30 and Under

by Bordwell

Created 07/02/12

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Filmmaking, many say, is a young person’s game. You need creative energy, lots of ideas, and the ability to get by on very little sleep. I once charted out some typical careers and concluded that the odds do favor youth: If you haven’t made a significant film by the time you’re thirty or so, chances are you won’t. (For evidence, see my blog entry here.)

So I thought it would be fun to chart how some Criterion filmmakers stacked up in the 30-and-below sweepstakes.

Often, of course, this means looking at debut films, which is fun in itself. First films tend to teem with ideas, as if the director was worried that she or he might never make another movie. But first film or not, younger directors charge the screen with a unique spark: taking risks, exorcising the demons of childhood, getting your peers together on an adventure, or just reveling in the heady possibilities of the medium. Look, ma, I’m making a movie!

So I’ll count down from age 30.

  • The forbidding Tarkovsky was young once, and at age 30 made this wondrous film about a boy who serves as a spy for Russian forces during World War II. The drama of WWII heroism was a staple of Soviet cinema, and usually it aims to impress by vastness of scale and force of arms. Tarkovsky lyricizes the genre conventions with magnificent moments of natural poetry—a spiderweb, a horse cropping apples, and as ever with this director, a sense of the textures of earth, water, and rock. The title is only partly ironic.

  • Jiri Menzel made Closely Watched Trains when he was only twenty-eight, but that film is so famous that it needs no promoting by me. Much less well-known, but no less beguiling, is this effort from two years later. Here Menzel seems to invent magical realism before our eyes: A mysterious tightrope walker arrives at a village with his beautiful assistant, and the locals will never be the same. The movie has that mixture of quiet comedy, pain, and yearning we came to associate with Czech cinema.

  • “We don’t need two Ozus,” the boss of Shochiku studios told Mikio Naruse before Naruse left. That was a bit ungrateful, since the young director had made a couple of dozen films for the company in only four years. Most don’t survive, but this superb melodrama does. The main plot centers on a poor girl who marries a rich wastrel and becomes the punching bag for his sister and mother. The climactic scene in the hospital is one of the great moments in Japanese cinema. As if this weren’t enough, a lighter secondary plot takes place in a movie studio. Naruse was 29, and would go on to be one of the greatest Japanese directors.

  • No whippersnapper had a hotter hand than Ozu. His earliest surviving movies, including his charming 1927 student comedy Days of Youth, show a confident talent. At age 30, he made three masterpieces (Passing Fancy, Woman of Tokyo, and Dragnet Girl). A year earlier he made what many consider his best film, I Was Born But…. Today I’m favoring his bittersweet comedy, Tokyo Chorus, made when he was a mere 28. A college kid graduates and struggles to get a job, to keep his dignity, and to survive unemployment. (Sound familiar?) The first section is insolent comedy; the second mixes bawdy comedy—including a memorable scene in a men’s toilet—with sly social observation; and the finale has the characteristic Ozu poignancy. His first masterpiece, I believe.

  • Halfway between Antonioni and the Nouvelle Vague (before the fact), with touches of Jean Epstein’s regional realism, this remarkable quasi-feature by twenty-eight-year-old Agnes Varda is a key work of film history. The young director experiments with framing and voice-over in ways that look forward toHiroshima mon Amour. (Resnais was the editor.) Varda’s personal blend of almost geometrical plotting and picturesque local color is on full display in this pioneering work.

  • Like Kubrick’s debut feature, Killer’s Kiss of the year before, this is a cerebral piece of genre clockwork. It fuses the time-juggling of noirs like The Killers (1947) and the hard-edged documentary feel of Naked City (1948) into a dry, precisely engineered story of a doomed racetrack heist. A source for Reservoir Dogs (1992), but Kubrick got the jump; Tarantino made his film at age 29, while Kubrick created this pitiless exercise in bad timing at 28.

  • As quintessentially a young person’s film as any New Wave work: a twenty-seven-year-old director with a very distinctive sensibility rounds up some pals to make a heist movie. The result is a study in likable disaffection, goofiness, and sun-parched Texas landscapes, all enlivened by Wes Anderson’s frontal-stare camera style.

  • I’m cheating a bit with this: Ingmar Bergman, at age 26, was the scriptwriter, not the director. But critical tradition treats Torment, in hindsight, as his first film. It has all the marks of youth—humiliation in high school, morbid romanticism, fascination with erotic secrets, and envy of a patriarchal figure. The director, Alf Sjöberg, was no slight talent either, and his own taste for gloomy expressionism (this is Swedish noir) may have influenced the look of Bergman’s works.

  • Belgian like Varda, the twenty-five-year-old Chantal Akerman sets the unglamorous world of housework under a microscope. Akerman captures, in fixed, exquisitely composed and cut-together frames, a woman’s practiced gestures of cooking and cleaning. But minute changes of routine betray an underlying anxiety that eventually bursts out. An engrossing demonstration of how minimalism can generate maximal implications.

