There’s something so exciting about the arrival of a new voice on the movie scene. Sure, we love to see the veterans and masters do their thing, but it’s that adrenaline rush that comes with discovery and potential that really drives a lot of film lovers. When we see an amazing debut, we not only appreciate it on its own, but we can imagine all the great movies to come from people like Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, Ryan Coogler, and Ari Aster. It’s a glimpse of the future.
This list of some of the greatest directorial debuts of the 2010s offers a vision of the future of filmmaking that’s diverse, ambitious, daring, and brilliant. We chose the directors based on Tomatometer scores, the impact of their work (awards, box office, general adulation), and, in many cases, the work they would go on to make after their debut or the projects they have teed up. Names like Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle may seem like omissions, but they actually had films released pre-2010; other names, like this year’s Phillip Youmans, who made his Certified Fresh debut while still in high school, arguably deserved a place, but we kept to a strict 30 slots. It could have been a much, much longer list.
Without further ado or caveat, here are 30 incredible directing debuts from the last decade. We may be looking back, but it’s because we’re so excited about what’s ahead.
When he was barely more than a teenager, Derek Cianfrance wrote and directed a small project called Brother Tied that didn’t get a theatrical release, so most consider this 2010 drama his debut. And what a debut! It helps to have two of the best actors of their generation delivering at the top of their game, which is what Cianfrance got from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as a couple whom we watch disintegrate in front of our eyes. Both were nominated for Golden Globes and Cianfrance would go on to work with Gosling again in 2012’s Certified Fresh The Place Beyond the Pines.
Given how much she would go on to accomplish with acclaimed works like Selma, 13th, and When They See Us – not to mention as a producer and mentor – it’s almost hard to believe that Ava DuVernay’s directorial debut came just this decade. The former publicist turned heads with this independent drama about a woman (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) forced to take care of a sick aunt (Beverly Todd). Shot in only 11 days on a shoestring budget, it’s easy to see the talent that would turn DuVernay into a household name over the next 10 years.
Long before her Oscar-nominated Mudbound, Dee Rees wrote and directed this 2011 Sundance gem, a film about a young woman dealing with her emerging homosexuality. Adepero Oduye stars as Alike, a 17-year-old who becomes more comfortable with her lesbian identity, even as she faces pushback from her family and community. It’s a tender, honest film that only makes one wish that Rees would work more often – it was six years between Sundance premieres for the filmmaker.
Sometimes a great new director is announced with a small, intimate cast – sometimes it’s with a ridiculous ensemble that includes more than one Oscar winner. J.C. Chandor was blessed enough to find himself directing Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, and more in this riveting look at the beginning of the financial crisis that was still fresh in investors’ minds when the film was released in 2011. Chandor used this well-received film as a launchpad and directed three other Fresh films before the decade was over – All is Lost, A Most Violent Year, and Triple Frontier.
Most Sundance veterans will tell you that they remember specific world premieres, one of them being the 2012 launch of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a heartfelt, poetic look at childhood that would go on to land Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. (It would also gift us with an incredible on-camera talent in Quvenzhané Wallis.) There’s something transcendent about this film, which announced a major new talent who took way too long to make a follow-up. The good news is that Zeitlin finally has finally done that: Wendy will also have its world premiere at Sundance in January 2020, and it will likely be the hottest ticket of the festival.
Fans of Drew Goddard’s writing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost weren’t too shocked to discover he could also write and direct a kick-ass movie too, but even they were a little blown away by this modern horror classic. Subverting the tropes of most scary stories about beautiful people in remote cabins, Goddard’s directorial debut was a much-needed jolt of genre adrenaline at a time when audiences weren’t really taking horror movies all that seriously. He would go on to write The Martian and write and direct another subversive puzzle film, 2018’s Bad Times at the El Royale.
Before she gave the world Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria wrote and directed this quirky comedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in what’s basically a pre-apocalyptic buddy movie. When it’s announced that an asteroid is going to hit the planet, Carell’s sad sack goes on a road trip with his neighbor to find the true love of his life before it’s too late. Scafaria proved adept at directing performers, a skill further deployed in 2015’s The Meddler and 2019’s Hustlers, which is starting to rack up awards this season.
After producing films in Indonesia in the 2000s, Joshua Oppenheimer decided to make his first feature documentary about the open wound in that country, namely the mass genocide that took place from 1965 to 1966, the perpetrators of which were never brought to justice. His masterstroke is in allowing the violent war criminals to reenact their own crimes, using the power of the camera against them. The final scenes, in which one of the leaders of the death squad finally comes to terms with his own sinful past, are unforgettable. Don’t miss the companion film, The Look of Silence.
Few directors have made as much of an impact in a relatively small amount of time as Ryan Coogler, who has directed three films and has yet to notch a Tomatometer score under 94%. Everyone on Earth knows about Creed and Black Panther, but his debut was back in 2013 with Fruitvale Station, the true story of the tragic murder of Oscar Grant, a young man killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer in 2009. It was also the first major film role for Michael B. Jordan, who would go on to star in all of Coogler’s films. Their relationship seems likely to produce quality through the next decade and beyond.
