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7 best directorial debuts ever, ranked

Two men point guns at each other in Reservoir Dogs.
Reservoir Dogs Miramax

Oftentimes, a director’s first film is meant to be something of a calling card. The film itself may not be the director’s best work, but it is a signal of what they would be capable of with more resources. Sometimes, though, a director emerges so fully formed that their very first movie ranks among the best things they’ve ever made, and, sometimes, among the best movies of all time.

Those instances are rare, but they often come from the most legendary directors that Hollywood has ever produced. We’ve found the seven best directorial debuts ever made and compiled them here:

7. Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird | Official Trailer HD | A24

Barbie‘s Greta Gerwig technically co-directed one movie before Lady Bird, but this 2017 feature signaled the full emergence of her as a director worth watching and catapulted her all the way to the Oscars. This semi-autobiographical film tells the story of a teenage girl living in Sacramento in the early 2000s as she navigates her senior year of high school and ultimately has to decide what kind of person she wants to be.

Thanks to brilliant central performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird feels both real and deeply heartfelt and was all the proof we needed that Gerwig was going to be major.

6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

George Romero’s low-budget zombie thriller should feel like a B-movie, but instead, it remains an absolute classic of its genre. The film, which spends most of its running time following a single group of random survivors who have gathered in a house together, makes its low budget work for it as it sets up several fascinating dynamics within its core ensemble.

The movie’s ultimate message and shocking ending were a harsh reminder about the ways we too often see one another. Night of the Living Dead is a thriller, to be sure, but it also manages to be about something much more than just thrills.

5. Get Out (2017)

Get Out - In Theaters This February - Official Trailer

2017 was a big year for first-time directors. Jordan Peele’s Get Out landed with such an immediate splash that it gave Peele all the credibility he needed to take even bigger swings with his next two films.

The film’s trenchant observations about race were part of what propelled it to success, but what Peele proved most completely was his total assurance as a director who goes after big ideas. Perhaps the least surprising thing about Get Out is that it’s also deeply funny, but that bewitching combination is crucial to the film’s ultimate success.

4. 12 Angry Men (1957)

12 ANGRY MEN (1957) | Official Trailer | MGM

Adapting a play set almost completely in a single room may not seem like the biggest challenge for a director, but Sidney Lumet found ways to make 12 Angry Men riveting even though he was confined almost completely.

Telling the story of a single jury as they wrestle with a complicated trial and the connected questions of racism that it raises, the movie still feels eerily relevant even more than 60 years later. 12 Angry Men has held up thanks to its dazzling script and performances but also thanks to Lumet’s remarkably assured direction.

3. Boyz n the Hood (1991)

BOYZ N THE HOOD [1991] - Official Trailer (HD)

Few directors have emerged on the scene with more force than John Singleton. Boyz n the Hood tells the story of three teenage boys living in South Central Los Angeles as their paths diverge as they approach adulthood.

Featuring a towering supporting performance from Laurence Fishburne and some breathtaking attention to detail, Boyz n the Hood feels so lived in that you really mourn right alongside the central characters as the film’s tragedies continue to pile up.

2. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992) Official Trailer #1 - Quentin Tarantino Movie

Rarely has a director emerged as fully formed as Quentin Tarantino did with Reservoir Dogs. The movie, which follows the aftermath of a heist that has gone horribly wrong, is filled with all of the trademark quippiness and violence that would come to define much of Tarantino’s output.

And, thanks to outstanding performances from Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, and Michael Madsen, the movie has an ensemble cast worthy of its incredible script. Reservoir Dogs may not be Tarantino’s very best movie, but given how many great movies he’s made, it’s impressive that it’s even in the conversation.

1. Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941) Official Trailer #1 - Orson Welles Movie

A movie so widely respected and acclaimed that it’s easy to forget that it was also Orson Welles, Citizen Kane tells the lightly fictional story of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper magnate who has all the money in the world but seems fundamentally unhappy anyway. The film was loosely based on William Randolph Hearst, but what has allowed Citizen Kane to endure is the deeply innovative way it was filmed.

Even today, many of the movie’s shots remain among the most widely recognized in film history. Orson Welles would go on to have a long career in Hollywood, but Citizen Kane remains his most lasting achievement, and with good reason.

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Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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