  • In one of the earliest debuts in commercial cinema history, Bertolucci made this film from a Pasolini story when he was only twenty-two. A classic police procedural—the cops interrogate people involved in a prostitute’s murder—is handled with harsh sobriety in Bertolucci’s debut feature. The by-then-conventional flashback structure that dramatizes each suspect’s testimony pays homage to American noir and looks forward to the audacious use of time in The Spider’s Stratagem.


  • By Eric Levy
    July 20, 2012
    11:07 AM

    Great list Bordwell! One quick correction: Kubrick's first feature was FEAR AND DESIRE from 1953 (rumored to be coming out on Blu-ray this year). Other additions: Jim Jarmusch was 27 when he made PERMANENT VACATION, which is included on the STRANGER THAN PARADISE DVD; Chaplin was 27 when he made THE RINK, which is included on the MODERN TIMES BD; Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton were both still in their 20s when they made their first films; and Tarkovsky's student short THE KILLERS is included on that eponymous DVD.
  • By Sleestak
    July 21, 2012
    01:38 PM

    Ivan's Childhood was an excellent .choice. I actually watched this after Solaris, Stalker, and Andrei Rublev. Solaris is my favorite film of all time.
  • By FG
    July 26, 2012
    04:33 AM

    Another great example is Reha Erdem's 'A Ay' made when he was 28 years old.
  • By Alexandre Pelletier
    September 13, 2012
    10:36 AM

    So Xavier Dolan is here to stay...
    • By Alexandre Pelletier
      September 13, 2012
      10:37 AM

      I actually think that's good. So ambiguity here.
  • By noir3
    September 16, 2012
    09:29 AM

    This is kind of a sad list for future film makers. Great list but sad. You say if you really haven't made a film by 30 you might be out of luck. And when referencing the director's age in the list imply that 28 is a respectable age to make your first masterpiece. That's a very small window. Yet Kurosawa was a late bloomer in a sense with the dreaded age of 33 for his first film. And that one was good but no masterpiece. He didn't have a true masterpiece I don't believe until he was close to 40. And i don't think I need to tell anyone the importance of Kurosawa on cinema. I think cinema is just like any art form, if you mean it it doesn't matter what age you make it, the final product will come out as something with meaning.
    • By D.j. West
      March 30, 2013
      06:13 AM

      Ridley Scott was 40 when he started, Danny Boyle was 36, David Lynch was 31; it's not about when you start, it's about how good your film is...
    • By Cathy Earnshaw
      August 28, 2016
      01:01 PM

      Agreed, saying film is all about the young filmmakers is sort of ageist to me. DW Griffith (as overstated as his pioneering often is) was a middle-aged man when he began his cinematic career. George Melies was in his thirties when he started. Other filmmakers who started directing after your 30 age mark-off date: Jacques Tati, Terry Gilliam, Gus van Sant, Ang Lee, Jane Campion, Andrea Arnold, Jean Cocteau-- to name a few. Yes, getting a headstart is a boon, but please do not be so dismissive.
  • By Donna_Mango
    September 17, 2012
    08:03 PM

    Hanger Hriskaza was 14 when he made "The Elves Don't Talk Anymore". And Pina Kump was 19 when she composed "Satellite In The Bushes". Two of my all time favorites. Plus, supposedly there's a child director named Ralph Blight working out of Quebec these days. He's just putting the finishing touches on his debut film "Slapper Gets It Right". Can't wait to add it to my collection! Greetings from Berlin!
    • By briclegg
      October 15, 2012
      04:10 AM

      I just plugged those titles into Google and nothing came up. Are you pulling our collective leg?
  • By Neil Hynes
    October 07, 2012
    01:34 PM

    Paul Thomas Anderson if he can be added
  • By D.j. West
    March 30, 2013
    06:11 AM

    Spike Jonze was 30 when he did "Being John Malkovich", Terrance Malick was 30 when he did "Badlands", Guillermo del Toro was 29 when he did "Cronos", Nolan was 28 when he did "Following", etc.
  • By Eric Levy
    April 01, 2013
    03:16 PM

    And Polanski was 29 when he made KNIFE IN THE WATER (and even younger when he made all the shorts that are included on that set).
  • By Ryan R.
    July 21, 2016
    07:47 PM

    A good list but I would love to see a mention of François Truffaut. The 400 Blows was released when he was 27.
  • By SuRed
    August 17, 2016
    04:04 PM

    Also Malle was 24 when he did ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS. This line you wrote-"First films tend to teem with ideas, as if the director was worried that she or he might never make another movie." is great, I need to remember this. I do hope to make a film, and Im over 30 :)
  • By DYates
    February 06, 2017
    07:59 PM

