Thursday, February 4, 2010

2009 Year in Review: Best Directorial Debuts

One of the most exciting things every year is to watch new filmmakers emerge and making great films their first time out. When a new filmmaker emerges, it forces you to take off those blinders and simply watch the films. This year produced many great new filmmakers. In addition to the top 10 listed below, I am looking forward to seeing whether James Mottern can make something as intelligent as Trucker the next time around and whether actress Drew Barrymore can make something as fun as Whip It again. Sophie Barthes made a hugely ambitious debut with Cold Souls, but I hope next time she scales it back and makes a more complete, satisfying film. I wonder if Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity is simply going to be a one off, like The Blair Witch Project, or the start of something special. The 10 filmmakers listed below however did even better.

10. Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga)
Sin Nombre tells the story of two very different people from South America, both trying to cross the border into America. Paulina Gaitlin stars as a young woman from Guatemala travelling with her father to America so she can join him and his new family. Edgar Flores is a Mexican gang banger, who cannot take the life anymore and kills his boss, and has to flee before the rest of the gang catches up with him. Their paths intersect, and Gaitlin will not let him go on without her. Sin Nombre goes beyond the stereotypes of illegal immigrants, and gets to the heart of their stories. Cary Fukunaga has crafted a memorable, exciting, honest film – I cannot wait to see what he does next.

9. A Single Man (Tom Ford)
Fashion designer Ford has crafted a fine debut film – visually interesting, emotionally resonant and magnificently acted. Colin Firth stars as George, a gay professor in 1960s California whose life starts to fall apart after the death of his long time partner (Matthew Goode). The movie follows George over the course of one day, at the end of which he plans to kill himself. The main attraction to the movie is Firth, who is utterly brilliant in his best performance, but the rest of the cast – especially Julianne Moore as his drunken best pal – are also wonderful. But Ford’s film is more than just an actor’s showcase – it is visually inventive and alive from beginning to end. As a fashion designer, he obviously loves beautiful things – and that would include this movie.

8. Moon (Duncan Jones)
Jones, the son of David Bowie, has crafted an intelligent, low budget science fiction film with a great performance by Sam Rockwell at the center. Rockwell is stationed by himself on the moon for a three year contract harvesting a new energy source they have found there. His only company is the ships ever present computer, with the voice of Kevin Spacey. When Rockwell gets into an accident and almost dies, he wakes up to discover another him on board. Things get stranger from there. Science fiction, at least good science fiction, has always been more about ideas than special effects (although, it must be said that Jones does a lot with the special effects considering his budget). This is a great debut film.

7. Big Fan (Robert Siegel)
Robert Siegel’s broke out last year with his screenplay for Darren Aronofsky’s magnificent film The Wrestler. This year, he stepped into the director’s chair for the first time and crafted this wonderful, under seen indie film. Comedian Patton Oswalt gives a terrific dramatic performance as a guy in his mid 30s who still lives at home with his mother, and who defines his entire life on the success of the New York Football Giants. When he meets his favorite player in a strip club, he thinks his dream is coming true – but when the player ends up beating him up, his world crashes down around him. Big Fan is a great movie about when fandom becomes dangerous obsession, and marks Siegel as a director to watch.

6. Zombieland (Ruben Flesicher)
Zombieland maintains an incredible comedic pace from beginning to end, and that all has to do with Flesicher’s direction. Right off the bat, he establishes this world over run by zombies, and that Jessie Eisenberg is going to be our unlikely hero, with his hilarious voice over narration. He then introduces more characters – the demented Woody Harrellson, the sweet Abigail Breslin, and the sultry Emma Stone, and keeps the laughs and the gore coming on strong. It is hard to make a horror comedy – so many are downright horrid – but Flesicher nailed the tone from the beginning. Let’s see if he can keep it going.

5. Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper)
Scott Cooper’s debut film could have easily become one cliché after another. After all, it is a movie about an aging country music star whose stock has fallen, and is lost in alcoholism who is saved by his relationship with a beautiful younger woman and her son. Yet, the reason why Crazy Heart works is because Cooper, along with his great cast led by Jeff Bridges, but also featuring great work by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell, make you believe that these clichés are true for these people. That’s a hard thing to pull off, but Cooper and company do so brilliantly well – with great help from T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham, whose songs make the movie.

4. 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb)
The romantic comedy is perhaps my least favorite genre, because they really haven’t come up with anything new or original to say in them since the 1930s. But 500 Days of Summer is an absolute joy – a wonder to behold – as it tells the story of a couple who are almost right for each other. Joseph Gordon Levitt continues his excellent streak of performances here as an architect slumming it in a job for a greeting card company, who thinks he has found the girl of his dreams in Summer (Zooey Deschanell). The movie flashes back and forth in time to during and after their relationship to see how things went so terribly wrong. Marvelously directed by Marc Webb – who is visually inventive throughout, 500 Days of Summer is the best romantic comedy in years – and a marvelous debut picture for Webb.

3. The Messenger (Oren Moverman)
Until now, Oren Moverman has made his living as a screenwriter – collaborating on such films as I’m Not There, Married Life and Jesus’ Son. But in The Messenger, he steps into the director’s chair for the first time, and does a wonderful job. Yes, The Messenger is a movie more about writing and acting than it is about directing, but Moverman knows enough to kind of stay out of his own way here. His direction is subtle, the camera hovering behind the characters, or closing in for a close-up at just the right moment. Moverman is the real deal as a director – not just a writer.

2. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci)
In the Loop is the best political satire in years. Armando Iannucci comes from a television background, and it shows, as the movie does look at times like an episode of The Office (or presumably, The Thick Of It, the series that this movie is a spinoff from). Yet the visual style (and yes, the movie does have a visual style) is appropriate the movie itself. Grubby backrooms, monuments that appear small and less grand than normal, and the jump cut style editing help to make the tone of the film, yet never detract from the writing or the performances. I hope that Iannucci makes more films, and doesn’t simply go back to television.

1. District 9 (Neil Blomkamp)
Blomkamp’s directorial debut was, to be, the most challenging film any newcomer took on this year. He mixes together science fiction, action and his social agenda, with a story that packs an emotional wallop in Sharlto Copley’s descent from bumbling bureaucrat into a alien prawn. He uses special effects perfectly, blending them effortlessly into the background, or right there in your face. His pseudo-documentary style at the beginning of the film is handled brilliantly well, and as the movie moves into action movie terrain, he handles the transition well, and creates the best action sequences of the year. I have no idea how involved producer Peter Jackson was in the making of this film, but I have a feeling that this is the start of a brilliant career for Blomkamp.

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