On The Rise: 12 Directors Watch 2013

So far in our On The Rise series this year, we’ve looked at talent on the ascension in front of the camera, with a cluster of actors and actresses who look set for great things. We’ve also highlighted promising cinematographers, writers and composers who’ve already proven their worth, and look like they’re about to be more and more in demand as time goes on.

So to close things off, there was only really one option: the directors. While we believe that the auteur theory can be overblown — filmmaking is about collaboration at its heart, as our previous On The Rise pieces demonstrate — the movies we love simply wouldn’t exist without directors and their visions. And one of the most exciting things about this job is discovering new filmmakers who look ready to deliver in a big way in the near future, and below, you’ll find a dozen that have gotten on our radar recently, directors from whom we can’t wait to see the next work. Take a look below, and let us know your own picks in the comments section.

Haifaa Al-Mansour
All of the directors below have faced struggles in getting where they are, but none to the extent of Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, who didn’t just make the first feature film to be shown outside her native country, but has managed to do so in a nation where theaters are banned, and rights for women are severely limited. The size of her achievement is impressive enough that it risks overshadowing her film, “Wadjda” (which will screen at Tribeca next month, before Sony Pictures Classics release it later in the year), but fortunately, the film is so good that long after the backstory has been forgotten, her talents will remain apparent to pretty much everyone. The daughter of Saudi poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, she studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, and started off working in the oil industry, but found herself frustrated by its patriarchal nature, and turned to film. She directed her first short, “Who?” and followed it up with two others, “The Bitter Journey” and “The Only Way Out,” which started winning prizes on the festival circuit, and then made the documentary “Women Without Shadows.” Like that film, “Wadjda,” which premiered at Venice last year, deals with the situation of women in Saudi Arabia, but it’s never heavy-handed or polemical, instead serving as the context for a warm, funny and humane film that, while reminiscent of Italian neo-realism and more recent Iranian films, is very much in her own voice. It was one of the best films of last year, and we’re sure that when the rest of the world catches up to it, they’ll be just as excited to see what al-Mansour does next as we are.

Rick Alverson
2012 was a big year for director Rick Alverson, with two films hitting theaters: the acclaimed Sundance hit “The Comedy,” and “New Jerusalem.” This double-whammy meant that, by the time 2013 rolled around, Alverson had become a firm Playlist favorite. The prolific and articulate filmmaker was actually better known as a musician for some time, releasing several albums on indie label Jagujaguwar (behind Dinosaur Jr, Bon Iver and Foxygen, among others), mostly under the name Spokane. But the Virginia native, something of a polymath, wasn’t going to stop there, and having made music videos for labelmates like Sharon Van Etten, and other artists including Bonny “Prince” Billy, moved into features with 2010’s little-seen “The Builder.” More attention came with “New Jerusalem,” which starred Will Oldham and co-writer Colm O’Leary (who also penned and starred in “The Builder”), a smart and hypnotic drama about the friendship between an Afghanistan war veteran and a Christian. It picked up strong reviews at SXSW in 2011, but bigger things were to come at Sundance the following year, with “The Comedy.” The idea of a look at aging Brooklyn hipsters might sound a little rote for the independent film world, but the film, which starred Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem‘s James Murphy, is a savage, ugly and bleak satire that was one of the favorite films of 2012 for many Playlist staffers. It might have been divisive in some quarters, but it firmly cemented Alverson’s place on the indie map for us. Next up is a reunion with Colm O’Leary on “Clement,” a period piece, and “Entertainment,” which Heidecker will be involved in, set to star abrasive cult comic Neil Hamburger.

