Q & A: What are the Greatest Sophomore Films from Directors?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pulp Fiction, AlienJust two weeks back Elysium was landing in a heat of anticipation, but that fervor for Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 follow-up quickly died upon its release. Some viewers, myself included, felt the film was too aesthetically and literally in the vein of that debut feature, which got us to start thinking about which 2nd features capitalized on the director’s established style best, but without over-indulging on it. Rather than go off works of the recent past, most of us stretch back into the vault for our picks of a few great sophomore directorial efforts. These may not be “the greatest”, as the baiting title may admittedly mislead, but they’re films we find most emblematic of a stunning follow-up feature.

Question: What are a few of your favorite sophomore directorial efforts?

Hilary Kissinger

In a preliminary search for eligible films I found so many I’d love to include – Lost in Translation, Alien, Take This Waltz, Rushmore, and Fish Tank among them. What I landed on were personal favorites that I could watch over and over again, and seem to traffic in some similar themes and character tropes. Apparently I have an acute fondness for supposed Manic Pixie Dream Girls, coming-of-age stories, and older women. Just as I suspected.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed by Michel Gondry

Eternal Sunshine is Gondry’s greatest film, a rare combination of economy and whimsy that earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay along with Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth. The script is littered with thematic thrust; early in the film Joel (Jim Carrey) hesitates to venture out over some ice, asking “What if it breaks?” Clementine (Kate Winslet in one of her many Oscar-nominated roles) responds “What if? Do you really care right now?” Not caring that things will break – allowing past and future pain as a part of life and living fiercely in spite of them – is what this memory-erasing drama is all about. Its inventive, consistently-surprising visual movement sweeps us through the film’s intricate echo chambers, reverberating with a simple sentiment at its core. “This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon,” Clementine says, in the last of Joel’s memories of her. “What do we do?” He answers more than her question when he says, “Enjoy it.”

Harold and MaudeHarold and Maude (1971)
Directed by Hal Ashby

The most joyous film full of suicides ever made, and similarly life-affirming. Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon play the unlikely lovers to perfection, embodying the alienated nihilism and hard-won optimism of their respective generations and the competing spirits of the times. The stunning, nearly magical scene where Maude engages Harold in the pure abandon of music remains a singular moment I’ll never forget, the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound blurring as Maude leaves the piano and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” continues playing as they sing and dance. (If you’re curious just how much I love this film and its soundtrack, my husband and I chose the song as our wedding recessional…I am only two years his senior, in my case.) Cat Stevens’ soundtrack is utterly divine, matched only in my estimation by a film from four years prior…

The GraduateThe Graduate (1967)
Directed by Mike Nichols

I expressed my deep and abiding love for Mike Nichols’ sophomore feature in a MASTER MOMENTS column last year, delighting in the craftsmanship on display in the first act’s seduction scene. The entire film is so achingly good, so painfully funny and intensely affecting that it remains the coming-of-a-certain-age film, still fresh after forty-five years. This film got Nichols the O in his EGOT, though his debut feature, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was no mere freshman effort, earning an Academy Award nomination in every eligible category. From the infectious Simon & Garfunkel sound, to the radiant performances served up by Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, to Buck Henry’s delicious dialogue, it’s “hello brilliance, my old friend,” from beginning to end.

Duncan Houst

While trying to figure out what films to select, I wasn’t surprised to be immediately drawn to most recent sophomore entries like The Illusionist, Weekend, Margaret, etc. Ultimately, though, those films weren’t as definitive sophomore entries as they were continuations of brilliance we already knew was there. So I decided to look at 2nd films that proved most profound in their confirmation of a director’s style between two films. That crucial follow-up outing can go a long way towards separating simply directors from distinct auteurs.

AlienAlien (1979)
Directed by Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott’s first film, The Duellists, set him up as a reasonable action director, but Alien obviously represents a quantum leap in ambition that would serve Scott well over the course of his career. Two years after Star Wars made space an epic frontier, Alien takes a more minimalist approach akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey, while still curdling its own unsettling tension as this thriller with no obvious protagonist slowly wittels itself down to one. It set up for a thrilling action sequel from James Cameron, but this simple, dank manipulation of space(s) and bodies holds itself strong above for sheer intensity. The monster lurking is less frightening than the dark void shrouding it. Nobody can here you scream, indeed.

