It is quite exciting to watch new projects from new creatives, especially when they deliver promising work from the get-go. In fact, some directors provided audiences with such impressive debuts that they remain their best films.
In addition to introducing new cinematic styles, a filmmaker’s first big project marks a crucial moment in their directing careers — directorial debuts establish a filmmaker’s work, giving newbies a voice and opportunity to make a name for themselves in the industry. On top of this, it also provides audiences with innovative perspectives and fresh content. With the help of users on cinephile platform Letterboxd, we gathered the ten most impressive directorial debuts of all time.
10 ‘Blood Simple’ (1984)
1984’s Blood Simple, directed by Joel Coen, is a crime drama revolving around a small-town Texas bar owner, Julian Marty, who discovers that one of his employees is having an affair with his wife and hires a private detective to spy on her, which causes a series of chaotic, mysterious events to unfold.
Combining comedy elements with violence in a memorable directorial debut, the first movie by one of the Coen brothers certainly makes for an interesting watch. Moreover, the revenge thriller also counts on stylish visuals and a compelling plot.
9 ‘Nightcrawler’ (2014)
Featuring what is perhaps Jake Gyllenhaal‘s finest performance, Nightcrawler tells the story of Louis Bloom, a loner con man who is desperate for work and ends up in the world of L.A. crime journalism. When the line between observing and participating starts slowly deteriorating, Bloom finds himself at the center stage in his own narrative.
No doubt, Dan Gilroy‘s gripping crime thriller — an impressive directorial debut that analyses the character of a manipulative sociopath (while expertly criticizing capitalism) — is a memorable watch that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats throughout its entirety.
8 ‘American Beauty’ (1999)
American Beauty narrates the final week in the life of a 43-year-old, privileged, sexually frustrated suburban father (Kevin Spacey) who, despite being seen as a perfect house to perfect wife in a perfect house, finds himself stuck in a mid-life crisis and completely infatuated with his daughter’s (Thora Birch) best friend (Mena Suvari).
Analyzing the American Dream, failure, materialism, and the almost inescapable fear of getting older as time slips through one’s fingers while simultaneously poking fun at how the middle class in America views beauty, the critically acclaimed film by Sam Mendes turned out to be an impactful directorial debut.
7 ‘Eraserhead’ (1977)
One of the best movies to come out of the 1970s, David Lynch‘s equal parts phenomenal and hellish first movie Eraserhead follows Jack Nance‘s Henry Spencer as he attempts to survive factory work, finds himself stuck in an unhappy relationship, and attempts to succeed in being the father of a newly born mutant child.
Bizarre and nightmarish, the harrowing 1977 fantasy horror is definitely not for everyone. Still, there is no way to deny the genius behind it — especially considering it is a directorial debut. Eraserhead remains a very popular movie of the genre and is regarded as one of the most original films to date.
6 ‘Being John Malkovich’ (1999)
An unconventional movie written and directed by an unconventional filmmaker, Spike Jonze‘s Being John Malkovich depicts Puppeteer Craig Schwartz’s (John Cusack) eccentric journey after coming across a mysterious door at his job, which contains a portal into the mind of John Malkovich (played by the actor himself).
Being John Malkovich is quite as strange as it sounds, and that is what makes it brilliant. In addition to a boundary-breaking, highly creative screenplay, the surrealist comedy, which paved the way for the equally magnificent Spike Jonze projects that followed, counts on impeccable acting.
5 ‘Badlands’ (1973)
Another memorable feature from the ’70s, Badlands centers around a 25-year-old garbageman named Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a James Dean look-alike with whom a teenage girl named Holly (Sissy Spacek) is very much infatuated. As the bond between the two begins to tighten, Holly’s father forbids her from seeing Kit to tumultuous results — including a killing spree in 1958 South Dakota.
Like many Terrence Malick movies, Badlands features the same tranquil and simplistic directing approach — despite its violence, it is calm and slow-paced. The artsy action film debut remains a beloved feature even after all these years.
4 ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)
Through flashbacks, Orson Welles‘ groundbreaking first project tells the life story of a millionaire newspaper publishing tycoon (Welles himself) as he rises to fame and falls off the top of the world. In the meantime, reporters attempt to uncover the meaning of his final word: “Rosebud.”
There are many reasons why Citizen Kane remains a very much appreciated piece of filmmaking; the innovative cinematography techniques by Gregg Toland, captivating storytelling, and excellent editing by Robert Wise are definitely on the top of the list. Given how popular and ahead of its time the film was, it can come as a surprise to some that it is actually a directorial debut.
3 ‘Ex Machina’ (2014)
Alex Garland‘s thought-provoking sci-fi gem analyses A.I. in an unconventional, intriguing manner. It follows programmer Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) as he evaluates the human qualities of a highly advanced female robot (Alicia Vikander) after being selected to take part in a groundbreaking experiment.
Although Ex Machina‘s main focus is its powerful message regarding the dangerous evolution of advanced artificial intelligence, it also shines a powerful light on misogny, disturbingly depicting male control and dominance, which is something that Garland most likely inteded with his provocative debut.
2 ’12 Angry Men’ (1957)
An unforgettable courtroom drama, the critically acclaimed 12 Angry Men depicts a murder trial featuring 12 men as they deliberate, given one of the juror’s skeptical caution, the conviction or acquittal of an 18-year-old Puerto Rican boy charged with murder.
Sidney Lumet‘s impeccable directorial debut caught the attention of many back in the day and continues to do so sixty-six years later. Although it features a minimalistic narrative that does not rely on elaborate settings or costumes, 12 Angry Men is undoubtedly an astounding movie — no wonder it is one of the highest-rated films on both Letterboxd and IMDb.
1 ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)
Written and directed by one of the most popular filmmakers working today, Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs gathers six different criminals who attempt to perform the perfect jewelry heist (to disastrous results, as it turns out that one of the fellow thieves is a police informer).
Still considered one of Mr. Tarantino’s masterworks by many moviegoers and fans of the director, the gripping 1992 film assuredly features undeniably impeccable directing on top of compelling characters. What’s more, it counts on a well-crafted script and a good dose of brilliant jokes that will likely stay with the viewer for some time.
NEXT: Highly Anticipated Directorial Debuts, from Patrick Wilson to Ishana Night Shyamalan