Top 5 Directorial Debuts: Part I (the 2000’s)

So this weekend, I was revisiting Sex, Lies, and VideotapeSteven Soderbergh’s explosive debut feature film from 1989 – and a few thoughts came to mind. First, was how fast time flies. I vividly recall seeing this intelligent and intimate little film in theaters with good friends and raving about it long after – 23 years ago! Second was how well the film holds up – a whole generation later, it is just as affecting and impressive as it was when it (and by proxy, Soderbergh) was the talk of Hollywood. Finally, and what inspired me to write this post was the question – where have all of the splashy film directorial debuts gone? You look at the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and the names of filmmakers who came on the scene in striking fashion are pretty outstanding. The decade 2000 – 2009…well, not so much.

Take the 1980’s. And look at the awe-inspiring names who came out of it…not just directors who started in the 80’s, but those who made waves in their very first film. Soderbergh is just one – and with “Sex, Lies…” (and his Oscar nomination for it) you knew he was the real deal. Cameron Crowe (1989’s Say Anything), Barry Levinson (Diner), Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), and Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat) are just a small handful of filmmakers who burst on the scene in the 1980’s. Perhaps most notably would be the Coen Brothers, whose debut film Blood Simple came out in 1984. Most critics felt something special with the talents of Joel and Ethan. Vincent Canby of The New York Times sure did, declaring Blood Simple to be the most impressive debut feature since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane. Talk about lofty praise and grand expectations. Now, nearly 20 years later, the Coen Brothers have managed to surpass those expectations and remain at the forefront of American film directors, creating extraordinary work on a consistent basis.

The 1990’s? More impressive names and the talent, just as significant. Quentin Tarantino brought us Reservoir Dogs in 1991, Paul Thomas Anderson hit the screens with Hard Eight (1996), and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave was released in 1994. Other exceptional debuts? Larry Clark (Kids), Sean Penn (The Indian Runner), Christopher Nolan (Following), John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), and Todd Haynes (Poison).

However, you’d be hard-pressed to find many stellar debuts since the millennium. Of course new directors emerge each year, but it seems that it takes them a few putts to actually sink one in. Very few come on the scene with guns blazing and a blitzkrieg of amazing press. So I did some research and looked up all of the directorial debuts since 2000. There weren’t very many to pick from, but here are my Top 5 Directorial debuts since 2000. I’d love to hear from you and see who you might put on this list.

5.  Scott Frank (The Lookout, 2007)

Frank’s resume as a screenwriter is super-impressive (Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, just to name a few). What’s even more impressive? His debut as director with this smart, savvy and hugely entertaining crime thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I was so impressed by it that I actually put it at the top of my favorite films of that year. Levitt’s character is a young athlete with a promising career. A tragic accident derails all of his hopes and dreams and years later, as he tries to sustain some state of normalcy, he is coerced into robbing a bank. A great achievement and a film that I would recommend to just about anyone. I am left wondering why it is taking so long for his follow-up…

4. Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, 2005)

He’s not just on this list because he’s a fellow Long Islander, but because he is responsible for bringing a new wave of comedy to a completely new generation of film-goers. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call him the modern day Mel Brooks or even (dare I say) Woody Allen. Known mainly as a writer, Apatow debuted with this delightful, smart, and hysterical film starring Steve Carell and Catherine Keener. In most of his works, Apatow has a tremendous knack for giving us perverse and (at times) disgusting comedy, but combining it with remarkable heart — as he does here with poor Carell and his little…problem. Apatow has also managed to highlight the comedic talents of a fresh new batch of actors who have appeared in a number of his projects. An impressive debut, a major player, and one of the funniest films to come out in recent years.

3. Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, 2006)

Perhaps it’s in the genes. After a number of short films, Reitman came out with this dark comedy and was, in my opinion, one of the year’s very best. This biting satire stars Aaron Eckhart as a company spokesman for big tobacco. While trying to put a positive spin on a substance that kills millions, he tries to maintain some relationship with his young and impressionable son who looks up to him like a rock star. Great script, terrific performances, and deft direction. A memorable debut from a talent that has since come out with strong works such as Up in the Air and Young Adult — seeming to get the most from his gifted actors — and has clearly developed a style and voice all his own.

