Essays · Movies

25 Directors Looking to Avoid the Sophomore Slump in 2019

Two is the magic number.
By  · Published on January 13th, 2019

Sophomore films from great one-time directors have the potential to make or break careers. They are treated much like a sequel to a great film is treated, but the subject is the director instead of the story. James Cameron’s proven ability to add second chapters to groundbreaking original films (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens) said a lot about Cameron’s abilities, but we weren’t worried about Cameron’s ability to direct a film. We were worried about each story’s potential to be continued. Likewise, The Empire Strikes Back showed that A New Hope was not a one-off. It was a treasure chest of stories to be told. The fact that Richard Linklater’s brilliant Before Sunrise was followed by two sequels that were no less–if not more–wonderful than the first is proof that Linklater is one of the greats, but we already knew that by the time a sequel was on its way in 2004. What we really learned in that scenario was that the story of Jesse and Celine is a bottomless well of narrative potential.

It’s one thing to make a great film, but it’s another to repeat brilliance. For sophomore features, it doesn’t matter what the content of the film is. It can come a few years down the road and be a repeat of a similar aesthetic, much like it seems Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse will be in comparison to his original, The Witch. Or it could come twenty years down the road and be something entirely different, like Edward Norton’s investigative Motherless Brooklyn in comparison to his original 2000 romcom, Keeping the Faith. We just want to know if they have what it takes to tell more than one story through a singular directorial vision. We want to know if they got lucky with their first project, or if that kind of talent rushes through their veins on a daily basis. They want to keep their job afloat, and hopefully, prove that they have something fresh and unparalleled to offer.

As an example of the pressure that hangs over the heads terrific one-time directors and their sophomore features, please consider this list of sophomore features from what ended up being great directors: Adaptation., Lost in Translation, Raising Arizona, Upstream Color, The TerminatorAlienDays of Heaven, The Graduate, Cleo From 5 to 7, Morvern Callar, Requiem for a DreamStranger Than Paradise, and Boogie Nights. They just have to make a film that could arguably be one of the best of all time. That’s all.

Everyone featured below directed (and often wrote) tremendous first features and now show promise of entering into an elite class of filmmakers with their next project (note: the only real exception here is Norton, whose first feature was just okay). Of course, they would need to go beyond their second feature and have an amazing career to be considered a “great,” but, as evidenced, sophomore features go a long way in determining whether that might be true. And it will directly determine whether studios and production companies want to work with them and fund their features in the future. Director and spectator alike, we all want more amazing films. And these 25 directors of 24 films (including two duos and one with two films!) have serious potential to keep giving them to us. They are in no particular order.

Us | dir. Jordan Peele

Little needs to be said on behalf of Peele’s next picture. If you didn’t see—or at least hear all about—Get Out, you probably weren’t on Earth in 2017. In that case, welcome back. Remember Key & Peele? It turns out The Peele is a phenomenal writer and director of horror. And I don’t think it was a one-off kind of thing. Any more hype for this one and the early-rising zeitgeist of 2019 might short circuit and explode.  (Luke Hicks)

Midsommar | dir. Ari Aster

It feels like just last year that Aster freaked us the fuck out with his first feature Hereditary. And that’s because it was last year. Unconventionally, if not impressively, he wasted absolutely no time bathing in his successes before getting his sophomore project off the ground. With three incredibly talented young actors in Will Poulter, Florence Pugh, and Jack Reynor, expectations are very high. As far as we know now, it’s about a summer trip gone wrong. It will probably be horrifying.  (Luke Hicks)

Missing Link | dir. Chris Butler

Stop motion animation studio Laika will release their fifth film in ten years in 2019. They’ve got a great track record so far and Butler’s only directorial experience was on their second film, ParaNorman, so we don’t have to worry about synergy. It boasts a stellar cast in Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, Emma Thompson, and Zach Galifianakis, and perhaps most importantly, the brilliant Carter Burwell wrote the score. The plot revolves around the search for a mythical creature in the Pacific Northwest.  (Luke Hicks)

The Kid Who Would Be King | dir. Joe Cornish

It’s been eight years since we last got a film from Joe Cornish, which feels like an odd oversight. His first, after all, was the impressive Attack the Block, a John Carpenter-inspired joint involving a gang of teenagers (led by a pre-Star Wars John Boyega in his breakout role) and their neighbor (a pre-Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker) taking down an alien invasion. Cornish’s latest is a modernized take on the King Arthur legend that looks to have some imaginative takes up its sleeve, in addition to bearing some of the scrappy influence of films like Son of Rambow (directed by Cornish’s buddy Garth Jennings). It’s great to see Cornish behind the camera again, and the results should be a good time.  (Abby Olcese)

Charlie’s Angels | dir. Elizabeth Banks

Banks is no newcomer to the film scene, but she is to the director’s chair. After the success of Pitch Perfect 2, she secured another major female-led studio film. This is the third iteration of the story on film. Ella Balinska, Naomi Scott, and Kristen Stewart will make up the crime-fighting trio, with Banks herself voicing Bosley. That’s cause for excitement, but in 2019 reboots feel like pretty low-hanging fruit, and the slew of credited screenwriters—Banks among them—is cause for concern. Whatever ends up happening, let it be known that I’m rooting for its success.  (Luke Hicks)

