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!!!

Soderbergh: Retiring from Movies?!

I just read on The Huffington Post yesterday that director Steven Soderbergh is seriously contemplating retiring from Hollywood to become a painter. The first thing that came to mind was (sadly) Brett Favre and all of the other famous athletes who have proclaimed a hasty “retirement” only to come back to their sacred ground before the new season even begins. So my feeling here is that although I’m sure Mr. Soderbergh is genuine in his feelings for wanting to explore new artistic ground, I’m sure that in due time the lure of money and familiarity of making movies will suck him back in. And this, for most movie buffs, is a good thing.

I vividly remember seeing Soderbergh’s feature-length debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape 22 years ago (Jeez, has it been that long?!). To this day, I think this is one of the strongest debuts of any director to come out in the last 50 years and remains one of his strongest efforts. To his credit, Soderbergh is one of the few filmmakers who dare to explore new ground and take artistic risks with new experiments. They may not all work or make for great movies (see Full Frontal or The Girlfriend Experience), but you tip your cap to a man seeking to push the boundaries and test new concepts. His style has a unique vision and “look” to it – the lighting in his films and use of color always stand out and immediately tells you that you are watching a Soderbergh film. Since Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the Oscar-winner has made some of the strongest films over the past two decades, including (the often-overlooked) Out of Sight, King of the Hill, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich – all mostly coming in his earlier years. The last decade – which includes the insulting Ocean’s Twelve and his poorly received Che – has not been nearly as impressive. I enjoyed Ocean’s Eleven thoroughly. It is a stylish, well-made film, but also a helluva lot of fun too with a terrific all-star cast. It wasn’t until the subsequent two sequels that I felt he perhaps “sold out” just a bit, and this is a shame because he still is one of America’s finest directors.

But I digress. Announcing your retirement from Hollywood? Is this not a wee bit dramatic? David Lynch manages to balance a number of artistic mediums. He makes a film every few years (and the rarity of it makes a new release of his seem more like an event), while still dedicating himself to his other artistic outlets such as painting, photography, and music. Lynch is a true artist – and can never be accused of being a sell-out by anyone. With three films currently in pre-production and his movie Contagion set for release, it will be interesting to see how Soderbergh segues into his new endeavor, if he does at all. The trailer for Contagion (see below) is very intriguing and personally, I can’t wait to see it. It has the look of being his best in years, but I won’t get ahead of myself.

I hope that Soderbergh proves to be more Michael Jordan (or Joaquin Phoenix, if you will) and less Barry Sanders when it comes to the act of retiring — because it would be a shame not to have his films to look forward to. I have a feeling this is all much ado about nothing — and coincidentally garnering much publicity at the very time his new film is set to be released. For fans of the director, I wouldn’t let this get to you and I wouldn’t be overly distressed. He’ll be back – -just cross your fingers that it isn’t for an Ocean’s 14.

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