Top 6: Directorial Debuts

Posted in Top 6 at 4:59 am by Sam

For Episode 9, our Top 6 is about great directorial debuts. Some great directors, like Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, start out under the radar and build to greatness. Others are great right off the bat. In some cases, a director’s very first film winds up being his best.

This is most notoriously the case with Orson Welles, whose directorial debut of Citizen Kane (1941), one of the greatest of all films and pretty much universally regarded as the best directorial debut in cinema history. For that reason, we have excluded Citizen Kane from our list of Top 6 Directorial Debuts, just so we can talk about some other choices. It’s the best. We agree with the consensus. So let’s move on.

Another unusual thing to note about this list is that Stephen and I conspired and purposefully chose not to duplicate any of our choices. We did this because there were a lot of great choices, more than we initially anticipated, and we wanted to make sure we got to talk about twelve different movies. So, as we say in the podcast, a couple titles on each list would have gone on both, but we agreed to divvy them up between us.

What are your favorite Directorial Debuts Other Than Citizen Kane?

As always, we recommend listening to the episode before reading further.

  1. Francois Truffaut, with The 400 Blows (1959)
  2. Jean-Luc Godard, with Breathless (1960)
  3. John Huston, with The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  4. Terrence Malick, with Badlands (1973)
  5. Joel and Ethan Coen, with Blood Simple (1984)
  6. Shane Carruth, with Primer (2004)
  1. Sidney Lumet, with Twelve Angry Men (1957)
  2. Fernando Meirelles, with City of God (2002)
  3. David Mamet, with House of Games (1987)
  4. Steven Spielberg, with Duel (1971)
  5. Sam Peckinpah, with Ride the High Country (1962) [see Sam’s comment below]
  6. Andrew Niccol, with Gattaca (1997)

Again, Orson Welles, with Citizen Kane (1941), officially tops both our lists at #0.


  1. Eric (44) said,

    November 28, 2006 at 7:27 am

    A directorial debut that impressed me a great deal was Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. I had rented it expecting a schlocky B-movie made on a shoestring budget. I was, to say the least, surprised. A lot of it is really hard to watch, obviously. But I walked away from it liking it at least enough to see the sequel. The thing about House of 1000 Corpses (and, for that matter, The Devil’s Rejects) is that Zombie does a really good job of mixing horror clichés with stuff you haven’t seen before (or at least that I haven’t). He has a very weird style, but for me it was very effective.

  2. wintermute (157) said,

    November 28, 2006 at 10:52 am

    I still like Jackson’s Bad Taste. For something like $500, he made a very good schlock alien invasion movie.

  3. Jeffrey (84) said,

    March 5, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    Charles Laughton- The Night of the Hunter
    Rob Reiner – This Is Spinal Tap
    Dennis Hopper – Easy Rider
    Kevin Costner – Dances with Wolves
    Clint Eastwood – Play Misty for Me
    Danny Boyle – Shallow Grave
    Mel Brooks – The Producers
    Cameron Crowe – Say Anything…
    Baz Luhrmann – Strictly Ballroom
    Lawrence Kasden – Body Heat
    George A Romero – Night of the Living Dead
    Steven Soderbergh – sex, lies and videotape
    Richard Kelly – Donnie Darko
    Sam Mendes – American Beauty
    Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – Amores Perros
    Mike Hodges – Get Carter
    Terry Gilliam – Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-directed)
    Spike Jonze - Being John Malkovich
    Nicholas Ray - They Live By Night

  4. Sam (405) said,

    May 3, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    I have to disqualify one of my entries here. Turns out, Ride the High Country was Sam Peckinpah’s second movie, not his first. The really lame thing about my error is that I’d SEEN his actual first movie, The Deadly Companions, and known it was his first movie at the time.

    But it’s pretty bad, and I guess I was successful at suppressing the memory.

  5. joem18b (231) said,

    May 3, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    For those of you who have been blessed to live in Texas:

    John Wayne - The Alamo (1960)

  6. joem18b (231) said,

    May 3, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    Hey, Jeffrey, nice list!

    So that’s 33 directors named above, all male. Seems hard to find a female director with a major film debut. Why is that?

    A list of 6 (not counting TV work):

    Jane Champion - An Exercise In Discipline (1982)
    Nora Ephron - This Is My Life (1992)
    Penny Marshall - Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)
    Claire Denis - Chocolat (1988) (not that Chocolat)
    Jodie Foster - Little Man Tate (1991)
    Nancy Savoca - True Love (1989)

  7. Sam (405) said,

    May 4, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Seems hard to find a female director with a major film debut. Why is that?

    Probably because it’s hard to find female directors. There is one, however, that made my short list for this Top 6 list: Sofia Coppola, The Virgin Suicides.

  8. joem18b (231) said,

    May 4, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Nice catch!

    But Sophia probably wouldn’t figure in any discussion about why there are so few debut hits for women directors because she’s Hollywood royalty. For example, she got a major role in the Godfather without being able to act.

    I mean, aren’t there as many women as men graduating from film school? If the issue is one of gender-discrimination, then wouldn’t the Jackie Robinson rule come into play? That is, to make a movie, a female director must be a superstar, in which case we’d expect to see great debut results from her? Or would women breaking in be required to make projects that the men don’t want to make - the bottom of the barrel? But that wouldn’t apply to Indie filmmakers, who would make projects that they really believe in.

    Having said that, there’s a Salon article on the subject at http://dir.salon.com/story/ent/movies/feature/2002/08/27/women_directors/index.html?pn=1

    Bottom line: It’s a man’s world.

    Mary Harron - I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) (a fine Lili Taylor vechicle)
    Sharon Maguire - Bridgit Jone’s Diary (2001)
    Mimi Leder - The Peacemaker (1997), after lots of TV work

    Amy Heckerling’s second flick was Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So close…

  9. joem18b (231) said,

    May 25, 2007 at 8:32 pm

    Sounds like Sarah Polley is worthy of mention with her debut “Away from Her.”

  10. Jeffrey (84) said,

    May 26, 2007 at 9:54 am

    Andrea Arnold’s “Red Road” won the 2006 Cannes Jury Prize and I highly recommend it. She had previously won an Oscar for a short film.

  11. joem18b (231) said,

    June 18, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Watched Seraphim Falls last night and enjoyed it. Maybe not a great film, but a nice debut for David Von Ancken.

  12. joem18b (231) said,

    June 18, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Another nice recent start:In the Land of Women (Jon Kasdan)

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