While it didn't get the traction it deserved, Ava DuVernay's "Middle Of Nowhere" proved to be a firm critical hit both at Sundance 2012 (where it won the filmmaker the Best Director prize), and on its release last year, where it even attracted some awards buzz for star Emayatzy Corinealdi, and picked up four Spirit Award nominations. It may seem like DuVernay has come from the same film school background as most of her peers, but actually her grounding is very different. The L.A. native told the New York Times last year that, "Film school was a privilege I could not afford," and instead, she went into film publicity, starting out working in-house at smaller companies before setting up one on her own, founding DuVernay Agency, which specialized in helping mainstream movies, including "Dreamgirls," "Invictus" and "Collateral," connect with African-American audiences. This involved a certain amount of unit publicist work, and it was on the set of Michael Mann's film that she decided to push ahead with filmmaking, and wrote "Middle of Nowhere" soon after. There was still a long road to getting it made, though, with DuVernay sticking at the day job while she made shorts and documentaries, most notably 2008's "This Is The Life," about the alternative hip-hp movement around LA's Good Life Cafe, and 2010 follow-up "My Mic Sounds Nice," about female rappers, made for BET. The following year brought her first feature, "I Will Follow," a semi-autobiographical drama about Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), a woman starting to move on after the death of the aunt she's spent several years caring for. A low-key, beautifully observed character study about grief, it never quite broke through to the mainstream, despite some rave reviews, including one from Roger Ebert . The film made a modest profit, and DuVernay went right back behind the camera, helming "Middle of Nowhere," a powerful, human and beautifully-made drama about a woman awaiting the release of her husband from prison, which provided excellent showcases for Corinealdi, Omari Hardwick and David Oyelowo, among others. Since it hit Sundance, she shot a short film for Miu Miu (alongside Lucrecia Martel and Zoe Cassavetes), is working on a documentary about Serena Williams for ESPN, and is developing a new project, a Compton-set romance called "Part Of The Sky." After her first two films, we'd hope that cast and crew are lining up around the block to get involved.
One of the big Oscar hopefuls this year is likely to be "Captain Phillips," the true-life story of the Maersk-Alabama and its skipper (Tom Hanks), which was captured by Somali pirates while in the Indian Ocean. Originally set for release this month, it was put back by Sony in the hope of landing it closer to the awards season, but director Paul Greengrass may come to rue that decision, because another pirate-hijacking film is arriving before then, and it's sure to put that film's director Tobias Lindholm on the map. 35-year-old Lindholm hails from Denmark, graduating from the country's National Film School in 2007. He wrote a script for a short, "Hawaii," while there, directed by classmate Michael Noer, before landing a job writing a few episodes of the Danish TV drama "Sommer." But things really started to kick off in 2010 when he began work as one of the main writers on "Borgen," the acclaimed political series that's become a cult hit around the world. He then teamed up with "Festen" helmer Thomas Vinterberg for "Submarino," and once again pairing with Noer, made his directorial debut with the visceral prison movie "R." That unfortunately didn't make much impact abroad, but that all changed last year, with Lindholm becoming something of a fixture on the festival circuit. He'd teamed up with Vinterberg again for "The Hunt," their searing picture of a man falsely accused of pedophilia, which won Mads Mikkelsen Best Actor at Cannes. And he'd gone solo as writer/director for "A Hijacking," a fictional, but entirely realistic, story of Danish ship held hostage by pirates for months. It's wrenching, totally absorbing stuff, with fine performances, expert cutting and strong camerawork. Coming up, he's writing another project with Vinterberg, "The Commune," as well as the drama "I Lossens Time" starring "The Killing" lead Sofie Grabol, but he told us a few months back that he's not keen to sell out to Hollywood immediately (though offers have arrived), which can only be a good thing.
With Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck leading an excellent cast, '70s-set crime tale "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" was one of the most anticipated films of Sundance this year, and happily, turned out to be one of the best received, with our review calling it "a wholly engrossing and impressive piece of work that the movie world will be talking about all year long." And rising directorial star David Lowery is certainly going to be part of that conversation, too. The Dallas-based filmmaker has been one of the best-kept secrets of the indie world thanks to his microbudgeted feature debut "St. Nick" in 2009, and short follow-up "Pioneer" in 2011 (starring Will Oldham), and he developed 'Saints' through the Sundance Labs, before WME helped bring it to the attention of Mara and Affleck, whose presence allowed him to raise the $6 million budget. The film picked up some of the best reviews of the festival, but that was hardly Lowery's only work in Park City this year. He also wrote the NEXT film "Pit Stop," and was an editor on Shane Carruth's equally acclaimed "Upstream Color." He has a couple of scripts in development, along with a documentary, and just landed his first studio gig, writing a remake of “Pete’s Dragon” for Disney. It’s a sign of his refusal to conform to expectations, and we’re genuinely fascinated to see what he comes up with.