KafkaKafka (1991)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

After Sex, Lies, and Videotape, it felt like Steven Soderbergh could have gone just about anywhere with his career. It just gave critics pause that he decided to go in *this* direction. More of a stylistic tribute to Franz Kafka than an actual biopic, though I’d argue Soderbergh gets closer to the heart of the man than any rote transcription of his life could. A humorously dry noir at first, the film’s third act truly blows the door off the hinges in how it subverts expectations in boldly silly manner. More than most follow-ups, Kafka established the kind of structural and stylistic creativity Soderbergh would be best known 22 years later, though it knocked critics for more of a loop than they could handle at the time. Hopefully they’ve become more privy to his jive.

No Fear, No DieNo Fear, No Die (1990)
Directed by Claire Denis

A personal bid, I admit, but Claire Denis’s first film, Chocolat, seemed to establish her sensibilities mainly in Africa. It might’ve been easy for her to become trapped in that kind of dry style, but instead she moves to the cold outskirts of France with her follow-up. Referentially the story of two black immigrants who train roosters for a cock-fighting ring, Denis maintains her dissection of race relations from her previous film, but now extending that to psychological barriers, rather than simply physical ones. Denis’ long-term partnership with star Alex Descas started here, and given how jarringly Descas folds into tormented Jocelyn – whose favored rooster “No Fear, No Die” becomes symbolically synonymous with a white waitress he falls for – it becomes clear why. Denis may be better known for her more isolated studies of racial & physical boundaries, but her dark, dank detours give her an razor edge like no one else working in the medium. Sadly the film’s demand to be seen isn’t matched by its availability. There’s currently no DVD of the film to speak. Dearest Criterion, please save this picture!

Alex Carlson

I agree with all the selections that Duncan and Hilary made. In addition, here are four sophomore efforts that I adore:

RushmoreRushmore (1998)
Directed by Wes Anderson

Bottle Rocket is a fine film, but Wes Anderson’s second feature Rushmore really introduced his now signature visual style and established him as one of the most unique voices in cinema today. Every subsequent film in Anderson’s career has felt like a spiritual sequel to this gem.
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Raising ArizonaRaising Arizona (1987)
Directed by The Coen Brothers

This sophomore effort from the Coen Brothers was a fresh new take on cinematic comedy with a fusion of realistic and dream-like sequences. So many filmmakers have since imitated the Coens, but as they have proved with movies like A Serious Man, nobody does it better than them.
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Pulp FictionPulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Few filmmakers have an entire career that is good as the two movies that launched Quentin Tarantino. After Reservoir Dogs came Pulp Fiction, one of my favorite movies of all-time, that created a universe that is distinctly Tarantino’s. Brilliant dialogue, fantastic performances, iconic shots. It’s simply a masterpiece.

Ivan's ChildhoodIvan’s Childhood (1962)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

This was Tarkovsky’s first feature after his student film The Steamroller and the Violin and it brought him all the way to a Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival. While I haven’t caught up with this film’s predecessor, Ivan’s Childhood is enough to prove that Tarkovsky is a master of both shot composition and philosophy.

G Clark Finfrock

Sophomore efforts can be tough. Sometimes, a director’s true talent takes several films before it shines through (Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen). Or sometimes, the potential wrapped in a promising début is promptly squandered upon the second at-bat (Neil Blomkamp, Richard Kelley). Here are four that only improved their directors’ reputations:

Days of HeavenDays of Heaven (1978)
Directed by Terrence Malick

With Badlands, Malick’s talent was clearly fully-formed, but his second feature introduced us to some major hallmarks of his oeuvre: the hypnotic fixation on nature, the more meandering voice-overs, scenes linked thematically instead of strictly chronologically. Unfortunately, Days of Heaven was such an out-of-the-park knockout (earning him Best Director at Cannes, no less) that its success frightened Malick from Hollywood for 20 years; his third feature, The Thin Red Line, dropped in 1998.

The Parson's WidowThe Parson’s Widow (1920)
Directed by Carl Theodore Dryer

Rightly considered minor Dreyer, The Parson’s Widow is still worth a look for being the only Dreyer film that could remotely be described as a comedy. His stately formality and highly-mannered technique had yet to burgeon, but fans of his painstaking chiaroscuro compositions will here find a rich reward. A print of this recently screened at the Anthology Films Archives in NYC and may crop up at a few art houses around the US in the coming months.

