Top 10 Second Films by Directors since 1970

The difficult second album has troubled and frustrated musicians since people started buying vinyl. But what about filmmakers and their second feature-length film..? Here’s ten of the best.

There are many directors who explode onto the scene with incredible first films. There are too many to mention here but a few would-be artists like Sam Mendes, who won best director for American Beauty, Wes Craven for his intestine-squeezing, pulse-pounding, heart-stopping film Last House on the Left and even lesser known films like Arlington Road by director Mark Pellington, who made what I consider one of the best of 1999.

But what about those directors who might have made good films for their first one, but absolutely blew us (me) away with their second ones? I find this to be a bit more interesting as we may have not even seen their brilliance coming, and yet their second films were absolutely astonishing in so many ways.

Here, I take a look at what I consider to be the top 10 best second films from a director. One caveat to this is that I will admit that my point of reference doesn’t go back before 1970. I am simply not knowledgeable enough to speak intelligently, or remotely coherently about these films. So this will be from 1970 until now. I’m sure some of these choices will be a big WTF to some of you, but these are the artists and films that have left an impact on me and on the film world.

Other top 10s you might like: Top 10 Sequels Of All Time | Top 10 Science-Fiction Films of the 1990s | Top 30 Horror Films 1967 – 1979 | Top 10 films to have driven people to murder

10. Katherine Bigelow – Near Dark (1987)


Bigelow made a film in 1982 called Loveless. No one really saw it. It took her 5 years until she would make her next film. And a strange one it was. Near Dark was blessed with a terrific cast highlighted of course by three of the main actors from Aliens, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Jeanette Goldstein. It came out the same year as the other vampire film, Lost Boys. Both films were terrific but told and shot in as diametric polars as one could possibly imagine. Her comedic timing, intensity and ability to get fantastic performances out of her entire cast was never more on display than it was here. It’s no wonder, at least to this author, that she won the Oscar for best director 23 years later.

9. Sylvester Stallone – Rocky II (1979)


Stallone, in my opinion, is one of the all time underrated directors. He hasn’t done many films but the ones he has done have, for the most part, been some of the most entertaining films of their respective years. He has been the punchline all of his professional life. Even in success, his detractors would go after his speech impediment, husky voice and/or his “dumb jock” reputation. Nothing is further from the truth as he is an Oscar-nominated actor and writer and has written more than 20 films. Rocky II is almost as good as the original. Stallone says he learned how to direct when he did Paradise Alley. And when John G. Alvidsen wasn’t asked back for the sequel, Stallone stepped in and showed his ability. His choreography of the fight is better than Alvidsen’s vision. Rocky II is just one of the strong entries in the Rocky saga.

8. John Hughes – The Breakfast Club (1985)


One of the all time under-appreciated writer/director’s in the history of film. John Hughes could direct a film that takes place in a phone booth and it would be interesting. Never has anyone been able to relate to one generation as well as he. He just understood what it was like to be a teen in the 80’s. Sixteen Candles started this wonderful journey but The Breakfast Club simply transcends a generation. It examines the high school pyramids, paradigms and parameters of jocks, beauty queens, brainiacs, basketcases and criminals. There’s a reason why this film has remained relevant over a quarter of a century later.

7. Joss Whedon – The Avengers (2012)


If you are Marvel and you are ready to spend about 350 million dollars on a one of a kind film, who do you hire to helm it? That’s simple…the man who has one directing credit to his name and (ostensibly) has no idea how to handle a budget of that size. And yet The Avengers turned out to be one of the best films of 2012 and is spoken about in the pantheon of great superhero films like The Dark Knight and Spiderman 2. Whedon brought his own geeky sensibilities to the film. There are scenes in it that are right from his childlike mind, like playing Galaga in the floating fortress. So many tiny touches of brilliance were brought to the film because of him. A truly ballsy move by producers Kevin Feige and Alan Fine (among others).

