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32 Directors Who Made A Really Good Movie On Their First Try

Some filmmakers require time to find their voice. They have to make a few simply “ok” features before having the skills required to make their masterpiece. But that’s not the case with the directors featured on this list. These folks quickly figured out what they could do with a camera, and they produced magic with their first feature.

It’s a terribly hard thing to do, but here are 32 directors who made great films on their very first try.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

(Image credit: RKO Radio Pictures)

Orson Welles – Citizen Kane

A lot of incredible films are highlighted on this list, but Citizen Kane is special given that in addition to being Orson Welles’ first feature, it’s considered by many to be the greatest movie all time. The hunt for the meaning behind a publishing titan’s last word is endlessly compelling and a fascinating examination of the soul corruption that comes with a rise to power.

Screenshot from Reservoir Dogs trailer.

(Image credit: Miramax)

Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs

Before making modern and instant classics like Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the legend of Quentin Tarantino began with the phenomenal Reservoir Dogs. The sharp dialogue, the non-linear storytelling, the tense violence and the needle-drop centric soundtrack all instantly confirmed that Tarantino was a talent to watch.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out

(Image credit: Universal)

Jordan Peele – Get Out

It came as a shock when comedian Jordan Peele announced that he was shifting to a new phase of his career, as he wanted to pursue his true passion: directing horror movies. It was hard to know what to make of the decision at the time, but Peele has since established himself as one of the industry’s greatest genre filmmakers, and it all started with the stunning Get Out. It’s scary, layered, and the big third act twist never loses its impact.

John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich.

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Spike Jonze – Being John Malkovich

Spike Jonze wasn’t exactly inexperienced when he took the helm of Being John Malkovich as his first feature, as he had established himself as a genius talent in the world of music videos, but that doesn’t take anything away from his accomplishments. It’s a wild, strange, and perfect execution of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s genius and cerebral script, and both the design and cinematography make it unforgettable.

Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men

(Image credit: United Artists)

Sidney Lumet – 12 Angry Men

It requires incredible skill to direct a film that almost entirely takes place in a single room and juggles 12 different characters with different perspectives… but there’s a reason why Sidney Lumet is considered one of history’s greatest filmmakers. The basic description of 12 Angry Men doesn’t sound particularly cinematic, but it grips you from the start, and keeps you fascinated throughout – particularly thanks to one of Henry Fonda’s greatest performances.

M. Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple

(Image credit: Circle Films)

Joel & Ethan Coen – Blood Simple

Joel and Ethan Coen are masters of crime fiction, and they proved that instantly in the start of their careers as feature filmmakers. Blood Simple is a tense neo-noir that comes with all of the trimmings of the genre – from the chiaroscuro lighting to a brilliant femme fatale turn from Frances McDormand – and M. Emmett Walsh is a force as the relentless Loren Visser.

Rob Reiner in This is Spinal Tap

(Image credit: Embassy Pictures)

Rob Reiner – This Is Spinal Tap

Few filmmakers have had runs like what Rob Reiner accomplished in the 1980s/1990s, sequentially making Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men, but his genius as a director was first established with 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap: a hilarious rock n’ roll mockumentary widely considered to be one of the greatest comedies of all time.

Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams in The Evil Dead

(Image credit: Renaissance Pictures)

Sam Raimi – The Evil Dead

In the late 1970s/early 1980s, Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell were college students determined to make their first ever feature, and traveled from Michigan to a dilapidated cabin in Tennessee to make The Evil Dead. The production of the film was an absolute nightmare, but the juice was very much worth the squeeze, as the movie exists as a testament to brilliant imagination, and it is an important classic in the history of the horror genre.

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Frank Darabont – The Shawshank Redemption

After writing a brilliant adaptation of Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption,” Frank Darabont actually took a major pay cut so that Castle Rock Entertainment would allow him to make The Shawshank Redemption his directorial debut. This turned out to be a legendary move that has cemented Darabont in cinematic history, as the movie is one of the most beloved of all time and an antidote to cynicism.

