THE LISTS: Top 10 directorial debuts of the decade

Posted by · 8:51 am · June 23rd, 2009

JimMyron Ross in BallastTo me, “great cinema” means something I haven’t seen before or something I have seen before presented in a new way. With 110 years of motion pictures behind us, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet those standards, especially since filmmakers find it a lot easier to give in to preconceived notions of story structure, character arcs and tidy resolutions than to try and present something truly unique on the screen. So more often than not, when something new comes along, a new filmmaker unhinged to big money or heavy reputations is brought along with it.

Actually researching the titles eligible for inclusion made me realize just how few great debut films there really are, let alone in this decade. Most great filmmakers needed at least one title or two to really get their bearings straight. M. Night Shyamalan, Christopher Nolan, Michel Gondry, David Fincher and Alexander Payne all come to mind. Not everyone can be Spike Jonze after all.

That said, there’s also something amazing and beautiful about catching an artist at their most raw and naïve. Often, the only way to rewrite the rulebook is to be unaware that you are breaking any rules in the first place. When it comes to art, the line between genius and stupidity can be nearly invisible. For example, a film that came close to making this list was “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy.” Less a movie than a patchwork of scenes and caricatures, Adam McKay clearly had no specific vision for this thing since an entire second movie was constructed out of deleted scenes. But what he came up with benefits from a legitimate sense of anarchy that isn’t present in any of his or Will Ferrell’s subsequent work. And from Chaplin and Keaton to Johnny Knoxville and Sacha Baron Cohen, the cornerstone of great comedy has been anarchy.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. This list may be a bit premature as there are six whole months left for some obnoxiously talented filmmaker to set my world on fire with their debut work and I’m denying him or her a rightful spot on this list. Well, what are you gonna do? It’s not like I’ve seen all the films eligible for inclusion released up until this point anyway. I’m taking my chances. And before I get stick in the comments, believe me, I was surprised and disappointed that no foreign film made the list. It’s not that I didn’t see many; it’s just that I didn’t see any that deserved it. And yes, I’ve seen “Amores Perros.”

(from left) Campbell Scott and Jesse Eisenberg in Roger Dodger10. “Roger Dodger” (Dylan Kidd, 2002)
Writer/director Dylan Kidd took one of the oldest stories in the book — two people with opposite worldviews form an improbable connection, teach each other lessons about life — and made it fresh through restraint, focus and wonderful characterization. Campbell Scott received Oscar buzz but no nomination for his fantastic (pre-Don Draper) performance as a lonely lothario earning his living in the advertising business. Jesse Eisenberg, as his innocent nephew, debuted the screen persona that he still carries to this day and has never been better. It even manages to get away with a freeze frame ending.

Mean Creek9. “Mean Creek” (Jacob Aaron Estes, 2004)
Mixing elements of drama, comedy, thriller, mystery and morality play, “Mean Creek” is a startling juggling act from a writer/director who was just 31 at the time. The story of a harmless prank gone horribly wrong, it is a testament to his skills as a writer that we as an audience directly and alternately sympathize with the victim and the victimizers as the film chugs along. Having directed his debut with a real panache for tone and pacing, Jacob Estes has yet to issue a follow-up but is apparently in pre-production on a black comedy starring Laura Linney and James McAvoy.

Spellbound8. “Spellbound” (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002)
This unassuming charmer effectively started the “competition documentary” subgenre that has saturated the medium recently. See “Pressure Cooker” in theaters right now for example. Jeffrey Blitz merely found the inherent drama where others hadn’t thought to look and crafted a story about American idealism through the eyes of some of its brightest children. Who can forget Harry Altman, a manic 10-year-old who thoroughly proves life is stranger than fiction? But it’s the parents who provide much of the emotional backbone to the story through everything from comic relief to harsh juxtaposition of opportunity.

(from left) JimMyron Ross and Michael J. Smith in Ballast7. “Ballast” (Lance Hammer, 2008)
One thing that works in the favor of new directors is anonymity. After seeing a work of such power as “Ballast” and THEN finding out how little the filmmaker has in common with his subjects simply adds to the impression. On the surface, it’s a slice of life tale of poverty in the Mississippi Delta but in reality, there are deep psychological issues being explored by Hammer and his cast of mostly non-professionals. The environment seeps out of every frame and even though the influences are clear (one of two films on this list to heavily borrow from Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep”), the result is entirely original.

