The Diary of Teenage Girl and 6 Other Directorial Debuts From The Past Year You Need To See

Some directorial debuts serve as calling cards for multi-million dollar franchises. Others disappear into obscurity, better best forgotten. To make an impact with your first attempt is a rare feat, but to sustain that success is even rarer…

To celebrate The Diary of a Teenage Girl winning Best First Feature at the 30th Independent Spirit Awards, I’ve scoured IMDb for shining examples of a directorial debut in the past year.

Marielle Heller worked on adapting the project for 8 years before shooting the film in San Francisco.

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL

DTGAn audacious, provocative depiction of teenage sexuality, The Diary of a Teenage Girl has made quite a splash.

From newcomer Bel Powley’s astounding performance, to the support of seasoned producer Anne Carey, Marielle Heller’s dazzling debut is a testament to the talent of women both above and below the line. Despite its 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and critical acclaim across the board, this is the kind of success story we hear all too infrequently.

In an interview for Vogue, Heller highlighted the disparity of opportunities for male and female directors. “There’s this feeding frenzy when a man makes a good first feature. Like, let’s scoop him up! We have to give him some giant franchise. And there’s this sense with women that you have to prove yourself so many times over before that same feeling happens”.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – with its whimsical aesthetic and candid outlook – represents exactly the kind of unique voice that women can offer cinema…

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR

ABPremiering at Sundance in 2014, Appropriate Behaviour is the bold, brash and downright hilarious debut that has everyone wondering what writer, director and star Desiree Akhavan (as seen in Girls season 4) is going to do next.

Part biopic, part homage to Annie Hall, Appropriate Behaviour sees Iranian-American Shirin navigating bisexuality, break-ups and familial tradition with varying success. Akhavan’s keen eye for observational comedy and willingness to push every boundary offers up a film as poignant as it is pertinent.

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

 

JAMES WHITEjames-white

James White might be his first feature, but director Josh Mond cut his teeth producing projects such as Indie Spirit Award nominee Martha Marcy May Marlene.

It’s the kind of practice run – if you will – that no doubt spawned this spiky and spectacularly intimate drama. Christopher Abbott (of Girls fame), is the sole caregiver to his dying mother (Cynthia Nixon, transformed). He’s also a slacker. A liar. A reckless thug. And a lost soul.

Every scene crackles with volatile energy, an atmosphere harnessed by Mond’s rugged, handheld filmmaking. But the malevolence is also punctuated by moments of profound tenderness. It’s unlikely you’ll see a more touching mother-son relationship depicted onscreen this year.

 

THE WOLFPACK

Walking down First Avenue in the East Village, Crystal Moselle encountered the subjects for her first documentary feature. 5 years, and 500 hours of footage later, she had an extraordinary debut film.

By getting to know the Angulo brothers and the unbelievable circumstances of their upbringing, what could’ve been exploitative or sensationalist in lesser hands, emerges as an affectionate – if no less bizarre – portrait of manhood, brotherhood and adulthood.

As the six brothers adjust to life in the outside world, Moselle shows a gift for allowing their eccentricities and expressions to float to the surface. Her film, perhaps, begs more questions than it answers and its scope is indeed narrow. But its sincerity won’t fail to charm you.

Prior to The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle had worked on short documentaries and commercials.
Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

EX-MACHINA

ex machinaAlex Garland knows how to handle the sinister undercurrents of the sci-fi genre. He’s the mind behind 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, after all. With Ex-Machina he continues to prove his expertise in telling intelligent stories with a spine-tingling edge, confirming that his eye for detail is as razor-sharp as his imagination.

Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb finds himself trapped down a murky rabbit hole of robotics and ethics. What begins as ‘The Making of a Robot’, soon escalates into a menacing power-play between egotistical engineer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and steely AI Ava (newly Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander), both of whom have agendas of their own.

Scooping an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, Ex-Machina is Fincher-esque in its meticulousness. Whether soaring through remote Alaskan vistas, or navigating Nathan’s claustrophobic laboratories, Garland is quite the engineer. Guiding his audience through a maze-like set and a complex story to pulse-quickening effect, Ex-Machina is one of the most exquisitely-designed and electrically performed debuts since Duncan Jones’ Moon.

mustang-toh-exclusive-posterMUSTANG

Like The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mustang is a story of burgeoning female sexuality and empowerment wherein voyeurism is avoided by firmly locating the narrative’s perspective as female.

