Sebastian Lelio (“Gloria”)
You often see the phrase “celebration of life” as a way of describing a film or book, and it never really makes much sense. Every time we take a breath, it’s a celebration of life. Every time we kiss someone, it’s a celebration of life. We really don’t need to gather together and actually celebrate life because we go around doing it every day of our lives. That being said (caveat time!), Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria” is a celebration of a specific person’s life, so it certainly makes sense that one would be so ebullient about the subject matter. The Spanish-language picture, Lelio’s fifth, was quickly snapped up for an Oscar-qualifying run by Roadside Attractions, and it’s easy to see why. The title character, a middle-aged woman a decade removed from a divorce, remains oblivious that she’s consistently the last one at the party, drinking herself to the bottom of a glass each and every night. It’s mere happenstance that a chance meeting with an older man gives her the opportunity to be an important part of someone else’s life, but of course there are various challenges. From Gloria’s perspective, her time is being wasted by a schleppy Romeo who doesn’t have his affairs in order. But “Gloria,” slyly, is also about the compromises we make when we’re with someone else, when love and affection is no match for chance, opportunity and circumstance. Lelio could have made an oppressive, downbeat picture, but “Gloria” is packed with spicy humor and a playful spirit that never lets Gloria (as played by an excellent Paulina Garcia) become a victim.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts “The Kings of Summer”
Emerging from the comedy world, Vogt-Roberts is a veteran of Funny Or Die sketches, though he caught most people’s attentions with the short “Successful Alcoholics.” While that film had a broadly comedic tone, it showed enough of a handling of actors and themes enough to bode well for his inevitable big screen debut. That approached in the form of “The Kings of Summer,” and while he enlisted comic veterans like Nick Offerman, Allison Brie, Tony Hale, Thomas Middleditch and Hannibal Burress, the core of the picture are the three young boys at the center. 'Kings,' which features a trio of kids building their own four-wall sanctuary in the woods away from civilization, feels like a spiritual relative to children’s films of the '80s, which weren’t beholden to demographics and catchphrases and featured oddballs and outsiders with filthy vocabularies. But while Vogt-Roberts can’t resist the allure of a good gag, and arguably gives Offerman enough improv time to sidetrack the story, he’s clearly got an aptitude for building onscreen relationships and depicting natural conflict that goes beyond simple sketch-comedy prowess. While watching “The Kings of Summer” you get the sense that there’s a funnier—not better—version of the film sitting on the cutting room floor. Which is, if anything, exciting, as he’ll likely learn to mesh comedic and drama elements in a clearer way with his follow-up effort.
Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight”)
While the '90s saw a new wave of directors emerging from the world of music videos, the aughts have seen more and more filmmakers crossing over from the small screen (and in some cases, pinging back and forth between the two). “Community” directors Joe and Anthony Russo landed the upcoming “Captain America” sequel, “Game of Thrones” director Alan Taylor just crushed the global box office with “Thor: The Dark World,” and on a smaller scale, earlier this year “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara” writer/producer Jill Soloway made her big screen debut with “Afternoon Delight.” Judging the film’s log line—a bored Silverlake couple hires a stripper to be their nanny—you would think you might be in for a broadly sketched comedy, as we did when we sat down for the film’s Sundance premiere. But we quickly learned that Soloway was a filmmaker determined to keep it real. The film is ostensibly a comedy, but one with careful shading unafraid to explore real issues and perhaps ironically for someone coming from TV, it plays less like a sitcom than 99% of rom-coms these days. Like Lisa Cholodenko or Nicole Holofcener (who have also both also dabbled in TV) before her, Soloway is willing to hang her vision on a somewhat commercial hook but unafraid to color outside the lines too (just watch for that Cassavetes-inspired third act). The jury at Sundance recognized this and Soloway took home the Directing Award for the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Though her debut was regrettably underappreciated while in theatres, we’re still expecting big things from her in the future. Best case scenario: Kathryn Hahn becomes her full-time muse (Keener to her Holofcener) and they make a dozen more films together.
Haifaa Al Mansour (“Wadjda”)
"Wadjda" was always going to get a certain amount of attention on the festival circuit: it was the first ever film made in Saudi Arabia, and directed by a female filmmaker, no less. But there's a difference between a well-meaning novelty and a legitimately great piece of work, and it was thanks to director Haifaa Al-Mansour that her debut fell into the latter category. Al-Mansour, the daughter of Saudi poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, and a former oil industry executive, had made a few splashes at festivals with shorts and documentaries before now, but "Wadjda" is an extraordinary calling card going forward—gorgeously shot, delicately balanced, always humane, and summoning up rich performances from a not-massively experienced cast. There's a confidence shot through the picture that never makes it feel like a debut, let alone a debut that was often directed while Al-Mansour was in a car communicating with the crew by walkie-talkie, lest she be seen mixing with men in public. For all the restrictions, it's a film of immense freedom and humanity, and we can't wait to see what she comes up with next.