Tag Archives: Justin Simien

Best First Features of 2014 Countdown

One of the most interesting themes you find when searching back over the best films of 2014 is the brilliance of films with one word titles (Birdman, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Boyhood, Rosewater – it’s a long list!). Another is the remarkable quality of feature directorial debuts. Many of the year’s most powerful, intriguing films came from first time filmmakers, though several of these are industry veterans. Here is a look at the most impressive feature directorial debuts of 2014.


Dan Gilroy’s been writing films – many of them mediocre at best – since 1992’s Freejack. It appears he saved his best script for his debut as a director. Nightcrawler is aided immeasurably by the best performance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career, but Gilroy’s dark, creepy approach to unseemly but enormously relevant material proves his mettle behind the camera.


An industry veteran with a connection to the source material, Jon Stewart made his directorial debut this year with the tale of a journalist jailed in Iran partly because of an interview he did with The Daily Show. The story behind Rosewater is fascinating, and Stewart’s direction proves thoughtful, insightful and inventive.

The Babadook

Aussie Jennifer Kent’s spooky tale opens this week, offering perhaps the creepiest effort of the year. A cautionary tale about parenting, the movie introduces a filmmaker who grounds fantasy in an unnerving level of naturalism, who can draw deeply human performances, and who knows what scares you.

Dear White People

Justin Simien makes the leap from shorts to features with one of the smartest films of the year. Dear White People tackles racial issues with confidence and a mix of sarcasm, outrage, hilarity and disgust. Simien never abandons comedy for preaching, but there is not an issue he isn’t willing to spotlight, however uncomfortable. It’s an insightful, biting comedy too few people saw this year.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature is also the first Iranian vampire film, so extra points there. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a gorgeous, peculiar reimagining of the familiar. Amirpour mixes imagery and themes from a wide range of filmmakers as she updates and twists the common vampire tropes with unique cultural flair. The result is a visually stunning, utterly mesmerizing whole.

Obvious Child

Gillian Robespierre crafts an uncommonly realistic, uncomfortable, taboo-shattering comedy with Obvious Child. A romantic comedy quite unlike any other, it succeeds in large part due to a miraculous lead turn from Jenny Slate. Robespierre’s refreshingly frank film rings with authenticity, and is as touching as it is raw.

Bad Words

We’re willing to give anything a shot if Jason Bateman is involved. Sure, it doesn’t always pay off, but his directorial debut Bad Words is as wry, dry and funny as you’d expect. No one has comic timing like Bateman, and it leads to a quickly paced, lean and hilariously mean effort.

Weed Dealers Don’t Count


Dear White People

by George Wolf

In case you’re not up on current events, we elected a black President (twice!), so that means racism in American is over.

That ridiculous notion lies at the heart of Dear White People, a 20 megaton smartbomb dropped by writer/director/producer Justin Simien. In a supremely confident feature debut, he takes on tough issues with a rapid fire mix of sarcasm, satire, outage, hilarity and disgust.

Taking his cue from the insanely racist parties thrown on several actual campuses the last few years, Simien presents Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League school, during a time of social unrest.

Mixed-race student Sam (a terrific Tessa Thompson) dishes “dear white people” advice on her college radio show (“you now need two black friends to not appear racist, and your weed dealer doesn’t count”) and enters student politics with a pledge to bring more black culture to the school.

Meanwhile, the gay, introverted Lionel (Tyler James Williams from Everybody Hates Chris – also stellar) takes note of the waves Sam is generating, using the situation as his ticket to writing for the school’s major newspaper.

There’s much, much more going on at Winchester, culminating with this year’s theme for the annual Halloween bash:   “liberate your inner Negro!”

At times, the criss-crossing storylines take some overly convenient turns, the directing is light on style, and yes, the students are in class about as often as General Hospital doctors treat patients, but the film is always rescued by Simian’s whip-smart script.

He dissects countless black/white stereotypes, always staying one step ahead of the standard rebuttal. Even better, he sometimes throws purpose pitches, such as intentional contradictions that provoke the inevitably weak counterpoints he’s ready for, or a self-aware mention of being self-congratulatory.

It’s a glorious brand of honest, in-the-moment writing that is so elusive, you’re taken aback at how giddy you are at hearing it.

Dear White People is an entertaining, stimulating film that we need, badly.

Dear everyone:  go see it.