How many new filmmakers attempt to break through every year? A hundred? A thousand? For 25 years — ever since a pair of up-and-comers named Wes Anderson and Alfonso Cuarón made the cut back in 1997 — Variety has been curating an annual list of just 10 helmers who stand out from the crowd, breakthrough storytellers we expect to go far. Past honorees have won studio gigs (Denis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan), Oscars (Barry Jenkins, Steve McQueen) and even the Palme d’Or (Ruben Östlund, and most recently, “Titane” director Julia Ducournau).
Of the emerging talents selected for this year’s list, five will world premiere their first/latest features at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. Another, French director Audrey Diwan, will screen her Venice-winning abortion drama, “Happening,” at the festival — which, due to the spike of Omicron variant of COVID-19, will be happening virtually. Had the pandemic not flared up anew, these 10 directors would have been honored in person at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Variety’s longtime partner in the year’s most exciting new voices.
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”
When Alberto read Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s YA novel “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” she knew that the story of two awkward teenage boys who fall in love in 1980s El Paso, Texas, had all the makings of a great movie.
“It spoke to me on a visceral level,” Alberto says. “It’s a brown story about brown people that was nuanced and presented us as fully realized human beings. There’s such a void of our stories. We tend to be stereotyped and put in boxes. It became my life’s mission to get the movie made.”
So Alberto sprang into action, writing an adaptation on spec and flying out to Texas to persuade the author to give her the rights. After dazzling Sáenz with her pitch, the filmmaker focused on trying to enlist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who’d read the audiobook) as a producer. When the usual route of approaching agents and managers went nowhere, Alberto tweeted at Miranda with an offer.
“Twenty minutes later he responded, and the rest is history,” says Alberto. “I really had no business doing any of the things I did, but I was not going to wait for permission from anyone in Hollywood to tell me what I can do.”
At a time when the movie business is haltingly offering more opportunities for filmmakers from underrepresented communities, “Aristotle and Dante” feels like a fresh way into a familiar story of young love.
“Everyone that’s in front of the camera is BIPOC, including the extras,” says Alberto. “It was a very minority-heavy cast and crew, which was particularly important. I want people to watch this movie and not only connect emotionally to the main characters but to see themselves reflected in all the colors of the world. As a trans director of Latino descent, there are few of us out there, and a big part of my holdback on my journey was not seeing myself represented behind the camera. I want to change that.”
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” wrapped this fall and had an offer for a prominent slot at Sundance, but Alberto opted to wait to debut the film in festivals that take place later in 2021 so she could continue fine-tuning the movie.
“It was a difficult decision to make,” Alberto admits. “But I want to get it right, and I’m more concerned with making a great film than I am with where we premiere.”
— Brent Lang
Representation: Agency: Verve; Management: Redefine Entertainment; Legal: Mark Temple
When Diallo was 15, she stopped at her local Blockbuster, which was going out of business, and bought “Annie Hall,” “Y tu mamá también” and “Morvern Callar” — an eclectic selection for the curious teen.
“I just kinda selected at random,” Diallo recalls. “I thought, like, ‘Oh yeah, this has the look of something very intellectual and serious about it.’”
But the self-identified theater kid really was determined to become a filmmaker after watching her purchases. The Yale graduate’s first two shorts, “White Devil” and “Hair Wolf,” won major festival awards, and the filmmaker now bows her feature debut, horror movie “Master,” at Sundance. “Master,” which stars Regina Hall, imagines a witch terrorizing a Black student and dean at an Ivy League-style school.
“There’s a very direct moment of inspiration for ‘Master,’” she says. “Ultimately, it’s a cumulative effect of so many years of my life, but it really grows out of the time that I was an undergrad at Yale,” where each residential college had a “master” (although they are no longer called that).
The idea for the film crystallized after Diallo ran into her old Yale college master. “As I was walking away, I just thought to myself, ‘This is crazy. This many years having a “master,” and I haven’t interrogated it and what does it mean?’” she says with a laugh. “I knew almost immediately that I wanted to follow the story of a Black woman placed in that role and all of the nuances of being given that kind of title and how she responds from there.”
