20 Great Debut Films From Female Directors

One of the less reported stories of this August’s film schedule is that the month not only saw three films released that were directed by women, but they were in fact three feature debuts — Lake Bell’s “In A World” opened to a rapturous reception (including ours) on the 9th, Jerusha Hess’ “Austenland” bowed the following week, and this Friday Jill Solloway’s “Afternoon Delight” begins its run (our review is here). One swallow, or even three, may not make a summer, but these green shoots must certainly be promising for those in favor of changing the current female:male ratio in the film directing profession (which runs at 1 to 15.24 in the U.S. according to a Sundance Institute report) to a number that isn’t so outrageously out of whack that you have to keep double checking it. Yep, it’s 1:15.24.

Of course, there’s an evergreen debate in the film industry, as there is in the whole wide world, about whether regarding female directors, for example, as a group, and say, putting together a list of 20 of their debut films, is a help or a hindrance in the ongoing struggle to attain something closer to gender parity. Is it a healthy way to foster interest and promote otherwise underrepresented filmmakers, or does it contribute to a form of ghettoization in which women who may have very little else in common, can be even more easily marginalized for being lumped into one catch-all category? It’s not something we have an easy answer for, but in a year when two festivals made headlines for their contributions, positive and negative to this debate (Sundance boasted an all-time-high with 1/2 of its U.S. competition titles being directed by women; the Cannes competition line up, by contrast, featured just one — one up from the previous year), and attendant accusations of positive discrimination or tokenism flew back and forth, it’s not an issue that will go away soon. And so we’ve decided to embrace it, and use the Bell/Hess/Solloway trifecta as an excuse to celebrate some of our favorite debut films from women through the decades.

So it’s not simply a list of pioneering women in film (though we’re delighted that the Indiewire-recommended Kickstarter for the documentary on near-forgotten filmmaking icon Alice Guy Blaché has been funded, and we’re still a bit gutted that we didn’t make room for Ida Lupino who actually deserves a feature all to herself one day). No, our highly arbitrary ground rules were not to include documentaries or co-directing credits, and after that to simply choose 20 of the films that made the deepest impressions on us. So let’s dive in, shall we?

Chocolat” (1988) — Claire Denis
Similarly to several other women on this list, French auteur Claire Denis had established herself elsewhere in the industry prior to taking on her first directorial project. In Denis’ case it was as an Assistant Director to several high-profile independent filmmakers (Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Costa-Gavras), and her first film, 1988’s “Chocolat” certainly betrays none of the usual neophyte’s hesitance or unfamiliarity with the process. In fact, Denis’ debut is remarkable not only for its fluidity and assurance, but also for being a near-perfect early incarnation of the unique sensibility and thematic concerns that Denis would display repeatedly in her subsequent illustrious career. Detailing, mostly in flashback, the story of a short period in the life of a young French girl (called France, in fact) in 1950s, pre-independence Cameroon, this semi-autobiographical tale is in fact a conduit to explore the intricacies and contradictions inherent in the colonial experience. What is remarkable from the very first frame is how unsentimental Denis is in her approach: while the film is part coming-of-age story, part culture-clash examination and part a drama of unspoken, clandestine desires, already her touch is sublimely light, cool, with a detached, observational intelligence that is as critical of its characters and their situations as it is compassionate. Bookended by scenes of France returning to Cameroon as a grown woman, the film really follows, through her childhood eyes, the relationship between house servant Protée (Isaach de Bankolé) and her beautiful mother (Giulia Boschi) made increasingly fraught with conflicting desires and expectations by a series of visitors who come to stay. Evoking with rich yet economical photography the wonder and isolation of the setting, Denis lays out with deceptive simplicity the intractable complexity of the divisions, real and imaginary, that exist with almost palpable physicality between colonizer/colonized, master/servant, white/black, woman/man, child/adult in that very specific time and place. Is the desire that exists between Protée and the white married Frenchwoman in spite of all the racial, cultural and social divides that colonialism draws so definitively, or because of them? It’s to Denis’ credit that the question is posed so compellingly and thoughtfully, and answered only ambiguously. For anyone else, a film of this beauty, power and subtlety might be a career-crowning achievement. Denis, however, was only getting started.

Ratcatcher” (1999) — Lynne Ramsay
A startlingly gritty, melancholic debut that’s saved from all-out depressiveness by the gentleness of its insight and the director’s extraordinary eye for a beautiful image even in the midst of so much squalor, Lynne Ramsay’s utterly heartrending “Ratcatcher” has to be counted among the most impressive first features in recent memory. A slowly unfurling tragedy, littered with the kind of painful detail that makes it feel utterly authentic, “Ratcatcher” tells the story of a young boy, James (William Eadie), growing up in the slums of 1970s Glasgow as his family waits to be relocated during a particularly grim period when the rubbish collectors are on strike and trash and rats multiply on the sidewalks and courtyards. Playing by the murky canal one day, some childish horseplay results in the death of another boy, for which James’s sense of guilt becomes increasingly apparent over the following days and weeks. A great deal, and also very little happens; James hangs around with friends, occasionally takes off alone, dreams, tentatively befriends a young girl who is constantly abused by a local gang, interacts with his family — loving mother, alcoholic father and two sisters. But Ramsay takes the tradition of British social realism and delivers it to new heights with her exceptional imagery which is so artfully constructed as to feel totally naturalistic and yet tells the story with such fluidity and lyricism than it has to be the result of almost supernatural control and sureness of vision. It’s an undeniably tough watch, perhaps more so for Ramsay refusing ever to demonize any of her characters, no matter how wrong their behavior. But it’s also completely compelling and emotionally powerful; nothing that can simply be written off as miserabilism could ever have this piercing affect on the viewer’s heart.