Miranda July in Me and You and Everyone We Know6. “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (Miranda July, 2005)
As a young, indie rock listening, thrift store shopping citizen, it might be painfully obvious that I would love this film. But as someone who typically finds the word “quirky” to be a pejorative when it comes to movies, I was quite surprised by how taken I was with it. Quirky doesn’t even begin to describe it but the key is that as a filmmaker, July genuinely seems to both love and belong with each and every one of these characters. Which is why “Bottle Rocket” works 100% and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is a disaster. Bonus points for realistic children characters, not just mini-adults played by children. ))<>((

Frownland5. “Frownland” (Ronald Bronstein, 2007)
It’s safe to assume that this is the least seen amongst my top 10 as no distributor wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. If you’ve seen the film, you know why and it has nothing to do with quality. Ronald Bronstein’s uncompromising portrait of an outcast has you ready to cry uncle after the first five minutes spent with him. But the more the film progresses, the more we come to understand and identify with the character and his struggle to connect. It’s a movie that absolutely could not have been made by anybody but Bronstein and his refusal to judge or comment on that character is what makes it work.

Michael Fassbender in Hunger4. “Hunger” (Steve McQueen, 2008)
Easily the most assured debut on the list. If I didn’t know any better I would assume that Steve McQueen (no, not that one) had been directing for years. In truth, he sort of has, but in experimental media and other formats. Tackling an issue as large as the troubles between Ireland and Britain and doing it with such remarkable artistry in your first try is almost depressing to aspiring filmmakers like myself. Almost dialogue free for 2/3 of the runtime and featuring some of the most astonishing cinematography in recent memory, I can’t recommend it enough despite being a somewhat unpleasant viewing experience.

George Clooney in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind3. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (George Clooney, 2002)
Everyone knows that actors really want to be directors but rarely do they possess the visual imagination, storytelling ingenuity or playful sense of timing that George Clooney showcased here. Any Charlie Kaufman script is a daunting piece of material to conceptualize, but Clooney owns this story from the first beautiful, stylized frame to the last. Utilizing camera tricks from the olden days of live television is just one of the genius (and appropriate) ways he makes the movie sing and though it proved too edgy for the Academy, the juxtaposition it provided for his work on “Good Night, and Good Luck.” couldn’t have hurt.

Donald Holden in George Washington2. “George Washington” (David Gordon Green, 2000)
David Gordon Green began the decade with a rejection letter from Sundance and he will end it in Ireland filming a $50 million movie with Natalie Portman, James Franco and some CGI dragons. Never would one predict that career for him based on this debut, though you wouldn’t be surprised to learn Terrence Malick would produce his third feature. Poetic, deliberate and spiritual, the story is…not the point. Completely devoid of stereotypes, Green painted a picture of a very different South than Hollywood was doling out and he did it with mostly non-professional child actors and gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Tim Orr.

(from left) Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me1. “You Can Count on Me” (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000)
The fact that this movie is stamped so indelibly with Kenneth Lonergan’s voice probably has much more to do with his writing than directing, but he sure didn’t get in the way of the material or his actors. And what actors! Mark Ruffalo gives perhaps my favorite performance of the decade and Laura Linney has never been better. Not to mention terrific work from Matthew Broderick and Rory Culkin in meaty supporting roles. The direction is simplicity itself but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Notice the way he stages scenes, often beginning them just after the moment that every other filmmaker would consider the meat (a marriage proposal being one example). It’s a movie brimming with honesty, heart, and brains, and I have no trouble calling it the finest directorial debut of the decade. Now if we could only get a look at “Margaret.”

What are your picks for the decade’s greatest directorial debuts?  Have your say in the comments section below!

→ 33 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

33 responses so far

  • 1 6-23-2009 at 9:17 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Great list. Yay for “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and “Hunger,” but I’m perplexed by the inclusion of “Mean Creek” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” whose execution I felt never kept pace with its ideas.

    I’d make room for “Human Resources,” “In the Bedroom” and, yes, “Amores Perros,” but that’s me. And I regret to say that I still haven’t seen “Ballast,” but not for lack of trying.

  • 2 6-23-2009 at 9:22 am

    Jamieson said...

    Primer would be my choice. I’m dying to see Shane Carruth make another film.

  • 3 6-23-2009 at 9:38 am

    Zac said...

    No City of God?

  • 4 6-23-2009 at 9:38 am

    Davidraider88 said...

    Amores Perros! baaah

  • 5 6-23-2009 at 9:48 am

    Davidraider88 said...

    I’m surprised you didn’t put Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” since I remember you liking it alot.

    Other ones i’m sure people will mention…

    Michael Clayton (Gilroy)
    Persepolis (Satrapi)
    In Bruges (McDonagh)
    Thank You For Smoking (Reitman)
    Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton and Faris)
    40 -Year- Old Virgin (Apatow)
    Donnie Darko (Kelly)
    House of Sand and Fog (Perelman

  • 6 6-23-2009 at 9:52 am

    McGuff said...

    Away From Her and Gone Baby Gone would have been two easy choices from me. Especially the former, as I think we can all agree there aren’t enough women directors out there.