2. Neill Blomkamp (District 9, 2009)

A fantastic directorial debut and a movie that I put at the #1 spot of that year. Based on his short film a few years prior, District 9 offers a superb analogy of the horrific events that took place in District Six of Cape Town during the apartheid era and deals with themes of xenophobia and segregation. I’m not even a sci-fi fan at all, but I couldn’t help but be moved and amazed by Blomkamp’s masterful work. Love the style that it is shot in and Sharlto Copley delivers an outstanding performance as Wikus van de Merwe, a mild-mannered manager at the Department of Alien Affairs, whose entire life is changed when he becomes infected. And to think this was Copley’s first time acting in a feature film. This film is an extraordinary cinematic achievement — and it will be very interesting to see what the future holds for this very talented artist.

1. Todd Field (In the Bedroom, 2001)

Little Children was a remarkably powerful film and a tremendous achievement. But In the Bedroom marked Field’s debut as a filmmaker, after years of being in front of the camera. This film, starring Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, and Sissy Spacek was, in my estimation, one of the very best to come out the entire decade. Field not only adapts Andre Dubus’ short story with expert precision, but gets A+ performances from his entire ensemble and creates a mood and New England-y feel that is unmistakable. Field makes the kind of film I would so want to make — as we watch a grieving couple try to cope with the tragic death of their son — and see the father (a magnificent Wilkinson), begin to take matters into his own hands. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat through this movie – and it never ceases to move and affect me. To me, In the Bedroom is the debut of the 2000’s — and I will be in line very early to see his next film Creed of Violence later this year.

Other very impressive debuts by filmmakers I’d love to see more from: Sarah Polley (the very moving Away From Her), Steve McQueen (Hunger), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and I really hope that the brilliant writer and director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) gets back behind the camera soon!

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART II’ will cover the 1970’s, the best decade of cinema ever!!!

Best Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

The end of the decade is soon approaching and a number of my film-geek friends have been posting & sharing their lists of the decade’s best films, so as a self-proclaimed film-geek myself, I had to voice my own voluble opinion. This was much more difficult than I had anticipated (one of the reasons for including the long list of ‘Honorable Mentions’ that could have easily been twice as long). I started with about 25-30 and tried to chisel and reason bit by bit. I tried to stay away from what film critics would include just for the sake of showing off their (at times) pretentious “artiness.” I based my decisions on artistic merit, creativity/originality, and most of all, personal enjoyment. In any case, here they are….

10.    The Lookout (dir. Scott Frank)

This movie never really got its due when it was released in 2007. Part bank-heist film and part “Memento” (over-rated…sorry), this movie grabs you from the beginning and never lets up. Joseph Gordon-Levitt establishes himself nicely as a strong lead (as he did again in this year’s “(500) Days of Summer”) and Jeff Daniels is wonderful in a supporting role. If you haven’t seen it, it is great entertainment – smart and slick with great characters and a very tight script. We feel for Levitt’s character from his tragic beginning and empathize with his plight throughout. This is what Hollywood action films should be and probably why it never made much money – it’s actually pretty damn clever, expertly shot and high on entertainment.

9.  Little Children (dir. Todd Field)

When I think of the great filmmakers working in cinema today, the name ‘Todd Field’ doesn’t spring into my mind. However, with TWO films on this very difficult list, perhaps it is about time his name does start popping into the conversation of wonderful, artistic directors. This film is extraordinary. Very tough to watch at times, but for all the right reasons. Jackie Earle Haley got most of the press when the film debuted in 2006 and was rightfully nominated for an Oscar, however, all the actors are at the top of their game here. Phyllis Somerville (as Ronnie’s mother) was simply spectacular and was snubbed of her own nomination. The narration at first was awkward for me, but I quickly got used to it and in viewing the film again, fit nicely. This is a very daring film and Field makes some very strong choices throughout. Great details to each and every shot. Patrick Wilson and Kate Winslet are perfectly cast and have strong chemistry on the screen. It is Jackie Earle Haley though and his performance that haunts us long after the final credits roll. The scene in the car after his date is one of the most disturbing scenes in recent memory. Overall, a dark, yet sadly believable look at suburbia and the ‘little children’ who inhabit it.

8.  The Illusionist (dir. Neil Burger)

I know this film is probably on no one’s list, but I don’t care. I loved it! I distinctly remember walking out of the theatre exclaiming, “That’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time!” Edward Norton is surely one of the finest actors of his generation (“The Incredible Hulk” a rare poor choice) and he does not disappoint here. I am aware that the film is high in melodrama and a bit “schmaltzy” in the romance department, but I bought it from start to finish. At its heart, the film is a wonderful romantic picture. It contains classic good and evil characters, no matter how orthodox they may be. Is Rufus Sewell over the top? Yes! But we HATE him!!! And Paul Giamatti is terrific here, giving us more dimension to his antagonistic character. He is not a “Bad guy” – there is much more to him. And Jessica Biel??? She is absolutely gorgeous here and does a fine job opposite Norton. Beautifully shot period piece, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The cinematography here is wonderful and the score, ever effective. The story sucks you in and the magic here is much more entertaining than that of “The Prestige” which came out the same year. This is the better film for you romantics out there. A great final act too that I was not expecting and don’t think many viewers did expect.

