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Our film critic revisits the first films of now-famous directors that are worth watching

From left: Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, Guillermo del Toro, Regina King
From left: Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, Guillermo del Toro, Regina King.

For the cinephiles out there, who is your favorite director? And as a follow-up, what was their first feature film? These questions can jumpstart never-ending conversations and/or heated debates, in part because sometimes it is difficult to remember a director's first film.

For instance when we think of an iconic filmmaker like Spike Lee, everyone assumes that She's Gotta Have It was his debut, but his first feature was Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which was an hour-long student film. Or how about David Fincher, who directed music videos during the 1980s and 1990s for performers like Sting (Englishman in New York), Madonna (Express Yourself, Oh Father, Vogue), Billy Idol (LA Woman), and George Michael (Freedom! ’90) before helming Alien 3 in 1992.

Working on the following list forced me to reconsider my sense and sensibilities as both a viewer and a critic, because the filmmakers included serve as markers and inspiration for my own journey. They set the standard for me, blazing a trail that I have eagerly followed from one project to the next. The critical question then is, are we able to recognize greatness at its dawning?

Darren Aronofsky – Pi (1998)

Films involving lone men on quests, seeking redemption for their quixotic dreams and failed attempts to push the boundaries of their lives and/or the nature of the universe have emerged from several filmmakers on this list, but there's something fitting about Aronofsky's first film kicking things off. Whether focusing on deeply dependent drug users (Requiem for a Dream), a modern scientist seeking to cure his wife's cancer in a journey that spans millennia (The Fountain), a nearly broken professional wrestler who can't find a new and satisfying life outside the ring (The Wrestler), or a morbidly obese teacher making one last attempt to bond with his estranged teenage daughter (The Whale), Aronofsky not only charts unique pathways into these characters, he has the knack for challenging actors to tap the depths of their humanity to present audiences with some of the most hyper-charged worlds committed to film.

Pi, the story of a man intent on discovering a numeric formula capable of unlocking the secrets of nature, introduced us to his intense perspective and somehow didn't alienate studios right from the start. His vision expanded with respect to the resources granted to him, but it also honed in on its troubled protagonists to such an extent that there's a Biblical sense of a higher power testing the will of Aronofsky himself.

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Charles Burnett – Killer of Sheep (1978)

Burnett makes this list thanks to his almost godfather-like status as a classically trained filmmaker who has remained in the indie trenches. It could be argued that he lost out on opportunities afforded to some of his more celebrated peers — Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese — due to institutional factors, but whatever the situation, Burnett focused his attention on the stories of marginalized characters, primarily Black folks who, like his family, left the South and made their way out west, but remained deeply connected to their roots and culture. He started immediately tapping into lives from the lower frequencies such as his masterful first feature about a slaughterhouse worker in Watts who hates his job and feels disconnected from the family he works to support. Like the celebrated writer John Edgar Wideman (Philadelphia Fire), Burnett is a vital and necessary guide, a conductor on the cinematic underground railroad that links audiences, both Black and white, to unshared stories of the 20th century.

Lisa Cholodenko – High Art (1998)

Cholodenko grabbed attention while earning her MFA in filmmaking at Columbia University with her award-winning short Dinner Party (1997), and then stormed onto the indie scene with High Art, which garnered The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance and fueled National Society of Film Critics honors for Ally Sheedy's revelatory performance. Few film narratives were willing to spotlight women — in this case, a young magazine intern and an addicted lesbian photographer — who were so nakedly exploiting each other while also falling in love. It feels like 1998 is worthy of its own exploration because that year produced an astonishing yield of storytellers (three featured here) who fearlessly laid bare characters and worlds that demanded to be seen and heard from and have continued to do so to varying degrees. Cholodenko has remained strictly indie (with notable excursions into series work like Homicide: Life on the Street, Six Feet Under, and The L Word) which is a badge of honor, because her novelistic art treasures humanity over spectacle.

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Ryan Coogler – Fruitvale Station (2013)

Probably the first and only thing you need to know about Coogler is that he hails from Oakland, Calif. His debut feature captures the heart and soul of Oscar Grant on the last days of his life at the end of 2008 in the Bay Area. Starring Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan and enriched by the decision to use Grant's text messages as what feels like powerful missives from beyond, Fruitvale Station burrows into its narrative with raw documentary strength, while still alerting its audience to the arrival of a filmmaker with vision, destined to shift the culture, which he has already done in such an incredibly short time. That Black-to-the-future vibe he gave us in Black Panther and its sequel is Oakland strong and points true north.

