Top 10 Directorial Debuts

Posted by Nick in Movies, Top 10 on March 27th, 2008.

Directing your first feature film is not an easy task. Directing your first feature film, which turns out to be a masterpiece seems almost impossible. However, some of the very talented directors succeeded in doing so. In this Top 10 I’m counting down the 10 best Directorial Debuts of All Time.

A couple things should be said before jumping right in. The most important criterion is that it has te be a feature length film, which means roughly speaking, 60 minutes or longer. It doesn’t matter whether the director directed short films, tv episodes, or other stuff in the past. Even though people who have done tv episodes or acted in movies and/or tv shows, have a serious advantage, directing a feature film is still something entirely different. It’s also worth noting, that, while doing research for this Top 10, I came across many movies, too many for a top 10, which obviously meant that I had to leave off a lot of good movies.

That said, let’s jump right in. The countdown is in descending order.

10. Easy Rider (1969)

"A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.." Easy Rider is about two counterculture bikers (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) who travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of America. It is a period piece, which holds up pretty well. The movie breathes freedom, which is the main theme. As the three men (Jack Nicholson joins them later on) progress in their journey to Mardi Gras, they learn that the America, which they are seeking, simply isn’t there.
The ending has a certain "What the.." feel to it. But it in the end, it feels right. It’s a downfall of the counterculture, and a downfall it is. Combined with the strong soundtrack, cinematography and very good performances, it captures the era very well. An excellent debut film by Dennis Hopper.

9. House of Games (1987)

David Mamet wrote a few great screenplays for movies such as The Verdict and The Untouchables, prior to directing this film. This story has many nice tiwsts and turns, which makes it really unpredictable, just like a poker game. A psychiatrist, who looks for some excitement in her life, meets a gambler, who draws her into the world of stings and cons. As the story proceeds, the stakes get higher and higher. It is well acted, directed, it sucked me in and it kept me interested until the very end. The performances feel sometimes a little theatrical and staged, but it doesn’t distract much from experiencing this very well made and intelligent film.

8. The Producers (1968)

Recently remade, this movie marks the period, in which movies as such were made, and nowadays, when great movies like The Producers are being remade. Mel Brook‘s first movie, is one of his finest. The movie starts weak, with some a somewhat annoying scene, in which Zero Mostel’s character tries to convince an old lady to finance his next "flop". But then, it takes off. This film is a hilariously done joy ride, of the funniest movies ever made. The idea is that two producers (Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) make money by producing a "flop", with the hilarious end result of "Springtime for Hitler". It’s sharp, witty, it mocks, it has heart. It is a great debut, and also a great introduction to the "Mel Brook’s humor", which led to many other hilarious films.

7. No Man’s Land (2001)

"A very serious film with a sense of humor.", is how Danis Tanovic describes his debut film. It is set during 1993 at the time of the heaviest fighting between Bosnia and Herzegovina. Two soldiers, Nino and Ciki a Bosnian and a Serb, are soldiers stranded in No Man’s Land. What this movie does so well, is that it combines many elements perfectly. It’s an anti-war statement, it makes fun of the UN, it is a drama, it is a black comedy. The situations are absurd and comical, but at the end, it’s not a comedy, it’s tragedy. The absurdity emphasizes pointlessness of the war in general, not this war in particular. With strong performances, it does almost everything right.

6. Clerks (1994)

No film in this list feels more authentic than this one, Kevin Smith‘s debut film. It is based on his own experience, as a Quick Stop clerk. The movie, which totally relies on dialogue and situations, does feel amateurish. The acting isn’t great, but who cares? The movie doesn’t require slick acting. The hilarious situations, characters, jokes totally make up for that. It is a vulgar comedy, but it’s no American Pie, or some other modern teenage teen comedy. It takes place in only a couple stores, which means that its focus is on the dialogue. There is very little that distracts our attention from the conversations the characters are having.
Smith went on making films about the same characters and even though I really enjoy his movies, only this one has the wit, intelligence and heart, which makes this movie a brilliantly done comedy.