Upstream ColorUpstream Color (2013)
Directed by Shane Carruth

Like Carruth’s début feature, Primer, Upstream Color is a mostly maddening affair with long stretches of awe-inspiring brilliance. Carruth aims high, searching for the ineffably rapturous abstract heights of 2001 or Koyaanisqatsi, and for that he has my sincere admiration. He’s not altogether successful, mostly because his symbols are far too literal to achieve any lasting transcendence, but that Carruth has the balls to attempt something so ambitious with Film #2 should only whet our appetite for the third.

SevenSeven (1995)
Directed by David Fincher

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I prefer to think of Seven as Fincher’s freshman outing. Alien 3 was such an ill-conceived abortion of an entry that it’s better forgotten than derided. Seven was the movie that truly let Fincher take the reigns; his focus on atmosphere and mood over cheap frights and gross-out thrills elevates Andrew Kevin Walker’s grade-B pulp to serious artistic peaks. After two decades, Seven is still as potent and relevant as when it was first released.

What are your own favorite sophomore directorial efforts? Comment below!

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  • Hilary Kissinger

    Oh G Clark. You know that testicles have nothing to do with courage.

  • Mine would be:

    1. Days of Heaven
    2. Pulp Fiction
    3. The Graduate
    4. Ivan’s Childhood
    5. Boogie Nights
    6. Stranger than Paradise
    7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    8. Adaptation.
    9. Lost in Translation
    10. Se7en

    • Jose

      Lost in Translation is an EXCELLENT pick.

  • Daniel Selleck

    Memento – Nolan. This mind-bending neo-noir tells a rather basic story of a man going after the one who raped and murdered his wife. Only he has amnesia and can’t make new memories so the movie is told in a most interesting way: reverse chronological order. Non-linear plots, femme fatales, unreliable narrators, and an almost academic level of exposition in the dialogue has carried over to nearly every later Nolan film, and was successfully introduced with his first film, Following. Though, Nolanites beware, this does not have Batman or crazy special effects in it, but it is the kind of movie that forces you to pay attention to it.

    American Graffiti – Lucas. A huge departure from the dystopian THX-1138, Graffiti went in the opposite direction, exploring a loss of innocence within his own generation, something that would similarly later be explored over the course of the Star Wars trilogy with Luke Skywalker. It also showcases Lucas’ child-like naive view of the world as black and white, yet another thing carried over to Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

    The Terminator – Cameron. Believe it or not, Cameron’s sophomore film was the one that just about made his and leading star Arnie’s success. Personally, I believe it to be the superior of the Terminator for the same reasons I believe Alien is. The dark, apocalyptic atmosphere is ever present, the people are too stupid and/or powerless to help in any way, and the monster is a cold, killing machine that won’t hesitate to kill you. Terminator also depicts LA in the 80’s in a very accurate sense that was rarely shown before then, highlighting the dark, dingy underbelly of the city of angels. Looking back I realize I really wish the old James Cameron were making movies, not the 3D-crazed Cameron we got now.

    A Fistful of Dollars – Leone. Unless you want to count uncredited roles off IMDB (I don’t) this was Leone’s sophomoric debut after The Colossus of Rhodes. A huge departure from him, but solidified him as a spaghetti-western master. Although a ripoff of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which was heavily inspired by the novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett), this introduced the world to the spaghetti-western. Not the first, but certainly the first well known western from Italy. Leone would later continue his work with westerns for until his last (and greatest film, in my opinion) Once Upon A Time in America.

    Dazed and Confused – Linklater. A disenfranchised youth piece about a particular time in American history, this time being the mid 70’s. A fine film by the very underrated Richard Linklater, this carries on the style he started with his first film Slackers that featured many characters in their own individual, unrelated stories. Kind of a take on American Graffiti but with more characters and even less of a plot. But that’s ok. In films like these a type of realism is desired and rarely if ever do our lives neatly fit a 90 minute plot ripped off from Blake Snyder’s beat sheet. Although Linklater would go on to make a variety of different films, the one thing that continued on throughout most of his later studio and indie films was his use of 70’s rock n roll.

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