1. Robert Redford – Ordinary People (1980)
Robert Redford’s directorial career has largely been defined by a number of successful, though decidedly ‘safe’ pictures. Quiz Show, The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Horse Whisperer are fine films, though hardly ones that would put him in the upper-echelons of directors. However, his greatest distinction came with his 1980 debut.
A domestic drama starring Donald Sutherland, Ordinary People provided one of the greatest Oscar upsets of all time, when Redford beat out Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull in both the Best Director and Best Picture Category.
2. Robert De Niro – A Bronx Tale (1993)
De Niro is no stranger to New York crime stories, so it perhaps came as no surprise that his first film as a director would involve a couple of wise guys. Young Calogera (Lillo Brancato) is a kid growing up in the 1960s. Like Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas, he’s obsessed with the low level mobsters he sees on the streets every day.
When a local hood (Chazz Palmentieri) takes a shine to him, the boy finds himself pulled between his decent, straight-laced dad (De Niro) and this new potential father figure.
Despite his experience with Martin Scorsese, this first film by De Niro actually looks more like a Spike Lee film; the stylised POV shots and atmosphere of warm summery nostalgia evoke Do the Right Thing more than Taxi Driver.
De Niro has since only directed one other film: his 2006 history of the CIA, The Good Shepherd starring Matt Damon.
3. Sarah Polley – Away from Her (2006)
As the least recognisable name on this list, Sarah Polley’s achievements are nonetheless pretty impressive. As an actress, you may remember her as the young girl from Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen or as the lead in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Although IMDb cites a 2002 film called All I Want for Christmas as her feature debut, her first significant work was this 2006 drama.
Based on a story by Alice Munro, it concerned a woman (Bridget Christie) suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and the affect her deteriorating condition has on her husband. For such a young director, Polley had an extraordinary control on the rather sensitive subject matter. She coaxed an Oscar-nominated performance from Christie and her film ended up on the year’s Top Ten list of many major critics.
Polley has since made the Michelle Williams/Seth Rogen drama Take This Waltz and an excellent documentary portrait of her own family, Stories We Tell.
4. Joseph Gordon Levitt – Don Jon (2013)
Despite being just 33, Gordon-Levitt has already had over two decades experience in film and television (we all remember him as long-haired Tommy from Third Rock from the Sun). And having worked with such respected directors as Christopher Nolan, Gregg Araki and Rian Johnson, it was perhaps only a matter of time before he stepped behind the camera himself.
For his first outing as a writer-director, Gordon-Levitt plays a porn-addicted narcissist, which is just about the furthest you could get from a vanity project. It’s a funny and surprisingly touching film that shows a lot of potential from its blossoming auteur.
5. Orson Welles – Citizen Kane (1941)
Having revolutionised the New York theatre scene in his early twenties, Orson Welles would go on to have a similar effect on the world of cinema with his first film, Citizen Kane.
The grand story of a millionaire newspaper tycoon (Welles), the film employs a number of experimental techniques that were ahead of its time. The story was told through a fractured narrative that jumped between time periods: a structure that’s now commonplace in film. On the technical side, he and cinematographer Gregg Toland pioneered camera effects like deep focus, which allowed for a number of the film’s trademark shots that played with perspective.
Another detail you might not appreciate is that before Kane, you never saw any ceilings in movies. Because all films were shot on a set, you would have a load of lighting equipment and microphones hovering just above shot; Toland developed a way of building cloth ceilings that looked real, allowing the director to shoot Kane’s many low angle shots.
Orson Welles would go on to direct a number of excellent films throughout his tumultuous career. But with his debut film hailed in lots of circles as ‘the greatest film ever made’, almost everything that followed was looked on as a disappointment in some respect.
Also consider this: Orson Welles was just 26 years old when he co-wrote, directed and starred in this movie. As debuts go, this is the one to beat.
6. Kenneth Branagh – Henry V (1991)
By 1989, Kenneth Branagh was already considered by many to be the Olivier of his generation. Following in his hero’s footsteps, Branagh’s first job as a filmmaker was to direct himself as the lead in Shakespeare’s Henry V. As with Olivier, this gritty and muddy take on the Battle of Agincourt earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director.
