Best of 2014: Top Five Sophomore Features of 2014

Does second album syndrome apply to moviemaking, too? Absolutely. It’s one thing to cobble together favors and enthusiasm for your first feature, but it takes a moviemaker with unusual perseverance, energy, and commitment to follow up a splashy start with a strong second film.

For that reason, we’ve always had a soft spot for sophomore directing efforts at MovieMaker. In fact, it’s a long-standing tradition of ours to recognize second-time directors: For years, we gave out The MovieMaker Breakthrough Award, a.k.a. “Best Second Feature,” at film festivals. (Winners took home a package of goods and services worth up to $50,000!) And while we’ve temporarily retired that award, we still want to applaud five tenacious moviemakers who overcame the sophomore slump… by ranking them in this Top Five list.

1. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

“I’d made one feature while I was a student, a low-key jazz musical called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and it didn’t really have anything to do with the tone of Whiplash. It was scruffy, shot on black-and-white 16mm, mostly improvised, quiet and muted. Not the calling card I needed, especially since I wanted Whiplash to play like a high-octane thriller… Guy and Madeline was about the joy of making music. Whiplash needed to be about the terror and the pain.” So wrote Damien Chazelle in an article in MovieMaker’s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015.

The way Chazelle tells it, his experience making the exuberant, arthouse-y Guy and Madeline might have actually hurt his attempts to get Whiplash made, as the lightness and looseness of the former refused to morph into the dark, tight latter in producers’ minds. (Luckily he had the wherewithal to shoot a short, “Whiplash,”  the success of which eventually helped him move forward with the full-length version.) As it is, the two features in the director’s oeuvre now form a perfect double bill, a two-sided thesis on jazz. Will he find a third side of his favorite subject to plumb in a future film? All we know is, the brilliant insta-classic Whiplash makes Chazelle a “MovieMaker Breakthrough” Hall of Famer.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench trailer:

2. Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh)

“Stick with what works” is one valid strategy to go about nailing that second film. Especially if what works is Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson starred alongside Don Cheadle in John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (2011), about a racist, boorish sergeant investigating a murder in Connemara. A spitfire dark comedy, The Guard became the highest-earning Irish film of all time in domestic box offices. In Calvary, on the other hand, Gleeson trades crass buffoonery for a sober, warm-hearted grace, playing a small-town priest who has one week to put his affairs (and those of his flock) in order before death at the hands of an angry abuse victim.

Expanding into an even wider ensemble cast (featuring Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Domhnall Gleeson, Isaach de Bankolé, and Dylan Moran), McDonagh’s comedy gains a sharper, more tragic pitch in Calvary. He just about pulls off the film’s delicate tonal register and ambitious themes. The 47-year-old director, whose prior claim to fame was writing the screenplay for 2003’s Ned Kelly,  is currently working on his third feature, also starring Gleeson; titled The Lame Will Enter First, it’s set to be the final installment in the trilogy of their collaborations.

The Guard trailer:

3. Blue Ruin (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

Damien Chazelle wasn’t the only moviemaker on this list concerned about the shadow cast by their first feature. Jeremy Saulnier, though, wasn’t so much worried about style and tone; his fears were financial in nature. As he writes in this How They Did It article: “A corporate video director with a few DP credits whose last feature was a 2007 standard-def horror-comedy that’s still in the red? Wants his best friend—a video librarian and part-time actor that also writes comic books—to play the lead? For a million dollars? Nope, we wouldn’t hire ourselves either.”

His solution? Subterfuge, in the form of careful IMDb curation. “Since it was established that Macon [Blair] and I were liabilities, Murder Party—our first feature, a low-rent horror comedy and our only calling card—would be strategically disowned. I was re-branded as the cinematographer of Putty Hill and Septien (two acclaimed indies that premiered at prestigious festivals), Macon was re-branded as a ‘promising unknown’ poised for breakout success.”

Unlike the hijinks-filled Murder Party (2007), Blue Ruin‘s effectiveness lies in its sparse, spooky storytelling economy. Blair puts in a powerhouse non-verbal performance, showcased to maximum impact by Saulnier’s deft cinematography, in a film that is exactly what it wants to be; no more, no less.

Murder Party trailer:

4. The Rover (dir. David Michôd)

How to follow up from 2010’s superb crime thriller Animal Kingdom, which netted, amongst numerous other accolades, an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver? David Michôd threw viewers into a wholly different world in his second feature, The Rover: instead of gritty contemporary Melbourne suburbs, we got a vast, empty, post-apocalyptic outback in which humanity’s remnants struggle to survive sans rules. Sure, dystopian desert dramas are nothing new to Aussie filmmakers (see Mad Max, and the upcoming Strangerland from director Kim Farrant). But Michôd brings to The Rover both his impressive stylistic flair and his gift for eliciting unexpected brilliance from actors, with Robert Pattinson delivering a revelatory performance opposite Guy Pearce’s stoic titular character.

Animal Kingdom trailer:

5. Godzilla (dir. Gareth Edwards)

On paper it made sense: Give the guy who made the startlingly accomplished 2010 alien-thriller Monsters (on a mind-boggling budget of $15,000) the reins of a cult studio franchise looking for a major rebooting. Still, the pressure on VFX wizard-come-director Gareth Edwards was intense, to say the least, when he was tapped to direct last summer’s Godzilla remake. Happily for everyone, Edwards handled the transition with aplomb, imbuing the blockbuster with the same strange visual beauty that characterized his earlier work. (It’s hard to forget the gorgeously eerie alien mating dance of Monsters‘ climax.) Has anyone ever made so big a jump from their first feature to their second? MM

Monsters trailer:

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