Top 15 directorial debuts since 2010

The following list of directorial debuts sets a particularly high bar for first forays into cinema. These directors have created films that offer deeply human portraits of their subjects — films like Fruitvale Station, Swiss Army Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Edge of Seventeen. Some directors boldly push the boundaries of genre, as with some of the horror entries on this list. Some others have simply created works of pure badassery like John Wick. While each of the following directors might seem different from the next, they all accept the challenge of carving out their own space in cinema — a challenge that will inspire many to follow in their footsteps. As Jason Hall make his own mark with his directorial debut Thank You For Your Service, here are our picks of some of the best debuts since 2010:

15. Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

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Marielle Heller’s debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, remains a wonderfully singular entrance into cinema, a film that candidly explores a girl’s sexual exploration in a balancing act of filmmaking that, as many have pointed out, could’ve easily gone wrong. But it didn’t, and that’s to credit of Heller, whose unconventional approach, intertwining animation into the film, nails a pitch perfect tone that is, at once, audacious, explicit, sensitive and never judgmental. That’s where Heller pulls it off — that she doesn’t ask this story to bend for what most might think it should, and rather commits to telling the story from the main character’s distinctive perspective. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s meant to be, which makes it all the more profound.

— Kyle Kizu

14. Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods

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Genre satire is incredibly difficult to pull off for any filmmaker, new or seasoned. There’s always a threat of jokes and subversion missing the mark, and of tone falling out of balance. Not only did Drew Goddard avoid all of those pitfalls with his directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods, he was nearly pitch perfect in all regards. His comedic chops, as well as those of co-writer Joss Whedon, are on full display as the film takes conventional characters and turns their roles and the story’s arc on their heads. But like the best horror comedies, Shaun of the Dead principle among them, this film has its moments of genuine scares. When done right, these types of films become adored cult classics, and it’s clear that The Cabin in the Woods is on its way there.

— Kyle Kizu

13. Jennifer Kent, The Babadook

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The most affecting horror films are the ones that reflect the darkest corners of our own interiorities, and that’s exactly the elevation of genre which Jennifer Kent’s terrifying, emotionally wrenching debut The Babadook accomplishes. The film’s horror finds its epicenter in Amelia (Essie Davis), whose grief over her husband’s death manifests itself in a conflicting mixture of love and resentment for her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). This sense of emotional complexity speaks to the humanity of the film — every parent has at some point felt enraged at their child, even though that child is the one person they love most above all else. The Babadook offers reconciliation for this conflict, and it’s all a credit to Kent’s masterful direction.

— Harrison Tunggal

12. Dan Trachtenberg, 10 Cloverfield Lane

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In 10 Cloverfield Lane, director Dan Trachtenberg gives us a film surrounded by the element of surprise — nobody was expecting a Cloverfield sequel, much less a confined, claustrophobic thriller, much much less one hell of a directorial debut. Arguably, this sequel is an improvement on the original film. For one thing, being trapped in an underground bunker and dealing with its two other inhabitants is a more tension-filled premise than the found-footage story of the first film. More importantly though, Trachtenberg gives us a whole slew of better monsters — specifically John Goodman’s post-apocalyptic creep and the actual aliens that, against all expectations, finally, gloriously show up. As Trachtenberg moves forward with yet another mysterious sci-fi project, we can’t help but expect great things.

— Harrison Tunggal

11. Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen

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The Edge of Seventeen is a coming of age film that’s powerful, controlled and extremely engaging all at once. It’s not just a stereotypical picture within the genre, not just a film that panders to its young adult demographic. The film takes youth seriously, recognizing that the blissful, fun freedom of teens and the awkward, genuinely difficult pains are intertwined. And the execution of this all comes down to Kelly Fremon Craig’s brilliant direction. Her script is wonderful, but not a simple one to translate to screen, and Fremon Craig jumps out of the gate with a seemingly inherent strength in guiding pace, character arc and tone. On top of that, The Edge of Seventeen is also a really affecting study of grief. It’s a film that truly works on all levels.

