Anyone should be commended simply for getting a film made – especially those who have never made one before. Not all of the films below are actually good films – but all of them showed me enough that I am at least interested in what these filmmakers do from here on out.
Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (Eva Husson) wasn’t a particularly great film, but there is enough skill, and a legitimate point-of-view, that I want to see what Husson comes up next time out. Barry (Vikram Gandhi) marks his move from documentary work, and it’s a solid movie about the college life of Barack Obama, Creative Control (Benjamin Dickinson) got increasingly annoying as it stared into its own hipster navel, and yet, shows enough promise that I want to see what Dickinson gets up after this one. Emelie (Michel Thelin) was an effectively directed horror film about a crazy babysitter, which went off the rails at the end, but was well made and had a great central performance – I’ll watch for Thelin. Lion (Garth Davis) is a very good, crowd pleasing, Oscar-friendly film – although the first half is much better than the second. Southside with You (Richard Tanne) tries too hard, but does have some nice moments.
Perhaps in other years, the following films would have had a shot at the top 10. Deadpool (Tim Miller) was a fun superhero film in a year without many that were – and Miller is good at keeping things going. The Eyes of My Mother (Nicolas Pesce) is a visually striking, very disturbing horror film – if his next film improves its storytelling a bit, it could be amazing. Lights Out (David F. Sanberg) was a very good, very stylish horror film – and I want to see what he does next. Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle) is perhaps an overly ambitious debut for actor Don Cheadle – who delivers a great performance, in a confusing movie – still I want to see what he does next. Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) shows an awful lot of promise, even if there was a lot of it I didn’t really like. White Girl (Elizabeth Wood) is an unflinching, graphic story of white privilege, that I think tries too hard to shock, and gets repetitive – but is a fine debut for Wood, and marks her as someone to watch.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is neither the masterpiece many seemed to think it was coming out of Sundance, nor the failure many wrote it off as after the box office was poor following the publicity around Parker’s 2001 rape trial. This Nat Turner biopic – where Parker plays the infamous slave rebellion leader is – is quite good in parts, powerful, unforgettable and unflinching in its depiction of the ways slaves were treated, as well as problematic in other ways – especially in the way it treats sexual violence against women merely as a way to get to the male characters. Parker is clearly inspired by Mel Gibson (particularly Braveheart) – and there are some interesting religious elements to the film that are interesting to grapple with. Basically, I think The Bird of a Nation is a mixed bag – but there is more than enough here to make me very curious to see what Parker directs next – assuming his career isn’t over that is.
Brady Corbet worked with Michael Haneke in his American remake of Funny Games a few years ago – and he was clearly making notes. The indie stalwart actor – who has somehow become a go to for European directors of all sorts – makes a stunning debut film about a five year old child – the son of an American diplomat and his French wife, in the aftermath after WWI, who, in three acts, defies all the adults in his life, building slowly into a massive tantrum – the last one, stunningly violet. The film isn’t quite up the level of Haneke – no shame in that, he’s one of the greatest directors in the world right now – but its brilliantly photographed and staged, and shows that Corbet may have a better career behind the camera than in front of it.
The Fits is one of the shortest feature films of the year – at only 71 minutes – but that is the perfect length for Anna Rose Holmer’s debut film, about a tomboy in Cincinnati, who goes from the boxing class to the dance class in the local community center. Strange things start to happen, as one by one, the older girls in the dance group start having the fits – dropping to the floor and convulsing – they’re fine when it’s over, and the other girls want it to happen to them as well. The film is strange and surreal – impeccably crafted, making this community center into the whole world of the movie, with expert cinematography and sound design. If it was longer than 71 minutes, I fear it would grow repetitive and full – shorter, and it wouldn’t have the same impact. I don’t think it’s quite great – it’s a little too ambiguous (and this for someone who loves ambiguity in films) – but it’s a stunning debut for Holmer – who will hopefully go on to direct a better film soon.
Babal Anvari’s Under the Shadow is a great horror film about a mother and daughter in their Tehran apartment building during intense bombing from Iraq during their war in the late 1980s. As a horror film, it works wonderfully – with a perhaps supernatural presence haunting the mother-daughter duo, although given what is happening outside, it could be their own mental state deteriorating. As a political allegory, the film also works – with the fears slowly bubbling to the surface. This is a confident debut film – one that doesn’t feel the need to push too hard, favoring a slow burn to jump scares throughout its runtime, but knowing when to goose things as well. While the film isn’t quite as good as The Babadook – a film it has been compared to often – it’s still a very good debut film, and marks Anvari as a filmmaker to watch.
