Nowadays, in this golden age of the internet and social media, anybody can be artist. If you want to be an artist, you can draw or paint something, post it online, and boom — you're an artist. The same goes for filmmakers. It is now easier than ever to get your work out there, no matter what your specialty is. It's one thing make a movie, but it's something else entirely to make a good movie, let alone be taken seriously by #Hollywood or the professional filmmaking scene.
So with that in mind, let's take a look at some of the finest directorial debuts of the last five years. Now, before you get on my case and tell me that Deadpool, Ex Machina and Finding Dory were directorial debuts and that I should be ashamed of myself for leaving them off this list — while all great flicks, they're too obvious. You've all heard of them and probably seen all of them. What kind of recommendations would these be if I'm just telling you to check out films that you've already seen? This list will consist of a few films that you probably didn't know existed. You'll know (if you're one of my active readers) I love international cinema. In no particular order, take a gander at these, won't you?
4. The Witch (2015)
Let me stop you right there! OK, so you probably have heard of #TheWitch, you may have even seen it. I put it on this list because of how divided the audience reactions were. Critics were unanimously positive, but moviegoers had mixed opinions, and I'm not talking like/dislike. The Witch (much like 2014's The Babadook, which I love) was, and still is, like Marmite. Let me say this now, I love Marmite, and The Witch is absolutely my favorite film of 2016. (It got a wider theatrical release this year after debuting at #Sundance in 2015, where it won the Directing Award for US Dramatic).
Among all the superhero epics that continue to be released (which, don't get me wrong, are awesome), The Witch just stood out. It's very difficult these days for a horror film to be genuinely good and genuinely scary. Most modern #horror flicks rely on jump scares and cheap thrills, but writer/director #RobertEggers went in a different direction for his first feature. The Witch relies on psychological scarring and scares you with a slow burn rather than flashy explosion. It wants to make you feel what this family is going through and wants to stay with you long after the credits roll. It's far more artistic than most horror films today- playing out a kinda like a Shakespearean tragedy.
The Witch has only a small cast and three or four locations. This was perhaps done to give viewers a feeling of claustrophobia. Then there's the forest that we spend a fair amount of time in- it's dark and unsettlingly large. The color pallet is very grey and gloomy with a washed-out look. Much of the film score's percussion was created by “abusing a cello," as composer, Mark Korven, put it, via Fact Magazine.
Eggers reportedly has a deep interest in witchcraft and the myths of old and it's very clear that he wanted to make something as accurate as possible, even going as far as making up much the of the dialogue from historical sources. The old-fashioned English in the film feels natural and never forced, like the actors actually speak that way.
The Witch proves that you don't need a big cast or a big budget to make something genuinely scary, and genuinely great. Eggers abandoned traditional modern horror traits and went back to the much rawer feel of things like the original Carrie and the scary flicks of yesteryear. Robert Eggers is definitely one to watch in the future. Next up for the director is a remake of German silent vampire classic, Nosferatu. I eagerly await!
3. Shady / かしこい狗は、吠えずに笑う (2012)
Japanese film #Shady is by former commercials director #RyoheiWatanabe and was made on a reportedly small budget. It tells the story of an unpopular high school girl called Misa. Misa has no friends and because of her appearance and her last name, "Kumada" (bear + rice paddy) Misa's classmates call her "Pooh." Misa only feels comfortable around her pet parrot at home and the goldfish in the science room at school, saying that humans are her least favorite animal. She one day finds herself befriending Izumi, a cute and popular classmate. Misa is puzzled by Izumi's interest in her but is excited about having a friend. As their friendship progresses, Misa realizes that all is not as it seems.
For a first film from a former commercials director, Shady is hugely accomplished. Something I noticed in particular about the film is Watanabe's ability to craft a realistic pace in terms of Misa and Izumi's friendship. It develops in a way that you feel it should — and would — in real life. As the film gets darker, the progression feels natural. Nothing is rushed and the change doesn't appear out of nowhere. Each part is presented at the right time, and doesn't ever give you more than you need.
Like Eggers did with The Witch, Watanabe opted for small, claustrophobic environments, probably to give off the feeling of being trapped (without giving too much away).
At its core, Shady is about the ups and downs of friendship. It's also about loneliness and one's need for companionship. Our two leads couldn't seem more different. Misa is quite clearly an outcast while Izumi is quite the opposite. Though, like Misa, Izumi claims that she is also lonely. Despite how different they may seem, they find they have more in common than they think.
Not only is Shady a first for its director, but also for its two lead actresses. J-pop star Mimpi*ß and model-turned-actress Izumi Okamura play Misa and Izumi, respectively. They have fantastic onscreen chemistry and like I mentioned, it felt all-too real.
Shady also has a chilling post-credits scene, so be sure to stick around for it!
2. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night/دختری در شب تنها به خانه میرود (2014)
This Persian language American film is one of the best films I have ever seen, period. It is multi-award nominated and winning and rightfully so! Written and directed by #AnaLilyAmirpour and given its budget via crowdfunding, #AGirlWalksHomeAloneatNight is a vampire film, but not one you'd expect. It's quite unconventional by today's standards. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a bit of a throwback, really — much more Dracula and Nosferatu and much less Twilight and Blade.
The film is shot in high-contrast, crystal-clear black and white and it is absolutely stunning. It focuses more on atmosphere and emotion than story. There is still a plot of course. It has a slightly feminist dynamic and even a love story (of sorts), but A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night attempts to make you feel uneasy and keep on you on edge throughout. Every time the nameless main character (played hauntingly by Sheila Vand) appears in the streets stalking her next victim, I got genuine chills. Chills, people!
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has a small cast and small environments. It explores themes like loneliness, vengeance and even just straight-up boredom. It's highly artistic and will be one of those films where you simply get it or you don't.
The film's music is a little western, a little psychedelic but always beautifully chilling. While watching ol' nameless stalk her prey is a strange thing of absolute beauty, some of the best parts of the film come while nothing is really happening. When a scene slows down and we watch characters sitting together or dancing together as a loud, in-your-face (rather, ears) song plays, it puts you in a trance and makes you feel as if you are watching something utterly iconic. Stunning. Absolutely stunning.
1. Han Gong-ju / 한공주 (2013)
Oh boy, #HanGongju. This film got to me in a way that few films have. It stayed with me for days afterwards and I don't think I've ever re-watched a film the millisecond that the credits rolled after my first viewing, and a few more times since then.
This multi-award winning South Korean film is by #LeeSujin and is based on a true story. I don't really want to give away its details as all is revealed in the film, and I think it would pack more of an emotional punch if you go in not knowing what it's really about. I mean, I knew what it was about and it still gave me shivers. (Oh boy, the emotions!)
In short, the film follows the titular character, played by Chun Woo-hee in her first leading role, who is trying to move on with her life after a traumatizing event, leaving her forever scarred as she desperately tries to stay out of the spotlight and learn to trust people again. Gong-ju has no real adult support, not even from her parents. Her musical ability is spotted by a school choir group, but Gong-ju — wanting no eyes on her — decides to learn to swim instead (for a reason that made me cry manly tears). Su-jin really shows you how corrupt the legal system can be, and you constantly feel sorry for Gong-ju.
Chun Woo-hee and the whole cast do a phenomenal job here. You can really feel Gong-ju's pain and her desperation, and even her small rays of optimism.
Even Martin Scorsese, one of the finest filmmakers of our time, had this to say:
"'Han Gong-ju' is outstanding in Mise-en scene, image, sound, editing and performance. I have a lot to learn from this movie and I can’t wait to see Lee Su-jin’s next film”
Han Gong-ju is beautifully crafted and heart-breaking. Its ending is slightly ambiguous and I've heard it interpreted in a few ways; you can decide which one you want to go with. I really can't say enough good things about this film. The only criticism I have is that it frequently moves between past and present with no real indication that it has done so — no color or tonal changes, no weird piano-noise like when somebody is thinking in a children's TV show. At first it can be difficult to tell which time you're watching, but as both stories progress and you become familiar with them, it gets clearer.
Bonus: Kotoko (2011)
OK, so #Kotoko isn't a feature-film debut. In fact, it's by well-known and respected Japanese filmmaker, #ShinyaTsukamoto. There are some firsts here, however! This is the first acting role for J-pop star Cocco and is based on an original story that she wrote. That, and it's a brilliant film, so I wanna talk about it! Kotoko had its premiere at the 68th Venice International Film Festival and won the Best Film award in the festival's Orizzonti section, becoming the first Japanese film to do so.
Kotoko is about a woman called, well, Kotoko. Kotoko has a mental disorder that causes her to have double vision, but not just any old double vision. Kotoko's double vision is filled with blood and murder and lots of angry people that are out to kill her. She could be taking a walk down the street and to her left see a smiling girl waving hello and then to her right, see the same girl charging towards her with horrible intentions. The problem is, Kotoko does not know which vision is real. The only time that the visions stop is when she sings.
Pair this with the fact that she has a baby to care for, and things are far less than ideal. Kotoko is actually a pretty scary film, but not in the general sense. It's "real-life" scary. You watch as you are unsure of what Kotoko will do — if she will give in to the visions and do something to harm herself, her child or those around her. The only other family she has is her sister, who lives far away. The only real human contact she has is an award-winning novelist (played by the film's director), who overhears her singing and the two develop an interesting relationship.
Kotoko's condition is often reflected in the shaky camera work, becoming more unstable as Kotoko's situations intensify, making you yourself a little dizzy in the process. Kotoko is too, quite an artistically put together film. It's less about progressing a story and more about exploring Kotoko's emotions and her feelings, delving into her broken mind.
Films are a fast-moving medium and it can be difficult to stand out among all of the talented #creators out there while also keeping up with the times. These are just a few that proved their worth, and many more continue to do so.
What are some of your favorite directorial debuts?