47 MPH / The Best Directorial Debuts of the ’90s

With Variety Chief Film Critic Owen Gleiberman

Continuing our ongoing assessment of the most most defining cinematic offerings of the ’90s, 50 MPH pivots this week to the decade’s best directorial debuts. After all, despite Jan de Bont’s sterling cinematographer credentials coming into the gig, Speed was his first film as a director. How does his work stack up against that of the other exciting voices that burst onto the scene 30 years ago?

For this discussion, 50 MPH welcomes Variety Chief Film Critic Owen Gleiberman, who was writing for Entertainment Weekly during the ’90s and had the perfect perch from which to observe this earth-shattering era take shape. And he comes out swinging with love for a widely derided franchise whiff.

In a potentially controversial choice, Gleiberman springs for David Fincher’s debut, Alien³.

“I think I’m right about Alien³ and the whole world is wrong,” Gleiberman says of director David Fincher’s 1992 debut. “I thought David Fincher made a remarkable choice. He went back to the mood to the first film, and I think it is suffused with this real horror and kind of shivery dread, but it’s less of a kind of propulsive horror ride than either of the first two. It is a real art film: slow, brooding, quiet. I’ve been surprised over the years that there hasn’t been a movement to kind of resurrect it and say, ‘Oh, this was unfairly maligned,’ because I think the whole reason it was maligned is that it performed disappointingly at the box office. I thought the media sort of echoed that line, rather than what I thought they should have done, which is just accept that someone had made an incredibly adventurous, rather than commercial, horror film.”

Unlike some of 50 MPH‘s other listicle episodes, Gleiberman and host Kris Tapley‘s two lists share many entries. Five, in fact, meaning you might as well look at this discussion as a definitive assessment of the topic at hand! One such point of agreement is the Hughes brothers’ stunning 1993 debut Menace II Society.

Menace II Society [is] so unapologetic and willing to give you these sort of irredeemable characters to tell its story through that lens,” Tapley says. “It’s not a lens of ‘these characters are justified.’ It’s a lens of ‘these characters are people and this is the world we come from,’ and, to do that at 21 [years old], it’s just so fierce and unflinching. You know what’s great about it, too? There’s nothing about it that feels influenced. I can’t see another filmmaker’s aesthetic in there. It feels like their aesthetic.”

Menace II Society
The Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society, one of the most unflinching debuts of the ’90s

Sticking with Tapley, and one movie Gleiberman regrets he lacked the space to include, the Wachowskis’ stylish and sexy 1996 thriller Bound makes an appearance.

“There’s something economical and taut that feels like such a rarity today when I look at this movie,” Tapley says. “It’s so cool to see all the style that they’re going to apply to The Matrix, applied to something this boiled-down, because all of their kind of shots are in there. The sex of it all is sort of a Trojan horse. That gets you in there and then you get to see this banger of a movie. And you really just never know what’s going to happen next. You’re just on the edge of your seat the whole time.”

But let’s finally come to it: Does Speed figure into the discussion? Prominently, in fact.

“It is a work of art,” Gleiberman says of de Bont’s action masterwork. “I think our culture is drowning in overwrought, unreal action that has just played with people’s heads, played with people’s minds, and to me, the antidote to that, the greatest action films ever made, are films where I believe on a moment-to-moment level in the reality I’m watching. That, to me, is what a great action film is. That’s what almost no action films are like. But that’s what Speed has. To me, that stands the movie in such contrast to all of action cinema, and that’s what I absolutely cherish about it.”

All of that and tons more on this week’s episode of 50 MPH!

Kris Tapley’s List:

  1. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)
  2. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
  3. Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)
  4. Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)
  5. Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990)
  6. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
  7. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)
  8. Menace II Society (The Hughes Brothers, 1993)
  9. Bound (The Wachowskis, 1996)
  10. Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)

Owen Gleiberman’s List:

  1. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
  2. Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)
  3. Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991)
  4. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
  5. I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron, 1996)
  6. Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)
  7. Buffalo ’66 (Vincent Gallo, 1997)
  8. Menace II Society (The Hughes Brothers, 1993)
  9. Alien³ (David Fincher, 1992)
  10. Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994)


Kris Tapley Your Host:

Kris has covered the entertainment industry for nearly two decades, with bylines at Variety, The New York Times, Empire and Vanity Fair. He now works as a writer and consultant in Los Angeles, where he lives with his loving wife, lively son and lazy cat. He likes Speed.