The directorial debut is an interesting phenomenon: for every illustrious filmmaker who nailed their craft at the first time of asking, other estimable auteurs needed a number of cracks to hit their directorial stride. And then there’s the paradigm of the wunderkind or “one-hit wonder” who failed to build on their early promise.
Here are our top ten directorial debuts, listed in chronological order:
10. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
In many respects, this is the all-time directorial debut. It’s certainly hard to argue with a film that went on to be voted the greatest ever film in Sight and Sound’s ten-yearly poll (in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992, 2002) and by the AFI in 1998 and 2007. But set aside the familiar reverence over Citizen Kane‘s reputation – just why did it represent such a remarkable entrance into the film world for its director, Orson Welles? Well, he was only in his mid twenties when he made Citizen Kane. His signature is stamped right across the film – from its virtuoso direction, its sense of showmanship and his own astonishing central performance. And 75 years after the film’s release, it still stands the test of time: it’s as breathtakingly audacious a piece of cinema as has ever been released.
9. À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
Jean-Luc Godard’s feature film debut, À bout de souffle (better known by its English title, Breathless) was one of the most auspicious ever entrants to the film world. It was not only a great piece of cinema in its own right but also instituted a whole new movement (the French New Wave, whose other harbingers were François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, both 1959). If Citizen Kane was the epitome of cinematic modernism then À bout de souffle was cinematic postmodernism – Godard ingeniously denouncing the French “cinéma de papa” with a riotous homage to American movie tropes while also brilliantly employing an array of jump-cuts, delirious tracking shots and a radical sound design.
8. Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962)
Andrei Tarkovsky has a deserved reputation as one of cinema’s greatest visual poets. What’s even more remarkable is that he emerged from Soviet cinema’s repressive legacy of Socialist Realism. Symbolising a new, truthful, ‘Thaw’ ethos which was seeping through Soviet society in the sixties, Tarkovsky’s directorial debut Ivan’s Childhood was a staggering corrective to the previously censored, propaganda-inflected films of the Second World War, while also communicating its child’s-eye story through a highly artistic, emotional lens.
7. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
What’s interesting about Terrence Malick’s feature film debut is not only how masterly his directorial craft was from the off. More interestingly, and in retrospect, it marked Malick’s closest dalliance to a conventional form of storytelling: there’s a reasonably comprehensible plotline and set of characters. That said, the unusual, dreamy voiceover and beautiful documenting of the pastoral setting hinted at the poetic signature Malick was to expand upon in his future work.
6. Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)
Most of the directors documented so far are considered giants of the medium. Robert Redford, though unquestionably an important figure in film history through his acting and founding of the Sundance Film Festival, is rarely mentioned for his infrequent guise as director. Back in 1980 though, he made a large ripple for his masterly chamber piece Ordinary People, which went on to (deservedly, in this writer’s opinion) pip Raging Bull to that year’s Best Picture gong at the Academy Awards. It was beautifully directed by Redford with exceptional use of stately cinematography and emotive flashbacks to complement the classy ensemble of performances from Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland. Redford went on to direct competent, if rather dull, literary films from this point forward, but he deserves to be remembered for one of the great directorial debuts – certainly by an actor.
5. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988)
Much like many of the other directors on this list, Terence Davies nailed his craft and signature right away with this, his first feature film. Coming across as an oasis in an otherwise dry British cinematic landscape of heritage pictures and kitchen sink dramas, Distant Voices, Still Lives resonated for committing so ambitiously, so artistically, so evocatively to a childhood remembered in ’50s Liverpool.
4. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
Just as Godard’s postmodern masterpiece, À bout de souffle, re-energised a whole national cinema in the 1960s, so 30 years later, another postmodern gem – Quentin Tarantino’s maverick debut, Reservoir Dogs – for better or worse, changed the landscape of western cinema. Tarantino’s cult, pulp aesthetic may have spawned many imitators, but no one nailed it quite like he did in Reservoir Dogs – a cinematic tour de force in every respect: dialogue, narration, soundtrack and cinematography.
3. Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)
It’s become something of a cinephile’s parlour game to debate your favourite Wes Anderson film: is it the riotous family dramedy of The Royal Tenenbaums, the lovely pastiche of Indian spiritualism that was The Darjeeling Limited, or his latest rich and delectable treat, The Grand Budapest Hotel? Well, it all began with Anderson’s little-remembered debut film, Bottle Rocket – in many ways a microcosm of the writer-director’s very distinctive cinematic sensibility. It’s an amiable, zany piece about the hair-brained ideas of a band of small-time Texan dreamers – the exact template for almost all of Anderson’s subsequent films, though each is reimagined with a vastly different universe and design motif.
2. Following (Christopher Nolan, 1998)
Christopher Nolan has gone on to become a giant of Hollywood cinema so any reference to his micro-budgeted, 70-minute, London-set debut Following might seem a touch irrelevant – but that’s not the case. Ingrained in the aesthetic and narrative of Following are all the concerns Nolan was to expand upon in his later, greater works: a distinctive visual universe; the creation of an ethereal sound design; and an obsession with labyrinth, genre-defying narratives that dramatise existentially-traumatised protagonists.
1. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
All the other directors mentioned in this list have gone on to fashion rich bodies of work and to achieve a high level of acceptance in their respective film industries. That hasn’t been the case for Richard Kelly – director of one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic American films of the new millennium so far in Donnie Darko. Looking back at Donnie Darko, one can see how its ingredients were so difficult to replicate – it’s an intuitive hybrid of genres (sci-fi, mystery, high-school), its aesthetic is such a mish-mash (but in a brilliant, propulsive way) and, underneath it all, it’s a rampantly savage satire of Americana. Perhaps that’s why Kelly’s career never took off from this point: his followup, Southland Tales (2007), was like Donnie Darko on steroids. It took the genre and aesthetic cocktail of its predecessor to even more delirious levels and its critique of American values (especially the George W. Bush regime) was much more pointed. It’s a shame that Southland Tales hasn’t gone on to achieve the esteem it deserves, but if nothing else, Richard Kelly will always be remembered for his staggering debut film.