— Kyle Kizu

10. Robert Eggers, The Witch

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With The Witch, first time director Robert Eggers leverages his experience as a former production designer to create a vision of 17th century New England where satanic forces pervade daily life; there’s something evil in the film’s bleak natural lighting, the hungry woods and the restrictive costumes. Beyond mere aesthetics though, The Witch, in every respect, is one of the most unsettling film experiences that horror has to offer. Right from the moment characters speak, the period-accurate dialogue feels off-kilter, and if things weren’t stressful enough, the film quickly dials up the tension to precipitous heights in a scene involving a hag, a baby and a mortar and pestle (no, they’re not making hummus). Of course, The Witch might be Eggers’ first step in a career that is bound to be bright — or rather, dark, like a moonless New England night in the stiff clutches of winter, when witches’ howls pierce the silence and the Enemy stalks the earth — but his real accomplishment is introducing the world to the enigmatic, effortlessly cool Black Philip.

— Harrison Tunggal

9. Jayro Bustamante, Ixcanul

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In his profound first feature, Ixcanul, director Jayro Bustamante creates a uniquely Mayan film — he cast non-professional Mayan actors, wrote the film’s dialogue in the Mayan language of Kaqchikel and shot the film under the looming gaze of the titular Guatemalan volcano. Bustamante’s attention and respect for the indigenous Mayan culture results in a film that is deeply immersive, a film whose realism is akin to cinema verite, but which never ventures into intrusion. For all of the film’s realist qualities, Bustamante ensures that Ixcanul retains a warm humanity — especially through the saturation of color that pervades the film, but most strikingly, through the strength of its protagonist, Maria (María Mercedes Coroy). Through Maria, Bustamante suggests that female agency is the only true linkage between tradition and “modernity.” In all respects, Ixcanul is a triumph of representation in cinema, one that we can only hope continues as Bustamante’s career flourishes.

— Harrison Tunggal

8. Michaël Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle

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The Red Turtle is an 80 minute, almost dialogue-free, two dimensional animated film. However, it’s one of the most profoundly human films of recent memory. There’s something quite jaw dropping about the animation here, simple yet mesmerizingly gorgeous, and filled with lush, stunning colors. And that’s where its humanity comes from: imagery. Cinema is, first and foremost, a visual medium, and we follow our protagonist’s journey by almost purely visual means — how struggle, love, heartbreak, anger, regret, desperation and more are visualized in a story of a man stuck on an island. As we follow along, we realize how our protagonist is humbled, humbled by nature of all kinds and made to realize both that not everything revolves around human beings as well as how that can bring the best out of those very human beings. All of this also comes without mention of Laurent Perez Del Mar’s transfixing score, a soaring, tragic journey on its own.

The Red Turtle stunning and breathtaking, and one not to miss. That it’s Michaël Dudok de Wit’s directorial debut is mind-boggling.

— Kyle Kizu

7. Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

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A fantastical, majestic tale of wonder and joy, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it. Not only is Quvenzhané Wallis an absolute revelation, but the film itself is a spirited triumph of independent filmmaking, a scraps kind of project composed with the utmost brilliance by Benh Zeitlin in his directorial debut. Almost dreamlike in that composition, the film crafts a community so crisply and so lively, and an explosion of a world through the eyes of its innocent protagonist, toned with an overwhelmingly affecting score to create an emotional profundity in its parallels to tragedy-struck communities like New Orleans, where Dwight Henry, who plays Wallis’ character’s father, comes from. In short, the film is poetic and transcendent.

— Kyle Kizu

6. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski, John Wick

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John Wick might have been the directorial debut for David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, but you couldn’t tell by watching it. In an action genre landscape where quick cuts and stunt doubles can get a pass from audiences, former stuntmen Leitch and Stahelski deliver some of the smoothest, most organic fight sequences in years — sure, it comes at the expense of John Wick’s dog, but when Keanu Reeves is kicking this much ass, it’s something we’re willing to forgive. Stahelski later doubles down on John Wick’s clean-cut action in the film’s sequel (one of the rare second installments that improves on the first), and Leitch recently directed Atomic Blonde, and has Deadpool 2 next on his plate, so it’s safe to say that John Wick represents both a landmark in the action genre and a stellar debut for two exciting new directors. Until Deadpool 2 or John Wick: Chapter 3 arrive in theaters, though, we’ll just have to be content with these five minutes of Peak Keanu.

