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Director Debuts: The 20 Best First Films of the Last 20 Years

From "Bottle Rocket" to "The Babadook," the debut feature films from the past two decades that made the biggest impact on the film world.

Fruitvale Station

Spend about ten minutes watching Ryan Coogler’s feature-length debut, and a few things quickly become obvious: Coogler is a major talent, just like his lead Michael B. Jordan, and the young director has a sharp ability to take fraught stories and distill them down to their most human of elements. The story of the life (and death) of Oscar Grant is one such story, a major criminal case that threatened to divide a city. Instead of aiming on the aftermath, Coogler zeroes in on the human elements of Grant’s life, particularly as they played out on what would become the last day of his life. It’s a moving, smart and deeply feeling approach to the material, and it lets both Jordan’s acting talent and Coogler’s directing acumen shine. No wonder these two continue to work together. The film was a critical smash hit, making it plain that Coogler and Jordan woul both would be huge stars sooner rather than later. But that sort of fame obscures what’s so special about “Fruitvale Station”: the little things, the small graces and the keen eye that Coogler turns on all of them. — Kate Erbland

The Babadook

In the last 20 years, no director has come to her first feature so fully formed as both a storyteller and a master of cinema as actress turned writer/director Jennifer Kent. Kent’s tale of a widowed mother (Essie Davis) battling her son’s fear of a storybook character come to life is hide-under-your-seat terrifying, but instead of relying on lazy scare tricks that have come to define the genre in recent years, Kent uses precise compositions and clockwork-like precision to build tension and draw viewers into a scene. Kent is not simply a master technician, but uses the horror genre to tackle a subject (the burden of motherhood) that doesn’t get discussed in polite company. She creates something that is for more hard-hitting than any “important” piece of Oscar bait. — CO

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Younger film fans might not realize it yet, but they already have their Tarantino. Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour borrows and blends from different national cinemas and sub-genres to create something incredibly fresh and exciting. Set in a graphic novel-like Bad City, Iran (the film was shot in a small, desolate Californian oil town), “A Girl Walks” is about a chador-wearing vampire (Sheila Vand) stalking her prey on a skateboard and who falls for the James Dean-inspired Arash (Arash Marandi). Unlike so many directors on this list whose careers took root in their second and third films, we’ve yet to see Amirpour’s follow up to “Girl” — which is why her Jim Carrey-starring, Megan Ellison-produced cannibal love story “The Bad Batch” (described as “Pretty in Pink” meets “Road Warrior”) is at the very, very top of our list of movies we can’t wait to see in 2016. — CO

Mustang

Call it “The Virgin Suicides” for a new generation, though Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s 2015 feature (bolstered by a script co-written by Alice Winocour) stands quite firmly on its own merits and its decidedly different worldview. Like the Lisbon sisters, Ergüven and Winocour’s five sisters are forcibly trapped inside their own home, seemingly “for their own good.” Unbroken by their fiercesome grandmother and their twisted uncle, the orphans continually fight back, even when circumstances veer wildly out of control. Both a loving look at the exceptional bond between the girls (although none of them are related in real life, they reportedly got along as thick as thieves) and a hard-nosed examination of broken families and bad people, Erugven manages to weave together disparate tones and messages with ease. Often heartbreaking and frequently just plain enraging, Ergüven makes the choice to root her film in love and passion, allowing what could be a heartbreaker of a story to instead crackle with life and spark. — KE

Krisha

“Krisha” isn’t necessarily a dance movie, but Trey Edward Shults’ Thanksgiving weekend family drama might as well be the great ballet of the new millennium. From the opening tracking shot of the film’s title character making her way into the cavernous house through the extended sequences of the giant brood bustling inside, there’s a filmmaking confidence on display that extends through the self-imposed limitations on its story. Not straying from its primary location, “Krisha” still finds a way to capture generations’ worth of family trauma through well-curated conversations and the unspoken tension around the holiday dining room table. With a keen sense of relationships both human and spatial, Shults instantly conveys what TV pilots and overblown film sagas take hours of belabored plots and setpieces to introduce. Throw in a chilling Nina Simone song and a handful of family members worthy of their own spinoffs and you have a film that would be an impressive achievement for a director at any point in their career. — SG

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