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The 15 greatest directorial debut feature films of all time

When the legacies of filmmakers are explored by future generations, they are usually seen as a complete body of work. However, their directorial debuts often provide important precursors to their later achievements which is why the first few additions to an artist’s filmography always attract critical attention.

There are a lot of lists about directorial debuts on the internet but most of them focus on Eurocentric canons or American works which is why we have decided to highlight important cinematic milestones from all around the world. From Japan to Mauritania, this selection of films should be essential viewing for all film fans.

While talking about the subject of impactful directorial debuts, most people will immediately think of classics such as Citizen Kane or 12 Angry Men among other popular gems. With this list, we hope to expand the canon of great directorial debuts to include filmmaking pioneers from different countries whose works facilitated the evolution of the cinematic medium.

Check out the list below.

The 15 greatest directorial debut features:

15. That Day, on the Beach (Edward Yang, 1983)

Edward Yang was one of the most acclaimed leaders of the incredible Taiwanese New Wave and That Day, on the Beach was his beautiful debut feature. Often regarded as the start of the New Wave in the country, this 1983 gem proves that Yang had it in him from the start.

Dealing with the subject of friendship and human connection, the film explores the reunion of two old friends who haven’t seen each other in a very long time. It also features the cinematography of the iconic visionary Christopher Doyle who ended up winning accolades for his work.

14. Young Törless (Volker Schlöndorff – 1966)

A fantastic adaptation of The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil, this 1966 work is a milestone within the context of the New German Cinema. Set in the early 20th century, the film conducts an unforgettable analysis of an Austrian military academy.

“They’re like young dogs fighting with each other,” the director explained. “It’s rites of initiation, in a sense. And so I found that very personal experience in Musil, while at the same time there was an amazing parallel to what had happened in Germany and how the Nazis had taken over an entire society. But frankly, I thought this was going to be my only movie based on literature.”

13. The Hart of London (Jack Chambers, 1970)

Canadian artist Jack Chambers is still remembered as a towering pioneer, having conducted many experiments in different mediums over the course of an interesting career. However, this 1970 feature remains the crowning achievement of his filmography.

An experimental film about human mortality as well as the state of the world, The Hart of London pushes the boundaries of the cinematic medium which is why filmmaking genius Stan Brakhage referred to it as “one of the greatest films ever made”.

12. Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)

Bruce Robinson’s 1987 gem Withnail & I has become one of the most beloved cult films in the UK and there’s good reason for that. Loosely based on Robinson’s own experiences, the film revolves around two unemployed actors who only consume alcohol and drugs.

Withnail & I has been a continuing source of inspiration for filmmakers and comedians all over the world. Despite the lacklustre commercial response at the time of the film’s release, Robinson’s debut feature is now counted among Britain’s finest.

11. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo, 2018)

Probably the greatest film made in the last decade, An Elephant Sitting Still has become immortalised in the world of cinema due to its striking vision as well as the dark details surrounding the production of this four-hour epic set in a bleak Northern China province.

A metaphysical exploration of existentialism and the search for purpose in modern life, An Elephant Sitting Still has been praised by the likes of Gus Van Sant and Béla Tarr among others. Sadly, the filmmaker took his own life after finishing this magnificent debut feature.

10. Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

Sergei Eisenstein is often cited as one of the most important figures in the history of cinema. Known for his more popular films such as Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein’s pioneering experiments with the medium are still discussed by students and scholars.

This 1925 work was Eisenstein’s first feature-length film and it laid the groundwork for the director’s unique sensibilities. Focusing on a strike organised by workers in pre-revolutionary Russia, Eisenstein uses unprecedented editing and visual styles to present this compelling story.

9. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1978)

The most famous film that emerged from the iconic L.A. Rebellion movement, Killer of Sheep is a pivotal landmark in the history of Black filmmaking and cinema in general. Submitted as Burnett’s thesis for graduate school, the film eschews conventional storytelling while delving into the lives of the Black community living in Los Angeles’ Watts district. 

