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15 Great Movies From Directors Under 30
Breaking into Hollywood is tough sledding, particularly if you want to get behind the camera. As a big fan of Kevin Smith movies, I wondered one day what the best movies were that were made by young directors. Smith was 24 when he made ‘Clerks’ for less than thirty thousand dollars. Robert Rodriguez was 24 when he made ‘El Mariachi’ for about $7,000 – he raised the money by submitting himself to a medical laboratory for experimental drug treatments. There are plenty of older directors out there who, for the most part, got their start by directing episodic television. With the vast amounts of money it takes to make a movie these days, the major studios want to decrease the risk of a movie bombing by giving the directing duties over to a seasoned pro. Giving a young, unproven director the reigns to a movie is risky business. So when it does happen, usually there is real and burgeoning talent. Younger directors today have other avenues to get their start, music videos, commercials and the internet.
One of my main criteria for paying money to watch a movie is who is directing it. Instead of being intrigued with the storyline or getting excited by the trailer, I have certain directors that I will watch, no matter what the movie is about. A few of my favorites appear below. There are some of these movies I confess I haven’t seen, so I relied mainly on IMDB and the AMC film site to make the list. Here are 15 great movies made by directors age 30 and under. They aren’t necessarily ranked, however it’s pretty much implied that Orson Welles should be considered the best of the lot. There might be some spoilers, but I’ll do my best.
Director and Age: John Singleton (23)
Other Notable Movies: Poetic Justice, Shaft, Rosewood
An explosive story of four friends growing up in south central Los Angeles. Some pin their hopes on going to college, others are mired in the daily drama of gangs, violence and drugs. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Tre, a boy dropped off by his well-to-do mother at his father’s house in hopes of having a good role model and helping him become a man. Ice Cube plays Doughboy, one of Tre’s gangster friends. Morris Chestnut plays Doughboy’s brother, who’s headed off to college on a football scholarship. Singleton was nominated for best director for this story of growing up in a violent world.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: Boyz ‘N the Hood
Director and Age: Louis Malle (24)
Other Notable Movies: Au revoir les enfants, Elevator to the Gallows
Known for tackling touchy subjects later in his career, Malle got his start with the help of Jacques Cousteau aboard the Calypso. The Silent World was one of the first movies to use underwater cinematography in color. It opened up an amazing world of undersea adventures. The movie, a documentary, won the Palm d’Or at the 1956 Cannes Film festival and the Academy Award for best documentary. Amazingly, Cousteau got into some hot water later when it was discovered he had killed a school of sharks who were attracted to a dead whale carcass and using dynamite on a coral reef during the making of this movie.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey – The Complete Series
Director and Age: Paul Thomas Anderson – (29)
Other Notable Movies: Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, Cigarettes and Coffee
Anderson was well on his way to making it big in Hollywood even before Magnolia came out as he made Boogie Nights two years before that film. One characteristic of his movies are ensemble casts, and Magnolia is one of the best examples of this. The characters and story are intertwined as people pay for the choices they have made in life. Themes of regret, abuse, loneliness and failed relationships as well as redemption are all explored here. Personally I’ve never really cared for the film, but Tom Cruise gives a blistering performance as sort of a misogynistic evangelist on techniques for bagging women, perhaps his best performance ever.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: Magnolia
Director and Age: George Lucas (29)
Other Notable Movies: the Star Wars series
Lucas’s coming of age period movie was a story that revolved around a typical night in 1962 California. Lucas describes it as the end of an era as some kids went to college and some kids went to Vietnam. As he felt by the time the story ends, America underwent a drastic change. It was Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve Bolander’s (Ron Howard), last night in town as they were set to go to college back east. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) was the town tough guy and Terry \”The Toad\” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) was the high school nerd. Lucas pitched his script to several Hollywood studios and was denied before Universal picked it up. Lucas ended up writing the script himself with his large 45 record collection of 50’s and 60’s music playing as he wrote, and had a song in mind for every scene. A young Harrison Ford makes an appearance as a drag challenger to Milner.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: American Graffiti (Collector’s Edition)
Director and Age: Orson Welles (27)
