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The Best Sophomore Directors in Hollywood

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | May 8, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | May 8, 2009 |

You’re never quite of a director’s talent after one movie. They’re usually saddled with an extremely low budget and you have to read between the lines to accurately read a director’s talent. Many show a lot of promise, but not all follow through on it. Kevin Costner, for instance, debuted with Dances with Wolves and followed that up with Waterworld and The Postman. Chris Noonan was nominated for an Oscar for Babe and followed that up, 11 years later, with Renee Zellwegger’s Miss Potter. John Singleton created the outstanding Boyz in the Hood before directing Poetic Justice, Higher Learning and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Karyn Kusama was going to be the next big female director after Girlfight, but she followed it up with Aeon Flux (she gets another try with the forthcoming Jennifer’s Body). Andrew Niccol went from Gattaca to S1m0ne. Ed Burns directed The Brothers McMullan and then proceeded to make the same film five times, each version worse than before. And look at Frank Miller — he went from one of the most highly touted directors in Hollywood after co-directingSin City to one of its worst after The Spirit.

All of which is to say: You really need at least two films to truly judge a director’s talent. And after two films, we can now safely say that these are the five best sophomore directors in Hollywood:

jody-hill.jpg5. Jody Hill: Last year, Prisco described Jody Hill’s debut effort, The Foot Fist Way as such: “A dinky little indie martial arts film that pulses with lots of heart and quite a bit of balls.” The Foot Fist Way also introduced a new variety of the Apatow comedy: Macho Delusionalism. Hill’s characters are overly masculine misanthropes, losers with swagger and a massive chip on their shoulder. Hill followed up

  • The Foot Fist Way with Observe and Report, which pushed the boundaries of dark comedy, asking his audience to laugh at uncomfortable, often offensive situations. He succeeded with a certain audience, though he generated a lot more controversy than he did ticket sales.

    jonathanlevine1.jpg4. Jonathan Levine: Levine made his feature debut with the still unreleased in America 2006 film, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, creating a riveting horror movie that stood out for what it didn’t do. As I wrote in my review, Levine took “the slasher film blueprint and, without necessarily doing anything particularly original with it, created a dead teenager movie that you can appreciate not for its campy gloriousness, its machete gore, its body count, or the T & A. In fact, he’s done something I’d never even considered before: He’s crossed Friday the 13th with … Heathers. ” Levine took that promise, and directed one of last year’s best films, The Wackness, which Prisco described as “one of the finest acted films I’ve seen in a long time, but it doesn’t take an easy path in the telling. In fact, it’s a pretty unpleasant tale told with a spirit of honesty and sense of humor that Levine’s more experienced contemporaries cannot come close to approximating.” It’s a phenomenal, heartbreaking film, and Levine blends narrative with music better than any director has since Cameron Crowe. And though his first film remains unreleased, and his second film barely put a dent in the box-office, Hollywood has seen enough of Levine’s talent to attach him to two more films, the irreverent comedy, The Sitter and the romantic thriller, Positive.

    rian-johnson1.jpg3. Rian Johnson: There’s little we can add to the praise we’ve showered upon Rian Johnson since his debut film, Brick, of which Dan wrote: “To high schoolers, the minutia of their routines and the ever-changing sociopolitical landscape of who hates whom tend to supersede rational thought. Rian Johnson, the writer and director of the phenomenal neo-noir-via-home-ec thriller Brick, understands this completely and, because he does, what could have been a gimmick becomes a shattering tale of love and heartbreak, told between the lockers and the portables. It’s one of the most willfully original thrillers to come along in quite a while, and fantastic to boot.” Brick has since gone on to become one of those great cult films that’s slowly being discovered by more and more people. Expect even more to search it out after seeing his sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom (due out May 15, in limited release). Johnson has reinvigorated the Wes Anderson style of filmmaking, and once again, deftly crossed genres, creating a love story / con man film that is as poignant as it is suspenseful. Johnson, after Brick, had enough clout to write and direct The Brothers Bloom on his own terms, and looks to continue broadening his resume as one of the best up and coming writer/directors in Hollywood with Looper, a sci-fi flick he’s currently working on.

    la11004212108.widec.jpg2. J.J. Abrams: This one almost feels like a cheat. Abrams has been in television for a decade, and has been writing scripts for nearly 20 years. But Star Trek is just his second feature film as a director. He’s surrounded himself with so much talent (Matt Reeves, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof) that until Mission Impossible III came out, I had reserved judgment on him as a director. But he succeeded in his debut effort, despite the unfortunate presence of Tom Cruise, which marred an otherwise thrilling summer blockbuster that I described as “an adrenaline-fueled, high-octane, diesel-powered, heart-surging cinematic vehicle that picks your ass up and takes you speeding through the scenic route before ultimately running out of gas and leaving you on the curb with your pants around your ankles, spent, exhausted, and in desperate need of a Parliament Light.” His movies may not belong on the same category as the other four directors on this list, but Abrams is the kind of guy I want directing huge, massively budgeted summer blockbusters. They may be empty spectacles, but if the advance word on Star Trek is any indication, at least a modicum of thought goes into them. It’s a nice change-of-pace to inject a little storyline in between explosions. It wouldn’t bother me at all to see Abrams eventually supplant Michael Bay as the summer blockbuster king.

    20080424_tommccarthy_33.jpg1. Thomas McCarthy: Like Abrams, McCarthy has also been around nearly two decades, only McCarthy is an actor. You’d probably recognize his face, even if you couldn’t place his name (he was Scott Templeton in “The Wire,” Kevin Riley in “Boston Public,” and had a couple of solid supporting roles in Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck). But McCarthy’s most worthy accomplishments are the two films he’s written and directed, The Station Agent and The Visitor, quiet meditations on overcoming loneliness. Dan summed both films up in his review of The Visitor: “What made The Station Agent so good was its honest look at the complicated ways people connect with each other, and how someone can stumble into your life one day and become an irreplaceable part of it inside a week. McCarthy has preserved that sense of honest discovery in The Visitor, an engaging, expertly drawn, and moving examination of one man’s empty life and the way he comes to fill it again.” While McCarthy may never become a particularly well-known director, to me, he’s the most impressive on this list for his ability to quietly tell a story. There’s no stylistic flourishes, there’s no huge explosions and genre blending. McCarthy just focuses on character and story, and in doing so, has created two of the most moving and emotionally rich films of the last five years.

    Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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