The spark before the fire, the first ink blot on a fresh sheet of paper, a flower bud before it blooms. The directorial debut of a young filmmaker is something that can be beautiful and an impetus for a career of success and notoriety. Or, it can break the fresh-faced director. Take them out of the game before they’ve even had a chance to play a full inning. Looking at the humble beginnings of certain directors can be a fun way to see how they have evolved (or devolved, in some cases). Some, like Stanley Kubrick, for example, had very mediocre debut films but then continued to blossom into unbelievably talented filmmakers. Others, like Richard Kelly, didn’t seem to ever be able to rise above their initial cinematic feat. A director crafting something great from the starting line is something to be marveled at. Orson Welles’ first film as a director is one that is considered by many to be the greatest ever made. While few movie makers have been able to measure up to Welles’ inaugural success, many have come close. A very select few, in my opinion, have surpassed Welles’s first achievement. So today, in honor of the 100th birthday of Charles Foster Kane himself, I look at some of the greatest feature length directorial debuts in the history of film.
P.S. I tried my best to whittle this list down to ten movies. There are still some I wish I could put on here like Jeff Nichols’ excellent Shotgun Stories or the 1980 comedy Airplane! but alas, they just didn’t quite make the cut. Consider this their unofficial, honorable mention inclusion onto the list.
Richard Linklater made his first mark on the world of cinema by being the opposite of the title of his first film. While Slacker moves leisurely through a small Texas college town and does not seem to have a precise plot, it is still an incredibly impressive, funny, and interesting film, especially coming from a rookie to the medium. Linklater captures the laid back and pseudo-nihilistic spirit of the characters and the town itself by being more than an observer. His floaty, ethereal filming technique here reflects the mindsets of the people inhabiting the frame in a way rarely done in film. These aren’t just weirdos in a weird state; these are people and should be filmed as such. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it has to be treated as such.
The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton’s grim fairy tale of two children running from a borderline satanic Robert Mitchum is oft ranked high on the lists of greatest films of all time. Yet, it comes as a shock to know that not only was this Laughton’s first film as director but his last as well. Night of the Hunter was so poorly received on release in 1955, Laughton gave up directing entirely and focused mostly on his main career as an actor from then on out. It really is a shame. If Night of the Hunter is anything like what Laughton could have done in the future, we as a society may have missed out on one of the better directing careers possibly ever. What Laughton crafted with The Night of the Hunter was something unabashedly dark, hypnotic, and wholly original. A masterpiece that uses light and dark on a level like none other. One only has to remember the chilling river sequence in the film to know this.
From The Godfather to The Wolf of Wall Street, the concept of the American Dream has been dealt with often. Yet, never has it been portrayed in the funny, poignant, and deeply melancholic way that it was in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 classic, Easy Rider. The closest to a modern counterpart I can think of is Inherent Vice, and even that doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the times in the same way. Hopper was a man who looked at the great open road in front of him being blockaded by uncertainty and tumult and then put that on celluloid. Easy Rider has had such an impact on American culture in general that many may recognize the film, or pieces of it, without ever even seeing the entire thing. While the times may change and the commentary put forth by Easy Rider may fade, the film’s wonderful stylistic choices and quirky characters will always resonate with audiences. Hopper may have never quite reached the same height as a director, but it didn’t matter. For anyone to have Easy Rider on their repertoire is more than enough.
On paper, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 seminal crime tale seems fairly regular, almost cliché. A cocksure young gangster shoots a police officer and spends the rest of the film on the run. Yet, Godard, even from the start, was not one to fall victim to convention. With his debut, Godard largely abandoned traditional narrative form and broke nearly every rule in the film grammar book. What should have resulted was a jagged, unwatchable, mess of a movie. Yet, somehow, Godard made something truly new, and truly wonderful. After Breathless, linear editing really didn’t seem like such a necessity. Breathless is a comment on itself. The protagonist, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, fashions himself after Humphrey Bogart in the American crime movies he adores. Jean-Luc Godard is fashioning his movie after the American pictures he loves and was influenced by. Yet, it does not come off as caricature. Godard’s own unique touch is added to everything. As a debut feature, Breathless is daring and confident. As a movie, it’s downright revolutionary.
To call Joel and Ethan Coen towering figures in the film industry would be a gross understatement. Throughout their continuous careers as filmmakers, the brothers have put out some of the very best cinematic work that there is. From The Big Lebowski to Fargo to No Country for Old Men and everything in between, the Coens are truly a force to be reckoned with. Yet, even giants started small. Blood Simple was the first film from the directing duo. It was low budget, relatively unambitious, and, as the title suggests, simple. Yet beyond the basic neo-noir crime narrative lay serious talent. The Coens took an age-old story of infidelity and jealousy and then mixed it with their own darkly fatalistic worldview where the blood can’t be cleaned up and no one comes out a winner. Many movie makers work entire careers without making anything as assured as Blood Simple. The Coen Brothers got it right at the crack of the starter pistol and still continue to improve upon it to this day.
