It’s Tuesday, so that means another Scene-Stealers Top 10! Most of the time a good director will become a truly great one after years of honing his or her craft. Alfred Hitchcock, who started in the 1920s, immediately leaps to mind. But some directors, like Orson Welles for example, simply strike gold their first time out. Since “Citizen Kane” (1941) is widely regarded as the greatest film of all time, it is a given that it should be on any list of the great Directorial Debuts. What follows then, are my favorite first time out feature-length presentations by freshman directors, excepting Welles’ pioneering work. Make sure to check back next Tuesday for J.D.’s list of Top 10 Directorial Debuts.
1. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
What is there to say about the funniest movie ever made that hasn’t been said already? Rob Reiner’s directorial debut may not have been the first mockumentary,* but it is still the best. As anyone who has ever been in a touring band will tell you, there is more real and scary stuff in this film than there should be in a parody. The musical satires (written by Reiner and co-writers/stars Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest) are pitch-perfect, the drama is surprisingly effective and the dialogue has nearly a classic quote every minute. After wearing out several VHS and DVD copies, I just saw it on the big screen for the first time this year and—after 23 years now—the crowd was still rolling in the aisles.
Marty DiBergi: “This tasteless cover is a good indication of the lack of musical invention within. The musical growth of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.”
Nigel Tufnel: That’s just nitpicking, isn’t it?
2. Badlands (1973)
Terrence Malick’s name is whispered with reverential tones around any serious cinephile, and the man has only ever directed four movies. His first was a beautifully shot tale of a listless teenage couple in 1959 who had nothing better to do than kill people. Although it is loosely based on a true story, Malick went for a very stylized approach that would eventually become his trademark. Sissy Spacek’s naïve voice-over narration and huge amounts of “magic hour” natural light create a meditative tone that is a strong counterpoint to the senseless violence of Martin Sheen’s character. Breathtaking.
Holly Sargis: He needed me now more than ever, but something had come between us. I’d stopped even paying attention to him. Instead I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of mouth where nobody could read them.
3. The 400 Blows (1959)
When film critic-turned-filmmaker Francois Truffaut released this semi-autobiographical movie, he put his money where his mouth was and helped define the French New Wave. His own troubled childhood was the inspiration for a cheaply shot, self-analytical movie shot on location with long takes and natural sound. It had none of the fancy dancy costumes and jackassed tomfoolery of the French “Tradition of Quality” films he had come to abhor. The famous ambiguous ending (Can you issue a SPOLIER ALERT on a 48 year-old movie?) has his young surrogate on the beach, at a symbolic crossroads when Truffaut does the unthinkable— and freezes the frame.
Psychiatrist: (intertitles)Your parents say you’re always lying.
Antoine Doniel: Oh, I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.
4. Being John Malkovich (1999)
Not bad. It’s your first movie and—boom!—Oscar nomination for Best Director. It was quite a feat for a former music video director, even one as well-known as Spike Jonze. What’s even more surprising is that Jonze took a hilariously bizarre script by scribe Charlie Kaufman and didn’t rely on any of the modern camera tricks most music video directors would have used. Instead, “Being John Malkovich” is surreal not because of loony special effects but because it takes place in the real world and it taps into a desire we sometimes all flirt with—being someone famous.
Maxine: Meet you in Malkovich in one hour.
5. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Lightning only struck once for Oscar-winning British actor Charles Laughton’s directing career. This masterpiece, the story of a preacher (Robert Mitchum) who chases after two young kids to find the whereabouts of their dead father’s hidden money, was the only film he ever helmed. It had a good/evil duality with which Laughton connected, and in an age of CinemaScope and color films, it was an anomaly. It features disturbing thematic overtones, lots of parallel imagery, and absurdly expressive photography, which meant that it did not fit in easily with any film genre, and subsequently, was a box office failure. I realize this was just #1 on my Top Villains list, but it’s just that good.
Rev. Harry Powell: Not that you mind the killings! There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord…
6. Blood Simple (1984)
There is a grueling, prolonged sequence in the Coen brothers’ first movie that had me short of breath the first time I watched it, and it still provokes a similar reaction every time. Driving down the highway, Ray (John Getz) hears the blood-spurting noises of his boss, whom he thought was dead in the backseat. He stops the car and runs away to collect his thoughts. When he comes back, the man is crawling on all fours next to the car, gasping for air. I’m not sure how long it lasted, but it seemed like forever as we stay with Ray—in real time—until he decides whether to save or kill a man he thought was already dead. Character actor M. Emmet Walsh is also at his slimy best here. Turning the crime drama on its ear, Joel and his writing/producing partner Ethan made their name with this one remarkable film.
Visser: Gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.
7. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s landmark debut was made for about $100,000 and still featured gore that was extreme for its time. Besides single-handedly redefining the modern zombie archetype, this movie had the balls to feature a black leading man, force family members to brutally kill each other (who hasn’t wanted to do that?) and stick with the bleakest and most controversial ending imaginable. Romero also mocks the military and rednecks with aplomb. Audiences bogged down with the Vietnam War reacted strongly to this crude version of realism that depicted a world gone stark, raving mad with no explanation.
Sheriff: Good shot! OK, he’s dead; let’s go get ‘im. That’s another one for the fire.
8. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
When screenwriter John Huston first stepped behind the camera to film the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s classic private eye novel, a star was born. Humphrey Bogart played Sam Spade with a chip the size of San Francisco on his shoulder. (“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”) It is considered to be the first film noir ever by the French book that coined the term in 1946. The film’s hard-boiled attitude and dastardly femme fatale (played by Mary Astor) helped set the tone for decades of darker material in and outside of Hollywood.
Sam Spade: I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.
9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
The only American in this famously outlandish British comedy troupe was Terry Gilliam, who co-directed this low budget labor-of-love filmed between seasons of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” with cast-mate Terry Jones. It was the first movie for either, and little did they know it would end of being one of the silliest and most-revered comedies of all time. The movie looks like crap, so the Pythons must have preferred Jones’ directorial style over the notoriously finicky visual sense of Gilliam. Either way, the troupe brought surrealistic absurdity to new heights.
10. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Lots of people forget that this story of a rebel and his bike was goth-master Tim Burton’s first full-length film. It was also co-written by Pee-Wee himself (Paul Reubens) and the late Phil Hartman. There’s more than a little of Ed Wood—the later subject of Burton’s best movie—in Pee-Wee, or vice-versa. Where Burton and Reubens really hit it off, though, was in making the innocently childish pop-art world of Pee-Wee come alive. Expressionistic sets and oddball characters populate this delightfully funny movie, making it a nice place to re-visit again and again.
Pee-Wee: There’s a lotta things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.
Body Heat (1981), Lawrence Kasdan
House of Games (1987), David Mamet
Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino
Shadows (1959), John Cassavetes
The Producers (1968), Mel Brooks
Bottle Rocket (1996), Wes Anderson
* This title must belong to The Rutles – All You Need is Cash (a hilarious 1978 TV movie directed by Eric Idle) or, as Donald Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) put it so eloquently in Adaptation, “Did you know that there hasn’t been a new genre since Fellini invented the mockumentary?”