Sound of Metal | dir. Darius Marder

Marder’s first film, Loot, was a very average documentary, which isn’t promising. But he wrote his first screenplay for The Place Beyond the Pines, which was one of 2012’s best films, so if his Sound of Metal screenplay is even half as good, we could be in for a treat. The rest of his career is scattered and carries little to no implications about what he might be able to do with a narrative feature. However, he has two of the hottest actors of late in Olivia Cooke and Riz Ahmed, grounded by a veteran in Mathieu Amalric.  (Luke Hicks)

The Cradle | dir. Hope Dickson Leach

If there’s one thing we know Leach is capable of, it’s enveloping an audience in family drama. The Levelling was painfully engrossing (in a good way). Her next film seems to be of the same ilk, dealing with a young couple’s hunt for a specific baby cradle in preparation for their first child. The young couple will be played by Lily Collins and Jack O’Connell.  (Luke Hicks)

Downhill | dir. Jim Rash & Nat Faxon

Before he made Palme d’Or winner The Square, director Ruben Östlund made Force Majeure, an acclaimed comedic drama set largely during the aftermath of an avalanche. Now Force Majeure is getting the American treatment courtesy of The Way, Way Back’s directorial team, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. The American version is set to star Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. Although Rash and Faxon have only directed one feature before, they’ve also written together on Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, proving their chops at creating dysfunctional family drama twice over.  (Valerie Ettenhofer)

Everything Everywhere All at Once | dir. Daniels

Crazy Rich Asians was a smashing success, and everybody is looking forward to what its stars will do next. Michelle Yeoh and Awkwafina’s pairing with the already illustrious “Daniels” duo (made up of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) is certainly the most exciting derivative project on the horizon. The Daniels’ first film, Swiss Army Man, was bizarre, lovely, imaginative, and also anchored by two stars. All we know about this one is that it’s an interdimensional action film, which raises hopes that it will be as lovingly off-beat as their first.  (Luke Hicks)

The Day Shall Come | dir. Christopher Morris

Not much is known yet about Christopher Morris’ latest venture, his first feature film since 2010’s Four Lions. But just the knowledge of Morris writing and directing a film again should be enough to get you excited. Four Lions was a hilarious, transgressive piece of work, very much in line with Morris’ background in surreal TV sketch comedy like Jam, and satire such as Nathan Barley, Brass Eye and The Day Today. Morris has been no slouch in the interim, either–he’s been directing episodes of Veep for frequent collaborator Armando Iannucci. Whatever The Day Shall Come turns out to be, expect it to be weird, incisive and provocative.  (Abby Olcese)

The Art of Self-Defense | dir. Riley Stearns

Sold to Bleecker Street for worldwide distribution in the fall of 2017, Stearns’ next film has been lingering in upcoming film talk for a while now. The dark comedy is all about karate, features Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, and, on paper, in no way resembles her first film, Faults.  (Luke Hicks)

Mainstream | dir. Gia Coppola

I, for one, have been craving more Coppola ever since her Palo Alto debut in 2013. It only took one film for her to prove that she has the same masterful Coppola directing gene as her grandpa, Francis Ford, and aunt, Sofia. For round two, she has a fantastic cast in Andrew Garfield, Nat Wolff, (cousin) Jason Schwartzman, and Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan). The plot hinges on a love triangle in the modern world, which feels like both safe and new territory. Hopefully it feels more like the latter.  (Luke Hicks)

Against All Enemies | dir. Benedict Andrews

His first film, Una, came and went with no attention in 2017, only getting released in the U.S. for very brief stints in New York and Los Angeles. It’s clear that actors want to work with him though, so there must be something there. Una featured Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, and Riz Ahmed and his upcoming film features two stars at the height of their careers in Kristen Stewart and Zazie Beetz (who is slated for six films in 2019) along with roles from veterans like Vince Vaughn, Stephen Root, and Anthony Mackie. Andrews has no public persona or artistic identity, so this will come across to most people as his debut.  (Luke Hicks)

Greyhound | dir. Aaron Schneider

Tom Hanks doesn’t typically work with unestablished directors. He also doesn’t typically write screenplays. His past two were leagues apart in quality. And now Schneider has picked up his third. The C.S. Forester adaptation focuses on a naval officer—presumably played by Hanks—during WWII. After Get Low, we know Schneider can handle star power. But does the cinematographer turned director have the chops for a second film ten years after the first? Hopefully his skills are even more refined.  (Luke Hicks)

Wounds | dir. Babak Anvari

It’s strange, but it feels like Dakota Johnson and Armie Hammer have been in so much together, yet their only collaboration was in The Social Network where they never actually shared the screen. So, it’s about time they take on a film together (joined by the impeccably busy Zazie Beetz). Their choice to work with Anvari is a glowing recommendation given their recent histories with incredible directors (Guadagnino. Fincher, Riley), and if his first film, Under the Shadow, is any indication of what’s to come, we’re in for an unnervingly great piece of modern horror.  (Luke Hicks)

