Wednesday 10 January 2018

The Ten Best First Films (6) - Expatriate critic, scholar and video essayist Adrian Martin actually proposes thirteen .....and a Bonus

Editor's Note: Previous lists by moi if you click here, by Rod Bishop here and here by Bruce Hodsdon . Then head for Michael Campi here and Paul Harris here

The basic rules are:

Try and think of ten films by a first time director that absolutely knocked your socks off when you saw them. If you can't think of ten then choose a number.... Don’t go back and tell me the first Mizoguchi, the first Hawks or the first von Sternberg ....and forget about that Bradman equivalent Citizen Kane, even if it was the first film by Orson Welles you ever saw. 

That’s not what I mean. I want you to tell the moment when you saw a director’s first film and you went WOW!!! Because you knew nothing about this person but you instantly expected the director to become a major film-making talent.  

Sometimes of course you were wrong and their talents either proved to be one shots or less than meets the eye. Sometimes they were wildly talented but still proved to be one-shots. The rules are flexible but the nominations must be first features.

Entries invited to

Adrian writes: 10 (actually, 13) Best First Films (plus a Bonus category) 

I envy those comrades on Film Alert whose formative festival viewings during the 1960s allow them to claim a personal discovery of the debut works of Skolimowski, Makavejev, Bellocchio, Rocha, Oshima, Rozier  etc etc. Being just a little younger than some of these erudite cinephiles, my viewing begins in Melbourne arthouses and commercial chains (more open to unusual films in those days) circa 1973. I’ve kept this list in a roughly chronological order – chronological in terms of the films, and also, more or less, in terms of my experience of/ encounter with them.

John Cassavetes
Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959). I will admit that, when this film first appeared, I was only just emerging from the womb, and (can you believe this?) not yet reading Cahiers du Cinéma. But it was the first Cassavetes-directed film I saw, if memory serves, late night on Channel 7 in the early ‘70s (where I also discovered many “continental” classics, from Mizoguchi to Godard via Visconti, all duly dubbed and sometimes unfussily shortened!). Cassavetes only got bolder and more ambitious in his subsequent work, but the seeds of everything he so magisterially and radically achieved is already there in his beginning.

The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973). Erice’s career took a fairly typical run-up through writing criticism and making a short before this stunning, poetic masterpiece. Still inexhaustible, after all these years. And Erice, alas, has had all too few opportunities to make features since, even though he has stayed a major figurehead of world film culture.

Terrence Malick
Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973). Bruce Hodsdon beat me to the mention of this one. Like the Erice, it is a perfect jewel of a film, and – although Malick never made another quite so pre-planned and controlled – it announced the start of a journey to which I have remained staunchly faithful.

The Mystical Rose (Michael Lee, 1976). I got deeply into avant-garde cinema in the later ‘70s, with many thanks to Arthur Cantrill’s class at Melbourne State College. Australia boasts one of the feature-length classics of experimental cinema. Lee went into radically different directions, both cinematically and philosophically, after this angry, blasphemous film of his youth – but what a blast it remains.

Chantal Akerman
Je tu il elle (Chantal Akerman, 1974). OK, this is a bit of a cheat, because I did see Jeanne Dielman (1975) first, at a memorably packed, could-hear-a-pin-drop, Melbourne Film Festival screening (which Erwin Rado reluctantly bunged on, due only to my loud, obnoxious insistence – I was writing program notes for him at the time, and he casually mentioned he had the print in the back room, but “probably won’t show it”!). But when Je tu il elle showed up in an NFTA season in the early ‘80s, I and all my fellow-travellers of that era were just as stunned, all over again, by the genius and daring of Akerman. Her art, from the late ‘60s shorts to her final films and installations, was unparalleled.

