Citizen Kane (1941)
Dir Orson Welles
There’s probably nothing left to say about the big man’s monumental calling card other than that it still manages to amaze. Welles was utterly dauntless in overcoming the challenges set against his big idea for charting the life of the world’s most powerful man. From happy-go-lucky ankle-biter to profligate gadabout to epically grumpy old timer, Kane’s life provides a rich backdrop onto which Welles’ fascination for his new medium is projected. The emotional impact of Kane’s demise and the insoluble regrets he has harboured throughout his monumental life are proof that Welles was a master storyteller in any medium he chose.
Adam Lee Davies
The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
Dir Charles Laughton
Can a director’s one and only film really be considered a debut? If we made a list of the greatest swansongs, could The Night Of The Hunter head that list as well? Frankly, yes. Much has been made of the film’s originality: the combination of influences, from Grimm fairytales through French romanticism and German expressionism to film noir, all fusing and mutating to form something wholly fresh. Perhaps the best description of the tone comes from François Truffaut: ‘It’s like a horrific news item retold by small children.’ There are directors who seem to spend much of their careers tilting at The Night Of The Hunter: the queasy fairytale logic of Tim Burton, or the glittering psychic murk of David Lynch. But it’s a hopeless task: this is a film which can never be, and perhaps should never be repeated, and the passing of time has done nothing to dim its singular, undeniable brilliance.
Knife In The Water (1962)
Dir Roman Polanski
It’s always the way. You drive out for a weekend boat trip with your lover, you pick up a stranger on the way, and he ends up driving a stake between both of you. But Polanski’s intense and subtly erotic film is actually no laughing matter. The controversial director has been back in the headlines recently but, personal life aside, his film debut remains a shocking, sensitive deconstruction of the marital idyll.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
Dir George A Romero
Very few debuts both create and define an entire cinematic subgenre, but that’s what George Romero achieved with this. Not only did the film set a fully formed template that practically all zombie movies have followed since (apocalyptic setting, small group of scrappy outsiders, pointed political allegory), its effect on the horror genre was nothing less than seismic. Downbeat endings, ethnic minority or female central characters, minuscule budgets, ever-more inventive death scenes: these have become genre staples.
Dir David Lynch
Lynch’s debut stands today as one of the towering achievements of truly independent cinema. Debate may rage as to the film’s ultimate meaning, but only among those who haven’t figured out that, with Lynch, there generally isn’t one.
Blood Simple (1984)
Dir Ethan & Joel Coen
A dusty gem that gets better with every viewing, the Coens’ entrée is a clammy roundelay of deceit, death and dirty dollars played out across the skull orchards of West Texas. It introduced us to a worldview that – with only a couple of exceptions – has informed all of Joel and de facto co-director Ethan’s best subsequent work: that people are weak and stupid, the world will always turn against you and nobody, but nobody, gets away clean.
Adam Lee Davies
Man Bites Dog (1992)
Dir Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde
Benoît Poelvoorde plays Ben, a terrifyingly nonchalant serial killer whose brutal acts are all caught on camera by an increasingly slavish and desensitised film crew. Its deadly serious and highly plausible thesis – that physical closeness to violence over a long period of time can eventually provoke similar heinous actions – is shrouded within an ironic knockabout comedy concerning the crazed lengths the media will go to for an original subject.
Buffalo ’66 (1997)
Dir Vincent Gallo
Gallo plays Billy Brown, an ex-con who has told his football-obsessed parents that, instead of being banged up, he’s actually been living high on the hog as a successful businessman. The rub is that they don’t give a rat’s ass where he’s been, so the fact that he’s kidnapped a young ballet dancer (Christina Ricci, in her finest role to date) to act as his wife becomes unnecessary. It’s a brilliantly simple film, shot, scripted and acted to perfection, about a mildly deranged man who just wants to be loved.