Here are seven audacious directors who pushed the limits this year.
Risks are the lifeblood of cinema. Without venturesome directors (and the producers and studios that back them), we wouldn't enjoy the diverse array of filmmaking techniques and creative visions that abound in theaters today. Through risk-taking, directors challenge the very way we experience movies, pushing technology and artistry to its limits to deliver a cinematic experience that surpasses our wildest imaginations.
Below, we've highlighted seven major risks directors took in cinema this year. Though the risks range in severity—one filmmaker risked her freedom and was forced to leave her home country behind—all of the risks were noteworthy, whether pertaining to casting decisions, narrative structure, or technical prowess.
Of course, the problem with risks is that they don't always pay off. Though some of these films fell short of their initial ambitions (see: Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk and, with regard to story, Hardcore Henry), all of them embody the inherent value of cinematic bravado.
1. Krisha — A micro-budget starring your family (and its secrets)
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Krisha opens as the titular character, a sexagenarian woman, looks directly at us. Is she indicting us for some unknown crime, or are we watching her perform a silent confession? Slowly, the camera pushes in as her eyes bore knowingly through the lens, her face storied yet expressionless. Next, a masterfully operated Steadicam shot follows an awkward, fumbling Krisha as she descends upon her estranged relatives’ mansion; it’s the first time she’s seen them in a decade. Tensions roil just under the surface. Krisha is a recovering alcoholic, and though she maintains (with indignance) that she’s sober, a barrage of chaotic but meticulously choreographed sequences depict Krisha’s harrowing unraveling. Over the next 24 hours, Krisha’s self-destructive behavior and return to drugs and alcohol cause the family to spiral into extreme dysfunction, like a slow-motion train wreck led by a histrionic conductor.
27-year-old director Trey Edward Shults mined the story from a deep well of family trauma. In 2011, his estranged cousin came to a family reunion, only to relapse and overdose just months later. Shults cut off an abusive relationship with his own father, also an alcoholic; Krisha is a composite of the two troubled relatives. He began making the film an effort to work through the pain. Casting his family in major roles—even his 90-year-old grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s and can barely recognize the family, steals a scene—Shults shot with a $7,000 out-of-pocket budget, a skeleton crew, and minimal equipment in his aunt’s home in Texas.
The film is so confident that it is hard to believe it was born of a disastrous first attempt.
By Schults’ estimations, the effort failed miserably. He recalls it as one of the “worst weeks of his life” and suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after they wrapped. But over the next two years, Shults wrested the most promising footage in a short film, which premiered at SXSW in 2015; its success gave him the courage to get back on the horse. The prolongated editing process had forced Shults to reckon with his script such that he gained an assiduous mastery over the narrative, its production requirements, and the aesthetic decisions he needed to make. He raised $14,000 on Kickstarter and pooled $16,000 of his own savings to shoot again in his aunt’s house over the course of nine days. His family reprised their roles.
Shults’ efforts culminated in the SXSW Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award-winning feature-length Krisha, a masterwork so confident that it is hard to believe it was born of a disastrous first attempt. Shults creates Krisha’s imploding world with gravitas evocative of John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman.
2. Hooligan Sparrow — Risking life and liberty to whistleblow child rape
Director: Nanfu Wang
In the Hainan province in China, six schoolgirls aged 11 to 14 were lured to a hotel by their principal and systematically raped. When the news broke, the principal claimed that he paid the girls for sex and that they should be prosecuted for child prostitution. Incredibly, the Chinese government turned a blind eye and dragooned the girls' parents into silence. The principal resumed his post. Nobody protested—except Ye Haiyan and Nanfu Wang.
Wang, a first-time filmmaker, picked up a camera to film Haiyan, a fearless activist already wanted by the Chinese government for her vocal protests regarding the mistreatment of sex workers. Together, Wang and Haiyan raise hell to bring attention to the situation across the country. As their protests go viral, they are forced to become fugitives and are surveilled, interrogated, intimidated, jailed, and beaten.
She keeps the camera on as she climbs the stairs in panic. We can hear her hyperventilating in fear.
Filmed surreptitiously (sometimes with a camera embedded in a pair of glasses), Hooligan Sparrow is a gripping thriller of extreme proportions. In one scene, Wang flees up a stairwell with the police hot on her trail. She keeps the camera on as she climbs the stairs in panic. We can hear her hyperventilating in fear. Below, at street level, fellow activists are being captured. Their screams resound in the hallway.
Throughout the course of filming, Wang and the activists expose a government which only masquerades as a democracy. Per a long-standing clandestine tradition, the instance in the Hainan province turns out to be only the latest of young girls proffered as sex toys for Chinese officials. Wang manages to smuggle her footage out of China; as a result of making Hooligan Sparrow, she may never be able to return to her home country.
3. collective: unconscious — An open-ended, interpretive omnibus
Directors: Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker, Lauren Wolkstein
Collective: unconscious began as an experiment in narrative form: five filmmakers each recorded a dream, then gave the description to one of the others to adapt into a short film. With no commercial ambitions for the resulting omnibus, the films are decidedly experimental. Each surrealist narrative is governed by a dreamlike logic that revels in the uncanny and the absurd; seemingly irrelevant details are given the utmost attention, and cause and effect snake into a nonsensical labyrinth.
Each surrealist narrative is governed by a dreamlike logic.
