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The Ultimate Choice #20: Directorial Debuts

2020/2021 has been incredible in terms of directorial debuts, with some wonderful films from the likes of Emerald Fennell, Regina King, and Radha Blank to only name a few. Using that for inspiration, I decided that for this edition of The Ultimate Choice, I would ask the question of what your favourite directorial debut is.

Here are our choices.

A Star is Born (2018)

Chosen by Amy Smith

It is no secret that I am a Bradley Cooper fan. It’s even started to be a part of my own identity, having “Campaigning for Bradey Cooper’s Oscar” in my bio since I made my new Twitter account in July 2019. However, I am still convinced that Bradley Cooper was worthy of winning at least one Oscar for his work in his directorial debut A Star is Born, and it has become a film that I simply adore for so many reasons.

I have only seen the film twice: once at the cinema and once at home. It is one of those films that I have to be in a certain mood to watch, purely because of how much it impacts me. Never have I cried so much in a cinema, particularly in the final act of a film. I was still tearing up on the bus ride home, that is how much this story and these performances by Cooper and co-star Lady Gaga impacted me.

For a directorial debut, Bradley Cooper did a phenomenal job. Not only did he direct the film, he produced, wrote, and starred in it. He made sure to also help with the soundtrack, working on his vocals and making the brave choice to perform all the of the music live to give authenticity to the film. I absolutely loved that choice, as it really elevated the film to another level. Quite simply, this film is one that will always mean a lot to me and I cannot wait to see what Cooper does next behind the camera.

Eighth Grade

Chosen by Kyle Snape: Twitter | Snape Reviews

Picking a favourite directorial debut was very tricky to figure out for a lot of reasons. For any filmmaker, it’s difficult to get everything perfect on your first go-around and that’s okay. Ironically in a lot of ways, saying this feels quite cathartic because with this director and his debut film, that mentality is translated into what I now see as one of my favourite films: Eighth Grade from Bo Burnham.

Though I’m personally not too familiar with Bo Burnham’s work prior to this, it’s so blatantly clear with Eighth Grade that his debut feature encapsulates that feeling many creatives and artists feel inside: the struggles of anxiety. The film is a coming of age tale about a young girl named Kayla, who is going through her last year of middle school. And through the film’s incredible intro showing her producing YouTube videos about the importance of confidence and your self-image, contradicted almost immediately with her timid demeanour at school, you immediately get what Burnham’s going for. While it’s not perhaps the most creatively extravagant debut film out there, it’s through great writing and performances where Burnham is able to put us into an introvert’s shoes. One who likes to think they are a lot more open and confident on the outside than one might portray. The film feels so rich and authentic in how it portrays teenagers in their little friendship groups that it also encapsulates that feeling of isolation Kayla feels inside.

One that makes her feel that she should have a sense of belonging with these other middle schoolers who don’t really care about her. Even as an English lad from Stoke-on-Trent who has never experienced American Middle School, I still feel the authenticity put into how that culture was represented, and a lot of it also comes from Burnham having the idea that most Hollywood producers usually don’t by actually CASTING TEENAGERS in these roles. Everything about Eighth Grade feels genuine, which means that when the film wants to go down some darker directions with its depictions of anxiety, it only makes things all the more emotionally impactful. Not because it’s being dramatic, but rather because it’s being minimalist and genuine in all the right ways. It’s an amazing directorial debut for Bo Burnham that won me over, not because it’s impressive, but because it feels true and really emotionally resonant for me.

Eighth Grade

Also chosen by Jerome Muscarella: Twitter | Jerome Reviews

Directorial Debuts can be what sets the tone for a director’s career. It’s very interesting to see what every director’s first film is like. It’s a taste of how much potential they have as a director and what they could do in the future. I have decided to talk about Eighth Grade, directed by Bo Burnham, a film that captures the awkwardness and life of being in Eighth Grade!

Eighth Grade is one of the many reasons why I absolutely love film, it’s one of those rare films that capture a part of a person’s life which in this case was when you were in 8th Grade. The movie was relatable in every single way possible the movie does a fanatic job of tackling its subject matter. What I especially love about this movie is it never sugarcoats anything, especially with the writing I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again.

A lot of movies like this tend to have writers who have no idea how kids talk or act like at all, but here it feels realistic and believable Bo Burnham nailed it in every way possible. Due to him doing actual research and making sure he nailed down the basics of how actually 8th Graders act. The characters in the movie felt real as well as the relationships between the characters, Elsie Fisher gives one of the best performances I’ve seen in these coming of age movies. Her delivery shows so much passion and talent it also shows how committed she was to her role. Josh Hamilton gives one of the most likable roles I’ve seen in a movie again like Elsie Fisher he is fully committed to his role and it really works.

