The 50 Best Directorial Debuts in Movie History

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The Toronto Film Festival, which came to a close recently, wasn’t just the starter pistol for We’re-Not-Saying-It-Yet Season; the long-term value of the festival may well be its place as a launching pad for first-time filmmakers. Twenty-eight films screened in its “Discovery” section, and while we won’t know for some time how many soon-to-be-immortal filmmakers were among its ranks, it’s a good excuse to peruse the history of film and pluck out the debut feature efforts of great directors who knocked us out from their first frame.

50. Body Heat

Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark writer Lawrence Kasdan made the leap to directing with this steamy 1981 neo-noir, which dutifully pays homage to the conventions of the genre (Double Indemnity, most explicitly) while taking advantage of its own era’s far more lax standards for onscreen eroticism. A moody, sexy kick, and still the best work of Kathleen Turner’s career.

49. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Shane Black, another high-dollar screenwriter (his credits include Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout), reappeared after a nine-year hiatus with this wickedly funny and slyly winking homage to classic detective yarns. Delightfully self-aware and laugh-out-loud funny, this high-style comeback picture paved the way for his recent return to blockbuster territory at the helm of Iron Man 3.

48. She’s Gotta Have It

Frustrated and desperate after a bigger-budget project fell apart at the 11th hour, struggling New York writer/director Spike Lee dashed off this 1986 comedy as a purposefully low-budget bounce-back: it had a small cast, could be shot in easy locations, and had the always marketable hook of sex. It hasn’t aged all that well — some of the acting is mighty stiff and the sexual politics are frequently troublesome (particularly at the end) — but Lee’s simultaneous gifts for provocation and aesthetic beauty are on proud, early display here.

47. Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly’s 2001 science fiction mystery is equal parts peculiar, befuddling, gorgeous, and funny — the definitive cult movie of the post-9/11 age. It’s actually a film that works better the less you understand it; Kelly is a puzzle-maker, masterful at creating a mood of overwhelming dread and paranoia, in which the pieces come close enough to fitting to inspire some kind of madness.

46. The Evil Dead

In the winter that bridged 1979 and 1980, a young director named Sam Raimi, a small cast, and a crew of friends (including Joel Coen) took over an abandoned cabin in Tennessee and, on a scant $90,000 budget, made one of the most influential horror movies of our time, its topsy-turvy style and single-location setting inspiring not only a series of its own, but countless other “cabin in the woods” scary tales. Its first sequel was, in some ways, both a high-dollar remake and a spoof, but the giddy friskiness of that initial low-budget production still burns through every frame.

45. El Mariachi

Robert Rodriguez would’ve killed for 90 grand; he made his directorial debut for a mere $7,000, much of it accumulated during a hospital stay as a human guinea pig in a pharmaceutical study. But like Raimi, Rodriguez had learned how to make something from nothing after years of short-film production; his debut may’ve had a bargain basement budget, but it also had a freewheeling energy and action ingenuity lacking in the lumbering Hollywood productions it ended up sharing the multiplex with.

44. House of Games

David Mamet’s screenplay about high-stakes con artists was initially intended as a big-budget studio production with stars and a name director. When it fell apart, Mamet took over the project himself, casting from his rep company of stage players and shooting in a moodily rain-swept Seattle. The result is a supremely confident directorial debut, crafted in his signature tough, sparse, no-nonsense style.

43. The Shawshank Redemption

When Frank Darabont wanted to make his directorial debut with a Stephen King adaptation, it made sense — his previous screenwriting credits were comprised almost entirely of horror pictures like Nightmare on Elm Street 3, The Fly II, and the Blob remake. But he had something else in mind: a soaring film version of “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” one of King’s rare non-horror stories. Leisurely paced, beautifully acted, and emotionally overwhelming, Darabont’s classical style owed as much to Capra and Ford as King, and though it was widely ignored upon its initial release, it has become one of the most beloved films of the modern age.

42. Hard Eight (aka Sydney)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent films, There Will Be Blood and The Master, focused intensely on complicated relationships between pairs of strong-willed men — seemingly a departure from the large, sweeping ensembles of his breakthrough films Boogie Nights and Magnolia. But those pictures are very much in the tradition of his debut, Sydney (renamed Hard Eight by its short-lived distributor in its initial, miniscule release), a quiet, scrappy, small-scale film mostly concerned with the complicated relationship between an aging gambler (the great Philip Baker Hall) and his naïve protégé (John C. Reilly).

