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The 30 Best Directorial Debuts of All Time

23 August 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Jose Gallegos

best debut films

A debut feature can add a lot of pressure to up-and-coming directors, who not only have to navigate the treacherous waters of the entertainment industry, but must also capture an audience’s attention (although some directors are more interested in creating displeasure rather than pleasure).

A successful debut feature can open doors for new directors, helping them to begin illustrious careers and/or create a legacy that will last long after they have died. The following list compiles 30 of the best debut features from well-known directors. 


30. The Virgin Suicides (Dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999)

The Virgin Suicides

Based on the book of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides, Coppola’s debut feature follows the lives of five sisters after one of them has attempted suicide. As their parents become more controlling, the sisters react in a variety of ways (including having casual sex on the roof). Their erratic behavior culminates when – SPOILER ALERT – all five of the sisters take their lives. Their deaths reveal the effects they had on the townspeople and illuminate the legacy they will leave behind.

Coppola created numerous trademarks with The Virgin Suicides, including the use erratic characters, intriguing soundtracks, and gorgeous visuals. Her fame would rise with her sophomore feature, Lost in Translation (2003), but it would slowly decline as her films would focus more on style over substance.


29. Ratcatcher (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, 1999)


A child named James (William Eadie) watches his friend drown in a canal. James does the best he can to deal with the guilt of his inaction, but his growing disillusionment takes its toll.

Though she would gain a notorious reputation as a difficult director (often times walking away from projects), Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature reveals her ability to construct raw and honest portraits of her characters, no matter what their socioeconomic background. Ramsay’s Ratcatcher is a wonderful, yet bleak, portrait of rural life told by a masterful storyteller.


28. Hunger (Dir. Steve McQueen, 2008)

Bobby Sands in Hunger

Chronicling the IRA prison hunger strike – lead by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) – Hunger examines political injustices and prison atrocities through a hyper-stylized lens.

This raw style would parlay into a career that examined stories of sex addiction and American slavery, and though McQueen would win numerous accolades for his future endeavors, many critics and fans still regard Hunger as his masterpiece.


27. Sweetie (Dir. Jane Campion, 1989)

Sweetie (1989)

Kay (Karen Colston) juggles the demands of various relationships, including the one she has with her sister, Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon). Kay and her family do the best they can to deal with Sweetie’s erratic and childlike behavior, but Sweetie soon becomes too difficult to bear.

Sweetie not only helped put the international spotlight on Australian cinema, but it also helped elevate the brilliant career of one of the greatest contemporary directors. Campion would take elements from Sweetie, such as examining central conflicts through a feminine perspective, and apply them to her future endeavors. With films like Sweetie, An Angel at My Table (1990), and The Piano (1993), Campion created a new (and necessary) voice in international cinema.


26. Killer of Sheep (Dir. Charles Burnett, 1977)

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Killer of Sheep follows Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker whose life in Watts is chronicled by episodic interactions with various characters. The film’s realist approach, coupled with the austere performances of the actors, helped garner Burnett acclaim.

Yet due to music licensing issues, the film would be shelved for many years. Burnett continued his filmmaking career and fortunately, Killer of Sheep was able to expand its audience when it overcame its legal issues.


25. Chocolat (Dir. Claire Denis, 1988)


France Dalens (Mireille Perrier) returns to Cameroon to reflect on her childhood as the daughter of a colonial administrator. Through an elaborate flashback, France remembers her mother’s (Giulia Boschi) frustrations/sadistic behavior with their African servant, Protée (Isach de Bankolé).

Initially conceived as an autobiographical account of her own childhood, Claire Denis began altering her story to make it less personal and more allegorical/metaphorical. Though it is one of Denis’ most accessible films (avoiding the heavy abstraction/fragmentation that would define her later efforts), it shares similar themes with her other films by examining racial/ethnic issues rooted in France’s elaborate colonial history.


24. Being John Malkovich (Dir. Spike Jonze, 1999)


An ambitious production (especially for a debut feature), Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich takes the titular actor and turns him into a narrative conduite for aliens, sexually repressed women, and a lonely puppeteer.