7.  Crash (dir. Paul Haggis)

Again, high melodrama. Fine. I’m comfortable with that. Despite what many have said, this deserved its ‘Best Picture’ Oscar and I remember being so relieved that it beat out the even more melodramatic “Brokeback Mountain.” All I know is this – I was not bored for a minute, I was sucked into all of the ever-weaving subplots, I cried in a couple of scenes, and I was sorry to see it end. Haggis’ screenplay is spectacular. It could have easily been very manipulative, especially when it came to the theme of racial relations – and it never fell into that dangerous trap. Matt Dillon creates a wonderful character with many sides – we can understand where this man is coming from after his scene explaining his father’s predicament. The highlight of this powerful film is Michael Pena and the scenes he has with his daughter. The invisible cape stuff? Couldn’t stop crying! And Ryan Phillipe is fine here….for being one of the only ‘innocent’ characters in this collage of events, it makes the ending all the more ironic. I felt all the stories blended nicely and Haggis does a splendid job at knowing when to keep us at the edge of our seats and when to let us breathe. He also manages to make some very profound statements on racy subjects such as race, sex, politics, crime, parenthood, and bigotry without preaching to us. The film is set in Los Angeles, but it could take place in any city, any town in our society. A riveting and at times, magical film.

6.  Sideways (dir. Alexander Payne)

Being in my mid-thirties when this came out in 2004, I think I was able to relate to Miles more than if I was just a student in film school. A very sad statement in itself to be able to relate to Miles at all here, but I think most men in their 30’d and 40’s can certainly do just that and that makes the film even stronger. What can be said about the cast that hasn’t already been said? Paul Giamatti is perfect for this role – he was born to play Miles. His camaraderie with Thomas Haden Church is a pleasure to watch. Church of course is the dissolute and immoral character, but he is talented enough to make his character more than that – and to have us sympathize with him at times. In fact, we sympathize with all four main characters in different ways – a tough feat and a credit to Payne and his cast. Madsen is warm and endearing here – a perfect match for Giamatti’s role. Payne writes a near perfect script here (even stronger than his previous “Election” which was in itself a wonderful picture). Yes, the wine is used as metaphor throughout, but there is much more to it with each viewing. Giamatti’s scene in the fast-food restaurant with his vintage bottle of wine is like a knife to the heart and though the film analyzes two middle-aged men who believe they will never amount to anything – Payne gives us a believable and optimistic ending that is filled with hope. A lovely, intelligent, witty and heart-breaking film that, like a fine wine, will most likely go down better with age.

5.  Matchstick Men (dir. Ridley Scott)

Though I feel that David Mamet’s “House of Games” is the classic con film, “Matchstick Men” holds its own and is superb in its own right. It is, I would think, a very tough challenge to create a “con film” but the script here is so good and the actors so convincing, that we buy the con hook-line-and-sinker. I have problems with Nicolas Cage and his many silly choices, but when he picks the right role, he can do some great work (see “The Weather Man,” “Adaptation” and “Wild at Heart”). He is equally terrific here as the obsessive-compulsive Roy Waller. Cage usually does his best work playing quirky characters. Sam Rockwell is intense and strong as always and Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill, and Bruce Altman complete a very impressive supporting cast. The father-daughter relationship here works, the friendship relationship works – the con works. The film is funny, unpredictable, sweet and when it wants to hit you in the gut – it does so…and hard. Scott does a nice change of pace here from his epic films (“Gladiator” would be on a Top 30 list of the decade I am sure). This film is much more intimate, more delicate, more real. I was not sure why this film did not get the awards recognition I thought it deserved when it came out in 2003 and still can’t figure that one out. It’s hard not to love this picture. Though Waller is put through the wringer, we know that he is finally happy by the end of the ride – and so are we for taking it with him.

