Eric's Top 10 Directorial Debuts

by Eric Melin on September 25, 2007

in Top 10s

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.

this is spinal tap1. 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?

badlands2. 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.

400 blows3. 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.

being john malkovich4. 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.

night of the hunter5. 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…

blood simple6. 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.

night of the living dead7. 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.

maltese falcon bogart8. 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.

monty python and the holy grail black knight9. 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.

Click here to estimate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.

pee-wee's big adventure10. 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?”

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes for The Pitch. He’s former President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls, Ultimate Fakebook, and Truck Stop Love . He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Knudsen September 25, 2007 at 8:34 am

I am trying to think of some more:
What’s Up Tiger Lily? – Woody Allen
The Iron Giant – Brad Bird
Strictly Ballroom – Baz Lurhman
Say Anything – Cameron Crowe
Sex Lies and Videotape – Steven Soderburgh


2 awas1980 September 25, 2007 at 9:27 am

I love the top 10 lists, keep em coming… I was happy to see that you included Pee Wee and Night of the Living Dead! As always I feel compelled to throw in my two cents.

Sam Raimi – Evil Dead
Steve Buscemi – Trees Lounge
David Lynch – Eraserhead
Wes Craven – Last House on the Left
Jean-Luc Godard – Breathless
Richard Kelly – Donnie Darko


3 awas1980 September 25, 2007 at 10:28 am

I forgot to mention

Jim Jarmusch – Permanent Vacation


4 Eric Melin September 25, 2007 at 11:11 am

Nice. Thanks. I thought Jarmusch’s 1st was “Stranger than Paradise” until just now. I’ll bet Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were huge Jarmusch fans when they were making the Aerosmith album. Ha! Never heard of this one, but I notice its been added to the new Criterion DVD of “Stranger.” I knew people would give me a hard time for listing Truffaut and not Godard. At least we got it out of the way quick. I almost put Donnie Darko, but it was just on my School LIfe list, and it’s NOT as good as “Night of the Hunter,” so I couldn’t justify it twice in 2 months…


5 awas1980 September 25, 2007 at 11:26 am

It’s questionable, Permanent Vacation is just barley feature length, like 70 minutes or something like that… That’s cool it’s going to be on DVD, I watched it online a while back.


6 Charles September 25, 2007 at 2:26 pm

Those are all awesome. PT Anderson is one of my favorites, and “Hard Eight” is some pretty deft direction for a first effort. George Lucas, also, actually used to be a gifted filmmaker, “THX 1138” is pretty incredible. John Singleton’s first is also impressive – he directed “Boyz N the Hood” when he was (I think) just 21 years old. I can’t imagine.


7 Dana September 25, 2007 at 9:54 pm

Being John Malkovich is a great film! I didn’t realize that was Spike Jonze’s first feature film. I have to agree with awas1980’s choices again for this list. You should check out my friend John’s first feature film, he’s going to be famous one day!


8 Dan September 26, 2007 at 9:18 am

Wow, what makes this list impressive are the also-rans. Sex, Lies and Videotape didn’t hold up over time, but it certainly had a big splash when it hit theaters (i.e. when it really matters, for launching a career. The opposite is true for Night of the Hunter. It should have launched Laughton’s directing career, but no one got it at the time.)

What’s Up Tiger Lily, while groundbreaking, has been surpassed in quality and comedy by the Zuckers and MST3K. Bottle Rocket, Reservoir Dogs, House of Games are masterful, but flawed. The fact that the top ten movies are all films that I can watch repeatedly are amazing testaments to the directors. The also rans are worth seeing once, and are remarkable for quality, such as Citizen Kane.

First time directors should be delighted if their debut comes close to any of the films listed, but the top ten truly are a cut above (though I’d probably swap places between Body Heat and Being John Malkovich – BJM was really innovative, but suffered from some pacing – Body Heat broke tread VERY familiar ground, but was perfectly paced, and provides, for me, a deeper and more compelling story.)


9 Blake September 28, 2007 at 12:38 pm

Nice list Eric, especially with Blood Simple and night of the Hunter. Here my a bunch of worthy ones that weren’t on yours.

1. Breathless
2. Knife in the Water
3. Pather Panchali
3. My Name is Ivan
4. Walkabout
5. Accatone
6. The Three Burial of Malquiades Estrada
7. Garden State
8. The white Sheik
9. Pinocchio

In looking for some I learned a few that I thought were debuts werent like Spartacus, Rashomon, and Shoeshine. Nice.


10 James October 24, 2007 at 7:21 pm

Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V is an AWESOME debut. If you have the the means I strongly suggest picking one up


11 James October 24, 2007 at 8:14 pm

Play Misty for me
Easy Rider
Ordinary People
The Virgin Suicides


12 James October 24, 2007 at 8:17 pm

Amores perros


13 rs October 23, 2009 at 5:20 pm

“spolier” ?

The only place I have heard that was cafe dartre, second opinion booth.

Where I contributed part of the definition.



14 Reed January 25, 2018 at 2:50 am

This is an excellent list.


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