Top 7 Greatest Directorial Debuts

6 May


Getting that first feature film in the can is an amazing experience, but it isn’t always a successful one. Hollywood is littered with bad debut films, especially in this current age of inexpensive filmmaking. But sometimes, the stars align and that first feature comes out just the way you had been hoping since you first conceived it. Or, in the case of old-timey studio pictures, the studio took a chance on you, and you came through with flying colors. It’s good to celebrate these first feature films that give all us filmmakers hope for our debuts.

These aren’t the only great directorial debuts, but they are my very favorite…

7. MAD MAX (George Miller)

While imperfect and a bit confusing, George Miller’s Mad Max paved the path for post-apocalyptic filmmaking, and set a high standard for revenge movies. If you haven’t seen it yet, or skipped right to Road Warrior, you owe it to yourself to see Max’s tragic origins, and an ending that absolutely, and without any doubt, inspired all of the Saw films.

6. 12 ANGRY MEN (Sidney Lumet)

Taking place almost entirely in one room, 12 Angry Men tells the tale of a group of tired, stressed-out jurors who are more than ready to convict a young man of murder, until juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) begins to try to change their minds. It’s a powerful, important film about the merits of honesty and decency, and brings hope to everyone who watches it that the American legal system could possibly be just. I mean, we all basically don’t believe it anymore, but any time you’re down, pop in 12 Angry Men, and cross your fingers that more people in the world might be like Juror #8.

5. TARGETS (Peter Bogdanovich)

Simply put, this is one of the most terrifying and disturbing movies you will ever see. It will make you nervous and paranoid for weeks after watching it. It’s about a normal American twenty-something year-old man who wakes up one day, murders his family, and then begins a shooting rampage, sniping people driving on the freeway and watching movies at a drive-in. It will haunt you, and you’ll never drive down the freeway in the San Fernando Valley ever again.

4. THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Rob Reiner)

To be honest, I always thought this was directed by Christopher Guest, because it’s in the same style as all of his best. However, comedy giant Rob Reiner actually brought this film to life with comedic precision from the film’s brilliant ensemble cast. If you’ve never seen it, the film is a mockumentary about a metal band called Spinal Tap, and follows the traditional rise and fall of a music band bio-pic, only with more exploding drummers. It’s amazing.

3. THE GREAT McGINTY (Preston Sturges)

Sturges wrote The Great McGinty, but he really wanted to direct. So, he came up with a plan: He would trade the screenplay to the studio for a chance to direct the picture, and he would only require a payment of $10. That intense desire to direct, and it possibly being the only chance he would have at it, made sure that what he created was a masterpiece. The story is about a homeless man who uses chicanery to rise through political ranks and becomes a corrupt Governor who wants to go straight, but can’t. It’s a political comedy with sharp and brilliant dramatic moments, and is a must-see for any film lover.

2. KISS KISS BANG BANG (Shane Black)

Shane Black made a name for himself when he sold his first screenplay for a quarter of a million dollar. That first screenplay was Lethal Weapon. Can you imagine that? But, an even more impressive debut is his first directorial effort, the charming and brilliant Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The story is a Noir pastiche, starring Robert Downey Jr. as a con-man and fake Private Eye, and Val Kilmer as a gay movie consultant, and real Private Eye. Together, they become embroiled in a murder plot that is convoluted and confusing and perfect.


With his first film, John Huston made one of the most iconic films in history, which almost single-handedly began the Noir genre. The movie is beautiful, intricately woven, and a powerhouse of acting, lead by the incomparable Humphrey Bogart. Originally, George Raft was cast as Sam Spade, but he turned down the movie because he didn’t trust the young and inexperienced John Huston. That stupid move, plus several other roles turned down by Raft and picked up by Bogart, made Bogart’s career.


ERASERHEAD (David Lynch) – This surreal horror fantasy was a great indicator of the genius that would later come. Its gothic and bizarre atmosphere gives it that immensely unnerving feeling of walking down a empty, densely foggy street at 3 in the morning, listening to your own footsteps, and then suddenly hearing another set of footsteps behind you. That’s why you need to watch it.

RESERVOIR DOGS (Quentin Tarantino) – With a big ensemble cast and a deceptively ambitious story, this low-budget film is a wonderful paranoia tale that unravels with precise timing. Also, one of the most memorable scenes in the film is of insane torture starring a thin Michael Madsen, which is reason enough to watch it.

AIRPLANE! (David Zucker, Jim Zucker, Jim Abrahams) – With clever writing, great visual gags, and a massively-talented cast, you cannot go wrong with Airplane!, one of the most quotable films ever created.

SIX-STRING SAMURAI (Lance Mungia) – This is one of the greatest sci-fi, post-apocalyptic weirdo freak movies that no one has ever seen, but you really, really should. It’s amazing. It follows the misadventures of a martial artist/guitar player named Buddy Holly, as he battles his way across the low-budget wastelands to take over Elvis’ throne as King Of America in the last remaining US city, Las Vegas. And that’s not even mentioning the 1950s-era family of cannibals, the Russian army, the subterranean monsters or Death himself as a heavy-metal musician.

CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles) – Well, obviously. But how many damn lists can this movie be on? Come on. We need to give someone else a chance.


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