41. Real Life

Albert Brooks made the transition from stand-up comedian, SNL filmmaker-in-residence, and talk show mainstay to unique comic filmmaker with this frequently uproarious and eerily prescient take on the early incarnations of reality television. The slightness of his filmography and modesty of his personality don’t always garner Brooks proper consideration as a great director, but there is much to chew on here — it’s an ostensibly comic examination of celebrity and media, but with a raw, prickly family drama bubbling just under the surface.

40. Play Misty for Me

After 15 years in front of the camera, Clint Eastwood stepped to the other side to direct this taut, creepy little thriller about a California DJ (Eastwood) whose one-night stand with a sexy/crazy listener (a pre-Arrested Development Jessica Walter) goes scarily awry. Eastwood cast his mentor and frequent director Don Siegel as a bartender and good luck charm, and clearly learned from the man, coming right out of the gate with a lean, economical style and clean visual sense.

39. I Stand Alone

You gotta give Gasper Noé this much: from movie number one, he wasn’t fucking around. His story of an ex-con and former butcher raging against his failed life and the world around him is a customarily brutal and unforgiving affair, combining a horrifying story, merciless inner monologue, and both emotional and physical violence — and coming to an expectedly hopeless conclusion. So, in other words, it’s exactly the good time you’d expect from a filmmaker on his way to Irreversible.

38. Primer

The “science” half of science fiction is given less and less attention these days as that genre has become all but inseparable from dumbed-down action filmmaking. But there are those still fighting the good fight — chief among them Shane Carruth, who spent a mere $7,000 on this brainy time travel movie that tells its story with basically no special effects and a whole lotta math. That he manages to keep the viewer so rapt and entertained is kind of a miracle, and a testament to his own considerable powers of narrative construction and “what if” storytelling.

37. Pi

If Carruth’s sui generis debut took a page from anyone, it may well have been Darren Aronofsky, who scraped together $60,000 to make this 1998 cult classic that used mathematics as raw data for a psychological thriller and nightmare vision of Brooklyn. Aronofsky used black-and-white reversal film to give the images a thick, Lynchian, pseudo-surrealist vibe, and used hip hop-style repetition and rhythm to create his distinctive editing style — which he would explore, with a bigger budget and even more disturbing results, in his Requiem for a Dream.

36. Hunger

Steve McQueen’s account of the 1981 Irish hunger strike is harrowing, difficult stuff — but, in what would become much of the British filmmaker’s M.O., never sensationalistic or overbearing. It’s also a film of tremendous patience; not many first-time filmmakers would attempt something as audacious as a 17-minute dialogue scene shot with a stationary camera, trusting their dialogue and their actors to not only keep the audience interested, but draw them in tighter.

35. Boyz n the Hood

Little in his subsequent filmography is of particular note, but a dozen more Four Brothers or 2 Fast 2 Furious-level efforts couldn’t dampen the astonishing power and passion of John Singleton’s 1991 debut. At the time of its release, this story of self-destruction, violence, and dimming hope in the inner city felt like a report from the front lines; that urgency remains, but the distance of time also allows a better appreciation of the quietly nuanced relationships between the three friends and the father (a never-better Laurence Fishburne) trying desperately to keep his son in line.

34. Chocolat

No, no, not the terrible Johnny Depp chocolate movie. French master Claire Denis made her debut in 1988 with this semi-autobiographical story of a young French girl who befriends her family’s native servant in colonial Cameroon. From that first film, she’s dealing with the recurring (and personally important theme) of colonialism, and already working in the contemplative yet collaborative style that has become her trademark.

33. Killer of Sheep

The American independent scene was sparse in general in 1979 — and as far as African-American voices go, it was all but nonexistent. Yet film student Charles Burnett spent a year (and reportedly less than $10,000) shooting this loosely constructed yet unabashedly personal story of a family struggling to survive in Watts. Its free use of unlicensed music made it a legendarily unseen film for the better part of 30 years, but when it was finally cleared, restored, and released in 2007, it was recognized as the classic it had become.

32. The Great McGinty

Before Preston Sturges, the writer/director was a bit of an oddity in Hollywood; there were occasional exceptions (like Chaplin, though he also performed), but for the most part, the two departments and two professions were kept quite separate under the studio system. Yet Sturges’ script for The Great McGinty was so good, he managed to hold it hostage until Paramount agreed to let him direct it as well. They did — though with a limited budget and schedule, and with a mere $10 fee for the script. They got the cinematic bargain of the century; this whip-smart political satire is both riotously funny and admirably acidic, and immediately established Sturges as Hollywood’s foremost creator of sophisticated comedy and organized chaos.

