Not just up-and-coming directors, the Spirit Awards filmmakers “to watch” consistently maintain both an idiosyncratic vision and defiant outsider status, often innovating on the margins of the industry (where the $25,000 prize can really mean something). Past winners include Jem Cohen (2005), Andrew Bujalski (2004), Larry Fessenden (1997), Christopher Munch (1996) and Lodge Kerrigan (1995). This year’s nominees continue that tradition:

Ramin Bahrani
The way to get films made the indie way is simple,” says Gotham-based Ramin Bahrani, director of “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” which premiered at Venice and Cannes, respectively. “Do not listen to people who tell you to wait. Best example to follow: John Cassavetes.” Bahrani also cites the industry professionals “who still believe movies can be art” who have supported him, from producer Lisa Muskat to producer-financier Big Beach to This Is That’s Ted Hope and Anne Carey, who are backing his latest project, “Goodbye Solo.” Currently in post, the film chronicles the relationship between a Senegalese taxi driver and a 70-year-old man; it was shot in Bahrani’s hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C.

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Lee Isaac Chung
Hailing from Arkansas, Lee Isaac Chung first studied biology at Yale before switching focus and following his filmmaking passions at the U. of Utah. He received festival exposure and accolades for two shorts, “Sex and Coffee” (’04) and “Los Coyotes” (’05), but it’s his critically acclaimed feature debut “Munyurangabo,” set in Rwanda and made in the local language, that propelled Chung to a Cannes slot and a Grand Jury Prize win at AFI. “I want to continue making films because they let me deliberate and explore some personal questions in a way that I’d be unable to do conventionally,” says Chung, who is in pre-production on “Lucky Life,” a drama about four friends who support a dying pal in a North Carolina beach town. 

Ronnie Bronstein
Ronnie Bronstein, who spent the past five years as a projectionist in New York, graduated from New York U.’s film school. However, he says, “it took me a lot longer to find my voice.” Six years in the making, Bronstein’s low-budget, self-financed debut “Frownland” received prizes at SXSW and the Gotham Awards for its relentless portrait of an irritating man. “I tend to focus on dysfunction,” admits the Long Island-born director, who recently co-directed the 2008 SXSW entry “Yeast” with his wife, Mary. “I find those kinds of extreme personalities become a much better representation of the way we feel in life than straight realism.”