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 Tony Kieme
    July 16, 2012
    03:13 PM

    Nice stuff. Your other article (which you closed for comments) deserves commenting. I hope you don't mind. I feel that the thirty-year threshold is a movie-market value that is self-evident in history. The markets have changed drastically as we all know (and love) in a way that was and is predictable. This progression has become a greater blockade of new talent due to the sheer size of the industry, that which is the scale of profit. It is a simple matter of economics; the greater the profit, the tighter the locks to the proverbial doors. Thus, your idea of becoming a 'success' before thirty held a resonant chord until the industry had no other source than its own detritus of wealth --as it is obviously doing today. Now, I posit, the film-market is in a tumultuous state of creative indifference for the most part. Of course, there are many little-risks beings taken here and there. Of course, there are also big-bets with proven auteurs that exemplify your model of 'before-thirty'. My obvious point is this: a film can be made solely on trust these days whereas it was not possible before, allowing you-tube fame to happen, and unknown auteurs to climb into notoriety. I think it is fair to say, make a film that tests the mettle of all the films ever created, and you have a shot; make a film that wants to be at the scale of Hollywood, and you got something that tried really, really, really hard to beat Hollywood at its own game.
  • By W.J.
    July 16, 2012
    05:45 PM

    What happened to Vigo, Fassbinder, and even (gasp!) Lucas?
  • By Joel Bocko
    July 16, 2012
    06:07 PM

    Ironically, I actually used this idea years back when Criterion offered free gift cards for those who came up with a good 'shelf' (spines organized thematically) for thesite's homepage. I won with 'young directors' but I set the age limit higher - 35 rather than 30. Partly because there weren't enough 30&under to make it worthwhile (this was 2007; many of Bordwell's picks are recent additions to the collection) but also because I think it's a better benchmark. As an aspiring filmmaker a year and a half shy of 30 I suppose I'm biased, but I also think 29 to 33 is a more accurate age range for a breakthrough film. Those few years make a big difference: Scorsese, Coppola, the Coens, Spike Lee, and Lynch all come to mind as relatively recent examples of the just-over-30 rule (though some started work on their breakthroughs just before crossing over (and most debuted in their 20s, but under the radar). Funny how 29 seems to be the magic number; I can think of more directors breaking in or breaking through at that age than any other: it isn't so much 30 & under that's key as it is just barely under 30. On another note, though, if Bordwell's is right than its cause for despair because no young directors have emerged, except on the far margins (mumble core, a few of the neo-neorealists) in 10 years. An entire generation unrepresented in public consciousness. I'd actually be pretty interested to read Bordwell's take on that phenomenon - is it to do with the nature of the industry at this point, the societal relevance of cinema at this historic juncture or what? It seems unprecedented; the theater brought forward new directors in the 40s, TV in the 50s & 60s, film school in the 70s, the indie scene & music videos in the 90s. We're overdue - I think the Internet will probably be the next venue but I'm still waiting.
  • By Michael Bachman
    July 16, 2012
    06:42 PM

    Slacker had it's Austin, Tx debut in July on 1990.Richard Linklater was born July 30, 1960, so it just sneeks in under the wire.
  • 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 Christian R.
    July 17, 2012
    03:27 AM

    Much more interesting and deserving would have been a list of those exceptions to the rule, i.e. "30 and Above".
    • By Lee
      July 17, 2012
      07:40 AM

      Yes, this list is nothing new and incredibly boring/lazy. Try finding debut films by directors aged 30 and above, now that might be a better challenge, and a better read.
  • By Guy
    July 17, 2012
    01:06 PM

    No Michael Bay ? Surely some mistake........:-)
  • 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.
  • By Barry Moore
    October 09, 2014
    08:41 PM

    Though it's not a Criterion title, the powerful 1998 Iranian feature 'Sib' ('The Apple') astonishes when one reflects that the director, Samira Makhmalbaf (whose first film this was), was merely eighteen when she made it. I can think of no younger director having achieved such an accomplished and thought-provoking film.