The strange year of 2020 has brought many disappointments, including the closing of theatres and the delay of many of the most anticipated films of the year. As a result, cinephiles and casual movie-goers alike have had to curb their expectations for upcoming movies and try to enjoy what they could from the comfort of their own home. However, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t new movies available, and many of the films that did come out were hardly a disappointment.
With the biggest wide releases postponed to 2021, there was a lot more room for directorial debuts to gain exposure and recognition through on-demand releases and streaming services. Not only that, but these emerging voices often felt like the most impressive and unique compared to the 2020 films that had established filmmakers and higher budgets. With that in mind, the following list details ten of these great directorial debuts that came out in 2020. For the purpose of this list, all the debuts will be narrative features, therefore excluding documentaries from consideration.
1. Sound of Metal – Darius Marder
Director Darius Marder technically did have his debut back in 2008 with the documentary Lost and later had his screenwriting debut in Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), but Sound of Metal is the first narrative feature both written and directed by Marder. It turns out that these past experiences working within different facets of filmmaking (including editing and cinematography) has prepared him extremely well because this film is a top notch 2020 release. From the immersive sound design to the incredibly believable performances, Sound of Metal is a film that should be seen in a dark, loud theatre, but the fact that we were able to view it at all from home is still a small blessing in a very troubling year.
Sound of Metal features one of the best performances of the year—Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, a drummer who plays with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), in a metal band. Ruben and Lou seem to be content with their life as RV-traveling musicians, but Ruben soon faces a musician’s worst nightmare: hearing loss. This loss is terrifyingly sudden, and it presents Marder with the opportunity to show the audience what Ruben is feeling and hearing every step of the way, which is where the amazing sound design comes into play. Even before he loses his hearing, there is a clear intention to highlight the sounds in Ruben’s everyday life in order for the viewer to relate to this very specific loss.
When he does become deaf, we are still hearing most things from his perspective, and it even goes as far as denying us the satisfaction of sign language subtitles before Ruben actually starts to learn it. After reluctantly accepting help from a rural deaf community, Ruben is faced with choosing between chasing the past or letting the uncontrollable future pass right through him.
2. Swallow – Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Writer/Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis made the initial quarantine in 2020 a bit more enjoyable with his early March release, Swallow. Before its release, Swallow already created much deserved buzz based on the fact that it’s the only film to really discuss the psychological disorder called Pica, which is characterized by the urge to swallow inedible objects. While this disorder is understandably a bit more common in children and some people with certain mental disabilities, it’s also known to be found in pregnant women. In Mirabella-Davis’s directorial debut, he chooses to explore its place in pregnancy, but more importantly, he explores the trauma and stressors that may be causing this disorder in the first place.
Swallow follows a young woman named Hunter (Haley Bennett) who actually spends most of her time isolated in her own home, just like many of us have over the course of the last ten months. Unlike our situation, Hunter’s domestic life is initially presented as one of her own choice—a life where she seems content tending to her luxurious home day after day while she obediently waits for her future CEO of a husband, Richie (Austin Stowell), to return from work. However, her nearly-robotic attitude and expressions slowly start to crack after becoming pregnant and suddenly feeling the urge to swallow small inedible objects, consequently showing that there is something else bubbling below the surface. While this premise is already unique in itself, the real magic of the film comes from Hunter’s extremely compelling character arc and the important message about a woman’s capacity to control her own body.
3. The Vast of Night – Andrew Patterson
We’ve all heard the story before: a small rural town, strange lights and noises, ufo sightings, abductions. These are some of the typical characteristics of many alien accounts, and the science fiction film The Vast of Night takes heavy inspiration from those real stories. One of which would be the “UFO incident” that happened in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania in 1965, where an unknown fiery object came crashing down from the sky. Of course, incidents like this usually have logical explanations, but there are also those within a town like Kecksburg that claim that it was actually extraterrestrial. In The Vast of Night, Director Andrew Patterson manages to capture this speculation while also commenting on the narrative bias inherent in stories told over and over again about past events and future possibilities.
The Vast of Night features two extremely likable characters living in a small town in 1950’s New Mexico: switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz). In the opening scenes, we immediately get a feel for the style and themes as Fay and Everett excitedly interview random locals with her fancy new tape recorder. After each of them goes home for the night to do their respective jobs, Fay hears a strange noise that randomly appears on Everetts radio station. Over the course of this night, they continue to hear strange signals and get calls from others in the area who claim to have heard similar noises or experienced other odd phenomena.
Along with Sound of Metal, The Vast of Night is another auditory experience in this list that should be appreciated for the sound design that it relies on so heavily to convey the eeriness of the many stories that are told. On top of that, it features some incredible tracking shots that show that Patterson and cinematographer M. I. Littin-Menz know how to make a limited budget extraordinary.
4. Palm Springs – Max Barbakow
As far as different genres go, comedy may have struggled the most in 2020. This helps make Palm Springs one of the biggest surprises of the year, especially from the first-time directing and writing duo Max Barbakow and Andy Siara. Although, looking back on it, it probably should have been expected when Hulu and Neon paid a whopping $17 million for distribution rights after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, setting a new record for a sale at Sundance by a small margin. Regardless of its price and popularity on Hulu, Palm Springs is just a very solid comedy that manages to pull off the daunting task of doing something new and exciting with the “time loop” subgenre.
Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, who wakes up in Palm Springs on the day of a wedding that he’s attending with his girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner). At first, Nyles just seems like a very relaxed and slovenly guy who couldn’t really care less about the wedding or anyone there, but there is somewhat of a sense that he’s got some problems bubbling below the surface. After confidenting saving the bride’s sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), from embarrassing herself with an unprepared speech, Nyles and Sarah hit it off and wander into the desert together to hook up. Little does she know, she’s about to be unintentionally dragged into Nyles’ biggest problem of all: having to continuously live this day over and over without any solution in sight. However, what makes this film unique compared to others that try to take on the time loop format is not the solution itself. Instead, it’s all about the characters themselves and their progressive development, which is all the more entertaining when Samberg and Milioti have such great chemistry in their lead roles.
5. Relic – Natalie Erika James
Some of the most unsettling horror films show us a reflection of a terrifying reality that some people really have to deal with in their own lives. The debut feature from Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James, Relic, is definitely one of those films. In Relic, the reflection is that of dementia, which happens to affect a lot of people in the world with around ten million new cases every year. While it could be described as a haunted house film, it never quite feels like it, as the character’s relationships and the allegory for dementia is most certainly at the forefront.
Relic focuses on Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), after they find out that Kay’s elderly mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), has gone missing from their old family home. The home has obvious signs of a forgetful and rapidly declining mind, including post-it notes that Edna has written to remind herself of daily tasks. These reminders aren’t really out of the ordinary for someone of her age and state of mind, but what is strange is the random occurrence of a black mold in different places in the house and the ominous creaking noises that they hear within the walls. When Edna returns to the home out of nowhere with a mold-like spot on her chest, things within her mind and within the house’s walls take a turn for the worse. As creepy as it may be at certain points, Relic is also a striking portrayal of both the pain and love inherent in the familial relationships that stay close during hard, and sometimes, horrifying times.