The Top 10 Directorial Debuts Of All Time
By Joey Magidson
For a filmmaker, it’s rare to make a real impact with your debut feature. Most of the time, you begin your career with a calling-card movie or a work that doesn’t fully express your true talent. There are, however, certain instances when a director is able to wow audiences and leave his or her mark on the film world right from the get-go.
This year, we’ve seen Benh Zeitlin make his debut with a film that many absolutely love in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Zeitlin’s freshman feature has been mentioned as one of the top debuts by a filmmaker in some time, so that got me thinking: What are the 10 best of all time?
Of course, there’s some level of subjectivity to this kind of a list. If I were strictly going off of my personal favorite debuts, people such as Judd Apatow, Darren Aronofsky, Mel Brooks and Kevin Smith would be high up on my own Top 10. For the purposes of this list, though, I’m putting as much of my individual preference aside as possible. Below you’ll find 10 of the great directorial debuts of all time.
One factor to note before I start counting down is that I wound up shying away from debuts from after the year 2000. That wasn’t intentional, but I think it’s not a bad thing, since it shows these other filmmakers were able to sustain long careers after these early successes. That’s not to say the last dozen years haven’t had amazing debuts (just look at some of my favorites above), but a bit of distance doesn’t hurt.
In a decade or so, we might have Zeitlin on a new version of this list, perhaps along with people such as Neill Blomkamp. For now, though, lets focus in on the 10 whom I’ve selected for this piece:
10. Cameron Crowe (Say Anything)
I’m incredibly fond of Cameron Crowe as a filmmaker. Yes, you’ve found the one person in the industry who actually adores Elizabethtown. Crowe has yet to make a bad movie in my eyes, but aside from his masterpiece Almost Famous, his first work is still his best.
Say Anything came out in 1989 after his screenplay for Fast Times at Ridgemont High had had some success. This movie has become an all-time classic romantic film, and for good reason. Crowe has an incredible feel for honest relationships and getting audiences to root for his heroes. Plus, the image of John Cusack holding up the boom box playing Peter Gabriel’s song “In Your Eyes” is an indelible scene in motion picture history.
9. Rob Reiner (This is Spinal Tap)
There aren’t many people out there who think of Rob Reiner as a master filmmaker, but up until the past decade or so, he was considered a consistently good director with an ability to really please his audience. Films such as A Few Good Men and The American President show how well he works with Aaron Sorkin, while Misery is a top-notch genre work. Nothing really compares with his initial movie, though.
1984’s This is Spinal Tap is an undisputed comedy classic. A mockumentary that puts current films of its ilk to shame, Reiner was able to make a laugh riot that’s also a brilliant satire. Hell, the band portrayed in the film has even gone out on tour! Almost 30 years later, it’s This is Spinal Tap is heavily quoted.
8. Sam Mendes (American Beauty)
Though Sam Mendes has been seeing some incredible reviews for Skyfall, it wasn’t too long ago that many in the film world wondered if he was ever going to be able to match his debut feature, which won him an Oscar. Mendes has been very solid over his career, but films such as Jarhead and Road to Perdition didn’t live up to his award-winning start. As for Revolutionary Road, it was an outright disappointment to many. In my eyes, much of that is due to just how well he started out.
American Beauty hit in 1999 and blew everyone away. It hasn’t aged amazingly well for some, but I’m not among those folks. I initially saw the movie expecting nothing, and instead I got something both funnier and more moving than I was ever prepared for it to be. It may not have quite as unique a voice these days, but in that moment, there was just nothing like it.
7. Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs)
A larger-than-life filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino legendarily started out working in a video store. While he had to sell the script to True Romance, he kept his next movie to himself, which paved the way for him to become a rock star with Pulp Fiction. Even his last two films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, have become both audience and box office hits. I’d argue that his later works beat out his debut, but this one is nothing to sneeze at, either.
Reservoir Dogs came out in 1992, and while it’s looked at in certain circles as a tease for Pulp Fiction a few years later, this is still a very good movie. Tarantino mixed pop culture, violence and commentary on film genre in one big soup of a flick. It didn’t get the universal praise that his next feature did (I still remember Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both giving it a thumbs down on their show), but those who loved it really loved it.
6. Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider)
Every so often, a filmmaker takes a different career path than most. For Dennis Hopper, he chose to pursue acting much more than directing as time went on, but it’s impossible to deny the incredible cultural significance of his debut film. What he unleashed on audiences took many completely by surprise.
Easy Rider came out in 1969, and honestly, how could it have come out at any other time? One of the best road films ever made, it’s also a great time capsule for the late ’60s. The film launched the New Hollywood movement in the early ’70s, so it’s an essential work on a historical level alone. An unlikely success when it hit theaters, it has only grown in importance since then.
5. Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows)
The feature debut of Francois Truffaut is a part of one of my favorite stories about Harvey Weinstein. As the legend goes, Weinstein went to see The 400 Blows when he was 14 years old, expecting it to be a porn film. While sitting in a darkened theater watching something as far removed from pornography as possible, he was changed by the power of Truffaut. While Truffaut would try Hollywood flicks at one point with Fahrenheit 451, his initial film is the one people still talk about. Hell, it launched the Weinsteins!
The 400 Blows, released in 1959, was a part of the French New Wave movement. Many a future filmmaker has cited this work as one of their favorites, and for good reason. One of the seminal cinematic coming-of-age stories, it’s almost impossible not to think of yourself as a youngster while watching it. Truffaut worked from an autobiographical place, but what came out was universal in its message.
4. John Huston (The Maltese Falcon)
Over five decades of work, John Huston made a bevy of well respected movies, including The African Queen and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, along with Annie and Prizzi’s Honor among his final films. The very first flick he made is not only his best, but it also ranks decently high among the top film noirs of all time.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a true noir classic. Often imitated, but really never duplicated, Huston’s first film is nearly perfect in every way. Both Ebert and Entertainment Weekly have named it among the greatest films of all time, and that’s high praise. Anyone trying to make a noir today has to look back on this one for inspiration — its influence is immense among genre filmmakers.
3. Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men)
It’s hard not to stand in awe of just how many great films Sidney Lumet made over his long career. Not only did he start with a bang, but he finished with one, too, in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Along the way, he made classics such as Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict, though Lumet was shockingly never able to win a Best Director Oscar. In my opinion, his best chance was with his debut work.
There are a lot of ways 12 Angry Men could have been made in 1957, but Lumet managed to find the absolute best way. What might have otherwise been dry and boring (aside from the opening, the film only uses one set) wound up absolutely captivating, as we watch a jury deliberate what initially seems like a simple open and shut case. Not only has it influenced many a courtroom film, Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor has spoken of the movie as one of the reasons she pursued a career in the law. Talk about influence …
2. Terrence Malick (Badlands)
During his self-imposed exile, Terrence Malick was spoken about as a filmmaker who might never again make a movie. People talked about his two directorial outings and wondered if those now classics were going to be the only things we’d see from him. Of course, Malick has since returned with The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life, but no one knew that then. When I look at his resume now, I still look back to his debut.
Badlands (1973) is Malick’s most accessible work, but that takes nothing away from the incredibly high quality of the film. I first saw it because I’d heard the Bruce Springsteen song “Nebraska” that also details the Charles Starkweather killing spree, and this is just another reason to love The Boss — he introduced me to the film. All of Malick’s filmmaking techniques are on display, but for me, at least, they fit the film better than they ever have since then.
1. Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)
Considering that Orson Welles is my top choice here, it’s interesting to note how nothing he made ever compared to his directorial debut. In some ways, he was crushed under the weight (no pun intended) of expectations, both of his own and the world’s.
Many consider 1941’s Citizen Kane to be the greatest film of all time, and while I’m not quite as exuberant in my praise of it (The Shawshank Redemption is my pick), it’s certainly an absolute classic. A number of innovations for filmmaking were first used in this movie, including the use of deep focus, the flashback approach to the story, and pioneering use of makeup, music, and special effects. This look at the life of the fictional Charles Foster Kane is so essential to cinema that without it, movies legitimately would never have been the same.
Each of the above directors both made a classic his first time out and was able to make others as his career progressed (give or take Hopper, who made his mark more as an actor). That’s really something, and they all deserve our admiration and respect.
There are tons of filmmakers who got off to hot starts, so definitely keep in mind these aren’t the only ones. If you have others who really impressed you, I’d love to read them in the comments section. For now, though, lets celebrate these 10!
Tags: 12 Angry Men, A Few Good Men, Aaron Sorkin, Almost Famous, American Beauty, Annie, Badlands, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Benh Zeitlin, Bruce Springsteen, Cameron Crowe, Charles Starkweather, Citizen Kane, Darren Aronofsky, Dennis Hopper, Django Unchained, Dog Day Afternoon, Easy Rider, Elizabethtown, Fahrenheit 451, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Francois Truffaut, Gene Siskel, Harvey Weinstein, Inglourious Basterds, Jarhead, John Cusack, John Huston, Judd Apatow, Kevin Smith, Mel Brooks, Misery, Neill Blomkamp, Network, Orson Welles, Peter Gabriel, Prizzi's Honor, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs, Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition, Rob Reiner, Roger Ebert, Sam Mendes, Say Anything, Sidney Lumet, Skyfall, Sonya Sotomayor, Terrence Malick, The 400 Blows, The African Queen, The American President, The Maltese Falcon, The New World, The Shawshank Redemption, The Thin Red Line, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Tree of Life, The Verdict, This is Spinal Tap, True Romance