Top 20 Directorial Debuts

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Quentin Tarantino

*Spoiler Alert:- This is a McG free zone…

Directors… Funny old bunch, aren’t they? For your average film fan – you know the type; appreciates a film simply for what it is and doesn’t waste their life analysing every possible component of its construction, the fools – the hard graft of ‘the man behind the camera’ must go largely unnoticed. Everybody has a fondness for a particular actress/actor, movie or genre but pounce upon your average guy on the street and demand to know their number one director and I bet a good 80% would look blankly at you.

And with this in mind, what follows is not my top twenty film directors, nor my favourite twenty films but rather a countdown of the directors who entered the industry with a bang; whose feature directorial debut announced their arrivals on the scene with an impact that reverberates to this day. I’m talking game changing, genre busting, intelligent, insightful, thought provoking films perfectly executed with the panache of a seasoned pro. Whether box office smash or sleeper hit, Academy darling or cult champion, this certainly makes for an interesting list of peculiar bedfellows…

American History X

  1. Tony Kaye

American History X (1998)

In his brief flirtation with Hollywood, Tony Kaye notched up an underwhelming four features in thirteen years, thanks in part to the LA outcast’s insane ego. His outspoken approach even saw him banned from the cutting room on History X for a period but the fire and passion of his combative personality undoubtedly motivated Norton to his (only) powerhouse performance and best actor nod from the Academy. Despite the theatrical release of American History X spiralling into a collaborative effort (even Norton had a crack in the editing suite), the shocking impact of this entertaining education in supremacy and redemption cannot be denied. By accentuating the contrast between black and white not only as a mindset but also in the imagery of his pivotal scenes, Kaye produced a film of literal light and dark; none more so than the iconic moment Derek crosses the point of no return and cuts a vulnerable, stripped back figure on his knees in the street light.

American Beauty

  1. Sam Mendes

American Beauty (1999)

From the Royal Shakespeare Company to double-O agents, Sam Mendess CV may be far healthier than Tony Kaye’s but lest(er) we forget it all began with Mr. Burnham and an Academy award or five. Putting aside its pomposity, American Beauty is an ambiguous slice of suburbia with many an interpretation – “a mystery story, a kaleidoscopic journey…” in the words of Mendes. For beneath the midlife crises and sexual awakenings bubbles a stream of thoughts ranging from repression and conformity to imprisonment and redemption and all experienced by Kevin Spacey and his sarcastic, yearning, fatally doomed, asparagus throwing Lester Burnham. And it is within the soothing nature of his new found attitude to life, the gorgeous soundtrack, non-linear construction and out right mystery that you will find the sheer joy of American Beauty. Is it a discarded plastic bag drifting on the breeze or really a benevolent force trying to tell you there is no reason to be afraid?? Nope, it’s just litter…

Lion King

  1. Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff

The Lion King (1994)

Disney’s renaissance of the 90s was a golden era of my childhood and a glorious time to be alive. Mice formed International Rescue Aid Societies, albatrosses sounded like John Candy, wealthy beasts got laid by beautiful peasant girls and (*spoiler alert) the world wept as Mufasa was trampled to death by a stampede of very well coordinated wildebeest… Damn you circle of life! For first time feature directors Messrs Allers and Minkoff, the graduation from story supervision duties must have been a daunting move up the ladder, especially since inevitably someone had to deliver the first flop of Disney’s second coming. Now, I’m not suggesting for one minute that the director(s) of a large scale animation have anywhere near the hands-on input of a traditional director, surrounded as they are by animators, sfx guys and all round computer whizz kids but they must orchestrate these factions to maintain the central narrative and heart of the story to deliver the next House of Mouse classic opus. And boy did they with this heart soaring, tear jerking adventure in love, loss and lion pride. All together now, NAAAAANTS INGONYAMA BAGITHI BABA… Spine tingling.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

  1. 17. Henry Selick

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Initially conceived as a poem during his stint working for Disney Studios, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas owes a huge debt of gratitude to Henry Selick, tasked as he was with breathing life into the twisted fairy tale terror in the absence of the great man. This ground-breaking full length stop-motion feature drips with gothic imagery, spiky characters and haunting visuals that will have you humming Danny Elfman’s score deep into your adult life. But despite his commitment early on fleshing out his characters and evolving his poem into the Jack Skellington shaped, brothers Grimm-esque midnight musical we love today, somewhat surprisingly Burton couldn’t be bothered with the laborious job of stop-motion and began to distance himself from production. Step in Mr. Henry Selick who in his own words “sat on and hatched the egg that Burton had laid” (read: abandoned).

