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The 50 Best First Films Ever Made

the virgin suicides

People sure do love a natural. The idea that some unknown visionary filmmaker has emerged from the ether with a fully formed artistic voice is as reliably satisfying a narrative as any that can actually be found in the movies, themselves. First films are always judged just a little bit differently. The skepticism they naturally invite is balanced by a collective eagerness to crown the next big thing – this holds especially true in the Sundance era, and it’s tempting (if not especially productive) to wonder if something like Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” may have been received differently had it not been his first feature.

As the summer movie season continues to bulldoze us with massive franchise movies, almost all of which are entrusted only to reasonably proven and experienced directors, we thought it might be fun to think of our favorite first feature films, the movies which provided lasting proof that – in a world of reboots and sequels and reboots of sequels – the cinema is never more exciting than when it introduces you to the sound of a brand new voice. With that in mind, here’s our list of the 50 Best First Films Ever Made.*

*Only feature-length films were considered, though the #49 slot is a bit of a cheat and #13 is a blatant cheat.

50. “All Is Forgiven” (Mia Hansen-Løve)

Mia Hansen-Løve’s first film still hasn’t seen proper American distribution, which is a real shame. Like her next film “The Father Of My Children,” a young girl’s maturation is given as much (and eventually more) importance than the father with whom the narrative starts; like her third film “Goodbye First Love,” it covers an extended period of time (20 years in this case) with laconic swiftness and contempt for rote connective tissue. Father Paul Blain is a heroin addict, and one of the movie’s minor miracles is that it doesn’t even try to show the moment when he realizes he has to kick or the rehab process; it just elides a decade. Some things are too predictable (or perhaps impossible) to convincingly depict, but every carefully chosen moment rings true here. – Vadim Rizov

49. “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” (Don Hertzfeldt)

Calling “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” Hertzfeldt’s debut is a bit unfair — the independent animator has been producing shorts for over a decade — but it’s a technical truth worth highlighting. In Hollywood pitch terms, the film is like a hyrbid of “Tree of Life,” “Beetlejuice,” and MTV’s “Liquid Animation”… which explains why Hertzfeldt has never gone the studio route. His stick figure animation is minimalist while his thematic conquests are grand, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” stitching together three shorts starring Bill, a regular joe tormented by an unknown mental disorder. He pictures neighbors with cow heads, suffers anxiety from a manatee calendar, and loses himself to the low drone of a leaf blower. Through voiceover and an array of visual techniques that blend hand-drawn animation with picturesque photography, Hertzfeldt’s feature rapidly bounces from the hilarious to nightmarish. With “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” he solidifies himself as visionary who only needs paper and pencil to speak the world. – Matt Patches

48. “The Mother and the Whore” (Jean Eustache)

Jean Eustache’s first feature is traditionally given some variant of the label “the last film of the French New Wave,” with François Truffaut’s alter-ego Jean-Pierre Léaud spending three and a half hours talking relentlessly, proving he’s an egotistical young man who thinks his charm and ability to quote books justifies all manner of terrible behavior with respect to the opposite sex. The movie gives the women agency and speaking time to balance out his callow perspective, and — despite its length and reputation as a difficult sit — is surprisingly possible to mistake for a black comedy about interpersonal relations at their most poorly conducted. – VR

47. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (Peter R. Hunt)

“Bullitt” and “The French Connection” get credit for helping invent the modern car chase (already an antiquarian art), but this James Bond entry is an oft-overlooked contribution to the development of the action film as practiced through the ’80s and ’90s. A fan favorite, this sole George Lazenby installment makes the moves of a typical Bond movie in its first half — a harem’s worth of women, blithe sexism, a hearty embrace of national stereotypes, a gloweringly obvious villain (Telly Savalas!) — but the second half is a breathless rush, a nearly uninterrupted string of setpieces whose relentlessness and speed set a new pace not just for the franchise but for action films in general. Editor Peter R. Hunt would make another five features, but nothing of note; for this alone, his name deserves to be better remembered. – VR