4.  There Will be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

You can perhaps count the list of masterpieces made from 2000-2009 on one hand, if that. This is undoubtedly one of them. A masterpiece in every sense of the word (amazingly, Anderson’s second, following the ever-daring “Magnolia”). And on this little list of mine, this may be the only one I can confidently use such a word (perhaps my #2 film can fall in that category, I’m not sure). So why is this not my number one film then? In creating this list I went with artistic merit, surely – but also other factors as well. This is not a film I can watch at any time. One needs to be ready for it…to brace themselves for the epic that follows. I do believe it to be the best piece of filmmaking of the decade. That said, this is the kind of film that will be studied by film students decades from now – extraordinary on every level. Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel, Anderson’s adaptation of the story that revolves around family, greed, religion and oil is an achievement of the highest quality. Anderson has always been a courageous filmmaker and continues here. He trusts his audience – always has. He lets us sit in a darkened theatre for 20 minutes, following Daniel Plainview in the mines without a word of dialogue. And we watch. The score (by Jonny Greenwood) is unforgettable and brilliant. Robert Elswit’s cinematography may be the best I have seen in years. This is the film that should have taken home the Oscar for ‘Best Picture,’ but I presume that voters thought the Coen Brothers were overdue and went in their direction (and I am not knocking the Coen Brothers at all – they’ve been making some of America’s finest films since their debut in 1985 and in my opinion, have only made one bad film). The nucleus of this wonder is of course the character of Daniel Plainview – it all revolves around him. And what better actor to be up for this mighty challenge and play him than Daniel Day-Lewis? With Brando’s passing – and Newman’s that followed, he may very well be our finest screen actor working today. 95% of actors are cast in roles and never immerse themselves into their characters – or “become” the character. Remember when DeNiro and Nicholson used to do that? Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the handful of actors that are chameleon-esque and become someone new – the definition of acting. In Daniel Plainview, he creates a character for the ages. As long as there is cinema, we will always remember Daniel Plainview – one of the greatest screen characters in the history of film. I know this mini-review seems to be littered in hyperbole, but it’s not at all. Every aspect of this motion picture deserves the highest of praise. Day-Lewis is terrifying – one of the most charismatic screen villains of all time. The performance goes up there with Brando’s Terry Malloy and Vito Corleone. I do think Anderson could have done better than casting Paul Dano opposite Day-Lewis…he is fine here and does an admirable job – but Daniel Day-Lewis is perhaps too much for him in their scenes together. There are many classic lines and scenes peppered throughout. Anderson has truly made a towering achievement that deserves its place alongside other American epic classics such as ‘Ben-Hur,’ ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘The Birth of A Nation,’ ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Reds.’

3.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)

One of the most original and creative films to come out during the decade, for sure. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay is as unique as they come and Gondry handles the story with deftness and care. Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey are wonderful here and both characters break your heart throughout their relationship. The premise is one that anyone who has had their heart broken can relate to – but it’s only through their process of loss do both characters realize what they had in the beginning. As bizarre and inimitable as the story seems, we can relate to much of this film and live vicariously through them. Is there someone in my past I’d like to wipe out of memory? Absolutely. This film though is a gentle reminder that even our most painful memories are ones that we should still hold close to heart – better to have a slice of the pie than never to have had none at all. Carrey gives a terrific, sincere performance and matches Winslet (no easy feat) throughout. The film has a bit of everything – but at its core is romantic a relationship that we root for. A strong supporting cast is led by Tom Wilkinson, David Cross, and Kirstin Dunst. This film is nothing short of a delightful gem – it tugs at your heart and, unlike the process the two characters go through – stays in your memory for a long, long time.

