You never forget your first. Directing a feature film is no easy task, especially under the anxiety that your first film can potentially jumpstart or effectively kill your career. The amount of talent and leadership it takes to finish a feature film is impressive no matter how the finished product turns out. It is, therefore, appropriate to honor and commend the debut efforts that succeed in showcasing the potential of their respective filmmakers.
Because new filmmakers haven’t made a name for themselves yet, unless their films have star power or are adapting popular material, their debut films have a tendency to fly under the radar or are ignored altogether. This list seeks to shed light on some of the best directorial debuts of the last five years that you might have otherwise missed.
10. Blue Caprice (2013, Alexandre Moors)
Starting off our list is the gloomy Blue Caprice based on the Beltway sniper attacks in 2002. Isaiah Washington and Tequian Richmond portray the murderers, John Muhammed and Lee Malvo respectively. The film title comes from the car that police were notified to investigate regarding the murders, and is what ended up getting Muhammed and Malvo caught.
Blue Caprice is a chilling illustration of insanity and hatred that feels all too relevant amongst the mass shootings that occur in America. Thankfully, the film doesn’t attempt to spoon-feed political leanings on gun violence or mental illness to the audience. Instead, director Alexandre Moors comments on what the audience experiences, the intense relationship between Muhammend and Malvo. It is a twisted grooming that is altogether fascinating in it’s plausibility.
Bringing his background in graffiti and music videos to Blue Caprice, Moors sought to free up his process through improvisation. He has likened himself to an impressionist painter while shooting Blue Caprice. The film went on to earn acclaim, being selected for the IFP Narrative Lab. He has since returned to making music videos and it is unclear when his next feature project will be.
9. I Killed My Mother (2009, Xavier Dolan)
Having been only nineteen when he wrote, directed, and starred in his directorial debut, Xavier Dolan proves himself an accomplished artist with I Killed My Mother. The film explores the character of Hubert Minel and the complicated relationship he has with his mother.
With it’s title stemming from a Freudian joke, I Killed My Mother could have easily been a pompous drag, but Dolan maintains a sense of humor towards Hubert and his adolescent angst. Even moreso, he has compassion for Chantale, Hubert’s mother, as she deals with a disagreeable son. The films success lies in the honesty that Dolan captures between grumpy teenager and parent, a difficult phase for both individuals.
Dolan has described I Killed My Mother as being semi-autobiographical, which makes the effort all the more impressive. As a writer, he was able to maintain objectivity with his empathy for Chantale, as well as having a sense of humor towards his own moodiness. Dolan has gone on to make several other films, including Heartbeats (2010), Laurence Always (2012), Tom at the Farm (2013), and Mommy (2014),
8. Crazy Heart (2009, Scott Cooper)
Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb, Crazy Heart tells the story of Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges, a washed up country music star now relegated to playing one night stands in dive bars. The film is a character piece, exploring Blake’s addictions and relationships. The film reached critical acclaim with Bridges portrayal of Blake earning him an Academy Award for Best Actor and the song, “The Weary Kind,” winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
The director, Scott Cooper, got his start in acting, appearing in Gods and Generals where he met Robert Duvall. The two struck up a friendship, and he became Cooper’s filmmaking mentor. Duvall eventually appeared in and produced Crazy Heart. Although the book features a darker ending, which Cooper wished to use, the studio had final say and opted for a more upbeat ending.
Having been out of print since it’s original publication, the popularity of the film managed to give the novel new life, returning it to stores upon its release. Cooper has gone on to make Out of the Furnace (2013) starring Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, and is set to direct Black Mass, a film about J. Edgar Hoover’s witness protection program.
7. Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)
Duncan Jones proved himself a sci-fi visionary with Moon. The film tells the story of Sam Bell, played by Sam Rockwell, a man working on the moon under a three-year contract to mine helium-3, Earth’s primary energy source. Sam’s contract is almost up, and he is excited to return home to his family when he experiences a personal crisis.
Considering the grandiosity of contemporary blockbuster sci-fi, Moon remains a successful exercise in minimalism. Whereas other filmmakers may have tackled the material with clutter and gadgets, Moon seems solely focused on showing us Bell’s isolation and loneliness amongst the stars. While it treads similar themes as other sci-fi, Jones’ sole focus on Bell’s emotional journey sets it apart as a film that appreciates depth over spectacle.
The project began as a means for Jones to showcase Rockwell’s acting chops. Having a background in special effects for TV advertisements, Jones was able to draw upon his experience to create the effects within a smaller budget. He was also able to obtain a top-class effects team who had a lull of work due to the writers strike.
The film went on to win various accolades, including the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. Rockwell went on to earn praise for his performance as Bell
Jones has gone on to direct Source Code (2011) starring Jake Gyllenhaal and he is slated to direct the Warcraft film adaptation for 2016. He has expressed interest in creating a trilogy set in the same universe as Moon, which Rockwell has agreed to appear in.
6. Escape From Tomorrow (2013, Randy Moore)
Randy Moore’s undercover fantasy horror deserves a top spot on this list merely for what it represents. For those who haven’t heard, Escape From Tomorrow was mostly shot at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland without the permission of The Walt Disney Company using guerrilla filmmaking techniques.
The cast and crew were able to avoid attracting the attention of park security by keeping the script on their smartphones, and filming with DSLR cameras. Moore was so determined to keep the film a secret from Disney that after principal photography finished, he had the film edited in South Korea.
Contrary to what one would expect of a film shot in Disneyland, the film is about a father’s dissipating psyche after losing his job, all occurring during the final day of a family vacation. Jim, the father, wrestles with intense bouts of lust for two women in the park, exacerbated by a growing resentment for his wife and family. As he goes from ride to ride, Jim begins to experience increasingly horrifying visions that culminate in the films climax.
Escape from Tomorrow reads like punk music sounds, spitting in the face of cultural icons. It fits within the zeitgeist of today with the implosive afterbirth of the Internet. Illegal downloading is the norm and the loss of online privacy is constantly in debate in the form of net neutrality.
The film toasts to this, with many of the background “cast,” being unknowing park-goers, completely unaware that they are now in a feature film. Because of this Escape From Tomorrow has cemented itself as a quintessential film of the new century.