Burnett said: “The thing about making films about people of colour is that studios don’t want the depth and dimensions that take place. You try to make it realistic and true to life and then you have people at the door saying, ‘No. I want it this way or that way.’ They have no clue what it was like there.”

8. Soleil O (Med Hondo, 1967)

Mauritanian-born filmmaker Med Hondo made a significant impact when his debut feature Soleil O was finally shown to the wider world during film festivals such as Cannes and Locarno. The film’s legacy lives on as newer generations continue to discover Hondo’s genius.

Made on a shoestring budget (raised by Hondo through his job of dubbing American films into French) over the course of four years, Soleil O follows the journey of a Black immigrant who travels to France looking for better prospects only to be confronted by blatant racism.

7. Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s filmography has received a lot of attention from fans as well as scholars and this 1961 masterpiece marked the beginning of his incredible body of work. While Pasolini had previously worked on several writing projects, Accattone proved his genius as a director.

The film tells the story of a man who can only be described as a parasite, living in relative comfort by pimping women and exploiting whatever he can. However, he is forced to rethink his life choices when his highest earner is sent to prison.

6. Maborosi (Hirokazu Koreeda, 1995)

Hirokazu Koreeda is among the most important filmmakers working today, having created masterpieces such as Nobody Knows and Shoplifters. During this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival, his South Korean debut feature Broker is also set to premiere which has garnered a lot of attention.

However, Koreeda’s early works are just as important as some of his later achievements. Although Koreeda directed a documentary in 1994, Maborosi was his first fictional feature film which focuses on the difficult life of a woman whose husband commits suicide out of nowhere.

5. Black Girl (Ousmane Sembène, 1966)

Ousmane Sembène’s legacy is towering when one realises the extent of his accomplishments and this 1966 gem Black Girl paved the way for his later successes. The first feature ever released by a sub-Saharan African filmmaker, Black Girl is a postcolonial masterpiece.

This particular film changed the entire trajectory of African cinema, depicting the colonial conflicts through the life of a woman who is hired as a governess by a French family but is constantly dehumanised and is reminded of her racial realities.

4. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

This particular entry requires no introduction since it is present on almost every list of the greatest directorial debuts. It definitely merits that categorisation since Orson Welles’ influential film provided a basic framework for the auteur theory.

Through the incorporation of a unique visual grammar, Welles conducted a thorough analysis of the human condition by exploring the fundamental structures of capitalism and the rampant corruption of the institutions that we take for granted.

3. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)

There are few Indian filmmakers who have achieved the global recognition that Satyajit Ray received and it all started with Panther Panchali – the first part of the iconic Apu trilogy which is considered to be among the finest Indian films ever made.

Influenced by the Italian neorealism movement, Ray presented a vision of rural Bengal that was so powerful it moved audiences all over the world despite the cultural and linguistic barriers. No conversation about impactful directorial debuts can be complete without mentioning this masterpiece.

2. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

Charles Laughton’s enigmatic horror film The Night of the Hunter wasn’t just his directorial debut but it was the only film he ever directed in his career. He never made another feature again because the initial reaction to the film was very unfavourable.

In the years that followed, more and more critics recognised that The Night of the Hunter was a singular presence in the history of American filmmaking. Since then, it has become a part of the canon of film studies while others have maintained it is the greatest work of American cinema.

1. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)

One of the first films that set the French New Wave in motion, The 400 Blows marked the beginning of the remarkable Antoine Doinel saga. Beautifully portrayed by Jean-Pierre Léaud, this film is among the greatest coming-of-age works in history.

Based on Truffaut’s own turbulent childhood, we are transported to the streets of Paris inhabited by Antoine Doinel as he evades the hostile conditions of his home as well as the repressive mechanisms of school. The final scene of The 400 Blows might just be the most liberating experience that the cinematic medium has conjured up.