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25 Emerging North American Indie Directors You Need To Know

15 June 2015 | Features, People Lists | by Aidil Rusli

emerging indie director

In January 2014, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote a piece titled, “As Indies Explode, An Appeal For Sanity”, in which she bemoaned the fact that there were too many films being released right now, most of them lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies. Salon followed up with another piece on what they’re calling America’s next Wal-Mart, which is the indie film industry. There was even a satirical petition by Kentucker Audley calling for indie filmmakers to stop making films.

In a way they’re right, there really is an oversaturation of films, especially indie films. As Dargis’ article pointed out, it is quite alarming that the New York Times ran nearly 900 film reviews in 2013 alone, which was about 75 more than the year before. And that was in 2014, as more and more VOD platforms become available now compared to then, imagine the amount of film (and filmmakers) that will get lost in the shuffle, regardless of the quality of their work.

Let’s not even begin to consider the fact that some filmmakers don’t arrive fully formed with a breathtaking debut film. Some will only start to find their feet and ‘emerge’ after they’ve honed their craft making a few films. So it’s a tough job to try and separate the wheat from the chaff.

The aim of this list is simple – to single out 25 emerging North American filmmakers working outside the studio system who deserve notice for the quality of their work, regardless of their age. The only criterion is that they must have made at least 2 and not more than 5 fiction feature films. And of course, they must have made films worthy enough to be singled out here. So here they are, in no particular order.

 

1. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead

Spring

The writing and directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead first caught attention with their debut feature Resolution, a highly impressive genre bending effort that wowed horror fans. It’s a minimalist and low budget horror film set mostly in a cabin in the woods, with a later sci-fi twist that gave notice of their facility with coming up with great ideas on a low budget.

When their second film Spring, another superb piece of genre bending as it plays like a cross between Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and a monster movie, wowed everyone after it played at Toronto’s Midnight Madness, it’s clear that they’re definitely not one offs and that great things surely lie ahead for the duo.

 

2. Joshua & Benny Safdie

The Pleasure of Being Robbed

Despite having 2 films at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes (The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddy Longlegs, originally called Go Get Some Rosemary in its initial festival appearances) and another one at Venice (Heaven Knows What), and being highly feted enough to already have a ‘2 Films By Joshua & Benny Safdie’ DVD release in France, the Safdie brothers are still very much an unknown quantity in their home country and the rest of the world.

Armed with their beloved 16mm camera and always making films with their Red Bucket Films collective, the Safdie brothers will be manna from heaven for fans of John Cassavetes as their films have the same kind of kamikaze approach to manic emotions and acting. Start with Daddy Longlegs, and surrender to the beautiful mess that is the Safdie brothers’ cinema.

 

3. Matt Porterfield

I Used To Be Darker

Unlikely to ever be a household name due to the non-commercial nature of his films, Matt Porterfield deserves to be on any cinephile’s radar because of the aesthetic adventures he takes when it comes to film form. His 3 films so far (Hamilton, Putty Hill, I Used To Be Darker) have all exhibited an admirable thumbing of the nose to established narrative and fiction filmmaking conventions, with his second film Putty Hill being especially alive with its confidently nonchalant approach to bringing in documentary elements into what is essentially a fictional narrative feature.

A chronicler of suburban America with a European arthouse aesthetic adapted to low budget American independent filmmaking, Porterfield is already an intriguing and important chapter in that still unwritten book on genuinely leftfield American indie cinema.

 

4. Ira Sachs

Love is Strange

Despite having a festival hit with Forty Shades Of Blue back in 2005 (it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance), Ira Sachs hit a bit of a bump with his follow up film Married Life and it took him 5 years to come out with Keep The Lights On, which eventually became his big breakthrough in the American indie film scene.

Increasingly proving to be one of the most European of American directors, even going so far as working with Greek New Wave cinematographer Christos Voudouris, Sachs has made his loveliest film yet with Love Is Strange, a loose retelling or reinterpretation of Leo McCarey’s heartbreaking classic Make Way For Tomorrow, confirming himself as one of America’s best and most subtle of chroniclers on gay life today.

