feeling like something completely new at the same time, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ “Swallow” is a sharp and surprising modern fable about a woman whose environment has been weaponized against her since birth. A never-better Haley Bennett stars as Hunter, the submissive but imploding housewife of a standard-issue Patrick Bateman wannabe. After learning that she’s pregnant, and coming to grips with the fact that her body is literally no longer her own, Hunter finds an unusual means to restore a measure of her personal agency: Swallowing the small items she finds around the house and placing them back once they come out the other side. If her closely policed body isn’t permitted to pass through the world, then at least she can pass shards of the world through her body. From there, her story gives birth to a shrewd and bracing look at the oppressiveness of gender roles. Mirabella-Davis shares every bit of Bennett’s conviction, creating a vacuum-sealed film world that gradually, masterfully starts to poke holes into some of the harmful stories that society has conditioned women to tell themselves. —DE
“The True Adventures of Wolfboy”
“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” feels like the movie Tim Burton would have made 30 years ago if he hadn’t directed “Edward Scissorhands” instead. Director Martin Krejcí’s first feature has the fairy-tale surrealism and penchant for oddball outsiders that distinguished Burton’s work, as well as a similar lighthearted quirkiness that balances the undercurrents of gothic dread. Above all, “Wolfboy” suggests “Scissorhands” for the way it grounds an outlandish figure in credible emotional stakes, making the case for a sincere coming-of-age drama along the way.
The “Wolfboy” in question is Paul (Jaeden Martell), a reclusive 13-year-old who suffers from a condition that causes fur to cover every inch of his face, for mysterious reasons only revealed in the closing act. The movie, written by trans playwright Olivia Dufault, immediately opens itself to complex readings about the nature of an adolescent coming to terms with his true identity. Krejcí and Dufault avoid didacticism thanks to the sheer gusto they bring to a wide range of settings, from the cramped interiors of an RV to a lighthouse party lit by fireworks late at night. Czech director Krejcí shows serious potential in the time-honored tradition of sensitive gothic storytelling, and since Burton himself seems to have lost his luster, it’s about time someone inherited the throne. —EK
Sarah Shatz / Netflix
Anyone watching “Tigertail” because of writer/director Alan Yang’s role in creating “Master of None” may be surprised to find that there’s nothing funny about it. With time, however, “Tigertail” develops a case for its modest aims. A slow-burn immigrant drama with visual polish to spare, the movie molds the leisurely plot into a lush, moving portrait of American dreams undercut by harsh reality checks. Yang infuses his earnest, semi-fictionalized story (inspired by his own father’s experiences) with the evocative narrative traditions of modern Asian cinema, from Wong Kar-wai to Edward Yang, resulting in a rich and intimate atmosphere at every turn. Yang’s first feature has a touching emotional through line grounded in authenticity.
At its center is a familiar journey. Growing up in ‘60s-era Taiwan, young factory worker Ping-Juri endures the frustrations of an arranged marriage, his demanding mother, and his mounting desire to find success in America. Decades later, he’s divorced, estranged from his grown daughter Angela (Christine Ko), and bitter about his failed ambition. Hong-Chi Li plays the younger version of the character while Tzi Ma (last seen as the determined father in “The Farewell”) plays the older man, and the two actors develop a fascinating juxtaposition as the movie shifts between two eras to explain how the romantic dreamer devolved into an icy, cynical shell. “Tigertail” doesn’t exactly build to some grand revelation about what went wrong. Instead, it lingers in the textures of its dueling eras. The final shot — possibly the best frame-within-a-frame composition this side of “The Searchers” — finds a man forever tied to his past and making peace with its immovable boundaries, imperfections and all. —EK