Laurence Fishburne as Furious Styles in Boyz N the Hood screenshot

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

John Singleton – Boyz n The Hood

With his directorial debut, John Singleton captured the perspective of an underrepresented audience on the big screen – crafting a Stand By Me-esque coming-of-age story about life in south central Los Angeles. In one of his earliest roles, Cuba Gooding Jr. demonstrates incredible talent alongside Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut, but it’s Laurence Fishburne’s Furious Styles for which the film will always be remembered.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

(Image credit: Focus Features)

Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman

Emerald Fennell made quite an impression in 2020 with the debut of Promising Young Woman – a primal scream of a movie that captures the horrors that women experience in our modern world and comes together as a darkly comedic revenge thriller. Carey Mulligan’s performance is wicked, and it sports a finale that leaves the audience breathless and mind-blown.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

(Image credit: Open Road Films)

Dan Gilroy – Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal is unquestionably one of the greatest actors of his generation, and Nightcrawler sees him let off the leash to showcase his phenomenal cinematic presence. Dan Gilroy was an experienced screenwriter prior to making his directorial debut, and one can understand why he wanted to make this movie himself: it’s a vicious, Taxi Driver-esque look at crime scene videography and a stunning and cutting commentary on “if it bleeds, it leads” culture in local journalism.

Zombies from Night of the Living Dead

(Image credit: Janus Films)

George A. Romero – Night Of The Living Dead

There aren’t exactly a lot of filmmakers who successfully launched an entire new subgenre with their first feature, but that’s exactly what George A. Romero did with Night Of The Living Dead. The zombie film was a shocking standout upon its original release – featuring a Black actor as its lead and a series of nightmarish scenes of horror – and its genius is no less apparent today.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick

(Image credit: Focus Features)

Rian Johnson – Brick

Long before wowing us with his ensemble-driven Benoit Blanc mysteries Knives Out and Glass Onion, Rian Johnson stunned cinephiles as a first-time director with Brick. It’s a stylized neo-noir that stands out with its high school backdrop and young characters, and it dazzles with unyielding tension, unique dialogue, and a terrific third act reveal.

Tom Everett Scott smiles while adjusting his sunglasses in That Thing You Do.

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Tom Hanks – That Thing You Do!

Admit it: even just seeing the title of That Thing You Do! has immediately gotten the eponymous song stuck in your head. But on top of that track being two minutes and 50 seconds of peppy greatness, the film is a fantastic tale about a one hit wonder that pops thanks to Tom Hanks’ excellent direction and a delightful ensemble cast.

Jack Nance in Eraserhead

(Image credit: Libra Films)

David Lynch – Eraserhead

It didn’t take long for David Lynch to tell cinephiles what he is all about. The auteur filmmaker established his nightmarish, cerebral sensibilities from the get-go with Eraserhead – which is a confident work from the first time director and paved the road for further masterpieces like Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks.

Sean Penn, Ava Lazar, and Lori Sutton in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Amy Heckerling – Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Amy Heckerling would easily be in the Coming-Of-Age Movie Hall Of Fame if Clueless were the only film on her filmography, but it was 13 years earlier that she made one of the genre’s all-time greatest titles as her directorial debut: Fast Times At Ridgemont High. There is so much to love about this film, from the radical Jeff Spicoli, to the drama of the relationship between Stacy and Mark, to the sounds of The Cars’ “Living In Stereo.”

Brie Larson and Lakeith Stanfield in Short Term 12

(Image credit: Cinedigm)

Destin Daniel Cretton – Short Term 12

It’s a remarkable thing when a film, a series of images mixed with sound rapidly displayed to show movement, can touch your soul, but that’s something that Destin Daniel Cretton’s powerful directorial debut does – centering on the staff of a residential treatment facility. In retrospect, the ensemble cast in this one is beyond outstanding (including Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, LaKeith Stanfield, and Stephanie Beatriz), and their talents are on full display.

Charlize Theron in Monster

(Image credit: Newmarket Films)

Patty Jenkins – Monster

Patty Jenkins’ directorial debut, Monster, is far from a fun cinematic experience, and one actually feels compelled to take a shower after watching it, but it’s a riveting work. Charlize Theron delivers what is arguably the best performance of her career and earned her Academy Award.

Robert Pattinson in Good Time

(Image credit: A24)

Josh & Benny Safdie – Good Time

Cinephiles were thrilled to discover the cinematic heart attack that is Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems in 2019, but anyone who watched the brothers’ directorial debut was at the very least mentally prepared for the experience. Starring Robert Pattinson, Good Time is a deeply stressful crime film that comes packed with touches of Of Mice And Men, and it leaves a deep impression on whoever watches it.

Sean Gullette in Pi

(Image credit: Protozoa Pictures)

Darren Aronofsky – Pi

Darren Aronofsky has a gift for making movies that makes you want to curl up in a ball and cry (see: Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, mother!), and it’s a mode he hasn’t diverted from since making his feature debut with Pi. It’s a stylistic story of obsession and has one of the most upsetting endings of all time.