The humor in this movie was pretty fascinating not only did it capture its own humor very well but it captured the humor you would find when talking about your 8th-grade year. It captured those “cringe” moments you look back at when you are a lot older, which is something that is extremely hard to capture. It runs the risk of being very corny, but here it was seriously well done due to Bo Burnham’s direction and the movie knew how to execute those moments well. The movie also does a fantastic job at balancing the humor and the serious moments, this is something that very few films ever do but here it feels balanced. When the humor kicks in it’s hilarious and when the moments you are supposed to take seriously kick in you take them seriously.

The filming is absolutely well done and I really liked the music as it added a lot to the film. I also really appreciate how this movie is so accurate about exploring an eighth-grader’s journey in trying to figure out who they are as a person with the awkward and glorious moments. You also feel extremely connected with the main character (Kayla) as she goes on this journey, it’s one of those rare films where I actually felt connected and cared about the main character throughout the whole film. As I said before the movie doesn’t sugarcoat anything at all, it’s 100% honest about what an eighth-grader is like and it’s extremely accurate. One of my absolute favorite moments is towards the end with Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton bonding it captures so much heart, love, and a very authentic relationship between father and daughter. Eighth Grade is a masterpiece. It shows us the very accurate life of an eighth-grader and Bo Burnham does a fantastic job with his directorial debut. It’s the type of film where you would think it was made by someone who’s directed other films before! But as I said before due to tons of time, carefully researching and planning, Bo Burnham perfected this film that will be remembered for many years to come!

Eighth Grade

Also chosen by Jacob Throneberry: Twitter | Music City Drive-In

Middle school can easily be some of the worst times of any person’s life. You’re right past being a child, but you aren’t fully a teenager yet. The world as you know it begins to grow tenfold, and with this newfound knowledge comes issues and problems you never thought you would have to deal with. Anxiety, depression, isolation, the need to fit in, middle school is when all of these really come to the forefront for a person, but you aren’t old enough and you don’t know enough about the world to handle everything. You are flooded with these emotions that you don’t understand, and it hurts. I’m sure there are people that have good memories from middle school, I had some good memories from middle school, but I can almost guarantee you that the vast majority of people will say that middle school was one of the worst times of their life.

For me, middle school was terrible. Everything I mentioned above happened to me as I was overcrowded with anxiety and stress I never knew I was able to have. One of the things that helped get me through this rough time was Bo Burnham, and so when I heard he was making a film about middle school, my excitement for this project rose to a place I have never been before. 

When I started watching this film, I could instantly see myself in Kayla. I was a shy and anxious kid, and certain situations in the film, the pool anxiety attack, played out almost pinpoint for me. It looked as though I was peering back into my life then, and what is still a part of my life now, and this film brought back all of those anxious moments.

But instead of getting beat up about it, or diving into panic mode, Bo Burnham did something that I will never be able to forgive him enough for, and that is showing what it is truly like to be in eighth-grade. He shows everything, the highs, the many lows, the awkward, embarrassing, and soul-crushing moments, he puts it all on-screen. As a 21-year-old I felt as seen as if I was a 13-year-old back in middle school. This film showed me that everyone goes through this sort of thing, but it also showed me there is nothing you can really do, but just trust that it will get better. You can’t fake confidence and pretend that everything will be okay because it won’t, but what I love so much about this movie is that it tells you it’s okay to not be okay.

This is a film I wish I had when I was younger, and I truly believe that in Bo Burnham’s directorial debut he crafted the most important coming-of-age movie there has ever been. A film that pulls back gender, race, etc., and shows that every kid, no matter who they are, could be going through these same issues. They could have these same problems, and there is no need to fight it or think that you are any less because of it. You have to trust that things will get better.

The scene by the fire is one of my favorite moments of all time, and it is a moment I wish I was able to have with my parents. It is a gut-wrenching and hard moment to get through, but it is incredibly necessary to finally have that talk with her dad and to get these emotions out into the world. She was done hiding away and was able to confide in the person who loves her the most, and I really hope parents watch this with their kids and understand their need to be there for them.

No, Bo Burnham didn’t have the most elaborate or grand directorial debut of all time. But, I think he had one of the most compelling as he was able to capture the childhood and middle school experience like no one has before. The sense of longing and pain that many people deal with today can find its roots in middle school, and the way Bo was able to face those issues and embrace them in a way that forced you to try to understand yourself better instead of fighting yourself, was downright genius. If I am ever lucky enough to have children of my own, this will be a movie I will show them when they get to this age, and for anyone who does have children around this age, watch this movie with them, and maybe try to help them understand what they are exactly going through because I bet it looks a lot like Eighth Grade.

