Featured Image: David Cronenberg directing Shivers
It doesn’t matter if you’re starting out or have been making them for years, making movies is a difficult ordeal. Trying to make a good or great movie, well, that’s another ordeal altogether; even some of our favorite directors have made missteps (I’m looking at you, Tim).
It’s even more of a miracle when there’s a great film made by a first time director. That’s why movies like Citizen Kane and Reservoir Dogs are talked about so much; they’re great on their own, but it’s hard to believe that someone that young made something so good. Fortunately for us, there are a lot of great movies made by first time directors, and the ones on this list are only a handful.
Why 9? Because I know you don’t care enough to read 10.
1. Take The Money And Run (1969)
Director: Woody Allen
Woody Allen has been making a movie just about every single year since 1969 and he started with this hilarious mockumentary about an inept bank robber named Virgil Starkwell (Allen). Now technically, this was his second film (his first film was called What’s Up Tiger Lilly?) but that was him re-dubbing an old Japanese film. This was his first of his own making and the first of his so-called “early, funny films.” It’s definitely not as strong as some of his later works, but it’s a genius take on making fun of documentaries long before This is Spinal Tap! came along.
2. The Last House On The Left (1972)
Director: Wes Craven
“I’ve never seen a horror movie,” aspiring director Wes Craven told producer Sean S. Cunningham after he was asked to write and direct one. “You were a fundamentalist. Use it!”, Cunningham barked back. This certainly was true: Craven came from a strict religious background that did not allow him to see movies. So in making a brutally sadistic film about two girls tortured and murdered by a group of runaway killers, Craven shook off his fundamentalism and reinvented modern horror. Of course, he would go on to direct the classics A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. However, Craven never made anything as unflinching as this.
3. Shivers (1975)
Director: David Cronenberg
One night, David Cronenberg had a nightmare in which a couple are lying in bed and the guy looks over at the other to see a spider crawling out of the girl’s mouth. Over the course of a 15 day shooting schedule, that idea would become Shivers, a film about parasites wreaking havoc on the residents of an apartment block. Made in Canada and partly financed by the Canadian government, it became the most profitable film in the country’s history. The resulting feature was so shocking to politicians that its artistic value was debated in parliament. While no one today would make a big deal about a schlocky low budget film that looks like it was made in 15 days, it was undoubtedly a promising film made by a filmmaker who would go on to make The Fly, The Dead Zone and A History of Violence.
4. Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Director: Amy Heckerling
You could almost say that this is a two time directorial debut, as it launched the careers of two directors: Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) and Amy Heckerling (Clueless, Look Who’s Talking). Eager to live the high school life he never had, former rock journalist Crowe went undercover at Clairemont High School and wrote a book about his experiences called Fast Times At Ridgemont High: A True Story. Although on the surface the movie is quite raunchy, it takes the naïveté of a first time writer and first time director to make an honest exploration of teenagers exploring sexuality and dating. It doesn’t hurt that the film made a star out of many actors involved (Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz and Nicholas Cage practically all got their start from this movie).
5. Dark Star (1974)
Director: John Carpenter
What do the creators of Halloween and Alien have in common? John Carpenter of the former and Dan O’Bannon of the latter both worked on this absurdist science fiction parody about bored astronauts set about on a mission destroying planets. Starting out as a 40 minute student project at USC Film School that expanded into a feature, Dark Star was not a financial success and did not launch Carpenter and O’Bannon’s careers the way they hoped. Nevertheless, it now stands as an amateurish but very unique movie (Paul Thomas Anderson even put it on his list of 55 favorite movies recently), even without the context of Carpenter or O’Bannon’s subsequent work.
6. Play Misty For Me (1971)
Director: Clint Eastwood
If you thought that Fatal Attraction was a totally original movie, then you should check out Play Misty For Me; it predates Adrian Lyne’s film by 16 years and is much better. While Michael Douglas’ character is a well-off philanderer, Clint Eastwood is a middle class disc jockey in an on and off relationship. This makes his plight with the psychotic Evelyn (Jessica Walter, who you may know as Lucille Bluth on the cult Fox/Netflix series Arrested Development) a tad more sympathetic, as his one night stand was not threatening the institution of marriage. Moralism aside, it’s a solid if dated thriller that showed the world that The Man With No Name had directing talent. Even as he approaches his mid 80s, he shows no signs of slowing down.
7. Spanking The Monkey (1994)
Director: David O. Russell
Before he would go on to make his name directing Oscar fare like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell made his first movie named after a slang phrase for masturbation. The story revolves around an aimless young man named Ray (Jeremy Davies) who develops an interesting relationship with his mother, Susan (Alberta Watson). How’s that for a directorial debut? Its ballsy premise would set the tone for Russell’s later career and, like many of his later works, walks a very disguised line between comedy and drama. However, it’s anything but exploitative. With a plot as aimless as its main character, it’s more of an exploration of what leads Ray into this relationship. What we end up with is the modern cinematic equivalent of the Oedipal story.
8. Body Heat (1981)
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
After writing the innovative, but for all intents and purposes, kid films Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, the blockbuster scribe Lawrence Kasdan burst onto the scene with the very adult and very sultry Body Heat. The movie is about an inept lawyer (William Hurt) who with his lover (Kathleen Turner), becomes involved in a murder plot. It takes a great writer and director to create a character who is believably bad at his job without it coming across as bad writing. Both a parody and homage of film noir, it made Kathleen Turner the sex symbol of the early 1980s and showed that Lawrence Kasdan could through the years bounce between fun action movies (Silverado, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and personal films (The Big Chill, Grand Canyon). It also has one of my favorite lines of all time, spoken by Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson): “I had a dream last night so boring it woke me.”
9. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Forrest Gump may have taken home the Oscar For Best Visual Effects for its seamless blending of historical figures with Forrest, but director Robert Zemeckis already had experience with that technique in this light-hearted comedy about a group of girls trying to meet The Beatles. This was one of the only Beatles related movies to come out while all of the Fab Four were still alive, and the only one of them (that I know of) to say anything about it was Ringo Starr. And he did not like it. Nevertheless, it serves as a nostalgic love letter to Beatlemania with some great performances (Eddie Deezen in particular as a Beatles nerd is great) and is also notable for being the first movie that Steven Spielberg produced.