Friday, December 7, 2012

15 Directors Whose First Films Were Their Best


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 – The Maltese Falcon (1941)
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)

57 comments:

  1. Oh I agree with Lumet and Mendes. I have only seen the respective debuts of Welles and Darabont so I have nothing to compare them to. But they are brilliant and the fact that they are debuts is crazy. Don't agree with Crowe and Nichols.

    From the other list, Sex, Lies and Videotape is one entry I agree with.

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    1. Good stuff. I agree, some of these debuts are just insane. Flawless works of art.

      What are your favorite Crowe and Nichols flicks? And as for Soderbergh, Traffic will always have my top vote. Love Sex, Lies as well though.

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    2. EDGAR WRIGHT!!!! Shaun of the Dead <3 <3

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  2. Alex, this is such a tricky subject because directors sometimes spend years developing their first films and then quickly turn around and make a follow-up. It's like with a band that hones their music for years and makes an amazing album but can't recreate that magic a year later.

    I'm with you on Orson Welles, John Singleton, David Gordon Green (especially), and a few others. The two that I would question would be Crowe and Huston, but it's basically personal preference with Almost Famous and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The movies you spotlighted are still very strong.

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    1. Oh you're spot on there, my friend. They release that film they've been planning for years and years, and are eventually unable to hit that level of magic (perfect word) the next go round. Very fair.

      Crowe and Huston (and Lumet) were the three I batted around the most. I love Sierra Madre and Almost Famous. Great films. But in the end, their debuts stick out more to me.

      Thanks for reading/commenting, Dan!

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  3. Good list. Nice to know I've seen a majority of them.

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    1. Thanks! Glad you've seen a lot of the picks.

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  4. I think Whit Stillman's Metropolitan would be a strong canidate for this list as well.

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    1. Ooohh that's a great choice. I should watch that and The Last Days of Disco back to back at some point and decide. Great filmmaker.

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    2. Yeah I have a tough time deciding which one of those is better but the general consensus is Metropolitan is his best. Barcelona was ok but its still got some hilarious lines in it. His latest film Damsels in Distress was also really good so if you haven't watched that yet do so.

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    3. I heard such mixed things about Damsels in Distress... never had the opportunity to catch it. Really need to check that out.

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  5. Some filmmakers' first films tend to be their best work. Reservoir Dogs is still my favorite QT film. George Washington is still my favorite David Gordon Green film and I liked everything he's done until recently. I tried to watch Your Highness and.. it was atrocious. The comedy didn't work at all. I don't think I can watch The Sitter.

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    1. Your Highness... fuck man, that's one of the most heartbreaking films I've ever seen. I was watching it and just repeating, Why, Why, No, No. George Washington is a mini masterpiece... whatta shame.

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  6. This list is awesome! I've been clawing my way through the classics, and you just added a bunch more for me to watch. :)

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    1. Thanks! Glad I could add to your watchlist.

      Hey, question: I'm not entirely sure I have your blog address right, could you give it to me please? Thanks!

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  7. My first expectation was Directors who made good first movie and then declined. Looks like you are taking a different route so I will allow Lumet here (Haha!!) because even though 12 Angry Men is my favourite as well, he made so many great ones. Have you seen his The Hill? I like it even more than Dog Day or Network or Before the Devil which are all in my top 100. It's one of Woody Allen's 10 favourites.

    I may not agree with Cameron Crowe but I haven't seen Say Anything yet. So, I will reserve the judgement and I haven't seen some of Mike Nichols' work but I highly doubt if anything can top Virginia Woolf and Liz Taylor.

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    1. Oh yeah, very important distinction there. Ha. I love The Hill, but I admittedly haven't seen it in quite some time.

      It seems that I'm damn near alone with my choice as Say Anything as Crowe's best, but man, I love that film. Be curious to see how it'd fall in your eye.

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  8. i still vouch for cameron crowe movies here. i love jerry maguire

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    1. That's such a good movie, isn't it? One of the best adult romantic dramedies of all time.