King Blank (Michael Oblowitz, 1983). This was another NFTA discovery, in a “New York Stories” season that contained several jolts and revelations. Oblowitz’s odd career has gone in various, semi-commercial directions after this purely punk debut, but King Blank is an emblem of the ‘No Wave’ of its era, with superb acting. It also gave rise to one of the most memorable quotes in critical history, from the still notorious (especially on Facebook!) Louis Skorecki – and, in fact, I can cite this from memory: “It wields the effect of a vicious slap in the face, after a particularly tepid caress”! No truer words …

Pedro Costa
O sangue (Pedro Costa, 1989). I actually am not sure now when, where and how I first saw this film, but it certainly wasn’t back in the late ‘80s. Like so many first features, it has that all-in, youthful, Nouvelle Vague feel of vitality and inventiveness. Costa’s work has (under the Straub-Huillet influence) become a lot more severe and puristic since then, but I still treasure the romanticism of his debut.

Hexed (Alan Spencer, 1993). For years, I figured that the writer-director of this delirious, amazing comedy (which I discovered on VHS) must be some poor schmuck who never got a second shot at the game – until I checked his Wikipedia page and learned that he has enjoyed many lucrative years as an anonymous Hollywood script doctor. Weird fate! Hexed is, in my not-very-humble opinion (IMNVHO), the Film That Would Be Cult. If only more people would watch it.

Margot Nash
Vacant Possession (Margot Nash, 1995). Margot spent around 20 years in the heady, intense world of Sydney’s independent/progressive, left-feminist film scene before making her first, dazzling feature. Only two more (Call Me Mum for TV and her recent, personal essay-doco The Silences) have subsequently followed. That’s a big loss to Australian cinema’s history.

Angel Baby (Michael Rymer, 1995). In the same year as Vacant Possession, I was impressed by this tough, amour fou tale of battlers in love – which even managed to bring a surrealistic, re-creative eye to Melbourne’s geography. Rymer has stayed busy since then, mostly beyond Australia, working in the horror and SF genres, and clocking up a lot of top-notch TV (such as Hannibal); his improvisatory experiment Perfume (2001) is worth catching, too.

Philippe Grandrieux
Sombre (Philippe Grandrieux, 1998). I saw this on first release in Paris; no English subtitles, of course, but really only one monologue scene needed them. What a shake-up this film is! Grandrieux had almost 20 years behind him in mainly adventurous TV formats, such as art-related, special programs; but he was saving up all his energy for this astonishing, disturbing, wildly innovative debut. Another filmmaker to whom I remain extremely faithful.

Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004). This is the capsule I wrote for The Age MIFF coverage of 2005: “The worth of some films is evident from the strength and confidence of their opening moments, and Hadzihalilovic’s astonishing debut (definitely not be confused with Paul Cox’s film of the same name) is a prime example. Freely based on Frank Wedekind’s disquieting tale of the ‘physical education of young girls’, it is an inspired blend of surrealism, shock-tactics, elegant perversity, social critique and the fractured fairy tales of the Female Gothic. Evoking an unlikely but wholly successful mix of The Virgin Suicides, Irreversible and Goto, Isle of Love, it is a poetic and horrific modern classic.”

Alena Lodkina
Strange Colours (Alena Lodkina, 2017). Let’s get up to speed here, people! This affecting, beautifully judged film – so far, little seen in its homeland – marks the arrival in Australian cinema of a major new talent. And that’s the sentence every critic-cinephile wants to get the chance to write, right when it’s happening, not 10 or 20 years after the fact!

BONUS: 5 Cases Where Only Their Second Feature Really Convinced Me –
Larry Clark: Another Day in Paradise (1998)
Agnès Varda: Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Abel Ferrara: Ms .45 (1981)
James Gray: The Yards (2000)
Shirley Barrett: Walk the Talk (2000)

© Adrian Martin, 9 January 2018

Shirley Barrett


  1. Excellent list Adrian, several (quite a few) I've yet to see, thanks for your recommendations always valued your reviews/opinions.

  2. I never ever get listed in this kind of thing and sometimes wonder why. Speaking Directly first feature?

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