Nikolaj Arcel
Danish filmmaker and screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel is not necessarily a new name. His feature debut in 2004, the political thriller “King’s Game,” won him Best Director at the Danish Film Academy Awards which is not a bad way to start your career. Two solid features followed, but getting nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Academy Awards for “A Royal Affair” launched him into a new strata. Set in the 18th century, and focusing on mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark while chronicling an affair between the King’s wife and the royal physician, the film starred Mads Mikkelsen and boasted two career-making performances from Alicia Vikander and Mikkel Følsgaard (both on their way to becoming bankable actors, Vikander arguably already there). But on top of that, the film is directed with an assured elegance, dramatic yet unshowy, focused on performances and storytelling fundamentals. If anything, Arcel feels like a completely reliable director who positions his actors for success, and it’s hard to argue with that approach. So what’s Arcel doing for an encore? Well, Hollywood has come calling. On tap is a feature adaptation of “The Power Of The Dog,” the epic Don Winslow (“Savages”) bestseller framed around the drug war and a 30-year struggle between a hard DEA agent and a family of cartel kingpins in Mexico, and also directing a remake of Alfred Hitchcock‘s classic psychological thriller “Rebecca” for DreamWorks and Working Title. It’s not too shabby of a gig and proves that others are fully confident in his abilities.

Sean Baker
Premiering at the SXSW last summer, “Starlet” became an unexpected micro-budgeted indie treat. While the film marks Sean Baker’s fourth feature, after “Four Letter Words,” “Take Out” and the acclaimed “Prince of Broadway,” it was his latest that brought him the most attention. Following a model with a secret who befriends a cranky octogenarian woman she meets at a yard sale, the story is about as original and unexpected as American independent cinema comes. Well shot, and capturing a terrific introspective mood through smart use of music and visuals, Baker illustrates that he already has a strong grasp of cinematic language. And then there’s the performances. Both stars Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson — the former who we featured on our Breakthrough Performances Of 2012 list — are both relative unknowns (Johnson had never acted before) but you’d never know that from “Starlet.” Baker’s had brushes with the mainstream in the past — he was the co-creator of the MTV puppet show “Greg The Bunny,” and its spin-off show “Warren The Ape,” but we don’t know if he’ll be going back to that type of work at this point — he seems utterly comfortable making films like “Starlet,” and we’re happy for him to be there.

Ryan Coogler
When 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed by a policeman on New Year’s Day 2009, Ryan Coogler, then a 22-year-old USC film student, was only a few miles away in Oakland. Four years later, he was at Sundance with his feature film debut “Fruitvale,” which tells the story of Grant’s last day, and the film was one of the most celebrated of the festival, winning strong reviews, and is the rare film in Park City to win both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Furthermore, it was picked up by The Weinstein Company, who seem to have awards plans for it, setting it for a prime October release date. Coogler’s film school work, including shorts “Locks,” “Gap” and the DGA Prize-winning “Fig,” won him a meeting with Forest Whitaker and his Significant Productions shingle, and when he pitched the idea of a film based on Grant’s murder, Whitaker agreed to produce it on the spot. Once Coogler graduated in 2011, he set to work, and thanks to development help from the Sundance Labs, shot the film, which stars Michael B. Jordan as Grant, last summer. Coogler will undoubtedly be tied up with promotion of the film for much of the next 12 months, but he told EW that he “can’t wait to get cracking” on his next project, and we’re sure he’ll have no shortage of suitors. He’s also clearly a bit of a polymath, as he’s also working on a comic book and a young adult novel.