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  9. I would also add Jason Reitman, his Thank you for Smoking is a comedy masterpiece... since then Up in the Air is the only one that's been in the same air. But to me the one that sticks out the most is Phil Alden Robinson, the man made Field of Dreams for his debut, followed it up with Sneakers, Freedom Song and Sum of all Fears. With the exception of a few Band of Brothers episodes thats been it for him. Such a shame. That's the trouble with peaking way too early for most of these guys. It's a good list, except I disagree with all of the 15 to consider list...

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    1. I definitely considered Reitman early on, but man, I love Up in the Air and fucking love Young Adult. He's a damn fine director. Phil Alden Robinson is a great, great choice. Couldn't agree more.

      Little confused by your last sentence, are you saying you disagree with the 15 directors I've chosen? I'd love to hear what your favorite films by Green, Singleton, Darabont and Hooper are. The debuts of those four in particular are so obviously their best (to me), that I'd be really curious to hear your choices.

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    2. No, no the 'Others to Consider' I agree with everyone you have listed here in the main list. The inverse of the list would be interesting, first films of great directors that are their worst. Kubrick would be a good first choice, it's not exactly fair, it's more like his student film, but his Fear and Desire is one of the worst inauspicious debuts ever. He even took it out of circulation, for very good reasons.

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    3. "Field of Dreams" wasn't Robinson's first film. "In the Mood" was his first film.

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    4. @ Jeff: Gotcha. That is a good idea for a list, and yeah, Fear and Desire is rough.

      @ Anon: Good call!

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  10. I agree with some of these, but not all. I appreciate what you said about Ordinary People, though--too often I hear complaints about it since it beat Raging Bull for the Oscar. But it's a gripping film in its own right, and very, very real and human.

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    1. Yeah Ordinary People definitely gets an unfair amount of shit for winning that Oscar. Is it better than Raging Bull? Nah. But it's a fantastic, human film.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  11. Great list. Don't quite agree with Haeneke though because I've loved Funny Games and The White Ribbon more.

    Technically Frank Darabont's first feature would be the made-for-tv movie "Buried Alive" (which actually isn't too bad) but that would be splitting hairs and since it's not a "film" I suppose it wouldn't count.

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    1. Oh man, I love every single Haneke film. His films are just so unique, so his own. But like I said, none continue to shake me more than The Seventh Continent. Either way, such a great filmmaker.

      God, I haven't seen Buried Alive in years, but I do remember liking it. But yeah, wasn't counting TV films.

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  12. I love most of the films on your list. The opening 10 minutes are remarkable of George Washington (2000), I can rewatch that sequence on repeat, though I was let down by the rest of the film.
    I always avoided Boyz n the Hood thinking it was another of those shoot em up dramas with guys swearing every 30 seconds, though now I see it's in your top 20 of all-time, so I'm seriously reconsidering. I also need to see The Seventh Continent (1989), I'll add those two to my blindspot series for 2013

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    1. My friend, Boyz n the Hood is in no way a shoot 'em up thug life movie. It is an authentic, searing examination of gentrification and race and crime in America. And it is fucking flawless. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Same goes for The Seventh Continent!

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  13. Exceptional list,Alex!

    Citizen Kane,12 Angry Men,Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,American Beauty are just some of the best debut films in history,the rest,not so good,but I couldn't argue with you that they aren't the director's best work.

    In your candidate list,Breathless,Eraserhead and sex,lies, and videotape are all strong enough to make into your list.

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    1. Thanks David, glad you like it! Breathless, Eraserhead and sex, lies are all fantastic films, aren't there? Not my favorite of the respective directors, but terrific nonetheless!

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  14. Fantastic list man. The 1941 twosome is a great pairing of first films. And I really need to see The Seventh Continent. Right now, I'd say Cache is Haneke's best.

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    1. Thanks dude. The Seventh Continent is just... wow. I love all of Haneke's films (including Cache), but that first one hit me like whoa.

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  15. Excellent post! Ordinary People and The Shawshank Redemption are two excellent movies I rarely see discussed.

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    1. Thanks! Ah, I love Ordinary People and Shawshank, for completely separate reasons. Ordinary People is just so real and painful. Really like that one.

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  16. Great list. I totally agree with Sidney Lumet's inclusion. I'd have put Tarantino in there too though.

