This year’s best new filmmakers have notably varied backgrounds. One studied for years under Terrence Malick. One acted for even more years under directors like David Mamet, the Coen brothers and P.T. Anderson. One just tried like hell for ten years to get his damn movie made. But they all emerged in 2014 as exciting new directorial voices. Here are our ten favorites.
10. William H. Macy – Rudderless
Though his film acting career began modestly in the early 1980s, the world didn’t really know about William H. Macy’s primo chops until his hilarious—and tragic—turn as Jerry Lundergaard in the Coen Bros.’ 1996 black comedy/crime story Fargo. Similarly, only by a check of his biography could one know he started out in theater partnering with David Mamet. Was the ambition to take the helm there all along? Unknown. What is known, however, is that Macy’s perhaps long-simmering ambition to direct resulted in one of 2014’s finest features. The tender, cathartic Rudderless combines wonderful performances from Billy Crudup, Macy’s own extraordinarily talented wife, Felicity Huffman, Laurence Fishburn and Selena Gomez—of all people—with a fittingly knockout soundtrack and assured lensing that suggests a pro who’s been behind the camera as long as he’s been in front of it. Just as with his big time “discovery” following that aforementioned home-spun tale of Minnesota murder, Macy’s a bit of a revelation now as a filmmaker of note. —Scott Wold
9. A.J. Edwards – The Better Angels
A.J. Edwards is a protégé of Terrence Malick, and boy does it show. Some readers will skip to the next profile right there; Malick is that polarizing of a filmmaker. He may be my favorite director alive, but even if you fall somewhere in the middle, you have to admire Edwards’ courage in wearing the Malick influence on his sleeve, and making a film so reminiscent of his mentor. You also have to admire the audacity to shoot a tale about a young Abraham Lincoln, to shoot it in the rural frontier Lincoln grew up in, and to shoot in black and white. And honestly, you have to admire the cinematography itself, which is dizzyingly gorgeous. The performances are strong as well, especially from the women—Brit Marling as Lincoln’s birth mother, and Diane Kruger as the stepmother he revered. Edwards has learned much from Malick, but he’s very much his own man too. —Michael Dunaway
8. Zachary Wigon – The Heart Machine
When you’re analyzing new filmmaking talent, it’s easy to get swept up in the high-concept films. “Wow, who would’ve thought to combine Blaxploitation cinema with a WWII-era polka dance-off???” It can be easy to overlook a debut by a director who tells a story well and gets great performances from his actors. Zach Wigon cast The Heart Machine exceptionally well—John Gallagher Jr. and Kate Sheil are two of the best actors working in independent film today—but he coaxes a career-best performance from each of them. The story he tells feels both timeless and of the moment. Most of all, you just get the feeling that this is a guy with a handle on the way a movie can be told, with an open heart and a sharp mind. It’s well worth seeking out this little film, which is easily one of the most promising debuts of the year. —M.D.
7. Justin Simien – Dear White People
Earlier this year when Justin Simien’s directorial debut made its way around the festival circuit, many of us thought we knew what to expect. But in October, Dear White People hit theaters, and even those of us who were enthusiastically anticipating the film were pleasantly surprised. The narrative content was, arguably, far less controversial—or at least, sensational—than its title, for Dear White People was as much a story about college life and performing identities as it was about racial politics. So, while we might have been prepared for a film that took on stereotypes and, well, poked fun at white people who say “weaved” (and we did get that), Simien brought us a character study of American youth, and witty critique of the American higher educational system. For this, we have every reason to look forward to more. —Shannon M. Houston
6. Ana Lily Amirpour – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is one hell of a debut film. It’s a moody, Iranian Vampire Western that manages to pay homage to Jim Jarmusch and Sergio Leone while staying true to the singular vision of director Ana Lily Amirpour. The L.A.-based director insisted that this fairy tale—filmed in the nether regions of California—be shot in black-and-white and in Farsi with English subtitles. The film’s heroine is a lonely vampire who wears sneakers and jeans under a traditional chador with a Persian James Dean paramour. While some of the film’s critics call out the minimalist plot, no one can deny that Amirpour’s film is a visual delight with great music, too. We can’t wait for the director’s next project, which sounds as indie as her first: “It’s a post-Apocalyptic cannibal love story set in a Texan wasteland in the desert with a really really dope soundtrack.” —Christine N. Ziemba
5. Dan Gilroy – Nightcrawler
