Ending it's run at The Music Box tonight is David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche. It’s the director’s eighth film and the popular discourse surrounding the picture is that it is a “return to form” for Green. I’m resistant to the phrase, not so much because I take umbrage with any of Green’s work (as I avoided his post-Pineapple Express output) but because the guy still seems to be developing a form to begin with. Not to fault his masterworks (George Washington to Pineapple Express, are of considerable merit), but there’s certainly a sense that he’s only scratching the surface of what he can do creatively.
Another director who began his work in the aughts and enjoys a measure of notoriety is Edgar Wright. Already designated by some to be one of the best comic directors working today (a claim that I happily stand by), his varied work in several genres is commendable– made ever more impressive by the fact that his debut came in 2004. His new film The World’s End opens this weekend in semi-limited release.
All this converges to a point that it’s near impossible to predict the trajectory of any given auteur. As impressive a debut David Gordon Green’s George Washington may have been, would anyone have thought that Pineapple Express would follow eight years later? Or that Edgar Wright would continue making his uniquely-crafted nerd pieces following Shaun of the Dead? It all prompted the question as to what director seen today, from the start of the decade, could perhaps follow in their footsteps. It’s all too often that a director requires a couple of outings to really get the ball rolling (see Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher). But to land right on target from the start is equally impressive and unexpected. So, with this installment of the Thursday Ten, I look at ten feature film debuts from 2010 onwards that have etched a moving impression and offer the promise of a cultivated group of filmmakers to shoulder another decade of film.
(Lena Dunham, 2010)
Three years removed from her debut and Lena Dunham has already cemented a legacy through her HBO show Girls. Yet it’s Tiny Furniture that collects much of the thematic intentions of Girls in one consolidated effort. Purveying the skin-deep plights of a recent college-grad, Tiny Furniture may reek of overindulgence and white privilege run amok, but its insights aren’t of social concern, but rather to poke fun at millennial living. Capturing the vast open spaces of modernity while seeing the perpetually-slouched Dunham exhibit only the most blasé interest in the world at large, Dunham establishes a comic pitch that is so rarely exhibited in contemporary comedies. Dunham may not have another feature down the pike in part because of her schedule filming Girls – but I’d be quite curious to see if she can build on the promise of this debut. Note that I do not consider Dunham’s 60-minute feature Creative Nonfiction, which never screened, her debut.
(Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013)
Working as an actor since seven, it’s of little surprise that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut proves to be an actor’s showcase. But it’s Gordon-Levitt’s steady hand throughout, developing the spatial setting in which many characters roam that impresses most. There’s a keen sense of developing rhythm through repetition in Don Jon and a genuine sense of excitement in the director’s approach. Coupled with the rejection of misogynistic tendencies (even as all the while the central character exercises them), Gordon-Levitt’s debut sparks an interesting opposition against the concept of male director’s objectifying their actresses. Working the trifecta of director/writer/actor, Gordon-Levitt’s multifaceted experience creates a more wholly conducive product. It’s perhaps the signaling of a new age of directors whose initial experiences in filmmaking come from being in front of the camera, not behind.
Love Like Poison
(Katell Quillévéré, 2010)
The thematic elements that comprise Love Like Poison would’ve, in the hands of a Hollywood filmmaker, been exploited to the highest level of unrefined melodrama. But in Katell Quillévéré’s debut, the subtle touches that comprise her film make for a rich and delicate film of a girl’s confirmation. Female coming-of-age stories remain largely dominated by the French but Quillévéré’s efforts are by no means redundant. Her efforts expose the contradictions of growing up in a male-driven society by focusing her efforts through the lens of a spiritual subtext. It all comes together with such ease that it’s a wonder it works at all, as Quillévéré lambasts Catholic mores without so much batting an eye. Thankfully, Quillévéré has a follow-up completed (featuring, of all people, Pedro Almodóvar staple Lola Dueñas) called Suzanne – here’s hoping it makes it stateside for some festival dates.
Turn Me On, Damnit!
(Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, 2011)
While its small release makes it an unlikely influence on Hollywood filmmakers, Turn Me On, Damnit! functions as something of a foreign response to many of the more female-centric comedies entering the marketplace (ala The Heat or Bridesmaids). Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s film delves into a feminine form of self-depreciating humor while never subjecting her subject to exploitation. It’s a film of sexual discovery and one that’s not afraid to delve into the explicit and often times awkward moments of adolescent growth. Like Quillévéré’s film, Jacobsen melds various thematic touchstones (sexuality, familial bonds, and allegiance to one’s home) without sacrificing the overarching potency of the material. That’s to say, the various moving parts all work together to create a singular vision.
Jacobsen won some measure of stateside appraisal for the effort, securing a Best Narrative screenplay award from the Tribecca Film Festival – unfortunately, there’s currently nothing reported on a her follow-up feature.
In the Family
(Patrick Wang, 2011)
Precise melodrama may be the formative words to describe Patrick Wang’s impressive debut. While the skeleton of its stage play remains intact, Wang’s deliberate methodology through delicate camera movement, impeccable framing, and well-designed mise en scène makes the whole effort a completely cinematic one. With a runtime of nearly three hours, In the Family’s heavy subject matter would have undoubtedly been a misfire in lesser hands. But Wang’s refined stylistic tendencies makes even the most melodramatic efforts register as something grounded in a poignant reality.
