There’s a sad truth among many of the best debut films from directors: many times, that first film ends up being his (or her) best. This list aims to acknowledge the directors who peaked early and were never able to achieve that initial greatness.
Some of these directors are gone, while others are still actively trying to match their prior, superior work. Some went on to have excellent careers full of excellent films, others followed their solid entrance with continual nonsense. No matter the case, there’s no denying the talent that accompanied these directors so early in their careers.
(Notes: I’m not counting short films, or directors who only made one feature. Sorry Charles Laughton.)
John Huston made many films that were arguably more critically admired than The Maltese Falcon. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Fat City, Under the Volcano, hell, even Prizzi’s Honor – all great films in their own right. But nothing from Huston’s body of work stands out more than his flawless introductory film noir. “The stuff that dreams are made of.” Indeed.
Orson Welles – Citizen Kane (1941)
The most revered film debut of all time, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is the kind of movie that is fully deserving of its ceaseless praise. It is simply flawless from frame one to final. Yeah, the opening shot of Touch of Evil gets a lot of worthy play, and F for Fake is so perfectly… Welles, but nothing tops Kane. Period.
Sidney Lumet – 12 Angry Men (1957)
Possibly the most difficult inclusion on this list, as I am a steadfast admirer of Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Network, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and especially Dog Day Afternoon. But, when forced to choose, I simply think that those 12 annoyed jurors remain the finest work Lumet ever captured on screen.
Mike Nichols – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
This isn’t meant to take away from The Graduate, which is as fine a film documenting post-college confusion as I’ve ever seen, but as far as Mike Nichols’ filmography goes, nothing touches Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And, quite frankly, I feel that is all that needs to be said there.
George A. Romero – Night of the Living Dead (1968)
I entered George A. Romero’s career the completely wrong way, by starting now and ending then. And while I was completely unfazed by his 21st century misfires (Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead) as I slowly traced my way back, I saw what all the fuss was about. Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead have left their appropriate marks on the genre, but nothing touches the campiness of his first. It’s perfect.
Dennis Hopper – Easy Rider (1969)
Easy Rider changed things. It spoke so candidly of a generation of people longing to have their voices heard. On a film level, it asserted itself as the definition of American independent cinema. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda did it their own way, and the reaped the rewards. Since then…?
Tobe Hooper – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
If Tobe Hooper has made a decent film since crafting what I consider the best horror film of all time, then I haven’t seen it. (Note: Poltergeist has never done it for me, and likely never will.)
Robert Redford – Ordinary People (1980)
Quiz Show is a very fine film. One that encapsulates the time period it depicts rather flawlessly. It’s the smartest, most entertaining film of Redford’s directorial career, but, in my mind, is no match for the realistic pain evident in every frame of Ordinary People.
Cameron Crowe – Say Anything… (1989)
Jerry Maguire is the kind of film that many of my friends don’t understand me liking. Yet if I see that it’s on, I’ll watch it no matter what. I’m completely taken with its earnestness. As I am with Vanilla Sky’s mystery and the nostalgia of Almost Famous. But do they outweigh the incarnation of young, true love so expertly captured in Say Anything…? Nah.
Michael Haneke – The Seventh Continent (1989)
This is how this list started. A few nights ago, I was watching Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and once again sat in complete awe of its subtle power. And then I got to thinking. Every one of Haneke’s films creep up and stay (for better or worse), but none have knocked the ever living shit out of me more profoundly than The Seventh Continent. It is as fine a debut film as I’ve ever seen. Period.
John Singleton – Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Boyz n the Hood has to represent the most heartbreaking entry on this list. The film is perfect. Its anguished, unrelenting portrayal of a sect of American people most American people care to not think about is one of the most ferociously devastating films I have ever seen. It’s one of my Top 20 films of all time, and so clearly shows the talent of the man who helmed it. A talent that is barely hinted it, or all together ignored, in his subsequent films.
Frank Darabont – The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Green Mile, while decent, seems so far removed from the harsh realties of The Shawshank Redemption, it is remembered by me as a hyperbolic, fluffy mini-mess. The Majestic only cements Darabont’s fondness for hammed-up nostalgia. The Mist was a glorious fuck-it-all horror flick that rebuked the system, and nothing since. TV doesn’t count here, but, given the strength of The Walking Dead (and the cautious promise of L.A. Noir) when (or if) will we get another feature film as strong as Shawshank?
Guy Ritchie – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Snatch is a lot of fun, but I far prefer the crude, washed-out tones of Lock, Stock. No need to mention the succeeding films of Ritchie’s career, right?
Sam Mendes – American Beauty (1999)
Sam Mendes has yet to make a film I didn’t enjoy. From the steady melancholy of Road to Perdition, to the grit of Jarhead. The despair of Revolutionary Road, to the joy of Away We Go. And lest we forget the badassery of Skyfall. I dig ‘em all. They’re good, but American Beauty good? Not in my eye.
David Gordon Green – George Washington (2000)
Nearly as heartbreaking as John Singleton’s debut is this Earth shattering achievement from David Gordon Green. His George Washington is unlike any film I’ve seen, but familiar in so many ways. It’s poetic, transcendental, harmonious and just so… American. I loved his three immediate follow ups: All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels, but the sudden, drastic dip in his career (from the honest playfulness of Pineapple Express, to the disaster of Your Highness, to the forgetful The Sitter), makes for one of the saddest contemporary career shifts I can recall.
15 Others to Consider (that I don’t necessarily agree with)
Alain Resnais – Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)
François Truffaut – The 400 Blows (1959)
Jean-Luc Godard – Breathless (1960)
Terrence Malick – Badlands (1973)
David Lynch – Eraserhead (1977)
Errol Morris – Gates of Heaven (1978)
Sam Raimi – The Evil Dead (1981)
Barry Levinson – Diner (1982)
The Coen Brothers – Blood Simple (1984)
Steven Soderbergh – sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
Richard Linklater – Slacker (1991)
Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Kevin Smith – Clerks (1994)
Wes Anderson – Bottle Rocket (1996)
Darren Aronofsky – Pi (1998)