— Harrison Tunggal

5. Alex Garland, Ex Machina

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As Ex Machina starts, we can tell that there’s something far more complex beneath the surface. We don’t really absorb it in its entirety until the end, but it’s there and we can feel it. Like many other directors on this list, Alex Garland pulls off that affect because of his composition of tone. There’s a bluntness to his story, a confrontational honesty within Oscar Isaac’s Nathan juxtaposed next to a startlingly direct tenderness in Alicia Vikander’s AI Ava. But that’s all for manipulation. Garland places us, the audience, in our very own Turing test alongside Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb. He positions his camera, his characters and his dialogue in ways that work into our head and manipulate us into admiring Nathan, empathizing with Caleb and believing in Ava. What better way to tell a story about artificial intelligence and consciousness? But Ex Machina also uses those angles to subtly posit an idea of voyeurism and of man’s manipulation of the female body. With seamless, unparalleled visual effects, steely cool production design, Alicia Vikander’s magnetic, landmark performance and a hell of a creepy dance scene, Ex Machina immediately becomes one of the greats of contemporary sci-fi, and it’s only Alex Garland’s directorial debut.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man

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In terms of pure singularity, there is no film on this list more imaginative than Swiss Army Man. Dreamt up by the minds of former music video directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man should be the definition of an original film, unlike anything we’ve ever gotten and ever will — unless they make another. We can see Kwan and Scheinert’s intrinsic music video sensibilities, as scenes of montage or action are, on a technical level, composed masterfully. But what makes the film so special is the human spirit within its veins, or should we say within its farts. Swiss Army Man is about weirdness, about strangeness, about idiosyncrasies, but it’s also about the importance of embracing those qualities. Kwan and Scheinert give us a perspective on these two main characters that allow us to understand their vulnerabilities in the most raw sense. Amidst gorgeous and eccentric production and costume design, we still feel a sense of what drives these people to want to live. In that, Swiss Army Man is profoundly sincere and strangely, hauntingly beautiful in the most awkward of ways.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler

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Rarely does a film, let alone a directorial debut, master tone, atmosphere and tension as thoroughly as Dan Gilroy did with Nightcrawler. And rarely does a film blend social commentary — in this case, of the quite literal horrors of video news — and character study so fluidly and so affectingly like Nightcrawler does. In this thriller, Gilroy crafts his setting, Los Angeles, as another character itself, as essential and vital to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom as video news is. The energy within each scene is stunningly pulsating, injected with vigor and vital to the film’s ideas about sacrifice, hard work and persistence. Nightcrawler will make viewers feel uncomfortable and creeped out. It’s an insidious film, and Gyllenhaal’s performance will go down as one of the best of the 21st century. But there’s something so satisfying about its polish, about its razor sharp edge. Like Lou Bloom, our eyes bulge at the progression of events, and like the best films about anti-heroes, we understand what we should come away from it with, while also basking in that insidious deliciousness that is Bloom’s success. There’s are very few character studies before and since that come close to Nightcrawler‘s unsettling brilliance.

— Kyle Kizu

2. Jordan Peele, Get Out

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Between the creepy one take opening, the visually-driven social commentary of the Sunken Place, stellar acting and an incisive blend of horror and satire, Get Out is easily one of the year’s best directed films, and a guaranteed staple in any critic’s top 10 list. The fact that Get Out is Jordan Peele’s first feature makes the film even more special, heralding a career that is bound to establish Peele as a modern master of genre, a career that is already taking shape. Right after Get Out’s release, Peele was offered the reigns to a big budget Akira remake, but he turned it down, preferring to work on original projects like the upcoming thriller Black Klansmen (which he will co-direct and co-produce with Spike Lee) and a Nazi-hunter TV drama called The Hunt, which he will produce. After Get Out, we can’t wait to see either of those projects.

— Harrison Tunggal

1. Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

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With Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler portrays the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who is determined to be the man his girlfriend and daughter need him to be, but is tragically killed by BART police. Coogler’s directorial debut is a story driven by the humanity of its subject, a film that elicits the utmost empathy from the viewer, as only the greatest films can. With Fruitvale Station, Coogler demonstrates a profound, comprehensive understanding of character, something he would continue to explore with Creed, which took the Rocky franchise to new heights and even earned Sylvester Stallone a Best Supporting Actor nomination. As the release of his next film, Black Panther, approaches, we can’t help but be excited for Coogler’s inevitably compelling portrait of the titular king of Wakanda.

— Harrison Tunggal

 

Featured image via Open Road Films.