31. Say Anything

Reporter-turned-screenwriter Cameron Crowe had written the critical and financial smash Fast Times at Ridgemont High (and the somewhat less acclaimed The Wild Life) when he made the transition to writer/director with this 1989 romantic comedy/drama. The hallmarks of his work are already in place: it’s unapologetically heartfelt, its characters are thoughtful and surprising, and the soundtrack is assembled with the care of a borderline obsessive.

30. Targets

Roger Corman, always up for giving young filmmakers a shot, went to Peter Bogdanovich (who’d been doing odd jobs for the B-movie maven) with a proposal: Boris Karloff still owed him three days from the production of his faux-Poe horror quickie The Terror, so if Bogdanovich could work up a low-budget script that would utilize both Karloff’s time and clips from the earlier movie, he could make his directorial debut. Under those highly compromised circumstances, Bogdanovich crafted a thought-provoking (and still relevant) treatise on the nature of violence and the presence of true horror in the modern age.

29. This Is Spinal Tap

It’s not just that it’s one of the funniest movies ever made; Rob Reiner’s debut film is also a wickedly smart send-up of the documentary form, the self-inflation of celebrity, and the entire smug decade into which it was released.

28. Walking and Talking

There are a few guarantees you can always bank on with a Nicole Holofcener movie: witty and urbane dialogue, probing insights into female friendships, oft-uncomfortable examinations of expectations and compromise within the battle of the sexes, and a nice juicy role for Catherine Keener. And each of those elements dates back to her warm and satisfying debut feature, 1996’s Walking and Talking, a frequently funny, frequently prickly story of friends, lovers, and the poor schmucks in between.

27. Diner

Barry Levinson’s initial screenwriting credits were as part of Mel Brooks’ team, crafting wild comedies like High Anxiety and Silent Movie. But when the time came to direct a film of his own, he came up with a modest, low-key affair: a “guy talk” comedy/drama set in his native Baltimore, recalling the days in which he and his friends hid from their newfound adulthood by hanging out and talking trash at the local diner. It’s a warm yet melancholy picture, featuring a remarkable ensemble cast and a sure sense of time and place that Levinson would continue to cultivate in his best works.

26. The Virgin Suicides

Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut was preceded by a fair amount of snickering — after all, she was still best known for sinking father Francis’ third Godfather movie, and her previous attempt at filmmaking (co-writing his insipid New York Stories segment) didn’t exactly set the world on fire. So it was a welcome surprise that she created a debut feature as evocative, moving, and memorable as this, adapting Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel into a ruminative story of adolescent idealization and attraction.

25. Pather Panchali

Satyajit Ray kicked off his “Apu Trilogy,” and his filmmaking career, with this 1955 effort, which transcended its low budget, amateur cast, and state sponsorship to become a Cannes Film Festival winner and one of the most beloved films of its time. Inspired by Jean Renoir (whom he’d assisted in the shooting of The River several years earlier) and the Italian neorealists, Ray immediately developed a sublime, lyrical style of his own that helped, in one film, to put India on the world filmmaking map.

24. Knife in the Water

Roman Polanski’s first feature is rife with his career leitmotifs: sexual gamesmanship, jealousy, humiliation, and fear. The filmmaker places his three primary characters in a single, inescapable location, and squeezes it like a vice; 50 years and several masterpieces later, this remains one of the divisive filmmaker’s essential works.

23. Boys Don’t Cry

Kimberly Peirce takes a modest, low-key approach to tell the true and tragic story of Brandon Teena, a trans man first (unknowingly) welcomed and then horrifyingly victimized in a small Nebraska town. Peirce isn’t a flashy stylist; she settles down and makes herself at home in these bars and trailers — much as her protagonist did — and her direct, almost documentary style makes the story’s outcome all the more troubling.

22. Performance

It’s a two-for-one: co-directors Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg both made their directorial debut with this wildly experimental, candidly sexual, and graphically violent 1970 cause célèbre. It’s an expert bit of bait and switch; what begins as a seemingly straightforward British crime thriller degenerates, in its second half, into an unshakable orgy of sex, drugs, and psychedelic imagery.

21. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Exactly of its moment, yet decades ahead of its time, Paul Mazursky’s 1969 comedy is mostly regarded as a giggly cultural artifact, a nudging satire of the sexual revolution. It’s a better movie than that — smarter, deeper, trickier — and its real themes (honesty, monogamy, and the dangers of fancying ourselves more sophisticated than we are) are timeless. And the skill with which Mazursky manipulates those elements (and dodges the story’s easy pitfalls) is downright thrilling.

