Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2015 Year in Review: Best Directorial Debut

Let’s be honest – most directors first film is not their best work – with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane perhaps being the exception that proves the rule. But, often there are seeds of greatness in a director’s debut film that we will see come to fruition later on. 2015 wasn’t a great year for debuts – but there were a quite a few first timers who I want to see their next film from, because while few of these debuts are “great” – they are all very interesting.

There are a few acclaimed debuts that I would have loved to have seen – but they didn’t arrive in Canada by years end – most notably Mustang and Bone Tomahawk – films I will catch-up at some point, I’m sure. I couldn’t fit the following films on my top 10 list, but they were solid debuts just the same: Cop Car (Jon Watts) had a lot of great touches, that helps to make up for some of the more outlandish twists and turns – I wish he wasn’t doing the next Spider-Man, because he could have refined this approach to something great. Creep (Patrick Brice) proves there is still some juice left in the found footage horror genre – and is more promising than Brice’s higher profile follow-up, The Overnight, which also came out this year. Faults (Riley Stearns) has some great writing and performances as well as an interesting premise, and if it doesn’t quite come together, it’s close enough so that I want to see what Stearns does next. Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz) shows amazing promise from a visual standpoint – another pair of Austrian directors who want to follow in footsteps of Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl – but I found it thoroughly unpleasant – and not necessarily in the way that I sometimes like. Unfriended (Leo Gabriadze) is an ingenious filmed horror movie, all on a laptop screen, that isn’t particularly original in terms of story – but doesn’t really need to be.

One of the best debut films to hit North American screens for the first time this year was About Elly (Asghar Farhadi) – but it seemed strange to include it on this list since he made it 2009, and has made two films since – the even better A Separation in 2011, and the somewhat disappointing The Past in 2013 – but no matter what, Farhadi has become a major figure in international cinema since his debut.

10. ’71 (Yann Damange)
The excellent thriller ’71, follows a British soldier as he gets lost in Belfast during the height of the “troubles” – following a riot gone awry. He knows that every step he takes could be his last – as he is forced to trust people that he cannot be sure he should. The film is political in its way – but that’s mainly understated, and runs beneath the surface. As a straight ahead thriller however director Yann Damange does an excellent job staging one exciting setpiece after another, and Jack O’Connell – so good in Starred Up last year (and not really the problem with Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) – does an excellent job in the lead role – and the always excellent Sean Harris is, well, excellent. An exciting debut film by a new voice.

9. James White (Josh Mond)
The title character in James White is an entitled, spoiled brat – has in his 20s, but doesn’t have a job, but talks about his need of a vacation. He drinks, parties, and fights a lot – so much so, that he ruins an opportunity to get a real job – one he says he is very much interested in. He even dates a high school girl. Yet, the film James White is not another hipster opus that makes excuses for its title character – instead it’s a movie that continually slaps the title character in the fact with the much harsher reality around him. His father – who he barely knew – has just died, and his mother (an excellent Cynthia Nixon) is dying of cancer. All of this serves to make Whites behavior both more understandable, and more immature. The lead performance by Christopher Abbott is excellent – he doesn’t try to soften James, or make him more sympathetic in the least. Director Josh Mond has followed the lead of two of his producers and friends – Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos (who directed Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer respectively) in being inspired by Michael Haneke – and while James White has a few problems, it is a confident debut film by a director worth keeping an eye on.

8. Court (Chaitanya Tamhane)
The Indian film Court focuses on one case – a fairly ridiculous one – where a singer is charged with inspiring a sewer worker to kill himself, even if it isn’t even clear that he killed himself at all. Writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film takes a rather dispassionate look at the events, and the trial, and ventures outside the courtroom – following the defense attorney, the prosecutor, and finally the judge, in their day-to-day lives, which serves to complicate our view of them. The ending of the film is perhaps too on the nose – it makes clear what had been subtext throughout the film, in a way that doesn’t really deepen its impact. But it’s a rare misstep in an otherwise excellent debut film, by a director who I cannot wait to see what they do next.

7. Slow West (John Maclean)
Slow West is not a great Western – but it is a very good one, and a slightly original, and different take on the genre. It’s the type of film I can ourselves looking back on in a few years, when director John Maclean has made a great film – because the bones are there for him, and it shows real promise. It’s essentially a story of a love-struck young man (Kodi Smith-McPhee) who has foolishly followed the “love of his life” from England, and is now going in search of her in America. He teams up with Michael Fassbender’s former bounty hunter – who knows the girl McPhee seeks – and her father – are wanted criminals, and he can collect on them. Fassbender’s former cohorts – led by the always great Ben Mendelsohn – is also in pursuit. It all ends, as it must, in a shootout – but until then, as the title suggests, it very much takes its time getting there. It’s always hard to know where a first time director’s career is going to go – but I think Maclean has a great career ahead of him.

