Blood Simple (1984)
The Debut: This pleasingly grisly opening salvo from the Coen brothers remains one of their finest achievements, and lays the template for more or less everything they’ve made since. The deadpan dialogue, jet-black humour and cast of bizarre characters are all present and correct, but it’s the gleefully heartless theme that nobody gets away clean that stays in the mind longest, and one that they would frequently return to, from Fargo to No Country For Old Men . Truly thrilling.
The Cool: The stifling heat of the Texas desert makes its presence felt in every scene, but it’s the smell of confidence that one most closely associates with Blood Simple . The Coens keep their audience guessing every step of the way, twisting an ever-shifting plot into a knotty mess of tangles, before unravelling it all with aplomb for the film’s blood-spattered finale. One of the most assured first-time pictures you could ever wish to see.
Have They Still Got It: True Grit was remarkably conventional plot-wise, but its deliciously arcane language and striking panoramic visuals proved the Coens are still at the top of their game.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The Debut: QT introduced himself to a cinema-going public with this taut, tense heist movie, in which the heist itself is never shown. Whilst the box-office take was modest (largely on account of the film’s conservative promotional push), the critics were sold from the get-go, as Reservoir Dogs took the Sundance film festival by storm and never looked back. Naturally the ear-slashing violence kept the tabloids occupied, but critics and punters alike were more concerned with the pin-sharp dialogue, and QT’s eye for a cultural reference. The crime caper was officially cool again.
The Cool: The opening scene pretty much serves as a mission statement for Tarantino’s filmmaking as a whole. The Like A Virgin discussion. The meditation on tipping. The gentle mickey-taking from Harvey Keitel, offset by the ever-present threat of violence from the mountainous Lawrence Tierney. And then finally, the parking-lot stroll to the strains of Little Green Bag . Eight minutes in, you already know you’re watching something special.
Do They Still Have The Magic: The one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was a nigh-on impossible act to follow, but Jackie Brown and Kill Bill pt. One are admirable films in their own right. The second instalment of the latter left something to be desired, whilst Death Proof remains a divisive entry in the Tarantino canon, but Inglourious Basterds was something of a return to form. We’d love to see another crime flick though. We know QT’s knowledge of cinema is encyclopaedic! He doesn’t need to prove it with every film…
The Debut: Kevin Smith filmed his slacker opus almost exclusively at night, largely because he was working in the local Quick Stop during the day. However, once night fell, Smith would vacate the till and start filming this ode to youthful malaise, with a measly $27,575 to call a budget. One $3 million box office take later, and Smith’s career was officially launched.
The Cool: Its all about the dialogue, from the detailed discussion of Death Star employment policy, to whether or not it’s normal to try and fellate oneself, via a hilariously filthy phone-call to the supplier of the neighbouring video store. “Whispers in the Wind", "To Each His Own", "Put It Where It Doesn't Belong", "My Pipes Need Cleaning…” You get the picture.
Do They Still Have The Magic: Chasing Amy and Clerks 2 were more than adequate follow-ups to this superlative debut, but of late, Smith has been on a fairly fallow streak. Jersey Girl was limp, Zack & Miri Make A Porno was okay, and Cop Out was downright poor. Let’s hope for a return to form with upcoming thriller Red State …
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Debut: John Huston’s first film is a note-perfect noir, full of villainous oddballs, hard-boiled dialogue and a beauty of a central performance from Humphrey Bogart, subtly changing-up his tough-guy routine by introducing an emotional vulnerability into his repertoire as private dick Sam Spade. Huston was so methodical in his planning, that next to nothing was cut (dialogue-wise at least) in the final edit. To be that organised, first time out, is the mark of a truly special talent.
The Cool: The sheer volume of lying, scheming and double-crossing that goes on amongst Huston’s gallery of rogues is what makes The Maltese Falcon so fun, whilst Bogart’s romantically thwarted hero packs an unexpected emotional punch. And of course, it looks bloody brilliant as well, all shadowy and ambiguous, as any good noir should be.
