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.