Most film directors start out small. They direct a little independent film that gets noticed at a few festivals and gradually work their way up to larger studio-produced movies. Many directors start off by directing a movie they completely finance themselves using friends and family as actors, crew members and the catering staff. However, a few directors started out on a much larger scale—making a blockbuster movie on their first attempt, creating a popular movie franchise, or, in a few cases, producing a truly classic film. It’s hit and miss, but a few directors have managed to strike gold with their debut movie. And for some it has proven to be a double-edged sword—meaning they have never managed to top the success of their very first film. Here we rank the top 10 debut movies by a director in film history.
10. THX 1138 (1971) – George Lucas
Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but THX 1138 is still a strong science fiction movie that was the directorial debut of George Lucas and led to the later success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Starring actors Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance, THX 1138 tells the story of a man and woman who rebel against their authoritarian society. Part George Orwell’s 1984 and part Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, THX 1138 is inventive in its depiction of robots, computers and a future world where citizens are controlled by faceless autocrats. The movie’s influence can be seen in subsequent films such as Logan’s Run, Alien and Minority Report. Few directors have released such an ambitious directorial debut. And it certainly is a better movie than Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
9. Easy Rider (1969) – Dennis Hopper
Easy Rider was a cultural phenomenon when first released in 1969, and continues to be movie touchstone to this day. And it was the first movie directed by actor Dennis Hopper, who had previously co-starred with actor James Dean in the movies Rebel Without A Cause and Giant. The tale of two aimless hippies riding motorcycles across America, Easy Rider resonated with the Woodstock generation as few other films had up to that point. Easy Rider also introduced a wider audience to actor Jack Nicholson (he got his first Oscar nomination for the movie) and was one of the first commercially successful independent films. Many film historians credit Easy Rider with paving the way for the 1970s film revolution that followed, and for opening up opportunities for directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
8. The Duellists (1977) – Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott was primarily a director of television commercials when he made his debut movie, The Duellists, in 1977. The film stars actors Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as two French military officers during the Napoleonic age who engage in a series of heart-pounding duels after one insults the other. The sword fights in the movie are fantastic, as is the lighting and detailed film sets. The movie impressed critics and Hollywood executives alike and launched Ridley Scott’s career. The director would go on to direct iconic movies such as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise and Black Hawk Down, to name only a few. But Ridley Scott cut his teeth on this exciting and passionate period piece. If you haven’t seen The Duellists, check it out.
7. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) – Rob Reiner
Consistently voted the funniest movie ever made, 1982’s This Is Spinal Tap created the genre of the mock documentary, or “mockumentary.” About an aging rock group called Spinal Tap, the movie is filmed as a documentary about the band’s ill-fated American tour, with director Rob Reiner appearing throughout the movie as the documentary’s director Marty DiBergi. Filled with classic scenes involving all-black album covers, dancing midgets and amplifiers that go all the way to 11 instead of 10, This Is Spinal Tap is considered a comedy classic and the greatest movie ever made about rock ‘n’ roll. Shockingly, it marked the directorial debut of Rob Reiner, who up until that point had been known as an actor on the 1970s television show All In The Family and the son of comedian Carl Reiner. This Is Spinal Tap launched Rob Reiner’s career as a director, and he would go on to make other classic films such as Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally and A Few Good Men.
6. Dances With Wolves (1990) – Kevin Costner
Say what you want about Kevin Costner, but he was the King of Hollywood after releasing his directorial debut Dances With Wolves in 1990. The revisionist Western took a sympathetic look at natives, their way of life and the treatment they received from European settlers in North America. Not only was Dances With Wolves a smash hit at the box office, it won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Kevin Costner. An epic three hour movie, Dances With Wolves is filled with stunning landscapes and breathtaking sequences, including a real life buffalo hunt. The film is also credited with reviving the Western movie genre and leading the way for 1990s cowboy movies such as Unforgiven and Tombstone. Surprisingly, Kevin Costner has only directed two movies since Dances With Wolves, the disaster that was 1997’s The Postman and the better-received Western Open Range in 2003.
5. The Evil Dead (1981) – Sam Raimi
Hugely influential and credited with inventing the “shaky camera” technique of filmmaking, 1981’s The Evil Dead was the first directorial effort of Sam Raimi. Part horror movie and part comedy, The Evil Dead is about five friends who travel to a cabin in the woods and mistakenly release a hoard of demons. The Evil Dead also introduced audiences to actor Bruce Campbell, who is now a cult movie hero, and it spawned several sequels including Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness and a new television series due out this year called Ash vs. Evil Dead. The movie has been copied plenty of times, as has its horror comedy sensibility. And the movie itself is imaginative, despite a low budget and lack of professional special effects. Without The Evil Dead we never would have had the Scream movie series.
4. Mad Max (1979) – George Miller
With his 1979 directorial debut, Mad Max, George Miller launched one of the most popular and influential science fiction franchises in movie history. He also helped to shape popular perceptions of what a post-apocalyptic Earth would look like, made actor Mel Gibson a star, and staged some of the best car stunts and car chase scenes ever committed to film. And it was George Miller himself who revived the Mad Max franchise this summer with the latest installment, Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s hard to quantify the impact that the Mad Max cinema universe has had on other movies, television shows, video games and comic books. Car chases in films were forever changed by this movie. And for an entire generation, their vision of a nuclear wasteland has been formed by George Miller and his singular vision. With more Mad Max movies planned, George Miller’s influence will continue.
3. Blood Simple (1984) – The Coen Brothers
Joel and Ethan Coen burst onto the scene with 1984’s Blood Simple, a modern film noir about a botched murder that gets very bloody. Starring a scary M. Emmitt Walsh and Frances McDormand, the movie tells the story of a rich but jealous Texas man who hires a seedy private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her new boyfriend. But nothing goes as planned and the consequences are serious for everyone involved. Stylish, quirky and inventive, Blood Simple has only gotten better with age and helped usher in the independent movie craze of the late 1980s and 1990s. It also launched the careers of the Coen brothers, who would go on to give us great movies such as Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men.
2. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino was a nerdy video store clerk when he made his 1992 directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs. And it’s safe to say that movies haven’t been the same since. The gritty film about a jewellery robbery gone horribly wrong is stylish, creative and has had a huge impact on directors and Hollywood. It also helped to propel the careers of actors Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Michael Madsen, and resurrected the careers of actor Harvey Keitel and 1940s and ‘50s gangster film regular Lawrence Tierney. With their matching black suits and ties, and names such as Mr. White and Mr. Pink, Reservoir Dogs was the breakout hit of the 1992 Cannes Film Festival and made Tarantino a household name. It also spawned numerous copycat movies, made the independent film movement white-hot and led to future Quentin Tarantino movies such as Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and the upcoming Hateful Eight.
1. Citizen Kane (1941) – Orson Welles
Universally regarded as the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane was surprisingly the first film ever directed by Orson Welles. Totally inventive when released in 1941, Citizen Kane contains original point-of-view camera angles, non-linear storytelling and a number of montages that brilliantly convey the passage of years in only a few seconds. It also has great acting and a mystery at its center—what does the word “rosebud” refer to? About a newspaper publisher who is based on real life media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane was controversial on its initial release, as Hearst used his considerable influence and reach to discredit the movie. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards but won only one for Best Original Screenplay. However, the movie’s stature has only grown with time, and it is now regarded as a masterpiece and the greatest directorial debut in film history. Sadly, Orson Welles never matched Citizen Kane’s critical esteem or popularity with the movies he later directed. Only a few other films such as Touch of Evil and The Trial were regarded with any fondness.