Madeinusa” (2006) — Claudia Llosa
Somehow, Claudia Llosa‘s second feature “Milk of Sorrow” had the honor of being Peru’s Academy Award nomination despite its fairly critical look at contemporary Peruvian life. These claws of hers, however, weren’t a recent growth, as her first film “Madeinusa” is even more overtly scathing of her homeland, taking place in the fictional town of Manatacycuna during a religious holiday in which God is absent and all sins are ignored. And if you think that lacks subtlety, hold on to your undies: the 14-year-old Madeinusa (Magaly Solier), wishing to run off to Lima just like her escaped matriarch, is crowned Virgin Mary for the weekend and is regularly molested by her father, an act her sister takes as a slight to her own ego. Attitudes change when geologist city-boy Salvador gets stuck in the little village and comes across Madeinusa, fueling her desire to leave this primitive, futureless life behind. This all likely sounds incredibly maudlin, but credit Llosa’s determined restraint for making evident ideas feel understated. Despite her critique on this dead-end, narrow-minded life — one clinging to a religion that was forced on them through colonialism — she is also able to portray the society’s passion for its culture; Manatacycuna has a lived-in quality, with Llosa putting an incredible amount of care into the village life and making things, as wrong as they are, feel real and important to the characters. While the story generally goes where you assume, there’s one final turn that is unexpected and packs a pretty heavy blow, suggesting a reevaluation of the titular character we’ve come to know for the entire film. Llosa would continue down this road of slow-burn cultural dramas, sharpening her skills in the process and taking the tremendous Magaly Solier (a non-actor actually — what a find) with her, but one could easily mistake “Madeinusa” for the work of a director with a few much lengthier CV.

Je tu il elle” (1974) — Chantal Akerman
Hitting age 25 with a number of experimental shorts under her belt, the burgeoning Belgian native/New York transplant Chantal Akerman decided to try something a bit longer and more narrative (well, relatively speaking) with “Je tu il elle” (“I, you, he, she“). The film was borne out of a little bit more than a week of work and, of course, touches upon many ideas she would revisit in the not-so distance future (in fact, the structure of support character-centric vignettes appears again in “Les Rendez-Vous D’Anna,” this film’s pea-in-a-pod). Divided into a triptych, Akerman leads as Julie, a seemingly obsessive neurotic that spends most of her time writing letters and rearranging furniture, taking a break for the occasional spoonful of sugar, which is all she eats. The confines of home don’t hold for long, though, and the next two segments involve her sexual exploits with a married truck driver and an ex-girlfriend. Like the following year’s masterpiece “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” this film is highly physical and rhythmic, with the director taking the truly mundane and spinning a new perspective on it: somehow, a woman sliding a table across a wooden floor transforms from humdrum task to dreary self-expression. The film is a war of conflicting forces — the title alone is incredibly depersonalized and yet it can’t help but feel otherwise, exposing the viewer to the film’s radiant passion and rawness. It’s not as refined as her later works, but it’s surprisingly confident for a first-timer, with no overflow of half-baked ideas, and no dramatic swinging for the fences.

Sweetie” (1989) — Jane Campion
Having recently had the pleasure of enjoying New Zealand director Jane Campion’s masterful “Top of the Lake” TV show, it’s interesting to go back two and a half decades and look at her debut feature, “Sweetie” again. On the surface, “Sweetie” is a lot more lurid and a great deal broader than the restrained, chilly aesthetic Campion would more frequently employ from “The Piano” onward, but her outsider’s eye was clearly sharp from the very beginning and she brings it to bear on this dark, occasionally grotesque, black comedy to great effect. Kay (Karen Colston) is a mousy young woman who falls for Louis (Tom Lycos) because he fits a description she’d heard from a tea-leaf reader. They move in together and all is well until two things happen: Lou plants a tree in the yard and Kay’s sister Dawn aka Sweetie (MVP Genevieve Lemon) turns up unexpectedly, trailing chaos in her wake. Sweetie is a fascinating character, overindulged by her parents (especially her heartbreakingly doting Dad) to the point that they seem blinded to her obvious mental instability, whereas Kay’s fraught reactions to her now adult sister’s bipolar antics are themselves colored by Kay’s own neuroses and her sibling jealousy. In its deadpan drollery and considered mis en scene “Sweetie” is very much of a piece with emergent U.S. independent cinema at the time — think of an Antipodean Hal Hartley (whose own first feature, “The Unbelievable Truth” was released the same year). And like Hartley, retrospectively at least, there are undeniably creaky elements — some of the performances feel a little stretched, and very occasionally, quirk is favored over characterization. However these are small niggles in a film that already showed more inventiveness and assurance than many directors manage at a much later stage of their career, and with her very next film, the extraordinary “An Angel at My Table” Campion has ironed out those glitches. It may feel minor, and perhaps a slight outlier, in comparison to some of her later pinnacles, but “Sweetie” is a fascinating film even now, and back then was nothing less than a shot across the bow of the international film scene Campion would soon conquer.

