Pick 3, Vol. 9: Directorial Debuts

The FOTS team comes back together to share their favorite works from first-time directors.

DAVID

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Brick (2006)
Directed by Rian Johnson

There’s no shortage of classics to choose from here, and a couple I’ve written about before in previous Pick 3s — Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap. This time around, however, I’m sticking to the Aughts, beginning with Rian Johnson’s brilliant debut feature, Brick. Before tackling heady sci-fi (Looper), helming a few of Breaking Bad‘s greatest episodes (“Ozymandias,” “Fly”), and signing on to write and direct Star Wars Episode VIII, Johnson crashed the Sundance Film Festival with this taut, stylish, and clever Neo-Noir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in his breakout role, plays a teenager who dives deep into his high school’s criminal underworld after the mysterious death of his ex-girlfriend. Not content to simply ape the story structure and visual conventions of classic Noir, Johnson makes the potentially disastrous decision to make the dialog itself seem straight out of a Dashiell Hammet novel, turning his cast into miniature Bogarts. But Gordon-Levitt, and especially the kingpin played by Lucas Haas, make a meal out of it — the talk of “saps” and “dusty standards” and “fall guys” and “I’m curious what makes you so curious” stops being a gimmick after a matter of minutes, and instead becomes something wildly, anachronistically fun.

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Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Directed by Edgar Wright

I’ve made no secret on this site of my undying affection for Edgar Wright going all the way back to his days on Spaced, that short-lived, much-loved TV series where he (along with his co-writers and lead actors, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) began to refine his zippy, kinetic style. His first feature, Shaun of the Dead, is billed as “a romantic comedy…with zombies,” which is wonderful and true, because it’s Wright’s attention to character first that elevates what could just be a cheap Romero homage into a complete film that stands alongside the best of the genre. Throughout Shaun, Wright exhibits an incredible efficiency of storytelling, using his trademark whip-crack editing and goofy visual humor (like the Winchester climax, a zombie defense mounted with pool cues and Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”) to simultaneously send up the cliches of the zombie thriller while lovingly inverting it into something fresh, funny, and very British. It’s a methodology that would serve Wright, Pegg, and Frost well on the the rest of the “Cornetto Trilogy” (of which Hot Fuzz is the funniest, and The World’s End the most thoughtful), but it got its start here.

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Once (2007)
Directed by John Carney

[Note: Yes, this is a cheat. I’m sorry.] Though everyone knows (or should know) the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly,” it’s easy to think of Once as not really being “directed.” John Carney’s style is so observational, it feels more like the film is being improvised in front of the camera if not an actual documentary. An intensely personal expression of art and love, Once follows a street busker (played by Carney’s former bandmate, Glen Hansard) who crosses paths with a young Czech pianist (Marketa Irglova), and the sparks that fly manifest themselves in song and a whirlwind weeklong recording session — but not in that cheesy, Hollywood musical way where the orchestra is somewhere out of frame and all the lyrics are obvious. This is a film about music, starring musicians, and the very real, very excellent songs they perform together (I particularly love the skittery “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and the lilting title track) speak to deeper things than the film’s admittedly threadbare plot. This year, Carney follows up the more straightforward (i.e. not quite as magical) Begin Again with the Sundance crowd-pleaser Sing Street.

CHASE

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The Lion King (1994)
Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

This Pick 3 is about great directorial debuts, and not debut films from great directors. That small distinction allows me to include one of the greatest traditionally animated films of all time: The Lion King. “Hamlet with lions” probably should have been a complete disaster. It was Disney’s first animated film with a completely original story, initially centered on a war between lions and baboons, and most of Disney’s experienced animators chose to work on Pocahontas instead. With such low expectations, Disney turned the film over to first-time feature directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff as a “small project,” who quickly converted it from an animated nature documentary into a musical with songs from the esteemed Elton John. The pair also insisted on natural-looking animation for the animal characters, and made some truly inspired casting decisions: James Earl Jones as the regal Mufasa, Jeremy Irons as the conniving Scar, and the Matthew Broderick as the earnest Simba. The opening sequence is an animated wonder, with rotating perspectives and editing to resemble a live-action film. It’s just a preview of the many wonders to come, including the marvelous computer animation-assisted wildebeest stampede. Far from the secondary project it was originally intended as, The Lion King became a critical darling, the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and beloved treasure for millions of children (including me).