Eran Creevy
Take it from someone who’s done it; every production assistant (or runner, as the job is known in the UK) dreams — while they’re taking the coffee orders and being sent halfway across town to pick up fake blood — of being in charge before too long. But Eran Creevy (who fell in love with film thanks to his dad, who owned a video shop) has managed to make that leap in remarkably fast time, and is quickly establishing himself as one of Britain’s most impressive directorial talents, with two very different, but equally impressive, features so far. Only a decade ago, Creevy was working as a runner and assistant director on films like “Layer Cake,” “Wimbledon” and Danny Boyle‘s “Millions,” before serving as Woody Allen‘s assistant on the set of “Scoop.” But at the same time, he was working at breaking into the music video world, honing his skills on tracks for UK hip-hop artists like Asher D and Sway, before graduating to dance acts, winning a UK Music Video Award for his promo for Utah Saints‘ “Something Good ’08.” After getting a foothold in the commercials world for the likes of Nike and Carlsberg, Creevy (with producing partners Ben Pugh and Rory Aitken) moved into features with “Shifty,” one of the first beneficiaries of the UK Film Council’s scheme Microwave, which was set up to finance films with budgets of less than £100,000. The story of Chris (Daniel Mays), who returns home to find his drug dealing childhood friend (Riz Ahmed) in dire straits, the film is a much more soulful and nuanced film that you’d expect from someone who came up through the music video world, with terrific performances and a smart script, yet also a level of technical accomplishment that elevated it above similar kitchen-sink dramas. It earned Creevy a BAFTA nomination for Best Newcomer (though he was beat by Duncan Jones for the win), and brought him to the attention of Ridley Scott, who snapped up Creevy’s second film. And it proved to be something very different. “Welcome To The Punch,” which opened in the U.S. yesterday, is a slick, gorgeous-looking action-thriller with an all-star cast led by James McAvoy, Mark Strong and Andrea Riseborough. It’s stylish and hugely entertaining stuff, even if the screenplay’s not as strong as “Shifty,” and it is likely to serve as the same kind of calling card that “Following,” “The Escapist” and “The Disapperance Of Alice Creed” proved to be for Christopher Nolan, Rupert Wyatt and J. Blakeson resepectively. Creevy’s sticking with action territory for “Autobahnin the near future, but also has thrillers “Cry Havoc” and “Fear of Violence” developing, as well as a possible ‘Punch’ sequel called “The Hong Kong Sector.”

Ava DuVernay
While it didn’t get the traction it deserved, Ava DuVernay‘s “Middle Of Nowhere” proved to be a firm critical hit both at Sundance 2012 (where it won the filmmaker the Best Director prize), and on its release last year, where it even attracted some awards buzz for star Emayatzy Corinealdi, and picked up four Spirit Award nominations. It may seem like DuVernay has come from the same film school background as most of her peers, but actually her grounding is very different. The L.A. native told the New York Times last year that, “Film school was a privilege I could not afford,” and instead, she went into film publicity, starting out working in-house at smaller companies before setting up one on her own, founding DuVernay Agency, which specialized in helping mainstream movies, including “Dreamgirls,” “Invictus” and “Collateral,” connect with African-American audiences. This involved a certain amount of unit publicist work, and it was on the set of Michael Mann‘s film that she decided to push ahead with filmmaking, and wrote “Middle of Nowhere” soon after. There was still a long road to getting it made, though, with DuVernay sticking at the day job while she made shorts and documentaries, most notably 2008’s “This Is The Life,” about the alternative hip-hp movement around LA’s Good Life Cafe, and 2010 follow-up “My Mic Sounds Nice,” about female rappers, made for BET. The following year brought her first feature, “I Will Follow,” a semi-autobiographical drama about Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), a woman starting to move on after the death of the aunt she’s spent several years caring for. A low-key, beautifully observed character study about grief, it never quite broke through to the mainstream, despite some rave reviews, including one from Roger Ebert . The film made a modest profit, and DuVernay went right back behind the camera, helming “Middle of Nowhere,” a powerful, human and beautifully-made drama about a woman awaiting the release of her husband from prison, which provided excellent showcases for Corinealdi, Omari Hardwick and David Oyelowo, among others. Since it hit Sundance, she shot a short film for Miu Miu (alongside Lucrecia Martel and Zoe Cassavetes), is working on a documentary about Serena Williams for ESPN, and is developing a new project, a Compton-set romance called “Part Of The Sky.” After her first two films, we’d hope that cast and crew are lining up around the block to get involved.