Have They Still Got It? Huston is long departed, but he was shooting great movies long into his dotage, with final film The Dead going down as one of the best he ever made. And we’ll always hold a special place in our hearts for Escape To Victory …
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Debut: Frank Darabont’s big-screen debut was famously a box-office washout, before word-of-mouth gave it a second lease of life on VHS, and it steadily began appearing in “greatest film” lists the world over. Some have suggested this uplifting prison saga is overrated, and yet it continues to endure in popularity, largely thanks to the strong central performances from Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.
The Cool: Not as cool as the others on this list in terms of snappy outfits or hip soundtracks, but cool in just how assured it all is. Never, in a million years, would you have this pegged as a directorial debut. Unashamedly feelgood it might be, but even if its occasional sentimentality sticks in the craw, set-pieces such as the roof-tarring, the opera-broadcast and the cathartic prison-break cannot be overlooked. And it’s a hard heart indeed that doesn’t swell to Freeman’s plaintive, “I guess I just miss my friend.” Goodness, there must be something in our eyes…
Have They Still Got It? Darabont’s output has been fairly sparse over the intervening years, but The Mist (another Stephen King adaptation) was a surprisingly effective little creature feature. However, that one is less feelgood…much less.
A Bout De Souffle (1960)
The Debut: Jean-Luc Godard launches the French New Wave movement with this snappy, breezy crime movie, which previewed the dizzying, quick-cut camerawork that would become such a cinematic staple over the coming years. A film about a criminal on the run might not exactly sound cutting-edge, but the way it’s shot makes even that hackneyed staple feel fresh and relevant.
The Cool: Any film that kicks-off with the opening line, “I’m a cunt, okay?” can expect to garner a certain cache, whilst the pioneering lens-work, sharp suits and jazz-based soundtrack only add to the pervading sense of rebellion. It’s enough to make you grab a tommy-gun and start a beef with the law.
Have They Still Got It? Godard is still working in his seventies, with latest offering Film Socialisme being well-received at the 2010 Cannes festival. With an adaptation of Daniel Mendelsohn’s holocaust memoir The Lost reportedly in the pipeline, Godard could be making waves for a good while to come…
Donnie Darko (2001)
The Debut: Richard Kelly’s surreal but snappy psychological drama plays like a Lynchian take on the high-school movie, as teen tearaway Donnie (a career-making role for Jake Gyllenhaal) ponders girls and the end of the world whilst being stalked by a giant rabbit named Frank. Originally slated to go straight to video, Drew Barrymore’s production company managed to secure it a public release, and the cult bandwagon rolled on from there. Now, be honest. Hands up if you still don’t fully understand it…
The Cool: Bearing in mind Kelly was just 26 when he made the film, there’s a remarkable eye for character on show, with Donnie’s story peppered with intriguing bit-part players. There’s Drew Barrymore’s disaffected teacher, Beth Grant’s dance-obsessed tyrant and perhaps best of all, Patrick Swayze as a motivational speaker with a dark secret…factor in the striking cinematography and inspired soundtrack, and you’ve got one hell of a debut.
Have They Still Got It? Difficult to say. Southland Tales was packed with visual flair, but was a little too barmy for its own good. The Box meanwhile, had all the key components of a taut little thriller, although its moral maze isn’t quite as clever as it first appears. That said, there’s still plenty on show to suggest that Kelly’s got a bright future ahead of him…it’ll just be a challenge to match his first film.
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Debut: Orson Welles sets himself a fairly daunting task for his first stab at filmmaking, by attempting to chronicle the rise and fall (across an entire lifespan) of the most powerful man in the world, a newspaper magnate based loosely upon media kingpin William Randolph Hearst. Not only that, but he chose to do so by melding together a number of different movie genres, from noir to biopic via savage bouts of satire. That he managed to tie it all together at all is impressive, but to do it with such panache, and turn in a stunning lead performance…well, no wonder the man made a career off it.