Citizen Kane GraphicCitizen Kane (1941)
Directed by Orson Welles

What is there to really say about a film as widely acclaimed as Citizen Kane? After success on Broadway and radio, RKO Studios gave Orson Welles unprecedented free reign, and the result is what’s widely considered the greatest film of all time. You probably know the story of millionaire Charles Foster Kane, but Welles’s storytelling was revolutionary for its time: the opening newsreel footage reveals the film’s entire arc from Kane’s humble beginnings to his enigmatic last words; thus the focus of the film becomes not what happens, but why it happened. Multiple narrators shift the perspective of Kane from a genius, to a scoundrel, to a lost, sympathetic old man, thereby muddling the traditional straightforward hero and villain morality. A decade of breakfasts at a series of longer and longer tables uses physical space to explain the dissolution of a marriage in just 90 seconds. Then, there’s the stunning deep focus cinematography where the foreground and background of shots are in focus at the same time. If these things seem old hat now, it’s only because every film that’s come after Citizen Kane has borrowed from its template. Entire books could be (and have been) written about this film, and it was all the brainchild of a 25 year-old man making the first film of his career.

the lives of others graphicThe Lives of Others (2006)
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

I’ve written about Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut before, and for good reason. This is my favorite foreign film. Telling the story of a Cold War German Stasi agent and the East German couple he spies on, The Lives of Others is a quiet film about secrets and the power those secrets hold over us. The film’s strength comes from its ability to derive tension from intimate, private conversations. What if someone overheard every conversation you had with your spouse? Would they lord those secret moments over you? Or would they be drawn into the intimate complexities of your life? Donnersmarck’s film doesn’t feature any high-flying action, but there’s tension thick enough to cut with a knife. It isn’t too high praise when people compare this film with Coppola’s The Conversation and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The Lives of Others is that good, and much of the praise should go to Donnersmarck’s deft, emotion-driven touch. The real-life locations and desaturated colors enhance the film’s Cold War feel, and Ulrich Mühe is perfectly cast as the conflicted Stasi agent. In the age of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance disclosures, this film has only become more prescient.

RACHEL

Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Directed by Joe Wright

This classic love story has so much tread on it, poor Lizzy Bennet resembles JFK’s landing strip. Leave it to visionary director Joe Wright to shine Pride & Prejudice up like a new penny — complete with a haunting score, inspired cinematography, and a Darcy to rival the great one. Wright infused this tired tale with lush and vibrant colors encompassing all of the grandeur of the novel, while experimental framing and creative lighting previewed Wright’s ability to author the greatest scene in cinematic history (hyperbole, but leave your arguments in the comments below). The director allows the camera to have a love affair with the Bennet girls, particularly Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth, whose face fills the screen so that the audience can see through her eyes. Never derailing into melodrama, Wright strikes a perfect balance in tone, full of heart and familial warmth. It wasn’t just his obvious love for Knightley or his adeptness at juxtaposing score and screen — Wright’s Pride seemed wholly new, and he’s made a fine career at adapting classic stories with a modern flair (see: Atonement and Anna Karenina).

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The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Directed by Sofia Coppola

The greatest argument for nepotism might be Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Battling the punchline that was her undeniably poor turn as fill-in for ailing Winona Ryder in the dismal Godfather Part III, Coppola left acting (if that’s what we’re calling it) to pursue work behind the camera. Adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel into the airy, mood-altering film, Suicides follows the male obsession of five sisters who lead a sheltered and mysterious existence. Authoritative parents aim to protect the girls’ virtue, only to make them more appealing in their mystery. This dreamy quality is part and parcel with the nostalgic themes that have become Coppola’s signature, and set her apart from her father’s work. A love letter to character and how we put those who intrigue on a pedestal, The Virgin Suicides is more of an experience than a film. The score is a veritable hipster dream, but we’ll all just pretend we’ve never listened to it in the dark.

