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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
Men Go to Battle (Zachary Treitz)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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?