12 Angry Men

Chosen by Samuel Preston: Twitter | Cultured Vultures

When looking over the list of directorial debuts, I specifically wanted to keep to debuts for a feature film that was always planned for cinema. This meant excluding TV films that were transitioned into cinema, such as Steven Spielberg’s Duel (thereby eliminating the masterpiece that is Jaws), or home-made movies that went big like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. I had considered Steve McQueen’s Hunger, but I felt that as good as it is, I wouldn’t consider it a favourite film, unlike Shame. I also wanted to move away from the expected horror films, which meant no Babadook by Jennifer Kent, Get Out by Jordan Peele, or even technically James Cameron’s The Terminator. Even with all of those caveats in place, I realised there were two favourites that I couldn’t look past, the first of which is the very obvious The Shawshank Redemption by Frank Darabont. However, my favourite may actually be the 1957 classic 12 Angry Men.

Directed by a debuting Sidney Lumet, who later in his career also directed Al Pacino in two of his finest performances in Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, as well as the impactful Network, Lumet would be nominated for an Academy Award for his work on 12 Angry Men. Although he wouldn’t win an award, being nominated for a directorial debut at that time was extremely rare, having only occurred previously with Orson Welles and Delbert Mann (Marty), and only fifteen others have earned that privilege (as of 2017). What makes it all the more impressive was that Lumet had an uncinematic story, that of a jury debating an accused murderer’s innocence in a single jury room.

The expectation could have been for Lumet to overcompensate with overly intricate camera shots, likely distracting from the story itself, but instead, Lumet utilises a surprising confidence to allow the story to breathe and only accentuate the tension depicted by the actors. There’s a subtle use of cinematography and shot set-up, beginning with wide shots that encompass the majority of the jury room, demonstrating special awareness that creates a laidback atmosphere. However, as the tension begins to increase between the jury members, and the air conditioner breaks, the camera starts becoming intrusive, crafting extreme close-ups that displays every ounce of sweat, emotion, and uncertainty.

Instead of forcing cinematic shots upon a character-based story, Lumet makes the characters a cinematic experience, demonstrating an immersive experience that draws the audience in. This builds to a high-tensioned ending where Lumet uses the energy in the room to a hard-hitting culmination, at which point, Lumet releases the tension by retracting the camera, returning to its original state. A simplistic method of a film director that guides without overwhelming or choking the film through overused tropes or needless stylistic antics. Instead, the film is a demonstration of a future master who didn’t feel a need to make himself the story, because he was already good enough, he was just waiting for the world to catch up.

12 Angry Men

Also chosen by Calum Cooper: Twitter | In Their Own League

Imagine crafting your first feature film and it ends up becoming one of the greatest films of all-time. That is precisely the case with Sidney Lumet’s directorial debut, 12 Angry Men. Lumet had a prolific and titanically successful career that included gems like Network and Before the Devil knows you’re Dead. Yet 12 Angry Men, despite being his first feature, remains his magnum opus.

Lumet began his career directing stage plays. Thus it makes sense that his first film was an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s 1954’s teleplay of the same name. The premise is brilliant: 12 jurors have just listened to a trial of a young man and must discuss their verdict. If he is found guilty he will be executed and the vote needs to be unanimous. 11 of the men vote guilty, but 1 (Henry Fonda) believes there is room for reasonable doubt.

Perhaps the genius of the film lies in its limitations. Outside of a few minutes, it all takes place in one room. Our knowledge of the case, and even the jurors themselves, comes from their discussion and the way they conduct themselves. Yet the way everyone strives to make their voice heard – be it through aggression or reasoning – is nothing short of riveting. Lumet is especially clever in his use of cinematography, generating claustrophobia and showcasing camera angles that gradually rise and fall depending on which way the verdict is swinging. All the while visceral dialogue builds on the tension and absorbs us in the numerous colourful personalities that occupy the jury.

Between the verbal clashes, Lumet explores themes of justice, innocence, doubt, and even nods to class and familial prejudice. He does this with outstanding devotion to mise en scene, and staunch trust in his actors, notably Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, the most vocal advocate of the defendant’s guilt. The fact that none of the characters or locations are named until the end lends a universality that seeps into the very fabric of the story. In fact, reimagined stageplays are still performed to this day. Times have changed but the film remains relevant.

