Lots and lots of lists have been written about the merits of great director’s feature film debuts. Of course that is no surprise, because what’s more fun than looking at a great filmmaker’s first film and finding the differences and similarities compared to their other work? In the history of cinema there have been many first films that have achieved legendary status and rightfully so.
Yet, very often it’s not a director’s first film that truly anticipates their later style and themes. Often this only happens with a director’s second film. Many great directors have done their most critically lauded and beloved work right after their first/debut feature film.
Having the experience of making a movie behind them for the first time, but still fresh enough and full of ideas, their sophomore films are not only thematically rich, but often already display a sense of security in style and filmmaking that is awe-inspiring. This is a list about those films:
25. Rushmore (1998, Wes Anderson)
Nowadays the cinephile culture is so obsessed with Wes Anderson, that it’s hard to imagine a world without his eccentric style. Rushmore is the film, where the world really got to see Anderson’s compositions for the first time. It also introduced Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray to his cinematic universe.
The story of young Max Fisher, who studies at and adores Rushmore, befriends Herman Blume, a depressed industrialist (Bill Murray), and falls in love with one of his teachers, feels like it was made by an American Truffaut.
Throw in Anderson’s known awkward, deadpan humor, and you end up with one of the finest American comedies, with lots of here and the world’s introduction to one of the definitive directors of our time.
24. Shaun Of The Dead (2004, Edgar Wright)
It seems like nowadays all english-language comedy has become boring and tame, when it comes to the visual aspect and staging.
A bunch of comedians say funny things to each other in medium shots as the scene builds up to and delivers a punchline, then the next scene follows. If one had to think of a director, who really creates humor in his staging, pace and editing, the first name that comes to mind is usually Edgar Wright.
Shaun Of The Dead – his first film in the now famous “Cornetto Trilogy” – is a spoof on George Romero’s classic zombie films. Of course the film is much more than just a parody. Wright and his co-writer and star Simon Pegg are deeply rooted in the genre and clearly love the material they are creating a tribute to.
The film doesn’t miss any chance to get a laugh, but still manages create a heartfelt story and character, which make the film stand as great cinema in it’s own right.
23. Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
Nowadays it’s hard to imagine Steven Spielberg ever had to start in the filmmaking business. With a name that’s synonymous with hight quality Hollywood cinema, if not with cinema in general, Spielberg has left his footprint in cinema history forever. It is difficult to argue that his legacy starts with his second feature film: Jaws.
Though the shoot went over schedule and the biggest effect (lovingly called Bruce by it’s creators and the crew) was constantly malfunctioning, Spielberg managed to not only run a disciplined shoot, but to craft a classic film and the first modern blockbuster. How did he do that?
Spielberg quickly understood, that the key to horror wasn’t the shocking payoff, but the tense suspense. With the shark barely showing up in the picture, what could’Ve been a cheap exploitation film (as the sequels prove) was instead turned into a fine, suspenseful thriller that still excites and holds up to this day.
22. Cinema Paradiso (1988, Guiseppe Tornatore)
Often sentimental films are dismissed as schmaltzy crowd pleasers, simply tugging heartstrings and creating a nostalgic atmosphere, usually rather recieved skeptically by most cinephiles. Yet, if done right, the result can be touching and bittersweet, as is the case with Cinema Paradiso.
The story of a director, who receives a phone call, that takes him back to spending his youth at a local cinema and all the unique characters there. It‘s Guiseppe Tornatore’s most successful and beloved film. It is also certainly his best film and crowning achievement in an otherwise rather disappointing career.
21. Requiem For A Dream (2000, Darren Aronofsky)
After the disappointing “Noah” many people apparently forgot that Darren Aronofsky is one of the most exciting filmmakers to be working in this medium right now.
One of the exciting things about him is, that he seems to move in a strange “No Man’s Land” that isn’t entirely arthouse and isn’t really mainstream either. He draws in people from both crowds and eagles them in unique cinematic experiences. The first time he really dives into this playful dance with mainstream audiences was in 200 when he released “Requiem For A Dream”.
The film is about several drug addicts, who know each other and all have to fight addiction in their own personal hell. The film is one of the most frightening and disturbing depictions of addiction ever put on film and works almost as well as a horror film, as it does as a drama.
But Aronofsky also dazzles as a filmmaker who especially surprises with smart editing and immaculate sound design. All of those elements and many more (like the great performances by everyone in the film) make for a grueling experience and a film that one isn’t that likely to rewatch, yet everyone should have seen at least once.
20. Seven (1995, David Fincher)
Some quotes from films always remain in collective memory. Like Bogart’s “Here’s looking at you, kid” or Brad Pitt yelling “What’s In The Box?”. The quote is a grueling reminder to everyone who watched the film of just how dark David Fincher’s second film gets.
After a lot of work in commercials Fincher’s first chance at directing culminated in the disappointing “Alien 3”. He was determined not to let another film slip out of his creative control after Alien, and what he created then might be the most memorable thriller of the 90s.
Drenched in a brooding atmosphere, the city, in which it always seems to rain, perfectly sets the mood for the film. A rookie detective (Pitt) and a seasoned cop working on his last case (Morgan Freeman) are teamed up to work together, solving the crimes apparently committed by a serial killer.
The longer they work, the closer they get to know and appreciate each other. And in the end comes the payoff. Far away from the city, the film’s ending dares to stare into the face of evil like only little Hollywood films do.
19. Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)
Memento introduced us to Christopher Nolan’s love for narrative puzzles and might be the most intriguing one he ever created.
Leonard Shelby lost his short-term memory since his wife was brutally murdered, yet he is still dedicated to find the killer. To do so he tattoos facts onto himself and leaves himself all kinds of notes. To complicate things, Nolan shows us everything in the wrong narrative order.
We experience the story snippets of 15 minutes and move backwards in time as the film progresses. Nolan perfectly spins a complicated web of truth and lies, before the film’s ending makes us remember the outcome and want to immediately rewatch the film.
18. Stranger Than Paradise (1984, Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch once stated, that he’d rather make a film about a man walking his dog, than one about the president of the United States. This sensibility goes all the way back to his beginnings a filmmaker.
Musician John Lurie stars as Willie. He gets a visit from his Hungarian cousin Eva. They hang out at his apartment in New York, but after a while she gets bored and leaves. He and his friend Eddie follow her soon, hoping for some excitement, as they, too, flee from boredom.
Sounds boring? It should be… yet with the sensibility of a beatnik Ozu, Jarmusch manages to perfectly capture the boredom and helplessness of hipsters and rebels… and that back in the 80s!