The Cool: “It’s terrific” shrills the tag-line from an early poster, an indeed it is, as Welles runs the gamut of human emotion as the greedy, powerful and yet pitiable Kane. Technical wizardry such as the pioneering use of “deep focus” (a technique that allowed the whole screen to appear simultaneously in focus) and a proliferation of innovative camera angles were also a key factor in establishing the film as one of the most important in cinema history. Above all though, it’s just a cracking yarn, and no amount of visual bells and whistles should distract from that.
Have They Still Got It? His later years saw Welles’ focus turn more to the theatre, but he went on to turn in a number of acclaimed documentaries, before finding time to lend his voice to The Transformers Movie ! The fact that he’s topped two BFI polls to establish The Greatest Director Of All Time should tell you all you need to know about his consistency.
Gone Baby Gone (2008)
The Debut: A striking directorial debut made all the more shocking by the fact that precisely noone could have predicted how good it would be! Having seen his acting career take something of a nosedive, Affleck’s retreat behind the camera portrayed the star in a completely new light, as an accomplished director, his brooding, punchy style perfectly matched to Dennis Lehane’s gritty source novel. And boy can he do an action scene…
The Cool: Casting little brother Casey in the lead role was a masterstroke, both surly and good-hearted in equal measure. Meanwhile, Lehane’s dialogue crackles along nicely, as old-stagers Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris up the gravitas quotient. And then there’s Amy Ryan, whose foul-mouthed turn is simply a joy to behold…
Have They Still Got It? The Town might not have hit the high notes of his first picture (the plot taking some turns that stretch credibility beyond breaking point), but Affleck’s chops as a director of action were further displayed by some breath-taking set-pieces. The car chase in particular, has to be seen to be believed.
Easy Rider (1969)
The Debut: Dennis Hopper’s trippy road movie hasn’t aged particularly well, but as a document of counter-culture Americana, it represented a watershed moment in popular filmmaking. Gone are the traditional structures of plot and characterisation, to be replaced by a series of drugged-out escapades, loosely strung together to form a narrative. Say what you like about its merits as a piece of cinema, but Hopper deserves props for tapping into the mental state of America’s disaffected youth and putting it right up on screen.
The Cool: Whilst some of the film’s psychedelic excesses are wont to test the patience, there is still much to love here, be it the sweeping rural vistas, the still shocking ending, or Jack Nicholson’s wonderful turn as booze-drenched lawyer George Hanson.
Have They Still Got It? Sadly, Hopper is no longer with us, but its safe to say that following Easy Rider , he’ll be remembered for his acting rather than his directing. That said, Catchfire is an enjoyable slice of mob-based drama.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
The Debut: Lethal Weapon scribbler Shane Black makes his bow behind the camera with this hilarious murder mystery, boasting a whip-smart script, some pounding action and a beautifully measured double-act between Robert Downey Jr.’s cowardly crook and Val Kilmer’s homosexual badass. Genre stereotypes abound, but that’s part of Black’s game, as he merrily dissects and reassembles the crime drama. If that sounds pretentious, don’t worry: you’ll be having too much fun to care.
The Cool: A fourth-wall-breaking narrator might be a little too glib in other hands, but in Downey’s capable grasp, it only adds to the clever-clever humour on show. Meanwhile, Kilmer’s Gay Perry is surely one of the greatest creations in the history of hard-bitten cops. Witness his response to RDJ’s enquiry as to whether he thinks he’s a bit dim: “I don't think you'd know where to put food at, if you didn't flap your mouth so much. Yes I think you're stupid.”
Have They Still Got It? Hard to say, since Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang remains the only film Black has directed to date. He’s going to write and direct Iron Man 3 though, so we’ll soon find out if the magic’s still there…
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
The Debut: Rob Reiner’s documentary spoof hit the nail so squarely on the head, that hard-rock has never really recovered. Aside from popularising the “mockumentary” as a comic framework, the film’s staggering cult success was such that lines between spoof and reality became blurred, with the cast taking to the stage for real to play the soundtrack album to hordes of slavering fans. Marks out of ten? Eleven. Obviously.
