You Never Forget Your First: 10 Directors Who Haven't Managed To Top Their Directorial Debut
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You Never Forget Your First: 10 Directors Who Haven't Managed To Top Their Directorial Debut

By Joanna Robinson | Seriously Random Lists | March 12, 2013 | Comments ()


At SXSW this weekend, in an onstage conversation with David Carr of "The Village Voice," director Danny Boyle reflected on his career before debuting some footage from his newest film Trance. The career retrospective (complete with film clips) didn't actually make it past Trainspotting, Boyle's second film. The reason why, as it turns out, is that the Academy Award-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later considers his first film, the dark and tense Shallow Grave, to be his best and the conversation snagged on that idea for a good portion of the hour. In Boyle's opinion, the "innocence and energy" that a first-time director possesses is what generates the most potent cinematic magic. The technical proficiency and self-assurance of a well-seasoned professional can dull the final product. As Boyle puts it "you should do all the things you 'shouldn't' do....if you can get away with it."

Now obviously this "first time is best" theory doesn't apply to all directors. In fact, it doesn't even apply to most. But the SXSW Pajiba staff and I had fun coming up with several examples where a director delivered something shockingly great the first time around and hasn't yet managed to top it. This happens all the time with artists, especially authors. Some folks only have one truly great story in them. The following list is comprised of folks who have by no means had a terrible career. We just don't love anything quite as much as we loved their first feature.

Judd Apatow -- 40 Year-Old Virgin: Knocked Up is great, but if Funny People and This Is 40 are any indication, Apatow isn't getting any better. In fact, I'd say he's getting exponentially worse.

Nicole Holofcener -- Walking And Talking: If you haven't seen Holofcener's sweet little indie gem it's about one of the best depictions of female friendship you'll ever see. Heche, Keener and Schreiber all turn in lovely, real-feeling performances. Holofcener's subsequent works have been good but none have been quite on par.

Kevin Smith -- Clerks: Whoa whoa whoa, Mallrats, Dogma and Chasing Amy fans, put down your pitchforks. We love those too. But despite the amateurish performances from the two leads, Clerks remains the most potent of Smith's films. This movie cracked open the world of Independent Cinema, making it more accessible and, let's face it, fun. And listen, the man is making Clerks III. He knows what's up.

Orson Welles -- Citizen Kane This one's tight. Touch Of Evil is very good. But there's a reason this flick tops all the "Best Of" lists. The sheer number of technical "tricks" Welles invented in this film alone is staggering.

Frank Darabont -- Shawshank Redemption: Nope, Season 1 "The Walking Dead" does not count.

Ed Burns -- The Brothers McMullen: In this transparently autobiographical debut, Burns brought a fresh and dry voice to the well worn territory of family drama. But it seems like he keeps trying to tell that story and it's too late. We've already heard it.

Julie Taymor -- Titus: Already a seasoned stage director, Taymor brought her eye-popping visual aesthetics to one of Shakespeare's darker stories. Frida was pretty solid but while Across The Universe was also gorgeous the story was...well...was there really a story? Taymor returned to Shakespeare with The Tempest which was, sadly, the worst of the four.

Neil LaBute -- In The Company Of Men: LaBute is a fantastic director who excels in hard-to-watch cinema. Nothing has been harder to watch and yet more enduringly enjoyable than his first effort.

Catherine Hardwicke -- Thirteen: What? You think Twilight is better? Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

John Singleton -- Boyz n The Hood: The man who made this electrifying film is now directing Fast and Furious installments and Taylor Lautner's Bourne Identity rip-off. A moment of silence, please.

I Think Ian Somerholder Is About To Eat Grumpy Cat | 5 Shows After Dark 3/12/13

Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • dingusdingus


  • derd

    ahem...I HATED KNOCKED UP. Sigh. Thank you.

  • lorettajohnson

    Thirteen was a Lifetime movie at best.

    The funny thing about John Singleton is I read an interview with him right after Boyz came out, which he said, unlike Spielberg and some other famous directors( i dont remember which). He "plans to never make a bad movie", which I think he has with every movie since Boyz

  • This irks me with Citizen Kane. The 'technical "tricks"' of the film were in collaboration with the cinematographer Gregg Toland, and, seeing as Welles' background was in theatre, I'd credit them more to him.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Woah, nelly - Ed Burns directed a film?!

  • Lovely Bones

    If you're thinking of The Wire's Ed Burns, which I did too, when I noticed Newlyweds on Apple TV, it's not.