6. Tobe Hooper – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)


There are films that are remembered for being great. There are films that are remembered for winning Oscars and there are films that are remembered for making gajillions of dollars. Then there is Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is a film that once you see it, it will never leave you, at least it hasn’t me. It’s ephemeral and one film that will still be spoken about 50 years from now. Based loosely on Ed Gein, who was also the basis for Psycho, Hooper should be lauded for his raw and innovative film making. This was filmed in July and August in Texas, which is the hottest time of year. The feeling of this film is painted brilliantly in every shot. The dinner table scene is one of the most iconic scenes in any horror film. And the blood in some of the shots near the end is real. Marilyn Burns did twist her ankle jumping through the window and Gunnar Hansen chased the actors with a real chainsaw. This obviously adds to the authenticity of the film, making Texas Chainsaw Massacre one of the all time greats.

5. Ridley Scott – Alien (1979)


Is there a more gut wrenching scene than the alien chest bursting scene? If there is, I can’t think of one. It terrified a generation of movie goers and it is still imitated today, some 30-plus years later. For a man who directed a fencing movie starring Harvey Keitel and Albert Finney, to suddenly show off his immense talents with Alien, it was truly a surprise. Alien has stood the test of time and even though there has been 5 other alien films (including his pairing with the Predator) none has been able to match the sheer audacity of the first one. Scott is now an Oscar nominated director and one of the most revered men in the business. Alien started it all.

4. Quentin Tarantino – Pulp Fiction (1994)


The film that changed the way we see films today. And that is not hyperbolic in any way. QT came along and turned everything upside down. This is a film that will often be imitated but never duplicated. That is an old cliche but it is so true in this case. It is completely original and without a doubt, what makes it so original and so great is simply the writing and directing. What other film can have gangsters talking about foot massages and the importance of them just before they are about to perform a hit. What other film can describe in great detail what a pilot for a film is and then talk about a man that fell through a four story window and develop a speech impediment, all before entering into a room to ramble on about the Bible and how tasty the burgers are before executing them with extreme prejudice. There is a simple and definitive answer to that question – no film. Pulp fiction takes violence and surrounds it with every day conversations with people that seem to be in a different world yet they jump through some strange porthole and into ours by discussing things like blueberry muffins, how good coffee is, cleaning a blood smeared car with domesticated products that are located under Jimmy’s sink, oral pleasure, speaking Bora Bora, getting day jobs as opposed to robbing banks, being cool like Fonzie and five dollar milkshakes. A giant among giants.

3. The Wachowski Brothers – The Matrix (1999)


Another game changer. We all know about bullet time but what is also so iconic about this film, is, well everything. The story of a computer hacker who just knows that something isn’t quite right with the world, but he can’t put his finger on it. This is a film that is about as symbolic as they come. We are all living in The Matrix. We are all asleep and somewhere out there, people like Morpheus do exist and they are trying to tell us something. Unquestionably one of the best films of 1999 and in so many ways, much more memorable than American Beauty. The Wachowskis were never able to duplicate their success here although the sequel, for all of its detractors, is a remarkable film as well. But to go from Bound (a film about lesbians trying to steal mob money) to this genre bending, iconic film, is just mind blowing.

2. James Cameron – The Terminator (1984)


In 1982, James Cameron directed the sequel to Joe Dante’s cult classic Piranha. He didn’t get along with the crew, pissed everyone off and was reportedly fired with about a quarter of the film still to be shot. How on earth did this (allegedly) temperamental young Canadian manage to secure a 6 million dollar budget, with a world champion bodybuilder as the main bad guy and then have it go on to make 6 times its budget in North America alone? Balls, brains, and a je ne sais quoi attitude. Cameron is one of the most brilliant director’s to ever grace Hollywood and The Terminator is the film that got him noticed. This is the stuff of legend.

