Jeff Barnaby (Canada)
Native Canadian filmmaker Jeff Barnaby has been turning heads with his acclaimed short films for years so expectations were running quite high for his feature debut, Rhymes For Young Ghouls. He did not disappoint.
Though his work is very much rooted in his cultural experience Barnaby seems to have no interest whatsoever in speaking only to the native community or making social issue films. The issues seep through everywhere, sure, but only inasmuch as his characters rail against the circumstances they find themselves in. There's a bit of Cormac McCarthy in Barnaby and his scathing glare along with a wealth of experience distilled down into a pointed anger. Call Rhymes a protest film and you're not too far off and I just can't shake the feeling that we're still just scratching the surface where Barnaby is concerned. As good a debut as this is I still expect exponential growth over his next efforts.
James Ward Byrkit (USA)
How's this for a crazy compliment to directorial skill? At both Fantastic Fest and Sitges in 2013 director James Ward Byrkit was handed a Best Screenplay award for his debut feature, Coherence. This is unusual because Coherence has no script. Literally.
A former storyboard artist to Gore Verbinski with credits including Mouse Hunt, the first three Pirates movies and Rango (for which he also received writing credit), with his debut feature Byrkit created an intricate and tightly plotted zero special effect science fiction film entirely through improvisation with actors following basic instructions and motivations handed to them daily on index cards. And the results are astounding. Clearly this is a man who knows what he wants, is fabulous with actors, and is will to take phenomenal risks, all of which bode well for further interesting work in the future.
Fukuda Yuichi (Japan)
How's this for a good year's work: Twenty five episodes of television and one feature film written. Fifteen episodes of television and three feature films directed. Say hello to Fukuda Yuichi. This appears as though it will be a typical year for him moving forward.
The popular Japanese television writer and director made a hard move into features in 2013 directing three wildly different feature films: Cult action comedy Hentai Kamen, 1970s throwback comedy Kid's Police (a feature expansion of his own television series) and slacker dramedy I'll Give It My All Tomorrow. And not only are they all good but the cultier of the trio (HK and Kids Police) actually go to remarkable ends to be actual movies rather than the gag reels that they could have been in other hands.
When I ask friends in Japan about Fukuda they just break out laughing (in a very good way) so clearly he's well known and liked there and now that the dam has burst on the feature side I expect we'll be seeing a whole lot more of him on the festival circuit in years to come.
Oh ... and he also writes for the stage. Some people just don't do well with idle time.
Katrin Gebbe (Germany)
Talk about setting the bar high for yourself ... after helming just a single short film Germany's Katrin Gebbe made her feature debut with ultra dark religious drama Nothing Bad Can Happen - in which very many bad things actually do happen - and wound up on a festival run that began in Cannes, moved on to the prestigious Karlovy Vary festival and ended with her winning prizes in Tallinn and AFI. Gebbe's primary attributes are her rich characters combined with an utter fearlessness. Where does she go from here? She's signed on with a major American agency but I'm hoping for at least one or two more projects created with the freedom afforded by the European indie system before she makes the jump.
Owen Harris (UK)
Well, here's an exception I've never made to this list before:
In a year end selection of talents who have made either their first or second feature film, UK helmer Owen Harris has made precisely zero so far, with his entire released body of work being on television. So why is he here? Because his episode of Black Mirror (Be Right Back) is, quite simply, the very best hour of television that I saw from anywhere in the world this year. It's an emotionally devastating piece of work that makes the big idea driving it conceptually completely subservient to the emotional reality of the characters within it and Harris just delivers flawless work behind the camera.
I see he's got a film listed on the IMDB for release in 2014 now. If it's half as good as what he did on TV here then Harris' Kill Your Friends is very, very definitely a title to watch out for in 2014.
Zak Hilditch (Australia)
Though it has yet to be widely seen outside of the director's native Australia - where it took top prize at the prestigious Melbourne International Film Festival - expect to be hearing a lot more about Zak Hilditch's These Final Hours in coming months.
