It takes a rare sort of artistic genius to create a masterpiece on your first try. Whatever type of art we’re talking about, there is of course nothing wrong with fumbling around in the dark in search of greatness. Certainly the cinema is no different — the careers of many of history’s most revered film directors resemble a bell curve: They start out with works displaying unpolished promise, work up to something approaching greatness, and then fade out a bit as the spark that fired them early on begins to sputter out.
But not everyone waits to make a classic. Some directors, through a rare combination of luck and talent, strike gold their first time in the big chair. These 25 unforgettable debut films aren’t necessarily their directors’ best work (though in some cases, they absolutely are), but each of them displays ample proof that their helmers have the goods. For some of these directors, their first films turned out to be their one and only shot, while others have built long careers from auspicious beginnings. The most exciting names here, however, are the ones who are still just getting started.
Duel (1971) — Steven Spielberg
It wasn’t intended as a feature film, but this 1971 TV movie was so successful it later received a theatrical release, making Steven Spielberg’s first film something of a hybrid. It’s a relatively straightforward story that might just as easily have been a Twilight Zone episode (not for nothing, its screenwriter is Richard Matheson, who contributed to that classic sci-fi series): a man on a business road trip is hunted by a dilapidated truck with an entirely unseen driver. With a minimal budget, Spielberg crafts a tight and effective chase movie that captures the eerie feeling of being truly alone on those long, lonely stretches of American highway.
Fruitvale Station (2013) — Ryan Cooler
Before Creed and Black Panther, Ryan Coogler found tremendous critical and box office success with his very first movie, made just out of film school. Telling the depressingly timely true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year old shot by a BART officer at the titular transit station in Oakland, Coogler tells the dramatic story without excessively dramatizing it, displaying a restraint that drives home the ordinariness of Grant’s life. The film, made for less than a million dollars, was a major success among critics and moviegoers, and propelled Michael B. Jordan to the A-list.
Citizen Kane (1941) — Orson Welles
Well, obviously. Welles wasn’t yet 25 when RKO Pictures signed him to deal that gave him the keys to the kingdom: almost full creative control and final cut on films that hadn’t even been proposed. His reputation as an unconventional boy genius in the theatre preceded him, but as with anyone who rises too fast, there were plenty of people rooting for him to fail — particularly at rival studios. Did they get their wish? Welles’ first project, Citizen Kane, earned its immediate reputation as one of the greatest films of all time: a moody masterpiece and a work of technical innovation that others spent decades trying to replicate. (Part of Welles genius was in selecting his collaborators and, sometimes, he even gave them credit.) The critics raved, but the movie took a very, very thinly veiled swipe at newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose organisation fought to kill it. Mainstream audiences, at the same time, found it a bit too highbrow, resulting in a middling box office. On that level, Welles’ detractors won the day — but posterity casts the film in a much different light.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986) — Spike Lee
In a very narrow sense, Spike Lee’s 1986 debut makes the case that Black characters (and audiences) have as much claim to the young adult sex comedy genre as anyone else — but Lee has never been an imitator, and She’s Gotta Have It draws more inspiration from Rashomon than from more contemporaneous movies, with a sexual frankness that feels innovative and forward-thinking even today. Like many ‘80s-era films that tackle sexuality, there are disturbing moments here that place an asterisk on the film’s reputation, but it’s still an daring debut from one of America’s most important directors.
The Virgin Suicides (1993) — Sofia Coppola
Coppola’s 1999 directorial debut, based on the 1993 novel by Pulitzer-winner Jeffrey Eugenides, immediately established her as a singular talent with a unique aesthetic. A group of young men reflect upon their lives in a quiet Michigan town during the late 1970s and, in particular, the five enigmatic teenaged sisters who continue to obsess them. The material is certainly unsettling, but Coppola somehow manages to reveal the inner lives of adolescent girls by examining the myths that men construct around them. It’s an impressive trick, performed in the dreamlike style that would become Coppola’s trademark.
Bad Taste (1987) — Peter Jackson
Giving Peter Jackson (and his longtime collaborator, Fran Walsh) a three-picture deal to create the Lord of the Rings trilogy can’t have seemed like a sound proposition to very many people. Though not inexperienced, his output up until that point hardly suggested he was capable of a project on that epic scale: the quirky and critically acclaimed drama Heavenly Creatures led to the underrated box office flop The Frighteners. Prior to those two films, his reputation was made by darkly comic low-budget splatter films — beginning with Bad Taste, a gross-out romp about an intergalactic fast-food chain with humans on the menu. Looking back, though, everything that made LoTR successful is there in those early films, if in miniature, and the sly humour, unexpected heart, and facility with practical effects made Bad Taste a film that was (sometimes grudgingly) admired back in 1987, and a cult film today.
