2014 was a great year for first-time directors. If you’ve been listening to the ITMODCast, you’ve heard Brad and Darren rave about The Babadook, the feature film debut of actress-turned-director Jennifer Kent, and The One I Love, from Charlie McDowell, which Brad described as “marriage therapy as done by Ray Bradbury.” One of my favorites of last year was Dear White People, a searing debut from Justin Simien that hasn’t been talked about much on this blog or the podcast but that I found exceptionally wonderful, with its distinct point-of-view and sprawling cast of characters. And while it wouldn’t have made my top films list, Obvious Child from Gillian Robespierre holds the promise of films fronted by female characters that feel more real and robust than 99% of what is out there in the market currently.
With so many new directors coming out strong in the last year, I’ve been thinking about directorial debuts throughout film history that have so confidently and surely defined a director and introduced them onto the scene as a force that cannot be ignored. I’ve come up with a list of nine directorial debuts that I consider the best and must-see films for anyone who considers themselves a film nerd.
A few notes (because I like rules and structure): this list is unranked, as I’m looking specifically at the strength of the debut and how it relates to the directors’ filmography and not as interested in comparing or ranking the individual films. To be included, the film must be the director’s first feature length film with some sort of distribution or release- any shorts or television direction is irrelevant here as are unreleased student films. This is also purely a list based on my personal preferences and what I’ve seen, so there are definitely films missing. Please leave a comment or tweet me (@beccagrawl) or the blog (@ITMODCast) or write on the Facebook page to let me know what I’ve missed!
There is no way this isn’t the first debut that comes to mind when you think about directors releasing a film that announces that they have arrived. Citizen Kane has been discussed often on this blog and the podcast (and in the world of film nerdom) ad nauseum but everything that’s said is true. To think that this film - so beautifully constructed, the characters so richly drawn, the performances so memorable, and the technological aspects of the film so innovative and evocative - came from a first time director is mind-boggling.
Hard Eight (Sydney)
I love Paul Thomas Anderson and his films. It is hard to find a director with a body of work that is so overwhelmingly great, without a single true misstep or flop, and PTA has that in spades. You can debate and discuss the failings and merits of any given film but his entire body of work is some of the best ever put on film ever. And it all starts with Hard Eight. It is not big and bold the way other films on the list are but it has compelling, complex characters that feel real and honest and not particularly likeable, which is truly the hallmark of any given PTA film.
She’s Gotta Have It
Spike Lee is the opposite of PTA for me, in a many ways. His career has missteps and flops and films where he feels like he’s trying too hard to be “Spike Lee” and films where he feels like he’s trying too hard NOT to be “Spike Lee.” But he has directed some of my favorite films and some of the greatest American films ever. His debut, She’s Gotta Have It, gives the audience a great sense of what a “Spike Lee” film will be and what, at his best, that means for us and for society. Not to mention that this film reminds us that some of the best female film characters can be written by men and directed by male directors, if they take the time and energy to craft real representations of women for their movies.
This Is Spinal Tap
Comedic sensibility is a strange thing. It’s so specific to an individual - something I find hilarious might leave you cold or something that tickles me yesterday might enrage me tomorrow. But I’d have to say you’re an idiot or a fool if you don’t find This Is Spinal Tap hilarious. A lot of folks forget that while it features Christopher Guest and much of the crew who will appear in his films, this one is directed by Rob Reiner. And while I easily could have chosen The Big Picture (Guest’s debut), I chosen Spinal Tap because A) it still cracks me up after a few dozen viewings and B) it’s a wonderful harbinger of the memorable films Reiner gives us immediately following this one - Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men, The American President. Reiner comes out strong as a director in this film and he showcases his ability to direct comedy, drama, satire, and just about everything else.
Some might say that Bottle Rocket is the least Wes Anderson-y film that Wes Anderson ever directed and that may be true. For me, the Wes Anderson elements are clearly fermenting in the film - his particular eye for casting against type or against audience expectations, his enjoyment in luxuriating in visual spaces, and his enjoyment of the comedy l’absurde. The filmmaking here shows confidence and a specific point-of-view, which defines Anderson’s work and if it’s good enough to be named one of Martin Scorcese’s best films of the 1990s, it’s good enough for me. (Also, gotta show some support for my fellow Houstonian.)
sex, lies, and videotape
I didn’t watch sex, lies, and videotape until college, so I was definitely experiencing this film through the eyes of “redefines independent film for a new era.” That doesn’t lessen the fact that Steven Soderbergh does redefine independent film with his debut. While it’s not my favorite Soderbergh and it might not be to everyone’s tastes, I love how nuanced and mature the script is without being tawdry or cheesy and it’s clear that Soderbergh has a command over his actors and an ability to pull interesting and deep performances from his cast.
If you’re about my age and share my interest in film, you usually fall into two categories - those who saw Pulp Fiction first or those who saw Reservoir Dogs first. I happened to have seen Reservoir Dogs first (a couple years after it came out) before I saw Pulp Fiction, so for me, this is the best Quentin Tarantino film, period. This film so distinctly showcases who Tarantino is as a director, who his influences are as a filmmaker, and what sort of films he’s going to give us over the course of his career. It is the defining film for several of the actors who appear and it has a timeless quality that is difficult to achieve for a first time filmmaker. Talk to anyone involved with this blog or the podcast and Reservoir Dogs will come up in the first 15 minutes, guaranteed.
So much about Terrence Malick and his films that don’t connect with viewers and are ripe for criticism. I have always loved Malick - so much that The Thin Red Line was part of my senior thesis and I hosted a film screening to try to lure people on the Malick train - but regardless of how you feel about the director, you can’t deny that Badlands is a stellar debut. Malick took a true crime story and spun a dark, gritty, sparse tale about two doomed lovers/killers, played brilliantly by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. This film is unique on this list as I find Badlands to be the least-Malick-y film he ever made, thus making more accessible to viewers and audiences that might not be inclined to connect to his other films. Many people I know who don’t care for Malick haven’t seen Badlands, and I implore you to check this out if you haven’t.
The Coen Brothers make great films. That’s just the truth of it. Not every film is a winner but they make great films. There is so much to love about this film - the debut of the Coens, the first feature for Barry Sonnenfeld, incredible performances from a fantastic cast, and a story that brings neo-Film Noir back in the 1980s. It might not be your favorite Coens Brothers movie and it isn’t the best Coens Brothers movie but it’s a fantastic introduction to what the Coens Brothers are best at, which is redefining and subverting genre expectations. It’s equally violent and funny and a film that I find myself constantly recommending to folks who love the Coens but seemed to have missed it.