  • Kobie

    Sam Mendes has never touched American Beauty. Skyfall, Road to Perdition and Jarhead were all pretty good, but not quite there.

  • AudioSuede

    The only problem I have with American Beauty is that awful, tacked-on teaser at the beginning that makes it look like the kids are going to kill her dad. It makes it seem like a horror movie, and rather than creating dramatic tension, it just feels like he was worried people would be bored and tune out, so he threw something on the beginning to fake out the audience and keep them watching.

  • duckandcover

    In one draft of the script, I think the kids do kill the dad. I know in another draft, the closeted dad frames the kids and they're figuratively torn apart by the media as some sort of commentary on murder media exposure.

  • AudioSuede

    Ew, I didn't even know that, but it makes me all the more confused as to why they kept that in the opening of the film if that's not even the story they were going for. Did they just forget it was there?

  • AudioSuede

    Oh, and P.S. Away We Go. That might be Sam Mendes's best movie.

  • Lovely Bones

    Ah, I love Away We Go. . Anyway, I think they included the prologue from the other drafts as an acknowledgement of the dropped subplot. I don't know why filmmakers do that, but it is a trend, like the non-sequitur inclusion of Charlie Sheen in Ferris Bueller, even though the subplot with him was dropped.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    People, people, space monsters:

    This Is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner. Now, I know you're all going to yell at me because of The Princess Bride and I can sympathize because I love that movie, too. But remember this gem:

    Working on a sex farm
    Plowing through your bean field
    Getting out my pitchfork
    Poking your hay

    And if you haven't you haven't watched the extended cut of 'Listen To What The Flower People Say', go to YouTube right now.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Second. People might try dig up evidence to counter this claim but, well - what can I say - you can't really dust for vomit.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    It's a Shark Sandwich out there.

  • Lovely Bones

    I *almost* concur with you. And believe it or not, I'm not disagreeing because of The Princess Bride, as great as it is. My counterpoint is Stand By Me. God, I love that film.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    That's a good one, too. Not quite as fun as a band having songs called 'Stinkin' Up The Great Outdoors', 'Warmer Than Hell' or The Sun Never Sweats', but still good. They've also got an ex-drummer who hasn't been seen since he sold his dialysis machine for drugs, but...but I'll allow your submission.

    And since I'm the gatekeeper I shall let you pass if you can identify which shapes in your grocery bag are circles and watch you eat them. Honourable Mention: Show me three triangles and feel free to check out some of wooden bridgework for inspiration.

  • Lovely Bones

    This Is Spinal Tap is quite frankly one of the best comedies ever made, probably, though it still remains below the Legendary Mel Brooks Trilogy (tm), among others. I do have a tendency to prefer the dramatic overall, though, even in my comedy, hence my favorite comedies often hitting on social issues, like Blazing Saddles, or my favourite episodes of comedy series such as Community, etc., being some of the most dramatic.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Ah, The French Mystique! Ah, Modern Warfare! Triumphs! Every time Blazing Saddles comes on, I think that I've seen it so many times, but then I think of that land boat at the end and it's over. It's over like Dungeons and Dragons in the study room.

    If anyone's still watching, the deleted scenes from Waiting For Guffman should have been in the movie.

  • Lovely Bones

    I do believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Jo. Or the continuation of one that inexplicably started at some point in the past that I don't remember, but my profile could probably inform me of if I put in the effort to check.

  • MissAmynae

    I'll totally back you up on that one. My husband's favorite film, and endlessly watchable. Even more astounding is that its a King adaptation, which are really easy to fuck up.

  • Lovely Bones

    Indeed they are, indeed they are, even as another one is right there on the list JoRo wrote out for us to nitpick.

  • MissAmynae

    Notice that its usually his short works that make good adaptations (The Shining a notable exception). Love the guy's works, but dang if King has trouble writing endings.

  • e jerry powell

    Ugh. The first (and, to date, only) Stephen King I've read was Carrie, and there were so many holes in the novel that I actually applauded the way that Cohen and de Palma threw out so much of it.

    Betty Buckley and Sissy Spacek worked that shit out, yo. More interesting ending in the film, too, though quite a bit of the trouble in the original novel is pretty much THE MIDDLE.

  • MissAmynae

    yeah, that book was pretty much shite. movie kept the best parts of it, and the 2 of them are just beyond.

  • Lovely Bones

    King's Carrie is entirely engineered to work for young teens, and is effective within that framework. Literally any attempt to visit or revisit it at a later date makes it just eye-rollingly problematic.

