Every director has to start somewhere, and the Janks Review Crew have compiled a list of 8 great first films from established and emerging directors for your reading pleasure.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Director: Wes Craven
The late Wes Craven was a master of suspense, expertly weaving together the realistic and the sublime in an effort to create genuinely unsettling horror films. So it’s really no surprise that Craven’s directorial debut, 1972’s The Last House on the Left, was stamped with his signature creepy realism. The film charted the brutal assault of two teenage girls at the hands of a group of criminals. The attackers seem to get away with what they did, until they unintentionally bump into the parents of one of the victims. That’s when the real, and ultra-gory, fun begins.
The Last House on the Left was almost universally panned by critics at the time of its release, perhaps because they couldn’t fathom someone painting a somewhat realistic portrait of the horrors surrounding rape and grief. It has since become a key staple of horror, however, proving that with time, audiences have grown to appreciate films belonging in the exploitation pile.
Craven’s debut is by no means easy to watch. It’s horrifying, it’s brutal, and it’s unforgiving. But it encapsulates, in an hour and a half, why he went on the become a highly regarded director of horror.
Recommended by: Tina
Director: Terrence Malick
Terry Malick’s first film Badlands introduced audience’s to the director’s signature style – that of the slow-burn, gorgeously shot, multi-layered drama that went on to define his career. Starring two of the screen’s all-time greats in Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Badlands tells the story of a young, criminal couple out on a killing spree in the badlands of South Dakota, being hunted down by police. It’s a crime themed, chase movie with a love story at its core – the type that’s been often imitated since. Post Badlands, Malick has stayed true to his style in all of his films, in a career that’s lasted over 40 years, and is still going today.
Recommended by: Janks
Director: David Lynch
The first feature film from David Lynch was released in the turning point decade of the 1970’s, and it shows just how idiosyncratic his touch was, even early on in his career.
So uncompromising is his vision that his surrealist style has remained in the years since, ever so slightly evolved.
Calling this film an exploration of parenthood paranoia feels like a complete understatement, given how much interpretation is involved in his work. Repeat viewings are necessary and to describe it any further really does diminish the individual experience.
Perhaps this is best described by the man himself, in this quote from a 1979 interview: “It’s up to whoever’s writing and whoever’s viewing to make up their own mind about what’s going on, so it wouldn’t do any good for me to say anymore.”
Recommended by: Beau
Love Actually (2003)
Director: Richard Curtis
As far as directorial debuts go, Love Actually — in my opinion — truly takes the biscuit as the greatest debut of them all. When British screenwriter Richard Curtis decided to move up from the writer’s desk to the director’s chair, who could have imagined that a film crammed with 10 different storylines would become the most popular Christmas flick since It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) or A Christmas Story (1983).
Despite the mixed reviews it recieved upon its original release, Love Actually has developed a massive — and ever growing — fan base. Over the past 14 years, Curtis’ feel good masterpiece about the various ups and downs of love has been given endless multiple repeats on television during every Christmas season, four foreign film adaptations/remakes (plus three Americanised rip-offs from Garry Marshall), a 10th annivsary re-release, and a highly anticipated Red Nose Day special. Many new directors rarely earn their place in pop culture upon their first go at filmmaking; and what Curtis achieved during his first go is beyond amazing. It was a huge risk to go from writing scripts to directing actors; but thank goodness that the leap paid off.
Recommended by: Nathan
Director: Rian Johnson
What was once-considered my favourite movie of all time is the first feature release by director Rian Johnson. This neo-noir mystery is considered a cult classic since its limited release, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in one of his first leading roles post-3rd Rock from the Sun. Set in a Californian suburban high school, the lead character is a lone wolf named Brendan who tries to solve the dark mystery surrounding the death of his ex-girlfriend Emily (played by Emilie de Ravin, who many will recognise as the pregnant Aussie from the too-long-running series, Lost).
While the film is set in modern day, it exudes the feel of a classic noir detective piece and Johnson has stated that he looked to hard-hitting characters played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946), using them as inspiration for the central character – imagining what that guy would be like in high school.
Rian Johnson has gone on to direct the latest Star Wars addition in 2017’s The Last Jedi, so his first attempt at capturing the magic of Hollywood is definitely worth the watch – even if just to join the countless fans in guessing what the final whispered words are from the story’s most chilling and charismatic character, because much like Tarintino’s gold suitcase in Pulp Fiction, Johnson never reveals that secret.
Recommended by: Kurt
The Babadook (2014)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Australia’s Jennifer Kent’s breakout film The Babadook is a multi-layered horror film, with meaningful themes about mental illness beneath the surface of this classic horror fare. The beauty of this film is that it is accessible to a wide range of audiences; from general horror film fans to those seeking something that offers more than just jump scares and clichés. The Babadook is accessible to both types, marking an excellent first entry into the genre for Kent, setting her up for a bright directing future.
Recommended by: April
Ex Machina (2015)
Director: Alex Garland
Alex Garland made his point quite clear in the Ex Machina press junket that while this was his first directorial effort, a fact that was always reminded of him by media interviewers, he considers himself a career filmmaker. Not a screenwriter, a producer, a director, any position you can name that he has held in the industry, but a filmmaker through and through. Diving into each project headfirst while maintaining that passion for substance and controlled cinema.
There’s no better example of control than Ex Machina, a meticulous science-fiction mystery of a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment: interacting with the first humanoid A.I. A female who goes by the name of Ava (Alicia Vikander), the creation of his eccentric billionaire boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
This three-handed thriller riddled with tension and mind absorbing concepts on humanity, functionality, consciousness and what it means to be artificial and real across species. His film one of twisted humour and an honest realisation on the fatal flaws of creatures natural and manufactured. Is kind actually normal, or are we run on malevolence, betrayal, (forced) sexuality, and with kindness being the façade? It’s an impressive multilayered film that, like the humanoids themselves, peels at the skin to reveal the raw iron structure beneath us.
Recommended by: Bailey
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Dan Trachtenberg was essentially unknown as a filmmaking quantity prior to 10 Cloverfield Lane. The project itself was also an unknown quantity for some time; it was well into production and close to release when it was announced it was in fact a Cloverfield (2008) follow up. It was also at this time it was announced that Trachtenberg, who had previously been known for shorts and his presence in the podcasting world, was in charge. The film ended up being one of the best of the year; a tense thriller with a small, but amazing cast, that was so well crafted it felt like the work of a pro.
Perhaps 10 Cloverfield Lane’s strongest accomplishment was managing to be a sequel to an eight year old film, and still stand on its own as a genre and character piece, that was fresh without neglecting its predecessor. Although most sequels and reboots feel like soulless cash-grabs, this one is a real, authentic piece of filmmaking, that seems to come from a place of genuine passion. Add to that the compelling characters, intriguing premise, and shocking story developments, and 10 Cloverfield Lane solidifies Trachtenberg as one to watch.
While Trachtenberg has yet to direct another feature, you can see more of his work in season four of the TV series Black Mirror. His episode titled Play Test is an even stronger concentration of the horror elements he clearly loves, with strong homages to Carpenter.
Recommended by: Ellen
Honourable Mention: Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Pictured above, Tarantino’s super-violent film Reservoir Dogs put the world-renowned filmmaker on the map, setting him up for a career in Hollywood, going on to become one of the most iconic directors of all time.