The key to 21st century communication is the blog. And, as every blogger knows, the key to the blog is the list. Nothing generates discussion faster than labelling something “The Ten Best…” or “The Twenty Most Overrated….”. After recently writing a piece on Ryan Coogler’s impressive debut film Fruitvale Station (for which Michael B. Jordan should have received an Oscar nomination), I decided to do my own “Best Debut Films” list. How naïve I was.
The problems in creating such a list are manifold. Most of those problems relate to definition. What exactly is a “debut film”? The most obvious title on my list, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), was not the first movie Welles ever directed. He made a number of mostly experimental short films while still a teenager, and due to his later fame, scholars have uncovered some of these. It is almost impossible to imagine any filmmaker not having dabbled prior to making his or her first universally recognised film.
Then there is the issue of length. Many filmmakers, particularly in the early days of film, began by making shorts. D.W. Griffith’s first movie, The Adventures of Dollie, was a one-reeler made for American Biograph in 1908. Over the next five years, he would direct more than 400 shorts, before making his first feature film. If we rule out shorts, how long does a movie have to be to be considered a feature? Vigo’s Zero de conduit (1933) and Tarkovsky’s The Steamroller and the Violin (1960) are arguably features, but each only runs about 45 minutes.
The same concept applies to genre. Many filmmakers began as documentarians before making their first narrative movies. And what about collaborations? Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, and Edgar Ulmer (among others) collaborated on 1930’s People on Sunday (1930). Should it count as a debut for each?
Finally, there is the problem of access. For many early filmmakers, their debut movies are virtually impossible to see. I have never seen the first film of Ozu or Mizoguchi. I have two Soviet films from the 1920s on this list, but my favourite director from that period, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, is missing because I have never seen his earliest films.
So I have somewhat arbitrarily decided that in order to be on this list, the movie in question needs to be a narrative film, at least sixty minutes long, released by an actual distributor. That still leaves a lot of leeway. And I have also decided to call this a list of impressive debuts, and not the definitive “Best.”
Here then is a list, in chronological order, of 40 very impressive feature film directorial debuts. Read. Enjoy. Tear apart, if you must.
Judith of Bethulia – D.W. Griffith (1914): After being restricted to making shorts by his studio for five years, Griffith finally got the chance to blow the popular Italian super-spectacles out of the water. For those turned off by the controversy of Birth of a Nation (1915) or the pomposity of Intolerance (1916), this earlier spectacle may be more to your liking.
Three Ages – Buster Keaton (1923): Keaton moved from being Fatty Arbuckle’s sidekick to making his own brilliant comic shorts to making this first feature in a few short years. A marvellous send-up of Intolerance.
Strike – Sergei Eisenstein (1925): Just before changing the world with Battleship Potemkin, this most cerebral of filmmakers began to change the world with his first feature.
Mother – Vsevolod Pudovkin (1926): Eisenstein was cold. Pudovkin was warmer, with a sense of humour to boot, but no less effective.
L’age d’Or – Luis Bunuel (1930): Bunuel was not the first surrealist. Just the best. He followed up the most famous short film in cinema history, Un Chien Andalou, with this masterpiece feature.
L’Atalante – Jean Vigo (1934): His only feature. He died, at 29, the year it was released. The most tragic death in cinema, and this movie is among the most romantic stories ever captured on film.
The Great McGinty – Preston Sturges (1940): A year before Welles made Citizen Kane, Paramount let a screenwriter direct one of his own scripts. A new era was upon us. Sturges was the greatest comic screenwriter of all time, and though he would go on to make better movies, this was a damn good start.
Citizen Kane – Orson Welles (1941): Nothing to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times.
The Maltese Falcon – John Huston (1941): Another writer making the most of his chance to direct. I think this is somewhat overrated, but there’s no denying that it is impressive suspense. Huston may not have turned Humphrey Bogart into the iconic Bogie, but he sure helped.
Ossessione – Luchino Visconti (1943): Visconti sometimes gets lumped in with the neo-realists, which I’ve never quite understood. This is pulp melodrama, based, without permission, on James M. Cain, and it’s lots of fun. If you’ve seen either version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, check this out.
Whisky Galore! – Alexander Mackendrick (1949): The Ealing comedies of the late 40s and early 50s are among the most sublime ever made, and this little-known gem about islanders trying to salvage a sunken ship full of whisky is among the best.
The White Sheik – Federico Fellini (1952): I went for years believing that I Vitteloni was Fellini’s first feature, primarily because it was far more popular. But this film, made a year before, shows the talent that was to quickly emerge.
12 Angry Men – Sydney Lumet (1957): He had directed on stage and on the small screen, but for his feature film debut, Lumet took an extremely talky story confined to a single location, and turned it into a gripping and crucial movie.
Stolen Desire – Shohei Imamura (1958): The man who rebelled against Ozu. The second wave of Japanese filmmakers were rougher and more modern. After assisting Ozu on several films, Imamura borrowed elements of the master’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) for his debut.
Hiroshima Mon Amour – Alain Resnais (1959): Let the New Wave begin. I have to admit I am not a big fan of Resnais’ flights through time, but it’s hard to watch this without realising something special was happening.
Shadows – John Cassavetes (1959): The French weren’t the only ones having fun in the late 50s. A reaction against typical Hollywood fare, with lots of jazz to boot. Cassavetes made two versions of the movie, and this version won awards at Venice in 1960.
The 400 Blows – Francois Truffaut (1959): Along with Citizen Kane, the most obvious choice on the list. Movies were rarely made about troubled teens before this, and they were never made without a friendly father or priest present to offer guidance.
