2012 has truly been a banner year for new filmmakers, as fresh faces delivered some of the very best films of the year, both in narrative film and, especially, in documentaries. Early in the year, newcomer Benh Zeitlin and his band of merry men (and women, notably writer Lucy Alibar) swept through Sundance like a wildfire, prompting some notable critics to proclaim Beasts of the Southern Wild as perhaps the greatest Sundance narrative debut ever. First-time documentarians scored big throughout the year, as fellow Sundance favorites Malik Bendjelloul (Searching for Sugar Man) and Bart Layton (The Imposter) went on to banner years as well. And a little film about flyfishing may just have been the best of them all. Here are our favorite films by first-time feature filmmakers in 2012.
7. Zal Batmanglij – Sound of My Voice
Batmanglij and Brit Marling masterfully dole out information in this story, always giving us just a little less than we’d like. This is Hitchcock crammed into a tiny basement. It’s Louis Malle at the La Brea Tar Pits. New characters are introduced, seemingly coincidental story lines merge, and things get more and more dangerous. It’s an expertly told existential mystery. The filmmakers refuse to feed us answers just as they refuse us explanations. We are left to sort things out for ourselves. The filmmakers ask their audience to (gasp) think. As a result, this intellectual thriller shot on a shoestring budget outshines any mega-budget summer offering and provides striking proof that independent cinema is alive and well. —Clay Steakley
6. Malik Bendjelloul – Searching for Sugar Man
“The Story of the Forgotten Genius” is such a well-worn formula for music documentaries that it was already being parodied more than three decades ago in This is Spinal Tap. In Searching for Sugar Man, as Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul begins to tell the story of Rodriguez—the Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early 1970s, then disappeared—it appears he’s traveling a familiar road. But he’s got a major ace up his sleeve—that road takes a sharp left turn when we learn that bootleg recordings catapulted Rodriguez to stratospheric heights of fame in apartheid-era South Africa. (When a record-store owner is asked if Rodriguez was as big as the Rolling Stones, he replies “Oh, much bigger than that.”). In fact, his uncensored depictions of sex and drugs were so thrilling to South African musicians that he became the patron saint of the Afrikaner punk movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for the organized anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought the regime down. It’s just a shame that Rodriguez never lived to see it—he burned himself to death onstage in the middle of a show. Or overdosed in prison. Or shot himself alone in his apartment. Or… could he still be alive? Bendjelloul’s film manages to create an aura of mystery and suspense around a search that actually unfolded 14 years ago—a “detective documentary” set in the very recent past.
5. Drew Goddard – The Cabin in the Woods
For a movie chock-full of twists, perhaps the biggest is that despite all appearances to the contrary, The Cabin in the Woods is a heartfelt love story. Mind you, not between any of the young and pretty college students who tempt fate at the cabin in question. No, this romance is between creators Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and the scary-movie genre as a whole. A ménage à terror, if you will. Like Scream before it, the film is a simultaneous dissection and celebration of all the tropes to which it pays homage, while also managing to be a superb example of the genre in its own right. The script is vintage Whedon—smart, funny and surprising. Thanks to Goddard’s direction and staging, and despite the film’s very focus on the formulaic nature of horror, it still manages to be tense, atmospheric and jump-out-of-your-seat scary. —Dan Kaufman
4. Bart Layton – The Imposter
It’s obvious The Imposter is going to be a thriller, and a thriller it is, and then some. Three years after the disappearance of their 13-year-old son, a Texas family receive word he’s been found in Spain. When they go to pick him up, they’re so desperate to believe he’s alive that they don’t even notice that the “boy” is actually a French man in his mid-twenties. Is it a monumental case of grief and hope blinding sense, or is there a darker explanation? Director Bart Layton mixes elements of documentary and narrative filmmaking seamlessly in ways I’ve never seen done before. And every character he uncovers in the drama is more of a treasure trove than the last. It’s one of the most compelling films you’ll see all year, in any genre.
3. David Gelb – Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Directed by David Gelb, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one whom casual foodies have never even heard of. Although Jiro’s work is ostensibly the focus of the documentary, the film is really propelled by the story of his relationship with his two sons; the youngest of whom has started his own restaurant, and the oldest of whom, at the age of fifty, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over his restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is instead a beautifully filmed documentary about a father and his sons who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the perfect piece of sushi. —Emily Kirkpatrick
2. Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen – Low and Clear
Reading the description of Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen’s remarkable film—two friends who are world-class fishermen, half a country apart, take a trip to British Columbia to fly fish and reconnect—you’ll think that you’re in for a slow, meditative, deeply felt journey with lots of beautiful scenery. And it is meditative and deeply felt and beautiful, but it’s anything but slow. Having two fascinating, outspoken, and often at-odds subjects helps, as does the deft and slightly mischievous touch of editor Alex Jablonski. But most of all, Hudson and Hughen seem determined not to settle for a tone poem, to tell a real story here. And it’s mesmerizing.
1. Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Briefly describing Beasts of the Southern Wild is like trying to explain the inner-workings of an airplane to someone who’s never seen a wheel. In his feature debut, director Benh Zeitlin has stirred up a magic pot of poetry, neo-realism, surrealism, pre-historic creatures, the ice age, childhood and lost cultures. The film is a symphony of curiosity that builds toward a glorious crescendo. It’s set on an island known as “The Bathtub,” located outside the Louisiana levees. It’s a forbidden land — off-limits according to the government — but misfits still inhabit it, living in makeshift shelters and using vehicles that would be at home in a post-apocalyptic world. If Zeitlin’s sheer ambition weren’t enough, the film’s young star and narrator, Quvenzhané Wallis, was born with a magnetic screen presence. Six-year-old Wallis injects Beasts with youthful verve. The story is told through her character’s curious eyes, and she emits so much lovable hope that it’s impossible not to follow her. —Jeremy Matthews