Girlfriends” (1978) — Claudia Weill
Technically filmmaker Claudia Weill’s second film, “Girlfriends” is her first feature-length narrative film (her first pic is a 74 min doc), and it’s so damn terrific, we had to include it here. It’s no real secret there’s still a dearth of female friendships in movies that are honest, complicated, complex and real — and not just two girls on the couch sobbing while sharing a pint of sorbet — which is why Weill’s well-drawn and endlessly charming 1978 picture is such a revelation. Take the New York and milieu of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” pretend the characters in “Girlfriends” lived in that same universe, only residing downtown instead of in the Upper East Side, and you might just strike the flavor of this endearing and funny movie (it even features Russell Horton, the man in the theater line who gets put on blast from Marshall McLuhan himself in Allen’s “Boy, if life were only like this!” sequence). A proto “Frances Ha” or “Girls” about single life in New York for women, “Girlfriends” centers on Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron, who some will remember from TV’s “Thirtysomething”), a Jewish aspiring photographer, who is left behind when her WASPy would-be poet roommate moves out and abruptly marries a man she’s only known for a few months (Bob Balaban). Susan is then forced to navigate the challenging waters of career, friendship and romance while negotiating the just-as-complicated politics of the art world. Stuck in a series of unfulfilling relationships, missing her best friend and struggling to assert herself in the dog-eat-dog art world of New York, Weill’s intimate, well-rendered and measured picture sensitively uses self-deprecating humor, nuanced vulnerability and a refreshing naturalism to draw a terrifically endearing and empathetic portrait of independence, relationships and self-discovery. (Mayron’s wonderfully subtle performance earned her a BAFTA nomination and a Locarno Film Festival award). Co-starring Eli Wallach, Roderick Cook and a very young Christopher Guest, “Girlfriends” is criminally underseen, but has been getting its due a little more recently thanks to cinephiles like Wes Anderson and Lena Dunham, the latter of whom included it in a 2012 BAM retrospective and then coaxed Weill into directing a second-season episode of “Girls.” And let’s not forget Stanley Kubrick himself, who gave the movie and its sensitive writing and direction serious props when he called it his favorite film of 1978.

Red Road” (2006) — Andrea Arnold
Following a 6-year stint as a TV actress on inventive U.K. Saturday morning magazine show “No 73,” Andrea Arnold changed tack and studied film, a decision that bore serious fruit in 2005 when her startling, brilliant “Wasp” picked up the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. And her feature debut had a no less storied a development. “Red Road” was actually the first in a Dogme-influenced project shepherded by Lone Scherfig, among others, intended to comprise three films directed by different first-timers, but all featuring broadly the same characters and actors, and all set in Scotland. But despite the experimental formalism of that premise, “Red Road” feels like a fully authentic, fully realized, organically developed film; a brilliantly thoughtful and compelling story which propelled Arnold to the very top echelons of rising British talent (something she’s borne out, and then some, with subsequent features “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights”) and which netted her the Jury prize in Cannes. “Red Road” tells the story of Jackie (Kate Hardie), a police officer who works in a surveillance unit that electronically “patrols” a rough stretch of Glaswegian suburb that incorporates the titular Red Road on which sits a block of high-rise flats. Given very little information about her background except what we can glean from seemingly incidental details, we’re shocked when Jackie, apparently professional and calm, reacts bizarrely to seeing a certain ex-con (Tony Curran) on one of her screens one night. She starts to follow him, via CCTV camera and in real life, and soon is engineering meetings with him and his volatile flatmate Stevie (the terrific Martin Compston). The mystery that unravels around her behavior gradually reveals itself, but the point of the film is never a “gotcha!” moment, rather it’s a tenderly drawn character study of loss, and of redemption achieved by the strangest of means. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Hardie especially negotiating Jackie’s sometimes bewildering actions and motivations with a deep compassion that never strays into sentimentality, and the refusal of the film to judge any of its characters despite the explicitly moral nature of the situation they are in, is as absolute as it is refreshing. Slow, hypnotic and building to a satisfying and surprising conclusion that subverts as many of our expectations as it fulfills, “Red Road” is a small, burnished gem of a film, a surveillance thriller played as moving human drama.