Using horror to tell the story was always part of the plan. “I love horror,” she says. “This is the way that the story came to me and the way that it wanted to be told. I’m less interested in horror as a kind of didactic tool to conceal a social message.”
As for star Hall, Diallo says, “I think that one of the many things that initially really drew me to Regina was how she’s able to really balance a lot of different tones.”
An admirer of Michael Haneke, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Shining,” Diallo says, “Ultimately my goal and ambition as a filmmaker is to tell personal stories to push myself, to challenge myself and to challenge the medium.”
— Carole Horst
Representation: Agency: United Talent Agency; Legal: Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano
The surprise winner of last year’s Venice Film Festival, French abortion drama “Happening” beat out such high-profile competition as “Parallel Mothers” and “The Power of the Dog,” making Diwan the sixth woman to win the Golden Lion. According to the highly articulate 41-year-old French Lebanese novelist turned writer-director, telling this tense and poignant story — adapted from Annie Emaux’s semi-autobiographical novel — delivered an existential breakthrough in her career, allowing her to identify a common thread in all her work.
“I’ve been told my films play out like thrillers, and the root of this is the context in which I was born and grew up,” she explains. “My parents were living in Beirut in 1979. It was the war, bullets were being fired through our walls while my mother was pregnant with me … so they fled to Paris, and I grew up in this climate where the family cell, the war and fear were omnipresent.”
Through this 1960s tale of a bright student who refuses to let her unwanted pregnancy crush her dreams at a time when abortion was considered a crime, Diwan (who studied political science and began her career as a journalist) found it possible to address “the repressive forces of society on our own body, and how the female desire and sexuality can be a source of shame,” she says. “In ‘Happening,’ there is a sense of urgency and grounding in reality, an intersection of intimate and social themes.”
Before making her directorial debut two years earlier with “Losing It,” a searing drama exploring a family shattered by addiction, Diwan wrote alongside Cédric Jimenez, the father of her two children. Their collaborations include the historical thrillers “The Connection” and “The Man With the Iron Heart,” and most recently, “The Stronghold,” which played at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
Diwan is now developing her third film, as well as a TV series debut, both of which will once again explore political and intimate issues. She’s also co-writing a film with Valerie Donzelli (“Declaration of War”) and reading scripts that CAA is sending her way with an “open mind.”
— Elsa Keslassy
Representation: Agencies: CAA, Agence Adequat
“The Lost Daughter”
Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” captures the essence of motherhood in its messy, complicated glory. A mother herself, the actor-turned-director says the chance to capture the so often unspoken dimensions of that experience drew her to the novella by Italian author Elena Ferrante that she adapted herself.
“Along with all of Ferrante’s work, the book is shockingly honest about things that we’ve all agreed as a culture not to talk about, and she breaks the agreements,” Gyllenhaal says. “When I read this book, I felt both terrified by these truths being expressed, and exhilarated and also comforted. There’s something inherently dramatic about the truth, and particularly about telling the truth about something that’s taboo.”
In the film, a scholar with a promising academic career and a passionate love affair struggles with the guilt of prioritizing those things above her two children. Gyllenhaal can relate, to the extent that making the movie meant balancing the personal and professional sides of her own life.
“I’ve got two kids. They’re pretty young,” she explains. “I don’t have the luxury of just going, ‘Oh, I write the best on a mountain top in Switzerland.’ It’s more like, I’m always kind of working in my mind in some way. And I’ve tried to find quiet places where I can have a few hours in a row to get it down. So it was for me when I wrote ‘The Lost Daughter.’ It was mostly on airplanes, because I was doing press for ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ and I just had, like, five uninterrupted hours.”
Prior to “The Lost Daughter,” Gyllenhaal had helmed only one project, a short film for the 2020 anthology series “Homemade.” But with extensive experience as an actor — including an Oscar nomination for “Crazy Heart” — she gleaned lessons learned from the directors with whom she’d worked in front of the camera.
