Coen Bros

8 Masterpiece Films Shot by Directors Under 30

Robert Rodriguez at 1993 Atlanta Film Festival with El Mariachi

Robert Rodriguez (right) at the 1993 Atlanta Film Festival to showcase El Mariachi.

It’s commonly held that you’ve got to hustle for many years to work your way up to the hallowed position of director—and for the most part this is true—but there are a handful of directors who not only achieved success at a young age, but also ratcheted up some of their most career-defining titles before hitting the bit three-oh.

Here are number of superb movies from directors who were under 30 at the time of their release. Some of those listed below even went on to make even more spectacular titles, but the early efforts listed below are well-worth watching in their own right and serve as incredible examples of filmmaking spirit.

Blood Simple (1984)

As we discussed in our Coen Brothers Highlights post earlier in the week, Blood Simple was an amazing start to what would go on to be an amazing career for the duo…though technically, it was only Ethan that deserves a place here as he was 27 at the time. Joel was 30.

El Mariachi (1992)

The first of Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Mexico Trilogy,’ El Mariachi is one of the only movies we can think of which was produced for so little money yet still ended up in the National Film Registry and Library of Congress (Rodriguez raised the $7,000 budget largely by subjecting himself to paid clinical testing).

As a directorial debut, success stories don’t get much better than this (as was covered in the great book about the production, Rebel Without a Crew.)

Citizen Kane (1941)

It’s mind-boggling to think that what is frequently and consistently deemed to be one of the finest movies ever made was created by a director who was not only under 30—Orson Welles was just 26 at the time of Citizen Kane’s release—but also didn’t want to work in film in the first place.

Welles’ heart was dedicated to theatre for most of his early life, and it was only a very lucrative contract that swayed him over to the big screen to create Citizen Kane… and the rest, as they say, is history.

Clerks (1994)

The black and white oddball comedy that put Kevin Smith on the map, who was only 24 at the time and maxing out multiple credit cards in order to make his feature debut. It paid off, and laid the path to further titles in the View Askewniverse canon (including the similarly acclaimed Chasing Amy.)

Memento (2000)

Christopher Nolan got started really young, having earned his first directing (and writing, and producing) credits from the age of 19, honing his craft with a few shorts and low budget film noir feature (Following, 1998), it was his sophomore feature film—the deviously clever, nonlinear Memento—that really set him on the path to the big time. He was 29 at the time of filming.

The Tramp (1915)

While Charlie Chaplin would go on to craft more than a few masterpieces during his reign as the king of cinema’s silent era, it was his sixth release that would come to be considered as his first tour de force.

The Tramp’s titular character would also prove to be Chaplin’s most enduring, and though created by accident while trying on costumes for a previous short, the character evolved beyond simple slapstick for this essential feature outing.

Magnolia (1999)

The first entry on this list so far featuring a director who was already making waves at the time of release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s prior movie Boogie Nights was so successful he was told by studio executives that he could do whatever he wanted for his next film. Two years later and at the age of just 29, he made Magnolia.

American Graffiti (1973)

George Lucas’ work as a director needs no introduction (and nor can it be summed up in a single paragraph), but before his time creating adventures in a galaxy far, far away came two lesser-known titles: THX 1138 and American Graffiti. The former was not successful; the latter, however, became one of the most profitable features in cinema history (with a $200 million box office gross against its $777k budget) and garnered near unanimous praise. Lucas was a few months shy of his 30th birthday at the time of its release.

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Coen Brothers: 5 Essential Filmography Highlights

Welcome, one and all, to a brand new series here on the Student Resources portal.

Each week, we’ll be taking a look at the essential titles from a particular director…or in today’s case, a directing duo. While by no means a definitive list of career highlights, we’ve picked out a select few titles that either chart the finest moments of their career or go underappreciated in the face of their more popular titles.

Either way, they’re all great places for the uninitiated to start with a director’s back catalog and for hardcore fans to revisit. And so, without further ado, we’ll begin with two brothers who have more universally-acclaimed movies to their name than most directors have movies. Presenting:

The Coen Brothers: 5 Essential Filmography Highlights

Coen Brothers

Blood Simple (The Beginning)

Joel and Ethan Coen‘s very first flick arrived with little fanfare when it was released back in 1984 and only grossed $3 million at the box office, but from a critical perspective they came out the gate swinging.

Blood Simple was, and remains, relentlessly brutal in its violence and extremely biting in its comedy. At its heart lies a tale of contract killings, subterfuge, and mistaken identity; really, all of the great stuff that we came to expect from a Coen movie.

Must Watch If: You want to watch two incredible filmmakers perform magic on a budget.

Fargo (The Crime Thriller)

From the most obscure to possibly the most-watched and celebrated of the Coens’ back catalog to date. The 1996 thriller has had a new lease of life recently thanks to the adaptive TV series of the same name (which we’re happy to report is as excellent as it is true to the original.)

In summary, a demure and well-mannered policewoman is tasked to solve a grisly murder case which has taken place in the frozen outback of Minnesota—an area in which, frankly, not a lot else usually happens. As she gets closer to piecing together the story of this kidnapping gone wrong, things take more than a few interesting turns for all the people implicated.

The virtues of Fargo are too numerous to name here, but suffice to say that it’s a cinematic masterpiece that excels as an offbeat comedy, murder thriller, and portrait of idiosyncratic rural America all at the same time.

Must Watch If: You’re a student at our cinematography school because seriously, shooting a movie with this much blinding snow and managing to keep a balanced meter is worthy of admiration.

Burn After Reading (The Oddball Comedy)

So admired is their directing that it is reported that a few A-list actors are willing to drop everything and commit to a Coen Brothers production at the drop of a hat (hence the repeated appearance across the filmography from the likes of John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and John Turturro, amongst others.)

Burn After Reading assembled a similarly familiar cast of Coen favorites, and given that each character was written specifically with its actor in mind—with the only exception being late addition Tilda Swinton—the resulting movie was exceptionally tight in both the writing and performance departments, even by Coen standards.

A chain-of-events caper of increasingly stupid mishaps, and a uniquely strange comedy to treat yourself to.

Must Watch If: You want to see Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and John Malkovich act out the most sublimely idiotic characters of their respective careers. No understatement; Clooney referred to it as the apex of his ‘Idiot Trilogy’ for the Coens (having appeared in similarly dumb roles in two prior movies) and Brad Pitt was initially baffled as to how he was going to portray a character as dense as his.

The Big Lebowski (The Cult Classic)

At the heart of many Coen screenplays is a simple premise: take a strange (and stragely compelling) character, then throw him into an even stranger situation.

The Big Lebowski is just that. On speed.

A perfect storm of all the Coen Brothers’ finest regular collaborators, a victim of mistaken identity goes on a quest to have his rug replaced by his millionaire namesake. Hilarity ensues, and highly-quotable one liners are spawned.

Must Watch If: You love a good rug.

No Country for Old Men (The Western)

As featured on our previous list of excellent book-to-film adaptations (along with True Grit), No Country for Old Men is the product of over two decades of experience from two filmmakers who started off strong and only got stronger as the years went by.

Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, this is superb source material handled brilliantly and featuring some career-defining performances from Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Woody Harrelson. A real jewel in the crown of an already impressive filmography, and essential Coen Brothers viewing.

Must Watch If: You want to see the show-stealing Javier Bardem playing an even cooler villain than he did in Skyfall.

Got any other favorite Coen Brothers’ titles that we haven’t listed here amongst the essentials, or disagree with any of these entries? We want to hear from you—let your voice be heard in the comments below!

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