Thursday, January 29, 2015

2014 Year End Report: Top 10 Directorial Debuts

I haven’t done a post like this in prior year end reports, but this year there was a number of films from first time filmmakers that, while not quite good enough to make my best of list, were still worthy of attention – and will hopefully mark the beginning of great directing careers. Only one of these films made my top 10 (and it was also the only one in the top 30) – and I missed what is arguably the most acclaimed debut film – Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook – which won both the Indiewire and Village Voice critics surveys in this category (well, I didn’t miss it – they haven’t released it in Canada yet). Long story short I decided this year, to countdown the best 10 directorial debuts.

Some of the debuts that didn’t make my top ten list, but were still good include: Cheap Thrills (E.L. Katz) an amusing, bloody horror comedy that is actually much smarter than its premise. The Heart Machine (Zachary Wigon) an internet age love story, about two navel gazing, asshole Brooklyn hipsters. It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hitmann) an interesting coming of age drama about a young girl trying to keep up sexually with her best friend. Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Jeffrey Barnaby) an exploitation film, set around the Residential schools in Canada during the 1970s. Rosewater (Jon Stewart) which was smart and funny, and a little bit harrowing. The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini) a classical, Hitchcock-inspired thriller with fine performances by Viggo Mortenson and Oscar Isaac.

The Top 10

10. Butter on the Latch (Josephine Decker)
Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch is a sort of existential horror movie – with two best friends at a New Age retreat, whose friendship is gradually put under strain from unseen forces. The film is all mounting tension – you sense from the beginning that something bad is about to happen – and finally it does in the end (or does it?). The film was largely improvised by its two stars, has wonderful handheld camerawork and intuitive editing. I saw this the same day I saw her second film – Thou Wast Mild and Lovely – which had a similar look and feel, but was somewhat more conventional and terms of story, and also less ambiguous – and as a result slightly less effective. But both films show a real talent in Decker – who has a real eye for camerawork, and gets great performances out of her cast. She may not have made a great film yet – but she may well in the future.

9. Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
This latest Coppola to make a movie (this one is Francis’ granddaughter, and Sofia’s niece), Gia Coppola’s adaptation of the James Franco book of short stories about affluent teenagers growing up in the title city, is actually much better than that sounds. At the center of the movie is Emma Roberts – the lone virgin in her group of friends, who is drawn to two people – a boy her own age (Jack Kilmer) and her predatory soccer coach (Franco). Kilmer is also friends with the self-destructive Fred (Nat Wolff), while Emily (Zoe Levin) sleeps with every boy who glances at her. The film is one party after another that bleed into each other, as the adults in their lives either don’t know or don’t care what’s going on with them. The film isn’t exactly original – and Coppola is clearly a little too inspired by her famous aunt’s directorial style, but it’s still an impressive debut from yet another talented member of the Coppola filmmaking clan.

8. John Wick (Chad Stahelski & David Leitch)
Two stunt co-ordinators, Chad Stahelski & David Leitch, made their debut with this excellent action film – that uses smooth camera work, instead of the rapid fire editing that has ruined many recent action movies. The story works as well – with Keanu Reeves as a retired hitman and grieving widow who seeks vengeance on the Russian mob for killing his (absolutely adorable) puppy. The film moves at lightning speed, with Reeves as good as he has ever been, and a fine cast of supporting badasses. It is the action that makes me want to see what these two do next however – in many ways it’s a throwback to the action movies of the 1990s – but since those are better than the current ones, I’m in for whatever this pair does next.

7. The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zurcher)
When I reviewed The Strange Little Cat, I said it struck me as the first film of a master filmmaker. Everything about this film is assured – every shot perfectly framed, every performance hits the right notes. It is about one long day in the life of one family – as the mother prepares for a big family dinner, the grown children return from college, and the younger ones get into mischief. The title cat is just one of the animal characters who drifts in and out of the frame. The film reminded me of the work of Michael Haneke – it has the same cold, clarity of vision to it, the same sense of unease running throughout. The film, ultimately, doesn’t really add up to much though – I’m not quite sure what the point of it is was, and even at just over an hour, it’s a little too long. But it’s such an assured debut that I cannot imagine Zurcher isn’t going to go onto to something bigger and better next time.

