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"American Fiction" is one of the best debut films of the year.

I’ve been hoisted by my own self-imposed rules this year. Because my annual list of best first-time feature directors doesn’t include documentarians, I can’t include Beyoncé for Renaissance. And directors who move from documentaries to fiction films don’t count, either, so Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin don’t make the list for Nyad. Daniel Goldhaber also misses out for How to Blow Up a Pipeline because he previously directed a Netflix feature called Cam. Even so, I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to first-time filmmakers, and that’s always a good sign for the health of cinema.

I always give a shout to the second-time directors in this feature, and this year’s sophomore efforts make a formidable lineup: Nick Bruno and Troy Quane (Nimona), Bradley Cooper (Maestro), Kelly Fremon Craig (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), Emerald Fennell (Saltburn), Kitty Green (The Royal Hotel), Gerard Johnstone (M3GAN), William Oldroyd (Eileen), Hlynur Pálmason (Godland), Emma Seligman (Bottoms), Zachary Wigon (Sanctuary), and Stephen Williams (Chevalier). Now, let’s get to the freshmen.

Raine Allen-Miller

The 34-year-old was born in Manchester, but she moved to London at age 12, and her film Rye Lane feels as much of the city as anything by Richard Curtis or Guy Ritchie. Even if she didn’t come up with the writing in the film, her crisp unfolding of a romance between a Black couple includes some brilliantly funny flashbacks playing out on theatrical stages. If romantic comedies are going to make a comeback, she’ll be a big part of it.

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Chloe Domont

The 36-year-old Angeleno came up through the Hollywood TV industry, and her experiences as the only woman in the writers’ room on Ballers fed into her crackling Netflix office drama Fair Play, about a Wall Street stockbroker who feels pressured to act like one of the guys. It doesn’t keep her romance from falling apart after she’s promoted ahead of her boyfriend. We can use more middlebrow entertainment like this.

Joaquim dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson

They turned over the Spider-Verse series to three neophytes, and all of them brought something to Across the Spider-Verse. Maybe they were helped by the franchise’s setup, since the multiverse lends itself to bringing a different look to each separate universe, but they kept the storylines on track while making the summer blockbuster into a different sort of feast for the eyes.

Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman

Lieberman was not only the co-director on Theater Camp, he was also the co-writer, cinematographer, and co-songwriter. Meanwhile, Gordon was co-director, co-writer, co-songwriter, producer, and acted in a starring role. Together (with co-creators Noah Galvin and Ben Platt), they made the mockumentary-style comedy into a thing again, and you don’t have to be a theater kid to be grateful for that.

Takehiko Inoue

The 56-year-old manga artist adapted his own basketball comic Slam Dunk into The First Slam Dunk and proved that he can do just as well with moving images as still ones. Better yet, he proved that anime can tell life-size stories as well as stories about magical realms and superheroes. He finds a whole world of backstories in the five players who take the court for Shohoku High School.

Cord Jefferson

I was a fan of his before I knew he was from Arizona, or before I saw his debut film American Fiction. I came to him through the enjoyable pieces of pop culture criticism that he wrote for Gawker and The Root. American Fiction feels like something written by a gimlet-eyed observer of pop culture through a Black lens, though Jefferson is biracial. That film was smart and funny enough to make my Top 10 list, so he well earns his place on this list.

Adele Lim

The native of Malaysia wrote the script for Crazy Rich Asians, but then left the sequel because her pay would have been much lower than her white male screenwriting partner’s. On the evidence of her filmmaking debut Joy Ride, the sequel will be much poorer for losing her. The raunchy sex comedy with Asian-American women at the center was one of the summer’s comic highlights at the multiplex.

Nida Manzoor

I mean, who else is going to do a British teen Muslim martial-arts science-fiction wedding comedy? The creator of the TV series We Are Lady Parts moved on from that show’s too-hasty cancellation by helming Polite Society, one of the best times in the multiplexes this past spring. She draws complex portraits of Muslim women and then sticks them in outlandish postmodern comic settings, and it is a heady mix.

Laurel Parmet

Like Chloe Domont, she’s from L.A. but went to school at NYU. Unlike her, she directed a worthy Christian film in The Starling Girl. Based on an incident in her own life, it’s about a 17-year-old girl who starts having sex with her youth pastor in a fundamentalist community in Kentucky. Everything about the characters’ faith in God and the way that can be twisted feels so lived-in here.

Danny and Michael Philippou

The 31-year-old Australian twin brothers forged their own career path with YouTube stunts creating Hollywood-level special effects on meager budgets. Their horror film Talk to Me proves that they’re more than just tricksters, they can flesh out a story, too. Their arsenal of jump scares pairs nicely with their handle on how teenagers can use social media in irresponsible ways. Whether they stick to horror or branch out, let’s see what their skills lead them to.

Charlotte Regan

This 29-year-old Londoner has already packed her resumé, taking publicity stills on the set of Skyfall and directing music videos for Mumford & Sons. Her film Scrapper is about a 12-year-old girl who’s surviving on her own collecting scrap metal and evading social services until her estranged dad comes back into the picture. With Regan’s skill at telling this working-class story, she could be the heir to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

A.V. Rockwell

For some reason, this year had lots of first-time filmmakers making lyrical celebrations of Black womanhood and Black motherhood. Some of them are in the honorable mention section (see below), but the best one was Rockwell’s A Thousand and One. She’s yet another NYU graduate on this list, and her film about an ex-convict who kidnaps her own son out of the foster system is her staking her claim to the great tradition of New York indie movies.

Celine Song

The 35-year-old native of South Korea emigrated to Canada when she was young and has a background in theater that includes a staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull using the video game The Sims 4. Her film Past Lives just missed my honorable mention list, but that quiet, insightful film about a writer wondering what her life would have been if she’d never left South Korea deserves the accolades it’s getting from other film critics.

Bomani J. Story

It’s a shame that his The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster came out the same year as Poor Things, because his film is also a creative riff on the Frankenstein story. In his version, Victor Frankenstein is a 12-year-old girl science wizard whose family has been decimated by their crime-ridden neighborhood. She decides to bring her murdered drug-dealing brother back, and it works about as well as it did for Victor. Story is a SoCal native who keeps his story emotionally grounded amid his brilliance.

Honorable mention: Kyle Edward Ball, Skinamarink; Kristoffer Borgli, Dream Scenario; Bishal Dutta, It Lives Inside; Gina Gammell and Riley Keough, War Pony; Raven Jackson, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt; Michael B. Jordan, Creed III; Savanah Leaf, Earth Mama; Georgia Oakley, Blue Jean; Frances O’Connor, Emily; Randall Park, Shortcomings; Lola Quivoron, Rodeo; Juel Taylor, They Cloned Tyrone; Alice Troughton, The Lesson.

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