What is a feature? To paraphrase Potter Stewart: you know a feature when you see one. Let’s just say it’s a filmed story that is too long to be a short — the shortest films on my list are just over an hour. I’d mention the use of a three-act structure, but a few of the entries on my list of best feature debuts don’t care about your stinking three act structure. While feature films can obviously either be fictional narratives or documentaries, I chose to use exclusively fiction films because I mostly watch fiction films and the word “debut” strikes me more in the fictional realm. A debut, to me, connotes a splashy first appearance on stage, making an ostentatious play to become larger than life. And fiction films, I believe, capture the imagination of the audience more, make the debut all the more magical in hindsight.
Criteria for inclusion on my list include films that are better than the rest of a director’s career; films that achieve a unique and strong feat of introducing themes in either a director or a film movement, or movies with a strong diamond in the rough factor — movies that deserve more recognition and need to be seen, regardless of their debut status. All that being said, let’s debut the article about debuts:
10. Ed Wood — Glen or Glenda (1953)
Starring: Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi
Premise: There’s some narrators discussing the story of a cross-dresser named Glen (Wood) who is reluctant to tell his girlfriend about his deal. Bela Lugosi plays a scientist who likes to yell about pulling string when called upon. More or less, that’s all there is to it.
Why It’s On The List: It overcomes a myriad of issues in production quality, character depth, acting — probably everything — to actually tell a compelling story. This is a character, in the 1950s, dealing with a topic that is controversial even now. Wood actually mirrors the character’s turmoil visually, even if it is with stock footage of buffaloes. In comparison to his most famous film, 1959’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, it seems a lot more intrinsically emotional.
9. Martin Scorsese — Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1968)
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune
Premise: Catholic J.R. (Keitel) has a hard time getting over the fact that his fiancee (Bethune) was raped by a former boyfriend and is therefore not a virgin.
Why It Made The List: An insight into what would become Scorsese’s iconic career, the film itself is not perfect by any means. With uneven pacing and at times a sparsity of character activity, the vulnerability of Scorsese figuring out the Scorsese shots for the first time really deepened my affection for his career. It almost has the sensation of being interesting and challenging test footage for the much tighter Mean Streets (1973).
8. Hal Ashby — The Landlord (1970)
Starring: Beau Bridges, Marki Bey
Premise: Elgar (Bridges) rebels against his rich parents by buying a tenement building in a black neighborhood, falling in love with one his tenants, Lanie (Bey).
Why It Made The List: It’s funny and political in a real modern sounding way, with Elgar’s almost tone deaf racial politics. It’s a charming film that I think deserves more recognition in the public discourse. While I don’t dispute the general brilliance of Harold and Maude (1971), I think Ashby’s first film deserves similar points for originality and sharp, humanizing wit.
7. Amy Heckerling — Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
Starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a lot of other quirky young actors of the time
Premise: Jeff Spicoli (Penn) tries to eat pizza in Mr. Hand’s class, Stacy Hamilton (Leigh) and a lot of other teenagers deal with losing their virginity and virginity-adjacent activities.
Why It Made The List: It’s just a strong stand out in the ‘80s teen comedy genre. Great performances by a lot of future Academy award winning actors (Penn and Nicolas Cage in particular). Teen angst and anxiety work alongside generic high school humor. The soundtrack alone, with deep cuts from Jackson Browne and Oingo Boingo and arguably the only tolerable Joe Walsh song ever, is worthy of consideration. Heckerling is one of the most innovative voices in broad comedy, as Clueless (1995) would further prove.
6. Albert Brooks — Real Life (1979)
Starring: Albert Brooks, Charles Grodin
Premise: Arizona veterinarian Warren Yeager (Grodin) allows his family’s life to be filmed by an overzealous documentarian, Albert Brooks (playing “himself”).
Why It Made The List: I love the Albert Brooks cinematic persona, a well-intentioned egocentric guy who ends up yelling over inane things. What makes this film stand out is its level of comedic scale. Brooks tries to assert his will on entire family, and the escalation and destruction of his involvement is truly a spectacle and a debut to behold, and it’s also funny.
5. John Waters — Mondo Trasho (1969)
Starring: Mary Vivian Pearce, Divine, other weird-looking characters.
Premise: A Bombshell (Pearce) has a fantasy that a foot fetishist is Prince Charming, and then is hit by the car of an inattentive ne’er-do-well (Divine). Then things get weird.
Why It Made The List: This movie gets a lot of credit because whatever good came out of it, it far exceeded the limitations of production value. There is no “soundtrack”, it’s a series of musical cues over grainy black and white footage (good music, though). But the Cinderella dream sequence, with it’s slow lyrical pacing, played against the contrast of the “shrimping” in real life Baltimore, hints at the cleverly depraved mind that would go on to give the world Pink Flamingos (1972) and so many other truly original and mildly disturbing classics.
4. Sam Raimi — The Evil Dead (1981)
Starring: Bruce Campbell, a fair amount of possessed and/or undead people
Premise: Ash Williams (Campbell) and his friends try to have some fun in the woods, but someone had to go and play a recording of the “naturom demonto.” Ah, deadites!
Why It Made The List: This is a great film, let alone first film, with high production quality and a strongly written sense of humor. While Sam Raimi practically remade this film and made it better with Evil Dead II (1987), the newness and excitement brought on by the first film in the series really captures a nostalgia for when Raimi used to be a good director that has never been matched since. For Love Of The Game (1999), his Spider-Man trilogy? Really, that’s all we get now?
3. Tim Burton — Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Starring: Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee Herman, a series of people and objects for Herman to project his manic energy at.
Premise: Pee-Wee Herman’s world is turned upside down when his tricked out bicycle is stolen. He goes on a comically weird adventure to find it.
Why’s It On The List: Nowadays, Tim Burton is a genre unto himself, known for his colorful surrealistic choices. But this movie exemplifies what happens when Burton doesn’t let his movies get too self-serving and long. Burton builds a world of darkness and anarchic energy, but it accentuates Herman’s unique brand of absurdist humor. A real once in a lifetime synthesis of star and director.
2. James L. Brooks — Terms Of Endearment (1983)
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger
Premise: 30 years in the life of a mother (MacLaine) and daughter (Winger), made at first worse and arguably better in the long run when the daughter goes and gets terminal cancer.
Why It’s On The List: Winning best picture on your first directorial attempt is gimmick enough. To make a best picture winner with two female leads and something resembling an original voice and a sense of humor, it’s an accomplishment worthy of regard at the minimum. And this film helped him get to Broadcast News (1987) — though I think Endearment is better, but neither here nor there — helping to launch The Simpsons (1989-end of days), and As Good as It Gets (1997). Not bad.
1. Todd Haynes — Poison (1991)
Starring: James Lyons, Edith Meeks, and a lot of other energetic actor types
Premise: Three stories — A seven year old boy kills his father, a scientist accidentally becomes a sexually depraved leper, and a prisoner falls in love with a fellow inmate. All three are interwoven as one overlapping narrative. Jean Genet is involved and it’s perhaps less complicated than it sounds.
Why It’s On The List: First, because it’s really good. A very quirky, perverse sense of humor that is actually funny (Haynes thanks John Waters in the credits, probably for a reason). This film features a sense of pathos and commentary that is well earned and well developed. If you haven’t seen it, you must. Plus, it turned Haynes from a smart indie director into a smart mainstream director. This movie directly helped him get to making Safe (1995), Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002), I’m Not There (2007), and Carol (2015), in my opinion the most artistically intact series of films of recent times, maybe more. A great legacy started with a great film.