“I’ve worked with directors who were brutal, and I’ve also worked with directors who were actually interested in me and loving. And what I learned is that a big part of being a director is loving [the actors], really loving them. And seeing them. Completely.”
— Malina Saval
Representation: Agency: WME; Management: MGMT Ent.; Legal: Felker Toczek Suddleson Abramson
“Prayers for the Stolen”
For her first narrative feature, the Oscar-shortlisted “Prayers for the Stolen,” vetted documentarian Huezo explores the crushing toll of Mexico’s narco wars told through the perspective of three rural girls. The coming-of-age drama, adapted from Jennifer Clement’s 2014 novel of the same name, offers a balance of harsh reality with childhood innocence through Huezo’s direction.
“This story presented me with the opportunity to explore the world through the eyes of a young girl getting to know her world, beginning to understand what it means to be a woman in a violent context,” Huezo explains. “I also got to explore something that was important in my life. I’m a mother to a young girl, and she’s starting to explore her world. A lot of that has influenced the games and conversations and dialogue within the script.”
In the film, childhood play is mixed with scenes of the girls forced to get boyish haircuts and rushed to hiding places to avoid being taken away by traffickers.
Huezo, who has captured post-war trauma in El Salvador (“The Tiniest Place”) and human trafficking in Mexico (“Tempestad”), says what was most important in this film was to “immerse ourselves in the lives of our characters.” So she picked six first-time performers to play the trio of friends at different ages because she needed actors who shared “essential characteristics” with their fictional personas.
“I wanted them to have a connection to this world. I wanted them to come from a peasant background. I wanted them to know that rural setting,” Huezo says. “For me, the casting was an interview to get to know these girls — to get to know their fears, what drove them, what brought them joy.”
Unable to sit still amid filming, Huezo arranged for a portable monitor so she could move about the set with the actors. “I needed to see things in their place, to be very close to the actors and the photographer.”
Whereas her earlier films were mostly confined to the festival circuit, “Prayers for the Stolen” debuted in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and was subsequently acquired by Netflix, leading Huezo to hope that those who watch “have a window into another reality and empathize with what is happening in many places around Mexico.” She wants audiences to “walk in the shoes of these girls and take a peek into their world and have an emotional journey with them.”
— Sharareh Drury
“You Won’t Be Alone”
Sundance changed everything for Stolevski, a Macedonia-born, Melbourne-based filmmaker who’d been stuck making low-budget short films for local festivals — no fewer than 25 of them over the past 17 years — while suffering repeated rejection from the Australian film industry.
Then in 2018, he was invited him to screen “Would You Look at Her” at Sundance, where the queer feminist drama won the international shorts competition. While it wasn’t as if Stolevski were suddenly flooded with offers, the 19-minute project caught the attention of producer Kristina Ceyton at Causeway Films (“The Babadook”).
Stolevski sent her eight of his scripts and was both surprised and delighted that Ceyton responded to the least conventional one, “You Won’t Be Alone,” a supernatural folk-horror story wherein a feral young woman discovers the world through fresh eyes by shape-shifting through a sequence of characters. The film will premiere at Sundance.
“None of this is strategic or planned,” says Stolevski, who concocted “You Won’t Be Alone” as a creative exercise (and coping mechanism), skeptical that it would ever get made. After all, how does one even pitch such a project? “I wrote this Macedonian-language tone poem about a witch, but it’s not really a horror movie, it’s about her feelings,” he summarizes with a laugh.
Stolevski’s interests and influences are wide-ranging. “I grew up on French films and American novels and Thai food,” says the director, who has made shorts in 10 languages. “If there’s two things I specialize in — and this started as a joke, but it really is a good description — it’s difficult women and gay sex.”
Stolevski gravitates to relationship dramas and is making an English-language, Australia-set one next (also with Causeway).] In a way, it’s a blessing that Stolevski didn’t experience overnight success, as the long road has made him a more efficient filmmaker.