The life of Argentinian filmmaker Andres Muschietti changed forever when Guillermo del Toro saw a three-minute short he made with his sister called Mama — he would go on to develop it into a feature under the eye of del Toro. Jessica Chastain gives a fearless performance as a woman trying to deal with two children found in the woods, protected by a supernatural entity known only as Mama. Muschietti proved he had enough of a gift with atmosphere here that WB tapped him to direct two of the biggest horror movies of the decade in the It flicks. And it all started with the right person seeing just a few minutes of film.
Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent shook Park City and then the rest of the world in 2014, when she dropped her fable of parental grief and fear in the amazing The Babadook. Adapting her own short film, Monster, Kent directed Essie Davis in the story of a single mother trying to deal with the sudden loss of her husband while raising a troublesome child. Oh, and there’s a horrible creature in the basement too. (Or is there?) The wave of highbrow horror that ended the 2010s likely doesn’t crest as high without The Babadook, a masterpiece of tension that weaves relatable emotions into a ghost story and felt like an instant classic the first time we saw it. Kent followed it with this year’s Certified Fresh The Nightingale.
Don’t take just our word for it: Sundance named Justin Simien a “Breakthrough Talent” by giving him a special award after the world premiere of his brilliant 2014 dramedy about life on a black campus in the 2010s. Tessa Thompson plays Samantha White, a student at Winchester University, a mostly white school. Simien uses White to branch off and introduce us to a fascinating ensemble of players, instantly becoming one of the most interesting young voices in cinema on modern issues of race and class. He adapted the film into an acclaimed Netflix series – all three seasons are Certified Fresh – and has finally directed a follow-up that will premiere at Sundance 2020, Bad Hair.
What do most of these breakthrough debuts have in common? They announce distinct new voices. No one else on Earth could have made A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a black-and-white “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western.” It’s not like we get one of those movies every weekend at the multiplex. The minute Ana Lily Amirpour landed on the scene, we knew that her voice was going to be her own, something proven further by The Bad Batch, her even crazier follow-up. Love or hate her films, they aren’t like anything else.
It’s actually less common than you think for successful screenwriters to segue smoothly into the director’s chair, as the two roles sometimes take different skill sets. It turns out that it wasn’t a problem for Dan Gilroy, who may be an even better director than he was a writer, as proven by this 2014 award-winner that stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an L.A.-based man who gets hooked on getting raw and often bloody footage for local news. Gilroy directed Gyllenhaal to one of the best performances of his career in a film that feels just as timely now as it did five years ago.
Alex Garland wasn’t your typical newcomer when he dropped his 2014 directorial debut. After all, he had been a regular collaborator with Danny Boyle as the writer on 28 Days Later… and Sunshine, and even dabbled in video game writing. And yet Ex Machina still felt like an introduction to a major new talent. The story of a man who develops a doomed relationship with a daring new form of A.I. was so well-received that Garland landed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. And there are people who will tell you that his follow-up, 2018’s Certified Fresh Annihilation, was even better.
Hungarian director László Nemes proved that there are still stories to tell about the Holocaust with this terrifying vision of life in Auschwitz near the end of World War II. Géza Röhrig plays Saul, a man deeply numbed by the horror of what he’s had to do as a Sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners who were forced to assist the SS. When he becomes determined to give a murdered child a proper burial, Son of Saul becomes a story of purpose in a place designed to crush the human spirit. With impeccable sound design and a visual style that puts viewers in Saul’s shoes, this was a debut admired around the world, all the way to an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Marielle Heller has been so successful this decade that it’s hard to believe that her debut was only four years ago. Since then she’s directed two films with Tomatometer scores above 95% in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. She’s clearly one of the most interesting directors working today, and it all started with this adaptation of the Phoebe Gloeckner novel, starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, and Kristen Wiig. Heller has had a gift with character from the beginning, presenting people who feel three-dimensional without ever sinking to melodrama.
Chloé Zhao earned raves and awards nominations for her Certified Fresh 2017 drama The Rider, but that film wouldn’t have happened were it not for her debut two years earlier with 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Developed through the Sundance Institute, Zhao’s film takes place in a setting we don’t often see even in independent cinema: an Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s the veracity of Zhao’s filmmaking that really put her on the map and made her one of the most interesting directors of the 2010s. Her debut was so well-received that it was selected for the Directors Fortnight at Cannes. Oh, and she caught the eye of Marvel, too.
With only two films under his belt, Robert Eggers has already developed his own distinct voice, playing with sound design and American history in The Witch and The Lighthouse. When the former premiered at Sundance, it had unsuspecting viewers literally crying in their seats with its suffocating use of atmosphere and dread. Eggers helped usher in what many consider a new golden age of horror, and he did so with a period piece that uses almost entirely natural lighting and slow builds without jump scares. Audiences were polarized, but critics fell in love with Eggers instantly.
