The first time is always memorable. And for filmmakers embarking on their feature length directorial debuts, it is only a matter of time before their efforts are judged by audiences, possibly from across the world. Of course not every debut makes an impact, and first films can come from a myriad of different people. A directorial debut can come from a first time filmmaker, a veteran of the business, or from an actor or actress looking to turn their hand to the craft.
The following list looks at some of the best debut films from the twenty-first century. Films that have the magical ability to delight, shock, entertain and engage us. But more than that, they have differentiated themselves as top class debuts from first time directors.
1. Primer (2004)
Written, directed, scored, produced and edited by Shane Carruth, who also stars in the film, Primer is an American independent sci-fi film. It follows Aaron and Abe who supplement their engineer day jobs with entrepreneurial tech projects, working out of Aaron’s garage. When they accidentally invent what they think is a time machine, they put it through a series of tests. Soon they come to realise that there may be very dark consequences to their invention.
Primer went on to become one of the most talked about debut films of all time. Much of this is due to its incredibly complex and science heavy plot. But this is also due to the production constraints that Carruth worked within. Primer was made on a budget of $7000 and was made using a crew of five. Most of the cast were friends or family members, who also provided catering.
In spite of its humble production process, Primer went on to achieve great things. It made $842,000 at the box office, and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. It has also amassed a cult following, and it has inspired numerous articles that try to explain and pick apart the complicated plot.
Despite its success, Carruth doesn’t have a high opinion of his debut film. In an interview in 2013, he said of the film, “I’m not happy with it. I see nothing but rough edges.” However he did say that he is grateful for the film. Carruth has since gone on to direct three further feature films.
2. The Babadook (2014)
This Australian supernatural, psychological horror film was the feature length directorial debut by former actress Jennifer Kent. The Babadook is based on the 2005 short Monster, which is also directed by Kent. The Babadook tells the story of a single mother who is battling with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in their home. This leads her to confront a sinister presence in their house, whilst also dealing with the death of her husband.
The Babadook went on to be one of the best reviewed films of 2014. However it was initially not a commercially successful film in Australia and was given a limited release. The film was more successful overseas, after its strong reception at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival garnered it more attention. The Babadook went on to make $7.5 million at the box office against a budget of $2 million. It also received a number of nominations at various film festivals and won a number of awards.
The Babadook’s origins came from Kent’s 2005 short film Monster. Monster screened at over fifty festivals worldwide and inspired Kent to adapt it into a feature. Kent calls Monster “baby Babadook.” Kent started writing the screenplay in 2009 and then went about trying to secure funds for the film. She described the filming process as both challenging and frustrating.
Despite the success of The Babadook, Kent has stated emphatically that there will never be a sequel. Kent’s next project is upcoming film, The Nightingale which will have its debut at the 75th Venice International Film Festival.
3. Fruitvale Station (2013)
Director Ryan Coogler has recently gained massive recognition and critical acclaim after the global success of Black Panther. Fruitvale Station, which was his feature length directorial debut, was also released to critical acclaim.
The film follows the story of the last day of Oscar Grant III, who was fatally shot by BART police in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Fruitvale Station debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The film went on to make $17.4 million against a budget of $900,000.
After Grant’s tragic death, Coogler expressed a strong desire to make a film about Grant’s last day. He wanted the audience to realise that Grant was more than a story in a newspaper or a statistic, but a real person with a family. The film was developed and produced by Forest Whittaker, who realised that Coogler was a real talent that he wanted to develop.
After Coogler’s critical success on Fruitvale Station, he has gone on to direct Creed and Black Panther. Both of these films have also gone on to receive critical acclaim. Coogler’s next upcoming project is Wrong Answer, which will be his third collaboration with actor Michael B Jordan.
4. Get Out (2017)
One of 2017’s most talked about films was the feature length directorial debut from actor, writer and comedian Jordan Peele. Get Out grossed $255 million on a budget of $4.5 million, making it one of the most profitable films of the year.
As well as being a commercial success, Get Out was also a massive critical success. It was praised for its political and social themes, and was nominated for various awards. At the 90th Academy Awards, it was nominated for four awards and won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Get Out sees couple Chris and Rose go on a weekend trip so that Chris can meet Rose’s parents. At first, Chris accredits the awkward behaviour that Rose’s family displays to the fact that the family are struggling with Rose and Chris’s interracial relationship. But soon a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries lead him to an abhorrent truth that he never could have imagined.
Following the impact and success of Get Out, Peele has flirted with the idea of a sequel. Peele said, “I can tell you I will definitely consider it. I love that universe and I feel like there is more story to tell. I don’t know what it is now, but there are some loose ends.” Peele is currently filming his next directing project, a horror thriller film called Us.
5. Michael Clayton (2007)
Tony Gilroy is an American screenwriter and director. He has written many successful films, including the first four Bourne films. Michael Clayton, which is his directorial debut, is a legal thriller film starring George Clooney.
The film follows problem fixer Michael Clayton who is brought in after one of his law firm’s top litigators suffers a mental breakdown. As well as dealing with this, Clayton must also deal with the corruption and intrigue surrounding the case, all while struggling with the desire to the right thing against paying off his spiralling personal debts.
The film was both a commercial and critical success. It grossed $92.9 million against a budget of $25 million and was highly praised – appearing on many critics’ top ten lists of the year. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director and won Best Supporting Actress for Tilda Swinton.
Gilroy has since gone on to direct Duplicity and The Bourne Legacy. He has also continued to write many films, including State of Play, Rogue One and Beirut.