Other Notable Movies: Citizen Kane, Lady From Shanghai, A Touch of Evil
Orson Welles never really seemed to get along with RKO Studios. RKO was bitter because it seemed like his movies never made any money. Welles was always battling them on everything about how a movie is made. Ambersons is no different. After making Citizen Kane, you would think he’d have a little more clout with the suits about getting things done. But the studio re-edited this film when Welles was out of town and gave it a more sentimental ending. Welles didn’t appear in this movie, but his touch is all over it with brilliant lighting, innovative camera work, and smart editing. (sans the Studio interference) In spite of all the problems, it was still a great film and nominated for four Academy Awards.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: The Magnificent Ambersons
Director and Age: Francois Truffant (27)
Other Notable Movies: The Wild Child, Shoot the Piano Player, Fahrenheit 451
One of the best movies and examples of the French New Wave, The 400 Blows is a story of the injustices done to juvenile offenders in France during that time. After a life of abuse and petty crime, a boy is sent to a work camp by the sea. The film ends with him escaping to see the ocean, essentially freeing him from his troubled past. Truffant won best director honors at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for best original screenplay at the Academy Awards. You can also see Truffant acting in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: The 400 Blows – Criterion Collection
Director and Age: George Romero (28)
Other Notable Movies: Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead
I don’t think anyone’s going to step up and say this is necessarily a ‘great’ movie on par with the other directors on this list. However, this movie practically started a new genre. There were stories of the undead before this, but this one spawned a thousand imitators. And it is one of the movies registered with the National Film Registry for preservation. An interesting experiment would be to watch this movie and then watch ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ to see how many parallels there are in dialog and references.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: Night of the Living Dead
Director and Age: Quentin Tarantino (29)
Other Notable Movies: Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Grindhouse
Love him or hate him, you’ve got to hand it to Quentin Tarantino. There really isn’t anyway a great movie like Pulp Fiction would have been made had he not shown his passion for film like he did in Reservoir Dogs. Violent and slick, snappy dialog and a good story with a great cast makes for a great movie. Reservoir Dogs also marked the start of the new wave of independent movies. Tarantino has also gotten in some hot water by being accused of ripping off the Asian movie “City on Fire.” But you can look that up and decide for yourself whether this is a ripoff or another one of Tarantino’s oft used ‘homages.’
Buy the DVD at Amazon: Reservoir Dogs (15th Anniversary)
Director and Age: Kenneth Branagh (29)
Other Notable Movies: Hamlet, Dead Again, Frankenstein
No one brings the Bard to the big screen quite like Branagh. There are some fantastic Shakespeare adaptations by Lawrence Olivier and Orson Welles, but this Henry V breathed new life into Shakespeare on screen. A simple comparison of Olivier’s Agincourt speech and Branagh’s brings out these differences in film making and eras. There is a richness of the characters and modern feel as well as a faithfulness to the story in his versions. Branagh’s Henry V also has a fantastic cast featuring Derek Jacoby as Chorus, Brian Blessed as Exeter, Ian Holm as Fluellen, Judy Dench, Christian Bale, Paul Scofield and Christopher Ravenscroft. Branagh was nominated for both best actor and best director at the Academy Awards.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: Henry V
Director and Age: Charlie Chaplin (26)
Other Notable Movies: The Gold Rush, Modern Times, City Lights
One of Hollywood’s first superstars, Chaplin had already made several movies before the Tramp, but this is probably the best example of his early work. Chaplin had played a down on his luck character before, but this marked the beginning of the character, The Tramp.’ And it was a little less slapstick than his earlier work.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: The Little Tramp: The Charlie Chaplin Collection
Director and Age: Buster Keaton (29)
Other Notable Movies: The General, Our Hospitality, The Navigator
As a movie projectionist and janitor is wooing a girl whose got another man after her, Keaton is accused of stealing the girl’s father’s watch. He falls asleep and dreams of being a detective and solving the problem ala Sherlock Holmes style. Just like Chaplin, Keaton had already made several movies before this one. Being seasoned as he is, Keaton shows us some brilliant special camera effects. The entire movie is 45 minutes long and chock full of comedic brilliance. Keaton fractured his neck during the production of this movie which he didn’t discover until years later when migraines drove him to the doctor.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: Our Hospitality/Sherlock, Jr.
