The vast majority of directors go their entire careers without making a single memorable movie. Some find financial success, but quickly fade away in the ever-growing cultural landscape. Others create one iconic work but never manage to replicate that level of excellence again.
But the mark of a truly great filmmaker is to deliver great film after great film, creating a body of work that marks their place in the history of cinema. Some directors take time to achieve greatness, while others demonstrate genius from their very first efforts.
To be clear, this is not a list of “best first movies” or the best debuts by directors, but a compilation of early movies from filmmakers who had long, successful careers and showed their talent from the very beginning.
10. The Duellists – Ridley Scott
In 1979, Ridley Scott broke into the mainstream with one of the most iconic and influential horror/science fiction movies of all time: “Alien.” But an audience that paid attention would already have been tuned to his talents just two years before, when “The Duellists,” Scott’s first film, was released.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the movie follows two French officers (played to great effect by Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel) as a a initially small feud between them grows into a vicious rivalry that spans decades of duels.
Scott’s trademark visual finesse is already at full capacity here: his wide shots of the French vistas are absolutely gorgeous, as are his swift and elegant camera movements in the fight sequences.
But even aside from that, “The Duellists” has an intensity and crescendo in pace that only a truly talented filmmaker could create, as these men slowly start to crumble in the face of the war and their hate for each other.
The movie won Best Debut Film Award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, securing Scott’s status as an emerging new talent.
9. Election – Alexander Payne
There are funny movies that actually provoke out-loud laughter, and there are insightful satire films that incite reflection about society, but rarely do those two things match so wonderfully well together as they do in “Election.”
Simultaneously an enjoyable good time and a scathing indictment of male resentment and political corruption, the movie follows high school teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick, in his best non-Ferris Bueller performance) as he tries to manage the school election and gets in conflict with overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, never better), who is determined to become student body president.
“Election” is one of the best, but also one of the most different movies in Alexander Payne’s career; stylistically it mimics Scorsese, with freeze frames and voice over, while in his other films, Payne goes for a more understated style. But this works beautifully here, giving the movie a fast-paced, irreverent vitality.
It’s a great movie that becomes sadly more relevant every day.
8. Near Dark – Kathryn Bigelow
Even before she became a celebrated, Oscar-winning director, Kathryn Bigelow had for decades delivered incredible genre films marked by her particular aesthetic and narrative touch. “Point Break” is definitely the most famous, but before that she directed a little underseen gem called “Near Dark.”
The movie was released in the same 1987 that saw “The Lost Boys” become a huge hit, which is why this other, more experimental modern vampire story went drastically under the radar. Which is a shame, because Bigelow’s half-western, half-horror genre mashup is a wickedly clever subversion of classic tropes, combining gore and shootouts with surprising ease.
Also featuring a great performance from the late Bill Paxton, “Near Dark” is a fun and smart romp that confirmed the promise of Bigelow, one that, 20 years later, we are still seeing being delivered on.
7. The Lady Vanishes – Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t exactly a inexperienced director when he made “The Lady Vanishes” in 1937. He had been working since the early silent days of cinema, and had already made the transition to sound with hit thrillers like “The 39 Steps.” But this movie in particular seems the right choice for this list: made on the edge of his American phase (when he started making the iconic movies we know associate with his name) and showcasing his characteristic style more than any other previous film.
The movie tells the story of Iris Henderson, a young woman travelling on a train who befriends an old lady named Miss Froy. When Miss Froy goes suddenly missing on the train, Iris is determined to find out what is happening.
It’s a good setup for a mystery thriller where every passenger is a suspect, and Hitchcock wonderfully realises the possibilities of the plot, creating tension and paranoia every opportunity he gets. While not as fully realized as some of his later movies, “The Lady Vanishes” is still a smart, taut suspense that really demonstrates a genius in formation.
6. Sisters – Brian De Palma
Speaking of Hitchcock, his spiritual successor and apprentice, the master Brian De Palma, like his idol, also directed a lot of movies that went mostly under the radar until the more celebrated phase of his career kicked in, and “Sisters” is definitely his best forgotten masterpiece.
Margot Kidder plays twin sisters with a terrible, secret past that comes back to haunt them when a murder happens in their apartment. And that is as much as can be said without giving out spoilers, and this is one movie you want to go into completely fresh; one of the main joys of the movie in how the plot unfolds, revealing the true nature of the sisters and their situation.
But interesting as the story may be, it’s really De Palma’s command of the movie that elevates it. He doesn’t shy away from the campiness but rather doubles down on it, making an unapologetic, crazy genre movie that is, nevertheless, crafted like a first rate prestige picture, thanks to his sophistication when handling the camera.
De Palma would go on to perfect the psychosexual thriller formula he is known for, but “Sisters” is already an early example of his magnificent style.