46. Metropolitan (Whit Stillman)

Criticisms of “Metropolitan” most commonly fall into one of two camps – there are those who consider it to be a scathing critique of the bourgeois lifestyle, and those who find the film to be nostalgic for that same rarefied class. Bridging the gap between these two perspectives (which should not be mutually exclusive), is an appreciation for Stillman’s dialogue. The movie’s playful banter and razor-sharp wit are defining characteristics that separate the writer/director’s work from others trying to comment on youthful intelligencia. There have never been characters quite like Stillman’s ensemble in “Metropolitan,” young and old all at once, eager to rip apart philosophical thinking and – if they’re lucky – get laid in the process. What’s most impressive is that the layers of these big talkers are pulled back over the course of the movie with masterful delicacy. Not easy for a first-time filmmaker who also understands the appeal of the upper crust. – MP

45. “Donnie Darko” (Richard Kelly)

After Richard Kelly’s movie debuted at Sundance, his producers insisted he cut it down to a straight two hours to increase its sellability. That’s usually a bad move, but in “Donnie Darko”‘s case it had the wonderful effect of removing a bunch of slideshow-caliber discussion of the mechanics of time travel and turning this into a mysterious mood piece about a teenager trying to figure out what to do about a man in a gigantic bunny suit telling him the world is about to end. If you didn’t know anything about wormholes or other quantum physics phenomena when the movie came out, the results were beautifully confounding and possibly totally oblique at first. Every subsequent Kelly movie (“Southland Tales” and the stupefying, must-see-once “The Box”) has also featured wormholes, an odd and increasingly self-parodic tic, but “Darko” remains wildly impressive, a teen martyr saga that’s moving rather than self-pitying. – VR

44. “The Maltese Falcon” (John Huston)

One of the most archetypal film noirs, “The Maltese Falcon”‘s cast united, for the first time, players important to the genre: Humphrey Bogart (who, by later starring in “The Big Sleep,” would appear in movies based on two of the genre’s key source authors, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), sinister fat man Sydney Greenstreet, unnerving Peter Lorre, the ever-panicked and bug-eyed Elisha Cook Jr. The plot is typically convoluted while the dialogue is consistently witty, with a tone closer to crisp comedy than moody mystery. – VR

43. “Ivan’s Childhood” (Andrei Tarkovsky)

Certainly among the most formally assured debuts in film history, Tarkovsky’s first feature is perhaps less interested in sculpting time and space than his later masterworks, but the haunting monochrome story of a 12-year-old boy caught in the crossfire of an absurd war that claims his family and stokes his anger hints at the ways in which the Russian auteur would remold the cinema. While the film betrays the fact that Tarkovsky was only scratching at the surface of his vision, “Ivan’s Childhood” boasts several of the most indelible filmic images of the 20th century, including an unforgettable kiss in a most unexpected place. – David Ehrlich

42. “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage” (Dario Argento)

Beautifully shot by the legendary Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Conformist”) at the outset of his career, Dario Argento’s first feature has the bloodily gorgeous imagery, shoddy plotting and indifference to pacing characteristic of his subsequent body of work. Tourist Tony Musante witnesses a murder and wanders around Rome trying not to get killed before the killer’s found, an excuse for a number of setpieces and goofy comedic interludes (cat lovers beware). It’s really all about the visuals, from the sight of a dying woman pawing silently and ineffectually at a glass wall separating her from Musante to dense tracking shots through a zoo overstuffed with cages and animals. – VR

41. Repo Man (Alex Cox)

Call it “Kiss Me Deadly” for the post-punk set, or an apocalyptic sci-fi road movie if that description sounds any more sensible. “Repo Man” is composed from and indebted to America’s cultural detritus, a genesis it boasts of proudly: it’s a film cobbled together from drug trips, street racing, alien invaders, televangelists, and (of course) one Harry Dean Stanton, who somehow comes off both sleazier and cool than Emilio Estevez. – CM

40. “In the Loop” (Armando Iannucci)

