C. Robert Cargill September 16, 2010
Not every brilliant director begins as such. Sometimes their first or early entries give us a taste of their talent, but not the full nature of what is to come. While those films might be good or even great, they are not genre-defining masterpieces that instantly put their name on the lips of every cinephile out there. Nolan has his Following; Aronofsky his Pi; Lucas his THX 1138. Good films, all; but not the films that would come to define them. Far rarer is the director who comes out swinging so hard he creates a masterpiece that is long held as one of the greatest. Here are six that accomplished this feat.
Orson Welles – Citizen Kane
The original. The master. The cautionary tale. One of the greatest fears of any artist is to peak immediately as you begin — and once you’ve made one of the single greatest films of all time, where is there left to go? Many film buffs are incredibly unkind to Welles, often declaring it his one good work, forgetting that his Touch of Evil is also one of the greatest movies ever made. Many of his films were great, but Citizen Kane is … well the phrase “It’s no Citizen Kane,” is on par with the declaration “He’s no Einstein.” It is the gold standard of filmmaking.
Charles Laughton – Night of the Hunter
Night of the Hunter, sadly the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, was a complete failure upon release. Critically panned and a failure at the box office, this film would haunt Laughton until his death seven years later. He would never live to see his film heralded as a classic ahead of its time — and himself to be considered the single most perfect filmmaker in history, having made one, singularly perfect film.
Francois Truffaut – The 400 Blows
Cahiers du Cinema was a French film magazine in the ’50s that was the birthplace of the French New Wave. Five writers all abandoned their posts as critics to put into practice the theories they’d developed together over the years. The first large success of that movement was Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows. This film, about the desperation of a young boy, told an honest, unflinching autobiographical tale of youth in the throes of existential crisis. Yeah, this film is pretty much required viewing for every film studies degree.
Jean-Luc Godard – Breathless
While The 400 Blows is considered the most important of the French New Wave, when you close your eyes and imagine what a French film looks like, you are picturing Breathless — or one of its imitators. Probably the single most influential film of the movement, almost every French filmmaker to follow would in some way be influenced by the look, feel and style of this classic. While modern critics are beginning to revise their opinions on the overall work and worth of Godard, his influence on film’s history is unmistakable.
George A. Romero – Night of the Living Dead
Originally titled Night of the Flesheaters, its original exhibitor asked for a title change, and when Romero and his producing partner quickly shot a new title card they unknowingly left off the copyright, putting one of the most important horror films in history into the public domain forever. Romero would make a career off the success of the film — including five sequels and one remake (in a desperate bid to recapture the copyright) — and while some may argue that his Dawn of the Dead is the superior film, this classic invented the zombie movie. A stunner of a debut that only a few of Romero’s films would come close to matching or exceeding.
Dennis Hopper – Easy Rider
The film that defined a generation and redefined the biker film, it took the violent, oversexed demons of the day and turned them into American heroes that represented the very spirit of this great country. Often held as one of the greatest films ever made, actor-turned-director Hopper would never again make a film of its like, as a director or an actor. But as often as others try to recapture the magic of Easy Rider, no one else has come close to doing it either.
Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs
When this film premiered at Sundance alongside Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, the film world saw its first authentic movement since the advent of the New Wave. This indie film revolution would bring about a host of new masters, all spurned on by freedom from the studio system. These new voices would cull the best elements of other eras and create a thrilling — albeit sometimes pretentious — environment that would last through the decade before most of those voices took high-paying studio jobs in a newly revamped Hollywood. Reservoir Dogs didn’t just change the way movies were made — it also changed the way characters were allowed to speak to one another in a film. Casual, pop culture-riddled speech became the norm and it is rare to find a film these days that doesn’t date itself with some arcane cultural reference or a clever character moment wrapped in a bit of pop.
Neil Blomkamp – District 9
Having your directorial debut nominated for four Oscars, including best picture, is no small feat; doing that with an R-rated genre film about an alien invasion that includes gory explosions and not a single recognizable actor, made on a budget that’s a fraction of most Hollywood blockbusters, is monumental. Blomkamp has redefined the way studios and producers think about science fiction and modestly budgeted movies. While the box office for this would have been considered disappointing for a $200 million epic (making $210 million worldwide), it was incredible for a $30 million one. This was a gargantuan success on all counts and the greatest directorial debut of this young century.
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