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    1. Thanks man! Lumet's inclusion definitely wasn't an easy one, but I've gotta stand by those 12 angry bastards. Res Dogs is just perfect, isn't it?

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  17. It is astonishing to think these great films were the first in a director's career. It perhaps highlights that difficult second album syndrome musicians face - they spend years writing songs and a bunch of their best, most passionate go on the debut album for them to struggle to make new material under the weight of fame and fortune.

    I suppose you could argue some of these filmmakers went on to make more personal work - favourites of mine Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet come to mind - but that doesn't necessarily take away from the idea the films features above have never been bettered.

    Can I add one suggestion: Bruce Robinson, whose debut was Withnail and I.

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    1. It is astonishing, isn't it? More personal films is definitely fair, I wouldn't argue that at all. You know, I actually had Robinson listed at first, but he got bumped out. I honestly haven't liked any of his other movies.

      Thanks for reading/commenting!

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  18. Great list, and excellent idea for a list. I'd nominate Andrew Dominik's Chopper - the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is certainly a high quality film, but I love his debut.

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    1. Thanks man! Ahh god, that is such a tough call. I love the hell out of Chopper. I mean really, really love it. But Jesse James was just so goddamn gorgeous.

      Yeah, I'd still go with Chopper. Great choice!

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    2. Deakins' cinematography definitely lifts Jesse James visually well above Chopper, but Chopper has this manic, rambling energy and charm to it that exceeds the beauty of Jesse James.

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    3. I'm justa regula bloke, a regula bloke who likes a bit a torture.

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  19. Any expectations for Prince Avalanche or Joe from DGG?

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    1. Well, he says Joe is really dark and uneasy, which has me interested. Prince Avalanche's trailer did nothing for me, which bums me out.

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  20. Would love to see your list of top 10 directorial debuts and see if some not mentioned here are listed...From this post I would certainly include Citizen Kane and Reservoir dogs....

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    1. That's a solid idea for a list, for sure. I guess I never considered it because the crossover to this list would be so high. But hey, a year and a half has passed, so why not? Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

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  21. Agree with Mendes and Redford. I saw both films quite long ago, but I'm sure I'll never forget them.

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    1. Yep, exactly. Actually, I could stand to watch Ordinary People again. Hutton is sensational in that film.

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  22. So what films are better than The 400 Blows (La Nuit Américaine?), The Evil Dead (A Simple Plan?), Blood Simple (No Country for Old Men?), Clerks (Chasing Amy?).
    Others that could or should be here:
    Spike Jonze - Maybe, I saw Her and although was amazing Being John Malkovich has the best ending. Ever.
    Terry Gilliam - I never saw Brazil, which I might love, but it's Monty Python better than The Fisher King? I think so.
    M. Night Shyamalan - His first two films are fantastic, his next tow films are pretty solid and his last. I'll really want to see his next two films. Okey is a debate between The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable but I can say that Unbreakable isn't such a classic film. "I see dead people." That will stay forever.
    David Mamet.

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    1. Just my opinion:

      François Truffaut - best film is Day for Night
      Sam Raimi - best film is A Simple Plan
      the Coen brothers - best film is Fargo (or No Country)
      Kevin Smith - best film is Chasing Amy
      Spike Jonze - you're right, best film is Being John Malkovich
      Terry Gilliam - best film is Brazil
      M. Night Shyamalan - common misconception that his first film was The Sixth Sense, it was actually Praying with Anger, then Wide Awake (but I still think his best film is Unbreakable)
      David Mamet - very tough call, I love House of Games, but ultimately prefer Homicide, Heist, and Spartan

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  23. I re-watched the Falcon yesterday, and Sierra Madre right now. I gotta say I disagree with you there. I just see so much more in the latter picture. Falcon is still damn good though.

    Saw Kane at the big BFI screening recently, and that was great too. Always preferred The Third Man (although I know that was Reed's game)

    Sadly hard to with Lumet though. As incredible as Dog Day is, its hard to compete with one of the very best films ever written. 12 Angry Men will always remain his (or at least one of his) masterpiece.

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    1. Yeah, the Huston one is a tough call. Could go either way there.

      Lumet is SUCH a hard choice. 12 Angry Men, Dog Day, Network... what a body of work.

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