Good political satire is hard to come by. Even Oliver Stone, the U.S.’ bloodthirstiest mainstream filmmaker, took a shotgun approach to ripping George Bush a new one in 2008′s “W.” So leave it to the Brits to set the bar high with a ferocious, uproarious look behind the curtain of two major world powers. Piggybacking off his BBC TV show “The Thick of It,” director Armando Iannucci paints a drab picture of the British and United States governments, organizations who live and die by media coverage and run by underlings looking to climb the ladder. What Iannucci lacks in aesthetic innovation — it’s basically the loose style seized by modern sitcoms — he makes up for with a poetically profane script and complete faith in his troupe of actors. Many debut films mark the early stages of a developing voice, but in “In the Loop,” Iannucci makes a case for why a great director can also be a ringleader. – MP

39. “The 40 Year Old Virgin” (Judd Apatow) 

For his first film, Judd Apatow set the bar low, offering lots of low-stakes situations for a stacked cast of expert comics to riff their way through. It’s the closest thing the aughts have to a standard ’80s TV mainstay like “Stripes,” a comedy whose sole purpose is to assemble as many laughs in one place as possible, with minimal regard for structure or visual charm. What “Virgin”‘s got is jokes to spare, along with an index of often unreasonable American male fears; few comedies of the last decade have been as start-to-finish consistent. – VR

38. “Le Beau Serge” (Claude Chabrol)

Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge is widely considered to be the first film of the French New Wave, and while that’s a perfectly legitimate claim so far as I can tell, it does tend to overshadow the extent to which the film succeeds beyond the touch-points of that narrow rhetoric. The story of Francois (Jean-Claude Bialy), a young man who returns to his frigid backwater village (and to Serge, his childhood best) after an extended maturation in the big city, Le Beau Serge (“Handsome Serge”) is atmospheric and unabashedly emotional in a way that most films of the Nouvelle Vague were too compelled by destruction to achieve. Ultimately, and despite a crafty tour de force of a final sequence that seems to throw everything on its ear, Chabrol presents moral characteristics as being too fluid and transferable to allow for Francois to become the Christ figure to which he aspires, or Serge to completely submit himself to the life of an abusive lout. Apathy can be fun, the film seems to argue, but it can never be complete. – DE

37.) “Koyaanisqatsi” (Godfrey Reggio)

After collaborating on a (visually inspired) ACLU campaign in the late 70s, Godfrey Reggio and mild-mannered cinematographer Ron Fricke embarked on the 7-year process that would ultimately lead to the release of Koyaanisqatsi (as presented by its biggest fan, Francis Ford Coppola). Reggio, a strong-willed giant of a man, had come of age living with an acetic group of Catholic monks known as the Christian Brothers, only to leave the order as an adult after working with Chicago street gangs for 8 years, and discovering that he could no longer maintain the idealistic worldview of the religious community. Upon his self-exile from the order, Reggio was immediately attracted to film because he felt that the medium was uniquely capable of holding a mirror up to the world at large. Ultimately, the Qatsi films reflect their maker as much as they do his audience, articulating a world that’s unbalanced and self-conflicted, past the point of no return but eminently prepared to be reborn.

Godfrey Reggio describes the Qatsi films as “Unmediated visualizations,” symphonic and extreme portraits of our world in which the cinema is enabled to observe the infinitude of life on this planet. Sounds like a party, I’m sure. For those of you unacquainted with these films, what that amounts to is a wordless succession of images (often shot from perspectives and speeds that would be impossible for the human eye to see for itself without the aid of technology) that coalesce into an abstract meditation of life in motion. Koyaanisqatsi cuts between astounding aerial shots of geological wonders and footage of an electrical outage in Harlem — time-lapse footage of Grand Central Station at rush hour, and the inner workings of a computer chip. It’s life seen from a god’s-eye view, broadening our perspective with angles from which we could otherwise never see the world, or ramping the flow of human traffic to such incredible speeds that rhythms and patterns emerge where before there was only chaos. – DE

36. “The Virgin Suicides” (Sofia Coppola)