Dumb and Dumber

  1. Peter & Bobby Farrelly

Dumb and Dumber (1994)

As an impressionable 11 year old I witnessed the birth of the Farrelly brothers’ brand of humour at the cinema and it shaped my life; or at least my passion for shaggin’ wagons, licking frozen metal and pretending I’m running at an incredibly high speed. Ignoring Jim Carrey’s ludicrous Razzie Award nomination, Dumb And Dumber was the perfect launch pad for the brothers’ purple patch which ended in There’s Something About Mary four years later. Comedies are churned out in a similar fashion to horrors with very few of them sticking but when done right, they’re instant classics (think American Pie, Superbad, Anchorman) and abandoning all intelligence and sense of taste is absolutely fine as long as the jokes aren’t cheap and you actually give a damn about the characters. What Peter and Bobby farrelly achieved with their unashamedly immature, quote-athon road trip to Aspen cemented Jim Carrey’s rise to the top of the zany tree, proved Jeff Daniels could play dumb and left all men of a certain age seriously considering an orange suit with frilly shirt for their next do.

John Lasseter

  1. John Lasseter

Toy Story (1995)

If you could see inside my head it basically consists of picture perfect white clouds suspended in a clear blue sky with a Randy Newman score on loop and I’m beginning to think this may have something to do with Toy Story. As a debut feature this was a double header launching not only the Hawaiian shirted John Lasseter’s directorial career but also Pixar Animation Studios, both of whom would go on to dominate the computer animated industry. The road to the big screen was never going to be easy for Toy Story with characters like Steve Jobs, George Lucas and Jeffrey Katzenberg throwing in their two cents worth but fortunately, Lasseter’s vision endured and Woody, Buzz, an anxious Rex and a pessimistic Mr. Potato Head were born. By updating the classic Disney life assuring formula for a new generation, Lasseter laid down the template for all animation to follow and oversees every new feature as executive producer at Disney.

Evil Dead

  1. Sam Raimi

Evil Dead (1981)

In an odd twist of fate, many films on this list performed underwhelming at the box office and instead had to find their fans through home video and DVD, none more so than original cabin in the woods, possessed shocker, Evil Dead. Financed off the back of Raimi’s original short, Within The Woods, the low budget on-location shoot in a real world abandoned cabin was tough not only on the cast (including childhood friend Bruce Campbell) but crew members as well who consisted mainly of more friends and family performing location scouting duties with little to no experience. The well documented arguments along the way have added to the legacy of Raimi’s demonic debut and paved the way not only for a new franchise in horror lore but a new staple scary location to rival abandoned amusement parks, cemeteries and old colonial houses on the hill.

Joe Cornish

  1. Joe Cornish

Attack The Block (2011)

As one half of comedy duo Adam & Joe, Mr. Cornish’s fanboy credentials are well known to their late night viewers but when the show ran out of steam, who knew he was squirreled away forging a career in screen writing and developing his own debut feature film. The result is a perfectly pitched Sci-Fi invasion flick pitting urban yoots (you get me, fam?) against beautifully rendered creepy alien invaders in the housing projects of Brixton. In the same vein as District 9, intelligent writing and a great idea live or die by the quality of the effects used to bring their monsters to life and what they have delivered is astonishing on a debutants budget. Cornish’s impact is rightfully likened to Tarantino, Wright and Blomkamp as his little debut managed to provide the British film industry with a shot in the arm, projected the director onto the radars of Spielberg and Jackson and discovered future Force Awakens star, John Boyega.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

  1. Guy Ritchie

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Before Hollywood and Madonna stole him from us, Guy Ritchie was our director; a purveyor of distinctly British fare where the language was the only thing more colourful than the characters. His idea for a multi-linear crime caper only got off the ground by calling on family connections in the form of Matthew Vaughan (Layer Cake, X-Men, Kick Ass) and Trudie Styler (aka Mrs. Sting) but the impact of Lock, Stock lasted through two pseudo sequels (Snatch and Rocknrolla) and a well received TV series. Touted as the English Reservoir Dogs (mainly by me), the blend of under the arches locations, real world gangsters (plus Vinnie Jones & Rob Brydon of all people), quotable dialogue and hip soundtrack reaped Ritchie a bagful of awards as he became the epitome of cool. A few flops later and a marriage to Madonna swiftly put pay to that but at least he launched the career of a certain Mr. Statham… Not sure if that’s a good thing actually.

