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The Best Directorial Debuts of 2016

Written by on December 19, 2016 

Men Go to Battle (Zachary Treitz)

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Mumblecore and the period drama have (somehow) come together, and the result is far better than people who are generally allergic to the subgenre may expect. On a miniscule budget, writer-director Zachary Treitz and his crew have laid out a fully realized recreation of the South during the American Civil War — and it’s more than convincing recreations of an era’s aesthetic. Where many historical films are concerned with the movers and shakers of well-known events, Men Go to Battle is all about the micro view. It tells a story that happens to be set against a volatile backdrop, but is more about what it was like to live day-to-day in such a time. – Dan S. (full review)

Miss Stevens (Julia Hart)

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When it comes to high school-set films, the majority prefer to take a perspective of the student, particularly as it pertains to the coming-of-age drama. For a budding teacher, though, the period can be a tumultuous one, and Julia Hart‘s debut is an evocative one as we follow Rachel Stevens (a fantastic Lily Rabe) as she deals with a personal emotional upheaval as well as the unspoken attraction from a student (Timothee Chalamet). By the finale, one may not feel entirely fulfilled by Miss Stevens, but the taboos it explores with a careful eye make it a more-than-worthy watch. – Jordan R.

The Red Turtle (Michaël Dudok de Wit)

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Motion, love for the Gaia, and lush orchestral music provide the backbone of Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, a dialogue-free, feature-length animation about a man stranded on a desert island, co-produced by the legendary Studio Ghibli, their first-ever such production to be made off Japanese soil. The story goes that producer Vincent Maraval from Wild Bunch showed De Wit’s Oscar-winning short animation Father and Daughter to Hayao Miyazaki in 2007. The legendary animator much admired the film, calling it “very Japanese,” and asked Maraval to locate De Wit. They sent the Dutchman an email, and so The Red Turtle came into being. – Rory O. (full review)

Swiss Army Man (DANIELs)

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Writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, aka DANIELS, navigated a seemingly effortless leap from lensing episodes of Children’s Hospital and NTSF:SD:SUV to directing one of the most talked-about films of 2016, Swiss Army Man. Visually stylish and crudely funny, the film miraculously delivers on the gonzo promise to wring tears from farts by grounding this insanely divisive story with open-hearted emotion. Like the most puerile boner joke, you’re either delighted by Swiss Army Man’s story of companionship and survival between a lonely man and a corpse — or not. Complete with two striking performances from Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, who committed to every charmingly weird twist and turn, Kwan and Scheinert’s debut begs the question: what will their second film look like? I couldn’t be more curious to find out. – Tony H.

Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari)

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On a visceral level, the effectiveness of Under the Shadow lies in the conceit of barely glimpsed things going bump in the night. As has been proven time and again, the unseen terrifies more than the visible, and Babak Anvari’s feature-length debut is a finely crafted case-in-point, relying less on grotesque spectacle than the creeping chill caused by sinister forces lurking at the edges of perception. What the film does differently than its genre predecessors is engage with a social and historical context vastly underrepresented in the horror genre: post-revolutionary Tehran as charged by both the anxiety of war and the oppressiveness of a traditional social order. In examining the toll such an environment takes on family life, Under the Shadow borrows heavily, albeit intelligently, from The Devil’s Backbone and The Babadook—the former’s influence appears in the form of an unexploded missile used metonymically to signal the constant threat of military violence, while the latter clearly had a bearing on the film’s channeling of anxious motherhood into an external, malevolent spirit. Still, Under the Shadow holds its own as a thought-provoking spookfest marked by both uniqueness of vision and skillful execution. – Jonah J.

The Witch (Robert Eggers)

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One of the hallmarks for judging a directorial debut is how assured and steady-handed the finished film feels. A good debut is a good movie, but a truly great debut is a film that feels effortlessly guided to life. The Witch, by Robert Eggers, is such a film. In the best possible way, you can feel the weight and the rightness of each of his choices in every frame of the film. His confidence is amplified by his staggering stylistic choices – such a correct period construction, clothing, and dialogue. In terms of auspicious arrivals by bold artists, it’s hard to get much better than this. – Brian R.

What was your favorite directorial debut this year?

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