Using Charlie Kaufman’s script and Jonze’s unique vision (which he developed while making music videos, amongst other projects), Being John Malkovich blends surreal images and absurdist humor against a New Jersey backdrop.


23. Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Dir. Glauber Rocha, 1964)


A cowherd named Manuel (Geraldo del Rey) and his wife, Rosa (Yona Magalhaes), work on the sertão where they frequently endure droughts and ruthless bosses. When Manuel kills one of his bosses for cheating him out of his earnings, the couple goes on an interesting journey that results in the chance encounters of “saints” and “devils.”

Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil) highlighted the potential of Brazilian cinema by using various influences (Eisenstein, Godard, Rossellini, etc) to create a unique and complex work. The film examined elements of human nature, politics, and religious devotion, which would frequently carry through to Rocha’s later films.


22. Ossessione (Dir. Luchino Visconti, 1943)


A loose adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession) examines the murderous aftermath of the adulterous relationship between Gino (Massimo Girotti) and the married Giovanna (Clara Calamai). Combining neorealism with melodrama, Visconti created raw sexuality and palpable desperation that played powerfully on the screen.

Unfortunately, due to censorship problems and licensing issues over Postman, Ossessione had a rough time finding an audience. After many years of obscurity, Ossessione would be reissued and given the notoriety it so rightfully deserved.


21. Strike (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)


With Strike, Eisenstein turns a factory strike into metaphorical concept in order to elucidate his own cinematic theories. For instance, in one well-known scene, Eisenstein compares the plight of the workers to that of a cow being slaughtered.

Like almost all of Eisenstein’s work, Strike is a high-concept film that explores the potential of the cinematic medium, and though Eisenstein would later be censored for some of his more extreme depictions of cultural figures, he left behind a wealth of work that is studied endlessly by cinephiles.



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  • A person

    Hunger should be number 1.
    Reservoir Dogs should be taken off the list.

    • Max Conoley

      Typical pretentious Tarantino hater

      • Beck Potucek

        Or maybe he’s a guy with a different opinion from yours.

      • A person

        You know nothing about me.
        Go eat your mother’s fucking dick.

        • RockyJohan

          Sorry, you sound like a totally reasonable person…

    • RockyJohan

      Resevoir Dogs should be nr.1
      Hunger is also good.
      You sir should be taken off life support.

  • Jorge Saraiva

    Hiroshima Mon Amour?

  • Fernando Arenas

    How is a second movie a directorial debut? L´Age D´Or should not be on the list. Otherwise, a very interesting list.

    • Charles Barnes

      Un Chien Andalou was a short. D’Or was Bunuel’s first feature film.

      • Fernando Arenas

        You´re totally right. I stand corrected. Thanks Mr. Barnes

  • Charles Barnes

    I’m at incredible odds with Breathless at the top spot. I like Godard, but I’ve never felt Breathless represented his filmmaking ability more so than a desire to be subversive. Decent movie at best, in my opinion.

    I also feel as though Roeg’s Walkabout is criminally absent.

    • Klaus Dannick

      Perhaps the author of the list is considering “Performance” (which Roeg co-directed with Donald Cammell) to be his directorial debut. Either way, both “Performance” and “Walkabout” would be at home on such a list.

  • Jose Alberto Hermosillo

    You guys keep missing the other cinema, I know is not in any of your “Hollywood” books but is still excellent cinema: “El Mariachi” by Robert Rodriguez, “Cronos” by Guillermo Del Toro, “Sólo con tu pareja” by Alfonso Cuarón, “Time to Die” by Arturo Ripstein.

    • LH

      It says BEST directional debuts in the HISTORY of cinema. It means that their first film should be as good as their later films.

      • RockyJohan

        ehm…no it does not.

