In some ways, 2015 was a bit of a disappointing year for film (more details on that to come). But one measure by which the year overperformed is in the number of exciting new filmmakers who made their debuts this year. From Persian lesbian hipsters to young English soldiers in Northern Ireland to ultrarealistic AI creations to a community of deaf students, new filmmakers brought us some of the most fascinating characters of the year. Here are twenty filmmakers whose second features we can’t wait to see.
20. Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior
Everybody and their hip boomer parents will compare Appropriate Behavior to Girls. Everybody. That proves the blatancy of their family resemblance; you can no more ignore the influence of Dunham in Akhavan’s film than the effect that, say, the French New Wave has had on Wes Anderson. We all have our influences; Akhavan simply imprints hers on her movie’s sleeves, and immediately subsumes them with intimately personal matters unique to her background. Appropriate Behavior isn’t just a movie about unmoored twenty-somethings set against the backdrop of a disaffected Brooklyn landscape. It’s about straddling cultural lines. Amazingly, Akhavan’s film does in an hour and a half what Girls has done over thirty three episodes. For all Akhavan’s brevity, and for its lens of ground-level realism, her picture feels vibrant, lived in, and incredibly rich. That’s an assured mark of vision if ever there was one. —Andy Crump
19. Yann Demange, ’71
’71 is a claustrophobic experience, as gray and imposing as the film’s muted color palette. Set largely in Belfast during the midst of one of the most violent periods of the Northern Ireland Conflict, the feature directorial debut of Yann Demange doesn’t floor us with fresh insights about war or man’s inhumanity to man. No, ’71 is far too intimately focused on its besieged protagonist for anything so sweeping. Demange’s up-close approach, enhanced by Tat Radcliffe’s stark cinematography, has its downsides. ’71 can feel so vérité, so devoted to emphasizing a dispassionate tone, that it’s almost impersonal, mechanical, an exercise in crafting tension. But such a consciously harsh style reaps later rewards. ’71 views Gary’s plight pitilessly, just as it does those on both sides of the conflict. Without making a fuss, the film seems to see all military action as largely pointless, perhaps even antithetical to a group’s stated political objectives. In such a crucible, soldiers are, as one person says in ’71, merely meat, but there’s no teary-eyed revelation in the fact—like everything here, it’s presented as blunt truth. —Tim Grierson
18. Bryan Carberry& Clay Tweel, Finders Keepers
Finders Keepers can boast of having one of the better single-sentence synopses of recent memory, when it comes to documentaries: “After a man loses a leg in a plane crash and mummifies it himself, an errant storage locker sale deposits it into the hands of an entrepreneur who refuses to return the body part even after the leg’s original owner demands it back.” That’s the “meat” of Finders Keepers, if you will—a custody battle over a severed body part that really took place between leg-loser John Wood and leg-finder Shannon Whisnant in the years following 2007, when the discovery of the leg and resulting feud made national news. The resulting documentary is an absurd, rambling, he-said/he-said story that reveals two fascinating personalities residing in rural North Carolina. At times, the story seems headed toward an expected conclusion, but every time it feels like things should be wrapping up, some new hurdle arises to be overcome. —Jim Vorel
17. Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, Welcome to Leith
It’s a small town in an almost nondescript kind of Americana. All 24 members of the community know and look out for one another. Welcome to the small town of Leith.