Breathless – Jean-Luc Godard (1960): It’s fitting that Truffaut and Godard are next to each other. Friends, rivals, visionaries. Truffaut’s early features pay tribute to American films. His later ones would rip all prior cinema to shreds.
Accatone – Pier Paolo Pasolini (1961): Watching young Italian directors shake off neo-realism in the early 60s is one of the joys of world cinema.
Knife in the Water – Roman Polanski (1962): He would go on to make shattering character films like Cul de Sac (1966) and Repulsion (1965), but you can see the germs of those obsessions in his debut. And any filmmaker who has attempted to shoot on water can appreciate the technical industry he shows.
Ivan’s Childhood – Andrei Tarkovsky (1962): One of my favourite Steven Spielberg movies is Empire of the Sun. I would not argue that Tarkovsky’s film is better, but it’s pretty darn close. Tarkovsky was largely responsible for reviving Soviet cinema on an international scale.
The Connection – Shirley Clarke (1962): NY Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that Clarke’s debut “offers a forthright and repulsive observation of a sleazy, snarling group of narcotic addicts.” Who doesn’t love that? The first woman on the list is also the most out of the mainstream.
The Producers – Mel Brooks (1967): He had been the alpha dog television writer on a staff that included Neil Simon and Woody Allen. There was no way he wasn’t going to direct. The funniest debut since the silent era.
Targets – Peter Bogdanovich (1968): Following the lead of the French New Wavers, this film critic decided to try his hand at making movies. His first four were gems. This is the oddest of them all, blending two seemingly unconnected stories in a most intriguing way.
Play Misty for Me – Clint Eastwood (1971): Eastwood was past 40 when he began directing and it is hard to think of a director who has had more success late in life. Borrowing heavily from mentor Don Siegel, who makes an appearance in this movie, Eastwood rejected the Westerns he was known for and made a taut psychological suspense story instead.
Badlands – Terrence Malick (1973): OK, I’ll admit it. I didn’t understand Tree of Life (2011). At all. But I understood Malick’s debut, loosely based on the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree of 1958. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek burst onto the scene.
Shivers (AKA They Came From Within, AKA The Parasite Murders, and others) – David Cronenberg (1975): Any movie with this many cool titles is worth a look. This is by no means a great movie. But the passion and inventiveness, and the sense of horror as a modern, urban subject worthy of discussion, is palpable. Cronenberg is the greatest director of horror films ever, and this kicks off a remarkable career.
Eraserhead – David Lynch (1977): Think it’s easy to make a surrealistic first feature? Peter Greenaway, an extremely talented filmmaker himself, would try a few years later with his gargantuan The Falls (1980), and it would be a disaster (a violent unknown disaster for those familiar with it). But Lynch, a true cinematic visionary, was able to create something absurd, engrossing, and yes, even touching.
Killer of Sheep – Charles Burnett (1979): If UCLA hadn’t told him to get out in the late 70s, Burnett might still be working on this. The most famous of the LA Rebellion’s attempt to portray African American life as it is really lived, and not how Hollywood has traditionally packaged it.
Mad Max – George Miller (1979): My favourite physician/filmmaker. The term “post-apocalyptic” could have been invented for this brutal action story (it may have been invented for its star, Mel Gibson, as well).
This is Spinal Tap – Rob Reiner (1984): After a long career acting on television, Reiner directed his first film, one of the most iconic and oft-quoted movies of the 80s, which helped legitimise the satiric mockumentary as a genre.
Red Sorghum – Yimou Zhang (1987): The Beijing Film Academy reopened in 1978. A decade later, the dividends came on like a tidal wave, and leading the way was this young filmmaker, who would quickly rise to the very top of the international film community.
Strictly Ballroom – Baz Luhrmann (1992): Romance, comedy, music, dance. All from the most distinctive stylist to emerge in the ‘90s.
The White Balloon – Jafar Panahi (1995): With a screenplay by Abbas Kiarostami, this Cannes winner told the world there was a new New Wave, and it was coming from Iran.
Walking and Talking – Nicole Holofcener (1996): I realise it is sacrilegious to admit, but I prefer Holofcener’s first two movies to 2013’s Enough Said. The fact is, she is not a great director, but she is as good a screenwriter as there is today, and that is on display in this light comedy, with a little more gravitas than you’d expect.
Pi – Darren Aronofsky (1998): Want to give yourself a challenge? Try making a thriller about math. Aronofsky’s cerebral suspense story was a sign of things to come from a director constantly looking for new challenges.
Amores Perros – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (2002): Along with Cuaron and del Toro, Inarritu led the explosion in Mexican filmmaking that was at the forefront of an exciting cinematic movement throughout the Spanish-speaking world. His first film showed off his sophisticated experiments in structure and visual style while never sacrificing story.
Chicago – Rob Marshall (2002): It is remarkable that a theatre director could break so free from the stage in his first feature film and create such a purely cinematic musical.
Primer – Shane Carruth (2004): This was supposed to be the start of something huge. The brilliant sci-fi indie wasn’t widely seen, but those who saw it could not forget it. Unfortunately, either through lack of interest or lack of wherewithal, Carruth did not release a follow-up until 2013’s Upstream Color.
The Lives of Others – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2006): Along with Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, I consider this to be the best film of the 21st century. Made by a giant of a man who can speak more languages than there are languages.
All right. That ought to be enough. 40, if I counted right. You may now begin complaining. What did I overrate? What did I forget? The blogosphere is yours.