10 Must Watch Directorial Debuts

Most of the time no one pays attention to whether or not the next best movie is the director’s first feature film, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with a few movies being released soon. Both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ryan Gosling have spent decades on both television and film and have now both stepped behind the camera to direct their first films. Both actors have gained popularity over the years, which puts a certain amount of hype on their debuts. This is rare for first time directors, who often struggle to get their first film noticed. Most of the directors on this list were unknown before their debut, and some for years after. So, without further ado, here is a list of must watch feature-length directorial debuts.

10. π – Darren Aronofsky

PiDarren Aronofsky’s debut is a strange and stylistically driven film about a man obsessed with numbers. His obsession lies in that he’s trying to find the grouping of numbers that will unlock the universal pattern in nature. While well-acted, Aronofsky’s film is mostly made intriguing from the unique style and atmosphere that resemble many older black and white films. It also has great music, which is uncommon for films made on a tight budget. Music can turn a good film great, especially when used to set up the atmosphere.

While having gone on to direct other hits, Aronofsky’s first film is worth a watch not because it’s his greatest, but because it is good enough to watch. As the movie nears its end, some of the shots get disorienting. Those few shots are what keep the film from truly being amazing. Aronofsky’s use of black and white creates a haunting film that uses the contrast between the shades much better than most classic films.

9. Saw – James Wan

SawWhile most look at Saw as a low-budget horror flick, others see a whole different thing. James Wan was able to make a dark and original movie with a few actors that no one had heard of and others considered past their prime. The film’s screenwriter, Leigh Whannell played one of the central characters and Cary Elwes, known mostly for The Princess Bride, played the other lead.

One has to admit that Wan was able to accomplish a feat in that he made the movie on a relatively small budget and on a short schedule. Despite those two factors, Wan introduced audiences to one of cinema’s most demented killers in recent cinematic history. While part horror and part thriller, Saw was able to scare up several sequels.

Those sequels were critical disasters, and the latter films failed at the box-office. Despite that, Saw is still an interesting film that shows a successful movie can be made on a tight budget. James Wan, however, has gone on to have a decent career, directing films like Dead Silence and Death Sentence. He will be directing the Fast & Furious 7, which will be released in 2014, that will surely be a step away from the films that made him famous.

8. (500) Days of Summer – Marc Webb

Five_hundred_days_of_summerKnown now for the rebooting of the Spider-man franchise, Marc Webb first splashed onto the film scene with his quirky dramedy, (500) Days of Summer. The film features a low-key (at the time) cast and is made in a unique style. Webb was able to introduce audiences to a unique style of film that welcomed viewers.

The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, with Matthew Gray Gubler and Geoffrey Arend filling supporting roles. The film takes many genres and mixes them, it is part comedy, part drama and even a bit of a musical. But it all reflects on love and how people perceive love differently.

While differing from Webb’s future work, (500) Days of Summer is a refreshing look at the often generic genre of romantic comedy. Webb is currently directing The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is due out in 2014.

7. Following – Christopher Nolan

FollowingChristopher Nolan has quickly become one of the most notable directors, but many still have not seen his debut. Following is a noir film that follows a man who follows other people and then finds himself drawn into the criminal underworld. Filmed on a reported budget of $6,000, the film didn’t receive notable acclaim until Nolan’s later films were released.

The acting isn’t as refined as Nolan’s later films, but there isn’t any recognizable talent in the film. The film doesn’t feature Nolan’s notable effects either. It’s a stripped down film made on a tight budget, and for that it’s perfect. While closer to Memento than The Dark Knight, Following is still an interesting film that, while slow, shows Nolan’s direction in the purest form. It’s a true treat for any Nolan fan.

Interstellar, Nolan’s next film as director, is set to be released in 2014. It stars Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway.

6. Being John Malkovich – Spike Jonze

Being John MalkovichBeing John Malkovich is a mind-bender to say the least. Jonze’s direction is darkly comedic, to the point where you, as the viewer, have no idea whether to laugh or look away horrified. The film stars John Cusack and John Malkovich, with Malkovich playing a fictionalized version of himself. The film features one of the most horrifyingly comedic sex scenes of any film and is capitalized by Charlie Kaufman’s great use of dialogue.

