A while back I created a list on letterboxd of my favourite directorial debuts. The only requirement I had, is that the movie had to be the director’s first feature-length movie and over time, as I’ve been compiling the list together, I realised how many movies there were that really grasped my attention.
I have chosen five of them to recommend to you, however, there are also three honourary mentions as an added bonus. There will be a little plot description as well as my spoiler-free opinion with each movie. All of these stood out to me in some way, shape, or form so I hope they do for you as well. If you have any favourite (feature-length) directorial debuts then please feel free to send those recommendations my way.
So, without further ado, let’s get onto the list!
Hard Candy (2005)
Probably my favourite movie on this list which is exactly why I had to start off with it. Hard Candy follows teenager Hayley (Ellen Page) and thirty-something-year-old Jeff (Patrick Wilson) who decide to meet up after talking online. As their encounter leads back to his place things aren’t so straight forward as Hayley has other intentions.
There is just so much to love about this movie. It’s visually striking, the only sounds are ambient or music that the characters are listening to (i.e. there’s no soundtrack music of any kind), the movie mainly has 2 characters (although there are 7 if you include those who have any kind of screen time and/or lines), and it incredibly captivating. That being said, the premise is simple and I’ve deliberately been as vague as I can in the plot description above because it’s honestly better going in not really knowing much. However, while it may be simple, the movie does grab your attention and keeps it for the entire duration.
The bottom line: although Hard Candy is incredibly simple in every way you can imagine, it all comes together to create something that feels unique and is an absolute pleasure to watch.
While I did enjoy this movie and would absolutely recommend it to everyone, it’s not necessarily a big favourite of mine. Don’t get me wrong, I love it but the reason it’s on this list is because it completely blew me away. Nightcrawler follows Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who forces his way into LA crime journalism where he begins to blur the line between observer and participant.
It sucks you in right from the beginning and holds your attention the entire time. The fact that this is Dan Gilroy’s feature film directorial debut honestly blows my mind. I think the thing that really helps the direction of Nightcrawler is the fact that Gilroy wrote it as well. It’s disturbing and horrifying in a “I can’t believe this is happening” kind of way and it’s absolutely wonderful. It really is worth the watch and a beautiful piece of cinema.
The bottom line: Nightcrawler gets into your head and makes it impossible to stop thinking about it afterwards. Not only is it a fantastic directorial debut but it’s also an amazing performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.
EIGHTH GRADE (2018)
Eighth Grade follows 13 year old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she makes her way through her final week of middle school. I actually wrote a spoiler free review for this movie so I won’t spend too long going over it but the short of it is, this one blew me away.
I’d heard some pretty great things about it but it went way beyond my expectations. Similarly to Nightcrawler, I think it worked that Bo Burnham not only directed Eighth Grade but wrote it as well. There’s something so honest and open and raw about this movie. Throughout there is a lot of secondhand embarrassment but it works for the plot and actually helps to make the movie even better. All of the different aspects of Eighth Grade are wonderfully done and they all blend perfectly.
The bottom line: Although I did only gave it four stars out of five, there really is very little to find wrong with it. Eighth Grade practically kicks your door and forces its way into your life in the best ways.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016)
At this point, we have a theme because the Edge of Seventeen is yet another movie that is written and directed by the same person (in this case: Kelly Fremon Craig). This movie follows high-schooler Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) whose life slowly become unbearable after she discovers her best friend has started to date her older brother and I’ll tell you now, I fell completely in love the first time I saw it.
Really, the plot sounds kind of cliche, right? Maybe a little generic? I would actually agree with you because I thought the exact same thing. Both of those things are true about the Edge of Seventeen, however, it still feels incredibly refreshing to watch and it’s also a ton of fun. Every single part of this movie is incredibly enjoyable. It is oddly hilarious while being ever so slightly cynical. Similarly to Eighth Grade, there’s something so relatable about it albeit it this particular movie isn’t quite as raw. Still, it has an impact nonetheless.
The bottom line: It could have easily become one of those generic high school movies that you forget about in some ways. While it does have some of those generic features, there’s also something surprisingly unique and satisfying about it.
Similarly to what I said about Nightcrawler, I wouldn’t necessarily consider Hereditary an absolute favourite of mine, however, I did thoroughly enjoy watching it and it is honestly a fantastic piece of filmmaking.
Hereditary follows Annie (Toni Collette) whose family begins to unravel after her mother dies and the truth about their heritage is slowly revealed. Although, I will say that that little plot description doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. I remember seeing the trailers before this came out and so it was shocking to me that none of them spoiled this movie. There are so many fantastic elements to Hereditary and it’s also able to surprise you. Of course, that only really works for the first viewing but there’s still so much going on that it’s definitely not a one-time thing. So much of this movie stuck with me afterwards that I went on a deep dive into youtube as well as various blogs to read other people’s opinions of it because I simply couldn’t switch my brain to something.
The bottom line: I’m not going to pretend I completely understand what this movie is and to be honest, I’m not sure I want to try. That’s because it still manages to be oddly satisfying and there’s clearly so much that’s gone into it that every frame feels deliberate. It is also, once again, another movie on this list that is written and directed by the same person (Ari Aster).
Some honourary mentions:
I wanted to include some special mentions. There are so many movies (some I haven’t even been able to talk about at all in this post) that I’m completely in awe with and that only intensifies when I realise it’s a directorial debut. There’s so much talent out there so as I said before, please feel free to recommend to me some of your favourites!
- 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) — The fact that 90-95% of this movie takes place in one single location works surprisingly well. It still manages to be completely captivating and still keeps a thrilling atmosphere without the limited space diluting it and it’s honestly just an incredible movie all round.
- Get Out (2017) — Another example of a movie written and directed by one person, in this case, Jordan Peele. Honestly, this is such a refreshing horror movie that never once felt like it was trying to force a scream from you or scare you as much as it could (just for the sake of doing so). It is horrifying but Get Out does it in some subtle ways that stick with you far longer than any jump scare could.
- Moon (2009) — This was a surprise find for me and I’ve actually written a spoiler free review on it. It only runs for around 97 minutes and not a second of that time is wasted. That length of time also works really well with the fact that it has such a minimalistic cast.
And there we are, five movies (with some bonus ones)! All of these are incredible movies and absolutely worth your time if you haven’t gotten around to them already.
[Note: The header image on this post is from the Edge of Seventeen.]