As a companion to our last piece on 30 of the best directorial debuts, we created a second list of an additional 30 great feature film debuts. This article may not be as flashy as the last list, but it includes a wide range of feature film debuts from underappreciated gems to surreal experiences.
These directors all got their start somewhere, and these films represent their attempts to marry form, content, and personal style in a feature length runtime. You will recognize some well-known directors on the list. Here are 30 underrated directorial debuts that are worth your time.
30. Permanent Vacation (Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1980)
Allie (Chris Parker) is a wandering flaneur spouting philosophical commentary amongst the debris of New York City. It’s perfect subject matter for Jim Jarmusch, though his style would need to be refined over the years. Fortunately, Permanent Vacation was a stepping stone for Jarmusch, whose later films would transgress generic categorization.
29. Fear and Desire (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1953)
Watching Kubrick’s Fear and Desire is similar to learning that your significant other farts. You’d never expect a man who was infamous for doing hundreds of takes would create an unpolished film. The film follows four abandoned soldiers who attempt to make their way back to civilization.
Fear and Desire has flourishes of Kubrick’s style and finesse, but these are fleeting moments amongst some intriguing imagery. For years, Kubrick suppressed the film, but his estate would loosen its grip and allow it to be released on home media.
28. Fando y Lis (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowosky, 1968)
Jodorowsky’s surreal experimentation with theater led to an equally surreal experimentation with film. Fando y Lis isn’t Jodorowsky’s best work, but it is still quite the experience (one that caused a riot in Mexico). The film’s confrontational imagery and curiously structured narrative would lead to bigger and more audacious films like El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre.
27. Kids (Dir. Larry Clark, 1995)
Larry Clark always seemed like a smarmy human being, so it doesn’t surprise me that his first feature was Kids (written by a teenage Harmony Korine). Following the exploits of sexually active teenagers, one of whom has AIDS, Larry Clark isn’t afraid to pull the punches by showing “kids” doing un-kid-like things.
26. Shallow Grave (Dir. Danny Boyle, 1994)
Boyle’s filmography is an eclectic display of subject matters and genres, managing to utilize the best generic traits while also enhancing the genre itself. Boyle’s first feature, a Hitchockian thriller about three flat mates who conceal the death of their new flat mate (found with a briefcase of cash), plays with dark humor and palpable tension. It is an intriguing cat and mouse game that leads to destructive finale.
25. Walking and Talking (Dir. Nicole Holofcener, 1996)
Walking and Talking features Holofcener regular, Catherine Keener, and Anne Heche as two friends coping with the changes that occur around them. Holofcener’s films are anchored by fantastic female characters who develop wonderful relationships amongst one another, deal with situations beyond their control, and try to enhance their own perceptions of self-worth.
24. Bad Taste (Dir. Peter Jackson, 1987)
Remember when Peter Jackson took you to Middle Earth? Forget about that and travel with him to a small village where big-headed aliens turn humans into snacks. Peter Jackson’s cult potential was through the roof as his early films upped the ick factor with non-CGI effects. Jackson would abandon practical effects as he moved towards bigger budget fantasy films.
23. Maria Full of Grace (Dir. Joshua Marston, 2004)
Marston’s films exceed national categorization as he is an American filmmaker dealing with international subject matter. Maria Full of Grace focuses on Colombia and a factory worker who becomes a drug mule.
Catalina Sandino Moreno is phenomenal in the film, giving a nuanced portrait of a young woman caught between the expectations of everyone around her. Marston’s phenomenal direction stays at a distance, limiting us to the subjective experiences of these characters caught up in foreign situations.
22. You Can Count on Me (Dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2000)
Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is a rich and complex portrait of two siblings coping with their personal lives, as well as their relationship to one another. The film’s brilliant cast and remarkable script create a splendid film that was hailed by critics as of the best films of that year. Unfortunately, Lonergan’s next project, Margaret, endured a lengthy battle that that butchered his directorial vision.
21. Away from Her (Dir. Sarah Polley, 2006)
Polley is a remarkable director whose talents have shined in her three feature films. Away from Her is a touching look at the complicated relationship between a woman who is losing her memory and a husband who is trying to cope with the effects of his wife’s mental state. Polley’s films deal with the fragility of marriage and the complexity of monogamy, two themes that would be featured prominently in her powerful documentary, Stories We Tell.