La Pointe-Courte” (1955) — Agnès Varda
Balanced exactly between the Italian neorealist tradition of De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti that preceded it, and the French New Wave sensibility that would follow, Agnès Varda’s debut film “La Pointe-Courte” (edited by Alain Resnais) is without doubt one of the most beautiful on this (or any other) list. With her documentarist’s eye for authenticity she captures a few days in the life of the titular fishing village, using the local inhabitants as her supporting cast and only employing professionals Sylvia Monfort and Phillippe Noiret, for one of the two central couples. Appropriately, they play outsiders anyway: a couple who have come back to his childhood home from Paris to discuss the future of their relationship. The walks the two go on, and their monotone, quasi-philosophical meanderings on the subject of love and life and inevitability foreshadow the more navel-gazey aspects of New Wave filmmaking, and the Bergman-esque close ups of the two faces set at right angles feel similarly artificial and constructed, verging on affectation. But that’s only because Varda’s heart (and her extraordinary eye) seems to lie really with the townsfolk as they go about their daily lives, and the contrast between the effortless grace she finds in a hand grasping for a peg on a high clothesline or a little kitten playing in the mesh of a fishing net, and the lugubrious musings of the ‘sophisticated’ couple seem so marked as to almost feel satirical. Especially compared to the breezier nature of the other central relationship in which the obstacles are far more tangible (a young fisherman, disapproved of by the father of the girl he likes, falls foul of the authorities). Varda’s curious, rarely static camera finds such astonishing images within the downtrodden pre-modern shacks and boats the villagers inhabit that although the film is light on narrative, from its opening frame it never lifts its peculiar spell, right up till a fascinating climax set during the carnival-like atmosphere of the village’s chief sporting amusement: a kind of jousting tournament in which, instead of horses, the participants try to knock each other off gondola-like platforms built on the rear of rowing boats. It would be seven years before Varda made her next fiction feature, the seminal “Cleo from 5 till 7,” before which she made several documentaries, and during which time the French New Wave, whose first glimmerings many film historians trace to this very film, burst into life. Even without this context, “La Pointe-Courte” is a film of exceptional beauty and power, but to have essentially launched one of the most influential movements of in film history with your very first film?

Fast Times At Ridgemont High” (1982) — Amy Heckerling
Forcing many a moment of quiet Life Re-evaulation when it turned 30 (THIRTY) last year, Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” has, over its three decades (THREE DECADES) become such a cultural touchpoint that it’s easy to forget it was her first feature. With only one short to her name prior, Heckerling mined Cameron Crowe’s thoroughly-researched script for all the moments of teen awkwardness and glory it afforded, but mainly what still sets the film apart from its genre is not how well it establishes certain archetypes (though it certainly does) but in how unpatronizingly and with what heart and conscience it does so. It may be frothy and funny in part (we do miss the days when Sean Penn could be this goofy) but it doesn’t play out in some consequence-less platonic ideal of High School. After all, this is a teen comedy in which a fifteen-year-old girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is underwhelmed by her first experience of sex, gets pregnant and has an abortion … it’s not all Phoebe Cates’ bikini. This is a tricky tone to manage and keep consistent, but Heckerling pulls it off here and turns in a film that gets to play in so many different fields at once (we’ve listed it, variously, in our high school movies, losing “it” movies, seminal nude scenes, as well as running a “5 Things You Might Not Know” about it). It’s also to her credit that she marshals an amazing before-they-were-famous cast, most of whom give the kinds of performances that they could look back on with pride even after-they-were-famous (in addition to the leads — Judge Reinhold, Leigh, Cates and Penn — Nicolas Cage (then Coppola), Anthony Edwards and Forest Whitaker all have small roles too). Strong as it is, both Heckerling and Crowe would go on to top ‘Fast Times’ later in their careers, with Heckerling’s “Clueless” probably still sitting high atop the all-time high school comedy greats, but this early sampler of both of their talents will forever occupy a place in our hearts, for the warmth and the sweetness in what’s overall an impressively unsentimentalized film, and for the deceptively loose narrative structure that still feels atypical in a genre too often marred by rote formula.

Salaam Bombay” (1988) — Mira Nair
Mira Nair’s documentary background is hugely in evidence in her groundbreaking, harrowing narrative debut “Salaam Bombay.” Only the second ever Indian film to get a Best Foreign Picture Nomination (it lost the award to “Pelle The Conqueror”) it also picked up the Golden Camera and the Audience Award in Cannes, among many other international plaudits. And it’s not hard to see why — “Salaam Bombay” may not be the easiest or most polished film on this list, but the society into which it submerges us is so authentically drawn, and the stories it tells so representative of a world of poverty and deprivation then completely unknown to Western viewers that its sheer importance, for want of a better word, can’t be overstated. Loosely following the story of Krishna (Shafiq Syed), a guileless young boy who ends up in Bombay trying to scrape enough money together to be able to return home to his village, but who finds the vortex of poverty, petty crime, drugs and prostitution all but inescapable once there, Nair made the controversial decision to cast the film using actual street children, who in most cases had lived lives very close to those they approximate here on film. The ethical issues that choice raised were among the criticisms levelled at the film back then (along with insinuations about its authenticity, as Nair herself was an expat) but the filmmakers clearly signalled the sensitivity of their intentions by setting up a trust to provide support and opportunity for the children in the film — a trust that still exists today as a charitable organization dedicated to India’s street children. The many dangers those children need protection from are detailed extensively in “Salaam Bombay” less a coming-of-age film than a film about having childhood stripped from you in a messy struggle to survive. As bursting with life as the streets of Bombay undoubtedly are, here there’s no trace of exoticism or romance to the portrayal of India — the life that teems from every gutter and every window is not exuberant but pointless, desperate and cheap, and the connections made against all odds between strangers are cruelly sundered simply by a press of the crowds. It’s pessimistic but profoundly moving stuff and Nair’s skill is not just in showing us the macro picture of a seething, unjust society that grinds down its most defenseless, but also in filtering that vast struggle into the story of this one little boy fighting against the inevitability of losing his own identity to the uncaring streets. “Slumdog Millionaire” it is not.

