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For this post, I decided on the theme of "Top Five Debut Films"—my favorite first features, thereby excluding short films. It also excludes first films that are also a director's only film, so no Night of the Hunter, for instance.
5. They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948, USA) This RKO B-picture was marketed as a run-of-the-mill troubled teen flick, when in fact it's a poetic, elegiac romance that, in many ways, mirrors the similarly tragic career of its director. Nicholas Ray introduces his characters—a pair of star-crossed lovers who wind up on the wrong side of the law—as a boy and girl who "were never properly introduced to the world we live in." The same could be said of Ray, who, despite directing a number of bona fide American classics, was never fully appreciated until his career was more or less finished. This film, still considered by some to be his very best, is notable for its tender characterization in the face of a decidedly gritty story. The sympathy and admiration Ray shows for his characters reveals itself in each of his subsequent films, as well, culminating most famously with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
4. The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940, USA) After finding steady work as a screenwriter, Preston Sturges debuted as a director with this sleek comedy, reputedly the first American film to bear the "written and directed by" credit. Sturges is his typically subversive self here, taking sly shots at the American political system with a story about a hobo (Brian Donlevy) who rigs an election and winds up a state governor. Much like They Live by Night , the film is a rare instance of a director's style arriving fully realized. Like the films that would follow—The Miracle of Morgan Creek, Unfaithfully Yours—it represents Sturges's staunchly cynical worldview, made easier to swallow by his typically peppy dialogue and finespun mise-en-scene.
3. Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968, USA) Unlike They Live by Night and The Great McGinty, Peter Bogdanovich's debut film scarcely resembles his later work—at least superficially. It is, however, imbued with the sort of reverence for cinema that defined this era of American filmmaking (that of the so-called "movie brats" of the late 60s/early 70s): stitched together with footage of a 1963 Roger Corman film—which saw additional direction from Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and Jack Nicholson—that starred Boris Karloff, it plays like a delicious hodgepodge of cinematic references. Bogdanovich—gleeful and irreverent as he appears here—eventually focused his approach and went on the make more classically styled films, but this one remains a loving ode to cinephilia's formative years.
2. L'Age d'Or (Luis Bunuel, 1930, France) Notable if only for the commotion it stirred upon its release. Coupled with Salvador Dali's script, Luis Bunuel's debut feature film was nothing short of scandalous, but even with the right wing's violent reactions, it trudged on and became perhaps the key film of the European avant-garde. Its depictions of sex and violence, meant to excoriate a socially repressive bourgeois society, still manage to shock, but it's the arrangement of these images that stands out most: Bunuel gives shape to Dali's ideas in such a way that renders them incendiary—assault by way of montage.
1. Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1957/1959, USA) The term "visual jazz" has been attributed to this film countless times, and for good reason: John Cassavetes's free-form style, elegantly captured on 16-millimeter in a manner that anticipates virtually every stripe of independent filmmaking that would come after, still feels effortless. Next to the films of Bela Tarr (whose The Family Nest nearly made this list), Cassavetes's films feel the most real to me. The loose structure, fluent mise-en-scene, and spontaneous characterization all seem organic in nature, despite the fact Cassavetes frequently worked from detailed scripts, ultimately betraying what appeared to be naturalistic by revealing its artifice. But therein lies his mastery: this "artifice" is the film's lifeblood, rendering it equally as "real" as as the reality its depicting.
Honorable mentions: Kevin Smith's Clerks remains a sentimental favorite. Badlands almost made the list, but there's nothing that it does that They Live by Night doesn't do better. Polanski's Knife in the Water is perhaps my favorite film of the early European modern art era; Pasolini's Accatone might have popped up were it not for the mighty shadow cast by Mama Roma. Citizen Kane isn't here because there are other Orson Welles films I like much more, and I kept Breathless off because Godard's got at least three "debut films" under his belt—I might've included Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) for style points, but I lack the hubris.