Piercing / Grudge | dir. Nicolas Pesce

Pesce was founded by the Borderline collective referenced below (via Sean Durkin) when they produced his first art horror film, The Eyes of  My Mother. The film was full of style and intrigue, but it ultimately fell a little flat. In 2019, he’ll have two films to his name: Piercing, a Murakami adaptation with Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska that made a lengthy festival run in 2018, starting at Sundance in January and finishing its run at the Paris International Fantastic Film Festival in December. It’s scheduled for a limited U.S. release in February. The second of his 2019 films is a remake of The Grudge with Jacki Weaver, John Cho, Demian Bichir, and Andrea Riseborough. It’s slated for a June release, so before half of the year is finished, we will have two new Pesce films and plenty of hot takes on them, I’m sure.  (Luke Hicks)

Zola | dir. Janicza Bravo

A Twitter thread isn’t exactly where you’d expect A24 to find its next great movie plot, but that’s exactly what happened with Zola. In 2015, then-stripper Aziah Wells went viral with a 148-tweet story chronicling (and, by her own admission, embellishing on) a wild trip to Florida that featured rival pimps, suicidal boyfriends, and Jess, her newfound partner in “hoeism.” The story itself already lends itself to the big screen treatment, but with unsettling, darkly funny director Bravo (Lemon, the “Juneteenth” episode of Atlanta) at the helm, it could turn out to be a good old-fashioned A24 event.  (Valerie Ettenhofer)

Motherless Brooklyn | dir. Edward Norton

Norton is obviously renowned for his acting, but in 2019 we’ll figure out what writing and directing tricks he has up his sleeve. His last film, Keeping the Faith, was a romcom from 2000 that was as bland as studio romcoms come. It seemed like he was to that movie as any director is to an episode of sitcom television. Motherless Brooklyn will mark his first screenplay, which means he’ll being heaving much more responsibility as a director this time around. Of course, the cast is an absolute knockout ensemble: Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Mann, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cheery Jones, Ethan Suplee, and Norton himself. He’ll lead the film as Lionel Essrog, a solitary private detective with Tourette’s who is trying to crack the murder of a close friend.  (Luke Hicks)

The Nest | dir. Sean Durkin

Filmmaking collective Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, and Sean Durkin have done some amazing work together, but with arguably the biggest breakout (Martha Marcy May Marlene) under the trio’s production company, Borderline, it’s a surprise that his next feature is coming 8 years later. It’s centered on an entrepreneur moving his family to an English country manor where things start to go wrong. I expect incredibly rich characters in both Carrie Coon and Jude Law, who will undoubtedly deliver as long as Durkin capitalizes on his remarkable ability to develop complex characters on screen.  (Luke Hicks)

The Report | dir. Scott Z. Burns

After writing so many star-studded scripts for director Steven Soderbergh, Burns is finally getting to direct his own loaded scripts. His second film is debuting at Sundance this year, stuffed with top talent like Adam Driver, Jon Hamm, Annette Bening, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, and Michael C. Hall. The team of producers (Steven Soderbergh, Jennifer Fox, Burns, Danny Gabai, and Eddy Moretti) is just as impressive. The film focuses on Daniel Jones, the Senate’s lead investigator into unethical interrogation practice in U.S. intelligence agencies post-9/11. Think: The Post meets Side Effects.  (Luke Hicks)

Bad Hair | dir. Justin Simien

Simien blew us away with his writing and directing skills in 2014’s Dear White People, and his work on the follow-up TV series of the same name has kept him busy since. But he’ll be back in 2019 with his second feature, which will include the likes of Vanessa Williams, Laverne Cox, Michelle Hurd, and MC Lyte. The title isn’t too revealing (maybe it’s about…bad hair?) and plot has been kept under wraps, so as of right now we’re going in blind with high hopes.  (Luke Hicks)

Wendy | dir. Benh Zeitlin

Beasts of the Southern Wild was a magical realist dreamland seen through a child’s eyes, but it was also an intimate, emotional look at the effects of Hurricane Katrina on poor Black families. This unexpectedly potent recipe makes Zeitlin’s follow-up film, a Peter Pan retelling which follows a pair of kids on an island that’s unstuck from time, an obvious must-see. Zeitlin’s breathtaking first feature premiered at Sundance seven years ago, and although Wendy has yet to find a festival slot, we’re eager to see it make a splash later this year. (Valerie Ettenhofer)

The Lighthouse | dir. Robert Eggers

One of the most highly anticipated films on this list, The Lighthouse is the long-awaited sophomore film from The Witch writer/director Robert Eggers. It has two unbeatable leads in Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Dafoe, presumably, will be playing an aging lighthouse keeper named Old in 20th century Maine, while Pattinson’s role is unknown. We know there will be horror and (probably gorgeous) black and white cinematography. The rest is a mystery.  (Luke Hicks)

Abby Olcese and Valerie Ettenhofer also contributed to this list.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.