Fruitvale Station (2013)
Directed by Ryan Coogler

Ryan Coogler burst onto the scene just three short years ago with this Sundance favorite, rivaling the early efforts of Michael Mann and John Singleton. Based on a true story, Fruitvale Station follows the buildup to that fatal police encounter that claimed the life of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit Station in Oakland in 2009. Explosive in its topicality yet subtle in its execution, Fruitvale perfectly captured the very real struggle of a man attempting to better himself amidst the scrutiny of the lot dealt to him. Coogler’s ability to hit the well-known beats of the story while simultaneously emphasizing character previewed his talent, and how he would approach the surprising Creed just two years later. Coogler paid homage to directors that blazed the path but also added his own voice in that documentarian style. And let us not forget, this is the film that announced Michael B. Jordan as a star.

SEAN

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The Producers (1967)
Directed by Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks’s 1967 directorial debut The Producers remains one of the funniest movies ever made, and continues to live on in the cultural zeitgeist thanks to the enormously successful 2001 Broadway musical adaptation. It’s a film that revels in bad taste, and its climatic centerpiece “Springtime for Hitler” still manages to illicit shocked guffaws. The Producers is able to be a broad farce while remaining specific in its characterizations thanks to the natural talents and heated chemistry of stars Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. The Producers is a pointed send-up of show business and it remains Mel Brooks’s best work (give or take a Young Frankenstein) due to its sharp originality, which doesn’t rely on spoofing other artists’ material. After years of writing for other comedians like the legendary Sid Caesar, Brooks came into his own with The Producers and managed to win an original screenplay Oscar in the process. Sometimes comedy is just too good not to win.

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Terms of Endearment (1982)
Directed by James L. Brooks

Once upon a time, Hollywood used to make character-driven movies for adults that didn’t depend on superheroes, explosions, or mass carnage to sell tickets. These movies made lots of money and won lots of awards. Terms of Endearment was one of those films and it remains the pinnacle of tear-jerker dramedies. Yes, James L. Brooks’s film directorial debut wants to make you cry, but this is no cheap cookie-cutter Nicholas Sparks drama. Instead, Terms of Endearment is about real, complicated people whose relationships and lives are filled with relatable pathos. The film is fueled by two fiercely determined performances by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger, and supported by wonderful character parts from the likes of Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow, and Danny DeVito. Terms of Endearment earns every tear pulled out of its delicately funny and tragic screenplay (also by Brooks and adapted from the novel by Larry McMurtry) because of its sincere approachability. It’s a film that understands the messiness of life and isn’t afraid to make you laugh in the face of its most heartbreaking challenges. The film went on to win big at the Oscars, including trophies for writer/director James L. Brooks, Best Actress for MacLaine, and Best Picture. Brooks will always be remembered for his brilliant work as a producer on television for shows like The Simpsons, Taxi, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but Terms of Endearment deserves a place in film history all on its own. They just don’t make them like this anymore.

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

Upon its debut, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was characterized by critics as the next Rocky Horror, which always felt like an obvious backhanded compliment. Yes, Hedwig may be strange by some standards and its tongue may be firmly in cheek in places, but underneath there is a gorgeous story about identity and self-discovery. It’s a film that openly dealt with sexuality, gender, and love in new and honest ways at a time before it was a part of the mainstream social consciousness. The film frequently shifts gears between rock concerts, glam camp, musical montages, and intimate character moments (with some experimental animated sequences thrown in for good measure) without ever missing a beat. Somehow it never feels jarring, and most of that success has to be credited to director John Cameron Mitchell, who fearlessly and successfully navigates the transition of his original intimate stage musical to the big screen. Amid his directorial duties he also manages to give a towering, emotionally naked performance backed up by killer rock vocals. Hedwig isn’t only a great directorial debut, it’s arguably one of the greatest and most unique musicals ever made. Mitchell’s follow-ups Short Bus and Rabbit Hole only exemplify his versatility and singular talent.

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