Every year, film buffs get themselves in a lather over the latest from their favorite experienced directors. The calendar is marked for the next Spielberg, I’ll be there opening day for Scorsese’s latest, I am all about Spike Lee, etc. But the real pleasure in being a film fan is stumbling upon the undiscovered, lifting a rock and uncovering a new talent, a new voice, with a brand new vocabulary for us to learn. The Scorsese films will be there for us to discover and rediscover whenever we want. In 2013, however, there was only one Shaka King picture, there was only one Lake Bell joint.
What’s exciting about catching a filmmaker with their debut or breakout movie is seeing the birth of a new cinematic language. Not every filmmaker has all the pieces in place so quickly: Brandon Cronenberg’s “Antiviral” was one of the year’s clunkier debuts, but it was considerably more polished than the early experimental fare from his father David. Even the more modest debuts could foretell the filmmakers that will be running Hollywood a decade from now. And when the earlier films are as accomplished as the ones featured in the following piece, it paints a rosy picture for the future of the industry, one we just don’t get to see very often.
Here are a few fresh and emerging faces in filmmaking who provided 2013 with some of its cinematic highlights. If you haven’t seen these films yet, make sure you rectify this soon.
Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”)
Expanding upon his short, Cretton’s “Short Term 12” has become one of those summertime indie hits that, as the end of the year approaches, many can’t stop talking about. Cretton tackles some sobering material in this, his second film, dealing with troubled youth in a group home. But it’s also not a bummer. Cretton doesn’t skimp on the ugly details from which these children are superficially isolated, and the area itself is a depressing, paint-chipped summer camp of restrictions, rules, and maximum supervision. But thanks to the warmth of a cast with great chemistry, he emphasizes not just the everyday clock-punching struggles of this staff, but also the illustration of people making changes in the world, chisel by chisel. Rarely do you see independent films with this sense of time and place, but “Short Term 12” feels both confident and relaxed, emotionally specific without being overtly somber or intense. “Short Term 12” is very much like the best of crowd-pleasers, a warm, funny and inviting film that earns its keep by taking an incisive but heartfelt look at a difficult subject, and for Cretton, who is attached to the high-profile “The Glass Castle” starring Jennifer Lawrence next, it’s a helluva calling card.
Lake Bell (“In A World...”)
Lake Bell pulled quadruple duty on her directorial debut, “In A World…” clocking in credits as writer, director, star and producer, giving real credence to the saying “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” And the result is a vastly charming comedy that also injects the film with a real world dose of feminist subtext. Set in the highly competitive movie voiceover world, Bell manages to gently skewer Hollywood cliches (“Amazon Games,” anyone?) and workplace sexism. She also manages a hell of a cast, stacked with character actor heavyweights (including Bell herself) such as Fred Melamed, Ken Marino, Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry, Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman and Alexandra Holden (with notable cameos from Eva Longoria and Geena Davis). With that group, how can you go wrong? But Bell does much of the heavy lifting with regard to performance as well, as the dizzy but determined Carol, and the result is one of the most satisfying comedies in years, with an ending that will make you want to shout “PREACH!” in a crowded theater. Her comedic voice is a welcome, and needed, one indeed.
David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”)
Lowery is no newbie: the indie film lifer has been working under the radar for years now, and carries an editing credit on two of the year’s finest independent films, “Upstream Color” and “Sun Don’t Shine,” as well as the moody, as-yet-unreleased “Nor’easter.” But it’s his latest film, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” that has placed him on the map. A lot of that is due to a relatively high wattage of stars in the picture, all doing terrific work: Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are heartbreaking as a separated couple of criminal lovers, and as voices of conscience, Keith Carradine, Ben Foster and Nate Parker are excellent in one of the year’s finest ensembles. But it’s not necessarily the depth of their work as much as how they’re used by Lowery. His approach echoes Terrence Malick in its emphasis on the fluidity of nature and the inner monologue of voiceover sifting through the story like fingers through grass. The actors themselves are forces of nature, with Affleck and Mara distant buoys in the ocean, and others representing nature’s obstacles to keep them apart. A movie like “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” doesn’t announce itself loudly as it merely wafts through the air, reminding moviegoers of an earlier time, a combination of the romantic outlaw poetry of “Badlands” but also the neo-contemporary western slant of John Milius’ “Dillinger.” This is no throwback, but rather a moment in time, one that envelopes the audience. Lowery’s picture isn’t one you watch, but one you get inside, only able to walk out of hours later, long after you’ve physically left the theater.