Split Decision: Best Directorial Debuts

Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!

This week’s question:

In honor of Sorry to Bother You opening in Philadelphia this Friday, what is your favorite directorial debut film?

This is a tough question. John Huston’s Maltese Falcon is one of the most thrilling film debuts of all time. It’s not just that Huston did a superb adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s great story, and produced one of the best film noirs of all time, featuring outstanding performances (I especially love Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo). But it became a classic, and remains timeless to this day. Huston went on to make films in almost every genre–which is impressive given how well he did in most of them. But The Maltese Falcon was the beginning of a brilliant career.–Gary M. Kramer

For this impossible question, I pick A Bug’s Life, Andrew Stanton’s first directorial effort for Pixar (he was a co-director but shhhhhh!). He would go on to do the beloved Finding Nemo, the strange and beautiful Wall-E, and the juggernaut Finding Dory. A Bug’s Life is an oft-forgotten gem for Pixar and one of my favorites as a tween. It’s based on an Aesop’s fable, but also has a smattering of Seven Samurai, as a colony of ants “hires” a group of misfit warrior bugs to defend their community against the villainous grasshoppers, who take a portion of the ants’ grain harvest each year for themselves. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched this film (I owned it on VHS), but what I remember most is how vividly it captures the hidden world of insects. It’s no wonder that Stanton would go on to show us the world beneath the waves in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, and the vast expanse beyond our planet in WALL-E. The film also features fantastic voice acting from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Phyllis Diller, David Hyde Pierce, Bonnie Hunt, Denis Leary, John Ratzenberger, and more. I really want to watch it now, and if you haven’t seen it, then you should probably get on that.–Jill Malcolm

David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The thing that impresses me though is that, while he would continue to grow, he more or less arrived in the late 1970’s fully formed. His masculine anxieties, insecurities, concerns of sexual inadequacy, fear of an unseen power controlling things, the seedy Freudian underbellies of Domestic life, the not-quite-our-world elevated reality- it’s all here, and it’s the same sandbox he continued to play in in last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return. —Andy Elijah

For me it will always be Badlands by Terrence Malick, but I recently used that as my answer for a different split decision, so I’ll try and branch out for this one. I’m going to go with Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), though I should mention he also had two co-directors, Christine Cynn and Anonymous. I love this documentary with my whole heart, and am constantly in awe of how it uses the magic and delight of film to communicate with former gang leaders of the Indonesian genocide of the ’60s. The main subject, Anwar Congo, was an executioner in 1965. He seems to take great delight in his past executions as he joyfully explains them in detail for the camera. Eventually he is able to act out his killings with other gang leaders for the camera in whatever classic Hollywood style he desires. He then gets to watch these reenactments back, and his experience of brief objectivity is incredibly powerful. The documentary is an extremely surreal experience as it is both horrifying and deeply enjoyable–sometimes even hilarious. I get chills just thinking about it.–Catherine Haas

I inevitably think of debut films in the context of a director’s other work, i.e. Blood Simple isn’t my favorite Coen bros movie and Thief isn’t my favorite Michael Mann movie, but it’s so much fun to watch these artists I love take their first steps exploring themes and feelings they’d later nail. The only debut I love that I don’t compare to a greater filmography is the one I can’t compare to a greater filmography: Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Of course, then you’re dealing with the opposite problem— constantly wondering what a long, healthy filmography would have looked like in an alternate reality where Laughton wasn’t discouraged by the reaction his passion project got. As both the beginning and end of an actor’s career directing, it’s so good you wonder how in the world it’s possible it was either.–Alex Rudolph

I second Alex’s pick. Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is not only one of the true apexes of American filmmaking but proves that Laughton, himself, wasn’t simply a one-trick pony. An actor of immense range and skill, this 1955 one-off finds Laughton, in his first and only stab at film directing, exhibiting a tremendous sense of vision and, less surprising, a knack for working with actors to craft complex, sometimes understated depths for roles that could easily be characterized as broad stereotypes. (He’s also more of a director’s director than one would figure, even prone to giving his cast line readings – a long acknowledged no-no in the profession.)

