As part of our 2018 Rewind, we want to look back at the most interesting new filmmakers we met along the way. I’ve picked out eighteen of my favorites. In most cases, this is strictly the filmmaker’s first feature film. There might be one or two where they’ve had a much smaller feature before.
Please keep in mind, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. I had eighteen spots to fill and the films that resonated with me the most worked their way onto it. While they didn’t make the list, I tip my cap to Josephine Decker and Helena Howard for their work with Madeline’s Madeline. Same for Susanna Fogel’s work on The Spy Who Dumped Me. I also really dug Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s space western Prospect.
The point is, there were many great new filmmakers this year. What about you? Who were your most interesting new filmmakers this year? Tweet us your picks so we can expand the celebration of great new filmmakers!
In the meantime, here are my eighteen, organized alphabetically by film title.
All The Creatures Were Stirring – Rebekah and David Ian McKendry
The McKendrys’ first feature film is a Christmas-themed horror-comedy anthology. Where most anthologies use different directors for each segment, Creatures is all McKendry. The duo teamed up to write and direct their wildest, silliest ideas which would never get feature-length funding in their own right. That playful approach opened up all sorts of creative doors that you probably didn’t know you needed to be opened.
The husband and wife team, who bonded over a perverse joy in experimental theater, use a wrap-around gag that pokes fun at the Brechtian black-box theater. What is that? You know the super-serious drama nerds who wear all black and refuse props or costumes or staging more sophisticated than boxes? I know it sounds nerdy, and trust me it is, but my gosh it kills. There’s a bit where the actors use yarn and imitate deer screams that’ll have you rolling in the goddamn floor.
Their delightfully weird sense of humor and knowledgeable affection for the horror genre bleeds through the cinema screen. I’m very excited to see where their twisted sense of humor takes us next.
Anna and the Apocalypse – John McPhail, Alan McDonald, and Ryan McHenry
Scottish. Zombie. High school. Christmas. Musical. I’ll take all of it. Anna is based on Ryan McHenry’s fantastic award-winning short film Zombie Musical. You’ll most likely know McHenry as the Vine star who fed cereal to Ryan Gosling’s image. Unfortunately, McHenry passed away before the short was adapted to feature length. Out of this tragedy, writer Alan McDonald adapted his friend’s work and brought on director John McPhail. What they’ve crafted is a joyously, unapologetically high school zombie apocalypse that’ll have you tapping your toes as the gory affair unfolds.
I’ve long since passed the days where I feel any pressure to deny my affection for a catchy pop song, and Anna is chockablock with excellent numbers. I agree with our own Rob Hunter. “If you’re not smiling during this one, you’re probably an asshole.” Don’t be fooled by its musical, pop sensibility. People die horribly and bloody in this story. One of the numbers features the line “We’ve been living in a lie for far too long, we’re tired of pretending, there’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending.” It’s a bit shocking to watch kids get murderized, but the filmmakers’ aversion to the Hollywood ending is what’ll have you eager to revisit this deliciously black comedy every Christmas. The world needs more of this.
Blindspotting – Carlos López Estrada, Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal
The creation of Blindspotting is a years-long story which began when producer Jess Calder saw Rafael Casal’s performance of his poem ‘monster’about the numbness that can destroy you by witnessing too much tragedy. At Calder’s prompting, Casal and Daveed Diggs (Tony-winning star of Hamilton) worked together over the next several years to craft a feature-length cinematic poem about identity, gentrification, racism, and Oakland. They asked Carlos López Estrada to direct, his first feature, and Diggs and Casal stepped in front of the camera. The final product is lightning.
Casal and Diggs’ facility with language is rivaled only by their ability to distill complex thoughts about the loss of identity into simple turns of phrase or metaphors to make the intangible horror of systemic racism relatable. That’s a mouthful. They’re way better at it than I am. Their performance is lyrical and will hook you, but it isn’t just for show. Baked into their thinking is the understanding that people only tend to listen if you say it pretty. Well, this work is gorgeous.
Blockers – Kay Cannon
Kay Cannon’s feature debut is the big budget, mainstream, sex-positive comedy of the year. It’s about time we got a comedy where the young women are allowed to prowl for high school sexual escapades instead of the boys. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of teenaged sex-comedies starring boys, but we need some equality on screen. Cannon came onboard and breathed individuality into each of the characters, giving us a group of young women worth spending a film watching as they sort out their life choices.