12 Angry Men is a prime example of achieving maximum results with very little. Perfectly paced, tightly written, and directed as though helmed by a master, it is perhaps the ultimate in directorial debuts. Suspenseful, thought-provoking, and utterly timeless, cinema simply does not get better than this

Lady Bird

Chosen by Morgan Roberts: Twitter | In Their Own League

“I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.”
“What if this is the best version?”

While Lady Bird is not the first time Greta Gerwig ventured behind the camera, it was her first solo trip as director of a film. Masterfully crafted, this film is an homage to youth, love, and insecurity.

A lot and almost nothing happens in Lady Bird. That’s life: everything and nothing. We follow the titular character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, through her final year of high school, as she makes plans for the rest of her life. It is a giant task we ask children to make every year. And looking back at 17, everything felt huge, so of course, this task felt astronomical. Gerwig does not shy away from the grandiose nature of youth, whether it is deciding on your college of choice or falling head over heels for someone, it is all big.

The film’s cast is pitch perfect in each of their roles. Helming the film is Saoirse Ronan. She exudes earnestness in her portrayal of the over-the-top Lady Bird. Ronan balances the opposing natures of Lady Bird (secure and insecure, boisterous and timid, precocious and afraid) so easily. You cannot help but fall in love with this character. Laurie Metcalfe perfectly plays Lady Bird’s mother, Marion: a woman who deeply loves her child despite being immensely disappointed with how infrequent her daughter meets her expectations. Until now, I had thought about how Marion also has opposing qualities to her as well. Like mother, like daughter.

The supporting cast of Beanie Feldstein as BFF Julie, Lucas Hedges as sweet Danny, Timothee Chalamet as bad boy Kyle, and Tracey Letts as best movie dad Larry complete Lady Bird’s world of characters. Each performance and each interaction with Lady Bird help unfold this complicated young woman. The complexity of each character makes each of them feel like someone you know or someone that you used to be.

The complexity of people: I think that is what I love so much about Gerwig’s first film. It is bold in its honesty about insecurity, precociousness, grandness of youth. Gerwig gives our younger selves the love and attention we needed and might not have received back then. The love and attention we sought in others and in ourselves.

Lady Bird

Also chosen by Billie Melissa: Twitter | Portfolio

Love affairs with big cities are synonymous with a certain kind of teenager who grew up in small corners of the world romanticising the prospect of anonymity in streets walked by writers, poets, and artists. The idea that your story may somehow entwine with theirs, and that you, too, have a chance of sharing the same fortune is a dream few dare to pursue. 

Greta Gerwig is one of those dreamers, who thread moments from her teenage years carefully between the characters of her solo-directorial debut, Lady Bird. The effervescent Christine McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan, has dreams of fleeing suburban Sacramento for places “where writers live in the woods.” In her 2018 article for the NYTimes, titled My Mother, My City Gerwig reminisces on the foundation of her love affair with NYC that led to her eventual move. “It was my city, or I wanted it to be … this place I had wanted so badly to be part of was still a mystery,” a realisation Gerwig came to upon arrival – it is memories like this that she captures so well in Lady Bird. 

Towards the end, a slightly intoxicated Christine finds herself at the gates of First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village the morning after an intoxicated visit to the hospital. A choir is harmonising to Rosa Mystica, and nostalgia for a childhood she barely made time to appreciate washes over her, as she reveals all the adoration for her hometown to her parent’s voicemail. I think the moments of tender specificity is what led Lady Bird to its critical and audience success. Gerwig so pertinently evokes that recognisable feeling of leaving home for a life that you have long imagined, only to find an overwhelming sense that childhood has ended and now “life” truly begins.

Gerwig’s filmography is so rich in emotion, felt by people from all walks of life. My first viewing was at the Curzon in Soho, where every laugh, every tear, and every bated breath was audible from each corner of the sold-out screening. Her pursuit of telling stories where women and girls are free to be their nuanced selves in the unfiltered light will liberate an entire generation of storytellers who now feel their experiences are worthy of being 30-feet tall.

The Cabin in the Woods

Chosen by Story at the Core: Twitter | Short Film Studio Twitter

“You are the real monster.” 

It’s almost a cliche in horror. From Dawn of the Dead criticizing the audience’s mindless consumerism to a 2018 slasher movie literally titled You Might Be The Killer (2018), horror movies have constantly criticized the audience and suggested we may be the real monster 

But no horror movie has villainized the audience quite as literally as Drew Goddard’s directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods (2011), which uses audience surrogates to suggest that the audience is both the villain and the only really evil character. 