James Wan

  1. James Wan

Saw (2004)

Before the franchise became diluted into vacuous torture porn, Aussie mates James Wan and Leigh Whannell dropped an epic idea for the ultimate claustrophobic horror debut. The defining qualities of the original Saw were born of necessity as the young duo were strapped for both cash and time, leaving the guys with no option but to shoot the cheapest idea they could come up with et voila; two men chained in one room. And the edgy, experimental, rough shooting style? The result of a tight schedule not allowing for elaborate camera setups and the need to fill missing frames with surveillance footage. Drawing inspiration from the production of The Blair Witch Project, James Wan’s feature debut squeezes every inch of terror filled suspense it can muster from its screenplay whilst brimming with innovative ideas and leaves you pondering the question, what lengths would I go to in a similar situation?

Neill Blomkamp

  1. Neill Blomkamp

District 9 (2009)

Clearly obsessed with inter-planetary migration from shorts boasting marooned extra-terrestrials through his debut feature to follow ups Elysium and Chappie, Neill Blomkamp’s films are impactful in their ideas and visuals and have a clear identity rooted in South African culture. Evoking the shameful legacy of apartheid, District 9 intelligently aligns the viewer’s sympathies with the unfortunate prawn-like shanty town dwellers who want to be on Earth little more than the human element of Joburg wants them in their city. But it is the visuals of the picture that hit the hardest, blending sun drenched dust bowls with high spec alien technology and possibly the greatest CG rendered species interacting seamlessly with their human counterparts. Cracking special effects have become a hallmark of Blomkamp’s output post District 9 and the future looks bright for his Alien reboot.

The Shawshank Redemption

  1. Frank Darabont

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Seasoned Stephen King fiddler Frank Darabont has tested the wrath of the great horror author on no less than four occasions, but it was his second attempt with Shawshank that he delivered an absolute classic in every definition of the word. Topping film surveys the world over, this heart warming story of what it really means to be free could have turned out very different if admirer Rob Reiner had got his way and made the film with Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford in the lead roles. For it is in the measured goofyness of Andy Dufresne (admit it, you just said his name in Morgan Freeman’s voice) and the wise words of one-man black market Red that the heart of the story is embedded as both men give one another a reason to get busy living. A bromance for the ages…

Kevin Smith

  1. Kevin Smith

Clerks. (1994)

Kevin Smith has earned his right as the spokesman for fan boys worldwide and king of the internet thanks to his pre Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back output alone and would have appeared on this list had he debuted with any of his first four features but it all began with his black and white opus, Clerks. A kingpin of movie nerdom, Smith self-financed the film in part by selling his personal comic book collection and reduced location costs shooting at the convenience store where he was employed at the time but rather than being over-stylised amateur hour, this is an education in low budget, intelligent film making. A day in the life of New Jersey blue collar bums Dante and Randall is more than enough to make you thankful you’re not them but an exciting script fizzing with nuggets of movie wisdom and witty insights (nobody ever thinks about the contractors who perished whilst building the second Death Star) made Clerks a movie fans dream and welcomed Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Lee and of course snoochy boochy fiends Jay and Silent Bob into our lives.

George A. Romero

  1. George A. Romero

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z; those pesky, persistent flesh eaters are everywhere these days but would the genre even exist if it wasn’t for George A. Romero and his rural horror Night of the Living Dead? Looking to break into the film industry by capitalizing on the rising popularity of the monster flick, Romero’s Dead series was the hideous love child of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and an early idea which featured corpse-ravaging extra terrestrials no less. The zombie movies of today owe everything to this black and white vision of slow burning terror and like with so many low budget directorial debut features, the poor audio, grainy visuals, practical gore and oppressive tone – the film opens with a dire situation and deteriorates from there – that hampered its popularity upon release are now its hallmarks and are studied by cult film fans the world over. The term ‘zombie’ is only in the modern lexicon thanks to Night of the Living Dead and George A. Romero is the granddaddy of them all.

Donnie Darko

  1. Richard Kelly

Donnie Darko (2001)

With only four features to his name as a director, Richard Kelly has yet to surpass his time-travelling, apocalyptic debut, Donnie Darko. Widely recognised as one of the greatest independent movies ever created, Kelly is a child of spirituality and existentialism; hardly mainstream themes which saw plenty of distributors pass on the opportunity of even giving Darko a cinematic release. The director’s cut of this labyrinthine story is essential viewing to even begin comprehending what the devil’s going on but to do so is truly rewarding as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Donnie (whatever happened to him?) treads precariously between primary and tangent universes. The story may be heavy on ‘artefacts’, ‘living receivers’ and all manner of Sci-Fi mumbo jumbo (so, if the route I am about to walk manifests itself physically ahead of me, that’s time travel??) but if that don’t float your boat then there’s the awesome 80’s soundtrack, a delightful bunny and Patrick freakin’ Swayze…