Director and Age: Stephen Speilberg (29)
Other Notable Movies: The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, Saving Private Ryan, Indiana Jones series
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” With Jaws, the summer blockbuster was born. Speilberg had learned his chops working in television including a couple episodes of Night Gallery. Jaws came out of a novel by Peter Benchley. Because of mechanical failures of the mock-up shark, Speilberg was forced to change the movie in such a way as to build tension and fear by not actually seeing the monster, in this case a killer shark. The ploy worked brilliantly, and the film set all kinds of box office records, becoming the first movie to surpass $100 million in ticket sales. Jaws was nominated for best picture but lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: Jaws (30th Anniversary Edition)
Director and Age: Jean-Luc Godard (30)
Other Notable Movies: Band of Outsiders, Contempt
Godard once said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” Breathless certainly is the embodiment of that quote. Another one of the pivotal movies of the French New Wave, Roger Ebert simply says, ‘modern movies begin here.’ He goes on to say that numerous characters from many films that followed are derivatives of characters in this movie – especially from Warren Beatty in ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ Michel, the main character is a thug who patterns himself after Humphrey Bogart. He is hiding in his girlfriend’s home after he shot a policeman. Godard’s editing and jump cuts were one of the main features that makes this film stand out. Interestingly this movie was co-written by Godard’s friend at the time, Francois Truffant.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: Breathless – Criterion Collection
Director and Age: Sergei Eisenstein (27)
Other Notable Movies: Strike, Ten Days that Shook the World
At the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Battleship Potemkin was hailed as the greatest film of all time. It is quite possibly also the greatest piece of propaganda as well, rivaling the Nazi ‘Triumph of the Will’ by Leni Reifenstahl. It’s a story of a group of mutinous Russian sailors who battle their oppressive Tsarist officers. The Odessa Steps scene in which Tsarist soldiers massacre a group of civilians is one of the most powerful sequences in movie history. So much so, that some believe it actually happened. One particular shot of a baby in a carriage falling down the steps was influential in a similar scene in ‘The Untouchables,’ where Ness is waiting for the accountant at the train station. Eisenstien at the time was experimenting with film editing, and cut this movie to ensure the greatest emotional response from the audience. Roger Ebert has a great review of the power of this movie here.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: The Battleship Potemkin (Enhanced Edition) 1925
Director and Age: Orson Welles (26)
Probably the most shocking thing about Citizen Kane is that it didn’t win the best picture Academy Award. In fact it was nominated for several things but only won for best original screenplay. Film critics and several polls rank it the best movie ever made. Subjective, to be sure, but it certainly was one of the most innovative as well. Deep focus, where everything in a scene is in sharp focus, low angle cinematography, time compression, makeup and soundtrack were all aspects of Welles technical genius. And Welles himself at age 26 played a very convincing middle aged man. The film is loosely based on William Randloph Hearst who was so enraged with the picture he offered RKO $800,000 to destroy the prints and the negative. An interesting note is that both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons were flops at the box office, which pretty much spelled the end of RKO studio. They went on to make a series of low budget but very good horror movies (The Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, etc) produced by Val Lewton.
Buy the DVD at Amazon: Citizen Kane (Two-Disc Special Edition)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) Guy Ritchie – 30
Clerks (1994) Kevin Smith – 24
Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan 30
Evil Dead (1981) Evil Dead 2 – (1987) Sam Raimi – 22, 28
Blood Simple – (1984) Ethan Coen 27 (Joel was 30)
Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) – Stephen Soderbergh – 26
She’s Gotta Have It (1986) – Spike Lee – 29
The Sixth Sense (1999) M. Night Shyamalan– 29
Usual Suspects (1994) – Brian Singer – 29
Mean Streets (1975) – Martin Scorcese – 31
Shaun of the Dead (2004) – Edgar Wright – 30
El Mariachi (1992) – Robert Rodriguez – 24