With two Oscar nominations in three years, one-time enfant terrible David O. Russell has firmly found his groove, and has been embraced into the Academy establishment. That's an impressive achievement for a man whose first film was called "Spanking The Monkey," and was about a man who has an affair with his own mother. While 'Monkey' is a very strong debut, we don't quite love it the way we love "Flirting With Disaster," the director's second feature, and still one of the most raucously funny films Russell has made to date. Premiering in the Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 1996, the comedy stars Ben Stiller as a new father who, unable to name his newborn, sets out to track down his birth parents. Accompanied by his wife (Patricia Arquette), the flirtatious employee of the adoption agency (Tea Leoni), Stiller's adoptive parents (George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore) and a pair of ATF agents (Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins), they have multiple false starts, but eventually track them down in the form of Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, only to discover that they're LSD dealers. Bar perhaps those last two words, the premise could be that of a fairly broad, studio comedy, but Russell's unique comic sensibility finds its most effective outlet here, with bonkers twists, fast-paced farce, and a cast all in outstanding form. The director's style is still in development – the showy camera tricks of "Three Kings" or "The Fighter" are mostly absent, but it's the right move; he gets out of the way of the actors and the material, and it's all the funnier (and occasionally, even touching) as a result. "Silver Linings Playbook" might be the more accessible kind of David O. Russell family comedy, but this is the pure, undiluted version.
While he's now entering his seventies, Michael Haneke has really only been well known on the international scene for two decades or so. His career in the 1970s and 1980s involved films for Austrian TV, and 1989's feature debut "The Seventh Continent" didn't really prick the consciousness of international film fans, with his worldwide breakthrough really coming with 1997's "Funny Games" and, to a lesser extent, its predecessor, 1992's "Benny's Video." But our pick of the directors' first few films would have to be "Code Unknown," a mature and rich masterpiece that's sometimes overlooked, lacking somewhat in the shock factor of some of Haneke's work before and since. Released in 2000 (the second of Haneke's films to play in competition at Cannes, and subtitled "Incomplete Tales Of Several Journeys"), it's almost reminiscent of Claire Denis in its depiction of multi-cultural, post-colonial Paris. Small and episodic by design (and that's meant as a compliment), it follows the chain reaction that occurs after the brother of the boyfriend of an actress (Juliette Binoche) carelessly throws garbage at a homeless Romanian woman, which raises the ire of a Malian-born passer by. All parties are arrested, and as you might expect from a Haneke film, those that are least guilty are the ones who end up suffering the most for it. The structure then settles into a series of long unbroken takes, following the characters in the aftermath of the incident, a simple form that makes the vignettes all the more powerful and stark. A sort of distant European cousin to the everyone-is-connected (or in this case disconnected) sub-genre of "Magnolia" and "Crash," it's as spare, bruising and infuriating in its brutal unfairness as anything that the director's ever made, not least in a fearlessly unsympathetic and malleable performance from Binoche. One can understand why it didn't register on the Academy's radar at all, but those introduced by "Amour" to Haneke's work might find this a good next step.
Given that, at 30, he's nearly a quarter-of-a-century junior to the next-youngest competitor in the category, and the only first-time feature filmmaker in the field, you'd think that it would be a big ask to find something for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" director Benh Zeitlin in this category. But fortunately, his breakthrough short film "Glory At Sea," which won a prize at SXSW in 2008, is available on YouTube thanks to McSweeneys' offshoot Wholphin, and is pretty much a must-watch for any big fans of 'Beasts.' It's very much a direct precursor to the Best Picture nominee, a slice of Louisiana magic realism (haunted by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), with handheld photography and a strings-driven folk score from the director and Dan Romer. In a way, the real-life parallels are more direct in the earlier film (co-written with MGMT video director, and Zeitlin's collaborator in Court 13 Films, Ray Tintori), with a story that follows a motley group of locals and a seemingly dead man who might be from hell, who set out to rescue their loved ones from the sea after a terrible storm by building a boat from the ruins. Shot over a period of five months, and like 'Beasts,' with a scope that belies its meager means, it's probably unlikely to win over anyone who had issues with Zeitlin's more recent movie. It contains the same aesthetic, the same handmade-feel production design, the same sense of finding joy in desperate circumstances, and the same semi-poetic voiceover. But those already smitten with Zeitlin should find it an ambitious, touching and potent debut, and one that, as with every film on this list, displays an astonishing amount of confidence and technique for someone so early in their career.