  • e jerry powell

    Oh, yeah. No doubt.

    That also explains the innumerable film/TV remakes/sequels/reboots/what have yous. Tap that youth market!

  • Lovely Bones

    I wouldn't say I'm much of a fan of his anymore, but yes, he certainly does struggle with endings and his short stories are generally easier to adapt. It's unfortunate that we won't get him signing off on adaptations that take more liberty with the material, though, after the debacle with The Shining. I suppose I get where he's coming from as a writer, but that film is so good.

  • MissAmynae

    When he's good, he's very very good...and when he's bad he's horrid. Insomnia vs. The Tommyknockers.

  • the dude

    no richard kelly?

  • Lovely Bones

    Already addressed and discussed further up on the thread, mate.

  • John G.

    Titus blew me away when I first saw it. I went back the next day with a friend to see it again. Few movies, let alone anything Taymor has done, have come close to how good that film was.

  • Boothy K

    Titus is one of my top ten re-watchable films of all time. It's gorgeous and it was right before Jessica Lange got plastic surgery (which I have been curiously very upset about - she was one of the last of the Hollywood beauties who hadn't taken the bait...)

  • e jerry powell

    I dunno. I like her Zauberflöte at the Met, even if it is clearly post-Lion King. It's going to get a lot of mileage.

    (Hey, you did say "anything Taymor has done.")

  • hasta

    There are people who think Dogma is the best Kevin Smith film? Huh. Which bible have they been reading?

  • Bigzilla

    I think we can forgive Frank Darabont. How many movies made by ANYONE since 1994 have been better than Shawshank?? Maybe 10? If that.

  • BlackRabbit

    Did you mean since 1994 or in 1994? Because the first is ridiculous.

  • Bigzilla

    I wrote it properly. SINCE. I, like many, believe Shawshank to be a masterpiece.

  • Lovely Bones

    Absolutely plenty. Shawshank is really good, no argument there, and I respect your feelings, but for me, Shawshank wasn't even the best film that came out that year. It was at best third, actually. It's a really solid, fairly conventional drama that lacks any personal impact for me.

  • Bigzilla

    I'm curious what you'd place in front of it in 1994. I'm guessing one of em is Pulp Fiction, but I would disagree. You feel Shawshank is overrated, I think Pulp Fiction is grossly overrated.

  • Lovely Bones

    I'd put Heavenly Creatures ahead of them both, at any rate.

  • Steph

    Totally agree with this. I thought it was fine and was baffled when I saw it was the highest rated film on imdb, had no idea it was so highly rated. Can someone explain the appeal?


    The music. That's pretty much it. But it's REALLY good.

  • Lovely Bones

    Yeah, I couldn't tell you either. I do really like that film, but it's not even my favourite Stephen King adaptation. It's a film that I can only appreciate at an arm's length, like a typical awards-hungry film, but you know, good. I don't have any personal investment in it.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser


  • e jerry powell

    Well played!

  • AudioSuede

    This Is 40 and Funny People are vastly underrated movies, IMO. Each one rang extremely personal and true. Sure, they weren't uproariously funny, but that wasn't the point of them; they were extremely poignant films exposing complicated and often very sad relationships.

    And Red State is Kevin Smith's best movie, and yes I mean that.

  • Uriah_Creep

    And Red State is Kevin Smith's best movie, and yes I mean that.

    And this is why you'll never be "VideoSuede".

  • AudioSuede


  • FabiusMaximus

    "And Red State is Kevin Smith's best movie, and yes I mean that."

    A movie that fails a basic storytelling? You've got odd taste.

  • AudioSuede

    Compared to Clerks, which has a totally traditional and normal plot, isn't ambling at all, and maintains anything other than film school blase. Totally.

  • Fabius Maximus

    Clerks? That movie that had decent dialogue, no plot holes you can fly a 747 through, a somewhat coherent story, as well as a distinct main character that you also could relate to? You know, the things Red State lacked?

    Also: Fuck Disqus. I still can't login.

  • AudioSuede

    Don't get me wrong, I think Clerks is pretty good for a one-time viewing. I just never understood the obsession people have with that movie.

    I don't remember any particular plot holes in Red State, but it's also a lot harder to have plot holes in a movie without a plot, like Clerks.

    And since when is it a requirement that a movie have a relatable lead character? There are countless movies, franchises even, built around totally unlikeable or unrelatable characters.

