Quentin Tarantino And 15 Other Prominent Directors Who Made A Great Movie On Their First Try
These directors definitely knew what they were doing on their first go at it.
If you’re into movies like I am, then you’ve undoubtedly seen a ton of excellent films by great directors like Quentin Tarantino, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, etc. Not only do I love to watch films from all over the world, I also love to watch a director’s entire oeuvre, which is how I’ve seen all 6 George Lucas movies, and every Peter Jackson movie. Here’s what I’ve learned by watching the entire filmography of so many directors: Some of them make a truly great movie on their very first try.
Now, that’s not to say that they didn’t experiment with smaller projects before their first feature length film, as even Paul Thomas Anderson cut his teeth on the short film Cigarettes and Coffee before he directed Hard Eight. But, when it comes to a first feature length film, some directors just somehow nail it, which often guides the trajectory of their entire careers. So, here are 16 such directors who undoubtedly got it right on their very first feature length film.
Quentin Tarantino - Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Here’s what’s interesting about Reservoir Dogs. If Tarantino’s first movie was Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs was actually his last movie, it might feel smaller in scale, sure, but I also think it would still feel like a fitting swansong to an incredible career. That’s how amazing Reservoir Dogs is. It’s so good, I could see him making it today.
But, it was his first film, and it totally made him explode onto the scene back in the early ‘90s. He would, of course, go on to make Pulp Fiction (his best movie), Inglorious Basterds, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and many others, but Tarantino’s mark was already made with Reservoir Dogs, and it’s still legendary today.
Robert Rodriguez - El Mariachi (1992)
The first (and I would argue best) in Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy, which also contains Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, is said to have only cost $7,000 U.S. dollars to make. It’s about a guitar player who manages to get targeted because of mistaken identity, and he has to take up arms if he wants to live.
Robert Rodriguez has had an interesting career, jumping back and forth between mature, R-rated films like Sin City and Machete, and kid-friendly stuff like Spy Kids and the hit We Can Be Heroes. That said, it was El Mariachi and its unassuming badassness that got him onto the scene, and it’s still awesome to this day. He’s still awesome to this day, no question.
Kevin Smith - Clerks (1994)
There's a reason why Kevin Smith keeps coming back to Clerks, what with the upcoming Clerks 3, and that's because his first movie might just be his very best film ever. The story of a clerk named Dante who shouldn't even be at work today, seems like it has nothing to say and yet everything to say at the same time. Plus, it's all in glorious black and white.
Kevin Smith's known for movies like Mallrats, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Red State, and those movies are great and all, but I think most would agree that Smith found his voice with his very first film, and he's mostly kept that voice for the entirety of his career. I'm not complaining.
Patty Jenkins - Monster (2003)
Nowadays, Patty Jenkins is most known for bringing Wonder Woman to the big screen, and her future resides in Star Wars with her upcoming movie, Rogue Squadron. But, arguably more interesting is Patty Jenkins' first movie, Monster, which is about the real life serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, played by Charlize Theron, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
How good was this movie? Well, Roger Ebert called Monster the best film of 2002, and he proclaimed that Charlize Theron's performance was one of the greatest that he’d ever seen. Not bad for a director's debut picture.
Jordan Peele - Get Out (2017)
Before Get Out, Jordan Peele was probably most known as the other half of Key & Peele. But, after Get Out, I’m pretty sure everybody knew who he was as a single entity, as the talented director/writer/actor exploded onto the scene with the movie that many consider the true Best Picture of 2017.
Now, every new movie he makes is an event. Us was a creepy doppelganger film, and his next project, Nope, is shrouded in mystery, but still highly anticipated. All that white hot anticipation is all due to Get Out, which single-handedly turned this comedian into one of the most important voices in horror today.
Steven Spielberg - Duel (1971)
Steven Spielberg was only 24 when he directed his first feature length film, Duel, and the rest is history. Duel has a simple premise - a guy (Dennis Weaver) is terrorized by an unseen truck driver for 80 minutes, and that’s it.
But, Spielberg, who has made some of the best movies of all time, just nailed it with Duel. The whole film is taut and unsettling, and it’s little wonder why many people pegged Spielberg as a wunderkind all the way back in the early ‘70s. He certainly was!
Orson Welles - Citizen Kane (1941)
The year is 2022, and some people are still saying that Orson Welles got robbed when Citizen Kane lost Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley back at the 1942 Oscars. This actually makes sense, because some critics call Citizen Kane the greatest movie of all time. Not bad for a young man's very first feature film.
In fact, even though Welles directed other great films like The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil, he will forever be known as the man who directed quite possibly the greatest film of all time. On his very first try, no less. Unbelievable.
