The Best Directorial Debuts: Post-1990

A director is one of the most important roles in the making of a film; every one of them has to start somewhere and in modern times, it can be very difficult to break into the industry. Therefore, when some are given their big break, they ensure their debut is a strong and superior piece. With this in mind, let’s explore some of the greatest directorial debuts that have blessed our screens since the nineties:


Donnie Darko7. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)

“ 26 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world ends.”

Starting off our list is the 2001 film Donnie Darko, directed by Richard Kelly. Donnie Darko was originally a flop, only making $100,000 in its opening weekend from a rumoured budget of $6 million. After its DVD release it rose to cult status, gathering a large following. Some of the reasons for its later growth was due to its dark humour, highly quotable dialogue and its creative representation of thematics. This was one of the first films that featured Jake Gyllenhaal as the protagonist and can be partially responsible for him now being a household name, which is no surprise considering his perfect performance that captures the juvenile nature of Donnie. Though this was a great debut from Kelly, he has since been unable to replicate the success of Donnie Darko.


11897076_10204709245587549_693224008_n6. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

It is rare in modern times to see someone with no previous directing experience, in any form, employed to direct a film but that is exactly what happened with Alex Garland and his 2015 film Ex Machina. Garland, who had written 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007) for Danny Boyle, and had a hand in writing Dredd (2012), kicked his directing career off with this self-written, dialogue based sci-fi drama. Ex Machina drew criticism for a lack of action for its genre, despite being more of a thought-provoking conversation about the superiority of AI, as well as what makes someone human. Garland portrays this well with his complex characters (most notably Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac) and machine-like cinematography.


11911587_10204709246707577_1102477593_n5. Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2010)

“Most people think of themselves as individuals, that there’s no one on the planet like them. This thought motivates them to get out of bed, eat food and walk around like nothing’s wrong. My name is Oliver Tate.”

Richard Ayoade, well known for starring as Maurice Moss in the hit TV sitcom The IT Crowd, and for directing various music videos for huge bands such as Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian and Vampire Weekend, started his feature directing career in 2010 with Submarine, a bleak film that follows a young schoolboy, Oliver Tate, dealing with themes of depression, infidelity and young relationships, showing how difficult it can be when you’re growing up. Ayoade uses a unique style of cinematography and poetic dialogue to immerse the viewer into the life of Oliver and his struggle to do what’s best for everyone. Ayoade has since gone on to direct The Double in 2014, keeping the surreal style that makes Submarine so brilliant.


11897134_10204709247667601_2048967850_n4. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

“My motto is that if you want to win the lottery You’ve got to make money to get a ticket.”

As with Garland and Ex Machina, fourth on our list is directed by someone with no previous directing experience. I am of course talking about Nightcrawler, the 2014 film directed by Dan Gilroy. The premise of this film is pretty questionable: an ambitious man who is desperate to be employed finds out that he has a gift in freelance crime journalism. However, don’t be fooled, Nightcrawler is a gripping drama about the ethics of journalism and how the news will spin any story for higher ratings. With an Oscar nomination for its screenplay (written by Gilroy himself) and a stellar performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, the only thing that lets Nightcrawler down is the seemingly rushed ending, which sees the huge build up lead to a very small pay-off.


11913114_10204709249507647_1812425139_n3. Pi (Darren Aronofsky, 1998)

“When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere.” 

Darren Aronofsky, director of Requiem For A Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010), started his directing career with the gritty and unique Pi which follows Max, a paranoid mathematician, as he tries to find a way to predict the behaviour of the stock market. The story of Pi, however, is so much more than that; it is also about religion, the government and the statement that everything in the world can be understood using numbers. The Harvard educated director clearly converts that into a film that is intellectually challenging for the viewer yet still relatively easy to understand for an active viewer. Aronofsky creates a tone in Pi, with its stylistic black and white and fluctuating editing pace that is frantic and suspenseful, which enhances the hard to watch scenes that feature in almost all of his films.


11913307_10204709251187689_2023821233_n2. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1991)

“You know what this is? It’s the worlds smallest violin playing just for the waitresses.”

The story been done a thousand times before, a heist that goes wrong. However, to this day, no film since has been able to portray that as well as Reservoir Dogs, starting Quentin Tarantino’s illustrious career with a bang and overload of swearing. The films success is often attributed to different things, whether it’s the films success at Sundance Festival or its controversial violence surrounding the infamous ear scene, but no one can deny that Reservoir Dogs was an instant classic. The way that Tarantino directs the film puts it apart from many other crime films, with lingering shots to leave the scenes to the audience’s imagination and characters that make it easy to empathise with criminals. Since his debut, Tarantino has made many instant classics like Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill (2003 & 2004), and is still going strong with his latest venture The Hateful Eight currently in post-production.


11880523_10204709253787754_959627630_n1. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

“My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.”

It is not common for a film with a first time director to be a big success critically, let alone for it to to win five Academy Awards and be nominated for three more, but that is exactly what American Beauty achieved. Mendes won himself an Oscar for directing along whilst the film also won the awards for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) and Best Cinematography. This is a huge achievement for any feature debut director. The film in itself is near perfection, whether it’s the beautiful and creative cinematography, complex characters, interesting use of imagery, compelling and twisting storyline, or the score that emphasises the tone. American Beauty has a clear message that something can look ‘normal’ from the outside but be completely different on the inside. Since directing this hit, Mendes has had major success with films such as Jarhead (2005) and his James Bond entry Skyfall (2012), which he is currently following up by directing Spectre which is now in post-production.


Do you agree with the entries to this list? Would you add any post-1990 directorial debuts?

Comment with your thoughts.

– Dom Shaw

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One thought on “The Best Directorial Debuts: Post-1990

  1. Pingback: The Best Directorial Debuts: Pre-1990 | Eyes on Screen

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