In the wave of end of the world themed projects that rolled out in the past couple of years spurred on by those wacky Mayans and people who took their calendar far too seriously, it is Hilditch's that has the most emotional resonance, telling the story of a world where everyone knows exactly when the end is coming, is powerless to stop it, and must choose how to live out the final hours of their lives when there is neither hope nor consequence. Hilditch certainly knows his way around a kinetic set piece or two but the real power of the picture is his ability to put an amazingly intimate face on such a huge event.
Matt Johnson (Canada)
We don't need to wonder what's going to happen next for The Dirties writer / director / actor Matt Johnson because it's already happening. After his debut, highly improvised debut caused a stir at Slamdance, Hollywood came knocking. And he answered - at least sort of - choosing to keep one foot in his very experimental, make it up as we go along sort of world while also dipping his toes in the Hollywood waters.
What does that mean specifically? Well, there's a Sacha Baron Cohen produced television series in the works and Johnson is writing the script for a big studio, big budget, big screen outing of popular kids' hero Encyclopedia Brown while also prepping an early 2014 shoot on a new feature that'll get The Dirties crew back together. Whatever comes to fruition first the only thing you can safely expect from Johnson is the unexpected.
Evan Katz (USA)
Best known before 2013 thanks to his frequent work with Adam Wingard - for whom he wrote the screenplays to feature films Home Sick and Pop Skull along with numerous shorts - Katz stepped out on his own in 2013 as the director of festival darling Cheap Thrills.
Katz's greatest asset as a writer has long been his ability to create fully believable characters and then push those characters out to extremes and that ability remains in full effect as a director, fused with an engaging visual style and an obvious rapport with his actors, all of whom deliver sterling work. Cheap Thrills takes what's basically a chamber piece and manages to make it feel kinetic, which bodes nothing but well for whenever someone has the good sense to hand Katz a larger palette to play with.
Juno Mak (Hong Kong)
Hong Kong cinema, once so very vibrant, has been stagnant for years now. There are still high points, for sure, but they seem to be always fewer and farther between. There are a number of factors to point to in this development, ranging as far back to the exodus of nervous talent in the lead up to the handover of Hong Kong back to Chinese control to the more recent pandering to mainland tastes and censorship requirements in an effort to access the massive and massively lucrative market so close at hand, but far and away the largest issue has been the abject failure of the established industry to develop a new generation of young talents. Eleven feature films into his career Pang Ho-cheung is still considered 'young guard' in Hong Kong and I'm hard pressed to name a significant Hong Kong director who has risen up since Pang.
Or, I should say I was hard pressed, because here comes Juno Mak with Rigor Mortis.
On paper Rigor Mortis had all the earmarks had all the signs of an impending, self indulgent disaster with the young former pop star turned actor now blowing through his wealthy family's money with seemingly no oversight, essentially doing whatever he wanted with an inexhaustible bankroll. But it turns out Mak has learned a thing or two from his time spent on the other side of the camera, has a deep love of local film history, and the good sense to call in more experienced hands - in this case The Grudge director Shimizu Takashi, in his upcoming sophomore effort Miike Takashi - to offer their support and the wisdom that comes from experience. And the result was the most stylish and unique debut to come out of Hong Kong in ages. Mak appears to be in the somewhat unique position of having talent while also having the security that comes from being independently wealthy which allows him true freedom to do whatever the hell he wants. And so far he's not being a total self indulgent prat about it. If that last bit continues to hold true then we could be looking at a long and interesting career for Mak.
Brendan Muldowney (Ireland)
Brendan Muldowney's sophomore feature Love Eternal is one that I jokingly pitched to my wife as 'the feel good necrophiliac coming of age love story for people who don't know that they like feel good necrophiliac coming of age love stories.' She didn't watch it. But you should.
Muldowney shows a remarkably deft touch with some remarkably difficult material, proving himself a visual talent who is equally adept at creating complex and compelling characters. There's something going on in Ireland right now with a wave of young, interesting talents on their way and Muldowney is the most interesting of the batch for my money.