Following (1998) — Christopher Nolan
One of the most successful directors working today, Christopher Nolan has made a brand out of blockbusters with brains: action epics that frequently come unmoored from conventional time and space in ways both clever (Inception) and convoluted (Tenet). He began as he meant to go on, just with a lot less money. A lot less. His impressive debut casually jumps between time frames in telling the story of a writer who becomes something of a voyeur with a habit of following strangers, before becoming entwined with a crime boss and a femme fatale. The taut neo-noir was made for$6,000, which wouldn’t pay for a day of catering on pretty much every movie that followed.
Boyz n the Hood (1991) — John Singleton
John Singleton’s semi-autobiographical debut, which follows Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Tre Styles as he comes of age amid the tumult of early ‘90s South Central LA, became an immediate cultural sensation, launching acting careers, making real money at the box office, and codifying tropes in what would quickly become a subgenre, for better or worse: the Black “issues” film. Before John Singleton, not one single Black person had been nominated for a Best Director Oscar in Hollywood history — a fact that is at least as much a commentary on racism in the film industry as it is a reflection of Singleton’s talent — but it was nonetheless significant and well-deserved when the young director got the nod. He was not yet 25 years old on Oscar night.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) — Amy Heckerling
There are several contenders for the title of the ultimate Gen-X movie, but probably none more worthy than Amy Heckerling’s debut — a teen sex comedy that’s smarter, funnier, and much more raw than others that came before and after. It’s a coming-of-age story above all else, and introduced the world to any number of young actors who would go on to become stars — as well as to writer Cameron Crowe, who’d go on to an impressive directing career of his own. Speaking of whom…
Say Anything… (1989) — Cameron Crowe
It’s one of the most iconic, recognisable images in American cinema: John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler stands beneath the window of Ione Skye’s Diane Cort blasting “In Your Eyes” on an appropriately enormous boombox (this was 1989, after all). By placing its teenage characters (and their fraught emotions) in a believably real world best by real world problems, it runs deeper (and holds up better) than many other beloved ‘80s-era romantic comedies.
Eve’s Bayou (1997) — Kasi Lemmons
Prior to Eve’s Bayou, Kasi Lemmons had been an actor in, among other films, Silence of the Lambs and Candyman. She brought a bit of that thriller style with her to her directorial debut, but went far beyond, creating an unclassifiable picture that blends gothic drama, horror, and magical realism. It’s the story of a family’s downfall brought about by philandering father Samuel L. Jackson, as seen through the eyes of young Jurnee Smolett. It’s an impossibly assured first film for Lemmons, one that explores the fragmentary nature of memory and the hold of the past.
Get Out (2017) — Jordan Peele
I don’t think that anyone ever doubted Jordan Peele’s talents as actor and comedian, but writing and directing a feature is something else entirely. What could have been a vanity project was, instead, an instant phenomenon, injecting new life into the horror genre just when it needed it — smart, funny, and deeply, existentially scary in its fierce social commentary (making the usual suspects among our cultural commentators absolutely indignant). And, slightly hot take here: His follow-up, Us, is even better. This dude is just getting started.
Alien 3 (1992) — David Fincher
Best known for psychological thrillers like Seven and Fight Club, and most recently honoured with a Best Director Oscar nomination for Mank, David Fincher started his feature directing career on a somewhat, er, less acclaimed note. The third entry in the Alien franchise had already blown through nine writers and multiple script drafts before Fincher was hired to replace the departed first director. Known for directing dozens of the most memorable music videos of the ‘80s, Fincher was hired for his sheer style, but the producers who gave him his shot also kept him on a tight leash, in part because of his lack of feature film experience. It was, perhaps, too many strikes against the film before a single minute of footage was ever shot, with Fincher eventually disowning the finished product. He’s being rather too hard on himself: the cracks in the production show, but the film is a moody and disturbing (for better and worse) haunted house story that serves as a natural endpoint to a story that was never going to end well (too bad about that sequel). It’s not perfect, but, thanks to Fincher, it’s way, way better than it has any right to be — a trial by fire that moulded the man into one of our most precise, exacting auteurs.
Saw (2004) — James Wan
James Wan changed the horror industry in 2004, almost singlehandedly inventing (or re-inventing) a genre sometimes dismissively referred to as “torture porn” — a style of gritty, dingy, gory, ultra-violent movies that harkens back to the crunchiest of ‘70s horror, though handled here with a great deal more cleverness. Saw’s success lead to any number of lesser imitators and eight (!) and counting sequels — but Wan can’t be blamed for his success. And he did it again with The Conjuring, breathing new life into the haunted house genre before moving on to blockbusters like Furious 7 and Aquaman.
Cronos (1993) — Guillermo del Toro
If eclectic director Guillermo del Toro has a signature style, it has something to do with his ability to curl genre tropes that might otherwise be seen as lurid, fashioning them into art — after all, he took home Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for a movie about a janitor who falls in love with a fish man. That aesthetic was locked down with his very first film, Cronos, about a device that conveys a vampire-like curse on the unwary. The sumptuous Spanish language horror drama displays many of the director’s trademarks: impressive practical effects; undercurrents of religion and mythology; and even an appearance by a scenery-chewing Ron Perlman.
