Ranked: Best and Worst Directorial Debuts Since 1990

  • Publish Date: August 4, 2011
  • Comments: ↓ 10 user comments

New kids on the block

ImageA modern-day cowboys and aliens

With Hollywood seemingly turning out one formulaic remake, reboot, and retread after another, it's always nice when fresh talent arrives on the scene to shake things up. And while we're not arguing that every film by a first-time director is original and compelling, many such movies do indeed offer a brief departure from the norm, in style, subject matter, or both.

In fact, two such films have appeared in the past few weeks. Like Neill Blomkamp's debut film District 9 81 before it, Attack the Block 75 (now in select cities) demonstrates that you don't need a big budget to make a thoroughly entertaining and unique alien invasion film. The first feature directed by British comedian Joe Cornish, the comedy/horror/sci-fi/action mashup follows a group of London street thugs who attempt to thwart an alien attack. And opening this weekend is the no-budget Bellflower, the debut from young filmmaker Evan Glodell, who also wrote the screenplay and constructed his own camera to use during the shooting (he stars, too). The Sundance hit about two Mad Max-obsessed friends who build their own flamethrower offers a truly unique style, even if the story gets a bit messy.

While both Bellflower and Attack the Block are earning strong reviews, they aren't quite among the highest scoring debut films in recent years. (Surprisingly, not even District 9 made the cut.) Below, we look at the best- and worst-reviewed debut films released in the past two decades, ranked by Metascore prior to rounding. Note that documentaries and animated films are excluded, and that some directorial debuts from the early-to-mid 1990s may not have more than seven reviews in our database (meaning that they, too, are excluded).

10 best-reviewed directorial debuts since 1990

1. Being John Malkovich 90 (1999) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Spike Jonze

"This is the most impressive directorial debut since 'Reservoir Dogs.'"

—Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald

Even in the last great year for movies, the debut film from music video director Spike Jonze stood out for its one-of-a-kind premise and sheer inventiveness throughout, and the director was able to elicit strong, against-type performances by leads John Cusack and Cameron Diaz. The director would re-team with Malkovich's writer Charlie Kaufman three years later for Adaptation 83, another acclaimed, unconventional comedy, but Jonze has directed just one other feature film (Where the Wild Things Are 71) in the ensuing years.

2. The Lives of Others 89 (2006) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

"It's so full-blooded, smart, sexy, tense and absorbing, so cleverly written and shot and cut, so filled with superb acting and music, so perfect in its closing moment, that it surely ranks with the most impressive debuts in world cinema."

—Shawn Levy, Portland Oregonian

This 1980s-set drama about the East German secret police won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was among the best-reviewed movies released that year, with critics praising von Donnersmarck's restraint and subtlety. The film also proved to be a hit, grossing an unexpected $77 million worldwide, which led to von Donnersmarck's second gig, a chance to direct Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in the mainstream thriller The Tourist 37. Few critics liked that film, though it did earn a bizarre nomination for Best Comedy at the Golden Globes.

3. Away From Her 88 (2007) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Sarah Polley

"Far from being the look-at-me calling card so many first-time filmmakers feel obliged to turn out, it's a precociously assured and mature work, at once humble and bold."

—Ella Taylor, Village Voice

After spending two decades as an actress, Canadian Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) made her directorial debut at the age of 28 with this tale of aging and love based on an Alice Munro short story. The film appeared on numerous critic top ten lists and earned a pair of Oscar nominations, establishing Polley as a rising star. Her second film, Take This Waltz, starring Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams, and Sarah Silverman, will premiere at the Toronto festival this fall.

4. Maria Full of Grace 87 (2004) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Joshua Marston

"A remarkable—and harrowing—debut feature that makes you think there's hope after all for the future of independent films."

—Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

After working in TV (both in news and in scripted drama), Joshua Marston made his feature film debut as a writer and director with an examination of the drug trade in rural Colombia, told mainly from the viewpoint of a young drug mule named Maria. Maria Full of Grace was named one of the year's ten best films by the AFI, and Marston earned a best director nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards. It took him seven years, but Marston's second film, The Forgiveness of Blood, finally premiered at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, where it earned strong reviews.

5. Fateless 87 (2005) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Lajos Koltai

"This exceptional film features some of the most beautiful cinematography ever seen on film, in service of some of the most horrible images imaginable."