The shorts are idiosyncratic, each bearing the distinctive aesthetic of its director. The best—and most haunting—is at once a Lynchian dark comedy and a potent piece of social commentary: shot in the low-end '80s cable VHS format, Everybody Dies! is a montage of a macabre game show for kids starring the Grim Reaper, who leads African-American children to their demise with saccharine rhymes, games called Whack-a-Soul, and a giant smile on her face. (The dismal message: mortality is high among African-American children.)
Beyond its creative moxie, the filmmakers of collective: unconscious were also fearless when it came to publicity and distribution; when the film premiered at SXSW, they staged their own publicity stunt. Later, they released the entire film for free online.
4. American Honey — Casting a non-actor as lead
Director: Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold's films boast a gritty authenticity. For her latest, American Honey, about a wayward teenage girl seeking self-actualization, Arnold built the film's verisimilitude around a cast of non-actors she found selling magazines in the Midwest. But the real star of her film is Sasha Lane, a non-actor she discovered while combing the beaches of Florida during spring break. After bonding with Lane over lunch at a local Waffle House, Arnold convinced her to audition for her in the foyer of her hotel.
"I'm a floater," Lane remembered, "and I was just like, cool, man, let's do it."
Arnold allowed her non-actors to write their characters in real-time. Like the characters in the film, who drive across the Midwest selling magazines, American Honey was shot over the course of a road trip using a vérité approach.
"Andrea told us to be who we are and go with how we feel," Lane continued. "How we felt that day was what you would get [on set]. We were all a big part of creating this with her."
"I love chaos because it brings life."
This approach was inherently risky. Arnold had little control over the takes; during the edit, she lamented that she never had the same take twice. Even more, Arnold feared for the safety of her non-actors as they lived and performed a rowdy lifestyle with little direction.
"At the very end, when we wrapped, the very first thing I thought was, 'I'm so glad nobody died,'" Arnold said at Tribeca earlier this year. "I love danger and risk. I love chaos because it brings life. I don't like being in control of the set; I like going to shoot not knowing what's going to happen."
5. The Witch — A period horror shot with natural light
Following in the footsteps of Barry Lyndon and The Revenant, Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke eschewed traditional studio lighting techniques for The Witch in favor of almost entirely natural light. To create the mood for the 17th-century slow-burn horror about the fears of colonial New England, they embraced a low-light, gloomy atmosphere that emphasized shadows, falloff, and the looming darkness of the wilderness. They used merely candlelight to light the interiors with the camera always set to 800 ISO. For daytime exteriors, they bolstered natural light by shooting in overcast weather only. "We'd just put some nets and solids on the side to strengthen what the light was already doing," Blaschke told Indiewire.
Shooting anamorphic on an Alexa Plus with a 1.66 aspect ratio, Blaschke used light bulbs on flicker generators to create depth in some night exterior shots. Eggers described their approach to The Verge: "What are you going to do, put up a Kino Flo in that farmhouse, with these costumes? It's a joke. You have to use natural light and its complexities to honor what that world would be like."
6. Hardcore Henry — A POV action movie shot on Go-Pro
Director: Ilya Naishuller
In the nightmarish action movie Hardcore Henry, you are the main character. You wake up as a cybernetic super-soldier and are thrust into an insane, immersive experience, fighting for your life amidst a barrage of violent assaults. The film prioritizes style over substance; due to its video game conceit, it resonates most with the gaming and action-adventure community. But every filmmaker should be able to appreciate the technical ingenuity required to shoot this riotous new kind of cinematic experience.
The Adventure Mask rig positions two GoPro Hero 3 cameras on a helmet worn by the camera operator.
To shoot the film entirely POV, director Ilya Naishuller and his crew built and destroyed more than 30 prototypes of a custom-made rig, which they dubbed the Adventure Mask. In building it, they had to circumvent the pitfalls of the jerk action that typically results from strapping a camera on an operator's head. Co-producer and mask designer Sergey Valyaev told FXGuide that fixing the camera on the forehead "does not provide the desired immersion, and also shakes badly." Instead, Valyaev found that placing the camera on the operator's mouth provided a full-scale immersion; shooting from the right angle, it allowed the viewer to identify with the protagonist.
Printed on 3D plastic, the Adventure Mask rig positions two GoPro Hero 3 cameras on a helmet worn by the camera operator, who performs the on-set action. In the end, the complex production utilized three DPs and 11 stuntmen.
7. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk — Quadrupling the typical frame rate
Director: Ang Lee
To shoot Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee quadrupled the standard frame rate, shooting at 120 frames per second in 3D and 4K resolution. This method presented manifold challenges. Because the high frame rate is produced by a shorter shutter speed, the camera requires five times as much light as a shot in 24 fps.
"120 fps is not documentary," Lee said at the New York Film Festival this year. "The actors still have to perform. They have to work harder to earn your belief." Lee and the actors were forced to renegotiate their relationship to audience believability. As Lee stated, "It's more about experiencing rather than telling a story."
The crew also faced massive challenges in post-production workflow. To deal with 540 terabytes of data, they had to essentially reinvent the wheel, setting up shop in Lee's office because no post-production facility would take on the project.
Audiences found the first-ever film shot in 120 fps jarring and hyperreal. The experience of unflinching reality pervaded its battle scenes, while the quieter scenes of home life were characterized by a profound mundanity. To many viewers, the increase in visual information appeared "harsher" onscreen.
Lee is cognizant of the adverse reactions to his experimentation with frame rate. "The horrifying thing for filmmakers," he said at NYFF, "is that maybe you're not good enough for the medium. Maybe it's better than you are."