The Cool: Aside’s from the more famous set-pieces, Reiner’s on-screen persona as filmmaker Marty DiBergi is a note-perfect send-up of Scorsese in his Last Waltz phase, whilst Tony Hendra’s flustered manager very nearly steals the show whenever he’s on screen. Oh, and the three leads are pretty funny as well…
Have They Still Got It? Reiner’s quick wit seems to have become drenched in sentimentality of late, with the slushy The Bucket List followed-up recently by Flipped , a rose-tinted peon to young love. The Shark Sandwich review comes to mind…
Bottle Rocket (1996)
The Debut: Wes Anderson announces his preoccupation with life’s losers in this bizarre comedy about a pair of bungling wannabe criminals. There are plenty of laughs on offer, but it’s the dysfunctional yet sweet relationship between the two friends that set the template for much of Anderson’s later work. Martin Scorsese described Bottle Rocket as one of his top ten films on the ‘90s, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us.
The Cool: Anderson launched the affably hilarious double-act of the Wilson brothers with this film, and the pair gleefully inject proceedings with a raft of in-jokes and fraternal affection. James Caan’s late appearance is another genius bit of casting, with the Godfather star riffing nicely on his tough-guy persona.
Have They Still Got It? In our humble opinion, Anderson has yet to make a dud movie. They might not be to everyone’s tastes, but even his les feted offerings ( The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic spring to mind) are imbued with enough quirky charm to warrant the benefit of the doubt.
The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
The Debut: Charles Laughton’s first and only film might not have made much of a splash when it was first released, but the influence it had on filmmakers to come was considerable. From Tim Burton’s Gothic fairytales to the Terminator ’s seemingly indomitable villain, many of Hollywood’s greatest stories owe a debt to this tale of small children in peril.
The Cool: Two words: The Preacher. Robert Mitchum’s relentless aggressor is a towering example of compelling villainy. From his twisted moral code to his quickfire wit, he’s simultaneously bewitching and terrifying, and perhaps most significantly, completely unsympathetic to the age of his young targets. Quite simply, one of the most unsettling foes ever committed to film.
Have They Still Got It? We’ll never know, Laughton quit while he was ahead and never made another movie. When you’ve scaled the heights as he had, it must be difficult to know where to go next…
The Debut: Produced independently on a shoestring budget, Terrence Malick’s Badlands is the startling fictionalisation of murderer Charles Starkweather’s infamous killing spree, with Martin Sheen blowing audiences away as psychotic bin man Kit. Released to great acclaim, Malick’s film took the 1973 New York Film Festival by storm, even managing to overshadow Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets . Beginner’s luck, eh Terrence?
The Cool: Sheen’s handsome drifter has the magnetic charm of other big-screen antiheros, but it’s the self-delusion that turns his character into more than the usual rebel-without-a-cause archetype. Meanwhile, Malick’s typically uncompromising camerawork means that Kit’s chillingly casual murders are never glossed over or sanitised. It’s a truly chilling piece of work.
Have They Still Got It? The New World was a little underwhelming considering Malick’s usual high standards, but we’ll have to watch the long-awaited Tree Of Life to find out whether that was just a blip.
The Evil Dead (1981)
The Debut: Unfairly labelled a “video nasty” in the UK (largely thanks to the “tree rape” scene that director Sam Raimi later admitted he wished he’d cut), this splatter-filled horror movie proved that enthusiasm, genre-nous and bucketloads of caro-syrup were more than enough to balance out a lack of experience and a shoe-string budget. The sequel-cum-remake is arguably more popular, but the original film is genuinely frightening. Even Bruce Campbell spends much of it whimpering…
The Cool: The mash-up of a spine-chilling sense of dread with sporadic bursts of slapstick was truly innovative at the time, before Raimi took it even further with his deliriously OTT sequel. As we’ve mentioned before however, there’s a real edge to this first film, and tension to spare. Anyone who’s only seen the latter two instalments would be in for a serious shock!