David Lynch took five whole years to finish his first full length film. As horribly lengthy and arduous as that sounds, it clearly paid off, because the finished product of all that work is certainly something to behold. Lynch’s wildly original and utterly insane style held the gaze of moviegoers and paved the way for his lucrative future career. The way in which he uses sound and striking visuals to craft an unflappable sense of eeriness holds up even today. And the terrifying vision of fatherhood gone awry is something that’s near impossible to forget. When I first saw Eraserhead, I hated it. The whole thing shook me in a way that I interpreted as bad. On repeated viewings, I’ve found the deep emotional disemboweling one gets while watching Eraserhead is just part of its odd charm. Lynch plants himself deep in the viewer’s subconscious and works from there. It is a film that comes from a man with a precise vision of what he wants to show, say, and feel. Some auteurs take time for them to find their own voice. With Lynch, he knew from the start, and the world of movies is better for it.
While Martin McDonagh was already an established playwright before making In Bruges, it’s really a shame he hadn’t worked in cinema before then. His wonderfully sharp dialogue, potent themes, and keen visual eye mesh perfectly with In Bruges, a true masterpiece of comedic timing and grim realities. McDonagh takes a stance on the very uncontrollable aspects of crime and violence, a serious subject for sure, while looking at it all with a devilish grin and wicked sense of humor. He uses the ancient city of Bruges as a stage for the very primal acts of brutality that go on in the film but never lets himself get to serious about the whole thing. The comedic crime-gone-wrong story has been done before by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, and it could easily fall into things we’ve seen time and time again. Yet, McDonagh is too talented to let that happen. He could have directed In Bruges with the visual panache of a homemade car commercial, and it still would’ve been pretty good because of his whip smart script. Yet, McDonagh manages to also do a wonderful job of directing the material, simultaneously crafting some beautiful shots and getting possibly the best performance Colin Farrell’s ever given. As a whole, this is a remarkable film.
With Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino became the envy of independent filmmakers everywhere. His very first film was something of the utmost filmmaking assurance and screenwriting talent. Reservoir Dogs set Tarantino up for the career of freedom and full on self indulgence (not always a bad thing) he has now. Like many of the films on this list, Tarantino took a very straightforward crime narrative and played it for anything but a straightforward crime narrative. Using the non-linear storytelling he’d later perfect in his masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino showed audiences the aftermath of a botched diamond heist. But no one was really interested in the diamond heist. Tarantino bathed in the glory of the mundane. What would professional criminals talk about before a job? Madonna? It sounds almost absurd on paper, but in execution, Tarantino’s crime picture about nothing turned into something pretty damn wonderful. Every scene crackles with excitement. Tarantino is as interested in the movie as we are, and that really pays off here. It’s confident voices like this that allow independent and obscure movies to rise out of the trenches of the independent and obscure.
Being John Malkovich
The themes of individuality and finding one’s self aren’t the most original, but when injected into a story about a magical wormhole that transports people into the brain of actor John Malkovich, they become something totally different. The writer-director team of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman were first displayed to the world in 1999 with Being John Malkovich, a movie so absurd and quirky that it teeters on the edge of becoming too absurd and quirky. Under the wrong hands, Kaufman’s wonderful, but fragile, script could have devolved into something terribly irritating. Luckily, the Spike Jonze brought his deftness to the material and created something truly great and, oddly enough, down to earth. Every element of Being John Malkovich clicks perfectly. From the impressive commitment by the actual John Malkovich, to John Cusack’s performance as a classic schlub, everything falls together. The Spike Jonze we know today started here, and his intricacies and future successes can be seen in the cracks of Being John Malkovich. Its resilience and popularity are simply a testament to its weird originality and phantasmagorical spirit, something that won’t be forgotten for a long time.
Violence, to Terrence Malick, is a force of nature. Holly Sargis (played by Sissy Spacek) is simply a lone twig caught up in the unstoppable push of the river of violence that ebbs and flows throughout life no matter where anyone goes. It has no background, no real reason, it simply is, like the clouds and the mountains. Badlands is, without a doubt, one of the most concise and beautiful films ever made. The fact that it was Malick’s very first film is something near impossible to comprehend. Malick himself was a philosophy professor at MIT before he got into moviemaking. His story he’s telling here is deeply entrenched in philosophy, his philosophy, that he would hone and perfect in successive films like Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life. Each frame of this film makes my throat seize up in the sheer pulchritude, and Malick backs everything up with his heady ideas being put forth. Not a moment is wasted. It’s a classic “crime on the road” story played for something even bigger and vastly more interesting. For me, this is the debut film to beat. With Badlands, Terrence Malick established himself as a true original in the world of cinema and has stayed that way ever since.