6. The Mend (John Magary)
John Magary’s The Mend is a fascinating portrait of two brothers – one who is obviously an asshole (and played in a career changing performance by Josh Lucas) and one who is less obviously one (played, just as well, by Stephen Plunkett). It’s a film that starts rather slowly – you cannot help but wonder just where the film is going when it opens with a party sequence, that doesn’t so much focus on any one character, but ends up telling us a lot about its characters. From there, Magary complicates matters quite wonderfully – as Plunkett leaves for a while, and then returns, and we see how both brothers behave, both separately and together. I don’t think The Mend is quite a great film – but it does strike me as the first film of a great director – that is, the film by someone with a definite point of view, and something interesting to say, who needs a little bit of seasoning. Whether Magary fulfills that promise or not is up to him – but it’s there quite clearly in The Mend.

5. The Gift (Joel Edgerton)
Joel Edgerton is a fine actor – but with The Gift, I think he proves he’s an even better director. The film is a thriller about a seemingly normal, rich couple played by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who have their perfect lives destroyed by an old acquaintance from high school (Edgerton), who stalks them in a way that they’re not sure if he’s just weird or actually dangerous. But as the film moves along, things get more complicated – and Bateman’s character looks like it’s really he who is the asshole. As a director, Edgerton does an excellent job gradually revealing the layers of the plot and characters. The film has a misstep or two – Rebecca Hall is increasingly pushed to the background, and is ultimately just a pawn between the two men, not a full character herself, and the movie probably goes a scene too long – but in general, The Gift shows Edgerton has even more talent behind the camera than in front of it.

4. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an uncommonly frank, strong and confident film about a teenage girl’s sexuality. Played, in an excellent performance by Bel Powley, the film is about her rocky relationship with her mother (an excellent Kristen Wiig), which gets rockier when she starts sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgaard) – a meek little creep with mustache, and eventually with others as well. It is also about her art – it’s the 1970s, and she’s getting into comic art – the kind done by Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky. The film is honest, and never judges its main character, or treat this as a tragedy. Instead it looks at it clear eyed. The film is also funny, extremely well acted, and has great period detail. Adapting a graphic novel, actress turned director Marielle Heller has crafted one of the best indies of the year – a Sundance film that is the rarest of things coming out of that festival – honest and heartfelt, not smug and self-congratulatory. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

3. The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpitsky)
It’s not often that I can legitimately say that a film is like nothing I’ve ever seen before – but in the case of Myroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, it’s true. This Ukranian film is entirely in sign language – and doesn’t bother to subtitle any of the dialogue, so we are left to interpret the entirety of the movie based on the conversations that we can only partially understand. Slaboshpitsky’s direction here is brilliant – more than a little inspired by Michael Haneke, and if you pay attention, you’ll never be lost in the film, and the performances work as well. The film spirals down into a pit of sex and violence, culminating with a shocking act of violence that will leave many reeling. This may be the weakest aspect of the film – it’s clear fairly early on that the students in the school for the deaf are heading down this destructive path, and then they follow it, but the film is so brilliantly directed, it hardly matters. Slaboshpytsky is a director to watch

2. Son of Saul (László Nemes)
Son of Saul is one of the most confident, assured debut films I have seen – a very ambitious project, that attempts, and succeeds, to have an original take on the Holocaust movie – one of the greatest tragedies in human history, but one that has been the subjects of countless movies before. Yet Son of Saul is different – it’s ever moving camera remains fixed on one man, over about a day and a half, as he tries – insanely – to find a Rabbi and bury the body of one boy – who he says is his son – among the thousands of victims at Auschwitz. He is a member of the Sonderkommando – a group of Jews who help the Nazis commit their atrocities by helping lead victims to the chambers, and cleaning up after they leave. This job is soul crushing – and the look on lead actor Geza Rohrig`s face shows that brilliantly, as he succumbs to a quiet madness. The cinematography is brilliant – often blurring the background, to remain fixed on the face of the main character, and the sound design is even better – a haunting mixture of screams, gunfire, and other horrific sounds. This is a film that most seasoned directors couldn’t make – the fact that it’s by a first timer is miraculous.

1. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

Like the filmmaker who placed number 1 on this list last year for me – Dan Gilroy for Nightcrawler – Alex Garland isn’t really a newcomer – he’s been a screenwriter for years now (most notably for Danny Boyle), who is just now making his directorial debut. Still, most writers turned directors need a couple of films under their belt before they make something as brilliant as Ex Machina – the best science fiction of the year, with some of the best special effects, which is still very much a chamber piece, with only a few characters bouncing off each other in one location. The screenplay for the movie is great – which we expect from Garland (it’s actually his best work yet), and his direction matches it, eliciting brilliant performances, and crafting a uniquely visual film. Garland may not be as much of a newcomer as the others on this list, but he still managed to make the best directorial debut of the year.

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