Perhaps the easiest way to glimpse a director’s worth is through the performances of those on which the director’s lens most focuses, so in the case of Nightcrawler and Jake Gyllenhaal’s blinkless Lou Bloom, Dan Gilroy’s guiding hand is one to be reckoned with. Gilroy, who is no stranger to the industry, having dreamed up the stories for both brooding, stoic spy thrillers (The Bourne Legacy) and goofy robo-dramas (Real Steel), gives his lead actor a shining, sterile, unfeeling Los Angeles in which to roam, and, in turn, Bloom is such a completely realized, odd sort of sociopath that there should be no question that Gilroy knows exactly where Gyllenhaal will take the character without having to intervene. Couple Gyllenhaal’s commitment with camerawork that suggests that Nightcrawler itself is practically learning how to be an exploitive blockbuster as it goes along—in much the same way that Bloom learns what is required of him to succeed in his chosen vocation, and then heads full tilt down that crazy path—and it’s clear that Gilroy’s voice is a commanding, even demanding one. Go ahead: try to turn away. —Dom Sinacola
4. Charlie McDowell – The One I Love
While The One I Love is not his debut—that title would technically fall to Bye Bye Benjamin, a short he directed in 2006 that starred both his step-dad, Ted Danson, and his real dad, Malcolm McDowell (a fact which warms the heart, really)—Charlie McDowell might as well have not touched a camera before this year’s feature-length, hyphen-heavy rom-dram-com-sci-fant-edy. Because here, the balance he strikes is so effortless it practically erases all of his attempts at the medium before it. From one subtle twist to another, from one genre trope elbowed into yet one more, McDowell keeps his high concept afloat while drawing little attention to the absurdity of what it all would sound like if one were to actually sit down and explain the plot, beat by beat, to a loved one—or if one were to admit that the film operates as little more than a bottle episode of Black Mirror. That the performances of Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss breathe with the same sober, naturalistic ease as nearly every moment in the film points all paths to the rabbit hole that is McDowell’s potential as a director. That he didn’t take the film even as far as he could’ve isn’t just a matter of restraint, it’s a sign of a talent already, absolutely in control. —D.S.
3. Josephine Decker – Thou Wast Mild and Lovely; Butter on the Latch
Sometimes seeing a first film a promising new filmmaker, you feel like they’re springing forth fully formed, as if from Zeus’ head. Think about Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs, or Steven Soderbergh with Sex, Lies, and Videotape. But other times, the excitement comes not because they’ve reached the destination, btu because they’re still getting there. It’s more like watching Nadia Comaneci go through warmup stretches and knowing you’re about to see something truly transcendent. Watching Josephine Decker’s first two films, released simultaneously, feels a lot like the latter. They’re provocative, fascinating films in their own right, to be sure. But what’s exciting is seeing her stretch those muscles out, experiment with form and style, process her influences (Terrence Malick perhaps primary among them, but directors like Joe Swanberg, David Gordon Green, and Shane Carruth also seem to be important). Because just the way she warms up, you know she’s got a masterpiece in her. —M.D.
2. Eliza Hittman – It Felt Like Love
With It Felt Like Love, writer-director Eliza Hittman takes a few routine subjects—the coming-of-age story, sexual awakening, adolescent confusion—and reminds us that a confident directorial voice can make material this common appear as fresh, strange, and surprising as a good science-fiction story. Hittman has made some well-received short films (2010’s Second Cousins Once Removed, 2011’s Forever Gonna Start Tonight), but this is her debut feature, and her command over everything—performance, style, tone, imagery—announces her as a noteworthy new filmmaker. She herself invokes Maurice Pialat and Catherine Breillat when describing her influences in this genre, but her fascination with skin and bodies also owes a debt to Claire Denis. But these inspirations neither overwhelm the material nor lessen Hittman’s achievement—if anything, they highlight the fact that the American-indie scene is in desperate need of more female directors who can approach this thematic territory with such formal and psychological curiosity. —Danny King
1. Ned Benson – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
It ain’t just luck, people. Yes, it’s certainly a great asset for Ned Benson as a filmmaker that early on he became friends (and later roommates) with two actresses fresh out of film school named Jess Weixler and Jessica Chastain. Weixler went on to become an indie queen and Chastain went on to become—well, Jessica Chastain, and they both star in Disappearance. Who couldn’t make a good movie with them, right? But what drew them to him in the first place? A brilliant short he had directed. And believe me, I know firsthand that just because actors are your friends, you still need to produce great material to bring them onto your projects. Much less have them help you for a decade to fight to get that project done.
The result, though, is worth the effort. Disappearance (especially in the separated His and Her versions) is a work of enormous sensitivity and contains simply stunning performances, not only from Chastain and Weixler, but also from James McAvoy, Viola Davis, Ciaran Hinds, Nina Ariande (the latest in a series for her), Bill Hader, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, and the rest of the supporting cast, as well. This many great performances don’t come together by accident, or by luck. They come together when a truly brilliant artist writes a great script and brings them out of the actors. And Ned Benson is our New Filmmaker of the Year not just for this great film (these three great films?), but in anticipation of the many more to come. M.D.