If sex stories featuring women usually work out to be morality tales, it’s nice to have one where the lesson is for the fathers. In Blockers, the parents seeking to mess up their children’s prom night sexcapades are the ones who learn the error of their ways. In most films, sex only works out to be consequence-free when it’s for young men. If the story features a young woman, you can be sure she’ll wind up pregnant. It’s refreshing and essential to watch fathers learn that the idea of violently defending their daughter’s honor is terrible from the founding principles up.
CAM – Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei
Daniel Goldhaber, director/co-writer, and Isa Mazzei, co-writer, talk about their work on this movie as co-creators. The film is about a cam girl whose online identity is taken over by a mysterious doppelgänger. Worse, the doppelgänger is more popular! The film is a smash horror success that will have you so tense you’ll be surprised how much you exhale in relief at the conclusion.
The film actively subverts every trope about sex workers. Not only does this positively expand what we’re able to see in movies, but the approach leaves our main character Alice – stunningly, fearlessly well-played by Madeline Brewer – with actual agency. She doesn’t need to be rescued from her life but rather needs to slay her own demons. It’s a terrific story, with the authenticity informed in part by Mazzei’s own past as a cam girl.
Dude – Olivia Milch
This is the hangout movie starring women that you need in your lives. Dude follows a group of high schoolers as they deal with the aftermath of losing someone important. Authenticity was clearly the driving force as Olivia Milch put her script for Dude together. These are the kinds of stories I want to see on the screen when I’m talking about increasing the breadth of what we get to see at the cinema. The cast of women in this story hang out, fight, laugh, party, and live their lives true to their individual characters.
Milch also co-wrote this year’s women-centric heist film, Ocean’s 8. While I enjoyed that movie, it wasn’t quite Ocean’s 11, and I wasn’t sure what was different. Watching Dude helped me to appreciate that Milch’s take on Ocean’s lives in the relationship between the women more than the heist itself. At its heart, her Ocean’s story is as much a hangout film as it is a heist film. That comes down to Milch’s emphasis on creating characters first and then giving them a situation to explore. This approach is fully realized in Dude, where damaging events aren’t the driving force of who they are but something that they experience and have to deal with. Kind of like real life.
The Guilty – Gustav Möller
Gustav Möller’s premise for his first feature film, The Guilty, is deceptively simple: a police officer working at the emergency call center receives a call from a woman who claims to have been kidnapped. Unable to leave the call center, the officer decides to use the two resources he has to save the woman: his phone and his wits.
This eighty-five-minute thriller will have you on the edge of your seat. Yet somehow, you never leave the call center. Möller’s writing and the actors are so good you will leave that theater thinking you saw all sorts of things. It’s like that bit in The Hateful Eight: “Starting to see pictures, ain’t ya?” This movie is the height of minimalist storytelling with maximum effect. This is how you work within the resources you have to achieve excellence with a clever idea!
Hereditary – Ari Aster
From the moment we saw the trailer where Toni Collette, fantastically impossibly upside down, smashed her head repeatedly into an attic door we were into Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary. What he delivered was an incredibly emotional movie that lives and breathes its metaphor but wholly embraces the demonic horror at its heart.
Toni Collette plays a resentful mother struggling with her manic feelings about the value of family in the wake of her mother’s death. Alex Wolf plays her high school-aged son, trying to find his place in the world and come to terms with the reality of his family. Especially given that his mother’s resentment is no secret. Extracting the horror elements from the story, there is real drama between these two that escalates as they have to deal with even more terrible events. Often, films have to sacrifice believable characters to sell the fantastical horror elements. It’s a tough row to hoe, but Aster’s debut perfectly handles both horrors that will haunt your dreams and real characters experiencing believable despair outside of the horror elements.
Lowlife – Ryan Prows
El Monstro was a wrestler and the people’s hero. He is a legend. His son, however, is none of those things, though he wears the mask. Stuck with a mantle he wasn’t big enough to uphold, he works as enforcer muscle for a local pimp and crime lord. It is not heroic. But, he’s just naïve enough to believe that because he lives his life by a code, it’ll all be okay. He faces tough choices when his pregnant wife becomes worth more to his boss dead than alive.
