If you're a list-maker, sometimes it's fun to give yourself limitations, such as allowing only one film per director or only movies with vampires in them. Making a list of debut films is tougher because it's sometimes hard to know when to start. (Do you count short films as debut films? What if, as in the cases of Kathryn Bigelow and Federico Fellini, the first credit is a shared one?) Some of the greatest filmmakers made really unremarkable debuts: can anyone name, or has anyone actually seen, John Ford's debut? And David Cronenberg's official debut is a deadly dull film he made at college. Then there's the sticky question as to how valuable a debut film really is if the filmmaker did not live up to his or her promise (Justin Lin, etc.)? Not to mention that this kind of list requires actual research. I don't think you can plug "debut film" as a keyword into the IMDB search engine. You have to actually comb through your DVD collection and lists of your favorite directors to find the great debuts.
But Time Out London magazine has actually done a crack job of listing a solid top 50. You may not agree on the order -- especially their already controversial choices for #2 and #1, and I'd put David Gordon Green's George Washington a lot higher than #42 -- but I'd say this is a pretty good cross-section. Their choices span the globe: Jacques Tati's Jour de Fete, Takeshi Kitano's Violent Cop, Gaspar Noe's disturbing I Stand Alone, Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali and Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water. The list is also not afraid to go low, choosing Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and George Miller's Mad Max, as well as low-budget: John Cassavetes' Shadows, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep and Shane Carruth's Primer.
Carruth and Green are the only two fairly recent debuts on the list, and though Carruth has yet to make a follow-up feature, his film placed at #20. On the other hand, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless placed all the way down at #32, and Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap was at #36. OK, we all know that Reiner isn't anywhere near Godard's league, but he did have a good run, and what a hell of a debut! Not even Reservoir Dogs cracked the top 20! I'd also take exception to the #3 film, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934). It's a masterpiece, but it was actually Vigo's last film. I am also impressed that they threw a bone to Danny DeVito's brief, interesting directorial career, and its debut, Throw Momma from the Train.
Absent from the list, there's Tim Burton's Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James. Plus, Larry Clark's Kids made the list, but Harmony Korine's Gummo did not. Can you think of any more, dear readers?