There are a handful of good movies that feature New Year’s sequences, from Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, to Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment, from Trading Places to last year’s Roma. But New Year’s is about more than just parties and/or hangovers. It’s a symbolic rebirth, a time to start over or to start fresh.
So, for this year’s batch of streaming movies to watch on the last day of 2019 or the first day of 2020, we’re focusing on fresh starts. Here are twelve movies that are the first feature film work by either famous directors or actors. Here’s hoping that this collection of exceptional debut work will inspire cord-cutters to do their own exceptional things this year. Happy 2020!
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After working in theater and radio—and creating a frenzy with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast—25 year-old Orson Welles was given an unprecedented contract at RKO to write, produce, direct, and star in his first feature film. Citizen Kane (1941) was not a success, and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst tried to have it suppressed, but Welles and co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz won Oscars for writing, and it went on to top many polls of the greatest films of all time.
But don’t let that stop you from enjoying it; critic Pauline Kael said it “may be more fun than any other great movie,” and Roger Ebert reported that, no matter how many times you see it, it’s impossible to precisely remember what comes next. Welles plays Charles Foster Kane, whose storied life as a newspaperman, politician, patron of the arts, adulterer, and more, is recounted in flashback, while a reporter tries to find the meaning of Kane’s last spoken word, “Rosebud.”
The Maltese Falcon
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The same year as Citizen Kane, Welles’s old friend John Huston made his own directing debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941), certainly one of the all-time greatest detective movies. Huston had already worked as a screenwriter, notably on the excellent Humphrey Bogart film High Sierra, and arrived behind the camera with a clever, precise sense of staging and rhythm. He adapted the Dashiell Hammett novel faithfully, and the hard, snappy film that resulted is still a classic, outclassing the many other attempts to film the same novel.
Bogart is a perfect Sam Spade, a private eye trying to find a missing sister, catch the murderer of his partner Miles Archer, and track down the elusive falcon statuette. The unbeatable cast includes Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet (who also made his cinematic debut here), Elisha Cook Jr., and Ward Bond. It’s “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
An American in Paris
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The 20-year-old Leslie Caron—so adorable she’ll break your heart—made her movie acting (and dancing) debut in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951), replacing a pregnant Cyd Charisse. As a bonus, the six-time Oscar-winning movie also has one of the loveliest New Year’s sequences ever filmed, the dazzling Black-and-White Ball. Gene Kelly stars as the title American, Jerry, a struggling painter, who lives in the City of Lights near a struggling piano player (Oscar Levant). Jerry meets a benefactor (Nina Foch), but falls in love with an adorable French girl, Lise (Leslie Caron), who is already involved with a French singer, Henri (Georges Guétary).
The cheerful George and Ira Gershwin songs include “I Got Rhythm” and “ ‘S Wonderful.” The movie ends with one of Minnelli’s specialties, a glorious 17-minute ballet with no dialogue. Caron, 88 as of this writing, went on to appear in Lili (1953), Gigi (1958), Chocolat (2000), and more.
(The Criterion Channel, Kanopy)
Amazingly, David Lynch made his highly unsettling, nightmarish first feature film while he was a student at the American Film Institute, even getting seed money from the school. Initially dismissed and misunderstood, Eraserhead (1977) found its success as a midnight movie, quickly gaining a cult following through word of mouth. Jack Nance stars as Henry, who lives in some horrifying industrial city that buzzes and thrums constantly. He learns that his girlfriend (Charlotte Stewart) is pregnant, but she disappears, leaving him with the creepy, shrieking, alien-baby. Meanwhile, he has dreams about a woman with ovary-like bumps on her face living in his radiator.
The black-and-white movie is one of the few that truly captures the unruly logic of a dream, wherein anything can happen for no reason. Asserting complete command over the film’s look, sound, and feel, Lynch inarguably made one of the greatest directorial debuts of the century.
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The late, great Robin Williams made his movie debut in the very strange, but quite wonderful musical Popeye (1980). He plays the famous sailor man who arrives in the town of Sweethaven, looking for his missing pappy. He meets Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall, one of the most perfect examples of casting in history), discovers an orphaned baby, Swee’Pea, and crosses paths with the town bully, Bluto (Paul L. Smith).
Strangely, the counterculture director Robert Altman was hired to direct (perhaps because of his experience working with Duvall), and he gives it his usual wandering quality, with cameras set up at wide angles and randomly zooming in on the action, as well as a kind of purposely cluttered soundtrack. Likewise, the screenplay was written by the subversive cartoonist Jules Feiffer and the songs by rock star Harry Nilsson. It probably wasn’t what anyone was expecting, and it was met with much disdain, but it’s very much worth a look today.
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Writer and director brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and actor Frances McDormand all made their debuts with this viciously stylish modern film noir; McDormand and Joel Coen were married the same year. Blood Simple (1984) revolves around four characters: seedy bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires private detective Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to spy on his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) who is cheating with Ray (John Getz). Someone attempts a double-cross and someone is murdered, a body is disposed of, but it may or may not have actually been dead.
