There are a lot of big names releasing movies in 2009. Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, and many more have new films coming this year, meaning this could be a pretty darn good year for film nerds like us.
Out of the crop of filmmakers releasing movies in 09 I’ve picked out the ten who get me the most excited (in no particular order). Not because of the anticipation of seeing their films – I’ve seen a number of the 2009 films from these guys – but because of the filmmaker. Each of these filmmakers get me psyched because it feels like they still have something very new to show me. In some cases this is literally true – two of them are first time filmmakers. In some cases this is a reflection of careers that continue to surprise, change and mutate while offering an incredible consistency of vision.
Zack Snyder – By now it’s becoming obvious that Watchmen is going to divide the critical community, and that divide looks to be pretty sharply defined. You love or hate the movie, and to me that’s a sign of a special film. For Snyder third time’s the charm, and Watchmen will blow away the preconceived notions that 300 planted in so many people’s heads. It’s interesting seeing the thematic elements of his work take shape – Snyder seems very into groups of people coming together to fend off external threats to not just their lives but to their ways of life (although Watchmen flips that on its head by making the threat much less external than expected), and none of his films feature A lead. Although the argument could be made that the star of Snyder’s films is the director himself, and his strong visual sense of style. He’s beginning his next film, Sucker Punch, this year, and I’m fascinated to see that not only is it Snyder’s first ‘original’ film (although sort of based on Alice in Wonderland),. it’s his first film with a singular protagonist.
Steve McQueen - McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger, gutpunched me when I saw it late last year at a small screening. The movie is finally getting a (sort of ) proper release this year, and I think that the few people who see it are going to walk away shaken and wanting to know just who the hell this guy who shares a dead actor’s name is – and will he be making more movies? McQueen’s an English artist well known for his installation films, but Hunger marks a new step for the one-time winner of the prestigious Turner Prize. A searing, brutal examination of the 1981 hunger strike of Bobby Sands, McQueen’s film feels like an uplifting avant garde horror movie. It’s amazing to see a filmmaker emerge with a complete style and total control, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Robert Siegel – Not many people realize that the screenwriter of The Wrestler was once the senior editor of The Onion (during what may have been the paper’s very best period, no less). You can see a little bit of his comedy background in Big Fan, but like The Wrestler Siegel’s directing debut has funny bits in a movie that is otherwise not a comedy. I’ve called it the Taxi Driver of sports movies, and it’s a strange, tense, and honest film about the very nature of fandom. It’s a movie about how we invest ourselves and our identities completely in things that we love. Siegel’s style is lowkey and laid back; while the film I saw at Sundance could use a little bit of trimming, it’s Big Fan‘s slow burn that makes it really work. You can really see the thematic lines that connect Big Fan and The Wrestler, and not just because they’re both about fringe sports figures but because Siegel uses sports to examine the ways we define ourselves, and to look at men who are on the outside, trying to make some kind of connection to the world. And Siegel immediately proves himself great with actors, getting a most un-Patton performance out of comic genius Patton Oswalt. I’m curious where Siegel goes next, as he’s already proven himself to be a filmmaker who wants to put character before all else.
Park Chan-Wook - I was happy when Park Chan-Wook made a bad movie. I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK won’t be the movie for which this South Korean auteur will be remembered, but it’s the kind of bad movie I appreciate. Sure, I didn’t like the film, and it didn’t work for me at all, but I appreciated what the director was doing, and I appreciated that even as a film I didn’t like it was fascinating and took chances. The thing is that every director will eventually make a bad film, but only the great ones will make interesting bad films. Now that Park has done his stumble, I’m hoping that Thirst, the vampire movie he’s bringing to Cannes, is back on par with his Vengeance Trilogy. Park’s casual visual elegance forces you to watch his films multiple times, since you may be missing subtitles while drinking in the sumptious images. Intriguingly, despite the fact that he’s been embraced by the horror community, Thirst is Park’s first real horror feature and I really want to see what he does with the supernatural. Something tells me it’ll be nothing that we expect.
Rian Johnson - Here’s what’s cool about Rian Johnson: The Brothers Bloom looks and feels nothing like Brick. I think you could tell that the same guy made the films, but Bloom isn’t Brick 2 or Back to Brick or anything that you might have thought would happen when a guy makes a big splash with a very stylized first feature. Instead of coming back with more of the same, Rian made a movie that is completely different and really completely wonderful. He’s definitely of the film geek moviemaker contingent, but unlike some of his contemporaries, Rian’s influences feel digested, not regurgitated back onto the screen. There are touchstones for his work, but he’s not restaging whole scenes or stealing music cues as shorthand. And he’s not done changing things up; his next film is Looper, a violent time travel sci-fi movie. First he did noir, then a con man movie and next science fiction. I can’t wait to see where else Rian’s career takes him.
