Dee Rees – Mudbound is a slow burn of a film that depicts an invisible war in post-WWII America, not on the streets but in the fields, in the rural communities where black and white citizens are expected to live and die alongside each other. Two families, both on the poorer side of economic life, send their sons off to fight in the war where they are meant to fight and die alongside each other. Many of them came back in caskets, but for these two men the homecoming was very different. After fighting for our country, Jason Mitchell’s Ronsel isn’t even allowed to walk out the front door of a market when shopping there. He is made, instead, to use the back door. The thing that sets off the film’s slow burn into tragedy is the irrational fear of black men having relationships with white women. In that region, in those years, it’s an offense so severe it can lead to death. No law will prevent such a murder, no government is going to prosecute it. Imagine, one day fighting Hitler and the next day fighting racist Americans. Dee Rees doesn’t make the message of the movie overly obvious, but rather draws us into a world, giving us the opportunity to contemplate this place and these people. Every inch of Mudbound’s canvas is cinematic — such a big war, such a big country, such small-minded people. So if you are mudbound, you are stuck, not going anywhere, glued to the earth. The beauty of Ree’s work is in fleeting moments of beauty, small connections between the characters, the anger they suppress, frustration trapped under the skin — but also the joy of love, the closeness of a family, and the natural beauty of a place like the south. Rees, who made her mark early with Pariah — an autobiographical story about a young black woman coming out, has done a lot of directing since then, though mostly on television. Now, she’s become a formidable force in film. Of all of the films I’ve seen this year, only a few have really stuck with me — this is one of them.
Jordan Peele – It’s hard to remember a time when there was such a successful film like Get Out, a film that challenges our own perceptions of how racism is often depicted in films. Usually we see the brutality of the southern white supremacist, a clear cut villain in our history from whom many of us white folks can comfortably separate ourselves. In Mudbound, for instance, the point of view alternates between the white and black communities at the time, showing how easy it is to pass down prejudice through the generations and how hard it was to protest. In Get Out, the racism is nearly undetectable. If you’re white, it’s hard not to watch that film and think we’re all guilty of it in varying degrees no matter how hard we try not be, that it is so ingrained in our culture it is unavoidable. If you’re black (or any other POC), there’s no explanation necessary — you already know. Aside from the underpinnings of race in Get Out, it is also a thrilling film to watch from a director’s standpoint. A crisp dark comedy with an unpredictable tone that takes you places you never thought you’d go, it’s funny, scary, weird and unlike anything else made this year.
Martin McDonagh – With an Oscar nomination for In Bruges already behind him, Martin McDonagh is not exactly a “new” voice but he’s new to many here making his first “American-ized” caper which, like Mudbound and Get Out, deals with American racism, albeit in a slightly less overt way. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about how there is goodness in most people that just has to be wrestled out of them, that underneath all the violence and racism are real people with genuine humanity inside. Three Billboards has so many things going on all at once, and its tone is also unpredictable and disarming. McDonagh’s voice rings through loudly and clearly, with a specific focus on the rat-a-tat writing, crudely funny throughout.
Sean Baker – In The Florida Project, as it was in Tangerine, Baker’s style hovers somewhere between documentary and narrative fiction. He is going for a sense of realism most people don’t experience, whether by choosing not to venture into those forgotten parts of big cities or because they walk by them every day and never look all that closely. With Tangerine, Baker caught everyone’s attention by shooting an entire film on an iPhone and though much of that movie, like Florida Project, was improvised, it had a powerfully moving narrative. Baker’s work is distinctive for this reason — hard realism/hard-hitting dramatic structure. One of the most talked about and beloved films of the year there is no doubt Baker has made his mark in American film as a uniquely gifted storyteller.
Greta Gerwig – Although many know Greta Gerwig as a goofy blonde filling up roles that were inspired by her, much of that is a way of deliberately diffusing her serious ambition and clear talent. Women dare not ask for the kind of respect afforded to men out of the gate. They have to get there through different means and for Gerwig it started out with writing, acting, and eventually co-directing. Now, she’s written and directed her first solo work with Lady Bird. She says it isn’t biographical, but it comes from a place of “write what you know” and what she knows is being a young woman bursting with ambition even if she doesn’t know what that entails yet, who knows that to get where she wants to go she has to dive into a bigger world, and not stay safely in her nest. Gerwig’s Lady Bird is being praised with all of the adjectives you would expect a female director to get — much of it reflects how people feel about her as an actress. But the truth is, if you watch the film, she is taking this work very seriously and the film is tightly, brilliantly directed. What is most impressive about Lady Bird, other than the effortlessly funny writing, is the directing — visually striking, with not a wasted shot to be found. Though most aren’t going to choose to focus on that, Gerwig can probably do just about anything as a director. Like Dee Rees, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Ava DuVernay, Sofia Coppola, her debut this year as a solo director means she can break free from the limits of gender and tell universal stories.
Ryan Coogler — Have you seen the trailer for Black Panther? My jaw dropped. The young auteur went from making a film about the murder of an unarmed black family man in Fruitvale Station to a superhero epic unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Of course, Black Panther isn’t out yet but how thrilling to be alive when it finally does drop. I have to admit I’ve never seen anything like that. That Coogler went from Fruitvale Station up to Black Panther is quite something. He’s now in the big leagues and having met him I can say it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Kumail Nanjiani — The Big Sick, like Get Out, dares to tell a story from the perspective of someone from a different culture or ethnicity living in Trump’s America. The unlikely love story (based on Nanjiani’s real life) is one of the more delightful and satisfying films of the year, with beautifully-written characters. Holly Hunter gets well-deserved praise for her role, but Zoe Kazan is also worthy of recognition for her work here. This is one of the films we need right now, something to remind us of our better selves at a time when there is just too much of our worst selves doing battle with each other every day. Where Nanjiani goes from here is anyone’s guess, but the impact of the Big Sick will be felt for some time.
Patty Jenkins — Jenkins is not a new voice by any means. She’s been directing for quite some time. She is new, however, to the genre of superhero movies and just hit a grand slam with Wonder Woman. Jenkins was put to the test: can a woman “open” a superhero movie? Well, she has proven she can. To the tune of $412 million. Wonder Woman earned the rare ‘A’ CinemaScore and is a lot better than it really had to be, given the genre and the low expectations therein. But it had to be good because a woman always has to be twice as good to get the recognition she deserves. From now on no one can say women can’t open superhero movies.
Geremy Jasper — His first film Patty Cake$ has made enough of a splash that people know who he is. He has chosen to focus on a woman who wants to be a rapper even when she hardly fits the type. Any new filmmaker who dares to tackle a story this unique that is this well done deserves our attention and he has mine.
Taylor Sheridan — After writing Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan now stakes his claim as director with Wind River, starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. Bleak, moody, and very well directed, it looks like Sheridan is the real deal, an up-and-comer to keep and eye on. His film was distributed by the Weinstein Co, so naturally it now won’t get any sort of awards push — who would touch it? But let’s not let 2017 pass without remembering this outstanding intro to another facet of Sheridan’s skill.
Anna Biller – The Love Witch was released last year and is now playing on Amazon Prime. I regret that I didn’t see it earlier, despite a few recommendations from critics. But oh, how I loved this movie. She should be much more famous than she is, given her talent. She makes this list because I believe her to be a most promising voice in film, and one who made a movie I can’t stop thinking about. It’s weird, funny, sexy, gorgeous to look at — one of the best films I’ve ever seen about female sexuality. Here’s hoping Ms. Biller keeps working, soon and often.