Have They Still Got It? Definitely. Whilst the third Spider-Man film was a dud, it was a real treat to see Raimi returning to his schlocky origins with the ludicrous but brilliant Drag Me To Hell. Although arguably the real litmus test will come if the long-awaited Evil Dead 4 ever comes to fruition…
The Debut: The world becomes an altogether stranger place as David Lynch unleashed his surrealist masterpiece upon an unsuspecting public. Offbeat humour meets sexual squeamishness as protagonist Henry falls in love with the beautiful Mary, only for their union to yield something altogether ickier than the usual bundle of joy. Disturbing and off-the-wall, it predictably became a cult classic.
The Cool: Filmed over a six-year period on a shoestring budget, Eraserhead was a triumph of persistence over adversity for Lynch. It’s easy to forget that body-horror and surrealist dream-sequences weren’t always part of the cinematic landscape, but this was one of the films that kicked the doors down, allowing the most deviant of imaginations to find their place within the Hollywood establishment.
Have They Still Got It? Inland Empire , Lynch’s last directorial offering, was typically baffling but boasted a wealth of strong performances from a cast that includes Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern and John Hurt. Bizarre, as ever.
The 400 Blows (1959)
The Debut: Francois Truffaut begins his Antoine Doinel series with this vibrant tale of teenage rebellion, as his young protagonist tires of parents and teachers failing to understand, and heads out on his own. A coming of age film of the highest order, in that it painstakingly marries the thrill of youthful revolt with the profound loneliness that comes with adolescence as standard.
The Cool: Whether you’re fifteen or fifty, there’s always a certain allure to be found in seeing your youthful anti-establishment fantasies played out on screen. Jean-Pierre Leaud carries them out with such smart-mouthed aplomb, it’s impossible not to cheer him on as he thumbs his nose at family and society alike.
Have They Still Got It? Truffaut’s output was still being critically heralded well into the latter period of his life, with The Last Metro scoring widespread acclaim and a clutch of award nominations, whilst Finally, Sunday was an effective tribute to his hero Alfred Hitchcock.
Play Misty For Me (1971)
The Debut: It would have been reasonable to expect Clint’s first film to have been the sort of granite-tough crime flick in which he made his name as an actor, which makes it all the more impressive that he opted for a bunny-boiling psychodrama instead! What’s more, he doesn’t seem out of his comfort zone whatsoever, ramping up the tension with the assured hand of an old pro. Bravo!
The Cool: Clint’s on-screen performance is an unexpected delight, as he subverts his tough-guy image to play a lady-killing smoothie, who soon ends up out of his depth and at the mercy of Jessica Walter’s nut-nut stalker.
Have They Still Got It? Very much so. Whilst Hereafter was a bit of a muddle, Clint has been on a hot streak, with Changeling , Gran Torino and Invictus all doing well with both critics and punters alike.
Shallow Grave (1994)
The Debut: Danny Boyle’s impossibly claustrophobic first feature is nominally a comedy, although the laughs soon give way to a sense of creeping dread as three twentysomething flatmates try to work out what to do with a corpse and a bagful of cash that inconveniently end up lodging in their spare room. Grisly and gripping in equal measure, it was the first step in Boyle’s rehabilitation programme for British cinema, paving the way for Trainspotting ’s powder-keg arrival two years later.
The Cool: To knock up a Hitchcock-quality thriller on your first try is no mean feat, although this is so much more than a slavish homage to Rope . There’s a pronounced line of moral decay running through Shallow Grave ’s DNA, from the casual fecklessness of Kerry Fox and Ewan McGregor’s characters, to the fact that it’s the relatively virtuous Christopher Ecclestone who eventually loses the plot. Oh, and any film that features Peter Mullan automatically bags some extra cool points.
Have They Still Got It? Back-to-back Best Picture nominations at the Oscars would suggest that the answer to that one is very much affirmative.