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20 Great Debut Films From Female Directors

by The Playlist Staff
August 29, 2013 3:44 PM
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Fast Times At Ridgemont High

"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

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

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

"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.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    


  • Evyatar Gour | November 13, 2013 12:23 AMReply

    Hi guys!

    Thought you might be interested in mentioning this new short film that is currently in production. Feel free to use the info below or contact me for any questions.

    The Sirens – Press Release

    Student Kickstarter Film Receives Support of Award Winners James Strouse and Christopher Newman.

    New York, NY - Two time Sundance Film Festival winner James Strouse and three time Oscar winner Christopher Newman have just put their names behind a small kickstarter project by an unknown student prodigy called Mor Shamay (this is her first professional short, after several creative projects that have caught the attention of Professors at New York’s School of Visual Arts.) Both have been teaching their respective art at New York’s SVA – School of Visual Arts. Upon reading the script and being approached by Miss Shamay for support, the two agreed to place their support for the student’s final project.

    While it is not uncommon to see creative minds supporting Kickstarter projects, it is worth noting that these two Executive Producers may take this tiny project and help turn it into the next surprise hit at next year’s festival circuit.

    About The Film

    The Sirens revolves around a couple in a passionless marriage, whose weekend getaway is interrupted by the wife's beautiful younger sister dropping by unexpectedly. You can find details and updates on the production at The Sirens website or see what all the fuss is about on their Kickstarter page .

  • Irene | September 9, 2013 3:33 AMReply

    Great list - one that I would have added is Joanna Hogg's Unrelated. That and her follow-up Archipelago have become two of my most revisited films. Masterful control of tone and fascinating dissection of group/family dynamics with a distinctive style. Very much looking forward to seeing Exhibition.

  • Matt | September 2, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    Where is Patty Jenkins - Monster?

  • marc | September 1, 2013 2:48 PMReply

    'Little Noises' by Jane Spencer also great. 'Daughters of the Dust' by Julie Dash. Both premiered at Sundance.

  • Amit Itzcar | September 1, 2013 2:19 PMReply

    I would add the Israeli film "Or (My treasure)" by Keren Yedaya that won the "Camera D'or" award at Cannes in 2004. Amazing movie

  • BT | August 31, 2013 2:55 PMReply

    Nice list, but as much as I appreciate Sofia Coppola not sure Virgin Suicides belongs. Also, Eve's Bayou probably doesn't either... Walking and Talking and Gas, Food Lodging, on the other hand, do. The biggest omissions, however, are Away from Here and Wanda, which are both better than half the films on this list... Biotch - your commentary here does nothing but demonstrate your ignorance. Your anger arises out of frustrating over what you cannot understand. The great films you mention are boring to you because you are not intellectually capable/cinema versed enough to understand and appreciate them. The constant cry of the ignorant is that the people who like something they don't understand are only saying they like it because they are pretentious or trying to conform to traditionally held thought when almost always it's because they truly appreciate the works for their greatness. With more experience you will hopefully be able to form opinions about art independent of their reputations. Again, this seems like the protestations of someone very young and/or inexperienced with art/expressing intellectual thought about it. Hopefully too you'll learn to have discussions (even anonymously on the interwebs) without resorting to nasty name-calling.

  • Billy Z | August 31, 2013 6:41 PM


  • Ellea | August 31, 2013 1:11 AMReply

    Fantastic list!

  • Erin | August 30, 2013 12:57 PMReply

    Massy Tadjedin's Last night. Underrated.

  • soirore | August 30, 2013 10:07 AMReply

    What about Celia by Ann Turner. An amazing debut film.

  • Bob | August 29, 2013 5:48 PMReply

    Manny & Lo, directed by Lisa Krueger.
    Scarlett Johansson's first leading role, just amazing. Sundance film in the late 90s, score by John Luire, produced by Dean Silvers, great performance by Mary Kay Place. Everyone should check it out. It's like a young girl's version of Badlands.

  • sean | August 29, 2013 4:19 PMReply

    Wanda, by Barbara Loden

  • Taylor Jones | August 29, 2013 4:26 PM

    Seconded. Baffling omission.

  • TheoC | August 29, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    Great list, great stuff.

  • Pat | August 29, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    Any person who believed that The Virgin Sucides was better than The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, or even Tucker the Man and His Dream needs to seriously be put under psychiatric care.

  • Biotch. | August 29, 2013 11:22 PM

    I didn't really like the Godfather, but that's because it's been so ingrained in pop culture, that when I watched it, it was not new. Having not seen the Virgin Suicides, I can't comment on its worth, but yo, I liked Lost In Translation better than both Godfather movies, not Apocalypse Now though. I also could understand why a lady might not like the Godfather movies or Apocalypse Now or whatever, because those movies are pretty fucking masculine. Anyway, eat a dick. Lots of "great" movies actually are really boring and suck, see Last Year at Marienbad and Rules of the Game and every Jean Luc Goddard film I've watched.

  • cory everett | August 29, 2013 4:52 PM

    Dude, read the entire thought. "most agreed it was the best film by a Coppola (any Coppola) for a very long time." Key being FOR A VERY LONG TIME. No one here was positing it was better than 4 of the 10 best films of the 70s because the 70s were a "very long time" away from 2000. So was 1988 for that matter but "Virgin Suicides" is still better than "Tucker."

  • oogle monster | August 29, 2013 4:22 PM

    Whoa there Pat. Let me be the first to say (since apparently you have never met someone who disagrees) that TVS is better than most of those films you named. Different strokes, buddy. In fact, I think TVS is better than Lost in Translation.

  • Pat | August 29, 2013 4:09 PM

    Sorry Cory, I still don't agree. Granted, Sofia's old man was written off as just a has been when The Virgin Sucides came out, but no one (beyond a small fringe group in Filmcomment) was ever going to say it was better than four of the ten best films of the 70s. Now if you are saying best debut by a Coppola, than I'd agree.

  • wouldathunk | August 29, 2013 4:06 PM

    Gee a knee-jerk audience reaction on The Playlist? Never.

  • cory everett | August 29, 2013 4:03 PM

    Keep reading.... "for a very long time." I would say 10+ years qualifies.

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