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.


    July 05, 2012
    07:10 PM

    Great list
  • By Waardvark
    July 05, 2012
    08:18 PM

    Just to make sure of Godard's age when Breathless was released, I checked on the IMDb. He was born on December 3rd, 1930, and the film came out in Paris on March 16th, 1960. One obvious example is ruled out because it is not a Criterion DVD, but it is perhaps the most astonishing debut of all: Strike (1925) directed by S.M. Eisenstein.
  • By Alexander
    July 06, 2012
    11:27 AM

    Thanks, I enjoyed this. George Washington is another one. And not that it's in the Collection, but Citizen Kane was done by Welles in his twenties, something I think every young filmmaker should keep in mind. I'd like to see a follow up to this with films by directors in their twilight years. I know of only a couple.
    • By Waardvark
      July 06, 2012
      04:20 PM

      George Cukor was in his eighties when he made Rich and Famous. He was the oldest active director on the rolls of the DGA. Other older directors would have liked to continue working, but insurance companies would not cover a production with an older person. John Huston, I believe, made all of his late movies independently because he couldn't get coverage.
  • By futurestar
    July 06, 2012
    08:16 PM

    ten isn't a big list but one can be the loneliest number of all and two can be as lonely as one if they don't add up and make three amongst them. but a four dog dog night can be cold enough to make you imagine the ten most comforting films of all time no matter how many numbers are around to see what makes you work to be one of ones, having the list of ten above all over forever.
  • By Ate_eyes
    July 10, 2012
    01:45 AM

    Harmony Korine would probably have made the list.....if CC would add him. ;}
  • By futurestar
    July 12, 2012
    12:46 AM

    great list and effort in your desciptions. you are well watched obviously. thanks.
  • By Robert E.
    July 17, 2012
    12:38 AM

    Fun, but I think Mr. Bordwell is feeling his age. What exactly is a "Criterion filmmaker?" I can guess, but if that's the criterion (ha ha) for posts here, that's a bit limiting. A few counter-examples from the first letters of the alphabet: Alain Resnais (age 36, Hiroshima mon amour) Alain Robbe-Grillet (age 41, L'immortelle) Béla Tarr (age 39, Satantango) Didn't Mr. Bordwell forget Hitchcock and Weersethakul?
  • By nathan
    July 18, 2012
    12:39 PM

    great job on the list...i thoroughly enjoyed it...i would have liked to see Elevator to the Gallows...but you can't have them all.
  • By Michael Brakemeyer
    July 19, 2012
    04:26 PM

    Some terrific comments all around in this piece. Naruse is sorely neglected by film scholars and you can't go wrong with Kubrick's "The Killing". What a piece of filmmaking that was for a twenty eight year old!
  • 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 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 Peter_Wilson
    January 05, 2014
    06:34 PM

    What a wonderful list you've got here. I love it! -- -- If you find the time check out mine.