10 Outstanding Directing Debuts: Eddie’s Take

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List compiled by Eddie on 27/03/2015

The directing debut can be a dangerous thing, make your film to good and you will always be judged on that (Richard Kelly a prime example here) but make your film in a forgettable way and you risk never being seen from again.

This below list represents films I believe are extraordinary for a first feature length film (beware that films made for TV are not counted, so someone like Frank Darabont is therefore allowed on this list) and when you delve into the archives of just what some of the world’s directors produced for their first product your jaw will often drop.

It’s heartening to see that many of these below filmmakers went on with the promise shown by their debuts and we will always have evidence that from the get go they had a knack in utilising the movie making medium in startling ways.

For Jordan’s list click here.

Disclaimer – Plot summaries from IMDB.

10. Hunger (2008) – Steve McQueen


Irish republican Bobby Sands leads the inmates of a Northern Irish prison in a hunger strike

Starring – Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham

A haunting debut from artist turned director Steve McQueen, that not only started his working relationship with then relative unknown Michael Fassbender but the beginning of one of the most accomplished run of 3 films ever seen with his follow ups Shame and the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave.

Did director go on with promise shown? – A resounding yes!

9. Bottle Rocket (1996) – Wes Anderson

Bottle 1

Focusing on a trio of friends and their elaborate plan to pull off a simple robbery and go on the run.

Starring – Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson

A uniquely witty and breezy comedy that showcases all of the things the film world now loves about artistic genius Wes Anderson. With a likeable combo of actors led by brothers Wilson, it’s not hard to see why many diehard fans rank Bottle Rocket as Anderson’s best ever film.

Did director go on with promise shown? – A resounding yes!

8. Pi (1998) – Darren Aronofsky


A paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature.

Starring – Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman

Filmed for around $60,000 and released in black and white, Pi is a masterwork of low budget filmmaking by a man now handed huge budgets to make films that are still anything but cookie cutter. Pi may not always be an easy film to follow but there is a huge amount of movie making genius on show by Aronofsky, that he would go onto harness in Requiem for a Dream.

Did director go on with promise shown? – A resounding yes!

7. Boyz n the Hood (1991) – John Singleton


Saga of a group of childhood friends growing up in a Los Angeles ghetto.

Starring – Cuba Gooding Jr, Ice Cube, Angela Bassett

The quintessential movie about life growing up in the “hood”, director John Singleton gathered together a young up and coming cast that delivered the goods and constructed a story that at any one time can be laugh out loud funny and dry your eyes sad. An unquestionably classic piece of debut filmmaking.

Did director go on with promise shown? – Debatable.

6. American Beauty (1999) – Sam Mendes

American Beauty

Lester Burnham, a depressed suburban father in a mid-life crisis, decides to turn his hectic life around after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s attractive friend.

Starring – Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning, Mena Suvari

It’s hard to fathom that this finely constructed, expertly acted and bitingly real film was made by a first time filmmaker. Tuning his craft on the stages of the world, Mendes first foray into filmmaking was rightfully adored by critics and audiences alike and has lost none of its power these 15 years on from release.

Did director go on with promise shown? – A resounding yes!

5. Donnie Darko (2001) – Richard Kelly

Donnie Darko

A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a large bunny rabbit that manipulates him to commit a series of crimes, after narrowly escaping a bizarre accident.

Starring – Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone

Unlike any film before or any film since, Richard Kelly’s low budget oddity had more ideas and concepts than ten other films combined. With a finely tuned and witty script and with a great central turn from then up and comer Jake Gyllenhaal, there is no doubt that Donnie Darko is deserving of its place in the cult cinema canon.

Did director go on with promise shown? – Debatable.

4. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Quentin Tarantino


After a simple jewellery heist goes terribly wrong, the surviving criminals begin to suspect that one of them is a police informant.

Starring – Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen

With nothing more than a low end budget and one seriously cool script, debut filmmaker (and ex-video store clerk) Quentin Tarrantino was able to gather together a ripping cast of game actors ready to chew on endlessly quotable dialogue and deliver the goods in this classic crime yarn.

Did director go on with promise shown – A resounding yes!