Edgar Wright

  1. Edgar Wright

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead may not have come as a surprise to followers of Wright’s TV work on Spaced but this intelligent debut feature co-penned by Simon Pegg paid its dues with homage’s to the classic Dead series whilst simultaneously creating iconic moments in its own right. Rather like Kevin Smith’s Clerk’s, this was a script created by film fans for film fans and although the promising three flavours Cornetto trilogy may have waned in quality, Shaun will forever be a cult classic with legends Stephen King, George A. Romero and QT heaping praise on the stoners from ‘sarf of the river. Lampooning jump cuts and other action cinema staples, Shaun and follow up feature Hot Fuzz became a shop window for Edgar Wright’s exciting eye and directing style and took him and his ragtag band of followers onto international fame with Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and his sadly terminated vision for Ant-Man.

The Texas Chainsaw massacre

  1. Tobe Hooper

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Genre defining movies happen maybe once in a generation and if you’re fortunate enough to deliver one on your first attempt, chances are you are on this list (I’m looking at you entries 14, 11, 7 and 3) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre nearly tops them all for its impact. Disillusioned by political scandals of the day and the morality of real world serial killers, the thought process behind Tobe Hooper’s debut feature runs far deeper than a simple exploitation flick. Themes of apocalyptic landscapes, masking ones true identity, propaganda, the disintegration of the all-American family and even animal rights are oft discussed but taken at (leathery) face value, Massacre’s honest impact lies in the unbearable terror of escaping the true original, power-tool wielding, faceless monster and his farmstead of death… God bless you Gunnar Hansen, may you rest in peace.

The Blair Witch Project

  1. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Whether you bought into the sense of dread and terror instilled by the lost in the deep dark woods story is neither here nor there as this is/was instinctive, pioneering guerrilla film making, the likes of which have been copied and lampooned ad nauseum ever since. Maverick debut feature directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez birthed the found footage sub-genre with The Blair Witch Project and propelled the use of the internet to market your story by playing with audience and investors minds through fake documentaries and news reels reporting on these ‘true life’ events. Stories of the low budget shoot are ingrained in film lore (improvised script, clues to where the next location would be, crew in the woods scaring the bejesus out of the cast, loved ones believing the fake stories etc etc) and the shakey hand-cam pov’s may have the weenies spewing in the aisles but the impact of this little horror will reverberate for ever as The Blair Witch done for woods what Jaws done for the water…

Tarantino Header

  1. Quentin Tarantino

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Noted as the greatest independent film of all time by the world’s biggest movie magazine, upon its release Reservoir Dogs was an instant heist classic as the world bore witness to every trait we know and love QT for in Dog’s non-linear, pop-culture ridden narrative. Often over analysed as a study in racial role reversals or the juxtaposition of sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies, Reservoir Dogs had to wait to find its mass audience as the home video release was banned for a time but thanks to uber follow up Pulp Fiction, audiences sought out this exciting new director’s black comedy debut. Of course not everybody’s a fan with the ‘movie violence is bad for our youth’ brigade slamming him at every turn (a subject on which he may shut your ass down) but it simply is not violence for violence sake; every sliced ear, every reference, every track and every character plays a role in the rich tapestry of Tarantino’s cooler than cool debut flick.

Citizen Kane

  1. Orson Welles

Citizen Kane (1941)

“As it turned out, the first day I ever walked onto a set was my first day as a director…”

By all rights, Citizen Kane should have been the most costly catastrophe of modern cinema. With a whopping $500’000 (in 1941 remember) budget and a head full of ideas gleamed from reruns of Stagecoach, Orson Welles was unwavering in his attempt at basically crashing together his favourite shooting techniques inspired (or pinched) from the pages of cinematography text books. Ostensibly a picture about a man’s longing for happier times immortalized by memories of his treasured childhood sled, Citizen Kane walks the tight rope of pretentious waffling and visionary brilliance by drawing the audience in with the mystery of Rosebud, revealing its heart felt meaning only to those looking in from the outside. The achievement in filmmaking that this picture represents can simply never be repeated. The film and its auteur haven’t had it easy in the prevailing years with controversy over Academy Awards, script accreditations and the like clouding opinion on the art but to view Citizen Kane is an event and mark my words, on it’s centenary anniversary, new and old audiences alike will come together to embrace the impact once again of this amazing directorial debut feature.

So there we have it, Ramblin Entertainment’s top twenty directorial debut features… Phew. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on how your list might differ. Have we missed anybody obvious? Comment below or get in touch on Twitter @RamblinEnt.

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