A nice enough stranger takes an interest in their town. He quickly buys up tracts of land and becomes one of the biggest stakeholders in the area. But this particular stranger, Craig Cobb, is not just a dowdy loner. He’s a white supremacist instigating an Aryan coup in the American heartland. What recourse do the locals have to oust the interloper? The answer: shockingly, not much. Welcome to Leith poses the question of where tolerance and intolerance begin. How quiet do we get when the Dutton family espouses their beliefs as “white separatists” around their young children? How do we feel about individual rights when the will of that individual is essentially to terrorize a community and repurpose their homes for hatred? For its eerie sense of timeliness and excellent storytelling, Welcome to Leith is one of the must-watch documentaries of 2015. —Monica Castillo
16. Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, Fort Tilden
Fort Tilden’s quite charming, though filmmakers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers never let their charmless subjects, acerbic artist Harper (Bridey Elliott) and spineless Peace Corps recruit Allie (Clare McNulty), gain too much of their audience’s sympathy. It’s a narrow line to walk: the mid-20s Williamsburg roommates have to seem vacuous enough to get stranded in “deep Brooklyn” after passively watching one of their bikes get stolen while on an 11-mile daytrip to the beach, but not so stupid that they can’t lob the occasional well-honed insult at a fellow human being or incisively dissect each other’s insecurities. —Mark Abraham
15. Kimberly Levin, Runoff
Director Kimberly Levin’s Runoff is a frequently lovely, impressionistic film. Not only is her rendering of rural Kentucky gorgeous, she’s able to recreate well-observed vignettes of clandestine human bliss: a husband and wife taking a literal roll in the hay; a son teaching a mother, who is being dorky, to use a bong; a neighbor taking pleasure in the quiet support of a close knit community affected by larger, institutional forces. These moments give weight to the plot at hand, populating what could be a bloodless analysis of the plight of small farmers with actual human beings. —M.A.
14. Joel Edgerton, The Gift
Actor Joel Edgerton’s debut feature as director, The Gift, is the best kind of great movie: It doesn’t announce itself as great at all. Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, knows he’s got the goods in his grasp, content to let his ideas slowly get under the audience’s skin and gestate, rather than ram them down our throats. Although a cursory glance at its plot (or a quick viewing of the film’s trailer) might indicate that The Gift is a run-of-the-mill stalker film, nothing could be further from the truth: Edgerton begins with a set of familiar conventions and then overturns each one scene by scene, letting his characters and themes evolve in a manner far more naturally than one might expect from a genre film, or from a summer horror movie—which of course makes it all the more terrifying. —Jim Hemphill
13. Amanda Wilder, Approaching the Elephant
Most would agree that America’s public schools have their significant flaws, but are there any alternatives that are better? That’s the provocative question asked by Approaching the Elephant, a documentary about an untraditional school in its early stages—and what’s best about this film is that its answer is far from conclusive by the end. With patience and a clear-eyed perspective, Approaching the Elephant goes beyond weighing the value of what’s known as “free schools” to consider how children develop and what role teachers have in shaping them. —T. G.
12. John Maclean, Slow West
The thing that’s so impressive about John Maclean’s direction in his feature film debut Slow West is his damned confidence. No, he won’t cut away from that long shot of the snow-capped mountains; he wants you to sit with it for a minute more. No, he won’t choose a tone and stick to it; he’ll switch tones from scene to scene as the story warrants. No, he won’t spell out the meaning of each line for you; he wants some of them to ring in your ears, for you to have trouble figuring them out. It’s rare to find a director so intent on his vision, and making so many unusual—and effective—choices. —Michael Dunaway
11. Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog
As one might guess from the title, the genesis of Laurie Anderson’s remarkable new film essay is a dog—specifically, her rat terrier Lolabelle…and even more specifically, Lolabelle’s death. Though it is melancholy, Heart of a Dog is hardly funereal. Instead, the personal loss has inspired in Anderson a wide-ranging meditation on life, death and the unfathomable mysteries of what lies beyond. And with one closing memory, Heart of a Dog reveals itself to be nothing less than an artist’s own personal therapy session, one that thankfully broadens its scope beyond the borders of Anderson’s memories and impressions to touch profoundly and poignantly on universal human experience. —Kenji Fujishima
10. Alex Garland, Ex Machina