Ryan Prows feature debut Lowlife has been favorably compared to the crime thrillers of Quentin Tarantino’s early career. He’s edited his story to feature multiple characters’ individual paths as they head to their inevitable intersection one night in the pits of hell, that is the subbasement of a local fast food chicken joint. And they are memorable characters. A pair of alcoholics, one reformed and one not. Old criminal buddies, one of whom has a swastika tattooed on his face. It’s a thrill ride to the end that will see you turn your opinion around on every single character you meet. Except for the crime lord. That dude is awful.
Never Goin’ Back – Augustine Frizzell
So much of life is finding your happy place. Oh, but I guess a lot of it is also about finding a place to take a shit. From her short film I Was a Teenage Girl to her first feature film Never Goin’ Back, Augustine Frizzell has been telling real stories about young women. In this comedy, Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone play girlfriends and high school dropouts Angela and Jessie. They’re living with Angela’s older brother and working as waitresses. Seeking to escape the grind of life, they plan a beach getaway. Robbery, the cops, drugs, and bad choices get in their way.
Mitchell and Morrone make a meal out of their roles and their chemistry is phenomenal. Frizzell’s script and vision for the film gave them the foundation. Whether the women are telling off grocery store busybodies, fighting for their right to party, or like, seriously, looking for a comfortable place to deuce, they are genuine. Add all this up and you’ve got a women-led stoner comedy of the highest order.
The Party’s Just Beginning – Karen Gillan
A few years ago, Karen Gillan released her short film Conventional about a horror star dealing with her fade from glory. It’s sad and melancholic and deeply disturbing. As a writer, she can write a devastatingly sad character stuck in the horror of her own life. Her debut feature realizes every bit of that promise. The Party’s Just Beginning is profoundly moving.
She writes, directs and stars in this film about a young woman dealing with survivor’s guilt. There is a sequence of events that is repeated through the course of the film where her character gets drunk, crushes some French fries, and stomps down a particular path home. The way it’s shot and cut is visually arresting. But, when the reason for the path is revealed the sequence becomes brutally significant. Gillan has a remarkable facility for teasing out genuine elements of the human experience and working through them on the screen.
The Ranger – Jenn Wexler
Jenn Wexler has been working with Glass Eye Pix, producing some of the more interesting genre films lately like Darling, Psychopaths, and Like Me. Her first feature, The Ranger pits punks against The Man, slasher-style. A group of 80s punks flee the city and head out to the woods. They shack up in a family cabin now owned by group member Chelsea, who’s played by Chloe Levine. They encounter a park ranger, played by Jeremy Holm, who is dead set on preserving the sanctity of the woods.
Characters don’t have to make great choices for them to be authentic or real or strong. Which is great for The Ranger, because it’s full of bad decisions and great characters. The movie builds tension slowly until a gunshot rings out and the first body drops, which kicks off a rollercoaster of violence and strange memories and gory horror. Colorful punks battling an insane park ranger is not what I would have thought I needed from the cabin-in-the-woods slasher genre, but god damn. Yes, please.
Revenge – Coralie Fargeat
Coralie Fargeat’s first feature, Revenge, is a rape-revenge film. These types of movies aren’t for everyone. And, if it isn’t for you, that’s alright. However, if it is something you’re willing to check out, I strongly recommend the movie for three key reasons. First, it’s absolutely brilliantly shot and framed. Second, Matilda Lutz gives an insanely badass performance. Third, the action sequences are legit.
The first time I watched the movie, I recognized that after Lutz’s character is pushed (literally) over the edge she doesn’t speak. But, I didn’t fully appreciate it. On rewatch, I was stunned by how effectively Fargeat and Lutz worked together to tell a wholly physical performance. And, to my eyes, shot from a female gaze. Fargeat worked hard to make the most of her budget and captured gorgeous shots with excellent practical effects. One scene, a man is forced to pick a shard of glass out of his foot and it was so gory and real and painful. And all of this culminates in a totally madcap bloody battle in which the villain is more naked than our hero.
The Ritual – David Bruckner
David Bruckner’s segment The Accident in the anthology film Southbound was my favorite. It was scary and tense and super uncomfortable to watch. His first feature lived up to the hype. Five old friends get together to reminisce and plan future engagements. When they break for the evening, two go into a liquor store. A robbery happens and one of them is killed. The men resolve to go on the hiking trip they were planning to honor their friend’s memory. Once in the woods, they become lost and mysterious terrifying things unfold.