3. 12 Angry Men (1957) – Sidney Lumet


A dissenting juror in a murder trial slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court.

Starring – Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb

While there is no real movie making wizardry on offer here, Sidney Lumet’s incredible debut managed to be thrilling and hard hitting with nothing more than a classic script, a bunch of on form actors and one single jury room. Standing the test of time more so than many of its counterparts, 12 Angry Men signalled in the underrated career of one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

Did director go on with promise shown – A resounding yes!

2. Badlands (1973) – Terrence Malick


An impressionable teen girl from a dead-end town and her older greaser boyfriend go on a killing spree in the South Dakota badlands.

Starring – Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek

We here at J and E have already spoke up Malick’s work enough but it would not be possible to leave out this stunning debut from such a list. Mastering the visuals as well as the performances of his two stunning leads, Malick created a film for the ages that heralded in one of the most intriguing directing careers the movie world has been witness to.

Did director go on with promise shown – A resounding yes!

1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Frank Darabont


Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

Starring – Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins

While Darabont had previously directed a TV movie, it is fair to say his feature debut would be the envy of all big screen directors in what is a tale that remains on top of the IMDB top 250 and is one of the most loved films of all time. A beautiful film in many respects and a touching one in many ways, The Shawshank Redemption is all round filmmaking at its finest and the most stunning debut of all time.

Did director go on with promise shown – A resounding yes!

Honourable Mentions – Brick (2005): Rian Johnson, Animal Kingdom (2010): David Michod, Following (1998): Christopher Nolan, Citizen Kane (1941): Orson Welles, Monsters (2010): Gareth Edwards, District 9 (2009): Neill Blomkamp.

How do these choices compare to your thoughts? Are there any glaring omissions or grand directional debuts we have missed? Let us know in the comments below!

35 responses to “10 Outstanding Directing Debuts: Eddie’s Take

  1. Awesome list! I always forget that !2 Angry Men was Lumet’s first film and what a debut that one is. Good pick and of course Darabont’s debut is a stellar way to start a career. Nice job on this post!

  2. Very great list. I am glad to see Malick and Aaronofsky on your list. Badlands is probably the most easiest to understand of Malick’swork but it has all of his trademarks and it’s beautiful

    • Yeh I’ve never thought of it like that mate but it’s actually pretty straight forward by his standards ha, some people whole heartedly do not understand his other films, and perhaps there not meant to be understood?

  3. Why is everyone all the sudden talking about American Beauty? I think it is one of the most pretentious movies I’ve ever seen. I don’t think it has aged well at all. Anyway, certainly not my cup of tea that’s for sure.
    On the other hand, 12 Angry Men is one of my favorites and it uses heat and atmosphere so well. You can feel the climate simmering until it boils over for each of the 12 men. Brilliant.
    Shawshank is also good but I don’t love it as much as everyone else seems too.
    Rest on the list I haven’t seen. I would say Don Bluth for Secret of Nimh was a pretty great first time and Brad Bird with Iron Giant an amazing debut. (Animation is my favorite) Oh and of course can’t forget Snow White and the 7 Dwarves holds up today. What about Citizen Kane? Pretty great debut!

      • Yeah I guess for me it just tries too hard. Instead of just letting it’s story impress me it has to have floating plastic bags and rose petals to symbolize the stymied nature of suburban life. Ugh…like I said not my cup of tea but I know many love it. It’s just funny because I thought most people had kind of turned off of it but I’ve read/seen like 4 reviews this week. Did it just get a rerelease on blu-ray or something? Very funny. Oh well. We all have those movies that are highly praised that we don’t get. Part of being a movie fan.
        There are plenty of great debuts that’s’ for sure. Fun idea for a post.

  4. Guys, sorry its not entirely related to the blog, but just wondered how you can use images on here? Didn’t want to get in trouble for using stuff thats not mine?

  5. Not only a brilliant debut from Mendes, but one of the finest films I’ve ever seen. Also, Donnie Darko is Kelly’s first film?? No idea; what an effort!

  6. Pingback: Film Review – White Bird in a Blizzard (2014) | Jordan and Eddie (The Movie Guys)·

  7. Pingback: Film Review – Spectre (2015) | Jordan and Eddie (The Movie Guys)·

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