 

5. Bob Byington

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Like any other job out there, filmmaking is mostly an on the job learning experience for most directors. There’s only so much that you can learn in film school before real life intrudes during film shoots.

There wasn’t much that separated Bob Byington from any number of the mumblecore practitioners out there in his first four films like Registered Sex Offender and Harmony And Me, but his fifth film Somebody Up There Likes Me, winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival confidently marks him as a director to watch.

A deadpan comedy covering almost the whole of a man’s adult life, it became armed with way more interesting layers by the simple decision of having the actor playing that man without any age makeup on (therefore looking young no matter what age he is), even though everyone else around him does. Hilarious enough to be a commercial hit if distributed more widely, it would be interesting to see where Byington will go from here.

 

6. Alex Ross Perry

The Color Wheel (2011)

For a long while it seemed like American independent cinema has forgotten how to be confrontational or even hostile towards audience expectations. Long gone are the days when decidedly eccentric and sometimes even controversial early work by the likes of Hal Hartley, Todd Solondz, Harmony Korine and Gregg Araki ruled the day, replaced by an endless string of safe and navel gazing American indie films about the relationship problems of middle class white people.

There seems to be a rise now in this sort of defiance in the work of a new generation of American indie filmmakers, still marginalized in their own country but getting increasing attention from major European film festivals.

Alex Ross Perry is the most high profile of this bunch so far with 2 films being shown at the Locarno Film Festival and even securing distribution in France with his second film The Color Wheel, which has remained undistributed in the US. His stock can only rise with the critical success of his latest film Listen Up Philip, which even had name actors like Jason Schwartzman and Jonathan Pryce.

 

7. Sean Baker

Tangerine

Right now Sean Baker will probably be most remembered as the guy who made that film Tangerine, which was shot on a iPhone 5s and played at this year’s Sundance to almost universal acclaim. It’s about time though, as he’s been steadily making excellent films under the radar for years now with the neo-realist Take Out and Prince Of Broadway and what should have been his big breakthrough, Starlet.

A natural at getting great performances from non-professionals, Baker’s films have an easy going affability about them that anyone should be able to appreciate. Another great chronicler of normal and downtrodden American lives, there’s a humanist streak in Baker that’s very hard to resist.

 

8. Emily Hagins

My Sucky Teen Romance

There was much hoopla at the Venice Film Festival as Hana Makhmalbaf became the youngest filmmaker ever to compete there with Joy Of Madness, a film she made at age 14, but Emily Hagins made her zombie movie Pathogen when she was just 12 years old, which led to her being the subject of the documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie.

Reportedly a regular filmgoer at Austin’s famous Alamo Drafthouse cinema, Hagins’ first big breakthrough was when her third film My Sucky Teen Romance played at SXSW Film Festival, gaining very decent press coverage, mostly due to her age (she was 17 then). But the real reason why everyone should watch out for her is the film she made after that, Grow Up, Tony Phillips, a very funny and sweet coming of age film that’s a gigantic leap in every single aspect for her.

Gone are the mannered and sometimes awkward acting of My Sucky Teen Romance replaced by the kind of wisdom and good humor that one wouldn’t have expected from a film by a 19 year old. Showing steadily good progress with every film and with her fourth film being this good, the future definitely looks bright for her.

 

 

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  • Vanessa Lynn

    Thank you! This list looks so well researched!

  • animatorunite

    Hagins is the best!

  • Justin Benson

    Ah cool! Thank you for putting us on here!

    • Aidil Rusli

      My pleasure Justin! Big fan of your work so far, so naturally you guys had to be here.

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  • DSarge001

    Very well written and engaging list, if only there was some way of accessing all these films ; ) – then I noticed you write from Malaysia! You must be a very dedicated follower of current film trends, are there any local regional films/film makers you think we should look into, “arthouse” wise?

  • denis24

    Great list! I recomend also Sam Esmail, director of the beautiful and lovely “Comet” starring Emmy Rossum & Justin Long and he has a tv-series on the run “Mr. Robot”.

  • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

    Cool list, but I wouldn’t call Sarah Polley or Xavier Dolan “emerging” filmmakers, specially when they’ve both have several releases under their belts, as well as awards, public and critical recognition already.