At the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, RogerEbert.com called the premiere of Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds “the most stunning debut of this year’s festival, an announcement of a major new talent.” While this dark comedy about bad behavior in a very good neighborhood may be the playwright's first foray into cinema, the final product is remarkably accomplished. When the socially smart Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) reconnects with her old school pal Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a sinister plot begins to hatch, one that gets terribly real when they hire a local tough (played by Anton Yelchin) to carry out their nefarious plan. For The Hollywood Reporter, Finley's “tart and taut dialogue with a natural cinematic flair" combine for an impressive first film.
To salute the release of Thoroughbreds—and the beginning of Finley’s cinematic career—we look back at other directors whose debut features Focus championed. Whether they went on to break box-office records or be nominated for Oscars, these extraordinary filmmakers exemplify our commitment to supporting new talent.
Raw | Julia Ducournau
Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s debut feature Raw turns the horror genre inside out. Ducournau’s tale of a first-year veterinary student (Garance Marillier) developing a taste for human flesh is indeed shocking. Even more stunning, however, is the way she gets us to empathize with her heroine, fostering, as The Los Angeles Times notes, “the kind of disquieting intimacy with her characters that leaves us continually uncertain of whether we should fear them or fear for them.” A critical and audience hit, the film has been nominated for six César awards, including Best Director, Best Original screenplay, and Best First Feature Film. This exciting new voice has left many hungry for more. For San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub, “Ducournau’s next cinematic smorgasbord can’t come soon enough.”
Pariah | Dee Rees
Up for an Academy Award this year for Mudbound, and previously nominated for an Emmy for Bessie, Dee Rees is rightly celebrated as one of our most gifted filmmakers. In 2011, the then-unknown director showed that she had something special when Pariah premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Her electrifying take on growing up black and lesbian in Brooklyn opened the world’s eyes to both her talent and the community she explored. “This invigoratingly fresh, optimistic film…plunges the audience into a world that's both tough and tender, vivid and grim, drenched in poetry and music and pain and discovery,” proclaimed The Washington Post.
Sin Nombre | Cary Fukunaga
When Cary Fukunaga’s debut feature screened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Variety recognized “a big new talent arrives on the scene with Sin Nombre.” Capturing the story of two young people—one fleeing his gang life, the other looking for a better life in the United States—meeting on a train in Mexico bound for the border, Sin Nombre retells a familiar story in a dazzling new way. “That this is Fukunaga's first film is astonishing, given its sharp script, technical proficiency and suspenseful pacing,” wrote USA Today. The talent people recognized in Sin Nombre has been continually confirmed as Fukunaga brought his unique talent to such acclaimed projects as his 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre and his HBO series True Detective.
Brick | Rian Johnson
The immense imagination with which Rian Johnson explores a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars: The Last Jedi can be seen, albeit in a smaller venue, with his debut Brick. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a teen sleuth out to uncover what happened to his ex-girlfriend, Brick turns a local California high school into a hard-boiled detective novel. The world of Brick, a contemporary California town that feels ripped out of the pages of a Dashiell Hammett mystery, is a universe unto itself. Johnson even created his own underworld slang for his young characters. For Rolling Stone, the “passion and craft he pours into Brick” singled out Johnson as a director with “a potent future in film.” And what a future it has become.
In Bruges | Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh, whose recent film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri received seven Academy Award nominations, began his feature film career with In Bruges in 2008. As one of Ireland’s most talented playwrights, McDonagh had shown himself a master in creating verbal sparring that bounces back and forth between violence and comedy. This hilariously dark tale of two hitmen—Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson)—hiding out in the medieval Belgian city as they wait for instructions certainly reaffirms his talent for dialogue. But its masterful mix of film genre and grammar introduce McDonagh's unexpectedly fresh cinematic style. For The San Francisco Chronicle, “ there's no mistaking that it's the product of a great talent.”