La Cienega” (“The Swamp”) (2001) — Lucrecia Martel
Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel hasn’t made anything short of an excellent film yet in her short career. And while if you had to rank her unnerving works, “The Holy Girl” and “The Headless Woman,” might come out in front by a hair or two, her absorbing debut, “La Cienaga” is a remarkable first film that announced the arrival of a natural-born filmmaker, albeit an unconventional one. Dubbed the David Lynch of Argentina, while this is incredibly high praise, it actually does a disservice to not only their disparate styles (she never has phantasmagorical elements in her work, but is haunting in her own manner), but Martel’s incredibly unique and idiosyncratic approach to movies. Martel’s subtle films are like nightmares without any overt nightmarish elements. Her portraits of females, class and conflicting human dynamics lie in the nuanced space where passive-aggressive tension, friction, discomfort and unsettled emotions live. Set in the high plains of northwestern Argentina, “La Cienega” portrays the life of a self-pitying Argentine bourgeois family. Quietly voyeuristic, employing sound in almost subconscious ways and framing shots in an ever-so-slightly disconcerting manner that implies an almost subterranean unease, Martel is already fully aware of her craft, the power of camera placement and how to manipulate emotion with cinema. Seeing her films for the first time can produce the odd sensation of a puppeteer psychically pulling your strings. Using an unbearable heat wave, claustrophobic interpersonal dynamics and narcissistic, self-absorbed characters, Martel creates a telling portrait of family, servants and parental indifference. While it does feel improvised, credit to the filmmaker: the machinating picture is actually carefully scripted and won her a Sundance writing award in 2001. Two of her three films have been selected at Cannes thus far and whenever Martel finds the funds for her next project (a sci-fi-ish one in development over the last few years fell apart), she’ll surely be a mainstay going forward with an in-competition slot practically already reserved for her bold and disquieting works.

Me And You And Everyone We Know“(2005) — Miranda July
One of the most polarizing films of the last decade, at least for a certain section of easily annoyed 20-30-somethings, perhaps no film provoked as much wrath as Miranda July‘s feature debut “Me And You And Everyone We Know.” Viewed by some as the urtext of pretentious, whimsical indie cinema, this story about a lonely, single-fathered shoe salesman (John Hawkes), his precocious children (including a revelatory Brandon Ratcliff), a peculiar and fanciful performance artist (July herself) and the bus stop where their lives interrelate is actually an observant and contemplative consideration of daydreamers in search of a warm blanket of belonging. Offbeat to the point of irritation for some, the picture is really so honest in its depiction of yearning that its awkwardness is part of its reality. But the calculatedly uncomfortable moments that come as characters seek connection and love (some of which are uproariously funny; others nakedly optimistic) are counterbalanced by a wondrously pillowy and buoyant atmosphere (thanks in large part to Michael Andrews dreamy and illusory synth-lullabies), and keen sense of self-aware humor (July knows her character is part-nitwit). Charming and effervescent, July has a keen sense of humanity, music, tone and absurdist humor, plus a patient watchful eye that makes for a deeply expressive movie. Many of us who loved ‘Everyone We Know,’ found her follow-up, “The Future” wasn’t quite as successful in its aims, but we’ll still be at the theater any time she decides to stray from her art projects and make a film instead. Back and forth forever (“))<>((“), indeed.

Pariah” (2011) — Dee Rees
For some reason the mainstream press is incredibly lazy and, having just dubbed “Precious” a miraculous take on the modern urban experience, failed to give “Pariah” the praise it so desperately deserved. It’s especially a shame because “Pariah” is so much the better film, so emotionally layered, subtle and sublime. One day people will look back and wonder how Lee Daniels‘ crass, exploitative drama was an Academy Award winner while “Pariah” barely got any notice at all. Its lack of acceptance might have had to do with its tricky subject matter: it’s the story of a talented young girl named Alike (Adepero Oduye, who did get some deserved buzz off this performance) who is dealing with her burgeoning homosexuality in the not-exactly-open-minded African American community of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Rees was a student of Spike Lee‘s at New York University, and he in turn executive produced “Pariah,” which is interesting given the widespread attacks (often rightly) leveled at Lee’s representation of women in his films. With “Pariah,” Rees made a startling debut not just for a female filmmaker but a filmmaker, period. The movie is gorgeously photographed (it won a special award for cinematography at Sundance), capturing the kind of glimmery moment in between childhood and adulthood, when you’re really starting to figure out who you are and instead of being afraid of it, you become empowered. It’s occasionally dark but never stoops to maudlin tactics, in fact everything feels real and more importantly, it feels right. No matter how far from our own lives the black experience in America as a lesbian might be, “Pariah” remains entirely relatable and truthful, without ever going too bleak. In outlook it’s occasionally dramatic but ultimately optimistic — you can’t help but feel that way about the filmmaker too; we expect great things from her for sure.

