Tom Ford and Julianne MooreThe best directorial debuts of the year are all over the map, genre-wise, from serious drama to funny/moving documentary to shocking/sobering documentary to socially conscious sci-fi. Which is as it should be.

That up-and-coming directors (two named Oren!) are making movies about beleaguered heavy metal bands, oppressed South African aliens and broken-down country musicians, among other things, means that film today is -- despite any reports to the contrary -- pretty healthy.

Yes, some of these directors have previously helmed shorts or TV episodes or, in one case, a documentary that was never released in theaters. But this list represents first-time feature-length theatrical releases. In some cases, it was hard to believe these guys (and they are all guys...) had never directed a major movie before, so sure was their directorial hand. In others, inexperience showed, but the movie rocked anyway. Tom Ford and Julianne MooreThe best directorial debuts of the year are all over the map, genre-wise, from serious drama to funny/moving documentary to shocking/sobering documentary to socially conscious sci-fi. Which is as it should be.

That up-and-coming directors (two named Oren!) are making movies about beleaguered heavy metal bands, oppressed South African aliens and broken-down country musicians, among other things, means that film today is -- despite any reports to the contrary -- pretty healthy.

Yes, some of these directors have previously helmed shorts or TV episodes or, in one case, a documentary that was never released in theaters. But this list represents first-time feature-length theatrical releases. In some cases, it was hard to believe these guys (and they are all guys...) had never directed a major movie before, so sure was their directorial hand. In others, inexperience showed, but the movie rocked anyway.

Congratulations to all -- and may none of them experience sophomore slump.


Paranormal Activity10. Oren Peli, 'Paranormal Activity'
With a tiny budget and completely unknown cast, Peli proved for the umpteenth time that less is more when it comes to horror. His minimal mockumentary, about a couple who set up a camera in their bedroom to capture paranormal occurrences, is presented as found footage, like its obvious predecessor 'The Blair Witch Project.' There was nothing stale about 'Paranormal Activity,' though. It routinely scared the daylights out of theatergoers.


Woody Harrelson in Zombieland9. Ruben Fleischer, 'Zombieland'
His previous film 'Gumball 3000: 6 Days in May' (a doc about the 2004 Gumball Rally road race), never made it to theaters. Compared to that no-frills outing, 'Zombieland' is wildly ambitious. A grisly, hilarious, love-story/road trip/horror comedy starring Woody Harrelson at his most cheerfully insane, it had all the makings of a big, unnecessary (do we really need another zombie parody?) mess. But somehow it wound up being a big bucket o' fun. If that's not the mark of good direction, I don't know what is.


Troy Roush in Food, Inc.8. Robert Kenner, 'Food, Inc'
Kenner would be even higher on the list for his shocking and deeply disturbing documentary about where our food comes from, but since he previously directed several episodes of 'American Experience,' he's no stranger to the doc format. He is here, though, because this fascinating, maddening exposé of the food industry is truly the hands-down biggest horror movie of the year. And one that could possibly affect public policy and the future of our food supply.


Sam Rockwell in 'Moon'7. Duncan Jones, 'Moon'
Jones, son of David Bowie, has undoubtedly had the sort of connections that most aspiring filmmakers can only dream about. So it's a real testament to his talent and good taste that his first feature is a smart, serious and unconventional science fiction movie starring the wondrous Sam Rockwell, at his best. The actor plays an astronaut stationed on the moon whose only companion is a computer, until he's joined by someone very familiar and things get very weird. Extra credit: Duncan didn't call the film 'Space Oddity.'


Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan in Big Fan6. Robert Siegel, 'Big Fan'
Siegel, who wrote 'The Wrestler,' obviously knows a thing or two about the underside of pro sports and fandom. His bleakly humorous story about an obsessive New York Giants fan (played to perfection by Patton Oswalt) who winds up getting assaulted by his favorite player is both unpredictable and thought-provoking. A dead-on -- and surprisingly moving -- character study.


Anvil!5. Sacha Gervasi, 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil!'
Whoever would have thought that a documentary about a long-struggling Canadian metal band, whose travails make Spinal Tap's career look charmed by comparison, would be one of the funniest, most moving tributes to friendship, the human spirit and the power of a Marshall stack? Ex-Anvil roadie Sacha Gervasi, that's who. We salute him with deeply heartfelt devil horns.


district 9 poster4. Neill Blomkamp, 'District 9'
Former visual effects artist Blomkamp, surprised everyone (except, presumably, his producer, Peter Jackson) with this gritty sci-fi thriller, set in Johannesburg, South Africa, of all places. But that location, with its echoes of apartheid, is one of the things that raised this tale of extraterrestrials forced to live in slums way above the genre norm. Shocking visuals, nerve-wracking suspense and an exceptionally strong debut performance by Blomkamp's fellow Afrikaner Sharlto Copley, all made us impatient for a sequel. And we all know how often that happens.


Gyllenhall and Bridges in Crazy Heart3. Scott Cooper, 'Crazy Heart'
If the sign of a promising director is the ability to coax amazing performances out of actors, than Cooper surely qualifies. Of course, Jeff Bridges doesn't need much coaxing, but his Oscar-worthy performance as a washed-up country singer is one of this year's best. Supporting cast Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Maggie Gyllenhaal are all spot-on, too, and though it may not be the most original material, the film has a slow-burning authenticity that belies Cooper's beginner status.


Ben Foster in The Messenger2. Oren Moverman, 'The Messenger'
Moverman's own experiences in the Israeli Army inspired this sobering tale of an Iraqi war hero who, partnered with an older ex-soldier, is assigned to inform families of their loved ones' deaths. Moverman handled the uncomfortable material beautifully and both his leads (Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson) put in terrific performances as polar opposites who form an unlikely friendship. A welcome look into one aspect of war that hadn't previously been explored.


colin firth in 'A Single Man'1. Tom Ford, 'A Single Man'
Oh, how some snickered when they heard that Tom Ford, high-profile fashion designer and former head of the houses of Gucci and Yves St. Laurent, was directing a film; but no one's laughing now. He also wrote and produced this striking, poignant movie, set in the early '60s, about a gay college professor mourning the death of his longtime lover. Aside from the indelible performance of Colin Firth, there's Julianne Moore's equally sympathetic turn as an aging party girl. We might have expected the highly stylized visuals; the haunting depiction of emotional devastation, not as much.