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