Tobias Lindholm
One of the big Oscar hopefuls this year is likely to be “Captain Phillips,” the true-life story of the Maersk-Alabama and its skipper (Tom Hanks), which was captured by Somali pirates while in the Indian Ocean. Originally set for release this month, it was put back by Sony in the hope of landing it closer to the awards season, but director Paul Greengrass may come to rue that decision, because another pirate-hijacking film is arriving before then, and it’s sure to put that film’s director Tobias Lindholm on the map. 35-year-old Lindholm hails from Denmark, graduating from the country’s National Film School in 2007. He wrote a script for a short, “Hawaii,” while there, directed by classmate Michael Noer, before landing a job writing a few episodes of the Danish TV drama “Sommer.” But things really started to kick off in 2010 when he began work as one of the main writers on “Borgen,” the acclaimed political series that’s become a cult hit around the world. He then teamed up with “Festen” helmer Thomas Vinterberg for “Submarino,” and once again pairing with Noer, made his directorial debut with the visceral prison movie “R.” That unfortunately didn’t make much impact abroad, but that all changed last year, with Lindholm becoming something of a fixture on the festival circuit. He’d teamed up with Vinterberg again for “The Hunt,” their searing picture of a man falsely accused of pedophilia, which won Mads Mikkelsen Best Actor at Cannes. And he’d gone solo as writer/director for “A Hijacking,” a fictional, but entirely realistic, story of Danish ship held hostage by pirates for months. It’s wrenching, totally absorbing stuff, with fine performances, expert cutting and strong camerawork. Coming up, he’s writing another project with Vinterberg, “The Commune,” as well as the drama “I Lossens Time” starring “The Killing” lead Sofie Grabol, but he told us a few months back that he’s not keen to sell out to Hollywood immediately (though offers have arrived), which can only be a good thing.

David Lowery
With Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck leading an excellent cast, ’70s-set crime tale “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” was one of the most anticipated films of Sundance this year, and happily, turned out to be one of the best received, with our review calling it “a wholly engrossing and impressive piece of work that the movie world will be talking about all year long.” And rising directorial star David Lowery is certainly going to be part of that conversation, too. The Dallas-based filmmaker has been one of the best-kept secrets of the indie world thanks to his microbudgeted feature debut “St. Nick” in 2009, and short follow-up “Pioneer” in 2011 (starring Will Oldham), and he developed ‘Saints’ through the Sundance Labs, before WME helped bring it to the attention of Mara and Affleck, whose presence allowed him to raise the $6 million budget. The film picked up some of the best reviews of the festival, but that was hardly Lowery’s only work in Park City this year. He also wrote the NEXT film “Pit Stop,” and was an editor on Shane Carruth‘s equally acclaimed “Upstream Color.” He has a couple of scripts in development, along with a documentary, and just landed his first studio gig, writing a remake of “Pete’s Dragon for Disney. It’s a sign of his refusal to conform to expectations, and we’re genuinely fascinated to see what he comes up with.

Amy Seimetz
While she’s been directing films since 2005 (including one short co-directed with “Smashed” filmmaker James Ponsoldt), a confluence of projects are making Seimetz crystallize in the industry even though she’s already a recognizable force in the indie film community. You may not know her yet, but she’s ubiquitous, with Joe Swanberg’s “Alexander The Last”  perhaps the most notable amongst her early acting performances, and she’s also worked with Barry Jenkins, Lena Dunham and Adam Wingard. She’s a talented quadruple-threat — an actor, writer, director and producer — and she’s had a solid one-two punch in the last eight months, the first being her most recent directorial effort, her narrative feature debut “Sun Don’t Shine” which won accolades at the L.A. Film Festival last summer, and the second being her co-starring role in Shane Carruth‘s upcoming mindbender “Upstream Color.” Seimetz is also a series regular on TV shows like “The Killing” and HBO’s forthcoming “Family Tree” and has another short, “When We Lived in Miami,” already in the can starring starring herself and her ‘Sunshine’ co-star AJ Bowen. While her directing career in many ways is just getting started, she’s a distinctive voice both in front and behind the camera, and it seems only a matter of time until she’s recognized outside of her solid acting and producing exploits.

