Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Don Jon")
Who knew that sinewy, heartthrobby body behind hits like “Looper” and “Inception” had a brain behind him? Gordon-Levitt tends to play characters who are a couple of moves ahead of the competition, but you wouldn’t figure the young child star of capturing a major unspoken facet about a large chunk of the population. As writer, director and star, Gordon-Levitt deceives by setting up “Don Jon” as a standard romantic comedy: he’s broken, and his tough-talking counterpart (Scarlett Johansson) can’t be seduced until he fixes himself. The character’s step-by-step process of fixing his inadequacies would be rousing montage material in another, simpler romance (perhaps like the ones Gordon-Levitt parodies in the film, starring the likes of a humorously clock-punching Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway). Here, however, Gordon-Levitt gets to the heart of why most relationships, romantic or otherwise, fail, largely due to one side completely dismissing the other. Most of the pleasures of “Don Jon” come from Gordon-Levitt setting up expectations and then softly deflating them: the blustery father figure played by Tony Danza starts out as a “type” before he begins to reveal layers of cultural and sexual identity that complicate a simpler interpretation. And what the narrative does with Johansson’s Barbara isn’t quite expected either, providing an honest-to-god talking point between couples who caught the film upon release. It’s a stretch to say Gordon-Levitt has shown a strong authorial stamp this first time around, but when he decides to halt his promising leading man career to get behind the camera once again, it’s bound to be interesting.
Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”)
For some in Hollywood, success is an escalator, and it there isn’t much space for reflection as one slowly rises to the top. That wasn’t the case for Coogler, who happened to board a fairly speedy escalator when “Fruitvale Station” was named the Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. But Coogler couldn’t let it go to his head; like his father, he has spent time working with incarcerated youth, experiences that likely fueled the story of Oscar Grant, a young man felled by an inadvertent bullet fired by a BART cop on New Year’s Eve in Oakland in 2009. "Fruitvale Station” attempts to humanize Grant beyond being a statistic, another innocent young black man killed by an armed white man with no one held accountable, and by doing so, creates something entirely different: this is a remarkable story about an unremarkable man, a gentle spirit barely getting by, failing to support his young child but touching those around him with a sweet smile and a fraternal spirit. Deifying Grant would have been easy, but Coogler has great weapons at his disposal: as his loving but disapproving mother, Octavia Spencer reveals several layers of expectation, love and regret both in her interactions with her son as well as during the film’s fateful climax. “Fruitvale Station” isn’t so much about a man as it is about a community, and the extraction of one of its vital cogs: when a life is lost so needlessly, the ripple effect can be overwhelming. Coogler’s moving to a much loftier goal, attached to direct the “Rocky” spinoff “Creed,” which might re-team him with 'Fruitvale' collaborator Michael B. Jordan. The thought of Coogler’s skills used to finally portray the absence of a figure like Apollo Creed, who died in that series’ fourth film, makes one think it will be the most humane manner the boxing world will have been seen in years on the big screen.
Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”)
Few documentaries burst onto the scene quite like Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing.” Then again, few also boast the approval of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, both of whom produced this epic. It’s not a confusing picture at all: in fact, Oppenheimer’s camera is rarely confrontational and never manipulative, capturing the frank horrors of the subject matter. But “The Act of Killing” is an impossible film to summarize because of the topics addressed by its controversial subject matter, the type that have lingered for months after the film’s release. Firstly, Oppenheimer’s camera address veterans of Indonesian genocide, asking of them what it’s like to emerge the victor, to be the killer and the hero. But it’s not muckracking of any sort, because these “survivors” are more than willing to talk. What Oppenheimer does next is cinematic subversion of the most eye-opening kind, allowing these admitted murderers to re-create this violence for the camera in the form of a congratulatory film that is at points brilliant, terrible, hypnotic and upsettingly revealing. Oppenheimer’s unobtrusiveness allows him to capture moments like the leader of a “death squad” instructing the real life killers to not celebrate so much for the camera, either because that isn’t how he remembers it, or because of the fear that the camera captures the sort of truth no one wants to preserve. It’s the strongest doc of the year, and proof that Oppenheimer is one of the year’s boldest, bravest new filmmaking voices.
Alexandre Moors ("Blue Caprice")
You can’t easily explain or map out a disassociated mind, as much as you can be sympathetic towards it. What’s curious about Moors’ debut, the upsetting true-life story “Blue Caprice,” is that, upon first glance, it’s a horror film, depicting the twisted bond between a man and child in a way that led to the Beltway sniper incidents of the mid '00s. But behind the gathering storm is the sense of humanity being lost, a tragedy in three acts, the vanishing connection tethering two men to society; perhaps it plays like a horror film because it’s almost like a vampire picture without vampires. Moors, a commercial and music video veteran, takes a psychosexual view of the tragedies, depicting John Allen Muhammed (Isaiah Washington) as a virile man who observes women as subjects to be conquered, fools to be shown a light that only he can comprehend, despite his abstract teachings to the young teenager he’s taken under the fold. One is likely to know the true story walking into “Blue Caprice,” as they would when seeing any true story-based film. But what “Blue Caprice” does is subtle, in how you forget that the bloodshed and anger is coming, instead getting wrapped up in a tense two-hander where one man quietly twists and manipulates another for morbid gain. Moors as made a truly upsetting film, one that frustrates those looking for answers. What it does is raise questions instead, suggesting that the story goes on in the thoughts of the viewer, a true sign of respect between artist and audience.