Groomed for arranged marriages and conventional futures, a group of sisters growing up in a Turkish village find their freedoms increasingly curtailed. Filmed with a hazy sensuality that has drawn comparisons to The Virgin Suicides, you could be forgiven for not expecting the furious sense of resistance that bubbles beneath it’s quaint surface. Not dissimilar to Diary, the film serves as a call-to-action to allow – and encourage – the free-spiritedness of teenage girls, in whatever form that may take.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s brilliant, and bracingly-perceptive debut deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

THE SURVIVALIST

Akin to Marielle Heller whom penned upwards of 80 drafts of The Diary of a Teenage Girl prior to shooting, The Survivalist’s director Stephen Fingleton has long been preparing for his feature debut.

In my interview with the Irish filmmaker, he conceded that he treated his shorts films (two of which can be viewed here) as precursors to the main event and a way to smooth out any kinks in the process.

It’s a process he’s honed to near-perfection, and which saw his nomination at this year’s BAFTAs for Outstanding British Debut. With The Survivalist, Fingleton serves up Ray Mears by way of The Hunger Games in this sparse and unsparingly gritty apocalyptic thriller, that see loyalties tested and a primitive ménage à trois go awry. It’s a lean and assured debut that will leave your hands clammy from tension.

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Irish filmmaker Stephen Fingleton earned a BAFTA nomination for his work

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

10 of My All-Time Favourite ‘Best Picture’ Oscar Winners

hero460_oscars There’s a little awards ceremony happening this weekend that recognises emerging talent in the film industry, colloquially referred to as the Oscars. If you know about film, you might have heard of it? In celebration of this grand occasion, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite winners in the Best Picture category.

 

12 Years a Slave (2013) 1915593

Unflinching, visceral filmmaking at its most powerful. 12 Years a Slave not only proved cinema as an art form of great integrity, but one of absolute necessity. Unlike 2005 Best Picture winner Crash, which despite being a good film, I felt was awarded the honour for all the wrong reasons, 12 Years a Slave thoroughly earned it’s place in a long and prestigious history. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so exhausted and shaken by a film, and if that’s not testament to it’s power, I’m not sure what is. The films it was up against that year were artistically adventurous (Her, Gravity, Nebraska), topically risky (The Wolf of Wall Street) and ideologically important (Dallas Buyers Club). But 12 Years a Slave was all of that combined. And then some. See full review here.

Titanic (1997)

titanic-movie-picture-11I’ve unashamedly harboured a profound, undying, unsinkable love for Titanic ever since I saw it at the age of 12, and became promptly besotted with Jack and Rose’s love story. Though with hindsight, it’s a little dated and yes, long, to me it represents everything momentous that cinema can achieve. In all it’s vastness and awe-inspiring production design however, the detail is never lost. We are with Jack and Rose every step of the way – engulfed, submerged and utterly lost in their tragic adventure. Every time I watch it (going on 14 times), I somehow think (SPOILER ALERT) Jack might just cling on this time slash Rose might just have the sense to budge over. At the time of it’s release it was the most expensive movie ever made, and continued to drown in superlatives as it bagged 11 Oscars and became the highest-grossing film, only to be ousted by another James Cameron blockbuster: Avatar.  I’m a romantic at heart, and Titanic taps into that notion. Oh sure, it’s corny and melodramatic and I’ll never not find it ridiculous just how many times Jack and Rose are forced back down into the lower decks. But I’ll also never regret investing 3 hours in a film that is so epically, painstakingly and beautifully constructed.

Forrest Gump (1994)

originalWho can fail to fall in love with Forrest Gump? In the unravelling of his story director Robert Zemeckis has created one of the most enduring, universal and magical films of its time. Indeed, of all time. The only other two real contenders that year were Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, but both took their time in receiving the same level of acclaim as Forrest Gump. It was the out and out winner if just for its sheer ability to touch even those irredeemably, unfathomably cynical.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) The-Silence-of-the-Lambs

This has crept in above the likes of Casablanca, The Godfather Part II and The English Patient because though it’s not a cinematic artefact, the creme de la creme of its genre, or a sweeping love story, it is an expertly-crafted and thoroughly terrifying psychological thriller that manages to incite fear some 20 years after its initial release. (Seriously, look at the picture to the right and tell me your spine isn’t shivering). Taking a leaf out of Hitchcock’s book, Jonathan Demme cranks up the tension to an unbearable degree as Clarice Sterling is forced to make an unlikely ally in Hannibal Lecter in order to capture spine-chilling, serial-killing Buffalo Bill. In blending the macabre with the masterful, Demme creates a film that simultaneously has you hiding behind a blanket/your hands/an unwitting companion and not wanting to tear yourself away.