20. Duel

Steven Spielberg’s filmography was limited to episodic television when he was handed the job of helming this crackerjack suspense picture, in which an Everyman motorist battles a Peterbilt tanker on a California highway. The film so impressed Universal brass that not only was it expanded and distributed to European theaters, but it got Spielberg his next job, directing the Goldie Hawn road movie The Sugarland Express. More importantly, it showed Spielberg’s knack for white-knuckle suspense and unseen horror (the truck’s driver remains a mystery), which would come in handy when he made Jaws four years later.

19. Who’s That Knocking at My Door

Martin Scorsese, a recent grad of the NYU film school, spent several years crafting this first feature (which underwent several permutations and titles), a semi-autobiographical account of aimless young men, confused sexual politics, and Catholic guilt in New York City. He would revisit these themes, with greater polish, in his 1974 breakthrough film Mean Streets, but Who’s That Knocking remains a vital picture in the Scorsese canon, bursting with a wild energy, street poetry, and pulsing rock score typical of his best pictures.

18. Bottle Rocket

In this initial, small-scale effort, Wes Anderson did not yet have the kind of budget that would allow him to create the specificity of design which would come to define his films. But that’s no loss; this time, the focus is squarely on his (and co-writer/co-star Owen Wilson’s) characters, a crew of Texas oddballs bent on a life of crime, no matter how ill-suited they are for the job. A playful, disarming treat.

17. Gates of Heaven

Errol Morris’s debut film dealt with such an unlikely subject (the trials and tribulations of a pair of pet cemeteries), and was in the works for so long, that his occasional mentor and almost-collaborator Werner Herzog declared that if it was ever finished and released, he would eat his shoe. (He kept his word.) Morris’ style, often replicated but never quite duplicated, is still in development; he hasn’t yet begun to use dramatizations or heavily stylized interview sequences. But his eye and ear are firmly in place, and this peculiar story becomes an unlikely mediation on love, dedication, patience, and pets.

16. Badlands

Terrence Malick based his debut film on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, a pair of young lovers who cut a bloody swath through Nebraska and Wyoming in the late 1950s. The “lovers on the run” tropes were already well established by the time of the film’s post-Bonnie and Clyde release in 1973, but they were just a starting point for the visionary filmmaker; he gave them a decidedly postmodern twist, using the genre trappings as cover for the dreamy imagery and existentialist voice-overs that would come to define his work.

15. Eraserhead

From the first frame of the first film by cult legend David Lynch, there was little doubt that we were witnessing the arrival of a new and very peculiar movie-maker. This surrealistic nightmare vision is alternately haunting, funny, repulsive, and downright inexplicable. What it is not, is typical — that is, of anyone except the twisted man who spent five years bringing it to the screen.

14. sex, lies, and videotape

Steven Soderbergh all but kicked off the indie renaissance of the 1990s with this intimate, intelligent four-hander, which shocked the industry by winning the grand prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. It’s still a bit of a surprise: it’s a relationship movie where everyone is dysfunctional, a sex story with little to no explicit sex, and a comedy where all the laughs are subtextual. But most of all, it’s ruthless, a story in which everyone’s a mess (but only one of them knows it), yet none can escape the keen eye of a filmmaker whose style has been too often dismissed as “cold,” yet is, from the outset, clearly just unimpeachably wise.

13. Shadows

John Cassavetes had no designs on becoming one of the most influential of all filmmakers; he was a struggling actor who initially decided to make a film with his acting class more as an exercise than anything else. But his style — a rough, handheld, semi-documentary aesthetic, using real locations, street photography, and extensive improvisation — proved a sharp rebuke to the sleek, pre-packaged fantasies of conventional Hollywood fare, and this 1959 drama still maintains that unvarnished power.

12. Blue Collar

Paul Schrader was already one of Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriters (he’d penned Taxi Driver, The Yakuza, and Rolling Thunder) when he made his directorial debut with this tough, angry, powerful 1978 factory drama. It was a contentious set — stars Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto were all unwilling to share the spotlight, and Schrader had considerable difficulty marshaling their explosive personalities. But that struggle translated, in the best possible way, to this unrelenting and unmerciful narrative of friendships destroyed and ambitions indulged.