“I’m shooting my second feature now and we’re running three days ahead of schedule,” he says. “I think the reason I was able to do that was my background in no-budget DIY filmmaking.”
Now that he has a crew supporting him, Stolevski can work fast — to the extent it wasn’t unusual to finish an hour early, giving the team time to improvise extra scenes.
— Peter Debruge
Representation: Agency: UTA
Jusu was inspired to write “Nanny” — her feature debut, which will premiere in competition at the Sundance Film Festival — when she was at New York University, studying film as a graduate student. “I saw a lot of Black and brown women literally pushing white children around Tisch,” she says.
That imagery was “a physical manifestation of things I’ve been thinking about,” she says — and had been part of her mother’s experience as a caregiver during Jusu’s childhood in Atlanta.
Over the years, when she stopped and started writing “Nanny,” Jusu wondered whether the story might be “too singular and too specific.” But her producing partner, Nikkia Moulterie, pushed her to finish, and after Jusu had directed a number of shorts, “This is the first feature that gained traction,” she says.
Three Sundance Labs — directing and writing for Jusu, and producing for Moulterie — were integral in making “Nanny” a reality, by putting them in situations in which they were “rubbing elbows with people who were serious about putting money on the table.”
“Nanny,” a domestic drama with a horror twist, revolves around Aisha (Anna Diop), an undocumented woman from Senegal, who begins caring for the young daughter of an unhappy, privileged couple who tend to make their problems into Aisha’s problems. It’s never actually said in the film that Aisha is undocumented, but her precarious state infuses her (lack of) choices.
“It puts you in a space where you’re at the mercy of the people who pay you,” says Jusu, whose parents are from Sierra Leone.
“There’s this liminal space for immigrants,” she says of Aisha. “On one hand, you’re creating a new opportunity — but on the other hand, you’re navigating a new hell, and you’re navigating this broken-heartedness that sticks with you till the day you die.”
The 28-day shoot for “Nanny” concluded in mid-August in New York City. And then the race to finish before the Sundance deadline.
“I actually am still breathless,” Jusu says with a laugh. “And thankfully, we found editors and post-production folks who are just busting their ass with us.”
— Kate Aurthur
Representation: Agency: CAA; Management: M88
“When I was acting, I felt there was a lack of authentic content that was truthful to what I was going through,” says “The Fallout” director Park, who wants to fill that gap now that she’s committed to working behind the camera.
Audiences — especially millennials — may recognize Park from her role as chastity-minded ex-cheerleader Grace Bowman on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” though she’s been working since 2003.
“My first real job was a Lifetime movie with Marcia Gay Harden that my parents let me do when I was 14,” says Park, who came from a small Canadian town, and who now calls Toronto home. “I feel like I grew up on a film set, so I feel really comfortable in that world.”
Comfortable, but not fulfilled. With acting, Park says, “Something didn’t click for me in the way it did for my peers, in terms of expression. When my show ended, I was yearning to find something that made the most sense to me, and I happened into writing by accident.”
Park did a pass on a studio script and made a short film, “Calvert Collins Is High,” as a kind of experiment — just two actors, nothing fancy, self-funded and shot in one day. She had already been flexing her skillset making music videos for production company Prettybird, which led to collaborations with the likes of Elohim (“Skinny Legs”) and Billie Eilish (“Watch”).
Those experiences gave her the confidence to tackle “The Fallout,” her SXSW-winning debut feature, about two high school students from separate peer groups bonded by extreme circumstances.
“I spent so many years of my life working so hard to build an acting career that doesn’t bring me joy,” says Park, but storytelling is her true passion. “I’m so happy I found it now, not 10 or 20 years from now.”
These days, Park is far more selective about the roles she’ll consider. “I’m not going to say that door is shut forever,” she says of acting, though she’s clear about one thing: “Directing myself sounds like my personal hell. I have no desire to do that whatsoever. I just don’t want to look at my face in the edit for weeks and weeks.”
