The start of a new year always makes one feel inclined to do something new, whether it’s taking up knitting, committing to a workout regime or, for the more ambitious among us, making a film. In a suitable spirit of beginnings, Mubi annually serves this impulse with its First Films First series of essential debut features by major film-makers – though most of them, admittedly, don’t inspire a surge of hopeful “I could do that” confidence.
Mubi’s debut selections this year are a formidable bunch, beginning with their admittedly pretty downbeat New Year’s Day pick, Andrea Arnold’s sharp, lean, unshakable revenge drama Red Road (2006), which set the tone for one of the great sensory film-making careers in British cinema. That’s followed up with Roy Andersson’s A Swedish Love Story, a gentle, tender coming-of-age romance from 1970, drawing inspiration from the likes of Miloš Forman, that you’d scarcely recognise as the work of the man latterly known for his arch absurdist formalism.
Other highlights from the Mubi lineup include Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s lively, Godard-referencing docudrama Bye Bye Africa (1999), built around a fictionalised version of the director himself; Lucile Hadžihalilović’s La bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996), with its vivid, unnerving evocation of teenage trauma and abuse; and British film-maker Daniel Kokotajlo’s vastly moving Apostasy (2017), about a family riven by Jehovah’s Witness law. It’s a very fine group of films, though it does rather create the impression that directors can only start their careers by plunging into the heart of despair.
To carry the theme beyond Mubi’s mini festival, then, there are more comforting debut features to be found among Hollywood classics – none perkier than the ever-cheering sailors-on-leave musical On the Town (1949; Amazon), which gave both Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly their first directorial credit. The 1940s also gave us the most celebrated and prodigious debut film of all time: even if you don’t subscribe to the enduring awe surrounding Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941; BBC iPlayer), you’d be hard-pressed to find many first features executed on such a robustly ambitious scale. From the same year, you hear less talk about John Huston’s immortal noir The Maltese Falcon being among the great debuts – only because it’s so supremely hardboiled, you assume he’d been directing for aeons.
Mid-century New Wave auteurs had an eerie habit of debuting with films fully formed in aesthetic and outlook: take the French pair of Agnès Varda’s fierce, precise La Pointe Courte (1955; Curzon) and Jean-Luc Godard’s still radical, still jazz-cool Breathless (1960; BFI Player), for example. Over in Italy, Luchino Visconti arrived in the sparest, most ruthless form of his career with Ossessione (1943; Amazon); the recently departed Lina Wertmüller began with clear-eyed sociopolitical observation in her lovely 1963 debut The Basilisks (Amazon).
John Cassavetes didn’t just arrive, but announced a whole new form of independent cinema with his wrenching Shadows (1959; Amazon), just as Ken Loach did for British realism a decade later in the potent, anti-swinging 60s snapshot Poor Cow (1967; BFI Player), while Steven Soderbergh rewrote the Cassavetes indie playbook three decades later in his pithy, witty sex, lies, and videotape (1989; Apple TV).
In my lifetime, few debuts have announced a major directorial career as tellingly and evocatively as Claire Denis’s sensuous, post-colonial reflection Chocolat (1988; BFI Player), Quentin Tarantino’s bloody, chatty, nasty shoot-’em-down Reservoir Dogs (1992; Amazon) or Jordan Peele’s ghoulishly funny race-hate horror Get Out (2017; Google Play). I can only hope that some of my favourite recent debuts, including Maggie Gyllenhaal’s knotty psychodrama The Lost Daughter (2021; now on Netflix) and Serbian director Milica Tomović’s raucous, politically inflected farce Celts (2021; Google Play), lead to similarly sustained greatness.
Also new on DVD and streaming
James Wan’s utterly unhinged, reality-blurring horror film died a swift death in cinemas last year, but a cult following has been quick to form, cheered on by kitsch-loving critics – not surprising for a genuinely eccentric, spirited film that rejects studio genre formula.
Speaking of eccentric studio genre fare, 2018’s Venom was both deliriously stupid and a refreshingly loose-limbed deviation from stiffly moralistic superhero tradition. Andy Serkis’s sequel is, if anything, even more so, with the actor-film-maker unsurprisingly giving free rein to Tom Hardy’s loopy, physically immersed performance of a hybrid human-alien vigilante. Sure, why not?
In the Realm of the Senses
The Criterion Collection welcomes Japanese film-maker Nagisa Oshima’s once controversial, still nervy 1976 erotic drama to its ranks. This glittering, high-definition transfer has the usual array of extras, though the film’s frank, upsetting study of obsessive, escalating power plays between a hotel maid and her abusive boss speaks for itself, passing barely perceptibly from transcendent beauty to stomach-churning violence.