Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson try to make peace with their own identities in "Passing."

One reason why this job doesn’t wear on me is that I take so much pleasure in welcoming new directorial talents to our screens. Here we go, then, with our list of filmmakers whose first fiction feature films made such an impression on me. I always ring the gong for second-time filmmakers who showed growth, so cheers to Philip Barantini (Boiling Point), Siân Heder (CODA), Leigh Janiak (the Fear Street trilogy), Potsy Ponciroli (Old Henry), Ben Sharrock (Limbo), and Chaitanya Tamhane (The Disciple).

Blerta Basholli

I had never seen a movie from Kosovo before I took in her Hive. The 38-year-old Albanian worked her way up through the ranks of film crews before helming this story of a group of village war widows who defy local prejudices to harvest honey from the beehives they keep and convince the local supermarket to sell it. The movie’s unassuming façade is a cover for addressing the Serbian genocide that made these women into widows, but you can well enjoy it at face value.

Clint Bentley

He’s a jockey’s son, so it’s no wonder that he has such a feel for the characters who work the racing circuit in Jockey. Bentley was a producer on the striking border thriller Transpecos, and he reunites with that movie’s star Clifton Collins Jr., who portrays an aging jockey coping with a host of life crises. The film concluded the recent Lone Star Film Festival, and brought that in-person event to a rousing close.


Benjamin Cleary

The Irishman previously won an Oscar when his Stutterer was named Best Live Action Short. His feature debut Swan Song is remarkable for its technical values, not just for having Mahershala Ali play two distinct characters but also for depicting the world of 2040, with people using technology that is more advanced than ours and yet still contains developments that we can easily fathom. He doesn’t neglect the emotional arc underneath that, as the main character gropes with his own mortality.

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Tall, Unappreciated Brunette Actresses, Part I: The outrageously talented star of Secretary and The Dark Knight has never found a groove in front of the camera, so it’s well that she excelled behind it while adapting Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. The story of a British literature professor on a Greek beach vacation is rendered in mysterious ellipses and passive-aggressive confrontations with an overly loud family.

Rebecca Hall

Tall, Unappreciated Brunette Actresses, Part II: The star of Iron Man 3 and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women adapted Nella Larsen’s Passing to sharp effect. The high-contrast black-and-white photography only serves to throw into relief the fable of two Black women whose lives took different courses reuniting in the demi-monde of Chicago’s jazz clubs in the 1920s. Let’s have more racial commentary from her quarter.

Valdimar Jóhannsson

I mentioned in my review of Lamb that Jóhannsson started out as a special-effects artist for Hollywood. He took that know-how back to his native Iceland to make this twisted parody of the Nativity story. If the climax doesn’t quite pay off as it should, he makes great use of the brooding and isolated atmosphere of his homeland as a backdrop to a childless couple having their prayers answered in nightmarish form.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

It should surprise absolutely no one that he proves he can direct a film musical in tick, tick… Boom!. He was offered the chance to adapt his own In the Heights, but he wisely chose to film someone else’s musical, and while Jonathan Larson’s show about a thirdlife crisis has issues that perhaps should have left it on the stage, Miranda displays flair for casting (Andrew Garfield can sing!) and bringing musical numbers to life. How about that number in the pool?

Burhan Qurbani

Steven Spielberg has received kudos for updating West Side Story, but this 41-year-old Afghan-German filmmaker did just as good a job with Berlin Alexanderplatz, bringing Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel into the era of online sex sites. He makes the main character into an immigrant from Guinea-Bissau, and the man’s tragic attempt to blend in with a Western capitalist society only takes on more tragic power because of it.

Michael Sarnoski

You probably figured a movie from Portland that starred Nicolas Cage would be strange, and one thing Sarnoski did well in Pig was lean into the absurdity. (Hypothetical question: If the restaurant workers in Fort Worth formed their own fight club, who would win?) Yet instead of making Mandy with a pig, Sarnoski turns this film into a character study of a hermit in the countryside and a meditation on grief and loss.

Emma Seligman

Gotta give props when a film critic successfully crosses the divide and makes her own movie. The 25-year-old NYU student expanded her short film Shiva Baby into a feature by the same name, and it offers a new perspective on Jewish humor with its messy bisexual sex worker of a heroine. I did have issues with the movie’s ending, but Seligman’s skill at evoking a nightmarish scenario marks her as a talent to watch.

Honorable mention: Ephraim Asili, The Inheritance; Prano Bailey-Bond, Censor; Shatara Michelle Ford, Test Pattern; Lauren Hadaway, The Novice; Fran Kranz, Mass; Santiago Menghini, No One Gets Out Alive; Jon Pollono, Small Engine Repair; Nicole Riegel, Holler.