Directorial debuts (the fancy word for the first movie ever made by a director) are supposed to act as the calling card for their talent and their voice. They send them to festivals or get them to a producer who has faith in them and, if it’s good, it sets them up for a life of making movies in the years to come. There have been some directorial debuts that have killed a filmmaker’s career before it even began and others that have sent those careers skyrocketing. So, here are the 10 greatest first movies of any directors in cinema history!
10. John Singleton – Boyz n the Hood
Throughout the ‘90s, there was a whole slew of hood movies like Menace II Society and New Jack City and Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever. It became sort of a trend. These movies were so popular that the Wayans brothers decided to parody the genre with the movie Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. To varying degrees, those movies captured the feeling of African American youths growing up in a dangerous low class area populated by gangs. Easily the best of all those hood movies from the ‘90s is John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. And what’s more, that was his first movie ever! What an entrance in the film business this was. Not only did he make a fantastic movie that was emotionally touching and powerful and socially important, but he was nominated for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. This made him both the youngest person ever and first African American person ever to be nominated for Best Director. The movie, starring Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding, Jr., has even been chosen for preservation in the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
9. James Wan – Saw
If someone is going to totally revolutionize a genre and change the way that its movies are made, they don’t generally do it with their first movie. That’s normally when they’re just learning the ropes of filmmaking and coming to terms with the realities of putting together a whole feature length film. But James Wan was ahead of that. He saw that the more focus on smart storytelling and less focus on violence of the older horror movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s like A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Exorcist and The Omen were being replaced by endlessly and gratuitously gory horror movies that had lazy writing and relied on explosions of blood and knives in heads for their scares. Wan had the vision to combine these two. He and his co-writer Leigh Whannell saw that you could go back to that clever storytelling without having to sacrifice any of the gore or the violence that modern horror audiences had come to expect, and from that, they created Saw. Wan’s first movie was a dark, tense, terrifying masterclass in horror that was both twisted in its tone and twisty in its writing. Horror would never be the same again.
8. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – This is the End
It’s no wonder that the first time that Superbad and Pineapple Express writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg stepped behind the camera, they did a great job of it. They had spent years learning from the best. Their scripts had been directed by the likes of Michel Gondry and David Gordon Green and they’d been mentored by Judd Apatow, so they were well trained in capturing the heart of their humor on the screen. They decided to begin their directing career with This is the End, the story of an apocalypse that ravages the world with a specific focus on the famous faces of Hollywood. Among dozens of cameos, we stay with Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride as they attempt to survive an apocalyptic world that’s populated by fire and brimstone and cannibals and demons. Comedy movies are usually lit really brightly and shot in a very conventional way using a multi-camera setup and tripods. It’s so bland and unexciting and, worst of all, uncinematic. But This is the End is a particularly dark comedy with elements of horror and Rogen and Goldberg are smarter and more artistic then the average comedy directors, so they shot the movie with a cinema verite style to give it a grittier feel, and lit it and color graded it really darkly. And what we get is one of the finest comedies in recent memory.
7. Edgar Wright – Shaun of the Dead
Technically, Edgar Wright had made another feature film before Shaun of the Dead – a low budget western comedy called A Fistful of Fingers – but since it was never properly released, it doesn’t count, so his zom-rom-com is his official directorial debut. It is also one of the funniest British movies ever made. It would eventually become the first part of what is referred to as the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy – two other collaborations between Wright, Pegg, and Frost, the cop comedy Hot Fuzz and the sci-fi comedy The World’s End, with similar themes and humor, would follow. It introduced the moviegoing world to the endearing pairing of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. There are very few co-stars who share the chemistry of Pegg and Frost and this is the movie that started it all, setting up Pegg as the straight man and Frost as the wild card. The narrative structure is tight, with all the foreshadowing and the plot twists, and the character development is fantastic – it’s a beautiful love story that happens to have zombies and jokes layered on top of it. Plus, the editing and the camera angles are engaging with all the horror movie tropes being lampooned perfectly and the fast cuts that could make even a character brushing their teeth an exciting moment. Shaun of the Dead is a brilliant directorial debut.
6. David Leitch and Chad Stahelski – John Wick
It’s hard these days to make an action movie that actually has an engaging storyline and also maintains a constant level of action from start to finish. John Wick is basically just one long rampage, as a former assassin comes out of retirement in order to get revenge for the murder of his dog – the only thing he had left to live for in the world after his wife died – and yet, it actually has plot and character development throughout. It has the equilibrium and the challenges and the tests, allies, and enemies and the climax and the resolution and the new equilibrium – all the things that all narratives need. And it still manages to be exciting and action-packed from beginning to end. All the long takes keep the action interesting to watch, while the elaborate stunt work and different combat styles help to elevate it head and shoulders above most other action movies. This is because Leitch and Stahelski were both stuntmen and stunt coordinators before stepping behind the camera. By drawing on strong influences such as John Woo’s The Killer and John Boorman’s Point Blank, Leitch and Stahelski gave us one of the most original, most exhilarating, and above all, most cinematic action thrillers of the 21st century so far.