Dances with Wolves (1990)

dances-with-wolves-8A somewhat nostalgic selection that recalls Sunday afternoons spent with my father watching movie classics (Field of Dreams, The Last of the Mohicans, The Great Escape, e.t.c). Traversing the American landscape with an astute and beloved eye, Kevin Costner is at his peak as both actor and director. As Lieutenant Dunbar immerses himself in the Sioux tribe – learning of their customs, language and traditions – we too are invited along to both marvel at, and sympathise with, the Native American people. It’s an ambitious and visionary piece of filmmaking that recalls and subverts the forefathers of its genre; at once romanticising the great open plains, but never falling back on racial polarisations or dichotomous stereotypes. Set during the American Civil war at a time of savage conflict and bitter rivalries, Dances With Wolves proved itself to be an antidote to the era’s brutalities – an elegiac saga, but one charged with passion and appreciation for its subject. A sublime, spectacular story and a Sunday afternoon well-spent.

Rain Man (1988) tom-cruise-rain-man-1988

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise as the polar opposite Babbitt brothers provide two compelling performances, in a sincere road movie of sorts. Thought-provoking without being didactic, Rain Man fostered a changing of societal perceptions towards autism, encouraging people to embrace savants rather than alienate them. Arguably simplistic and sentimental, this film is nevertheless illuminating, heartfelt and frequently hilarious. In a year that pitted it against Working Girl, Mississippi Burning, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Accidental Tourist, where the others are entertaining, Rain Man is enduring. I’ve been trying to correctly guess the number of cocktail sticks in a box ever since.

Ordinary People (1980) optimized-redford-hutton-ordinary

Ordinary though it may seem, therein lies the charm of Robert Redford’s suburban family drama. Searingly intimate, there are times this portrait of the unravelling Jarrett family feels more like a documentary. There are no sublime special effects or mind-boggling technical feats, Redford simply harnesses the power of the two greatest tricks of cinema – acting and storytelling. As the various foibles and conflicts of the characters are explored, Redford displays astonishing restraint, nuance and assurance, coaxing Oscar-worthy performances from his cast. The death of a son may have been dealt with repeatedly in cinematic terms, but perhaps never so extraordinarily. (Though it has to be mentioned, this was the same year Martin Scorcese’s boxing masterpiece Raging Bull was nominated and in both the categories of ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’ I am surprised it didn’t win – had it, it would’ve most definitely earned a place on this list).

Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

kramer3 Another humdrum family drama elevated by the standard of acting delivered within. This time Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play a sparring couple in a bitter custody battle. Technically, there isn’t too much that warrants our curiosity, but when a relatively un-outstanding story manages to engage its audience and tug on your heartstrings, well then attention is deserved. Even the kid playing the kid is fantastic. What’s more, is that it’s quite unique in that it’s the mother who leaves the family in search of freedom and fulfilment and the father who’s left behind to pick up the pieces and juggle his family and a career. I also found myself not taking sides as dramatically as I had expected. Kramer Vs. Kramer fleshes out all of its main characters beautifully, in a way that’s believable and touching and doesn’t encourage you to pass judgment, but rather to empathise with a complex and painful decision. Despite the havoc that divorce wreaks, the film is a hopeful one, and all the better for it. Though I would still advise you to keep a box of tissues nearby.

The Sting (1973) 1973_the_sting_008

This is one of my all-time favourite films; let alone whether it was nominated, or succeeded to make good on that nomination. The Sting is irresistibly cool and seductive cinema at its finest, what’s more, it pairs up Robert Redford and Paul Newman, who in my eyes can do no wrong. It’s Chicago in the 1930s and the pair are con-men making their mark for the ultimate swindle. It’s sizzling, energetic storytelling – a crime caper in which the two leads are the kind of bad you root for regardless. There’s poker, period costume and laughs aplenty; its old-school razzle-dazzle Hollywood at it’s most bewitching.