Morten Tyldum

While it was somewhat underseen in the U.S, taking only $1 million, thriller “Headhunters” proved to be a major hit elsewhere in the world, going toe-to-toe with Hollywood blockbusters across Europe. It’s partly a symptom of the increasingly inexhaustible international appetite for Scandinavian crime, but it’s also a testament to the skills of director Morten Tyldum, who looks set to follow in the footsteps of Niels Arden Oplev, Tomas Alfredson and Nicolas Winding Refn. Hailing from Norway, Tyldum trained at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and afters shorts “Lorenzo” and “Fast Forward” (which starred his “Headhunters” lead Askel Hennie), and some work in commercials and music videos, he broke through with the 2003 local comedy hit “Buddy.” Five years later (with his promo work seeing his profile increasing abroad), he had another hit with the crime flick “Fallen Angels,” and stayed in darker territory for “Headhunters.” Based on a novel by Jo Nesbo (whose “The Snowmanis being developed by Martin Scorsese), the film is a fast-paced, wryly funny tale about a recruitment consultant who doubles as an art thief, and winds up pursued by a psychopathic ex-special forces op who he’s ripped off. Slick, ultraviolent, and hugely enjoyable, with excellent performances from Hennie and “Game Of Thrones” actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the film was a big hit, and while Mark Wahlberg is circling a possible Hollywood remake, Tyldum’s landed some big projects of his own. He’s teaming up with Wahlberg for hot spec script “The Disciple Program” at Universal, and more recently, took over from J. Blakeson on “The Imitation Game,” the biopic of Alan Turing, which topped the Black List in 2011. Set to star Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, it’ll shoot later in the year, and should make Tyldum an even hotter prospect than he is right now.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts

We’re practically this guy’s PR person. It started in 2010 when one of us accidentally caught the short “Successful Alcoholics” and were bowled over by how it effortlessly captured the humor and melancholy of relationships in a wickedly fresh, yet moving manner. In fact, most of Hollywood’s run-of-the-mill romcoms had nothing on this short and it had about 80 minutes less time to work with (you can watch it here). For his next trick, Vogt-Roberts followed up the short with his first feature, “Toy’s House” (later retitled “The Kings Of Summer“) and it became a big hit at Sundance. Having already scored TJ Miller and Lizzy Caplan for ‘Alcoholics,’ the director got Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally and Alison Brie in supporting roles for ‘Kings’ while opting for three unknowns to take the teenage leads in his film. And the results speak for themselves. Our review from Sundance called the film, “idiosyncratic, hilarious… and heralding the arrival of a fresh new comic voice”(we also named it one of 2013 Sundance’s 5 Best Films). CBS Films jumped on distribution and will release the film this summer (naturally). This just seems like the beginning of a long career with original distinctive and quirky stories that we’re more than ready to watch unfold. 

Honorable Mentions: We only have so much time and space, and as such, there’s a few that we thought about including that didn’t quite make the cut. From the class of 2012: Robbie Pickering, who’s going from “Natural Selection” to studio picture “The Kitchen Sink“; Sally El Hosaani, whose “My Brother The Devil’ is terrific; Mike Birbiglia, who showed a real facility for film with “Sleepwalk With Me” and Lenny Abrahamson, the rising Irish director who’s following the excellent “What Richard Did” with the Michael Fassbender-starring “Frank.” And let’s not forget “Arbitrage” helmer Nicholas Jarecki,Gimme The Loot” director Adam Leon, “War Witch” director Kim Nguyen and “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now” filmmaker James Ponsoldt.

Grabbing our attention so far this year have been Alexandre Moors, director of Sundance film “Blue Caprice,” Sebastian Lelio, whose “Gloria” was the talk of Berlin; Joshua Oppenheimer, who’s behind “The Act Of Killing” and Destin Cretton, whose film “Short Term 12” was the runaway hit at SXSW. And as far as blockbusters go, we’d need to see how The Russo Brothers and cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister do with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Transcendence” respectively, but they’re certainly hot prospects. So is Ned Benson, whose two-part feature debut “Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby” stars Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Isabelle Huppert. While New Director/New Films is wrapping up soon, it’s very possible members of that list (some included in the honorable mention section here) will make the full-blown list next year. – Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez

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