The Maltese Falcon cast

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

John Huston – The Maltese Falcon

There are some films that are held up as the true classics of classic film noir, and right alongside Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Bill Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Carol Reed’s The Third Man is John Huston’s phenomenal The Maltese Falcon. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is an icon of detective fiction, and the twists and turns of the mystery feel as fresh today as ever.

Toni Collette in Hereditary

(Image credit: A24)

Ari Aster – Hereditary

Ari Aster has quickly become one of the most exciting modern filmmakers making original horror, and that’s in part because audiences are still experiencing nightmares from his directorial debut. A look at both generational trauma and grief, Hereditary is a movie so scary that it would make you feel cold if you were in the middle of the desert, and has more than a few images that end up tattooed on the back of your eyelids as you try to go to sleep at night.

James Caan in Thief

(Image credit: United Artists)

Michael Mann – Thief

Nobody makes crime movies like Michael Mann, and it all started with Thief. It’s a thrilling and captivating look at a talented Chicago criminal who is looking for his way into legitimacy and finds himself fighting forces that try and drag him back into his shady business. The movie features one of James Caan’s best performances, and the talented ensemble includes Jim Belishi, Dennis Farina and Willie Nelson.

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows

(Image credit: Cocinor)

Francois Truffaut – The 400 Blows

Valued as an important part of cinema history and the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is a powerful coming-of-age story starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, a troubled youth who ends up quitting school and turning to thievery, only to be apprehended and thrown in a juvenile detention center. Truffaut is recognized for having created some of the most beautiful films to ever be produced in France, and it all started here.

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless

(Image credit: Société nouvelle de cinématographie)

Jean Luc Goddard – Breathless

Another evocative title that emerged from the French New Wave, Jean Luc Goddard’s Breathless is a visually stunning work of crime and love, with tremendous cinematic innovation, attitude that bleeds off the screen, and an outstanding performance from star Jean-Paul Belmondo in his breakout role.

Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins in Medicine For Melancholy

(Image credit: IFC Films)

Barry Jenkins – Medicine For Melancholy

Barry Jenkins first earned widespread acclaim in 2016 for his film Moonlight (which deservingly won Best Picture at the Academy Awards), but not to be slept on is the debut feature he made eight years earlier: Medicine For Melancholy. Starring Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins and set over the course of a single day, it’s a beautiful and emotional romantic drama.

James Spader and Andie MacDowell in Sex, Lies And Videotape

(Image credit: Miramax Films)

Steven Soderbergh – Sex, Lies, And Videotape

Steven Soderbergh is now recognized as one of the most talented, eclectic filmmakers in cinema, but it all started with Sex, Lies And Videotape – a fascinating romantic drama with brilliant meta levels examining intimacy via camera.

Mel Gibson in Mad Max

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

George Miller – Mad Max

Many genre classics have been covered in this list, and now it’s time to dive into one of the greatest action/adventure films of all time. With Mad Max, George Miller takes us to an unnerving not-to-distant future full of violence and chaos, and his unique skills as a filmmaker capturing all that wildness all in camera is what makes this a forever-thrilling experience.

J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

(Image credit: Sony Pictures)

Damien Chazelle – Whiplash

One can read and learn that there is intense competition in performance arts schools, but it’s another thing to live it – and that’s what audiences get to do in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Miles Teller is brilliant as the determined and talented Andrew Neiman, but it’s the Oscar-winning work of J.K. Simmons that makes this outstanding directorial debut exceptional.

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers

(Image credit: Embassy Pictures)

Mel Brooks – The Producers

Every legendary cinematic run has to start somewhere, and for Mel Brooks, it was with the brilliance of The Producers. Long before he was shocking with the world with Blazing Saddles and History Of The World Part I, the brilliant comedian unleashed his tale of a Broadway scheme and the insanity of “Springtime For Hitler.”

Robert Hays in Airplane!

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Jim Abrahams, David Zucker And Jerry Zucker – Airplane!

In the 1980s/1990s, nobody made spoof movies like Jim Abrahams, David Zucker And Jerry Zucker, and they quickly established their special comedic voice with their directorial debut: Airplane! The insane pacing of the jokes and the sheer ridiculousness of everything make this a movie that threatens to choke you with laughter, and there are so, so many quotable lines – many thanks to the deadpan brilliance of Leslie Nielsen.

This list obviously has the potential to grow forever, and it’ll be exciting to see who the next big breakout movie directors are. 

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