  • 7 6-23-2009 at 10:06 am

    Mr. F said...

    Away form Her is my favorite directorial debut of the decade.

  • 8 6-23-2009 at 10:31 am

    Ivan said...

    1. Capturing the Friedmans/Andrew Jarecki
    2. Billy Elliot/Stephen Daldry
    3. Noah Baumbach/The Squid and the Whale
    4.Kenneth Lonergan/You Can Count on Me
    5.Half Nelson/Ryan Fleck
    6.Hedwig and the Angry Inch/John Cameron Mitchell
    7. Steve McQueen/Hunger
    8.Control/Anton Corbjin
    9. Chris Terrio/Heights
    10. Iron Man/Jon Favreau

  • 9 6-23-2009 at 10:42 am

    tony rock said...

    Jon Favreau directed three films before me did Iron Man…Made, Elf, and Zathura.

  • 10 6-23-2009 at 10:43 am

    Davidraider88 said...


    Iron Man wasn’t Favreau’s directorial debut, it was “Made” (2001). Noah Baumbach’s debut was “Kicking and Screaming” (1995)

  • 11 6-23-2009 at 10:47 am

    Mr. Milich said...

    Squid wasn’t Baumbach’s first either…

  • 12 6-23-2009 at 11:03 am

    Hans said...

    Yay, I remember I was a spelling bee and geography bee geek back when Spellbound came out, and I searched high and low for a theatre that was showing it. Maybe it helped. I won the Florida state geography bee in 2004 =)

  • 13 6-23-2009 at 11:32 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Solid list, I suppose. I would have definitely included Synecdoche. Love the Hunger love. And, frankly, the Clooney love. You know my feelings on #2 and I love You Can Count on Me, so hard to argue too much.

  • 14 6-23-2009 at 12:19 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Sarah Polley should be there for her exquisite “Away from Her”, what a brilliant demonstration of handling performance, it simply gets no better — also Tony Gilroy for ‘”Michael Clayton” a stunning seventies homage that managed to remain fresh and topical.

  • 15 6-23-2009 at 12:20 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    And hey, Rob Marshall did some fine with “Chicago” —

  • 16 6-23-2009 at 12:37 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I need to see Primer. In the Bedroom was a serious candidate, probably number 11. Little Miss Sunshine is awful.

  • 17 6-23-2009 at 2:24 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I like Alien 3!

  • 18 6-23-2009 at 3:10 pm

    McGuff said...

    Chad: I just saw ‘Moon’, and given your first paragraph to this piece, I have no doubt you’ll find a way to throw Duncan Jones on your list once you see it. I still have to ruminate about the particulars of the film, but it’s damn good moviemaking, I know that much.

  • 19 6-23-2009 at 3:46 pm

    david said...

    What about Let The Right One In??

  • 20 6-23-2009 at 3:51 pm

    david said...

    My mistake…the filmmaker of Let The Right One In had done some other stuff. It’s the first film I’ve personally seen by him though.

  • 21 6-23-2009 at 8:40 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Capote” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” for me.

  • 22 6-23-2009 at 9:19 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    While I didn’t count shorts, Rob Marshall had directed Annie for TV and that excluded Chicago from the list. Plus, I don’t like that film.

    Bennett Miller had directed a doc before Capote. Like I said, you’d be surprised when you really see what films were actually debuts. Mission: Impossible III was a solid candidate.

  • 23 6-24-2009 at 2:59 pm

    Michikoagogo said...

    Interesting list! Curious to see how these directors did with their follow-ups ventures. Green has done some great work in Pineapple Express but his indie stuff seems middling to me; Clooney has had a homerun and strike out; Blitz has done brilliant with Rocket Science and the funniest episodes of The Office but why no new doc? The rest seem to have botched their sophomore work, no?

  • 24 7-16-2009 at 8:50 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Just saw Away From Her based on many of these comments. I wouldn’t put it within 100 feet of this list. Hated it.

  • 25 7-16-2009 at 11:26 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...


  • 26 7-17-2009 at 11:45 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    You like it Kris?

  • 27 7-17-2009 at 11:49 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Nope. Just waiting on the scream-fest.

  • 28 7-17-2009 at 12:30 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    If only it was still topical.

  • 29 11-01-2009 at 11:36 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Primer! Just saw it and it would certainly find a home somewhere in this list. Why hasn’t that dude made another movie?

  • 30 11-02-2009 at 12:42 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Because his first one was a bore?

  • 31 11-02-2009 at 12:04 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Booo Kris. I thought it was riveting. Maybe this thread should be where we both go just to talk to each other about films.

  • 32 11-02-2009 at 12:12 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’m game.

    I thought it was an absolute snooze. I’ve been meaning to give it another chance but seriously, I was incredibly turned off.