From today’s rising stars to veteran auteurs, some of the best Hollywood filmmakers have delivered fantastic debut feature-length films.
Some haven’t reached the promise of their first film yet (Neill Blomkamp peaked with “District 9”); some haven’t slowed down (Brad Bird makes hit after hit); and some are just getting started (Bo Burnham is earning widespread praise for this year’s “Eighth Grade,” now in theaters).
We looked at the work of filmmakers past and present to determine some of the best debut features of all time.
Below are 16 of the best:
“Eighth Grade” (2018) — Bo Burnham
Bo Burnham rose to stardom on YouTube and has developed a successful stand-up comedy career where he expresses his own thought-provoking questions about humanity through unique musical performances. He does something similar with “Eighth Grade,” his feature-length directorial debut after directing Chris Rock’s “Tamborine” Netflix special this year. Only in “Eighth Grade,” a middle schooler played by Elsie Fisher (also in a brilliant debut) takes the spotlight. The movie premiered this year to widespread acclaim for its heartwarming, and all-too-real, take on adolescence in the age of social media.
“Hereditary” (2018) — Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s polarizing horror film “Hereditary” split critics and audiences. Moviegoers expecting a mainstream, spooky ghost story were treated to something more complicated, but that’s why the film sticks with you long after the credits role. The marketing campaign effectively hid the movie’s most shocking moments, transforming it into a brutal and terrifying family drama once we were actually in the theater seats.
“Lady Bird” (2017) — Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig co-directed a mostly-improvisational film called “Nights and Weekends” a decade ago, but her first real, solo debut was with “Lady Bird” last year. Inspired by her own childhood in Sacramento, the movie is a hilarious and relatable mother-daughter tale that earned Gerwig a best director Oscar nomination.
“Get Out” (2017) — Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele, previously known mainly for his Comedy Central sketch-comedy show “Key & Peele,” won the Oscar for best original screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards for his directorial debut, “Get Out,” a social-horror film about race relations. He’ll follow it up next year with “Us,” another thriller starring Lupita Nyong’o.
“Ex Machina” (2015) — Alex Garland
Alex Garland burst onto the sci-fi scene with 2015’s superb debut “Ex Machina.” It not only put actress Alicia Vikander on the map as an artificial intelligence, but catapulted Garland as a sci-fi master with one film. He followed it up this year with the financially disappointing, but critically acclaimed film “Annihilation.”
“Fruitvale Station” (2013) — Ryan Coogler
- The Weinstein Company
It’s rare for filmmakers to have three winning movies in a row, let alone their first three. But since Ryan Coogler’s based-on-a-true-story debut, “Fruitvale Station,” he’s delivered winners with “Creed” and “Black Panther.” Impressive is an understatement.
“District 9” (2009) — Neill Blomkamp
Neill Blomkamp may have set his own bar too high with “District 9.” The filmmaker hasn’t been able to match the success of his first film, which was nominated for an Oscar for best picture. Since then, he’s made the underwhelming “Elysium” and “Chappie,” and has recently focused on short films. He’s attached to direct an upcoming RoboCop reboot next.
“Gone Baby Gone” (2007) — Ben Affleck
It’s hard to remember that Ben Affleck had a string of success stories as a director now that he’s been portraying Batman for the last couple years. But Affleck hit the ball out of the park with the drama “Gone Baby Gone” and followed it up with “The Town” and “Argo,” which won best picture.
“American Beauty” (1999) — Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes wasted no time with his debut feature “American Beauty,” which won the Oscars for best picture, actor (Kevin Spacey), director (Mendes), screenplay, and cinematography.
“The Iron Giant” (1999) — Brad Bird
- Warner Bros. via MovieClips
Brad Bird knows how to make a crowd-and-critic pleasing animated film that both entertains and tugs at the heartstrings. He kicked off that reputation with “The Iron Giant,” and went on to make both “Incredibles” movies and “Ratatouille” for Pixar.
“Being John Malkovich” (1999) — Spike Jonze
- USA Films
Jonze started out as a sought-after music video director, but his first feature, “Being John Malkovich,” earned him an Oscar nomination for best director.
“The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) — Frank Darabont
- Columbia Pictures
Darabont previously directed a TV movie called “Buried Alive,” but his feature-length theatrical debut was with the classic Stephen King adaptation “The Shawshank Redemption,” which earned seven Oscar nominations, including best picture.
“Reservoir Dogs” (1992) — Quentin Tarantino
In an age when franchises dominate Hollywood and the box office, it’s rare for movies to be considered “events” simply because of the filmmaker behind them. But Quentin Tarantino is one of those filmmakers, and he’s developed as a writer and filmmaker since “Reservoir Dogs,” which scratched the surface of what he was capable of.
“She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) — Spike Lee
- Island Pictures
Spike Lee is making waves this year with his latest film, “BlacKkKlansman,” about a black police officer who infiltrates the KKK. And he’s been making waves ever since his feature debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” about a woman who dates three men at the same time.
“Mad Max” (1979) — George Miller
George Miller debuted with “Mad Max,” and went on to make three sequels. Most recently, “Mad Max: Fury Road” earned him his first directing Oscar nomination.
“Citizen Kane” (1941) — Orson Welles
- RKO Pictures
“Citizen Kane” is widely regarded as the best film ever made – not bad for a feature debut. Welles also starred in and wrote the movie.