1. Steven Spielberg – Jaws (1975)


Sugarland Express is a nice movie. JAWS is as good as they come! For those of you who have read some of my other pieces, you will know of my love for JAWS. It is the best film ever made in my opinion. I don’t want to repeat myself too much when it comes to JAWS, but just know this. Spielberg had to make things up on the fly. The script was written, at times, 5 minutes before they were going to shoot the scene. He had to invent ways to create suspense because the main prop wasn’t working. He had a drunk and a playboy as two of his main leads. And yet when the camera rolled, the green, 26-year-old filmmaker managed to make magic. There is no finer film. To borrow a line from wrestling legend Bret Hart – It’s the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.

Discover More: 10 reasons Jaws might be the best film ever made | Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films | Jaws – The Unseen Monster

What do you think of these “second” films? What films would appear in your top 10?

Written and compiled by Dan Grant.
Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72. Dan Grant is a writer from Canada who has a particular passion for horror film.

15 More Great Second Films by Directors

Discover More from Dan Grant: Top 10 Bill Paxton Films | Top 10 Dumbest Friday The 13th Moments | Top 10 Scariest Films Ever Made | 50 Films Better Than “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012

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About the Author
Dan Grant is an author and horror film fan from Canada. His first novel Terrified and Defenseless is now available for e-download from Amazon. Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72.

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  1. Pete Reply

    Fantastic list! Much more interesting than a list of debuts! Just shows how many great ‘second’ films there have been.

    Others that I would include would be Seven, Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream. I think they were all second films but I might be wrong.

    Pulp Fiction and Terminator are the ones to beat on this list in my opinion.

  2. Dan Grant Reply

    I completely forgot about The Usual Suspects, it too is an amazing second film and yes, Seven would make most people’s lists as well.

  3. ruth Reply

    WOW, such an informative post and this list is mindblowing! That’s impressive indeed that a lot of these movies end up being a classic when it’s only the director’s second effort. The only ones I haven’t seen are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Near Dark, I might give the latter a shot.

  4. Alex Withrow Reply

    Excellent, unique list here. I love a lot of the flicks listed. Pulp, Texas Chainsaw, Alien, Jaws… those are some directors who most definitely did not suffer from a sophomore slump. All fantastic efforts.

  5. Mark Reply

    Some others ….

    (1) Salvador (Stone) – who could have expected this after The Hand? The fact it was his first collaboration with cinematographer Robert Richardson most likely had something to do with it.

    (2) Raising Arizona (one of the Coens) – gave the boys a far wider audience following Blood Simple.

    (3) The Elephant Man (Lynch) – it’s easily one of his best works, avoiding many of the idiosyncratic indulgences that have plagued most of his other films.

    (4) Assault of Precinct 13 (Carpenter) – far more influential in terms of his career than Dark Star.

    (5) Good Night and Good Luck (Clooney) – I actually preffered Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but this helped Georgie become one of Hollywood’s leading liberals … plus it put him firmly in Oscar(TM) territory.

    (6) Boogie Nights (Anderson) – haven’t seen Hard Eight, so it’s hard to make a comparison, but this one pretty much put him on the map as a Hollwood auteur.

    (7) Glory (Zwick) – A far more substantial work than About Last Night … it also gave Denzel’s career a shot in the arm and won a few Oscars(TM) to boot.

    (8)300 (Snyder)- Showed he would be a force to be reckoned with after his quite stunning debut (the remake of Dawn of the Dead).

    (9) Star Trek (Abrams) – he had only made MI III before this; I’m no Trekkie, but this was an entertaining and competent piece of work.

    (10)Goodbye Paradise (Schultz)- one of the best Australian films ever made … before this his only other work was the tepid Blue Fin.

    (11) Dead Presidents (Hughes Brothers) – probably took a few liberties with its depiction of Vietnam, and many would be turned off by the violence, but it is a strangely remarkable film on a number of levels, not least being when it becomes a desperate crime caper.

    If we can have Stallone on the list (I disagree he’s underrated behind the camera – he’s luggishly ham fisted no matter what IMO), then a special mention could be made of Paul Schrader, whose 1980 Hardcore, albeit flawed, was gritty, guilt driven and one of the first major Hollywood films to address the porn industry.