Often classified as a noir, Hunter falls more in line with Southern Gothic (despite the Ohio River milieu), what with its sinister eponymous preacher/serial-killer, small river-town vibe, lingering whiff of decay, and rustic otherworldliness. (The film’s centerpiece, an extended boat ride sequence, features some truly haunting mysticism.) Visually, it’s not like much else of its time. Stanley Cortez’s graphic chiaroscuro recalls concurrent noir-scapes, as well as a few of the great DP’s earlier works (especially The Magnificent Ambersons), but, more often than not, Laughton and co. jettison the baroque camera-gymnastics found in Welles and Fuller in favor of more elemental, flatter tableaux – certain frames and blocking arrangements evoke the silents of Griffith and Murnau.

Add to all this the peak performance of that sleepy-eyed bad-boy Robert Mitchum’s long, illustrious career and the result is a brain-branding blend of nightmare and dreamscape, very sui generis and practically unparalleled. (I’m hardly exaggerating when I say that I can count the number of American movies whose excellence surpasses this on only one hand.) To echo Alex’s lament, one comes away imagining what a Laughton-as-director career could’ve been, but, on the other hand, where else does one go after effectively imitating perfection?–Dan Santelli

I was a Joe Johnston fan before I ever even knew his name.  Being a huge fan of The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and October Sky growing up, in addition to his debut film, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Johnston’s filmography sat alongside that Spielberg/Amblin feeling as a string of sort of “new classics,” films that felt like the ones my parents showed me they they and my older cousins had loved, but were brand new to all of us.

And while Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is a goofy, yet heartwarming spectacle ride (most of the effects were actually done in-camera), the way the film committed to showing the world from the point of view of a miniaturized child, filled with both wonder and horror is an impressive achievement. And the entire film is grounded in Rick Moranis’ Wayne, a lovable goofball if there ever was one, combining the spirits of Doc Brown and Clark Griswold to be the ultimate nerdy movie dad. I love it. —Ryan Silberstein

There are a million answers to this question, but the first one which popped in my head simply HAS to be my answer. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t one of those old horror movies that we call scary out of respect. We call it scary because, to this day, it evokes a level of unrelenting horror which, for my money, has yet to be matched. From moment one a pervasive sense of dread hangs over the proceedings, and it never leaves. This dread escalates with the machine gun pace, only letting up as the closing credits roll (and even then, barely so).

Endless parade of sequels/reboots aside, one of the things that makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so scary is its commitment to leaving motivation out of it. The killers kill just because. This isn’t a film about anything but survival for our leads. They’ve found themselves out of their comfort zone, strangers in a strange, hostile land, immediately out of a position in which logic can be applied.

This is “based on a true story” in that the writer Kim Henkel read about Ed Gein and thought to himself “I can riff on this.” So don’t worry, this didn’t actually happen. But what makes the movie so effective is that it could.

A fun fact: Guillermo del Toro became a vegetarian after watching this movie. Only for about four years, but still.–Dan Scully

I always seem to have Carpenter on my mind, as Dark Star is the first movie I thought of for this. It’s not a great movie per se, but it predates both Alien and Star Wars and contains many images and ideas that seem to have influenced both films (intentionally or not – Dan O’Bannon, writer of Alien also co-wrote Dark Star with Carpenter). It establishes Carpenter’s interest in blue collar men that go unappreciated by the society they ostensibly fuel with their work, and the existential crises that puts these men in. In this way, it feels like an essential piece of his filmography and an absolute must watch for any Carpenter aficionados.–Garrett Smith

This is… Spinal Tap. Rob Reiner even becoming the director is hilarious. Harry Shearer told him he had to direct it because he “didn’t look good enough in spandex.” Bless-ed be.—Jenna Kuerzi

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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