I’ve been working on this list since The Avengers came out and it is finally complete. (Shut up, I’m busy damn it! It’s done isn’t it?) Anyways, as I noted at the time, the year’s biggest film was also the second feature film Joss Whedon directed. Sure, he’d directed plenty of TV, and a web series, but other than Serenity, not another feature until the massive superhero team-up. So I got to thinking about all the other great sophomore efforts in film history and created this list.
These are my personal favorites, so even though The Deer Hunter is a Best Picture winner and admittedly great, I enjoy these 20 films more. Don’t expect too many classics, as many of the greats, like John Ford, started off in the studio system cranking out multiple features a year before they found their signature voices. Also, I decided to only go with sophomore features which I believe to be the director’s best film (or at least arguably in the conversation). So, while I love the Coen’s Raising Arizona, it’s not quite the same as their masterpiece Fargo.
And no, I’m not over-complicating it–your face is over-complicating it.
Lastly, before I start the countdown, I feel I must mention some interesting cases that I’ve decided to leave out. The first is Spielberg’s Jaws. Many would agree that Duel was his debut, which would make Sugarland Express his follow-up (a pretty great and underrated film). But Duel was made-for-TV-movie theatrically released after the fact. So one could argue Jaws was his second film. Then I’d have to think about whether it was his best–top 3? Close enough.
Another interesting example is James Cameron. His debut is always listed as Piranha 2: The Spawning, which would make his follow-up The Terminator (amazing film, but not his best). But he was fired from the film, only spent a week shooting it, and had no say in the final cut. You could say that his tech noir was his real debut, which would make Aliens his second feature: his best and one of my top 5 all-time favorites, so yeah, it would be on this list.
And what about Singin’ in the Rain? It was certainly Gene Kelly’s second feature, but he co-directed it with Stanley Donen. It was Donen’s fourth.
These examples call into question what constitutes a debut film, and therefore a follow-up. Does it matter how many TV episodes, shorts, or music videos a filmmaker has shot before making the leap? Does it make the achievement any greater? Maybe. I don’t know but it is fun to think about.
20. The Descent (Dir. Neil Marshall)
I’m not a fan of Dog Soldiers, but The Descent is one scary fucking movie. At the time I saw it I couldn’t remember the last time a movie really scared me, and no film has since. I’m not talking about making me jump. I mean scared. Like scared scared. I wanted to leave the theater and get away from the dark cave and the things lurking beneath. A modern horror work of art.
19. Margaret (Dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Lonergan was a well-known playwright before writing/directing the family drama You Can Count on Me. I liked his debut well enough but it didn’t prepare me for this ambitious and frenzied masterpiece. Maligned by lawsuits and a drawn out post-production, it’s a wonder the movie was even released. It’s still difficult to describe what makes the film work so well. At the very least I can say it is the most intriguing and insightful look at the mind of a teenage girl, and even then I’m selling it short.
18. Desperado (Dir. Robert Rodriquez)
I’m ignoring the TV movie Rodriquez made after El Mariachi because I love Desperado. This film is so much fun. It has a shootout about every 5 minutes, Steve Buscemi, a hilarious Tarantino cameo, Cheech Marin, Salma Hayek sex scene (90% sure it’s a body double, but who cares), Pre-Machete Machete and more. Action, laughs, and romance crammed into 100 minutes of pure B-movie bliss.
17. The Matrix (Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski)
I’m all for the Wachowski’s lesbian-noir classic Bound, but The Matrix is sci-fi action heaven. It’s so kick-ass that I can forgive it for the awful sequels. “Whoa,” indeed. The movie does a perfect job of creating a new universe, setting up the boundaries of said universe, and then letting the characters play around. It was a tech game changer with the right balance of big ideas and big action.
16. Election (Dir. Alexander Payne)
Sideways is great, but the biting wit of Election gets better with every viewing. I didn’t even want to see this at first, after MTV advertised it as some generic high school film. Well, it’s not. It is one of the best satires ever made. Reese Witherspoon has never been better as the overachieving Tracy Flick. I love how much she irks the “morally superior” Matthew Broderick. The movie has an obvious message to get across, but it never forgets to be absolutely hilarious while doing so.
15. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dir. Andrew Dominik)
Chopper was an interesting little film with a breakout performance by Eric Bana but it’s not even playing the same sport as Jesse James. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is top 10 all-time as far as I’m concerned. The film is a marvel to look at, and the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is just as great. Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, and the whole amazing cast give quietly powerful performances. It’s a brilliant western with more than just gun slinging on its mind.
14. Lost in Translation (Dir. Sofia Coppola)
It’s a sweet, funny, and touching film about isolation and loneliness. It seems to have fallen out of favor since its release, but I think this movie is great. I like all of Sofia Coppola’s movies, but this is the only one that truly expands past her own experiences. A film about just Scarlett Johansson’s character could be good, but by adding Bill Murray the story improves exponentially. Bill Murray should have won an Oscar. He is as good as it gets in this movie.
13. Adaptation (Dir. Spike Jonze)
It’s tough saying this is better than Being John Malkovich. It’s close. I guess I give Adaptation the edge for sheer audacity. I mean where do you even start? The film encapsulates the entire history of evolution while also creating a fake twin brother for the screenwriter who wrote himself into an adaptation of a book about orchids. It’s bizarre and so crazy that it works. It’s my favorite Nicolas Cage performance, Chris Cooper won a richly deserved Oscar, and they’re both so good you almost forget about the amazing Meryl Streep.
12. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir. Michel Gondry)
Like Adaptation, another Charlie Kaufman script on my list. I doubt Michel Gondry will ever top this magical film. It’s unique and romantic and leaves you feeling inspired.
11. The Graduate (Dir. Mike Nichols)
It’s about as classic as it gets. Whether true or not, it’s one of those films people say “defined a generation.” Dustin Hoffman is fantastic. The Simon & Garfunkel music still feels fresh decades later. And even though it’s a time capsule now, Nichols and co. tapped into something so universal about adulthood that the themes remain true today.
Come back later for Part 2 of the countdown!