Park is now prepping follow-up “My Old Ass,” another ruthlessly authentic young adult movie told in her distinctive voice. “It’s my take on the coming of age story,” she says.
— Peter Debruge
Representation: Agency: ICM Partners, Play Management; Management: The Burstein Co.; Legal: Cohen Gardner
“Cha Cha Real Smooth”
In early 2020, COVID-19 nixed the SXSW world premiere of Raiff’s directorial debut, “Shithouse,” a frank portrait of a lonely college student (played by Raiff), which he made for just $15,000. Luckily, the Texas festival found a way to hold its narrative competition anyway, which allowed Raiff’s film to claim the grand jury prize and enough attention to get a second movie off the ground.
But the pandemic just won’t cut Raiff a break. Two years later, his sophomore feature, “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” selected for competition in the Sundance Film Festival, will also debut online, after the Omicron variant forced the cancellation of the in-person Park City event. Produced by Erik Feig, the movie is a big step for Raiff, who wrote, directed and also stars, playing a character with a thing for older women, who falls for a young mother (Dakota Johnson).
“After ‘Shithouse,’ I didn’t think I would ever act again, but I found myself in a place of people responding to the very specific nature of doing all of it,” says Raiff, who brings vulnerability and wit to his performances. “You know what you’re getting is going to be very personal.”
Raiff portrays a bar mitzvah hype man, a combination DJ/party-starter who would much prefer getting Jewish seventh-graders excited about adulthood rather than chart his own.
“He doesn’t know where to begin when it comes to his own life or what he wants,” Raiff says. “I went to a bar mitzvah every weekend as a kid, and there’s a song they would play at every one: ‘The Show Goes On’ by Lupe Fiasco. That’s a big theme in the movie.”
Another theme drawn from personal experience, Johnson’s character arranges her life around caring for a daughter with autism (for which Raiff cast neurodiverse actor Vanessa Burghardt). “This movie is a love letter to parents of disabled kids, and is very much born from my personal life and what I’ve seen from my awesome mom and my little sister,” he says.
Raiff is most excited to continue “exploring characters that I love really hard.”
— Matt Donnelly
Representation: Agency: ICM Partners; Management: Fusion Entertainment
Krystin Ver Linden
Growing up a racial minority in mostly white Napa Valley, Ver Linden would often “escape” to the world of cinema, filling up notebooks with ideas for screenplays that she planned to write and direct. By the time she hit 11th grade, the budding filmmaker already knew that college was not her path forward.
“At that point, I was spending my summers in L.A. anyway,” Ver Linden recalls. “My uncle, the heavyweight boxer Ken Norton, lived there. So, I figured I’d move in with Uncle Kenny and then I’ll figure it out. My parents gave me a year. If nothing happened in a year, I’d have to do it their way.”
She soon landed a gig working for Quentin Tarantino. “He was my mentor,” says Ver Linden, who credits the experience, which lasted for seven years, as her de facto film school.
This training served Ver Linden well. “Alice,” her debut directorial (and feature screenwriting) effort, was shot during the pandemic on location in Georgia, and will bow in competition at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. Based on the true story of a Black woman raised on a plantation in the South, decades after the Civil War put an end to slavery, the blaxploitation-style empowerment drama stars Keke Palmer in the title role, opposite Jonny Lee Miller and Common.
“We shot the film during the run-up to the presidential elections,” says Ver Linden, whose 2018 Black List script “Ride” sold to Lionsgate with Joey Soloway set to direct. Ver Linden also penned the script “Ashe,” about tennis great Arthur Ashe, currently in development.
“We would get up at 5 a.m. and drive about an hour to the plantation where we were shooting,” Ver Linden describes. “Along the way, you would see protests on both sides — [Democrat Joe] Biden supporters on one side of the street, [Republican Donald] Trump supporters on the other side. There was just so much going on, and it really drove home the importance of why I wanted to make ‘Alice’ in the first place. I’m really, really proud of it. And I hope people come away inspired.”
— Malina Saval
Representation: Agency: Verve