The 20 Best New Filmmakers of 2011

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Every day until New Year’s Eve we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. Today we look at filmmakers, alternating between the 10 best new documentarians and the 10 new narrative directors whose unique visions left us with high hopes for the future of cinema.

20. Tristan Patterson – Dragonslayer

The protagonist, who is often dull, isn’t the point. The plot, such that it is, isn’t the point. The point is the gorgeous cinematography, the nicely timed edits, the of-a-piece soundtrack. There’s a reason this documentary of a skateboarding kid in Fullerton, Calif., swept through the festival circuit season.

19. Paddy Considine – Tyrannosaur

The socio-realistic drama puts its characters and viewers through the wringer, spinning a difficult and gritty story of human violence. British actor-turned-director Paddy Considine, thankfully, knows just how to handle his talent—he lets the actors do the work. Taking a minimal visual approach, with the camera close and steady from beginning to end, he allows the cast to carry his film and drive it as the character study that it is.—David Roark

18. Cindy Meehl – Buck

Meehl allows the story of the real-life Horse Whisperer to take its cues, its themes, even its rhythms from the man himself, Buck Brannaman. It’s a touching reminder of the gentle wisdom that can emerge from chaos and suffering.

17. Sophia Takal – Green

First, she had the courage to cast her fiancée and her roommate in a story about jealousy endangering a couple’s relationship. Then she had the courage to cast herself as the outsider. Then she had the courage to turn large sections of the film over to improv. All the courage paid off with an intimate, unpredictable, unsettling and very promising debut.

16. Robin Hessman – My Perestroika

Deeply dissatisfied by simplistic portrayals—from both the right and left—of Soviet life and the fall of the Soviet Union, Hessman (who lived through much of it as an exchange student and later as an expat) set out to produce a more nuanced, thoughtful, truer portrait. She succeeded.

15. Josh Radnor – happythankyoumoreplease

It takes courage to take a stand against cynicism in a cynical town and make an intelligent film that’s heartfelt and sincere, especially when you’re best known as a sitcom star. Hollywood needs more Josh Radnors.

14. Richard Press – Bill Cunningham New York

Half of making a great documentary is finding a great subject, and Press has absolutely done that in this affectionate treatment of the New York Times‘ irresistibly charming octogenarian street fashion photographer.

13. Brian Crano – A Bag of Hammers

Not only does Crano deftly juggle humor and pathos simultaneously, he also juggles actors with wildly different styles, from classically trained (Rebecca Hall, Carrie Preston) to mainstream-swimming (Jake Sandvig, Amanda Seyfried) to child prodigy (Chandler Canterbury) to the comedic force of nature that is Jason Ritter.

12. Andrea Blaugrund Nevins – The Other F Word

What happens when punk rockers grow up and have kids? That’s the central question of this very different kind of punk documentary—a surprisingly touching exploration of what happens when someone who’s spent his life raging against the man becomes the man.

11. Spencer Susser – Hesher

It’s an absolute crime that Susser’s energetic, delightful film didn’t get more of an audience in theatrical release, but it’s likely to do so in its DVD and streaming life. Susser manages a topnotch cast to perfection and creates the most memorable character of the year in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s titular marvel.

Every day until New Year’s Eve we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. Today we look at filmmakers, alternating between the 10 best new documentarians and the 10 new narrative directors whose unique visions left us with high hopes for the future of cinema.

10. Matthew Bate – Shut Up Little Man

The film has been compared stylistically to Errol Morris’s work, and it’s an accurate assessment—Bate uses recreations and old movie footage, much as Morris has been known to do, to punctuate interviews with two punks who record the hilariously raucous shouting matches coming from the apartment next door to them. But Bate certainly makes the material his own.—Jonah Flicker

9. Mike Cahill – Another Earth

The synopsis of Another Earth sounds misleadingly sci-fi heavy: Scientists suddenly discover a second Earth whose unusual orbit has hidden it from view behind the sun all this time, and soon learn that there are strange parallels between that Earth and our own, including the possibility of alternate selves for each one of us. In fact, all that is just a setup for a deeply personal and philosophical exploration of identity, remorse, loss and reconciliation.

8. Alma Har’el – Bombay Beach

In a year dominated by narrative movies about the end of the world as we know it (Melancholia, Take Shelter, Another Earth, etc), Har’el dared to show us a documentary that makes those anxieties real. It’s the story of the Salton Sea—the once-booming resort area, now spooky quasi-ghost town east of Orange County—but it’s also a meditation on humanity and nature, and on the transitory nature of glory.

7. Ralph Fiennes – Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes makes a bold directorial debut with his adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedies, transplanting the Bard’s original poetry to modern-day battlefield and political arenas shot with gritty, handheld, documentary-esque camerawork. Aside from Shakespeare’s marvelous language, there’s a narrative and thematic modernity to every aspect of this production, from its international urban setting and multicultural cast to the delivery of the dialogue and the very body language used by the actors. The juxtaposition works sublimely.—Annlee Ellingson

6. Jarreth Merz – An African Election

In Merz’s deft hands, an account of an election in Africa plays as tightly as the best Clooney-Damon-Owen thriller. You won’t think about Africa the same way after leaving the theater.

5. Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist

Talk about an original vision. Who would have dared to make a major film as a neo-silent black and white? The Artist is about the transition to talkies, about our love for the cinema, about a boy and a girl, and it’s irresistibly charming. And yes, we’re cheating a little bit; he’s done narrative features before. But a black-and white silent film? That’s a new one.

4. Asif Kapadia – Senna

Kapadia was already a BAFTA-award-winning narrative director, but there are plenty of narrative directors who haven’t made the transition to documentaries effectively. Kapadia doubled the degree of difficulty by deciding to use all period footage of his subject, ’80s and ’90s Gran Prix legend Aryton Senna. He pulled it off in spades, and Senna is one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time, and one of the three best docs of the year.

3. Sean Durkin – Martha Marcy May Marlene

In a very different kind of end-of-the-world movie, the personal world Elizabeth Olsen’s character has come to accept as reality—life in a cult—ends when she’s rescued. The vertigo that ensues is terrifying to her, and to us. First-time director Durkin draws out two of the very best performances of the year, from Olsen and John Hawkes.

2. Robert Persons – General Orders No. 9

A deeply rich baritone with an accent dripping of old bourbon muses—intermittently—over footage of city and country, group and individual, as hypnotic music plays. It’s as if Terence Malick filmed a newly discovered William Faulkner memoir. A decade in the making, it’s the most wholly original vision in years.

1. Evan Glodell – Bellflower

The best recommendations at Sundance always seem to come from random strangers, and they usually come on one of the shuttle buses festivalgoers spend so much time on. This year, someone described Bellflower this way: “It’s kind of like an edgier 500 Days of Summer, except when she leaves him, instead of getting all sad and mopey, he starts building a monster car with flamethrowers and blowing shit up, and then the whole film turns into this crazy acid trip.” She paused. “Oh, and there’s lots of fire.” The man behind Paste’s favorite debut of the year is the sweet, goofy, awkward, audacious, brilliant figure of Evan Glodell. His debut is like seeing a Tarantino or Rodriguez film for the first time, and he’s certain to have many, many doors open up as a result.