2.  In The Bedroom (dir. Todd Field)

A perfect, perfect motion picture. There is not a line spoken nor a shot taken that should be removed from this film. With “Little Children” and this tremendous achievement, Todd Field proves not only that he is a filmmaker to be reckoned with, but that he is a master at adapting written works. Here, it is a short story by Andre Dubus. It is one of the finest, strongest adaptations in recent film history. In fact, the first 70 or 80+ minutes of the film is all his creation based on what is given in the short piece by Dubus. He creates his own world founded on what is given to him in the short story “Killings” and it blends perfectly. Field gets the very most out of each actor while establishing the New England setting so vividly, so beautifully – you can almost smell the clam chowder coming off the screen. The cast is brilliant. Tom Wilkinson is extraordinary. One of the finest performances of the decade, for certain. Sometimes you don’t need to see someone play a psychotic, a mentally disturbed or challenged person, or someone larger than life to witness magnificence in the craft of performance. Wilkinson reminds us of this. He is our center here and keeps everything grounded around him. His scenes with his son are touching and genuine; the ones with Sissy Spacek are explosive. One in particular (when they are interrupted by a Girl Scout selling candy) is a remarkable watch that deserves additional viewings. Marisa Tomei is the ideal actor to take on the role of Natalie and she is a marvel to watch here, opposite Nick Stahl. Stahl may not be so very well known, but he is a fine actor (see the very powerful “Bully”) and gives his character exactly what it needs in order for the plot to follow through. Because it is, after all, a revenge film at heart. Though unlike any revenge film you have ever seen. This film is a constant reminder to me that the entire art of filmmaking begins with a story and a script. You get a great story and tight, creative and solid script, you are already ahead in the game. Big Hollywood blockbusters with CGI and special effects are all well and good – but it is films like “In the Bedroom” that remind me why I love film. I have seen this film numerous times and it never gets stale to me. There is humor sprinkled throughout, touching moments, moments when you just want to shake sense into the characters and moments when I can never stop the tears from coming. It is an experience to sit through Field’s wonderful work here and to witness the phenomenal cast at work – this includes great work by William Wise (as Wilkinson’s good friend who will do anything to help him in his time of need) and William Mapother who has his own challenging role. His Richard Strout is a great accomplishment. He is surely our villain here and is the reason for the Fowler family’s anguish – but in Strout, he gives reason (for lack of a better word), substance and a bit of empathy to his violent and reckless actions. I can watch this film anytime – to watch Wilkinson at work – he does not make a wrong move at any time here…every line spoken, every nuance, every expression is affecting and real. This film remains a testament to the idea that good works are based on great writing, skilled performances, and beautiful imagery – from the opening shots to its dark, startling last scene you are in this New England town and observing great art.

  •   Almost Famous (dir. Cameron Crowe)

I went with sheer pleasure in deciding this as my top pick of the decade…that, and the fact that it’s some pretty damn good filmmaking. I absolutely love this movie and am reminded of it each time I catch it. It is the ultimate coming-of-age story put on film and set to a glorious soundtrack. In just over two hours time, we watch William Miller, the young boy, become a man who has seen it all – and lived to tell about it. Patrick Fugit does a great job in the role as our naïve and besotted protagonist. Cameron Crowe’s dialogue reminds me of James L. Brooks in that he has so many ingenious and memorable lines in his films – and this one is no exception. His ear for screen dialogue is truly a gift – and he knows how to make his audience laugh or cry at his will. His ear for music is equally as impressive. Crowe has always incorporated music quite brilliantly in his films (with the exception of the highly disappointing “Elizabethtown”) and in this film it is used impeccably. The scene in the tour bus set to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” is one of the greatest uses of a song to film I have seen in recent memory (tied with how “Falling Slowly” is utilized in the brilliant little indie,“Once”). As for the performances, everyone shines. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes the most out of his small role, stealing every scene he is in. Frances McDormand is hysterically funny (“Rock stars have kidnapped my son!”) and though we may not agree with her ideas about rock-n-roll music or how she raises her two children, we can certainly empathize with and have compassion for her. As the two frontrunners of the  Stillwater band, Jason Lee and Billy Crudup are very well cast and dazzle us with their performances. Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane is a great creation – she is impetuous, romantic, reckless, loyal and heart-breaking. This semi-autobiographical film is an absolute joy and I believe Crowe’s strongest work. Every note is hit with precision and care. We experience all the highs and lows as William Miller experiences them – we go on tour with him and certainly root for him to achieve his ambitious goal. Crowe obviously loves his music and we are reminded of some true classics here. It is a rock-n-roll film – but so much more than that. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it in one sitting. It’s contagious and a great example of why I go to the movies. Debuting in 2000, it still stands as my absolute favorite of the decade as we approach 2010…Thanks, Cameron!

16 Honorable Mentions – in no particular order, though all 4-Star Films:

The Dreamers (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
21 Grams (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
Swimming Pool (dir. Francois Ozon)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet)
Into the Wild (dir. Sean Penn)
Away From Her (dir. Sarah Polley)
Munich (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Die Falscher (The Counterfeiters, dir. Stefan Ruzowitsky)
Dancer in the Dark (dir. Lars von Trier)
Les Invasions Barbares (The Barbarian Invasions, dir. Denys Arcand)
A History of Violence (dir. David Cronenberg)
Wonder Boys (dir. Curtis Hanson)
Requiem for A Dream (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
The Reader (dir. Stephen Daldry)
In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh)
District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

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