In the Family was released on DVD earlier this year. News on Wang’s follow-up remains scant, but with the film still rolling out in multiple phases of distribution, its unlikely anything new will be coming from the director soon.
(Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012)
The debuts noted up to this point have all been fairly insular efforts. In that their focus relies on a singular main character and lack the sprawling narrative scope of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds. The film’s focus is comprised of fragmented vignettes on the exploits of a middle-class Brazilian neighborhood, though the existing story threads that unite its characters are loose and disjointed. And while anxiety may be the prevalent feeling coursing throughout the film, it’s an anxiety stemming from genuine sense of concern. The imagery of the Brazilian metropolis serves as a marker of growth and expansion, but it serves to intrude on the lives of those looking to maintain a measure of agency and social identity. For a first time director to embark on such heavy thematic material is a small wonder. And while the whole effort may not come together in the most lucid way, it’s certainly the most ambitious debut on this list.
Kleber Mendonça Filho recently announced the start of a new project aiming for release in 2014. News on its production remains unknown, though it appears he’ll be working with much of the same crew as he did for Neighboring Sounds.
Sound of My Voice
(Zal Batmanglij, 2011)
There’s a tinge of desperation that comprises into the structure of Sound of My Voice. A film of propulsive energy and an incredible performance from co-writer Brit Marling, Sound of My Voice shows a filmmaker bold enough to take risks but also fearful its consequences. It’s a all accented through the film’s perpetual shroud of mystery as it details a couple’s infiltration into a cult society. Knowing the story of struggle that Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling went through in order to get the film together accents the desperate hue of Sound of My Voice, but it hardly detracts from it. In fact, it’s that sense of desperation that only enhances the picture’s own sense of unease. What Zal Batmanglij presents in Sound of My Voice is an alternative type of adult filmmaking that’s devoid of the stuffiness of period-piece filmmaking while more thematically hefty than any sort of Hollywood blockbuster.
The East, Zal Batmanglij’s sophomore effort that also features Marling, was released earlier this summer. Similar though somewhat less successful than his debut, it helps establish Batmanglij as a filmmaker interested in counter-cultures and how normative eyes perceive them. No word yet on his follow-up.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
A documentary (or is it?) about what constitutes as art. Questioning whether or not the film records real events is hardly the point though. Exit Through the Gift Shop concerns rest in capturing the actions of contemporary visual designers of the street variety. The film’s wonder comes largely from the lengths in which people are willing to go in order to post their art throughout city streets. As the film ascribes to a narrative form, it becomes a totally different beast of a picture. From relishing in the beauty of rooftop artistry to seeing the efforts turn into a largely commercial effort, Banksy’s documentary turns into a ruthlessly cynical condemnation on contemporary culture’s art crowd – stuffy and self-indulgent. There’s not quite a film out there like Exit Through the Gift Shop and nothing quite like it since. It spawned a series of documentaries that tinkered with form and the possibility of a false reality (Catfish, I’m Still Here), but Banksy’s efforts here – which span something close to a decade – remains the benchmark of excellence. The inconspicuous artist hasn’t made it clear if there will be a follow-up – but given the general scatting tone of Exit Through the Gift Shop, I wouldn’t be surprised if Banksy was one-and-done.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
(Sean Durkin, 2011)
A crisis of identity is the overt element that Sean Durkin explores in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Known as Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene at different points throughout the film, Elizabeth Olson’s haunting performance would not have registered quite as profoundly had it not been for the formal components that comprise the film. Call it Durkin’s direction, Zachary Stuart-Pontier’s editing or Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography but virtually everything about Martha Marcy May Marlene functions as a group’s effort realized in the best way possible. Their efforts all contribute to a perpetual sense of unease as a woman’s distraught psyche is the result of attempting to belong. From the communal cult living that accepted her to the high-strung upper-class lifestyle of her sister, the film captures emotional uneasy with calculated efficiency. To be this confident in a debut is nothing short of shocking. The seriousness of its subject and tonal command that Durkin exercises may have rubbed people the wrong way, but as the years pass on, I hope Martha Marcy May Marlene is reexamined as the sort of impressive debut that operates as one of cinema’s truly great psychological-horror films.
Preproduction has begun on Durkin’s follow-up – a Janis Joplin biopic of sorts. Prior productions of this same material have apparently been fraught with problems (Durkin is not the first director to be attached to the project), so I’m not too certain on the film’s future.
(Richard Ayoade, 2010)
I briefly mentioned the new-wave of actors making way to the director’s mantle. None have been more surprising than The IT Crowd star Richard Ayoade and his debut, Submarine. Something of a confection of ideas, operating with a sensibility akin to Wes Anderson with a blend of the English humor associated with Edgar Wright, Ayoade’s efforts are highlighted by an exuberant visual style and ability to reserve judgment on his characters. In having a visual style that operates in sharp contrast to his character’s ethical missteps, Ayoade takes what could have been a dreary film about adolescence and the pangs of relationships and turns it into a beautiful evocation of life itself. To describe the film as an exhibition of quirks dismisses the gravity of the film’s circumstance. From not knowing how to react to a grieving girlfriend to seeing your mother wooed by another man, Submarine has all the components of melodrama but posits them as what they are: hurdles in life.
Richard Ayoade will be screening his sophomore effort, The Double at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Presumably other festival dates will be added with the film likely to be released in 2014.