Coppola’s first feature, a remarkably assured adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s breakthrough novel, serves as an enigmatic primer for her auteurist tropes and tricks. A moody and mysterious suburban tragedy that uses the suicides of five blonde sisters as a means of exploring the fundamental unknowability of other people. High on 70s swagger and set to Air’s impossibly perfect score (more on the infinite pleasures of “Playground Love” later this week), “The Virgin Suicides” anticipated Coppola’s fascination with celebrity culture by exploring it on a local level, using a high school setting to reconcile the twin forces of myth and maturation. – DE

35. “The Blair Witch Project” (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez)

29 years after “Cannibal Holocaust” lifted the documentary aesthetic for its low-budget gorefest, “The Blair Witch Project” arrived with a subdued variation that paved the way for horror’s dominating “found footage” movement. The micro-budgeted phenomenon isn’t too far from existential road movies like “Two-Lane Blacktop” or “Gerry,” with most of the action being filled by a trio of actors slowly losing themselves to the environment around them. Horror genre tropes are left to the imagination, dread seeping on screen through the digital grain of the crappy camcorder. Even when the “witch” strikes towards the film’s conclusion, the film never sacrifices its less-is-more mentality. Myrick and Sánchez force the audience to participate. As something lurks in the darkness, the viewer becomes a potential victim. – MP

34. “Primer” (Shane Carruth)

On one level, “Primer” definitely “works”: there’s a timeline you can consult to help you untangle this insanely dense time travel saga, and it’s comforting to know Shane Carruth cared enough to work all this out. On another level, it really doesn’t matter at all: “Primer” casts a spell even if you don’t understand what’s going on, gazing intensely at a tiny group of engineers talking their way through a metaphysical dilemma with immediate on-the-ground consequences. Famously shot for $7,000, it’s an impressive technical achievement, but to say that is to diminish Carruth’s achievement to the Robert Rodriguez trick of making a movie for very little money regardless of its value. “Primer” would be impressive regardless of its budget for conveying the feeling of deep immersion in scientific thought and panic at dealing with unforeseen complications; it’s hypnotic even if you don’t know what’s going on. – VR

33. “Kicking And Screaming” (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach’s first film was an anomaly for its sheer good-naturedness until his recent “Frances Ha”; what’s come in-between involves a lot of bile exchanged between the unhappily egotistical and insecure. “Kicking And Screaming” is instead a delightful slice of post-grad malaise, stuffed with tossed-off dialogue and incidents that seem too specific in their oddity to be made up. As a ’90s time capsule, it’s a reminder of our not-so-distant past, when sitting around a bar table and trying to name all the “Nightmare On Elm Street” installment titles was as acceptable a way to kill time as any other. – VR

32. “George Washington” (David Gordon Green)

Every person who dreams of director David Gordon Green abandoning his newfound passion for comedy has the free-flowing images of his debut feature “George Washington” haunting their memories. Which is fair, as the film’s glowing palette and fly-on-the-wall feel organically extended from the perspective of its central cast, a group of kids growing up in rural North Carolina. Green’s film arguably impacted filmmakers for years to come, hoping to capture a shade of DP Tim Orr wistful cinematography — seriously, every Sundance to this day has a “George Washington” hopeful — but respect must be paid to his ability to cultivate performances by the young cast. He doesn’t rely on beautifully lit cutaways. When the moment is right, Green trustfully goes in for a close-up on his non-actors and lets the off-the-cuff script do the talking. – MP

31. “Hausu” (Nobuhiko Obayashi) 

It’s safe to say that if this were a list of the 50 Most Batsh*t Crazy Films Ever Made, “Hausu” would walk away victorious in a walk, but don’t let this prospective honor fool you: there’s more to “Hausu” than floating heads and giant orange cat monsters. (There’s also a murderous piano.) What’s truly remarkable about “Hausu” is that, for all its notoriety as a total headtrip, it somehow never fails to blow away even those most prepared to see anything and everything—it’s so strange, in other words, that even the most inured to cinematic madness don’t really know what’s coming. – CM