        • LH

          Yes, it does, Cronos is not nearly as good as Devil’s Backbone nor Pan’s Labyrinth, Solo con tu pareja is not even remotely as good as Y Tu Mama Tambien nor Children of Men. I haven’t seen Time to Die, that is pendent. And well, who gives a shit about R. Rodriguez?

    • Cleetus Nomenclature

      Si Cronos

  • Beck Potucek

    No Synecdoche, New York?!

    • Thorne

      It was astoundingly accomplished. I hoped Kaufman would impress in his debut, and he just blew my doors off.

      • Rushnan Jaleel

        Definitely. It’s one the most well acted films I’ve ever seen. Couldn’t have worked without him, plus all those little subtleties like timing, framing, length of shot etc were done by someone who seems very accomplished. Fantastic direction.

  • Ted Wolf

    quibbling here, but since Laughton never directed another movie does he really belong on this list, or perhaps another list of “one-hit-wonders?”

  • pollitttyler

    Whether you like Citizen Kane or not, Kane is the film all films are measured by and it is the greatest debut film of all time, period. Nobody can touch Orson Welles. The techniques and influence Kane has had on the film world cannot be touched. Also, L’ Atalante is not Jean Vigo’s first film, Zero for Conduct is. The 400 Blows should definitely be top 5 on this list.

    • RockyJohan

      yeah but the film still suck 😉

      • pollitttyler

        I disagree 😉

      • Tito Piccolo

        I disagree 😉

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Clint’s Play Misty For Me? Or Coppola’s Dementia 13. They’re debatable of course.

  • Bryson Howe

    What about The Shawshank Redemption? Frank Darabont is a genius! That film is still very highly regarded? Not even top 10?

    • Ayan Tarafder

      Really surprised to see The Shawshank Redemptio missing in this list.

    • Rushnan Jaleel

      Technically, he did direct a TV movie called Buried Alive first (which looks less-than-phenomenal, by the way.)

  • Jiian Francisco

    A Single Man?

  • Thorne

    Uh, hello? The Great McGinty?

  • An excellent list to be sure. Some obvious and lesser known gems, but how is the Maltese Falcon (John Huston) not on a list of 30?!?

    • Dave

      Yup. I kept looking for The Maltese Falcon.

    • Dave

      Without the Maltese Falcon you don’t get Breathless which is listed as #1

  • Tez Howes

    I seldom argue with someone else’s ‘best of’ lists, and won’t here either. I enjoyed/loved most of the films on this list that I have seen, and will take note of others. But a personal favorite of mine would be David Mamet’s ‘House of Games.’ The plot, the stylized performances, the casting and being introduced to Mamet’s now signature stilted rhythm of his dialogue were all a real pleasure for me. I repeat, for me.

    • Klaus Dannick

      House of Games is definitely a strong debut as a director. It certainly doesn’t get the recognition it deserves (but I could say the same about a few of Mamet’s films without hesitation).

  • gustavomda

    Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol is NOT Glauber Rocha’s directorial debut. His first feature film was Barravento (aka The Turning Wind), which came out in 1962.

  • Ahmed

    Where’s American Beauty?

    • Gigel

      What’s American Beauty?

  • I’m surprised this post didn’t mention She’s Gotta Have It (Dir: Spike Lee) Boyz In The Hood (John Singleton) Menace To Society (The Hughes Brothers) Kids (Larry Clark) THX 1138 (George Lucas)

  • Jake Kazanis

    American Beauty HAS to be there

  • ShpotSb

    I strongly believe District 9 was one of the best debuts of all time, it even get a nom for best picture, it should be up there with American Beauty.

  • Ray Ricardo

    i think this site loves breathless so much, evertytme it makes rank, breathless always on the top… why the hell citizen kane snubbed by this so-so movie?

    where’s sam raimi?

  • Agustín Lorenzo

    Where’s Donnie Darko??

    • There’s only One Gullden

      Richard Kelly’s first movie is Visceral Matter.

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  • whatsinabird

    Glauber Rocha used to direct Barravento two years before that one… Also Vigo directed Zéro de conduite two years before L’Atalante…

  • Andre Troesch

    Swimming With Sharks deserves to be on this list and Breathless is extremely over rated.