Guillermo del Toro – Cronos (1992)

It should come as no surprise that del Toro began working in makeup and effects, learning from none other than Dick Smith (The Exorcist) before producing a string of short films and executive producing a feature film in the mid-1980s (Dona Herlinda and Her Son) at the tender age of 21. Cronos, the story about a mysterious artifact that grants eternal life to its owner, has the mythic feel of a narrative that has had a long life of its own. As an introduction, the film announces that del Toro had a knack for infusing life and unwavering humanity in his dark moral fantasies. Whether mining vampire thrills (Cronos, Blade II), graphic novel demons (the first two Hellboy movies) or creatures from underneath the seas (The Shape of Water), del Toro makes believers out of us all, which is the highest compliment to his Catholic sensibilities.

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Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird (2017)

I had the great fortune to interview Gerwig during the press tour for France Ha, her first collaboration (as both writer and star) with Noah Baumbach. I proposed, even then, that she was part of a revolutionary group of female artists — Amy Seimetz, Nicole Beharie, Emayatzy Corinealdi and Ava DuVernay — ready to change the game, but I had no idea of what was to come. The arrival of Lady Bird, five years after France Ha, with Gerwig assuredly in control behind the camera, contained none of the halting tics and sometimes mumbling charm of her early indie performances. This was a storyteller who, even when telling a story seemingly rooted in her past experiences, fearlessly trusted her audience to see the real version of herself she was willing to share with us in her own terms.

Regina King – One Night in Miami (2020)

The imagined meet-up between iconic stars — Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) — is all King, along with screenwriter Kemp Powers, needed to craft a stunning narrative feature, but who would have imagined this project as King's first or 31st feature? She was a rock-solid character performer known more for comedic and/or dramatic turns in television (227) and film roles (Boyz n the Hood, Jerry Maguire), landing squarely in the spit-fire best friend category. But that also allowed King the chance to watch and learn from each and every one of her experiences along the way, building up a knowledge base and an arsenal of creative skills necessary to see a way into this cultural meeting of the minds. For King, this one night was the result of a lifetime of lessons learned.

Christopher Nolan – Following (1998)

Everyone wants to remember Memento as the feature that drew attention to Nolan for his brilliantly fractured presentation of a man with acute short-term memory loss struggling to avenge his wife's death — which also happened to spotlight gritty performances from Matrix alums Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano — but that's a short-term oversight on all of our parts. Nolan's real debut feature gem is an even more twisted headscratcher about a driven young writer randomly following strangers around his undisclosed city who finds himself partnering with a thief for a walk on the wild — and thrillingly dangerous — side of life. It is a shady noir produced on a budget of unsalted peanuts and handfuls of dirty water, but these ingredients form the basis of every Nolan project that has followed Following. So much so that it is surprising that Nolan hasn't attempted to return to his debut to update it with all of the resources at his disposal now to craft a mind-blowing event picture. Then again, we're talking about a director not known for slavish devotion to past successes. Why would he follow, so closely, his own outsized cinematic footprint?

Jordan Peele – Get Out (2017)

Who would have guessed that one-half of the premiere comedic duo that picked up the torch when Dave Chappelle walked away from Comedy Central would be the next great dramatic director of twisted tales about the complexities of race? No one saw Peele's transition coming. It is foolish to pretend otherwise. He saw untapped fodder in the everyday horrors of Black life in America, just a step removed from the jokes he and Keegan-Michael Key were mining in their sketch work, and unleashed the smiling, charming beast from the shadows. Racism was alive and well and eager to wear Black faces and skins like a new badge of honor.

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Gina Prince-Bythewood – Love and Basketball (2000)

What more needs to be said about this signature love story that blends together sports, romance and hip-hop and has come to define the culture? The narrative does its subjects — Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan as two basketball players with such massive hearts — justice because it is never just about one of these two characters. It holds both dearly, but not so preciously that it is afraid to reveal their human frailties. And we never have to justify or question Prince-Bythewood for her ability to get the two sides — the male and the female — just right.

tt stern enzi has spent 20 years as a freelance writer and film critic in the Greater Cincinnati region covering the film industry and film festivals while also earning distinction as an accredited critic on Rotten Tomatoes and membership in the Critics Choice Association.