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The Best Directorial Debuts of 2016

Written by on December 19, 2016 

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While we aim to discuss a wide breadth of films each year, few things give us more pleasure than the arrival of bold, new voices. It’s why we venture to festivals and pore over a variety of different features that might bring to light some emerging talent. This year was an especially notable time for new directors making their stamp, and we’re highlighting the handful of 2016 debuts that most impressed us.

This shouldn’t discount the breakthrough directors behind such films as Moonlight, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, Toni Erdmann, and Disorder, to name some we liked, but considering that they all have at least two features under their belts, we’re strictly focusing on first-timers here. Below, one can check out a list spanning a variety of different genres and distributions, from those that barely received a theatrical release to wide bows. In years to come, take note as these helmers (hopefully) ascend.

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)

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10 Cloverfield Lane came out of nowhere in 2016 and was exactly the sequel we didn’t know we wanted. Rather than boat the original film’s found-footage aesthetic, there’s a more traditional cinematic approach to Dan Trachtenberg‘s debut film — a “spiritual successor” to the earlier monster movie — as he replaces action and mayhem with subtlety and tension, turning in an alternately creepy and gripping psychological horror film. Trachtenberg, whose short film based on the video game Portal caught the eye of J.J. Abrams, proves, in his big-screen debut, to be adept at delivering suspense and more than capable of gaining terrific performances from his cast. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come from this talented filmmaker. – John U.

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)

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Kirsten Johnson has been a cinematographer and / or camera operator on documentary films for 20 years. This has taken her all over the world and led her to meet all kinds of people. She’s been in Bosnia, interviewing survivors of the genocide. She’s observed Nigerian midwives in action. She watched Edward Snowden deliver his revelations about NSA surveillance practices to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. She has over 60 camerawork-related credits to her name on IMDb, and she’s not slowing down any time soon. Cameraperson is her self-described “memoir,” an album of her life as expressed through her life’s work. Dan S. (full review)

The Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet)

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Scale — in terms of both narrative scope and ambition — can be forgivably small in a directors first feature. When ambitions and ideas get too big, the result can often times become unwieldy. Yet Brady Corbet, in his directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader, manages to take both grand thematic ideas and cold aesthetic choices and balance them perfectly. The result is a European influenced character piece that is both engrossing and horrifying, evoking Haneke without adopting his voice. Not an easy movie, and not a perfect film, it nonetheless announces Corbet as an aesthetic and cerebral storyteller to keep an eye on. – Brian R.

Divines (Uda Benyamina)

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A little over-the-top, a little out-of-control, this year’s Caméra d’Or winner about the road to perdition of a disenfranchised girl living in the French ghettos electrifies nonetheless — or perhaps exactly therefore. Writer-director Uda Benyamina sees the splendidly vital, dangerously volatile mix of dreams, rage, hormones, and despair brewing on the edge of Paris amidst racial tension and social injustice. Using blunt, blisteringly accusatory strokes that never attempt to downplay the heartbreaking waste of it all, she manages to capture the jagged energy in an intimate portrait that also serves as a reminder, an indictment, and a reverberating cry of compassionate fury. – Zhuo-Ning Su

The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)

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Say what you will about comic-book adaptations and the like, but there may not be a genre more tired in Hollywood than the coming-of-age film. Thanks to their relatively cheap budgets and aims to connect with a pre-determined movie-going (though even that is up for debate) audience, many often feel like they are hitting checkboxes and not much else. Enter The Edge of Seventeen, which depicts teenage angst with such pinpoint accuracy one wonders why it’s never been handled precisely this way before. A debut no less, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig‘s script — which never dumb downs or generalizes the high school experience — is brought to life perfectly by Hailee Steinfeld in an emotionally honest performance that even outpaces her break-out in True Grit. – Jordan R.

The Eyes of My Mother (Nicolas Pesce)

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We’ve witnessed a qualitatively astonishing influx of fresh blood in horror filmmaking this year. Holding its own nicely next to Robert Eggers’ rigorous exercise in gothic dread with The Witch and Julia Ducournau’s cannibalistic take on pubertal anxiety in Raw (coming this March) is this distinctly earth-bound, mercilessly single-minded portrayal of human perversion. By opting to skim over what happens in between chapters, Nicolas Pesce gives his 76-minute creepfest a short film-like compactness while still landing oversized psychological impact with truly hair-raising scenarios one shudders to even think about. The same efficiency applies to the stripped, chilling visual and aural design suggestive of a fully-dreamed nightmare and exceptional cinematic craftsmanship. – Zhuo-Ning Su

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