If John Cassavetes, David Lynch and Terrence Malick were to team up to make a movie, the result may well look like Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha. The film is a fairly straight ahead narrative – a drug addict (played brilliantly by Krisha Fairchild) returns to her family for the holidays – now clean and sober, although perhaps she cannot stay that way for long. Where the story goes from there, you probably already know. Yet the filmmaking on display by Shults really is quite something – going from touches of the larger than life melodramas of regular people like Cassavetes, the surrealism of Lynch as the film approaches the ending, the camera work of Malick at times. It really is quite a stunning film. I hope the next time Shults works (and he has a horror film in the works for 2017) – his story matches his filmmaking.
Sleeping Giant is a low-budget, Canadian indie that I saw one afternoon because I had nothing better to do after taking the afternoon off to see Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! To my surprise, I think Andrew Cividino’s debut is even better than Linklater’s charmer – a story about three boys and a lazy summer in North Ontario that turns tragic. One of the boys is from a well-off family, and he falls in with two, not so-well off cousins, staying with their grandmother. What follows is a closely observed film, in which everything the characters do is understandable – yet still has tragic consequences – and everyone is guilty. This is a film that sneaks up on you a little bit – and then continues to grow in your mind well after it’s over. We need more great Canadian films – and great Canadian filmmakers. He’s already working on his next film for a 2018 release – and it cannot come soon enough.
There are few genres that are as dependent on clichés as the teen movie – where for the most part, you know precisely what will happen before you sit down. In broad strokes, that is largely true of The Edge of Seventeen – the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig. Starring Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine – a teenage girl who loses her only friend, has a messy home life, and makes one mistake after another. You know what is going to happen (and while the film does touch on a few darker things, and doesn’t wrap everything up neatly), you’re right. But the film is also hilarious, wonderfully written and acted – and skillfully made by Craig. The fact that the film didn’t become a huge hit is dispiriting – it’s a teen film that is easily as good as the work of John Hughes – or Juno, Mean Girls and Easy A. It will eventually find its audience, I’m sure.
I’m not sure why JJ Abrams tapped Dan Trachtenberg to direct his Cloverfield spinoff – but whatever it was, it was a great idea. Trachtenberg does a great job with the slowly mounting tension of the film – as Mary Elizabeth Winstead wakes up possibly being held captive by a madman – or perhaps having been saved by, well, he’s still a madman. Trachetenberg is not undone by having to set the entire movie in an underground bunker – the film never feels stilted or stage bound – he uses that claustrophobia to his advantage. Trachetenberg has already directed since this film (an episode of Black Mirror – a show I love, although I haven’t seen his episode as of this writing) – and I hope he continues to do quality work.
2. Indignation (James Schamus)
I’m not really sure it’s fair to name James Schamus’s Indignation a best debut film of the year – Schamus has, after all been a screenwriter and producer for going on three decades now. Yet, he has never stepped into the director’s chair before and the film is great, so here it is. This is, easily, the best Phillip Roth adaptation ever to make it to the screen – taking one of Roth’s late, thin novels, and turning it into an excellent film. It stars Logan Lerman as a young Jewish man from New Jersey, who heads to a University in Ohio in the 1950s – and comes up against a Dead (a brilliant Tracy Letts), who hold him in calm contempt – the films best scene is an extended confrontation between the two of them, that goes on for about 20 minutes. He also gets involved with a damaged young woman (Sarah Gadon) – although he is too self-involved to truly see her for who she is. Roth is hard to adapt – he is very literary in his style, but Schamus finds a way to do it, and do it brilliantly. Indignation sneaks up on you, with one great scene after another, culminating in a doozy of a finale. A great debut, but a great film version of a Roth novel, which is a lot rarer.
Horror seems to be a natural place for many filmmakers to start – but most end up simply copying what others are doing. What Robert Eggers does with The Witch is something braver and bolder – a wholly original horror film, set in 1630s New England, with actors speaking in period accurate dialogue, in a story about feminism that still resonates today. On the surface, The Witch is just a brutally effective horror film – starting with baby death, and ending someplace darker, The Witch is a slow burn horror film, that ratchets up the tension on two fronts – the tension within the family, and then whatever they hell is out there in the forest. Eggers knows how to make a horror film – and he’s already got another couple in the works. If they are as good as The Witch is, he’ll be fully established among the best horror filmmakers in America right now.