5. Blood Simple. (1984)

In 1984, the "two-headed director" made its debut. In fact, according to the credits, only Joel Coen, directed it, but he wrote it with his brother, Ethan Coen. The film deals with certain themes, that they would use later on in their career. It also established the Coen brothers style, which feels very original, even though they borrow certain aspects from other filmmakers. Some say it’s a very "Lynchian" film. That seems fair, considering the plot twists, the characters who turn out differently from what one would expect. It has a film noir feel to it, a "Hitchcockian" suspense. That said, the film feels very original and stands on its own.
The black humor, the dialogue and the characters, make it a very promising debut, for a career, that turned out great.

4. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966)

Mike Nichols‘ debut film, is a film that marked his career as an "actor director". With this film, an adaptation of the play of the same name by Edward Albee, he was able to get a haunting and stunning performance from Elizabeth Taylor. She stands against her husband, with whom she gets into a fight, about, what seems to be the cause at first, their son. A young couple visits the aging couple. Over the course of the evening, their so called "fun and games" end up in a scandal, while secrets come out. The movie was controversial due to the profanity, sexual implications and subject matter. It wasn’t the first black comedy, but certainly one of the first, that used explicit language and very harsh scenes. Nevertheless, the performances are both entertaining and moving.

3. Badlands (1973)

Badlands, written and directed by Terence Malick, is pure poetry on screen. The movie is influenced by Bonnie and Clyde, that came out in 1967. Unlike the latter, it does not analyze or glamourize the two runaways. The film is not interested in explaining exactly why Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, hooked up with Kit, played by Martin Sheen, or other motivations. Neither does the film spend a lot of time explaining the reasons for Kit to murder so many people. There is certain "cold" portay of these two young people, which doesn’t leave a lot room for analyzing their behaviour. Most likely, there are no motivations. They’re two dumb kids, who just do what they feel like doing.
The very stylized approach could hurt the film. It is, however, very poetic and magical. The music, the beautiful shots and the voice over, all add up to that. It is stunning.

2. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

It’s safe to say that one of the most recent films, that influenced a whole generation of filmmakers, is Reservoir Dogs. That’s actually funny, because Quentin Tarantino, is a writer and director who makes movies about movies. His movies would not have existed as we know them now, if it weren’t for the films he was referencing.
It’s also funny to see how the movie was marketed. From the trailer, one might say that it’s an action movie. It is not. Apart from some violence, it is a movie about characters. Tarantino let’s them talk. The interaction is with words, not action, for the most part.
From the opening to the very last execution, this movie breathes with originality, in terms of dialogue, wit, storytelling, humor. The best of all is that everything works.
This whole "Reservoir Dog" concept, has be done countless times, but nowhere as good as the original film.

1. 12 Angry Men (1957)

Before Sidney Lumet directed his first feature, he already earned his chops by directing many TV series episodes. After doing this film, he went on making classics such as, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and The Verdict. He is one of the few filmmakers that tackles both controversial issues and audience’s intelligence.
However, hits roots are really in this particular film, 12 Angry Men. Many of his films are thought provoking. In this movie, a dissenting juror in a murder trial, played by Henry Fonda, slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court. The film is brilliant in many aspects. We don’t see anything from the actual trial. For the most part, the film takes place within a small New York City jury room, which may seem boring on one hand. From the other, herein lies the brilliance.
In only a hour and half, we not only learn how the 12 men think about the case, we also learn a lot about their personalities. We learn about their social backgrounds, their prejudices and occupations. The ensemble cast gives a solid performance. It’s very likely that most audiences could identify with one of the twelve jurors.
Ultimately, the movie is not about who’s wrong or who’s right. It’s about how we judge events and how we filter the truth. It also tackles the "flaws" of the law.

Agree or disagree? Share your top 10!

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