    Also, does Jaws really count given Duel was released theatrically for international audiences?

  6. Dan Grant Reply

    Duel wasn’t released theatrically here, so it counts imo.

    Great list Mark. There really are a lot of great films to choose from.

  7. Evan Crean Reply

    Magnificent list. With the exception is Near Dark I love the absolute crap out of everything on this list. Can’t believe so many of these directors knocked it out of the park with their second feature. Agreed that Stallone is very underrated. He didn’t direct it, but I very much enjoyed his most recent film Bullet to the Head. I think the suits took a risk with Whedon because they knew someone like him would do a really earnest job with the characters and he would understand the significance of fans’ expectations. I’m glad the powers that be finally gave him a chance to show his stuff and that he succeeded.

  8. Rodney Reply

    When I saw the title for this list, I somehow knew you’d find a way to get Jaws onto it….

    Aside from that (and I agree, Jaws is a ripper 2nd film), I’d say I agree with Mark above, and have had JJ Abrams and Zack Snyder in this list somewhere.

  9. Mark Reply

    Cheers Dan

    One of the bleeding obviouses struck me shortly after I posted the above waffle … Michael Cimino and The Deer Hunter. Who would have thought after a sleeper like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot he’d win an Oscar (TM) with his next effort (with a Best Picture, no less), plus polarise a bunch of people in the process. Of course, as we all know, it all went to hell for him after that. Personally, I don’t think I’ll be watching the rejigged Heaven’s Gate as the whole thing is pretty unfixable as far as I’m concerned.

  10. Dan Reply

    It is astonishing seeing such great work from directors making only their second film – that goes for both Dan’s and Mark’s lists! There’s that difficult second album musicians struggle with after they put their life and soul into their first record. Perhaps filmmakers begin to find themselves with subsequent films.

    Certainly, for James Cameron, his second film allowed him to essentially do what we wanted to do quite independent of outside influence. Likewise, although Jaws had heavy influence from the studio/producers, Spielberg stuck to his vision despite the problems that were going on around him (ie. a shark that didn’t work). Sometimes adversity brings out the best in people (and their work).

  11. Mark Reply

    Errr, I erred … Salvador was Stone’s third film after making a cheapo horror thing on debut circa 1974. Gotta stop shooting from the lip …

    Thought of a few more entrants though. Pretty sure these are all legit ….

    (1) Terrence Mallik – Days of Heaven (the film won an Oscar for best cinematography);

    (2) Hugh Hudson – Chariots of Fire (won the best film Oscar in 1982);

    (3) Warren Beatty – Reds (it was beaten by Chariots …, although the human penis got best director);

    (4) Adrian Lynne – Flashdance (OK, he’s not quite in the same league as Mallick and Beatty, but this film probably made about 100 times more profit at the box office than Days of …. and Reds; plus his take on Lolita in the mid 1990s showed he was a pretty handy director);

    (5) Alan Parker – Midnight Express (a far cry from his first feature Bugsy Malone).

  12. Dan Grant Reply

    Adrian Lynne is a fine director and he has made some very interesting films. He’s a good choice.

    Alan Parker is one of my favourite directors. Angel Heart is one of my fave films of all time. Midnight Express is very good as well, and I can understand why you would bring that one up for sure.

    I personally can’t stand Malick’s work so I would never consider him.

    I even considered having Steve Miner on the list as I thought Friday the 13th 3 was head and shoulders better than 2.

  13. Mark Reply

    Whatever we may think of the over-rated Mallic (or however the hell it’s spelt), shooting Days of Heaven only during the magic hour was pretty out there. Plus … there were moments in The Thin Red Line that were, IMO, kinda magnificent (although this comment really has nothing to do with the blog in question, so I’m digressing a wee bit).