The Godfather (1972)

godfather-brandoNo ‘all-time favourite’ list would be complete without The Godfather. This sumptuous family saga is what the words ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’ were made for, and Francis Ford Coppola achieved a feat that little do – he made a film dripping with both style and substance. Immersing himself in the sinister, yet loyal trappings of the Corleone family, he created the mother – or godfather – of all organised crime films. He defined a genre. As youngest son Michael Corleone resists his calling, with brutal consequences, the underbelly to the gangster world is unveiled in all its horse-beheading glory. With a magnificent cast that includes Marlon Brandon, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, Coppola manages to both engage his audience – and dare I say it, elicit their sympathy – whilst simultaneously explicating the rampant violence as vengeance mounts upon vengeance. Transcendent, explosive filmmaking; an offer you’d be imbecilic to refuse.

***

And there you have my list. Disagree at your behest. I could certainly have made an argument to include On The Waterfront, American Beauty, No Country For Old Men and The Artist, but these are the films I visit time and time again; for inspiration, for nostalgia, for pure enjoyment. This year’s nominees are:

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Find out this coming Sunday which one will take home the historic accolade. I’ll be live-blogging every win, every false smile, every J-Law stumble right here.

Hollywood hitting a wall?

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Once upon a time there existed such a thing – an institution, a marvel, an industry – as silent cinema. The transition from this mute art form to the sounds of actor’s voices that mark our movies today was supposedly characterised by chaos, upheaval, rapidity – the sudden realisation that sound was the way forward! (As depicted in the beloved film Singin’ in the Rain). Such is the film industry’s propensity for dramatization.

And now it appears that much the same rhetoric is being employed in regard to Hollywood. The glittering, gold-mine of movie stars and moguls, big budgets and even bigger egos, could potentially be usurped by a different system.

Indeed, legendary filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have recently diagnosed the terminal condition of this beloved filmmaking industry. (For a full interview, click here).

LucasSpielbergForbesList_0

They speak about the ‘Going for the Gold’ gambling mentality (and reality) which will inevitably be its undoing. Hollywood are betting on a few large-scale $250-million blockbusters every year. Sooner or later, say the directing duo, the entire industry will go bust when those few large expensive feature films flop, and the entire industry will be re-defined.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

Such evidence can be found in massive flops like John Carter, Green Lantern or the 3D Mars Needs Moms which all lost something in the ballpark figure of $100million. This slew of un-savvy investments could certainly spell the death knell for the industry.

Spielberg points out the seemingly inevitable conservatism of the movie industry in the face of expanding content choices: “You’re at the point right now where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal – and even maybe historical – projects that may get lost in the shuffle.”

He lamented that it’s becoming harder and harder for even brand-name filmmakers to get their projects into movie theatres. In fact Lincoln – you know, that Oscar-winning, $180million-making, historical biopic – was intended for HBO. And if Spielberg is having a hard-time convincing studios to get behind him, imagine how tough emerging talent will find it to break into the industry.

TV is fast becoming the way to go, with a recent glut of big name actors popping up in TV series; Claire Danes in Homeland, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Laura Linney in The Big C, Diane Kruger in The Bridge, the list could go on.

It hardly seems surprisingly considering that TV shows are starting to exhibit a lot more integrity, variety and genius than the film studios, which have recently churned out duds like The Lone Ranger, After Earth, White House Down and Pacific Rim. The Lone Ranger costing Disney more than $200 million to produce and took in $29million on its opening weekend at the box office. 

Spielberg suggests that, soon, Hollywood’s rose-tinted glasses may take a turn for clarity, when it edges further and further toward bankruptcy. And will ultimately forced to change its corporate ways. That change might include: movie-going becoming a rarer, more special and more expensive occasion – likening itself to the theatre; movies being released in all formats, everywhere, at the same time; and most movies coming to us via online services. This, the pair suggest, will mean a bright future for movie-makers with a particular vision – they will be able to make a living out of globally aggregated niche audiences.

And whilst that may very well be the only way to sustain, or resuscitate a floundering business model, it seems somewhat poignant that such a favoured pastime will be reduced to a ‘birthday treat’, or to laptop screens only as more and more people undoubtedly revert to downloading their entertainment.

When this door closes, another one might open – independent films may rise in popularity – but if greed sends Hollywood to the grave, it should be a lesson to us all that mainstream isn’t always the way to go.