Before we start, a couple of rules that I followed while making this list:
-Documentaries don’t count: Watching the scene and setting the scene are two different things. If you made a documentary before you made your dramatic debut, the dramatic debut is the one I’m counting.
-Your movie had to be distributed: Every once in a while, a feature makes the film festival rounds without actually getting picked up and distributed. If your second film was released in theaters in America, that’s the one I’m counting.
-No Donnie Darko: That movie is actually an episode of Quantum Leap with shitty emo “Kill Yourself” music packed in. Sorry, kids.
So now then… The Ten Best Directorial Debuts of the Decade
10. Craig Brewer’s Hustle and Flow (2005)
Craig Brewer‘s film (and the one that followed it) seems to follow one set motif: a man is in a shitty situation and a growing appreciation for music gets him out of it. With this assured first theatrical feature, the man in question is DJ (the brilliant Terrence Howard), a pimp and pusher in the shitty section of Memphis. His dream of becoming a rapper allows him to bring people into his life that he normally wouldn’t and his respect for those already in his life deepens considerably. It’s a redemption through art and through fire. Given the tools at the start, we had no reason to believe that Hustle and Flow would be as personal, as touching and as affecting as it wound up being. Such is Brewer’s gift for creating fantastic and credible characters.
FOLLOWED UP WITH:Black Snake Moan, which was even better and, apparently, some new show on MTV that I won’t watch. They could get Fassbinder up from the dead to do a show on that network and I STILL wouldn’t watch it. MTV gives you the clap, I’ll have you know.
9. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Is there anyone on the world filmmaking stage who loves movies so viscerally and so visibly than Edgar Wright? His comedies don’t so much passively settle on you as give you a sugar rush. And it all started with Shaun of the Dead, which features Simon Pegg as a loser with job and relationship troubles who wakes up one morning and finds out that zombies have taken over the world. What starts out as a cute put-on of the zombie sub-genre takes a U-turn in the third act when it drops all pretenses and becomes the same kind of movie it was gently spoofing. And with Wright’s technical prowess and superior genius with pacing, you actually BUY it. Watching, it you know — Just KNOW — that Wright was the kind of kid who ran around in the backyard pretending to blow away zombies with a shotgun. You can also see that there might be a part of him who wishes he still could.
FOLLOWED UP WITH:Hot Fuzz, which was a movie Jesus wanted you to see. It was THAT good.
8. Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Remember those bygone days when we could laugh at Ben Affleck? Not with him, but AT him? Well, Affleck put those days in the fucking ground when he made Gone Baby Gone (in which he does not appear). His brother Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan play two Boston private eyes trying to find the missing daughter of a skanky barfly (The Wire veteran Amy Ryan, who picked up an Oscar nod for this movie (and SHOULD HAVE WON, GODDAMMIT!). Needless to say, things are not as cut and dry as they appear. Adapted from the novel by the great Dennis Lehane, Affleck shows that he knows noir down to its bones. It’s not about fedoras and fancy lighting, it’s about moral weakness and how the right thing is never easy. Effectively marshaling his actors and his story while managing to be no slouch with the tech aspects, Gone Baby Gone is more confident than it should be.
FOLLOWED UP WITH: Nothing as of yet. Come on, Ass-fleck, get on that. I ain’t paying to see your damned face.
7. George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Filling out our duo of pretty boy actors stepping behind the camera with unexpected results, we have George Clooney. If you’re doing your first movie, you could have a worse screenwriter than Charlie Kaufman, and you DEFINITELY could have a worse DP than Newton Thomas Sigel. Sam Rockwell (in the role that effectively launched his career) plays Chuck Barris, host of The Gong Show, who moonlights as an assassin for the NSA. And while that may make it seem like some kind of goofy comedy, it slowly sets in how seriously everyone involved takes it. The old Kaufman themes of isolation and loneliness are at play here, and Sigel’s cinematography is something to behold. He desaturates the foreground of color while the background is home to garish pastels. It’s almost like CandyLand is populated by people visibly too miserable to enjoy it. Clooney’s mindset as the director is obsessive. He makes absolutely no plays for this weird little movie to be appreciated by a wider audience. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is what it is, and doesn’t give a mad fuck whether you like it or not.
FOLLOWED UP WITH:Good Night, and Good Luck, which got him a couple of Oscar nominations and a ton of goodwill… Which he promptly pissed away with that boring-ass Leatherheads movie. Oh well.
6. Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005)
After making the documentary The Cruise in 1998, Bennett Miller set his eyes on fiction with Capote in 2005, the only debut on this list to get a Picture AND Directing nomination. Breaking with the staid and typical biopic formula, Miller makes his film about the few years Truman Capote spent researching and writing his groundbreaking “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. Instead of Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar winning performance) “overcoming obstacles,” or some boring shit like that, Capote compromises his principles by falling in love with a man on trial for murder (Clifton Collins Jr.). If he beats the rap and lives, he has no book. Miller looks at Capote without pity, a man who will willingly exploit someone desperate for his own ends. And maybe he enables us to look at him the same way Capote himself looked at poor Perry Smith: Not condoning, but maybe understanding just a little bit.
FOLLOWED UP WITH: Other than some in-development thing called Foxcatcher, nuthin’.
5. Rian Johnson’s Brick (2006)
Going into Brick, it looks like a gimmick: a film noir set in a High School, with 1940s dialogue. Coming out, you wonder why the connection wasn’t made sooner. Guys on corners who can get everything done? Trying to look cool to mask alienation, confusion, desperation, and anger? Film Noir is EXACTLY like High School! Of course, having Joseph Gordon Levitt as your lead helps. With this one movie (moreso than the overrated Mysterious Skin) he went from “that kid from 3rd Rock” to “the best actor of his generation.” Levitt, with the help of Rian Johnson’s screenplay, finds the heart of the Private Eye mythos as his character seraches for his ex-girlfriend’s killer. At the center of the investigative impulse is a lot of anger and obsession. That will help him in Johnson’s suburban California, photographed in a way to look like a placid Alighieri Hellscape. The sun is up there, but it doesn’t seem to do a whole lot of shining.
FOLLOWED UP WITH:The Brothers Bloom… Which is taking its sweet-ass fucking time making it to my neck of the woods.
4. Joss Whedon’s Serenity (2005)
Serenity is not only one of the best first time efforts of the decade, but the best conventional science fiction film of the decade. PERIOD! A group of outlaws hide an enemy of the state, evading the authorities and a lone operative who has no scruples in his quest for their destruction. On a cursory glance, it looks like a cheapie Western set in space, but I have no patience for cursory glances and neither should you. The way Serenity is special lies in the details that become more prominent the more you pay attention. A battle of wills between a villain with a strict moral code and a hero who, well, doesn’t (up to and including shooting three unarmed men through the duration of the picture). And how about that shadowy corrupt government? The one that unleashes unspeakable evil as a by-product of wanting to get people to stop hurting and killing each other? Joss Whedon‘s talent is to combine new, smaller ideas into a cohesive and thrilling whole. Combined with Whedon’s brisk pace and clever ear for dialogue, Serenity is a wonderful throwback to the days when sci-fi was a little less overblown and a lot more fun.
FOLLOWED UP BY: Taking his sorry ass back to television. That’s what happens when you only break even.
3. Scott Frank’s The Lookout (2007)
Following Joss Whedon on the First-Time-Director-After-Toiling-For-Over-A-Decade-In-Screenwriting-Hell tip is Scott Frank. After writing such flicks as Get Shorty and Minority Report (as well as getting an Oscar Nomination for his work on Out of Sight), Frank did The Lookout, a movie which sidesteps crime movie conventions in favor of meticulous character study. Joseph Gordon Levitt (again) plays Chris Pratt, a High School hot-shit who gets in a car-wreck that effectively destroys his short-term memory. Rooming with a blind man (Jeff Daniels), he meets an old High School acquaintance (Matthew Goode, who would later disgrace himself in Watchmen) who convinces Chris to help rob the bank he works at as a part-time janitor. Far from a gimmick to use to build suspense, both Frank and Levitt use the short-term memory loss as a way to chow Chris Pratt as a man trying to claw his way out of himself. A man angry and lost, but not knowing why.
FOLLOWED UP WITH: Co-writing Marley & Me, the poor fucking dope.
2. Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004)
Films that simply don’t underestimate the audience are rare enough. Films that GREATLY OVERESTIMATE the audience are pretty much extinct. In order to make the first ever plausible time travel film, writer/director/actor/composer/pretty much everything else Shane Carruth took college courses in physics to get the principles down. In order to maintain authenticity, the dialogue is essentially nothing but scientific shoptalk about parabolic convergences, endpoints and Feynman diagrams. Both of these things essentially shut out ninety-eight percent of the audience. Look, you can call several filmmakers “brave” for what they decide to make movies about. Michael Haneke did a film that was essentially a finger-pointing lecture about how we’re all horrible people for liking blood in our entertainment every now and again and he was HAILED for his bravery. But making a movie that will reduce the people willing to pay to see it to knuckle-dragging simpletons? THAT takes big shiny balls, friend. There is apparently more honor in making your audience feel icky than making them feel dumb. Granted, Primer makes sense on repeated viewings, provided you pay attention. But it’s Carruth’s knack for down-and-dirty filmmaking that makes you want to go beyond the initial investment. And when you do finally figure it all out? You feel AWESOME! Just how convoluted is the logic of Primer? Have you noticed I haven’t even told you what this movie is about?
FOLLOWED UP WITH: To watch Primer is to know why no one in their right mind will ever let Shane Carruth make another movie ever again.
1. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001)
This decade would not be “this decade” without Christopher Nolan. His contributions to Hollywood will be felt in the NEXT decade, and the one after that. And it all started with Memento. After his first official feature, Following, made the film festival circuit (but didn’t get released in theaters), investors threw their money at Nolan to make this one, and the world hasn’t been the same sense. It follows a man with short term memory-loss (again) and, in a neat narrative trick, the scenes are in reverse chronological order, so much like the hero (Guy Pearce), we don’t know what just happened.
But while this may come off as a gimmick, it’s a gimmick put to incredible use. We eventually see how limited this man is. And the more you see, the less you like him, as he is finally revealed to be of a clingy and needy nature. Guy Pearce’s Leonard Shelby is the Don Quixote complex writ large, dashing after windmills for the sole purpose of making himself feel better. It’s sensational, but it’s also grounded in real humanity. A movie just about everyone can get behind, unless, of course, you suck.
Memento functions as Nolan’s entire career distilled into under two hours. Enlightenment on the low road. Taking back the multiplex and molding it in his shape, giving widespread entertainment back to those of us with hearts and brains that haven’t atrophied yet. A few more Nolans working today and we’d have a film scene we can give a shit about again.
FOLLOWED UP WITH: I’m not even answering that question. “Fuck you,” that’s what he followed up with.
Shaun of the Dead is my absolute favorite film of all time. Wright is fucking brilliant. The parallels in the opening half and closing half are perfectly paced. I’ve seen it over 50 times and I still find myself in awe everytime I watch it.
As for Affleck (Ben, that is), he should leave the acting to Casey. Unless he gets killed in the first 1/6th of the movie, like in Smokin’ Aces.
I do notice a few glaring omissions though:
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, directed by Shane Black.
Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze
Layer Cake, directed by Matthew Vaughn
Garden State, directed by Zach Braff
Everything Is Illuminated, directed by Liev Schreiber
Of course, some of these would be valid in the top fifteen, but still. :)
Comment by T. Walters — May 29, 2009 @ 6:00 pm
Incredible list. THis list and some of Walters’ list above me are all worthwhile debuts, but Primer for sure!!
Comment by Jerry — May 29, 2009 @ 6:28 pm
Brilliant list. Even thought there’s several on here that I haven’t seen. I totally agree with Memento being the number one directorial debut of the decade. I must have seen that movie a dozen times. Love it.
Comment by elDuendeVerde — May 30, 2009 @ 7:28 am
Awesome list. I just put Primer in my Netflix as #1 so I can see it. I remember hearing about it alot but have yet to see it.
Of the others that I have seen the only one I have to disagree with is Brick. I liked the previews and love pretty much everything else Joseph Gordon Levitt has done, but Brick just made me laugh at how horribly stupid it was.
Comment by Dax — May 30, 2009 @ 8:45 am
Fantastic list, Doc!
As a follow up for Whedon, though, let ye not omit Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog! He hit the internet before he returned to television. ;)
Comment by NeverWanderer — May 30, 2009 @ 3:46 pm
What about Ryan Fleck for Half-Nelson?
Comment by Micha — June 17, 2009 @ 10:09 am
the writer seems a bit indignant at the thought of someone not knowing nolan’s follow up (that being ‘insomnia’ with al pacino and robin williams). a good film, in it’s own right, but nothing to get upset over. he may have been thinking of batman begins…
Comment by Hmm? — October 8, 2009 @ 3:41 pm
I feel like maybe Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 is a pretty good debut. Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges was a fucking good debut too. I would also add the pair that did Little Miss Sunshine and Duncan Jones who did Moon.
Comment by punch drunk fool — July 9, 2011 @ 11:23 pm