    Having said that, all this still wasn’t enough to break me out of my alcoholed-fuelled torpor to shuffle off to the cinema (or the DVD shop for that matter) to watch Tree of Life.

    As for Steve Miner, he’s in the “why bother?” category. I sat through his rejigged version of Day of the Dead and thought it was way below mediocre. And didn’t he do a shark thing at some point?

    Differentiating between F13 II and III (in 3D) is also problematic, as the franchise is total crap. I found part IV interesting, only because the “head sliding down the machette” climatic moment was heavily cut when originally shown here in Oz.

  14. Dan Grant Reply

    Well, to be honest, I’m a very big horror fan and I think Miner did a fantastic job on part and 3. I think he added a lot of style to them where as Cunningham’s original was fine but missing something imo.

  15. Neal Damiano Reply

    A fantastic list Dan, I could not of written it any better…nailed it. I agree with every second debut film on here. Glad to see Pulp Fiction, Breakfast Club, and Terminater on the list exceptional second films from these directors . The only film I would of included is Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Other than that hats off to a great List!!

  16. Dan Grant Reply

    Thanks for the kind words Neal.

    You are absolutely correct about Boyle. Trainspotting is an incredible film and it could have made the list. There are literally dozens of directors that could have been on here. That’s what makes the conversation so much fun.

  17. Neal Damiano Reply

    Well deserved my friend…..great list here. Danny Boyle’s first film is amazing as well – Shallow Grave ( if haven’t seen I suggest it greatly)

  18. Bill Thompson Reply

    I’m not a fan of Pulp Fiction, Near Dark, The Breakfast Club, or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Otherwise, great list and I’d agree with the rest of the choices.

  19. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Bill, really……..are you a fan of film??

  20. Mark Reply

    @Neal … I think that’s a tad unfair; out of the four Bill highlighted, Pulp Fiction is the only one I’ve gone out of my way to watch repeatedly, and even then I sort of understand why people wouldn’t like it. Having said that, a couple of months ago I tried to retackle Texas Chainsaw after a 30 year break when I stumbled across a widescreen reissue on DVD (the negative still looked pretty crappy, though). For a number of reasons I didn’t make it to the end, although it jolted my memory a bit – I’d forgotten how much screen time passes before the guy in the wheelchair gets it; plus I remembered what a strangely effective visceral experience it really is. I still find it funny that it was pretty much totally dismissed by the US media upon its release as a Z grade schlocker, when in fact it was something that should have been taken far more seriously. Thank God for the revisionists.

    As for me, I do regard myself a film fan, but I really didn’t like The Matrix or Rocky II. As for The Terminator, I’ve remained a little less-than-ambivilent about it over the years, despite the fact I’ve lost count as to how many times I’ve watched number II.

    Whatever. I trust you are enjoying the current festive season. Look forward to your posts in 2014.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      @Mark,

      I just got around to this reply, fair enough but I can watch The Breakfast Club over and over. That movie never gets old to me. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a person that dislikes this film. But everyone has their opinion.

      I have to say all the movies Bill mentions they’re all good.

  21. Dan Grant Reply

    I too get surprised when I hear people don’t like Pulp Fiction but when someone dislikes The Matrix? Oh Mon Dieu. I’m at a loss for words.

  22. Dan Grant Reply

    I know this is a bit late but to Mark’s comment about the media ignoring Texas Chainsaw Massacre, keep in mind, horror has always been ignored by the media. But critics are not important when it comes to film. They just give their opinion like anyone else.

    The fact of the matter is TCM was an enormous hit. And the box office was mostly unreported. To this day, the official North American gross is listed at 30 million dollars and that is simply not true. It is said that some of the profits from the film Deepthroat are what provided the budget for TCM. It was financed by the same company, basically a front for the mob. TCM is rumoured to have made it well past 100 million dollars but box office tracking was much more cryptic back then. There was no boxofficemojo.com, no Rentrak and so on. My whole point to this is that TCM was a much much bigger hit than what you seem to make it out to be.

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