30. “Shaun Of The Dead” (Edgar Wright)

Edgar Wright’s feature debut upped the ante on his reputation-making cult 1999 series “Spaced” by adding suspenseful/exciting zombie spectacle to an already fully-developed droll sense of humor steeped in a wide-ranging frame of genre reference. This is a movie that’s culturally specific in ways both micro (e.g. a gag about not wanting to sacrifice the Stone Roses’ sophomore LP “Second Coming” as a weapon against brain-eaters wouldn’t translate to most American viewers) and macro (the movie heavily parallels shiftless British “lad culture” and mindless zombies). But it’s also a successful horror-comedy (a successful example of an often mishandled hybrid genre) that demonstrates Wright’s proficiency at action sequences, a genre hybrid whose sheer smoothness he hasn’t topped yet. – VR

(note: technically, “A Fistful of Fingers” is Edgar Wright’s first feature, but we’re gonna let that slide).

29. “Airplane!” (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Larry Zucker)

Here’s how you know today’s spoofs are missing something: 1980′s “Airplane!” is a movie saturated with jokes ribbing a particular style of film. But the genius comes from layering; Abrahams and the Zucker Bros. start with a foundation built on 1957′s “Zero Hour!,” then bombard it with wordplay, sight gags, and non sequitur nods to silly moments in movie history. Surely no one was making comedies as relentless as “Airplane!” The film moves like a comedian’s final show. After working the material and timing to death, a stand-up invests every last drop of energy to bring on a whirlwind of laughs. “Airplane!” is jokes on top of jokes, and like “Arrested Development’s” recent experimentation, it’s entertainment designed to be watched and rewatched. – MP

28. “The Iron Giant” (Brad Bird)

Brad Bird became a household name after the one-two punch of Pixar’s “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” but with “Simpsons” experience in his pocket, Bird first set off to craft the little-seen and now-revered “Iron Giant.” Without franchise potential or a talking animal in the spotlight, Bird crafted the last great 2D animated film, a love letter to ’50s science fiction, the fading beat era, and Spielberg’s Amblin sensibilities. Whereas cartoon buffs salivate over the making of art produced from CGI-driven films, Bird’s “Iron Giant” is entirely composed of those stunning, hand-drawn frames. The verdict is still out of it’s scientifically possible to suppress tears when the Iron Giant takes to the sky and utters, “Suuuuperrrrmaaaan.” – MP

27. “Funny Ha Ha” (Andrew Bujalski)

For the rest of his life, Andrew Bujalski will have to live with being known first and foremost as having started “mumblecore” with this film, whose passive-passive-aggressive verbal evasions from adrift post-collegiate Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) and those around her influenced everything from the more-jock-friendly offerings of the Duplass brothers (“The Puffy Chair,” “Cyrus”) to Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” It’s a film whose every seemingly aimless or improvised conversation has been carefully scripted, creating a new form of generationally specific screen realism. Funny and painful in equal measure, it’s far from self-congratulatory insularity, instead offering up a delicate social comedy of manners that’s self-aware even when its characters aren’t.  - VR

26. “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (Alain Resnais)

Alain Resnais, it’s probably worth mentioning, just turned 91 years old. He’s delivered on of his most interesting films to date this year—the audacious, meta-theatrical “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!”, a late-career coup if ever there were one—but he will perhaps always be remembered, for better or worse, for his stirring, deeply moving debut film, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”, which arrived at the cusp of the French new wave and in some ways represents a breaking point for the cinema of the period. – CM

READ OUR PICKS FOR THE TOP 25 DEBUT FILMS OF ALL TIME ON PAGE 2.


Categories: Lists, Top 50

Tags: Badlands, Being John Malkovich, Best Debut Movies, Best First Features, Best First Films, Breathless, Calum Marsh, Citizen kane, David Ehrlich, List, Matt Patches, Night of the Hunter, The 400 blows, The Virgin Suicides, Top 50, Vadim Rizov