At first glance, our fifth annual survey of emerging Texas filmmakers would seem to lack in geographical diversity: All four directors we chose have strong ties to Austin. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll be reminded that, even with Austin at its center, the Texas cultural community remains an intriguing melting pot. One of this year’s Action Heroes is presently based in Greece; another shot his latest film in Ohio. The range of experiences they chronicle is impressive too: a young woman coming to terms with a dying father; a working-class father driven insane with anxiety; a Southern gay man struggling to come out to his family; a half-black, half-Latino teenager searching for acceptance.

Our criteria for inclusion: (1) Filmmakers must be raised, educated, or based in Texas, (2) their work needs to have screened at nationally respected festivals like Sundance or South by Southwest, and (3) they must have a feature premiering in 2011. Only time will tell if these folks will go on to scale the heights reached by some of our former Action Heroes (see “Alumni Report”). But for now they may be the most promising crop yet, a group of filmmakers who skirt the line between populist and artsy, comedy and drama, idiosyncratic and deeply universal.

1. Jeff Nichols

AGE: 32
HOMETOWN: Little Rock, Arkansas
EDUCATION: North Carolina School of the Arts
CREDITS: Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011)

Nichols’s debut feature, Shotgun Stories, introduced a striking new voice to independent cinema. The Austin resident’s story of two sets of warring brothers (all of whom share the same father) wedded Southern Gothic drama, Greek tragedy, and Slacker-style humor. Yet despite kudos from critics and festival programmers (the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival), the movie never found much of an audience. Take Shelter should correct that. Teaming up once again with his Shotgun star Michael Shannon, Nichols tells the creepy story of an Ohio construction worker who is inexplicably terrified of a deadly storm he believes is approaching. The movie, which was acquired for release by Sony Pictures Classics just before its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, doesn’t entirely hang together (is it an allegory? A portrait of one man’s battle against encroaching mental illness? Both?). But Nichols eloquently taps into the struggles of a modern blue-collar man, and he maintains a deeply unnerving tone straight through to the film’s what-just-happened ending.

THE YEAR AHEAD: Take Shelter looks bound for a fall theatrical release, with a Best Actor Oscar campaign planned for Shannon. Don’t be surprised if Hollywood comes courting Nichols, who shows considerable mainstream potential.

2. Athina Rachel Tsangari

AGE: 41
HOMETOWN: Athens, Greece
EDUCATION: University of Texas at Austin, New York University
CREDITS: The Slow Business of Going (2000), Attenberg (2010)

Tsangari spent eight years in Austin, where she became a fixture in the local film community: She appeared in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, co-founded the short-film festival Cinematexas, and served as an executive producer of Lovers of Hate, directed by Bryan Poyser (Action Heroes ’10). But it was only when she returned to her native Greece that she seemed to come into her own. She was an associate producer of last year’s Dogtooth, which earned an Academy Award nomination. And her second feature, Attenberg, won the Best Actress prize for star Ariane Labed at the 2010 Venice Film Festival. (The movie had its American premiere a few months later, at Sundance.) Be warned: This strange, often maddeningly elusive drama—about a sexually naive young woman with a competitive best friend and a dying father—isn’t easy viewing. Yet Tsangari is unflinching in her portrayal of female desire and the complex bonds between father and daughter.

THE YEAR AHEAD: Tsangari is still seeking U.S. distribution, but expect a deal to happen soon and for Attenberg to hit theaters this year.

3. Mike Akel

AGE: 38
HOMETOWN: Harrison, Arkansas
EDUCATION: Missouri State University
CREDITS: Butcher’s 15 (2000), Chalk (2006), A Sort of Homecoming (2011)

A longtime Austin resident who recently relocated to Houston, Akel earned comparisons to Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) with his squirm-inducing mockumentary Chalk, about teachers at an Austin high school. His newest, A Sort of Homecoming, starts out in similarly squirm-inducing fashion: A newly out-of-the-closet gay man generates considerable tension when he arrives at his family’s annual vacation with his boyfriend in tow. But Akel, who says he wanted to create something in the vein of British director Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky), pushes in unexpected directions with a comedy-drama that’s powered by the screwed-up motivations of his flawed yet lovable characters. Akel is still putting finishing touches on the film, but A Sort of Homecoming hints at a gifted comic artist deepening his range of feeling. More, please.

THE YEAR AHEAD: Akel is busy submitting a rough cut of the film to festivals and expects it to premiere in the spring or summer.

4. Aaron Burns

AGE: 26
EDUCATION: Two semesters at UT Austin before going to Troublemaker Studios
CREDITS: Blacktino (2011)

The youngest and least experienced of this year’s Action Heroes is also the roughest around the edges; his debut comedy, about an overweight half-Latino, half-black teenager who lives with his grandmother, sometimes feels a tad sitcomish. But Burns (whose mother, Elizabeth Avellán, is an executive producer on the film) is clearly speaking from the heart, exploring what it means to be caught between two cultures in contemporary Texas. And just like his stepdad, Robert Rodriguez, he has ambition to spare: Determined to complete his first feature by age 25, he started writing the film in late 2008, shot it last summer, and raced through editing in the fall.

THE YEAR AHEAD: Blacktino will premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, just six weeks after Burns turns 26.

Alumni Report: The exploits of former Action Heroes

Having triumphed with 2008’s hit comedy Pineapple Express and the HBO series Eastbound & Down (for which he serves as producer and director), David Gordon Green (class of ’07) continues his ascent to Hollywood royalty: This year he has two more comedies due for release, Your Highness, starring Natalie Portman, and The Sitter, starring Jonah Hill. George Ratliff (’07) premiered his new satire, Salvation Boulevard, at Sundance; reviews were mixed but the A-list cast, including Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan, should help it secure a release. Following last year’s Cyrus, Mark and Jay Duplass (’07) also have two new films in postproduction: an indie titled The Do-Deca Pentathlon and a studio picture titled Jeff Who Lives at Home, starring Jason Segel and Susan Sarandon. And Clay Liford (’10), whose previous effort was a sci-fi oddity called Earthling, will screen a comedy called WUSS at South by Southwest.