    Late to the party here, but so many of the points made seem ill thought out; there are marathon runners in their sixties, how much energy does a director (primarily conducting business from a chair) need? Clint Eastwood may have been acting since young adulthood but his rep as a great director began with Unforgiven. Hitchcock's silents wouldn't have secured a reputation beyond his lifetime. I guess as with most success stories, finding your niche early is an obvious help, but that says more about intensity of self belief - often a juvenile trait, unencumbered by realism - and the freedoms of youth than moviemaking per se. It's not math, music or athletics. Breadth of knowledge and experience has inestimable use. And speaking as a 42-year old, I often find early works insufferable, cloyingly precocious. Give me Haneke's considerate calm over some young twerp's smash cuts any day.
  • By Stephen Klein
    April 19, 2017
    05:10 PM

    Where's "Badlands?" Released when Malick was 29.
  • By Federico F.
    May 20, 2017
    02:16 AM

    This was largely believed by almost everyone that I went to the film department with. Make a feature by the time you were 30. Many make films later but it is true that that is the standard of youth.
  • By LastBestGhost
    October 22, 2017
    10:25 AM

    This single-minded worship of youth, and more importantly, the automatic dismissal of any degree of age and experience is ageist, ridiculous and fundamentally wrong. It’s this kind of pseudo-scientific, random selection that goes exactly against the spirit of art, seeking to control, define, and limit artists. It is painting, so to speak, with a brush so broad and ignorant, it really means nothing other than that you feel compelled to discourage and dismiss a group of artists. To demean and divide, and bully. Do you truly believe new filmmakers over the age of 30 are lesser than those younger than them — and that somehow we all benefit by dismissing them based solely on their age, some random line in the sand? The same kind of crap has been peddled about other groups in the past. There are a LOT fewer female, LGBTQ filmmakers and people of color Included in lists of “great” filmmakers — do you think that may have to do with something other than whether they have fresh ideas & insights, talent & ability? Perhaps they were bullied, discouraged, did not have the financial, etc support? Perhaps they were actively dismissed and shut out? Folks over 30 who choose to make films are courageous, and from what I’ve observed, just as likely to offer fresh and insightful perspectives as younger artists. Their smaller ranks have more to do with there being less of them, not with their work being less valuable. Because like the groups mentioned above, most artists over 30, who chose / discover the art life later, are working “without a net;” psychologically and financially, they have different, often greater pressures and challenges to contend with than many of their younger counterparts. Drivel like this article perpetuates and compounds their difficulty, working to discourage, discount and silence them. Is this how we should approach art, and treat artists? I expect this kind of waterheaded, pseudo-intellectual musing somewhere like Buzzfeed. Criterion should be more intelligent than this.
  • By Rob W.
    February 14, 2018
    09:16 AM

    Wasn't Spielberg 24 when he made Jaws? That's impressive!
  • By Aaron
    April 17, 2018
    02:39 PM

    I have to respectfully disagree with you on that claim. Barry Jenkins was well into his thirties when he made Moonlight
  • By Dragonfly
    April 18, 2018
    01:02 AM

    Taking into account that many titles chosen by the Criterion Collection have withstood the proverbial test of time, though some films do go immediately to a Criterion home release, all of these 30 and. Who are the "30 and under" risk takers and break-through makers working in cinema now? Technology used makes no difference... I'm talking about new ideas, even if the old ideas are in there and subverted, but please, no retro, no "meta." It's old. In whom does one see the cultural momentum still shaking things up? I'm not saying there aren't any. It's a sincere question.I'd like to know more of the new crop of artists creating something new and please, something more interesting than the mumble-core snore, itself already old, artists who are not at all just imitating what has already been successful (whether in artistic terms or in box office $$, and aren't thinking in terms of success, but rather of making art with fresh impact, that challenges the old school? The "end of history" theories has me worried that culture has died, been chopped up into bits of commodities and isn't capable of doing anything more than repeating itself with retro after retro, reboots, sequels, etc...I can rattle off the names of people well over thirty who are still making great movies, music, etc.. , but I'd like to learn more about the young risk-takers.
  • By Eric Levy
    April 19, 2018
    02:30 PM

    Not sure if you're still updating this lIst, but if so, you can add SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE.
  • By Phil_B
    April 22, 2018
    02:06 AM

    Yes, and if you're not a cisgender straight white male, you're unlikely to make a feature film either. But that doesn't make it right. More than anything, I feel sorry for Mr. Bordwell. Here we have a man entering his twilight years, thinking back to what could have been, and trying to dull the pain of regret by putting a few extra decades between the present and the point where his dreams may—just possibly—have been realized. Luckily, we're living in the 21st century. You don't have to ask anyone's permission to make a Primer or a Following. A filmmaker today could make a movie like Love Is Colder than Death—or even something like Persona—over a weekend, with a few friends, for a few hundred bucks. Skillful direction, a good script, and talent in front of and behind the camera are more important than money. The Criterion Collection is full timeless masterpieces made by highly driven artists who didn't wait for the self-appointed gatekeepers to give them the green light. You turn 71 this year, Mr. Bordwell. Why not pull the script out of your bottom drawer and give it a go?