Branagh’s Henry V is almost a perfect blueprint for filming Shakespeare: his cast including a number of theatrical titans (think Paul Schofield, Ian Holm, Brian Blessed); his battle scenes were raw and energetic; and his soliloquies were rousing. Branagh’s own delivery of the St Crispin’s Day speech really is one for the ages.
Over the next twenty years, Branagh would go on to direct a number of vital Shakespeare adaptations, Marvel’s Thor and this year’s new Jack Ryan thriller.
7. Clint Eastwood – Play Misty for Me
The director Clint Eastwood is in many ways just like Clint Eastwood the actor. They share a workman-like attitude to films that values simplicity and boldness over any sort of flashiness. Whether it’s his work in Westerns (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josie Wales) or contemporary dramas (Mystic River), there’s an un-fussiness to the direction that’s distinctly Eastwood.
Having said that, his debut film Play Misty for Me is one of the most un-Eastwood films he’s ever made. He plays a late night radio DJ who gets himself into a world of trouble when goes to bed with his most devoted listener, played by Jessica Walters (Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth). It’s a real bunny-boiling thriller along the lines of Fatal Attraction and could be considered Eastwood’s only foray into horror.
Fun fact: Play Misty for Me was filmed in Eastwood’s home of Carmel, California. Being the towns’ favourite son, he was able shoot in local restaurants and at friends’ homes for a fraction of the usual cost.
8. Mel Gibson – The Man Without a Face
Without trying to wade into some dangerous territory here, let us say this: it’s a crying shame that Mel Gibson has only four directing credits to his name. Of all the actors to win a Best Directing Oscar, his work on Braveheart has really held up over the years. The Passion of the Christ may not be to everyone’s tastes (with secular audiences seeing it as little more than a biblical snuff film) but 2006’s Apocalypto was a genuinely exciting and well-made chase movie. The only reason nobody saw it was because Gibson decided to film it in a Mayan dialect, as though it were his intention to alienate all mainstream audiences.
But let us back-peddle to his first film as director: a period drama in which he plays a reclusive, disfigured artist. It’s a modern reworking of the Frankenstein movies that sees Gibson’s character chased from town-to-town by local mobs who suspect he’s a pederast.
Who would have guessed that two decades later, life would mirror art when Mel Gibson found himself chased out of Hollywood over the not-so-small business of his anti-Semitic behaviour.
9. Jon Favreau – Made (2001)
Before he was the guy responsible for summer blockbusters like Iron Man and Cowboys & Aliens, Jon Favreau was best known as the writer and star of the 1996 indie comedy, Swingers.
For his first film as a writer/director, he reunited with his Swingers co-star Vince Vaughn for a story about two low level schmucks who are sent to New York to broker a money laundering deal with an East Coast mobster (P Diddy). It’s soon apparent that the pair of them are in over their heads; having seen all the gangster films ever made, they’re giddy at the prospect of becoming real tough-guys.
In this film, you see the sort of improv-heavy dialogue that would carry over to his later work on Elf and Iron Man. With camera work from Wong Kar-Wai’s maverick cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Made looks unusually quirky and experimental for a Vince Vaughn comedy. This came and went without a trace at the cinemas back in 2001 but if you’re a fan of Vaughn, this is a must-see.
10. Rob Reiner - This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Rob Reiner was born into showbiz. His father Carl was a writer on Sid Caeser’s Your Show of Shows before becoming famous for his collaborations with Steve Martin (The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid). Rob himself became a household staple with his role as ‘Meathead’ on the US television remake of Till Death Us Do Part.
In 1984 he directed his first film This Is Spinal Tap, a mockumentary (or, if you will, rockumentary) that is still considered to be one of the funniest comedies ever made. Relying on improvisation from its stars Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, This is Spinal Tap was a hilarious look at a washed-up British rock band on a dismal comeback tour of America.
While Guest would later refine the improvised film format as the director of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Rob Reiner went on to develop a more eclectic palette. We’d argue that no director in history has had a better run than Reiner between the years of 1984 and 1992. During that time he made Spinal Tap, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men: that’s six stone-cold classics in nine years.
Ralph Fiennes – Coriolanus
Tommy Lee Jones – The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
George Clooney – Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Angelina Jolie – In the Land of Blood and Honey
Don Jon is now available to buy and rent