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The Coens declare themselves the cheerful puppet-masters here, telling the story with comparatively little dialogue and attention-grabbing camerawork (the camera tracking down a bartop and bunny-hopping over a sleeping drunk), lighting (beams emitting from bullet holes), and sound effects (that shovel scraping on the pavement!). The great character actor Walsh is a standout here, providing a slimy, sweaty drawl to his memorable line readings.
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A directorial debut by actor Kasi Lemmons (The Silence of the Lambs, Candyman, Hard Target, etc.), Eve’s Bayou (1997) is a beautiful, powerful movie about a Louisiana family, thought to be descended from a French aristocrat and a black voodoo priestess. Living in a huge mansion beside a mysterious swamp, 10-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett) accidentally catches her doctor father (Samuel L. Jackson) in a compromising position. But did she really see it, or was it just a corrupted memory?
Eve spends time over the summer with her Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a fortune teller, and learns that she, Eve, has a special gift as well. Meanwhile, all kinds of family chaos erupts around Eve’s older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) and her mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield). Working from her own, superb original screenplay, Lemmons creates a powerful blue mood piece, using mysticism and memory to uproot any normal narrative structure and focus on feelings, ranging from passionate to violent.
Being John Malkovich
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“Original” isn’t a word that can be honestly used very often when talking about movies, but it most certainly applies to the delightfully bizarre Being John Malkovich (1999), a movie that begins with a strange idea, and builds on that idea with increasingly wondrous strangeness. It was the feature directing debut of former skateboard video and music video maker Spike Jonze, working from a screenplay by the visionary Charlie Kaufman (also making his big screen debut after a stint in television).
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Out-of-work puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) gets a job in on the 7-1/2 floor of an office building, where workers must walk around stooped all day. He develops a crush on co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) and discovers a door that leads inside the head of John Malkovich (hilariously playing himself), for 15 minutes at a time before being ejected onto the New Jersey turnpike. Craig’s wife (Cameron Diaz) tries the doorway and begins an affair, as Malkovich, with Maxine. And so it goes.
The Iron Giant
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Brad Bird had been an animator on The Simpsons and directed a couple of episodes before making the giant leap to the big screen with this superb, hand-drawn, animated feature. Based on a book by Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant (1999) takes place in the 1950s, using the tensions of the Cold War as part of the conflict.
A boy, Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal) finds a giant robot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and must try to hide it from his mother (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) and from prying government agent Kent Mansley (voiced by Christopher McDonald), and gains help from a beatnik junkyard artist, Dean (voiced by Harry Connick Jr.). The movie draws on Looney Tunes-style humor and timing, but also has enough style to create a truly spectacular and suspenseful showdown. Bird, of course, went on to make both Incredibles movies, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
The Virgin Suicides
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Sofia Coppola had worked in the fashion industry, briefly acted, and wrote a screenplay before she made a short film, and then this amazingly accomplished feature film, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. It felt like she had finally found her calling. The Virgin Suicides (1999) tells the story of the five blonde Lisbon sisters in late 1970s suburbia. After one of the sisters kills herself, the overprotective, smothering Lisbon parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) keep an oppressively close watch on their remaining daughters.
To the neighborhood boys, the sisters are an unattainable object of mystery and obsession. Giovanni Ribisi narrates as the voice of one of the grown boys, telling their story. Josh Hartnett is hilarious as swaggering high-school star Trip Fontaine, and Kirsten Dunst is ethereally lovely as the central sister Lux. Coppola’s slow, dreamy touch was already in place, effortlessly balancing humor, foreboding, hope, and heartbreak.
Before going on to direct episodes of Breaking Bad, and the movies Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Knives Out, Rian Johnson made one of the best, smartest, and most assured directorial debuts of the past 20 years. Brick (2005) is like a 1940s detective movie, complete with unique, invented slangy dialogue, but embodied by modern-day high school students.
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Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the loner gumshoe, with his leather footwear being the only thing connecting him to forerunners Spade and Marlowe. He gets a call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), asking for his help, talking gibberish (something about “pin,” “brick,” and “tug”) before hanging up. Later, she has disappeared, and he must use those clues to find her. His dangerous quest leads him to a teen crime lord (Lukas Haas), who operates out of his mother’s wood-paneled basement. Johnson deliberately keeps technology out of the movie, focusing on blocky interiors and concrete corners. The mood might be old-fashioned, but the result is entirely unique.
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Twenty-six years after their own debut, Joel and Ethan Coen gave newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as shot at the Mattie Ross character in their remake of True Grit (2010). She pulled it off brilliantly, earning an Oscar nomination for her work. A bandit, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), kills Mattie’s father in cold blood, so she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, taking over an iconic role from John Wayne with no trouble) to catch him and bring him back for a proper hanging.
Mattie is prim and balanced and with a pristine vocabulary, while Rooster is a one-eyed wreck, a drunk and teetering in his saddle, and the Coens have great fun with the extreme juxtaposition between the two. (Their hilarious, precocious dialogue comes largely from the novel by Charles Portis.) Yet the snowy setting makes the movie seem slower, more like an odyssey than an adventure; this is one of the few remakes that’s better than the original; it’s a masterpiece in its own right.