10 Great Movies Made by Directors Under 30

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Among the buzziest indie films of the year, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture opens today in New York. The 24-year-old filmmaker’s second feature (the first, Creative Nonfiction, didn’t get theatrical distribution) has been earning some impressive and thought-provoking reviews, with the likes of New York Times critic Manohla Dargis remarking that Dunham “has created a work that addresses a constellation of ideas that speak to how we live now, on screen and off, in an age of multiplying types of technological reproductions. By playing a version of herself (and asking her family to go along for the ride), and by closing the distance between art and life, she has gotten at something real.”

In an industry that tends to reward years of tireless dues-paying, and in one of art’s most expensive mediums, it can seem impossible for young people to summon the money and support needed to make a great film. And yet, over the years, a number of smart 20-somethings have leveraged their sparse resources to do just that. After the jump, in hopes of lighting a fire under the aspiring Truffauts and Coens out there, we list 10 great movies made by directors under 30.

“Un Chien Andalou” (1929)

It may not have been a feature, but this early Luis Buñuel-Salvador Dalí collaboration heralded a massively successful future for both artists. The dreamy, plot-free Surrealist film is famous for its squirm-inducing eyeball-cutting scene, as well as the Pixies song “Debaser,” which was inspired by it. If you haven’t seen it and are into weird shit, you can watch the whole thing below.

La Pointe-Courte (1955)

In 1962, Agnès Varda would enter the French New Wave canon with an early masterpiece, Cleo from 5 to 7. But her first film, 1955’s La Pointe-Courte — made for a mere $14,000 when the director was only 25 — shouldn’t be ignored. Set in a fishing village like the one where Varda spent much of her youth, it provides a gorgeous (if also troubling) glimpse of life in the small town and delves into the dissolution of a marriage.

The 400 Blows (1959)

A rallying cry for the French New Wave, François Truffaut’s debut feature The 400 Blows remains his most well-known film, despite the massive success of his later work. The semi-autobiographical movie follows a schoolboy named Antoine Doinel — played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, in his first role — a young troublemaker who is neglected by his parents and mistreated by France’s juvenile justice system. The Cannes Film Festival liked The 400 Blows so much, it honored the 26-year-old Truffaut with its Best Director award.

Knife in the Water (1962) Before he met Sharon Tate, mourned her death, raped a child, and made some of the best films of the ’70s, the 28-year-old Roman Polanski premiered his first feature, Knife in the Water. During a sailing getaway, a married couple picks up a young, male hitchhiker, whose chemistry with the wife creates tension between all three. Shot in Poland, before Polanski came over to the U.S., Knife in the Water was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscarin 1963.

Badlands (1973)

One of the starkest, strangest, and most disturbing products of America’s ’70s film renaissance, Badlands was based on the Starkweather-Fugate murders, in which Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend roadtripped across Nebraska and Wyoming, killing 11 people. Malick’s haunting film tells a twisted, tall-tale version of the story through the eyes of the young girl — played with stunning subtlety by Sissy Spacek. Although Malick was only 29 when Badlands premiered, he has directed only four features in nearly three decades, although he currently has two more films in process.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

The title isn’t the only thing challenging about Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, a three-and-a-half-hour study of a single mother and prostitute with a sole daily client. In this experimental film, the drudgery of Jeanne’s quotidian routine is the entire point — only through experiencing the banality and duration of her work do we understand Akerman’s feminist statement about the toll women’s work takes. Akerman was only 24 when the film made its debut.

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers have made nearly 14 films in the past two-and-a-half decades, and almost all of them have been spectacular. It all started with 1984’s Blood Simple, a universally acclaimed detective noir that debuted when Joel was 29 and Ethan 26. The film also launched the career of Frances McDormand, the talented actress and Coen brothers regular who went on to win an Academy Award for her performance in their movie, Fargo.

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Not to be confused with his horrendous 2004 effort, She Hate Me, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It — the director’s first post-grad school feature — tells the story of Nola Darling, a tough and independent young black woman living in Brooklyn and dating three men at the same time. The low-budget, black-and-white film (with one notable color sequence), and its controversial ending, cemented Lee’s place as both an auteur and a provocateur.

Clerks (1994)

Just about everyone between the ages of 25 and 45 can quote Clerks on command: “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” “Thirty-seven!” “Bezerker!” Kevin Smith was a mere 24 years old when his $27,000, black-and-white comedy about a convenience store clerk and his video-rental jockey pal debuted. The cultural reference-packed film that introduced us to Jay and Silent Bob also launched Smith’s career, along with some spin-off TV shows and a bigger-budget sequel. Still only 40 years old, Smith has made an impressive ten features — only one of which was Jersey Girl.

π (1998)

Who knew a film about a mentally ill number theorist and a Hasidic Jew would make such a big splash? Darren Aronofsky’s black-and-white thriller brought to prominence one of the 21st-century’s most original and idiosyncratic filmmakers, responsible for everything from the acclaimed Hubert Selby adaptation Requiem for a Dream to the utterly confounding The Fountain to the mainstream hit The Wrestler. Aronofsky returns in just a few weeks with Black Swan, a ballet thriller that’s already topping some critics’ Best of 2010 lists.