Somersault” (2004) — Cate Shortland
Like an Australian version of Sofia CoppolaCate Shortland’s striking debut is beautifully shot, expressive and sensitively attuned to the unspoken glances and connections between people. In this poignant psychological drama and coming of age story, an impulsive teenager named Heidi (Abbie Cornish in a revelatory, star-making performance) leaves home after being caught in bed with her mother’s boyfriend. Naive and rash, she travels to a snowy ski resort where she finds herself short on funds, directionless, and ripe for being manipulated by older, scheming men. A guileless, troubled teenage girl starving for experience but who doesn’t know the difference between sex and love, Heidi falls headfirst into ill-advised situations, until she meets Joe (Sam Worthington), a thoughtful but reluctant older man battling his own inner turmoil. Admittedly light on plot, and high on atmosphere, “Somersault”’s story could be read as a little pat. Yet the movie is deeply, emotionally raw, the mood and tones gorgeously shot (DP Robert Humphreys’ work is beautiful) and the nakedly vulnerable performances demonstrate a filmmaker who knows how to get the best out of her cast (it’s Worthington’s best performance to date, directly contrasting with his normally leaden mien). A mesmerizing portrait of emotional instability and the feeling of being lost, “Somersault” is heartfelt, and at times, painful to watch, but provides an exhilarating rush of feeling, mood and visceral substance.

A New Leaf” (1971) — Elaine May
As detailed far more thoroughly in our recent retrospective, we’re big fans of the short directorial career of Elaine May, which came to an abrupt end after the notorious failure of “Ishtar.” Her first film, “A New Leaf” is ripe for reappraisal as a highly idiosyncratic, if compromised, debut that boasts some terrific elements, not least the performances from Walter Matthau and from May herself as the clumsy, socially inept heiress Matthau pursues. An odd mix of social satire and romantic comedy all shot through with the very blackest of humor, “A New Leaf” follows stinking rich, widely disliked Henry Graham (Matthau) as he discovers he’s run through his fortune, and resolves to marry money, secretly plotting to off the offending wife as soon as possible thereafter. In a town apparently teeming with rich heiresses with no familial attachments, Henry settles on Henrietta (May) a ditzy botanist whose very existence is an affront to all of Henry’s refined tastes and snobbery. In an ending significantly different from that planned by May, Henry undergoes a last-minute change of heart as regards his murderous plan; May’s own instincts were for his redemption not to come through the transformative power of Henrietta’s sweetness and devotion, but for him to actually commit several other murders along the way, for which he then ends up “sentencing” himself to a life with Henrietta as punishment. Lady knew dark. But the studio stepped in, as so often happened over May’s short and volatile directorial career (not unreasonably, one might suggest, when her cut reportedly ran 180 minutes and was delivered only after an extended series of delays which at one point saw May hiding the negative under her bed in an effort to keep producer Robert Evans away from it). What’s left after Evans’ did a pretty drastic chop on it may not be what May had envisaged (she tried to have her name removed, in fact) but it is a unique showcase of her offbeat sensibilities, slightly reshaped though they may be, and of her deliciously misanthropic streak.

Girlfight” (2000) – Karyn Kusama
There’s a certain feeling independent movies can occasionally give off, one in which entertainment is the furthest thing from the filmmakers’ agenda. “Girlfight” is a tiny movie but it never gives off that vibe. It is wonderfully, aggressively entertaining, but still quite artful, a debut feature that announced a major new talent. A young girl from pre-mommy-fied Brooklyn, who has problems in school associated with her excessive aggression, decides to channel that into something positive, as she trains to become a boxer. While there are a number of inspirational, “Rocky“-ish cliches sprinkled throughout, they never stand out as such. The movie hooks you from the very first shot (pushing in on star Michelle Rodriguez as she broods in school) and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. In addition to making Rodriguez something of a star (she’s had a long and varied career, recently revived with her reintroduction to the “Fast and Furious” franchise), the movie began Kusama’s career. Her direction here is peerless — “Girlfight” is an elegant mixture of entertainment and social commentary. The movie makes bold statements about gender, sexuality and race, but it never takes you out of the fun of watching a kick-ass chick beat the everloving shit out of people. Kusama pays homage to the gods of independent genre movies past (John Sayles shows up as a science teacher), and her script offers poignant insights like when Rodriguez asks her grizzled trainer what happened to his own boxing career, and he scowls and says, “What happens to most of us when we do it – we lose.” The movie was one of those rare film festival crowd pleasers that translated into a minor theatrical hit (it was also pretty much on every top ten list at the end of the year). Kusama continued her career of mixing issues of gender, sexuality, race and class with more easily recognizable genre tropes, with two underrated studio features, Paramount‘s “Aeon Flux” and Fox‘s “Jennifer’s Body.” Both fared disappointingly, but Kusama has genre talent to burn and feels like a director who’s just one shot away from the big time.  