The film can be further appreciated by Jonze’s follow-up, Adaptation. That film follows a fictionalize Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage, as he tries to adapt a non-fiction book to film after the filming of Being John Malkovich. The early parts of the film feature nods to Jonze’s previous work, making the film a fun watch to fans of Being John Malkovich.

Jonze’s first film is easily his finest to date as it features great performances and has a surrealist style. His later films have both shared that mind-bending quality, but they lack the soul that Malkovich has. Out of Jonze’s films, Being John Malkovich is the one to watch.

Her, Jonze’s next film, is set to be release in November of this year. It stars Joaquin Phoenix and is about a writer who falls in love with his new operating system.

5. District 9 – Neill Blomkamp

District 9Blomkamp’s District 9 shocked everyone with its realistic approach to an alien “invasion”. Blomkamp created a hero that differs from most film’s protagonists. As a mild-mannered reporter, Sharlto Copley, breathed life into an interesting concept and helped make District 9 a great film. With the help of visual effects, Blomkamp created creepy, but not terrifying aliens that the audience can in some ways relate to.

It appears that Blomkamp will continue with somewhat grounded sci-fi in Elysium, a film starring Matt Damon and Copley. It appears that while in no way similar to District 9, Elysium still shares the previous films pessimistic view of future life. Blomkamp has found the right genre for himself and has already created one Oscar-worthy film with the possibilities to create many more. Elysium is set to be released August 9, 2013.

4. Moon – Duncan Jones

MoonSon of David Bowie, Duncan Jones made a space oddity of his own with Moon, an eerie science fiction film starring Sam Rockwell. With few characters and a small set, Jones shocked viewers with one of the greatest pure science fiction films of the last 20 years. Set in a lunar mining base, Rockwell plays a man who oversees automated harvesters on the moon. The film takes place as he closes in on the of his three year contract.

Most movies filmed in such cramped, cold quarters can’t help but be creepy and Moon embraced that factor. Some shots hug the shadows and the music nearly sets up an atmosphere similar to a horror film. Despite that, this film is a hard science fiction tale that shows the positives and negatives of future life.

Duncan Jones went on to direct Source Code, further indicating that he could be one of the next big directors. He has two films in pre-production, one being an Ian Fleming Biopic and the other is a fantasy film based on World of Warcraft.

3. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Shane Black

Kiss Kiss Bang BangShane Black has received his fair share of attention this year with Iron Man 3. Black, who wrote the original Lethal Weapon, created a noir style film that, like Lethal Weapon, is darkly comedic. Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang follows Harry (Downey), a small time crook who finds himself in deep trouble after his partner in crime is killed. Harry is then cast in a role in a film and he winds up being paired up with “Gay” Perry (Kilmer), a P.I. meant to train Harry in the ways of a private investigator.

The two men have great chemistry and have the opportunity to work with a great script, written by Black. It’s dark and funny, and overall it is an exciting ride. It under-performed at the box-office but has since become a cult success. While different in many ways, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is similar to Black’s other film, Iron Man 3. The similarities lie mostly in the comedic action and the occasional sexual innuendo. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is more blunt in terms of sex and violence due to the fact that it is rated R.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang mixes comedy and action better than most movies all because Black is a genius writer and a talented filmmaker. Fans of Black will be pleased to know that it appears that Black will be directing Death Note and Doc Savage. There is no known release date for either films.

2. Brick – Rian Johnson

BrickBrick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was a 2005 film that garnered acclaim for its noir style set in a modern day high school. The style and acting are superb, with the style being artsy, yet accessible. Some of the dialogue is comedic, but in a way where the characters don’t understand how silly they sound. In short, the words spoken by characters are reminiscent of old hard-boiled detective novels from years back. Rian Johnson gained popularity with his recent film, Looper, but Brick is just as intriguing, maybe even more.

As far as indie movies are concerned, this is close to a masterpiece. It features actors that are often forgotten, like Richard Roundtree. Compared to other mystery’s, this one has both a good story and it’s fun to watch the tale unravel. While the movie won’t be universally embraced, it is worth being watched once.

After 2012’s Looper, it is unknown what Johnson’s next film project will be.

1. Reservoir Dogs – Quentin Tarantino

Reservoir DogsIt’s hard to remember a time when Quentin Tarantino was not a household name. With hit films like Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained, Tarantino has cemented his legacy in film. His first film, Reservoir Dogs is an interesting crime film that many believe to be better than Tarantino’s crime epic, Pulp Fiction. The film stars Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen as three of the eight men involved in a diamond heist.