Ex Machina seems designed around the performances of its excellent mini-ensemble. Vikander especially finds the perfect balance between prosthetic personality and genuine empathy, enhanced by the film’s own teetering between some wonderfully titillating and creepy moments: Caleb watching Ava disrobe over a monitor, revealing her metal and circuitry; Nathan and his other sex-bot performing a jarringly synchronized disco dance; and Caleb losing his shit and questioning his own humanity with the help of a razor blade. It’s an awfully attractive film, too, appropriately seductive. Shot by Rob Hardy, Ex Machina’s aesthetic relies on the contrasts between the vibrant outdoor colors with the cool tones of the inner sanctum of Nathan’s house. The electronic ambient soundtrack written by composer Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow is hypnotic and lush, adding to the film’s emotional intensity. —Jonah Flicker
9. Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, Goodnight Mommy
Goodnight Mommy, for all of its familiar notions, isn’t exactly a traditional horror film, more in tune with the eerie, silent moral plays of Carl Th. Dreyer than with the Grand Guignol schlock of an Eli Roth in heat. In fact, you may be able to figure out the “twist” by the end of the first act; while the filmmakers do nothing to bury the lede, they still take great pains to juggle their high-minded concept with an eye for burrowing certain notions about the very fabric of our human race within the subcutaneous folds of our most firmly held beliefs about how life—family, love, trust—should work. The true horror of Goodnight Mommy isn’t about who she is, but what happens to her—how easily we can set fire to the bedrock of even our basest notions of what it means to be human. And there really is nothing scarier than that. —Dom Sinacola
8. John Magary, The Mend
Writer-director John Magary’s debut feature, The Mend, begins with scenes of domestic discord as brothers Mat (Josh Lucas) and Alan (Stephen Plunkett) each engage their significant others in alternately vague and explicit spats. After some boisterous afternoon delight with girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen), Mat invites her rage off-screen before she kicks him out of her apartment on-screen. Alan, on the other hand, has a brief post-screw tête-à-tête with his own best gal, Farrah (Mickey Sumner), about the unfortunate trajectory of his orgasm. But trouble in paradise has to wait: They’re slap-dab in medias res, hosting a party to celebrate the debut of her avant garde dance performance—a party which Mat then crashes. The Mend is a refreshingly genuine film, fueled by infectious energy and the coarsest of humor. —A.C.
7. Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Just because you’re ready to do grown-up things doesn’t mean you’re mature enough to handle the consequences. That’s the dilemma Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) finds herself in when she falls for and sleeps with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). But he’s only a part of her story. Minnie, like most kids her age, struggles with acceptance and finding her identity. Her open need for love and belonging is boldly laid bare in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Although Minnie’s escapades (and abuse—let’s not forget Monroe is an adult) are not something everyone can relate to, Heller’s careful direction makes the character accessible to love or loathe. Her desperate attempt at finding love in an increasingly uncaring world will resonate at any age. —M.C.
6. Bill Pohlad, Love & Mercy
Trying to strike just the right balance, to get a biopic “right”, is a difficult task, at best. For its flaws, the Brian Wilson portrait Love & Mercy strides the line remarkably well. There is a curious, oft times transcendent harmony to the dissonance at the heart of Love & Mercy. In taking a page from his subject’s life and music, Pohlad (best known for producing credits like 12 Years a Slave and Into the Wild) largely rejects sentimentality in chronicling a reluctant pop star who wants to craft something more than shiny, happy hooks (in one scene, Wilson argues the Beach Boys’ true “surfer” cred with his bandmates, knowing better). Sure, that’s kind of the story—at least on the surface—but his approach unearths the layers of Wilson’s genius and torment. Seemingly straightforward classics like “In My Room” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” take on new meaning as the extent of his struggles come into devastating focus. —Amanda Schurr
5. Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, (T)error
The title, pointing out the similarity in the words “terror” and “error,” is the closest this absorbing, sobering documentary gets to cutesiness. Otherwise, (T)error grimly offers a terse tale of an aging former Black Panther who has turned FBI informant, snitching on suspicious Muslims not because of any sense of righteousness but because he needs to make a living. Directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe want to expose the ethically slippery activities in which the U.S. intelligence agencies are engaged in our name. But (T)error is just as upsetting in its stark depiction of the country’s haves and have-nots, illustrating how the powerless, minorities and the disenfranchised tear each other apart while those in authority watch from the sidelines. —T.G.