Pi (1998) — Darren Aronofsky
If you’ve ever been traumatized by an Aronofsky film (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Mother!, etc.), then only the low budget atmosphere of his feature debut will be unexpected. It’s the story of a number theorist who becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that everything in the universe can be understood through mathematics. His harrowing, Lynch-ian pursuit of understanding leaves his mind — and ours — in an increasingly precarious state.
12 Angry Men (1957) — Sidney Lumet
Some of the best directors start small: a story set in a narrow, controlled environment is a good way to gain experience, particularly with a new director not yet entrusted with big budgets. That’s not to say that the drama has to be small, nor the ideas — as Sidney Lumet proved with his debut, the legendary 12 Angry Men. He’d go on to a long career, becoming one of the most important voices in 1970s cinema with works like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, but he started with this talky, taut, sweaty drama about the unnamed jurors struggling to reach consensus in the case of a young man accused of murdering his father.
I Will Follow (2010) — Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay’s understated independent debut follows an artist who takes a year off from her work to care for an ailing aunt, and unfolds over a single day as Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) oversees the clearing-out of her aunt’s house and possessions. Absent the presence of her charismatic relative and the responsability to care for her, Maye no longer feels sure of her own identity, and her emotional journey feels both intimate and universal. It’s a small story in one sense, but a complex one, dealing with the innumerable complexities of grief.
Little Woods (2018) — Nia DaCosta
Nia DaCosta’s 2018 crime thriller follows two sisters who become entangled in the cross-border drug trade following the death of their mother. The dark neo-western began life as a Kickstarter short and ended up a critically acclaimed feature that put DaCosta immediately and irrevocably on the map. Her super-high-profile followups include the forthcoming Candyman remake, co-produced by Jordan Peele, as well as 2022’s superhero team-up flick The Marvels.
The Duellists (1977) — Ridley Scott
What’s immediately apparent in Ridley Scott’s debut is its director’s affinity for paying attention to details. The thoroughly atrocious attempts at French accents from leads Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel aside, Scott crafts an authentic and convincing story of Napoleonic-era life, uniforms… even sword fights. That sense of space and place would benefit the helmer throughout his long career: whether he’s taking us to outer space, ancient Rome, or modern Mogadishu, Scott’s films display an unmistakable, almost tactile sense of place.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) — Tim Burton
Tim Burton’s signature style has become a bit of a brand unto itself, the uniqueness of his vision having curdled somewhat diluted with time. Still, when he burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s, nobody was doing what Burton was doing: blending dark comedy with a goth sensibilities and stop-motion animation that’s still some of the best in film history. Spinning off of Paul Reubens’ stage show, Burton chose a typically unusual film for his first feature after more than a decade creating shorts, and it’s brilliantly weird, with any number of incredibly memorable set pieces (if you’ve seen the movie even once, Large Marge haunts you forever).
Evil Dead (1981) — Sam Raimi
Technically, this one is Sam Raimi’s second feature film, though his first, 1977’s It’s Murder!, never received a wide release and basically only exists today in the darkest corners of the internet, so Evil Dead gets the debut slot. A deceptively simple cabin-in-the-woods slasher story becomes a funny, gory, incredibly stylish horror romp with a Lovecraftian mythology that would spawn an unlikely (ongoing) media franchise, not to mention Raimi’s very prolific career (he’s currently working on the next Doctor Strange, being yet another example of a director whose early privations eventually get paid off in Marvel money — for a fourth time, in this case).
Bound (1996) — The Wachowskis
Before The Matrix, siblings Lana and Lilly Wachowski made a sexy neo-noir thriller about two women who scheme to double-cross a Mafia boss and make off with $US2 ($3) million dollars. Though you can unpack its themes for days, it’s hard to place Bound in the same oeuvre with Speed Racer or Cloud Atlas, and tough to say how much it reflects on their later works — a fact that only speaks to the Wachowskis’ eclectic talents.
Monster (2003) — Patty Jenkins
A biographical crime drama based on the real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, much of the discussion around Patty Jenkins’ Monster concerned Charlize Theron’s transformative, Oscar-winning performance as the main character. Of course, Theron didn’t direct herself, and Jenkins’ restrained shepherding of a film that she also wrote finds nuance and resonance in a story that could have been merely lurid. It took her a long time to find a followup project, but it’s no surprise that when it finally landed, it made an impact: Wonder Woman was the first modern superhero blockbuster directed by and starring a woman, and its success was massive — and massively deserved.
One Night in Miami (2020) — Regina King
Actors always want to direct, or so the story goes. But the skills don’t always (or even often) overlap. For experienced actress Regina King, work directing television and music videos clearly prepared her for her first feature: One Night in Miami…, the story of a fictionalized meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke in 1964. The film became an awards-season favourite immediately upon its release, and saw King take home a Golden Globe for Best Director.