The meta reading of the film suggests that the entire plot is a metaphor for filmmaking: The underground lab is a film studio, casually torturing its characters just to “keep the customer satisfied”. In this interpretation, we are the Ancient Ones, the sadistic spectators. Hadley and Sitterson want to save the world. Dana and Marty just want to save our friends. But what do the Ancient Ones want? We want – no, we demand – to see characters suffer and die for our entertainment. And if our demands are not met, we end the entire fictional universe. The meta-narrative says every character is just an innocent victim of our desire for blood and guts. 

But the other audience surrogate suggests that we may not just be villains, but also the “bad guys”. Early on in the film, Holden acts as an audience, looking through a one-way mirror, which allows him to watch Dana while separating himself from her. It’s a literal fourth wall. But this audience surrogate immediately looks away from Dana’s undressing, and the actual audience congratulates him on his decency… as we continue to watch her undress. We have to wonder “Why are we not OK with him watching, but we’re OK with us watching? Why do we hold ourselves to a lower standard than this character?” and maybe for the first time in a horror movie, we wonder “Are we the bad guys here?” The Cabin in the Woods uses The Ancient Ones and Holden as contrasting audience surrogates to accuse us of the sin of wanting the characters to suffer and committing cinematic voyeurism. In other words: our sin is wanting to watch horror movies. In the process, The Cabin in the Woods questions our role and responsibility as audience members, suggesting that if this is what we want to watch, maybe we are the real monster.

Molly’s Game

Chosen by Joey Gentile: Twitter

Aaron Sorkin is arguably one of the most accomplished and talented writers in film. He is the mastermind behind classic stories such as A Few Good Men, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, and The Social Network. In 2017, Sorkin made his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, a biographical crime drama starring Jessica Chastain in the leading role and co-starring Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and Michael Cera. The film follows Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic-class skier, as she navigates her rise and downfall in becoming the host of the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. 

Molly’s Game is an incredible testament to how a good story can make an audience feel. What is so ingenious about Sorkin’s method of storytelling is that he plants the seeds for several plotlines at the beginning of a story and manages to water each throughout the film so we are equally invested in each one’s growth. A part of his style is that at the end of each of his films, he shows us that there really weren’t multiple seeds, but just one that developed an elaborate system of roots. From Molly’s relationship and then conflict with Player X (Michael Cera) to her struggles with the FBI and her lawyer (Idris Elba), Sorkin then gives us the scene at the end with Molly and her father where they reconcile and track all of the current problems back to their discord in the past: one of the first storylines established. 

With a runtime of almost two and a half hours, Sorkin accomplishes a feat lost on most filmmakers producing a similarly lengthened work in that he keeps the audience engaged throughout. He used interesting and creative shots and the cinematography provided by Charlotte Bruus Christensen was absolutely stunning and beautiful to watch. 

I can’t go any further without talking about the stellar acting performances we were fortunate enough to see. Jessica Chastain gave what I think is her best performance to date and Idris Elba is always a treasure. Kevin Costner and Michael Cera shocked me with their range. After watching The Untouchables, I appreciate his role in this even more because it shows that he is capable of having a range as an actor. I hadn’t seen Cera in a genuinely serious role before and I thought he played it fantastically and it was a refreshing experience. I recommend Molly’s Game to anyone who appreciates good filmmaking. It is absolutely fantastic and Sorkin more than delivers in his directorial debut.

The Shawshank Redemption

Chosen by Chay Strudwick: Twitter | Letterboxd

Whilst many directors take years to hone their craft, directing multiple movies before they finally ‘breakout’, many directors are instant hits. Picking a favourite directorial debut was no easy feat, even when you only consider the last 10 years, we have had many fantastic debuts: Get Out by Jordan Peele, Ex Machina by Alex Garland, or Lady Bird by Greta Gerwig. However, there is none that compares to that of The Shawshank Redemption by Frank Darabont.

Not only is it a wonderful first feature film by Darabont, but he also crafted what is considered one of the greatest films of all time. The Shawshank Redemption has ranked #1 on IMDB’s Top 250 movies for years and also has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. Everything in The Shawshank Redemption is the work of a master at the height of their craft. To consider that this was Darabont’s feature directorial debut is incredible. Every element is beautifully put together: the acting performances, the score, dialogue combined with a slow build of tension culminating in what is arguably the greatest ending in film history. Darabont expertly uses narration as a story technique, allowing us to delve into the mind of the characters and learn their motivations. Shawshank is a film that puts all of Darabont’s skills on display, the fact this came in his first feature is even more impressive.

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