4. Josh Mond, James White
As intuitively as James White captures its title character’s rage, aimlessness and confusion, writer/director Josh Mond ’s true achievement is in his ability to afford multiple dimensions to characters who only have one or two scenes. Christopher Abbott (Girls, Martha Marcy Mary Marlene) confirms his talent in a big way, playing James, a quickly aging New Yorker still lost in a world of clubbing, casual sex and even more casual drug use. He finally begins to find purpose in caring for his sick mother (Cynthia Nixon—also great) as she suffers with cancer; one scene in particular, in which James helps his mother to the bathroom, then tries to comfort her as best he can, is a perfect encapsulation of the movie’s strength, and feels like one of the most powerful cinematic moments of 2015. —Jeremy Mathews
3. László Nemes, Son of Saul
The challenge of the Holocaust drama isn’t conveying the importance of the subject but recognizing the necessity of encapsulating that importance in a new way. With so many movies focused on one of the great tragedies of humanity, it’s inevitable that familiarity will creep in, the chronicling of atrocities eventually becoming more numbing than shocking or illuminating. Although there are plenty of worthy Holocaust films, the solemnity of the storytelling risks becoming sanctimonious, suffocating. What new can we possibly learn about those well-documented horrors? What elevates Son of Saul is that first-time feature filmmaker Laszlo Nemes has constructed a new way of grasping the insanity and senselessness of those long-ago crimes. But what’s remarkable is that, rather than taking the obvious tack and investing his scenes with expected images of horrible suffering, he captures the terror of the concentration camps in an almost offhand way. Son of Saul is rightly called a Holocaust film, but it’s not quite like one we’ve ever seen. Through some stunning technical achievements, Nemes has made a film that more closely aligns itself with the workplace drama and the intimate war movie. —T.G.
2. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, The Tribe
Somewhere between a silent film and a staging of the Stations of the Cross as if masterminded by Jacques Tati, The Tribe feels like the primordial beginnings of something spectacular. This isn’t to say that it comes off as unfinished, or the work of an amateur finding his footing—instead, Ukrainian writer and director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy has crafted a debut that breathes with preternatural beauty. Operating on a nearly subconscious level, with a mind for something unspeakably visceral, The Tribe is, in other words, an indelible film. Full of sadness and stubbornness and a kind of cosmic anger, it seeks abandon through destruction, starting with humanity’s first and best crutch: language. In an opening title card, The Tribe plainly tells the audience that the film, all in sign language and cast with mostly non-professional actors, will provide no subtitles, spoken dialogue or voice overs. It’s the only bit of handholding Slaboshpytskiy attempts, preparing the audience to pay attention, to figure out the film’s story through gestures and fevered body movements. But if the concession seems strange for a director who’d rather just let the images speak for themselves, the more we become invested in, entranced by, what Slaboshpytskiy shows us, the clearer it becomes that he’s toying with the very nature of what a “foreign film” can—or should—be. —D.S.
1. Matthew Heineman, Cartel Land
Focusing its primary gaze on Michoacán, a Western Mexican state in the grip of the Templar Knights cartel, Cartel Land is a complex, harrowing documentary about drug gangs’ grip on Mexico (and the Mexican-American borderlands) that doubles as a portrait of the difficulties of grassroots revolutionary movements.
Director Matthew Heineman’s film opens at night, alongside masked men cooking meth in the Mexican desert: an up-close-and-personal vantage point that he maintains throughout Cartel Land. Shot with an assured attention to dramatic compositions and edited with a swiftness that generates uneasy, suspenseful momentum, Heineman’s documentary has the electricity of an adrenalized war film. Its kinship with fictionalized genre cinema is furthered by the fact that the Autodefensas’s militiamen engage in regular daylight-street shootouts with gunmen, while cartel drug cooks (in an anecdote that suggests a real-life Breaking Bad) confess they learned their trade from a father-son duo who’d been brought in from America by their bosses. Eschewing narration and on-screen text in favor of interviews that serve to keep the story propelled ever-forward—and often taking up residence right beside, or over the shoulder of, its Autodefensas subjects—Cartel Land is the rare nonfiction work that routinely keeps one’s nerves on edge. —Nick Schager