The Virgin Suicides” (2000) — Sofia Coppola
When “The Virgin Suicides” debuted in 2000, most agreed it was the best film by a Coppola (any Coppola) for a very long time, though there was cynicism, for sure. Few directors, on their first features, get to work with a cast as starry as this one (including exemplary performances by James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Scott Glenn, Danny DeVito and, in a voiceover role, Giovanni Ribisi) or are able to recruit a reclusive French electronic duo to compose the dreamlike score (Daft Punk contemporaries Air). But it doesn’t really matter how Coppola arranged the stars for “The Virgin Suicides,” only that she did, and the results are nothing short of dazzling. A contemplative adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides‘ novel of the same name, “The Virgin Suicides” charts a family of five sisters (led by Dunst), who, after beguiling and charming the local neighborhood boys, all commit suicide at the same time, Jonestown-style. As the narrator explains, this event affected the boys who were infatuated with the sisters for their whole lives; the mystery of why is always with them. Many of the foundations of Coppola’s career were established here: her amazing use of music (the moment when Dunst and a young male suitor kiss, to the sounds of Heart‘s “Crazy On You,” is nothing short of unforgettable), her gauzy visuals, her creative use of fonts to evoke a singular spirit and mood, and her uncanny ability to put you into the heads of young female characters, no matter how different they might feel from you — and there’s a lot to divide you here, by time, gender, or class). Given the subject matter, a lesser (and, most likely, male) director would have heaped tragic pathos onto the story, smothering it in sentimentality and bleakness. There’s a lightness to Coppola’s direction, a sunshiney effervescence, that radiates from within every scene; yes the event that defines the movie is tragic but the girls who commit the act are not. Coppola makes it very clear why they enchant every person they come across, she understands the scary raw power of young women transitioning to adulthood. In Coppola’s world, it gives off a kind of glittery shine. While film nerds argue endlessly about whether or not Coppola has adequately followed through on the promise, both visually and on a narrative level, displayed in “The Virgin Suicides,” she still remains one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. 

Eve’s Bayou” (1997) — Kasi Lemmons
We could have included this in our list of actors who have become directors since Kasi Lemmons first started as a character actor, perhaps most notably playing Clarice Starling’s FBI Academy roommate in Jonathan Demme‘s masterful “Silence of the Lambs” (remember her running down the hall?) For her debut feature, however, Lemmons let her imagination run wild, crafting an unforgettable drama that combines elements of the psychosexual thriller, coming of age story and, of all things, supernatural horror tale, into a giant Southern Gothic gumbo that cast a spell on pretty much everyone who saw it. From the movie’s opening narration, in which Eve (Jurnee Smollett) admits to being ten years old the summer she killed her father, “Eve’s Bayou” wraps itself around you like thick swirls of swamp fog. There are so many things going on in the movie that it’s amazing that it doesn’t end up as some kind of incoherent jumble, but Lemmons, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps everything crystal clear, with different plot threads amplifying others and the emotional and thematic throughlines always clearly defined. Mostly, “Eve’s Bayou” is about Eve, a young girl in rural Louisiana who begins to suspect her father (Samuel L. Jackson, in one of his very best performances), of cheating on her mother (Lynn Whitfield, radiant as always) and worse, attempting to rape her older sister (Meagan Good). Eve is supernaturally blessed (she has “second sight”) and goes about putting a hex on her father (yes, there is voodoo), which she feels results in his death. (Even though the movie is 15 years old, most people haven’t seen it, so we’re not spoiling anything else…) While “Eve’s Bayou” has been singled out as an important film about race in America (it made a Time Magazine list of the 25 most essential movies on the subject), we can’t help but feel that an oversized importance placed on the film takes away from acknowledging what a damn fine yarn it is. Because it really is wonderful — the kind of thing you’d tell around a campfire or read in some dusty old book of Southern Gothic ghost stories (even if all the ghosts are metaphorical or psychological). Lemmons has gone on to direct two more strong films, the detective movie deconstruction “The Caveman’s Valentine” (again starring Jackson) and “Talk to Me,” an incredibly fizzy biopic starring Don Cheadle shot in the rich orange and browns of the seventies. Her new film, “Black Nativity,” opens this year. Bout time too. It’s been way too long.

Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) — Kimberly Peirce
1999 was a particularly amazing year for cinema, an exciting period when film seemed to be on the cusp of something new and unexpected, both in terms of the technology allowing these stories to be told and the way that stories were told. “Boys Don’t Cry” was one of the banner films of that period; it seemed fearless and dynamic and set itself apart from other movies opening on a weekly basis. Based on the true-life story of Brandon Teena, a transsexual played by a largely unknown Hilary Swank (who ended up winning the Oscar for Best Actress), who is beaten, raped and murdered by male friends after they learn his secret, the brutality of the movie might be what’s most remembered (and is part of the reason the movie was initially awarded an NC-17 rating from the MPAA). But just as powerful as the sadness is the downright dewy romantic joy felt in the romantic relationship between Teena and his girlfriend (played by an equally fearless Chloe Sevigny, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar). What’s so amazing about “Boys Don’t Cry” is that you, as a viewer, are able to emotionally connect with the relationship between Teena and her lover, no matter how unique that relationship might be. Peirce’s visual style is plainspoken, capturing economically depressed characters in ways that never actually feels depressing, in fact sometimes the images border on the lyrical, but never in a flowery way. Instead she flirts occasionally with imagery associated with westerns or revenge thrillers, without ever tipping over into genre cliches. With “Boys Don’t Cry,” Peirce established herself as a filmmaker able to dramatize heavy material without a heavy hand. It’s a unique ability, for sure, and we can’t wait to see what she does with another tale of an oppressed youth yearning for vengeance, Stephen King‘s “Carrie.”

The Taste of Others” (2000) — Agnès Jaoui
A lighthearted ensemble comedy of manners, French film and TV actress Agnès Jaoui’s directorial debut could be accused of being too firmly mired in the rarefied stratosphere of white, middle-class people’s problems, if it didn’t have such a sharp take on that very milieu’s foibles and contradictions. In fact, this very funny, hugely endearing relationship comedy is in the vein of Woody Allen, with its deadpan characterization meaning pretty much every swing it takes at the absurdity of middle-class, middle-aged life and its assorted pretensions, lands in a well-earned punch(line). The chorus of characters brought into collision breaks down like this: Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is a well-off business owner who, for insurance purposes, has to be followed around by two bodyguards Frank and Bruno (Gerard Lanvin and Alain Chabat) until a certain lucrative contract is signed. One night he and his wife, whose chintzy taste for interior décor is perhaps the least affectionate running gag in the film, go to the theater where Castella, normally a cultural boor, falls for the lead actress Clara (Anna Alvaro) whom he hires to teach him English. Trying hard to ingratiate himself with her far more bohemian circle, Castella attempts to remake himself, much to the unkind ridicule of the artists and actors she’s friends with, while Clara’s friend Mani (Jaoui herself), the hash-dealing waitress in the café where they all convene, gets romantically involved with the bodyguards. If it all seems like a big stew, it kind of is, but that belies the skill Jaoui displays in keeping all the strands compelling and constantly developing and in having every relationship feel as true and considered as if it were the center of the film. Juggling all these narrative balls, and performing herself from a script she co-wrote with Bacri (her husband), you would think that, especially with this being her first film, somewhere the strain would tell. But it never does, and the film retains its kicky pace and effortless-seeming chemistry right down to the final, understated but thoroughly satisfying curtain call. Laying no claim to any particular depth or importance, but remaining resolutely entertaining throughout, Jaoui’s film plays out entirely in that sweet spot that marks the bullseye crossover of funny/sad/absurd/true, and is a rare gem: an ensemble comedy in which no character gets left behind, and everybody turns out to have been equally wrong about everyone else all along.

Honorable Mention: We called “Wadjda,” directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first Saudi woman ever to direct a film, “a phenomenal debut from an exciting new talent” in our review. It’s released through Sony Classics on September 9th and quite aside from the amazing story surrounding its making, it’s a film that every Playlister who’s seen it so far wholeheartedly recommends.

Don’t even get us started on all the films/directors we haven’t featured here. Some we excluded for specific reasons, like Sarah Polley’s great “Away From Her,” which we covered in our recent feature on actor-turned-director debuts (which was prompted by the release of Lake Bell’s “In A World,” another strong candidate), and Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” had its praises sung in the Lovers on the Run feature. But then many, many titles were the subject of much agonising and arguing, and ultimately ended up just missing the cut due to us having to narrow the list somehow, like: Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love and Basketball,” Lisa Cholodenko’s “High Art,” Nicole Holofcener’s “Walking and Talking,” Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol,” Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging,” Gurinder Chadha’s “Bhaji on the Beach,” Mia Hansen-Løve’s “All is Forgiven,Jodie Foster’s “Little Man Tate” and Lynn Shelton’s “We Go Way Back.”

And of course not every director hits a home run their first time at bat and so there are some names who don’t appear despite their profile or our admiration for their subsequent work, like Kathryn Bigelow, Nora Ephron, Catherine Hardwicke, Kelly Reichardt and Catherine Breillat. More often, though there were films we just couldn’t get to in time, but hope to check out very soon, including six foreign-language titles: Lina Wertmüller’s “I Basilischi,” Susanne Bier’s “Freud flyttar hemifrån,” Agnieszka Holland’s “Aktorzy prowincjonalniLucia Puenzo’s “XXY,” Celine Sciamma’s “Water Lilies” and Lone Scherfig’s “Kaj’s fødselsdag,”plus a clutch of English-language debuts like Sally El-Hosaini’s “My Brother the Devil,” Debra Granik’s “Down to the Bone” and Katherine Dieckmann’s “A Good Baby.” And those are just the ones we can think of right now. All of which must be proof, for any of us feeling pessimistic about women in the film industry, that, fingers crossed, lists like these will soon be simply impossible to manage.

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