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The Best Directorial Debuts of 2018

Written by on December 11, 2018 

Hereditary (Ari Aster)

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Hereditary functions as a perfect directorial debut in the sense that while it is a skillful and cine-literate genre film, it’s also immensely showy and attention-grabbing work. Like a finely tuned mechanism, writer-director Ari Aster’s horror drama coldly hammers its audience with grim atmosphere and an oppressive sense of lingering dread, delivering twist after bone-chilling twist until the protagonist’s head quite literally twists off. Hereditary achieves more in its opening thirty nerve-jangling minutes than most middling horror movies can pull off in their entire runtimes, and still successfully steers its battered audience through a climax of searing and surreal terror. Let’s not take for granted how rare it is to see a new film and wonder what the hell could have possibly happened in the maker’s life to inspire such a deeply resonant tale. Aster’s feature debut achieves this result with disturbing precision. – Tony H.

Notes on an Appearance (Ricky D’Ambrose)

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Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes on an Appearance is a sophisticated work that runs the conceptual gamut. At times minimalist, at times overwhelming, the film marks a prominent new voice in the art-cinema–one with a promising arsenal of influences that include Brecht, Bresson, Straub/ Huillet, Heidegger, among others–that will only get better as it further comes into its own. D’Ambrose has developed into an astute aesthetician, fluidly inserting fascinating aspects of the modern metropolitan quotidien such as maps, postcards, and newspaper editorials. Perhaps with this film behind him and more resources towards the next, his fascinating ideas will get their due. – Jason O.

PROTOTYPE (Blake Williams)

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PROTOTYPE‘s unique combination of archival footage and 3D imaging techniques creates an image of the past that is chiefly concerned with space over time, playing out like a performance of the Galveston storm rather than a simple retelling of the event through a use of historical footage. The mixture of historical fact with cinematic experimentation in PROTOTYPE does not feel like a case of exploiting the former merely for the sake of pulling off dazzling visual tricks on the viewer’s spatio-temporal sensibilities. Rather, Williams’ film plays like both a memorial to the often overlooked natural disaster — which, in today’s climate of near-constant ecological catastrophe, feels all the more necessary — and an exploration into the what could have been in terms of the very modes and technologies we’ve developed to represent the past and the spaces we currently occupy. – Andrew W. (full review)

Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)

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Not just the broad, Marx-happy partisan screed it has sometimes been mistaken for, longtime musician Boots Riley’s debut film is less Sergei Eisenstein and more Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: an inspiringly demented dystopian comedy in which funhouse-mirror reflections of 2010s America give poetic, uproarious form and life to the myriad anxieties (economic, social, racial, personal) of a middle-class African-American millennial in a class struggle and an existential rut. An outsider to Hollywood, Riley is blessedly untainted by the strictures of Screenwriting 101 formalism, freeing him up to follow messy, absurdist flights of free-associative craziness to whatever wildly unpredictable ends they may lead. Riley never stops rolling out twisted surprises, and it’s that restless comic energy combined with a poignant sense of the absurdity of life in Trump’s America that makes this a definitive piece of popular art expressing the worldview of a wayward, anxious generation. It’s hard not to be left wanting still more servings of Riley’s twisted, on-point imagination. – Eli F.

A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper)

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One of cinema’s most adaptable and self-reflexive premises–that of burgeoning celebrity and retaining relevance in a constantly changing culture–is revisited in the equally mercurial 21st century. With Bradley Cooper’s iteration of A Star is Born, the industry implicated therein may have shifted from film to music, but the large-scale celebrity commentary and the more honed-in power dynamics wrestled with remain the same. And who better than the effervescent Lady Gaga to fill the shoes of past leads? Her Ally’s shift from relatable and desperate mundanity to grandiose superstardom is juxtaposed purposefully with that of Cooper’s downwardly spiraling, dismal counterpart Jack. With unique cinematography from Matthew Libatique that effortlessly blends comfortable rural life with alienating urban settings, the film is a poignant and passionate look at the double-edged sword of fame, the constant metamorphosis of culture, and the inner-workings of a doomed romance. – Jason O.

Summer 1993 (Carla Simón)

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Here’s a harrowing memoir that understands what it is like to undergo – and hopelessly try to overcome – an unspeakable trauma, and does it from the perspective of a 6-year-old girl replete with so much grit and no-nonsense swagger to measure up to Mustang‘s Lale and Léon: The Professional‘s Mathilda. Summer 1993 is a poignant first feature by Carla Simón, who has found in 10-year-old Laia Artigas a preternaturally talented force of nature, and an irresistible alter-ego. Our review here. – Leonardo G.

The Wild Boys (Bertrand Mandico)

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Is The Wild Boy indescribable? On the most fundamental level, the directorial debut feature of Bertrand Mandico is certainly not: its structure and central conflict is more-or-less a direct cross between the rebellious coming-of-age story and the sea adventure. But it would be equally misleading to say that this film is in any way stale, rote, or conventional. For this is one of the more truly strange visions from narrative cinema in the past few years, one that dares and succeeds as much as it fails. To call it bizarre would be an understatement. – Ryan S. (full review)

Wildlife (Paul Dano)

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After reading Richard Ford’s Wildlife, Paul Dano saw so much of himself in the teenage boy dealing with his parents’ disintegrating marriage, that he turned it into one of the most affecting portraits of youth ever put on film. Shot with the precise eye of a seasoned master, Wildlife ironically achieves what its characters find impossible to do, it finds balance in chaos, turning powerful images and rich, literary dialogues into the perfect marriage. – Jose S.

Honorable Mentions

Since we’ll have a dedicated look soon at the year’s best documentaries, we didn’t feature those debuts here, including highlights Hale County, This Morning This Evening and Minding the Gap. As for narrative films, BlameThoroughbreds, Searching, The Cakemaker, and Werewolf nearly made the cut.

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