5. Terrence Malick – Badlands
All the love for Terrence Malick has sort of faded away in recent years as his movies have gotten more and more experimental. For example, one of his latest, Song to Song, seemed to be pretty much just Malick following his actors around with a camera and then stringing together random clips from the footage. But back in 1973, he was a budding filmmaker with a powerful story to tell. He based an original screenplay on the real life killing spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, and cooked up the perfect roles for Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek to star as a couple who love to kill and go on the run. The character dynamic of the psychopathic boyfriend and the girlfriend who isn’t as sure about how cool murdering people is but goes around with it because she loves him feels very real and it keeps the movie interesting, so it’s not just mindless killing. Her doubts about the spree are our hook. Sheen said of the script, “The script was astonishing. It was by far the best script I had ever read…[and] still is.” And technically, the film is a huge achievement. Malick’s use of color and the rule of thirds in this movie is unparalleled – they still use it today in film schools when teaching the essentials of cinematography.
4. Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig became only the fifth woman in Oscar history to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director after helming her first movie, Lady Bird. There’s a misconception that actors don’t make for good directors and that they only do it to feed their ego. That’s wrong – they do it because they have a love for film and want to contribute to it. And they know how to do it, too, because they’ve learned from the best. They’ve seen how directors work, so they just use all the best techniques they’ve picked up from the various sets they’ve been on. Gerwig followed the example of all the great directors she’s ever worked with – Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach (with whom she’s written some movies, too) and Ivan Reitman and mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg and the like – to create, in her words, “a female counterpart to tales like The 400 Blows and Boyhood.” Gerwig not only made a brilliant movie that puts a fresh spin on the tired coming of age genre by being so raw and honest, but she created a strong female role in a cinematic landscape that suffers from a serious shortage of them. Bravo, Greta Gerwig.
3. Martin McDonagh – In Bruges
Before making the leap into filmmaking, Martin McDonagh was a playwright, so he was used to telling stories in confined spaces. For his first movie, he expanded the claustrophobic feel of the theater to the claustrophobic feel of a small, obscure European city – specifically Bruges in Belgium, where two hitmen are hiding out after a botched hit. As the plot thickens and we get deeper and deeper, we see why Colin Farrell’s character is so emotionally affected and broken by exactly how the hit was botched. Meanwhile, Brendan Gleeson plays his older, wiser, more level-headed companion. The two stars are brilliant in their own right and share great chemistry. McDonagh does a phenomenal job of bringing in seemingly random plot elements – a dwarf who likes to get high on horse tranquilizer, the guy with the gun etc. – and managing to tie them all together in the climax. So, essentially, this is a feature length episode of Seinfeld with the same banter, except with more swearing and graphic violence, set in Bruges, and ending on an even more depressing note than usual. The guy who would go on to make Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri really set the bar high for himself with his debut.
2. Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs
We all know what a Quentin Tarantino movie looks like – there’s gangsters in black suits with ties who shoot each other and there’s a ludicrous amount of profanity and violence and the story is told all out of order to enhance its impact on the audience. We’ve seen that play out eight times now (nine, if you count Kill Bill as two movies) over the past couple of decades, but it all started with Reservoir Dogs, where all of those tropes and trademarks were on fine display. Back then, the audiences didn’t know that those were Tarantino’s signature tropes. All they knew was that they were watching a totally original movie – it was funny and tense and thrilling and mysterious and bloody and twisty and grisly and powerful, and as soon as they walked out of the theater, they wanted to talk about it. The reign of Quentin Tarantino had begun! Also, fun fact: the title came from a mix-up in the video store where Tarantino used to work. The future director used to give out recommendations to the customers. One time, he told a guy to rent Au revoir les enfants, and the guy told him, “I don’t want to see no reservoir dogs!” Then he named his first movie after it.
1. Jordan Peele – Get Out
It is arguable that no one in the history of cinema has made as much of an impact with their first movie as Jordan Peele. He didn’t come out of nowhere with a great film like most first time filmmakers. He actually came out of a completely different medium that was already one of the best at. Peele was well known as one half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele along with Keegan Michael Key. They were known for doing satirical sketches about racism and race relations, but even so, when it was announced that Peele would be writing and directing a horror movie about the current socio-political climate surrounding the issue of race, a lot of people were skeptical. No one thought that the guy who played the screeching narcissistic girlfriend Meegan and a sociopathic aerobics dancer could pull off something so dark and serious. But he showed them all where to get off when Get Out blazed into theaters and became a box office hit, won over the hearts of just about every critic in the world, and got nominated for a boatload of Oscars. He became the third person in history to be nominated for the hat trick of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay for their debut movie, and became the first black winner of the latter.