Sidney Lumet - 12 Angry Men (1957)
Even though Sidney Lumet directed a little over 40 films, and serious classics including Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, it might be his first movie, the Academy Award-nominated 12 Angry Men, that might be his most accessible and enjoyable work in his filmography.
Adapted from a teleplay of the same name, 12 Angry Men is spectacular for many reasons, one being the acting, but two being the pacing, which never lets up. In fact, quick pacing and stellar acting is emblematic of a lot of Lumet's movies, and he had it down pat with his very first film. Lumet was a legend.
Sophia Coppola - The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Based on the novel of the same name, The Virgin Suicides is about five sisters (one played by Kirsten Dunst) who are closely monitored after the youngest sister attempts suicide. It’s a drama, to be certain, but there is also an undercurrent of dark humor that kind of creates an almost unsettling quality to an already pretty dark story.
This “unsettling quality” would show up in Coppola’s later films, like Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and especially, The Beguiled. Still, if I were to jumble up all of those movies and throw The Virgin Suicides into the mix, then most people likely wouldn’t be able to tell which is her debut picture, since they’re all the marks of a professional.
Ridley Scott - The Duelists (1977)
Ridley Scott is probably most known for movies like Alien, Blade Runner, and the Best Picture-winning Gladiator, but his debut, The Duelists, starring Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as warring soldiers who duel each other for decades, was already the mark of master director.
It’s so good that one of his most recent films, The Last Duel, kind of feels similar in tone and direction. The budget is much higher for The Last Duel, but the acting, pacing, and direction in The Duelists is just as good as it is in the recent film, which is astounding to say the very least.
Alejandro González Iñárritu - Amores Perros (2000)
The first part of the “Trilogy of Death” (with 21 Grams and Babel), Amores Perros, which roughly translates to "love’s a bitch," slammed into audiences like a car crash with this interesting narrative that connects three separate people to an automobile accident.
Alejandro González Iñárritu would later go on to direct one of my favorite movies ever in Birdman, but a lot of the electric filmmaking that made that movie so great, was even evident in Amores Perros, which shocks and breaks your heart, sometimes in the very same scene.
Sam Raimi - The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi's come a long way since his debut picture, The Evil Dead. He's helming Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and he came to commercial recognition with his Spider-Man trilogy.
But, to many, he'll always be "The Evil Dead guy," and for good reason. The first Evil Dead is a seminal entry in ‘80s horror that innovated a lot of unique techniques, such as the camera chasing the characters. Sure, his later Evil Dead movies might be more popular, but that first movie announced a fresh new director, and he'd be here to stay.
Spike Jonze - Being John Malkovich (1999)
If you love meta movies, then you’re undoubtedly familiar with the work of Spike Jonze. His second film, Adaptation., was perhaps even more meta than his first, and he managed to make the children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, into a semi-meditative movie featuring James Gandolfini.
Being John Malkovich garnered him a Best Director Oscar nomination. The film has such a unique strangeness to it that you might attribute it to Charlie Kaufman’s cerebral writing, but, you can see that Spike Jonze’s brain is definitely on a similar wavelength with his other films not written by Kaufman. Being John Malkovich is one of the reasons why some people call 1999 one of the best years in cinema, and this was Spike Jonze’s debut picture. Outstanding!
Ryan Coogler - Fruitvale Station (2013)
Before Black Panther, before Creed, there was Fruitvale Station, a film so infuriating that it had this writer seething in his seat when he first saw it. Chronicling the events that led up to the real life death of Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station seems like the work of an artist who had spent years in the director’s seat, not a directorial debut.
Coogler's next picture is the hotly anticipated sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, but you could see the talent in his first picture, which he made at the tender age of 25. Damn.
Ari Aster - Hereditary (2018)
I think it says a lot that Ari Aster only has two feature films to his name, but he's already established himself as one of the leading voices in modern day horror. This was all due to Hereditary, which is still the scariest movie I've ever seen.
He would later go on to make Midsommar, and one could argue that Midsommar is the better Ari Aster film. Whichever you prefer, I don't think anybody will argue the greatness of Hereditary. Making one of the scariest movies of all time as your very first feature film is no laughing matter. In fact, it’s quite terrifying to be this good.
Rob Reiner - This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Rob Reiner has proven that he can be successful in any genre. He mastered fantasy with The Princess Bride, tackled horror with Misery, and dabbled in romantic comedies with When Harry Met Sally.
But, my favorite, and a lot of people's favorite movie of his, is his debut, the infinitely quotable mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap. The film is probably the funniest rock movie ever made, and it's done in such a way that Spinal Tap seems like a legit band. It's actually kind of sad that they aren't a real band, though, because some of their songs really kick ass.
What other prominent directors do you think made a great movie on their first try? For news on today's great directors, make sure to swing by here often!
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.