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The Best Directorial Debuts of 2016

Written by on December 19, 2016 

The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)

The Fits 1

This is not technically Anna Rose Holmer’s first feature (her documentary Twelve Ways to Sunday came out in 2010), but her first full-length fiction film has staked her claim as a talent to pay close attention to. Holmer has spent years in various technical roles on both independent (Tiny Furniture) and major (Twilight) works, and it shows in the minute detail The Fits pays attention to, with careful use of sound and shot strategy that suggests an incredibly astute directorial sensibility. A tale about adolescence that expresses isolation and odd group dynamics through subtle physicality and framing instead of dialogue, The Fits is mesmerizing from the first shot to its unforgettable finale. – Dan S.

Indignation (James Schamus)

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Writer-director James Schamus brings stinging nuance to Philip Roth’s furious novel of anti-Semitism and arrogance in ‘50s academia. Dreamily photographed as if through a haze of memory, Indignation slowly weaves a searing gut-punch of a story toward a devastating conclusion. Aside from capturing the weighty essence of the era, Schamus assembles a stellar cast, including Logan Lerman, Tracy Letts, and Sarah Gadon, who delivers her most vivid and authentic performance yet. The filmmaker also mines two of the most unforgettable scenes of the year from Lerman and Letts as they verbally spar across a desktop. Indeed, Indignation is a remarkably assured directorial debut, and, still, hardly the first time Schamus has turned powerful literature into equally resonant cinema after his work on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Ice Storm. – Tony H.

Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)

Kaili Blues

At its heart, Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues is a meditation on the struggle between traditionalism and modernism. Through the story of one man’s journey through Chinese cities — Kaili to Zhenyuan — Bi focuses on characters who lament the people and ideas that they’ve lost as the world’s changed around them. But this is not just another screed against contemporary life; it finds a cruel beauty and gentle soul in the transition between elemental landscapes and the unfinished, industrialized future. And there’s personal serenity for some of these characters in being able to leave behind their old lives. – Michael S. (full review)

Kicks (Justin Tipping)

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The film industry is still a long way from racial equity, but the last few years have seen strides to bring the young black experience to the screen in films like Dope, Dear White People and Morris From America. All of those films were important in distilling a specific existence, but they all offered black characters who self-identified as outcasts. Justin Tipping’s debut, Kicks, follows another societal reject, Brandon, a socially awkward black 15-year old living in Richmond, California, but while Brandon feels uncomfortable in his own skin, the script doesn’t demonize the culture he’s come from. Brandon has grown up in a place that idolizes a legacy of gangsters, but there’s just as much an understanding that expressing masculinity is about actively posturing. – Michael S. (full review)

Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)

Krisha

Though writer-director-editor Trey Edward Shults hardly turns the dark family drama genre on its head, Krisha compensates with exceptional acting and an infectious atmosphere of dread. If the bare bones of cliché are there simply so that artists can pack on their own meat, then Krisha Fairchild surely makes the most of the provided opportunity. Though I increasingly grow perturbed over “raw” performance in modern film that is maybe / sort of just misery porn, her three-legged-dog embodiment of Krisha’s mounting desperation is undeniably riveting. She attempts to tamp down her neuroses the same way she keeps her medications in a lockbox, but her every attempt to reach out to estranged siblings and in-laws and such is hobbled by the fear (or maybe resigned knowledge) that she will be rebuffed. – Dan S. (full review)

Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)

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Taken in isolation, the opening third of Kubo and the Two Strings is arguably one of the finest stretches of cinema in 2016. Impossibly fluid stop-motion, impossibly gorgeous art direction (think a mix of Japanese folkloric iconography and Tim Burton-esque gothic sensibilities), and an impossibly haunting premise ensure the film encounters us like some otherworldly object, forged from the ether of the sublime. The film’s second act feels like a partial retreat from the opening’s aesthetic and emotional boldness, defaulting to relatively routine (albeit effective) comic relief and a more straightforward adventure plot, but, at this point, Kubo still casts a spell. It is when the disappointingly rote finale hits that the film truly drops a few pegs, but even this creative cop-out can’t undo the ineffable enchantment of earlier moments. Some of Kubo’s scenes are truly untouchable: the heartbreaking characterization of Kubo’s grieving mother, the delightfully chilling entrance of Kubo’s evil aunts, a storm-set sword fight that moves like quicksilver. To experience such moments is to be left eternally grateful for cinema and the beauty of its invented worlds. – Jonah J.

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