6. The One I Love (Charlie McDowell)
The One I Love is a very strange relationship film – about a couple (played excellently by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss), who are in couple’s therapy, trying to salvage their marriage after he had an affair. Their therapist (Ted Danson) suggests a weekend away at a country house. They get there, are having a normal time – and then, at the end of act one, something strange happens that throws the whole movie into chaos. The film is surreal, funny and surprisingly perceptive about real life relationships – a triumph for director Charlie McDowell, and first time writer Justin Lader, who are supposedly teaming up again. The only really wrong step the movie makes is at the end – when a movie that had been unpredictable throughout gives us the most predictable ending imaginable. Still, I want to see what this writer-director combo does next.

5. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence is no budget, sci-fi filmmaking at its finest. Four couples gather for a dinner party on the evening when a comet is coming close to earth. After a first act that establishes who everyone is, and their petty problems, the power goes out everywhere on the block – except for one house. So two of the men go to that house to try and find out what happened, setting off a series of events that I won’t reveal (because that’s half the fun). The movie has some surprisingly complex science going through it, but it’s the way it effects each of the people – especially the character played by Emily Foxler, in a great performance, that makes the movie work so well. Big budget sci fi is mainly about special effects these days – Coherence shows that you don’t need any to make a great, smart, hard sci-fi movie.

4. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
Like several films on this list, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night leans a little too heavily on its influences – mainly early David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, along with Sergio Leone and James Dean – but what it comes up with is still wholly original and unique. The logline on the movie – an Iranian feminist, vampire western – is a neat descriptor, but doesn’t describe the film totally. A very visual film – with great, stark black and white photography, the film was clearly shot for very little money – but they use that to its advantage. The film was shot in Bakersfield, California – but set in Iran, with everyone speaking Persian, the film has an almost otherworldly feeling to it. This is not the best debut film of the year – but Amirpour may just be the filmmaker on this list whose second film I’m looking forward to the most.

3. Dear White People (Justin Simien)
Justin Simien’s Dear White People is heavily inspired by the early work of Spike Lee – I’m thinking specifically of School Daze – but is fascinating in its own right. Set on the campus of an Ivy League school, with one traditionally black dorm on the cusp of being integrated with the others, and the conflict that arises. The film was hit with the ridiculous criticism that it was “reverse racist” – ridiculous because while the film clearly does have several racist white characters, it offers a rather complex view of modern day black culture – and the difference of opinion that runs throughout. It has characters like a gay writer who feels excluded everywhere he goes, a black girl who wants to be a reality TV star for white people and a charming student politician whose father wants him to be the next Obama. The most fascinating character is played by the wonderful Tessa Thompson – a mixed race woman who has embraced the militant black stereotype a little too much – and is struggling with her own feelings. The climax, at a painfully realistic, racist party at a frat, is great. The movie is funny and smart – and shows Simien is a director to watch.

2. Obvious Child (Gilliam Robespierre)
Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is a funny, smart comedy about a woman in her late 20s who still acts like a teenager. After her most recent boyfriend dumps her, she goes out, gets drunk and has a one night stand – and ends up pregnant. That she is going to get an abortion is never in doubt – she knows that she cannot take care of a child – she cannot even take care of herself. But her one night stand is actually a guy she thinks she could actually like – and she struggles to find a way to tell him all of this. Meanwhile, her stand-up comedy act – which wasn’t very good – takes a turn for the better when she starts being more honest about what she’s going through. The lead performance by Jenny Slate is one of the best of the year – she doesn’t shy away from making her character at least somewhat selfish and immature – but we still feel sympathy for her as well. Robespierre has made an excellent, modern day romantic comedy – and made it equal parts funny, truthful and daring. We need more films like this.

1. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
I’ve already written about Nightcrawler in this report – it made my top 10 list after all, and both Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo should have received Oscar nominations for their work. Gilroy, who has worked as a screenwriter for two decades, has never done anything to suggest he had something this good in him (his work includes the forgettable Matthew McConaughey-Al Pacino gambling drama Two for the Money and the even more forgettable robot boxing film Real Steel). Here, he has made an angry, disturbing capitalist horror movie – with its main character a sociopath who becomes a news reporter, getting more and more violent footage to feed a hungry L.A. news industry. The film is brilliantly shot by Robert Elswit – making L.A. look even darker and scarier than normal. And the performances are amazing. But it’s Gilroy's direction and (Oscar nominated) screenplay that make the film brilliant. Here’s hoping that now that the 55 year old Gilroy has broken through with his first directing effort, we get more like this, and less like Real Steel. He is a great talent – and he made the best debut film of 2014.

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