Jeremy Saulnier (USA)
Let me clear here: I'm not shit talking Jeremy Saulnier's 2007 debut feature Murder Party. I like Murder Party quite a lot. But if someone looks you in the eye and tells you that they expected a sophomore film the quality and style of Blue Ruin to emerge from Saulnier six years later then that person is a liar from the pits of hell. Murder Party is a fun romp. But Blue Ruin is a goddamned work of art and, in my opinion, the best American indie in a year that featured a bunch of really good American indies. And a huge amount of the credit for Blue Ruin's success comes down to Saulnier's staggering progression as both a writer and director. Saulnier is the real thing.
Jim Taihuttu (The Netherlands)
After a string of short films Dutch director Jim Taihuttu took the step to features as the co-director of Rabat in 2011 before going it alone at the helm with the San Sebastian award winning Wolf in 2013. And the time spent honing his craft on his previous work has clearly been well spent as Wolf is one of the most poised and striking debuts of recent years. The character based crime story proves Taihuttu a fierce talent to watch - as is leading man Marwan Kenzari - thanks to his ability to balance out style and action with intimacy and depth to his characters. While Wolf doesn't do anything particularly new with its story what it does is tell that story impeccably well. Taihuttu is the real thing.
Borgy Torre (The Philippines)
Erik Matti's Cannes selected On The Job promised an exciting new wave of Filipino crime thrillers early in 2013 and it only took something like six months for prominent commercial director Borgy Torre to prove that Matti's success was not a one off by any means.
Matti is a producer on Torre's Kabisera - the title translates loosely as 'the head of the table' - but Torre is his own man here, delivering a wrenching story of a simple fisherman who stumbles across an abandoned shipment of drugs floating in the sea. Torre draws fabulous performances out of his talented cast and shows an innate sense for when to pull back and let a moment linger and when to go in for the kill. More of a character based thriller than a full bore action picture, Kabisera marks Torre as a director primed and ready to cross over into the international market in a big, big way.
Guido Van Driel (The Netherlands)
Dutch graphic novelist Guido Van Driel took one of his own stories from the page to the screen in 2013 with Resurrection Of A Bastard and wound up as the opening night selection at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam.
I'm personally always leery of writers adapting their own work as far too often thy fail to understand the different demands placed upon their stories by different mediums but Van Driel manages the transition beautifully. There's a dark humor to his work that seems cut from the Coen Brothers' cloth fused with the obvious love and care for his offbeat and deeply damaged characters that you see in the films of The Broken Circle Breakdown director Felix Van Groeningen. Bastard is one of the more unusual and compelling gangster flicks of recent days and I can only hope more of Van Driel's work will make it to these shores either on page or screen.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts (USA)
From Funny Or Die to festival darling? Meet Jordan Vogt-Roberts who made the leap from web and TV content to the big screen in a big way as the director of The Kings Of Summer. Writer Chris Galletta certainly deserves his share of the praise for this one as the dialogue is very frequently very laugh out loud funny but Vogt-Roberts brings Galleta's screenplay to the big screen beautifully, the end result playing something like the bastard child of Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow, with just a touch of John Hughes thrown in for good measure and God damn but this world needs another John Hughes in the worst way. Vogt-Roberts looks like our best chance to be that guy.
Enough with doing pilots for FX, Jordan. We want another film.
Honorable Mention: Donovan Marsh (South Africa)
Rules are meant to be broken, right? And so I can't help but throw a nod to South African helmer Donovan Marsh whose edgy action thriller iNumber Number remains one of my favorite cinematic discoveries of the year. Marsh doesn't qualify for the main list as iNumber Number is actually his fourth feature film but with his two previous films being mainstream South African comedies that never traveled significantly outside that nation's borders and his debut being a tiny budgeted indie that also never really traveled, iNumber Number will be the introduction to this formidable talent for the vast majority of people outside of South Africa. Remember when Luc Besson felt edgy and underground? That's Donovan Marsh right now and that's a very, very good thing.