20 Best Debut Films

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The spark of a great debut film often ignites the world of cinema. Emerging talents, wet behind the ears, make their marks with groundbreaking stories, innovative techniques, and captivating performances resulting from a hunger to create. These inaugural works not only introduce new voices to the medium but also set the stage for future masterpieces later in their careers. 

In this article, we’ll be delving into 21 debut films that left an indelible mark on cinematic history, shaping the storytelling landscape and inspiring generations of filmmakers for decades to come. Not all of these films would lead to success for their creators, but they all contain an energy and poetry that would ignite the screen for years to come.

1. Citizen Kane (1941)

Photo Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

Orson Welles’ tour de force debut is an undisputed masterpiece of the form, revolutionizing filmmaking with its use of deep-focus cinematography and cyclical narrative structure. Following the titular Charles Foster Kane’s rise and fall and the controversies therein, we are given the full portrait of one man’s folly. It is as good as they say! 

2. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Photo Credit: Live Entertainment.

Sundance wunderkind Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene with this uber-stylish, hyperviolent crime thriller about a group of criminals who must investigate who among them is a rat. A loose remake of Hong Kong filmmaker Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, this classic of the Miramax generation would lead to future successes like Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill duology. 

3. The 400 Blows (1959)

Photo Credit: Les Films du Carrosse.

Cahiers du Cinema writer François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical tale of a misunderstood adolescent in post-war France heralded the arrival of the French New Wave, which would bring filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda. The film’s poignant exploration of youth would spawn a trilogy and the career of one of the greatest filmmakers ever to do it.

4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Photo Credit: Image Ten.

Pennsylvania horror auteur, George A. Romero’s masterpiece of low-budget horror, follows a group of strangers trapped in a house after the outbreak of a mysterious plague, which brings with it the rise of the undead. The film helped create an entire subgenre of horror whose ripples can still be felt today. The film’s social commentary helped cement its place as one of the great American films of the 1960s.

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5. Get Out (2017)

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

This directorial debut from comedian and future horror filmmaker Jordan Peele seamlessly blends horror with a biting sense of social commentary, delivering a chilling indictment of race relations in America while subverting the genre’s tropes. The film, which follows a young black journalist named Chris who uncovers a series of shocking secrets while meeting the family of his white girlfriend, Rose, would go on to win Best Original Screenplay at the 2018 Academy Awards and become one of the most successful independent films ever made, grossing fifty-times its $4.5 million budget.

6. Following (1998)

Photo Credit: Next Wave Films.

A no-budget—the film was shot on weekends when the crew wasn’t working their day jobs—mind-bending thriller follows a writer who follows people to gain inspiration for his novels who then must untangle his web of obsession when his hobby goes too far. Following would go on to foreshadow the mind-bending thrillers of its director, future Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan.

7. Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

John Singleton made Oscar history as the first African American director and the youngest person to ever be nominated for the Best Directing Academy Award for his chronicle of a pre-Rodney King South Central LA. A gripping and visceral watch, it has all the hallmarks of a young man’s film. 

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8. Pi (1998)

Photo Credit: Harvest Filmworks.

This debut feature from future Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky follows a paranoid mathematician as he attempts to create a supercomputer to help him crack the stock market. Brimming with no-budget innovation and paranoid energy, this is one thriller you want to take advantage of!

9. Breathless (1960)

Photo Credit: Les Films Impéria.

Following in Truffaut’s footsteps, Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking debut defied established conventions of the medium with its daring use of jump cuts, naturalistic dialogue, and rebellious energy, cementing his status as the once and future king of the French cinema.

10. The Witch (2015)

Photo Credit: A24.

Robert Eggers’ atmospheric horror film immerses viewers in the bleak world of 17th-century New England, showcasing his mastery of mood and tension while creating a house style that would define A24’s horror output for the rest of the 2010s. Be on the lookout for The Lighthouse, Egger’s 2019 follow-up!

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11. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Photo Credit: 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks.

This punky slice of cinema from New Black Cinema leader Spike Lee, shot in gorgeous 16mm black and white on a shoestring budget, introduced audiences to his bold visual style while indulging them in an unflinching portrayal of race, gender, and sexuality at the tail-end of the Reagan Administration. 

12. Hard Eight (1996)

Photo Credit: MGM.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film is a quiet character study that heralded the arrival of a major talent. A simple crime film, Hard Eight would be a calling card that showcased Anderson’s knack for crafting complex narratives about damaged people trying to seek order in an inherently chaotic world.

13. Amores Perros (2000)

Photo Credit: Lionsgate Entertainment.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is a visceral and emotionally resonant triptych of interconnected lives in Mexico City. Devastating and brutally violent, the film’s elliptical style would come to cement Iñárritu’s place as one of the modern masters of world cinema. 

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14. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

Master of modern suspense, M. Night Shyamalan stunned audiences with his debut, following a young boy with supernatural abilities. The film would become notorious for its twist ending, launching him onto the global stage as a blockbuster dynamo in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg.

15. Clerks (1994)

Photo Credit: View Askew Productions.

Kevin Smith’s foul-mouthed indie comedy, which follows a day in the life of two convenience store clerks, would go on to define the future of no-budget comedy for the next twenty years and make way for one of the most original voices to emerge from the 90s Sundance wave. 

16. Blood Simple (1984) 

Photo Credit: River Road Productions.

The Coen Brothers made a splash with their debut neo-noir thriller, showcasing their trademark blend of dark humor, intricate plotting, and visual flair. The film, shot by the great Barry Sonnefeld, would start a wave of neo-noir crime comedies that would dominate the 1990s.

17. El Mariachi (1992)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Robert Rodriguez’s $7,000 action thriller is a testament to the power of no-budget resourcefulness and creativity. The film, about a case of mistaken identity gone violently wrong, would help Rodriguez stand as a pioneering figure in the new independent cinema of the 1990s. 

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18. Fruitvale Station (2013)

Photo Credit: OG Project.

Ryan Coogler’s gritty first feature is a poignant and timely exploration of race and police brutality. Fruitvale Station would lay the groundwork for what Coogler would do in later features such as Creed and Black Panther, crafting profound character studies that never forget to be entertaining.

19. Pariah (2011)

Photo Credit: Focus Features.

Dee Rees’ Pariah is a raw, emotionally resonant coming-of-age story centered on a young African American lesbian navigating identity and acceptance. Emerging from the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s and 2000s, Pariah demonstrated that Rees was a force to be reckoned with.

20. Whale Rider (2002)

Photo Credit: Newmarket Films.

In her debut feature, Niki Caro offers a moving portrayal of a young Maori girl defying tradition to fulfill her destiny. The film showcases Caro’s talent for crafting intimate, character-driven narratives that focus on marginalized peoples, the type of film that’s sorely lacking in the indie world.

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

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