    And the dialogue in Red State was great! It was some of the least inane dialogue Kevin Smith ever wrote. It was the best-shot, best-acted, and most-exciting movie Smith has made to date, and the fact that he made it as a passion project for himself and not as a bone he throws to his fickle fanbase also makes it the most original thing he's done since, well, Clerks.

  • Arran

    I think both of those films could've been FANTASTIC if he'd just slashed 30 minutes from each. We don't need to see the extended DVD cut of a movie in theatres, Judd.

  • Richard E Kelly! Donnie Darko is amazing. the other two not so much

  • RantOver

    I'm in a tiny tiny minority here, but I absolutely love Southland Tales. It took like three watches to really get to grips with it, and that should be a criticism, but I really admire the way it treads the line between epic saga and sci-fi spoof.

    The tone is incredibly unique, every element down to the pop-star stunt casting (Buffy, Justin, The Rock!) to the crazy melodrama, the cheesy voice-over to the musical interludes, is so perfectly crafted to screw with you. And it's all designed to throw you off-track while the central plot deals with the greater topics of time travel, environmentalism, terrorism, war, surveillance... which are then further undermined and summed up beautifully in the porn star's topical chat show and pop song "teen horniness is not a crime"

    It hits you from all angles, and while most people I've spoken to HATE it and see it as a giant mess, I think it's a marvellous piece of work, stupidly entertaining and really re-watchable

  • Lovely Bones

    The greatness of Donnie Darko was practically accidental and not on Kelly's watch, so I'm not sure if it applies. (Just watch the godawful Director's Cut to see what I mean.)

  • there is a director's cut? (i know it exists) i just choose not to believe that it does like rocky 5 or jar jar binks

  • theotherone

    First Films are like First Albums. Most have be labored over for years or even decades and are hard to match. And because they are firsts viewers and listeners perceptions of them will always be biased because it was the first time you saw or heard.

  • theotheone

    ...a new voice.

  • e jerry powell

    Except for Janet Jackson, whose first two albums apparently don't count.

  • e jerry powell

    This is probably not going to be a positively received comment, but I would add Stephen Soderbergh to this list. I don't feel like he's been able to match sex, lies, and videotape for sheer encapsulation of the whole shebang. Plus, Spader at his Spader-iest, right?

    I can still read back the entire script, not something one might expect from someone who can also read back Steel Magnolias, Heathers, Greater Tuna, and the first three of Julia Sugerbaker's Terminator Tirades.

    And I'm not even reserving judgement until Behind the Candelabra, I'm calling it now.

    Just my call. Not saying that his work since 1989 hasn't been entertaining (particularly Gray's Anatomy, but then, I've always adored Spalding Gray), but really, that first one out of the gate set a ridiculously high standard.

  • AudioSuede

    I think this is a really well considered argument, but with a catalogue as deep and wide as his, it would be all but impossible to decide his "best" movie.

    Though I'm a little biased, because I will defend Magic Mike till the end of my days.

  • e jerry powell

    To be fair, I don't take Magic Mike seriously, mostly because I tend to look askance at films that engage my genitals before they engage my brain (not to suggest that that was Soderbergh's intent at all). Just a me thing, though.

  • Jensicola

    I would almost agree with you, except I believe Out of Sight is spectacular and extremely underrated. Otherwise, no I absolutely do not buy into the whole 'but it's SODERBERGH argument and am pleased to internet meet another with a similar sense of the guy.

  • e jerry powell

    Thanks. I'd upvote, but it might make that certain someone roll her eyes.

    (Love ya, Mrs. J! :-D)

  • Sofia

    Excellent list, Jo.

    Now I'm thinking back to the first time I watched 40 Year Old Virgin. That movie was so sweet and funny.

  • toblerone

    Kevin Smith — Clerks: Whoa whoa whoa, Mallrats, Dogma and Chasing Amy fans, put down your pitchforks

    You are wrong.

    Jay and Silent Bob Strike back and Clerks 2 were both great as well.

  • mats19

    plus red state was a pretty good movie... psychotic but good.

  • Boothy K

    I watch and love all of KS's movies....But I have a particular fondness for Mallrats. Even though I know it's not his "best". Maybe I sent too much time in malls in the early nineties...

  • Jezzer

    The Star Wars movies weren't really that good until Lucas got access to CGI and improved them for the re-release.

  • ed newman

    I love that at least 5 people didn't get this joke.

  • Lovely Bones

    I know way too many people that actually like the prequels and re-releases to instinctively take such a statement as a joke anymore.