This film is not only one of the greatest directorial debuts, but it’s arguably one of the greatest films of all time. The film’s acting is top-notch, with Roth and Keitel playing extremely well together. Madsen’s famous scene involving an ear is still written about because of how demented Madsen was. Also, you have to applaud the their attire, which just adds to the style of the film. With an award worthy sound track and great acting, this is the kind of film that needs to be watched once, maybe even twice.

It has not been confirmed what Tarantino will direct next, but Kill Bill Vol. 3 has been hinted at. In a recent interview, Tim Roth said that he and Tarantino could possibly reunite for a movie.

With new films by new directors every year, the list of great directorial debuts is a long one. These ten are only a select number of the greatest ones, and there a definitely more. That being said, these ten films each set a high bar for these directors because of the greatness of their work. It’s unknown how Gordon-Levitt and Gosling’s films will be received when both films are released, but they both have the possibility of landing on a list similar to this.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi

    Fine list of films to check out, especially as some of these directors went and sold out after their artistically daring debuts (Christopher Nolan, for instance). Just out of curiosity, why nothing before the 1990s? Godard’s Breathless and Welles’ Citizen Kane are certainly worthy debuts, no?

    • Sam Gerrett

      I agree with Jon here. I’d like to add Night of the Hunter and Badlands (still Malick’s best) as some of the most influential and accomplished debuts (in American cinema anyway).

    • There are just so many great directorial debuts and I found it easier to stick with a certain period of time, that being 1990-present. Originally I had Citizen Kane and Chaplin’s Twenty Minutes of Love, but I thought it would be better to possibly make another list (in the future) similar to this and include the classics together.

  2. Charlie Bury

    This is a great article Austin. I love reading about how directors started out, it’s interesting to see how there styles change once they have a reasonable budget, cast and backing etc. Good man putting Reservoir Dogs at number 1, I’d have to agree! Absolute love the movie and the rest of Quentin Tarantino’s great filmography.

  3. Phil Melanson

    GREAT list! I’m really excited to see what some of these directors do next; Neill Blomkamp especially has my interest later this summer with ‘Elysium.’

    • Elysium looks really good. I just hope it’s as good as District 9. I’m honestly surprised that James Wan from Saw is directing Fast & Furious 7, I’m excited to see how he does with that.

  4. J. Bryan Jones

    Smart list, Bender. Wish I thought of this.

  5. Taylor Ramsey

    The top 5 of this list are some of my favorite films.
    Great list!

  6. Kevin Licht

    Nice list! It’s pretty incredible how good some of these films are given they were first-time directorial efforts (feature length).

    Brick & Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang are among my personal favorites.

    • Yeah, it’s also amazing that some of these directors started out so great and continued to evolve and become better.

      Yeah, those two movies are great. I wasn’t expecting to love Brick, but it blew me away.

  7. Robbie Cochrane

    Reservoir Dogs is a great choice as number one for this list. Another of Tarantino’s exquisite demonstration of story telling. The scene in the cafe and the conversation about tipping is so gripping, it could stand alone as a short and win any short film competition in the world!!!!

  8. Dale Barham

    Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich is one of my all time favourites! But I would class Adaptation right up there with it as an equal rather than a peg down, such a unique film!

    Great to see Rian Johnson high-up on the list, Brick was such a surprise, and he bounced right back with Looper after the somewhat stagnant Brothers Bloom movie.

    • I know I’m going against critical mass here, but for me Brothers Bloom is Rian Johnson’s strongest film so far.

  9. Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” would have topped my list. But you have a few good ones here.

    • I thought about it. It’s a great movie, very gut-wrenching in many ways, but I decided to not include it mostly because this list started at 8 and I raised it to 10. If I could, I probably would have made it a list of 100! 😛

  10. Marcus Dean

    Great list, Rian Johnson being so high is great to see because Brick was such a unique film to watch and ever since he has been unafraid to tread new ground in different genres. He continues to pioneer new stories in tried and tested waters, so I am all for Brick being so high.

  11. Amanda Gostomski

    I’m so happy you had Brick at second!

  12. It is fitting that the Tarantino was mentioned last, as this seems to be the highest quality film here.

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