  • Where’s John Singleton’s ‘Boyz N the Hood’?

  • Klaus Dannick

    Great list, though I’m missing John Huston’s 1941 “The Maltese Falcon”. Also, though I’m an avid David Lynch enthusiast, I feel that “Eraserhead” is generally an overrated film (and I feel similarly about the Coens’ “Blood Simple”).

  • It’s a great list, but Citizen Kane isn’t technically Welles’ first film. The first film he made was Too Much Johnson in 1938. It was made to part of a theatrical production though and although what remains is feature length, it’s classed as a work print which suggests the final version may have been shorter than the 60-odd minutes we have now.

  • Cebrail Bağdatlı

    Following, Nolan?

  • Joshua Lookout Smithers

    ‘Boyz n the hood’ Youngest director ever nominated for Best Directing oscar! Paved the way for african americans in hollywood.

  • Shashi Bhushan

    Satyajit Ray should be #1

  • Jimi LaMort

    Shouldn’t RINGO LAM get credit for Reservoir Dogs?

  • Sahil Sachdeva

    Can American History X be considered Kaye’s debut, before that he directed only shorts?

  • Ernesto Estrella

    ¿Amores perros? Iñarritu was not the son of Francis Ford Coppola…

  • Chandradeep

    when i see reservoir dogs ahead of Ivan’s childhood 😐

  • Samantha Bryans

    You can go ahead and add Ex Machina by Alex Garland to this list too.

  • Miguel Guerrero

    Amores Perros de Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu

  • Chrisychipz

    Hiroshima mon amour, shawshank redemption, I killed my mother, synecdoche New York are missing I think. And I think 400 blows and breathless should be switched

  • Relf

    Reservoir Dogs is just a rip off. Screw that movie

    • Rushnan Jaleel

      It’s a remake, actually, with a different purpose and at least a little different than your average crime movie. Certainly better acted, written and directed than most.

  • Christopher Nolan’s Following (1998)

  • Also, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998)

  • There’s only One Gullden

    Other mentions:

    Sam Mendes – American Beauty
    Paul Thomas Anderson – Hard Eight
    Patty Jenkins – Monster
    Kimberly Peirce – Boys Don’t Cry
    Kenneth Lonergan – You Can Count on Me
    Jennifer Kent – The Babadook
    Todd Field – In the Bedroom
    Ben Affleck – Gone Baby Gone
    Marc Webb – 500 Days of Summer
    Tom McCarthy – The Station Agent
    Cary Joji Fukunaga – Sin Nombre
    Alex Garland – Ex Machina
    Rian Johnson – Brick
    Scott Cooper – Crazy Heart
    Courtney Hunt – Frozen River
    Philippe Claudel – I’ve Loved You So Long
    Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – The Lives of Others
    Sarah Polley – Away From Her
    Debra Granik – Down to the Bone

  • Unkle Amon

    Amores Perros, Pusher, I Stand Alone, Le Dernier Combat…

  • Allister Cooper

    El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez :)! Good night!

  • Arsæll Benediktsson

    Luc Besson for Le Dernier Combat should be here…

  • chrosTV

    Shaun of the Dead is sorely missing

  • Marwen B

    Primer is missing from this list no?

  • Relf

    Reservoir Dogs better than all the films which are ranked lower? Whahahahahahahaha

  • John W. Thackery

    No love for Dances with Wolves? It seriously is the biggest undertaking for a first time director in cinema. A big budget, 4-hour western/civil war epic, it doesn’t get much bigger than that.

  • jaimion

    Duncan Jones – Moon
    Bill Paxton – Frailty
    George Lucas – THX 1138
    Farrelly brothers – Dumb & Dumber
    Alex Proyas – Spirits of air gremlins of the clouds
    The Wachowskis – Bound
    Harold Raimis – Caddyshack
    Michael Mann – Thief
    Neill Blomkamp – District 9