  • e jerry powell

    I remember going to a Bears' Night Out potluck and being subjected to Episode 1 after being voted down, having brought The Women and All About Eve. It took me about ten minutes to pull my fingernails out of the chair arms from all the rage and indignation I felt so that I could retrieve my lasagna pan and beat a hasty retreat out of the northern 'burbs.

    Effing bear fanboys.

  • Mrs. Julien

    So it was a bumpy night?

  • e jerry powell


    I'm nobody's fool, least of all yours.


  • Lovely Bones

    I think you got out much worse than I did, then, and I'm sorry for that experience. I just had to deal with tasteless, insufferable teenagers.

  • e jerry powell

    "Improved" being an incredibly subjective term.

    He never felt the need to "improve" American Graffiti, did he?

  • kirivinokur

    Wow, Maxine Bahns. She was jawdroppingly awful.

  • mswas

    The twist at the end of this list is that there's no M. Night Shyamalan.

  • NoPantsMcLane

    Are you a big Praying with Anger fan?

  • e jerry powell

    What a twist!

  • Steph

    Well yeah, Unbreakable was his second film.

  • Lovely Bones

    Fourth, but the point still stands fine. Unbreakable is his only even remotely good film, that I've seen.

  • Arran

    Even if you don't count his super-cheap first film, it's actually his third. The twist is that the film everyone assumes is his debut, The Sixth Sense, is NOT. SPOOOOOOOOKYYYYYYY

  • Lovely Bones

    Poor Praying with Anger, no one ever remembers it. . Also, The Sixth Sense is awful.

  • Arran

    I'm not sure he remembers it himself.

  • JJ

    Edgar Wright - Shaun of the Dead (not that his others aren't great, just that Shaun has been the best of the bunch, for me)
    Sidney Lumet - 12 Angry Men (again, Network is great, but not 12 Angry Men great)
    James Cameron - Piranha Part Two: The Spawning

  • I must disagree. The Verdict is Lumet's best.

  • Arran

    I do love Shaun the most of all, but I figure the point of such a list would be to bring up film makers whose work, even if it's remained good, continues to get completely outshone by their first effort. Which isn't really the case with Wright, even if Shaun remains his most beloved. Same with Lumet; even if you do agree that 12 Angry Men is his best (and I might), he produced a LOT of incredible films after that.

    No argument about Piranha 2, of course.

  • JJ

    I get what you're saying, but I'd say that Lumet is much like Welles listing above (fantastic first entry with at least another great standout), and Smith's is very much like Wright's with the Clerks-Dogma-Mallrats versus Shaun-Hot Fuzz-Scott Pilgrim dilemmas.

    I'm not saying that my listing was obvious or expected, just a couple that may possibly fit that popped into my mind. And a Cameron cheapshot for good measure.

  • toblerone

    Totally disagree Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are both excellent films and equals in my book. Scott Pilgrim while still great isn't near the level of Wright's first 2 films.

  • Lovely Bones

    I'm legitimately torn over Edgar Wright, I can't decide between Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. *And* I love Scott Pilgrim as well, of course. I can't really argue with your Lumet choice, even if I personally prefer Network, but James Cameron is a definite disagreement. (To clarify, I hate Titanic and Avatar as much as any well-minded person would, but James Cameron actually made action movies that I could enjoy, which I literally thought was impossible, so the two Terminators and Aliens get a leg up based on that. Also, The Abyss.

  • JJ

    I like all of Wright's work as well, so I get that. And the Cameron mention was just a joke, because no one should ever forget that Cameron's first film was Piranha 2 and that Tim Burton's was
    Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

  • Lovely Bones

    Fair enough, I kind of figured it was meant as a joke, but I felt like making it into a discussion anyway. Except that Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is a legitimately good comedy, as far as I'm concerned.

  • JJ

    Yes, it is a legitimately good comedy. I'm not claiming otherwise, just that I don't think most people realize that it was Burton, let alone his directorial debut.

  • Lovely Bones

    Oh, absolutely. Almost no one I know in person, even those that consider themselves Burton fans for whatever reason, knows about that movie, and those that do rarely make the connection.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    The Tempest made me so sad. So very, very sad. It was a FANTASTIC cast (even Russell Brand was good), but I mean, be-boob'd raven Ben Whishaw and poor, poor Djimon Hounsou. Titus remains the only thing Taymor has done that hasn't made me sad. And mad.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I was so disappointed that Tempest was so...boring. I'd just done a production with a "Prospera" when it came out, and was all excited for it to be done well ('cause ours sure wasn't) but "yaaaaaawn"

  • TheOtherGreg

    Mike Judge. That is all.

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