When contemplating the finest directorial debuts of all time, too often do the obvious choices come to mind. Citizen Kane (Orson Wells – 1941), Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino – 1992), Badlands (Terrence Malick – 1973), Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero – 1968) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton – 1955) are all highly regarded and worthy inclusions, with the latter 3 being among my favourite films of all time, but when every list begins to look the same it’s apparent its time to begin looking slightly outside the box.
So, here are 10 debuts that I believe are equally relevant in their respective genres or eras, while also being outstanding films:
10. Easy Rider (1969)
Directed by Dennis Hopper
Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson
Easy Rider has instilled itself in the subconscious of all American film fans, as well as possibly more American people in general than who would realize. Powerful whilst still boasting both care-free and experimental flourishes throughout, the great Dennis Hopper kicked off his sadly unsuccessful career as director in the best, most unexpected way possible.
A sign of things to come? Not as director. The Last Movie (1971) is viewed by many as one of cinema’s greatest egotistical disasters, and while Colors (1988) is solid, the Late acting legend will forever be remembered for his captivating work in front of the camera, not behind it.
9. Repo Man (1984)
Directed by Alex Cox
Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter
Repo Man is one of my favorite movies. Gritty, colorful, funny and dripping with cult atmosphere and a plethora of random occurrences, Alex Cox burst onto the scene clearly with the mindset that his first film may well be his last, and offered Emilio Estevez his best ever role and Harry Dean Stanton the opportunity to further his legend.
A sign of things to come? No. Unfortunately the films he has directed since aren’t even worth a mention.
8. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Ned Dowd
A low key and genuinely quirky sense of humor pervades the entirety of the underrated Bottle Rocket; a crime caper that introduced the world not only to the talent of Wes Anderson, but also the brothers Owen.
A sign of things to come? Yes. Anderson has become the favorite film-maker of many, with Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel among many films that have endeared themselves to a large audience.
7. Hoosiers (1986)
Directed by David Anspaugh
Starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper
Having worked quite prolifically in television previously, Anspaugh showed a natural talent in directing features with the inspirational college basketball classic Hoosiers. Garnering Dennis Hopper his only Acadamy Award nomination, and now revered as one of the greatest sports films of all time, Hoosiers is a timeless experience that teaches determination and overcoming.
A sign of things to come? Kind of… Rudy (1993) and The Game of Their Lives (2005) are fine sports films, but not exactly game changers.
6. Re-Animator (1985)
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Starring Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton
Re-Animator deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Return of the Living Dead and Evil Dead II as one of the best humorous horror flicks of the excessive 80’s. Splattered with inventive and excessive gore, driven by the mesmerizing stare of Jeffrey Combs and crafted impeccably by the sure hands of the great goatee wearing Stuart Gordon, it is a hugely influential movie that demands rediscovery by all eager cult film fans who might have missed it.
A sign of things to come? A resounding YES. Gordon would go on to adapt other H.P. Lovecraft tales From Beyond and Dagon (both terrific films), as well as tackle Edgar Allen Poe with his feature The Pit and the Pendulum and Masters of Horror episode The Black Cat.
5. District 9 (2009)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Sharlto Copley, David James, Jason Cope
High concepts and directing debuts don’t normally go hand in hand, but with a stumbling Government Agent and an Alien race of nimble prawns, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, produced by Peter Jackson, kicked this expectation in the face and delivered a shot of adrenaline to a lethargic genre.
A sign of things to come? Yes. The effective handling of a bigger budget in Elysium, coupled with the energy of Chappie shows that South African prodigy will have a lengthy and impressive career.
4. The Evil Dead (1981)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor
The Evil Dead is many things: uncompromising, surprising, terrifying, ground-breaking and hugely entertaining. With more flowing blood and squirm inducing jolts of gore than you can shake a severed Deadite limb at, it found its way to the hearts of horror hounds as quickly as it did the UK Video Nasties list, and kick-started the careers of best buds and iconic industry figures Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi.
A sign of things to come? Yes. Raimi invented the, well, Raimi-Cam that presents the hectic action on screen in an energetic manner, used to great effect in the later Evil Dead films, as well as the fun Darkman, the Spider-Man trilogy and his return to horror Drag me to Hell.
3. Withnail & I (1986)
Directed by Bruce Robinson
Starring Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths
Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I is the envy of all cult comedies, being quite simply one of the most relentlessly funny ever made. Richard E. Grant produced the performance of a lifetime as the constantly intoxicated Withnail, an out of work actor who must drag all those around him into his hopeless squalor, and Paul McGann is nearly as good as his unfortunate friend, who must keep the hopelessly tragic Uncle Monty at bay while on a holiday pulled straight from the deepest recesses of a city slackers nightmare.
It’s also worth noting, of course, that such is my love for this film the image of Withnail and Marwood has been the icon/avatar of this blog from its creation onwards.
A sign of things to come? Kind of… he has a total of 4 films to his name, including this, but in his defense he certainly has employed a quality over quantity mantra with How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) actually being quite extraordinary.
2. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield
If Spaced, the pop-culture riffing Channel 4 comedy series about nothing in particular, was the entree dish for what Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost could achieve together, the Shaun of the Dead was the nostalgia driven main course. Every horror comedy since has been compared with it, but none have really come close, after all, none others have their protagonists playing Time Splitters 2 or using selected vinyls to imbed in the heads of the undead.
A sign of things to come? A reluctant yes. His audience has, and will stand firm, but Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End represent a downward trend, not an upward one.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Starring Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Allen Danziger
Not many films throughout cinematic history can claim to have the level of impact that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre enjoyed, traumatizing it’s audience with a group of hideous, villainous monsters who leave an unsuspecting group of teenagers little chance of survival in rural American indeed. The image of Leatherface swinging his chainsaw wildly in front of a rising sun at the film’s end signaled in the arrival of an enduring franchise, and a creative film-maker.
A sign of things to come? Yes. Hooper has had his failings, but still doesn’t get the credit he deserves, having helmed plenty more genre gems in Eaten Alive, Poltergeist, Lifeforce and Toolbox Murders.
Frailty (2001), Chopper (2000), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Toy Story (1995), This is Spinal Tap (1984), Clerks (1994)