—Ken Fox, TV Guide

Heralded as one of the best Holocaust films of all time, Fateless was the directorial debut for Lajos Koltai, who had worked since 1980 as one of Hungary's top cinematographers (and earned an Oscar nomination for his work on 2000's Malèna). Though Koltai is now exclusively working as a director, he has had just one other film released so far: the mediocre 2007 tearjerker Evening 45, starring Clare Danes.

6. Boys Don't Cry 86 (1999) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Kimberly Peirce

"Unflinching, uncompromising, made with complete conviction and rare skill."

—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

The one-time photographer's first feature tells the heartbreaking true story of Nebraska transgender man Brandon Teena. While Kimberly Peirce (and the film itself) earned numerous awards, it was lead Hilary Swank who was launched to stardom by Boys Don't Cry. Peirce wouldn't return with a second film until 2008, when she directed the decent but not great Iraq War drama Stop-Loss 61, a box office dud.

7. In the Bedroom 86 (2001) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Todd Field

"Field ... builds his movie with such confident vision that it's hard to believe this is his feature directorial debut."

—Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

You'd have to be a lousy director to mess up a crime drama with a cast headed by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, and, though it was his first time directing (after years working as an actor in films like Radio Days and Eyes Wide Shut), Todd Field proved to be as far from lousy as you can get. Critics loved his work, and In the Bedroom received five Oscar nominations and dozens of other awards. Field has been relatively quiet since, returning only to direct the 2006 domestic drama Little Children 75, another critical success.

8. American Beauty 86 (1999) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Sam Mendes

"An unusually clever and shrewdly corrupt first feature."

—Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Though some movie fans (including Metacritic contributor Nick Hyman) consider Best Picture winner American Beauty to be overrated, the hit dramedy wowed most critics at the time of its release, and made stars of both screenwriter Alan Ball and first-time director Sam Mendes, a veteran of the London theater scene. Mendes has subsequently directed four additional films (with the best being 2002's Road to Perdition 72), but none has matched the critical or commercial success of his debut. That could change next year, when a Mendes-directed James Bond film arrives in the fall.

9. You Can Count on Me 85 (2000) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

"Lonergan doesn't yet know how to make the camera show us things that his dialogue doesn't, but when you write dialogue like he does, you can take your time to learn. Hell, he can take another 20 movies to learn."

—David Edelstein, Slate

Playwright Kenneth Lonergan wowed critics with his 2000 debut You Can Count on Me, a character-oriented relationship drama starring Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, and Matthew Broderick. While Lonergan has yet to release another movie, the drama he filmed in 2005—Margaret, starring Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, and Matthew Broderick—has finally emerged from a well-chronicled post-production hell and has been picked up for a September 30 release.

10. Half Nelson 85 (2006) Add to Netflix Queue
Directed by Ryan Fleck

"Fleck has fashioned a riveting character study and an engrossing, if dark, tale."

—Claudia Puig, USA Today

Ryan Gosling earned raves for his performance as a drug-addicted inner-city teacher who forms an unlikely bond with one of his students (Shareeka Epps) in a drama told with admirable restraint by collaborators Ryan Fleck (director, writer) and Anna Boden (producer, writer). The filmmakers followed with two additional movies: the acclaimed 2008 sports drama Sugar 82, and last year's indie dramedy It's Kind of a Funny Story 63.

On the next page ...

Continue reading for our list of the ten worst debut films from the past two decades.

Comments (10)

  • NormGunderson  

    SLACKERS always gets a bad rap. Is it bad? Yes. Is it unfunny? Absolutely not! Lines like, " if you treat a girl like dirt she'll stick to you like mud" support this argument!

  • bpex12  

    I think Moon (directed by Duncan Jones and starring Sam Rockwell) definitely deserves at least an honorable mention. I was surprised to see it only has a rating of 67.

  • evergreenOldboy  

    just FYI, District 9 came out in 2009

  • evergreenOldboy  

    sorry now realize i was reading that wrong haha

  • Turbotaster  

    Donnie Darko is one of my favourites

  • DeThCo17  

    Where the hell is "Hard Eight" by Paul Thomas Anderson?? That movie is a classic and definitely better than half nelson. Also "Control" by Anton Corbjin should be on the good list.

  • musicmann1967  

    I hate to sound obvious, but how can "Reservoir Dogs" not be on this list?

  • Isle0fRed  

    Res Dogs, El Mariachi, Pi, Clerks...?

  • 89iajo  

    Catwoman should be on here, despite a 27 it did'nt deserve.(More like a 1.)

  • 89iajo  

    Plus, where is chaos? It has a metascore of 1.

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