The holidays bring out the best and worst in us. Few modern films capture this with as much harrowing truth as Trey Edward Shults’ 2015 debut, a drama that could just as easily be classified as a horror film. Shults cast his real-life aunt Krisha Fairchild in the title role, a woman who comes home on Thanksgiving to reconnect with a family that really doesn’t want her there. As animosities bubble to the surface and turkeys crash to the floor, it becomes clearer that you’re watching a major new talent, one who would go on to direct two more Certified Fresh films before the end of the decade in It Comes at Night and Waves.
A young vegetarian develops a taste for human flesh in one of the most striking horror movie debuts in a generation. Garance Marillier plays Justine, a new student who stumbles into a hazing ritual in which she’s forced to eat raw meat, and things go very downhill from there. Moving from rabbit to chicken to her sister’s finger, Justine enters a downward spiral of body horror that owes a debt to genre masters like David Cronenberg or George A. Romero but signals the arrival of a unique talent at the same time. We’re just hungry for another movie.
Arguably the most critically acclaimed directorial debut of the entire decade, Jordan Peele’s Get Out was an earthquake in the movie scene, shaking up the industry in ways we haven’t seen in years. Have you wondered why horror movies are everywhere to end the decade – including in the form of Peele’s Certified Fresh follow-up, Us? One of the main reasons is that this half of Key & Peele won an Oscar for writing and directing arguably the best one in a generation, a movie that distills modern issues of race into a narrative that Rod Serling would have adored.
An unusual character study that’s also kind of about architecture isn’t an easy sell for audiences, but Kogonada’s Columbus has been building a loyal fanbase since the day it premiered at Sundance. John Cho does career-best work as a man named Jin who comes to Columbus, Indiana after his estranged father falls ill there. Unable to leave until his father recovers, he’s stuck in a small town that isn’t even home, drawn to a young woman named Casey, the wonderful Haley Lu Richardson. How we move through this world and how we sometimes get stuck in strange places are themes of Kogonada’s masterfully nuanced debut.
Actress Greta Gerwig technically co-directed Nights and Weekends with regular collaborator Joe Swanberg, but this Oscar-nominated film was her solo directorial debut, and it was one of the most impactful of the decade. Saoirse Ronan stars as the title character, a Sacramento-based teenager trying to figure out what’s next in her life. Gerwig displayed a remarkable gift with performance and character right out of the gate and has already proven that she’s no one-hit wonder in that regard with her Certified Fresh adaptation of Little Women.
The movement of high-quality horror arguably reached its apex with 2018’s Hereditary, the directorial debut of Ari Aster, a filmmaker who distilled influences like Roman Polanski and John Carpenter into something that felt new and terrifying. Toni Collette does some of the best work of her notable career as Annie Graham, a woman dealing with grief before being blindsided by unimaginable tragedy. There are a lot of horror directors who are good with tension and atmosphere, but Aster balances that half of his skill set by being a deft director of performance too, drawing daring work from Collette, and then again from Florence Pugh in his acclaimed follow-up Midsommar.
The genius behind the legendary rap group The Coup used the same subversive energy he brought to that project when he made his first feature film, a stunning satire that feels like the love child of Terry Gilliam and George Clinton. Lakeith Stanfield stars as a young man who climbs the corporate ladder of a telemarketing company to discover the poisonous culture that lives on top. The plot is smart, but what makes this such a stunning debut is the style and ambition Riley brought to it. It’s the kind of project that makes one instantly curious about what the filmmaker does next.
Some actors segue to the director’s chair with more grace than others. Bradley Cooper not only took to that chair with ease, but he did so in a film he also co-wrote, produced, and starred and sang his heart out in. Remaking the classic William Wellman film for another generation, Cooper knew exactly how to make this classic story connect with modern audiences, stepping out of the spotlight so Lady Gaga could dominate it in the way only she can. The big moments in A Star is Born are already iconic, but what makes this so promising is the way Cooper directs the small, character-driven scenes too. It feels like he could do literally any kind of film he wants for his follow-up.
Brought to life through the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs with the help of backing from Kickstarter, Nia DaCosta’s debut was so well-received that Jordan Peele tapped her to direct his anticipated remake of Candyman. What did he see in this debut? A balance of character work with greater themes about the state of large sections of a country that has been devastated by the drug trade. Tessa Thompson stars as a former drug runner in North Dakota who is forced into one final job across the Canadian border.
Breakthrough filmmaker Mati Diop clearly learned a thing or two about filmmaking by working with the legendary Claire Denis, but what elevates Atlantics beyond its dreamy visuals is the sense that this is a deeply personal story for the French-Senegalese actress/director. The story of an oceanside community in Senegal, and the class and gender issues that seem to control it, led Diop to become the first black female director ever to appear in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where her film won the Grand Prix.
It’s hard to make a memorable directorial debut with a teen comedy. Most of them are pretty disposable, and they don’t often allow for a director to really show their skills. That’s one of the reasons that Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart felt like such a splash of cold water this year – it’s fresh, new, daring, and wonderfully directed. Not only does Wilde fully embrace the flaws of her teenage characters, she proves that she knows how to use music, editing, and composition to turn what could have been an average comedy into something extraordinary.
Thumbnail image: Chuck Zlotnick/©Open Road Films/Courtesy Everett Collection, @A24