The film is excellently made and the spiritual journey undertaken by the men from beginning to end is utterly compelling. Bruckner’s visual approach to creating tension in this film is some of the best I’ve seen. At one point, he super-imposes the flickering light of the liquor store over the forest. Both environments suddenly seem alien and the effect works as a multiplier for fear and anxiety.
Searching – Aneesh Chaganty
Aneesh Chaganty tells the story of David Kim, played by John Cho in one of his best performances, who is searching for his missing daughter. The twist for this particular film is that everything is on a computer screen. You’d think that might get stale, but my goodness no. Searching will have you terrified and cheering and crying and laughing. In fact, the first five minutes of this film will devastate you like the opening to Up. You’ve been warned.
Limitations force creativity and I’m impressed when filmmakers set up rules for themselves about how to proceed to tell their story. Chaganty’s premise is simple: a father goes searching for his daughter. Was she abducted? Murdered? Lost? What unfolds is a story of a father who lost touch with his daughter a long time ago. Without realizing it, she’s become a complete stranger to him. The execution is much more complex.
How do you convey that from a computer screen? When forced to confront this, Chaganty explored the language to the technology and applications that we use and found nuance in everything. What is our emotional experiencing with our technology? How does it inform our lives? What’s it like trying to reconnect with your daughter after she’s gone through her social media posts? There’s so much there immediately relevant to right now.
Sorry To Bother You – Boots Riley
Without having any idea that this was exactly the movie I needed in my life, Boots Riley conjured something from his imagination that had me, and my weird art-loving Socialist self, cheering from the title sequence to the credits end. First-time feature filmmaker, Riley has created a complex, literally surrealist masterpiece speaking to the exploitation of the working class and how tempting it is to jettison our identities and our values in the pursuit of success in the zero-sum game of capitalism. This movie spoke to me.
LaKeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green learns that in the telemarketing game, the White Voice is what closes deals. Looking to get paid, he throws his own voice away to chase those dollars. Rather than play it all as the straightforward story of a man looking for a place in the world, Riley goes fully surreal. From that point on, David Cross voices Stanfield’s performance. Cassius and his desk are even dropped into the homes of customers as he chats with them. The visual narrative approach to this story has made the film as electrifyingly vibrant as it is enraging. This movie about White Voices, horse cocks, and labor debates is essential. And there is no voice in film telling it as Riley does.
Thunder Road – Jim Cummings
Jim Cummings’ feature debut is all hard road, all the way. He wrote the script and directed the movie. Oh, he also played the lead role. Let’s just talk performance for a second. His character, Jim Arnaud, is a Southern man dealing with the failings of masculinity. No one ever taught Arnaud how to express or process emotion. He is a pressure cooker just waiting to see which part fails first. In less diligent hands, the performance could easily have become overwrought or a mockery. Instead, Cummings threads the needle, scene by scene, like a scientist. His work in that role is one of the best performances of the year. And he did that all while directing his first feature!
Okay, but that’s not all! The cinematic language of Thunder Road is dollies and zooms. The major scenes of the film are all long, single takes. This combination required immense prep and blocking for each shot. To include some challenging shots like starting the camera in a moving car and transitioning out of a vehicle. Given how many of the scenes rely on his performance and execution of tricky dialogue, failure was likely. And yet they made one of the best films of the year. This dedication to craft and his entire approach to filmmaking is genuinely inspiring.
Tigers Are Not Afraid – Issa López
Tigers is the story of Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl whose mother is stolen from her by a cartel. Alone and ignored by society, Estrella joins Shine’s (Juan Ramón López) gang of kids in the same position. The story has a bit of the fantastical sprinkled over the unrelenting brutal reality of their predicament. Theirs is a sad, hard tale to tell, and the children acting in this film will reduce you to tears. The performances are amazing and promise big things from them in the future.
This is not writer/director Issa López’s first feature film. However, earlier this year, she shared in an interview with our own Lisa Gullickson that Tigers is her story and the first time she’s bared her soul on film. She lost her mother and she’s had to learn to fight as much as she’s had to learn to believe in magic. In this way, Tigers is very much our introduction to one of the most rad new storytellers out there. Her blend of beauty, magic, horror, and very real despair is brought to the screen with the type of visuals that will blow your mind while they wreck you emotionally. This is something of which I very much want some more. Please.