11. Reservoir Dogs

Quentin Tarantino had written his first two screenplays (True Romance and Natural Born Killers) with the hope of directing them himself, but was unable to raise funds due to his status as a novice (aside from an early, unfinished amateur effort called My Best Friend’s Birthday). So he downscaled as far as he could, writing a small ensemble piece, confined mostly to a single location, crafting roles for himself and his acting buddies. Of course, this was the film where the elements finally came together; he and producer Lawrence Bender procured a seven-figure budget, a cast of great character actors (including Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, and the legendary Lawrence Tierney), and the means to make a fast-talking, blood-spattered, modern crime classic.

10. Blood Simple

Born in Minnesota and educated in the Northeast, the Coen Brothers didn’t know all that much about Texas — but you can’t tell from their debut film Blood Simple, a dusty bit of neo-noir set in the neighborhoods and honky-tonks of the Lone Star state. Upon its release, some critics complained that it was all style. But that’s the beauty of the picture: it is all style, all deliciously ripe, delirious style, and you can’t take your eyes off it.

9. L’Age D’or

After the sensation of their notorious short film “Un Chien Andalou,” Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí planned an ambitious second collaboration, more than twice as long and this time with sound. But they parted company between the film’s writing and its production, leaving Buñuel to direct this series of comic, tragic, and surrealistic vignettes dramatizing and satirizing modern mores, Catholic dogma, bourgeois values, and sexual repression. It’s not quite as shocking now as it was then (few things are), but it remains a fascinating glimpse of the master filmmaker’s early preoccupations and aesthetic concerns.

8. Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero was a successful industrial and commercial filmmaker from Pittsburgh who convinced his colleagues and pals to help him make a no-frills horror movie on the side. It was intended merely as a commercial creature feature, but the stark, black-and-white film captured the dread wafting through the air circa 1968 (when it was first released), the unassuming, vérité-style photography sharpening its implicit commentary on Vietnam and race relations.

7. L’atalante

Jean Vigo followed up his controversial (and still potent) short film “Zero for Conduct” with this lyrical portrait of a young marriage already on the rocks. The filmmaker was violently ill during most of its production (he died, at 29, mere months after its release); Francois Truffaut, one of the picture’s most vocal admirers, surmised that “he was in a kind of fever while he worked,” a guess borne out by the film’s dreamlike visuals and richly elegiac quality.

6. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Nightclub-comic-turned-stage-director Mike Nichols made an explosive crossover to film with this relentless adaptation of Edward Albee’s stage play. Pulling career-best performances from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (and impressive supporting turns from George Segal and Sandy Dennis), Nichols crafts a persuasive and inexorable picture of an utterly toxic relationship, and in spite of the somewhat dubious decision to “open up” the play with scenes in altered settings, it maintains the intensity and “no one gets out of here alive” spirit of the brilliant source material.

5. Breathless

Jean-Luc Godard’s first film is one of those rare debuts that pulses with the creator’s love for the sheer act of making a movie. The critic-turned-director dispenses with the niceties of form — shooting handheld in natural locations, jump-cutting wildly, etc. — and merges the cinematic traditions of American genre film with his own breezy, off-the-cuff style and preoccupations. No one had ever seen anything quite like it; they also couldn’t wait, in the years that followed, to imitate it.

4. The Maltese Falcon

The year after Preston Sturges broke down the writer/director wall, John Huston followed suit with this adaptation (the third, actually) of Dashiell Hammett’s gumshoe novel. His extensive attention to detail and flair with supporting characters (and actors) combined with an iconic Humphrey Bogart performance (one of two breakthrough roles for him that year) to make The Maltese Falcon one of the most smashing and absorbing mysteries of all time.

3. Night of the Hunter

Character actor Charles Laughton’s first — and, sadly, last — film on the other side of the camera was this 1955 adaptation of David Grubb’s book, adapted by Laughton and the great James Agee. This story of a preacher/serial killer (Robert Mitchum, never better) terrorizing his stepchildren was years, maybe decades, ahead of its time; audiences were turned off by the dark subject matter, but its gorgeous expressionist cinematography and lyrical horror have made it one of the most respected and influential films of all time.

2. The 400 Blows

The year before his friend, collaborator, and Cahiers du cinema colleague Godard released Breathless (for which he contributed the original treatment), Francois Truffaut took the world cinema scene by storm with this autobiographical drama, widely regarded as the starter pistol for the French New Wave. But it’s not just a capital-I Important Movie; the young filmmaker effortlessly captures the restlessness of youth, and the mix of helplessness and powerlessness that fuels it. All that, plus one of the most iconic closing shots in movie history.

1. Citizen Kane

Oh, c’mon. What else were we gonna pick?