Lynn Shelton – Where has this director been all of my life? Shelton’s 2009 Sundance movie, Humpday, really synthesizes a lot of things I like about comedy and a lot of my own aesthetic tastes into something that has one foot in the arthouse and one foot in the multiplex. Her mumblecorish movie about two straight friends who decide to make a gay porno together is hilarious and honest and raunchy. I said it at the time, and I’ll say it again – Humpday is like looking into an alternate universe where Kevin Smith learned how to make movies. Shelton’s learning curve has been amazing; while I like her 2008 film My Effortless Brilliance, Humpday is so much better and shows so much growth. Shelton’s great with comedy and with her actors, and I’m pretty excited to see where she goes next. Is it wrong to hope that her budgets don’t get that much bigger, since she’s already amazing with so little?
Paul Greengrass - It’s possible that Greengrass is the most singular director in Hollywood. He makes movies exactly the way that you’re not supposed to make them – he shoots footage, finds the movie as he goes and in editing, and then goes back to pick up whatever he needs to patch the holes. It’s the filmmaking equivalent of a jam, but unlike a hippie band, Greengrass’ movies are watertight. Greengrass condenses chaos into order, and if you didn’t know how he worked you’d probably never even begin to guess. The chaos on screen – that famously shaky cam, the realism of sequences and reactions – might clue you in, but you’d never really figure just what a Promethean task Greengrass sets for himself. His next film, Green Zone, is set to surprise a lot of people who think they know what they’re in for, and it’s that surprise factor that Greengrass brings even to his big studio action movies, that makes him so damn exciting to follow.
Michael Haneke - Everybody else on this list excites me. Haneke scares me a little bit. His films, more than almost any other filmmaker, have a tendency to get really under my skin, to live with me long after the screen goes dark. In fact, I’d argue that both Funny Games, Cache and Time of the Wolf all become more powerful as time goes on and as you think about them. I always find myself lumping Haneke and Gaspar Noe together – they’re the edgy European filmmakers, I guess – but Noe’s films don’t walk out of the theater with me the way that Haneke’s do. And Haneke’s next, The White Ribbon, which premieres at Cannes, promises to be another take home movie. Set in a small town in Germany in 1913, the film follows a schoolteacher as he investigates a series of strange, sometimes violent events that are tied in to ritual punishment. At least, I think that’s what it’s about. But check out this picture from production company Wega (I’m not 100% sure it’s a still or publicity shot from the movie, but I think it’s the concept that matters here), and tell me this doesn’t look at least more than a little creepy:
I’m excited to see what Haneke is exploring this time, and what huge concepts and themes he’ll have me chewing on as I’m freaked out for days.
Steven Soderbergh - I can’t really say I’m a ‘fan’ of Soderbergh. Which is weird, since I have him on this list of the most exciting directors of 2009. But what excites me about Soderbergh isn’t his work itself – so much of it is hit or miss for me (sometimes in the same film, like in the alternately fascinating and infuriating Che) – but the rate at which he produces it and the sheer variety of what he turns out. He premiered an early cut of The Girlfriend Experience at Sundance, and I have to say that I really loved that one; on a totally different end of the spectrum he has The Informant, a big budget, mainstream Hollywood comedic take on The Insider (sort of), and then he might move on to Moneyball, a movie about baseball. But in between who knows what sort of no budget movie he’ll make, edit and release straight to cable and DVD? That’s the excitement of Soderbergh: a filmmaker who is on the cutting edge not of the toys of filmmaking (like the exceptionally boring James Cameron) but the TOOLS of filmmaking and distribution. Che convinced me that the future of film is indeed digital, and The Girlfriend Experience might convince a lot of people that the future of film distribution is outside of the current channels. All the while, Soderbergh is out there making movies, not being content to let the way big studios make them dictate the terms. Sure, he makes movies for them, but he really makes many more for himself. How can you not be excited about the guy who is right out there at the frontlines, dragging everybody else with him… while still turning out more movies than almost every one of his contemporaries?
Spike Jonze - I’m not excited because Spike Jonze is making a kid’s movie. I’m not excited because it looks beautiful. I’m excited because Where the Wild Things Are feels like it might be the first film where Spike lets go of the irony and the post-modernism and addresses – dead on – the emotions that have always been in his work. There’s always been an element of obfuscation about Jonze, whether it be his name or the personas he uses in his interviews or the very nature of his movies, but the idea of going to this book, one which certainly spoke to him when he was young, and bringing it to such beautiful life makes me think that maybe there’s going to be a bit of personal revelation going on. I look at Where the Wild Things Are and I hope that it’s a film that’s going to be viewed as the next step in Jonze’s career (and god knows with seven years between films it’s easy to divide that career up into phases). I also hope that it marks a new period of cinematic productivity; while Jonze has certainly not been slacking in the last seven years, he’s still been absent from cinemas for most of the decade. And seven years is a long time; after he has Wild Things out of his system, who will he be and what will be the kind of work that speaks to him? I want to find out where he goes from here.