The 10 Cinematic Debuts That Defined the Decade

Best Debuts of the Decade

(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)

The decade, arguably more than any other, created seismic revolutionary shifts in the way we perceive and consume film. Superheroes solidified their rank as huge box office juggernauts, and Disney continued their theatrical reign, but the rise of streaming services and VOD altered how audiences approached cinema. Hollywood studios were increasing distribution rights for their films and TV programs to Internet companies over traditional channels. More importantly, the digital age opened up the doors for new voices. Actors, screenwriters, and directors that made their grand debut over the decade and captivated our attention. Emerging talent that made an impact and defined the 2010s in film. These ten debuts shaped the decade in surprising ways. 

John Boyega

10. John Boyega – Attack the Block

John Boyega became a household name thanks to his turn as plucky protagonist Finn in the new Star Wars trilogy. It was through Boyega’s debut performance, though, that he rose to prominence in his native UK and impressed J.J. Abrams enough to cast him in The Force Awakens. It makes sense; both Finn and Attack the Block’s Moses make for unlikely heroes. Boyega’s performance as the stoic, guarded, and resourceful leader of a teen gang garnered him praise, rightfully so. He navigated the humor, satire, and action-packed sequences of Joe Cornish’s script with effortless ease. Attack the Block’s success, at least from a critical standpoint, owes as much to Boyega’s performance as it does Cornish’s clever script and direction. It’s not surprising at all that it led to Boyega becoming one of the decade’s most prominent stars.

9. Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl

Adapted for the screen from her bestselling novel, Gone Girl marks Flynn’s screenwriting debut. In a decade full of complicated depictions of women, Flynn presents an unflinching look at the dark side of femininity. She retooled the unique, intricate structure of her 500-page novel to deliver a compelling thriller brought to life by director David Fincher and actress Rosamund Pike. Gone Girl made a huge splash at the box office and collected a bevy of accolades, many for Flynn’s screenplay. Flynn’s brand of damaged women continued with her HBO series Sharp Objects and crime thriller Widows, which she co-wrote with Steve McQueen. Flynn’s twisted take on the cool-girl archetype didn’t just launch her film career; it created a phenomenon. 

8. Ari Aster – Hereditary

One of the most defining film distributors and producers of the decade is A24, an indie darling company with a dedicated fanbase due to unique marketing strategies and an uncanny ability to select quality projects and voices. So, it’s no small feat that Ari Aster’s debut toppled all the impressive films in their catalog to become the highest-grossing film domestically for the company. In Hereditary, never has a portrayal of grief been so utterly chilling or as shocking. Aster’s distinct blend of family drama with old school horror struck a major chord with critics and audiences, and contributed to the major wave of “elevated horror.” So much so that A24 immediately fast-tracked his follow-up feature, Midsommar

7. Alex Garland – Ex Machina

It’s been one hell of a decade for sci-fi, and Alex Garland is at the forefront. While he began his career as a novelist turned screenwriter, with notable films like DreddSunshine, and Never Let Me Go, his directorial debut marked a notable and innovative new chapter for the vital voice. A stylish and cerebral thriller, Ex Machina packs a lot of weighty ideas into a claustrophobic thriller that feels far bigger and more visually sumptuous than its relatively small budget. It didn’t just earn Garland an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay; it boosted the career of actress Alicia Vikander, who earned numerous award nominations for her complex portrayal as Ava. Ex Machina led to the even more ambitious and visually awe-inducing Annihilation for Garland, and he isn’t slowing down any time soon.

John Wick 2 Shoot Date

6. Chad Stahelski – John Wick

One of the most exhilarating action franchises to emerge from the decade, hands down, is John Wick. Sleek, stylish, and endlessly thrilling, John Wick is made all the more remarkable in that it’s a directorial debut feature. Granted, if anyone would be able to deliver a new hero for the ages, who better than stunt extraordinaire and martial arts expect Chad Stahelski. It turns out that it was his work as martial arts stunt coordinator on The Matrix series that landed him the gig. Once Keanu Reeves had been secured to play the eponymous antihero, he sought out Stahelski, having wanted to choreograph action sequences with him since The Matrix. Not that Reeves had ever stepped away from the spotlight, but John Wick inspired a sort of Reeves renaissance and kickstarted a brilliant directorial career for Stahelski.

5. Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

After years of garnering attention on the mumblecore scene and collaborating on numerous features with her partner Noah Baumbach, Gerwig struck out on her own to deliver a solo directorial debut, an autobiographical coming-of-age comedy that resonates. With Lady Bird, Gerwig deftly captured the ‘90s and struck a delicate balance between thoughtful sophistication and the awkwardness of adolescence. The highest-grossing film domestically for A24, at least until Hereditary came along, Lady Bird earned a striking collection of accolades, including five Academy Award nominations. 

4. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Just out of college with her master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama, Nyong’o landed her first role in a feature film; Patsey in Steve McQueen’s historical drama 12 Years a Slave. Her performance as Patsey, a young slave who’s become the object of obsession for sadistic cotton plantation Master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is easily one of the most riveting and arresting acting debuts of all time. A powerful and multifaceted portrayal, Nyong’o devastated audiences with her heartbreaking portrayal of the historical figure. More than just a soul-shattering breakthrough performance, she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role. From there, Nyong’o has appeared in Star Wars, the MCU, and Disney films- rounding out the trifecta of the box office’s most dominating properties. An inspiring double turn in Us, most recently, has created award rumblings as well. In other words, 12 Years a Slave is owed a debt for introducing us to one remarkable actor. 

3. Jennifer Lee – Frozen

One of Disney’s top-grossing films of the decade is responsible for two firsts; it’s screenwriter Jennifer Lee’s directorial debut, and it’s also the first time a female has directed a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film. Initially pulled in by Phil Johnston to co-write Wreck-It Ralph, she was asked to stay on board and see the film through completion. That led to her getting involved with writing Frozen, which she helped transition from an action-adventure film into a musical comedy adventure that little girls everywhere could relate to. It worked wonders. Frozen became an instant smash hit, grossing over one-billion worldwide at the box office, won numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and launched a franchise. As far as directorial debuts go, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. 

2. Jordan Peele – Get Out

Before 2017, Jordan Peele was already a decade deep in a prolific acting career in comedy. Just the year prior, Keanu marked the first feature to star Peele and his comedic partner Keegan-Michael Key as leads, a film Peele also co-wrote. All of this to say, no one anticipated just how much Peele’s directorial debut would impact the horror genre, let alone the box office. Peele infused his tightly-wound thriller with wit, intelligence, humor, and heart. Get Out is biting satire that entertains and frightens in equal measure. Critics and audiences alike ate it up, creating the highest-grossing film, domestically, directed by a black filmmaker. The film racked up a slew of award nominations and wins, including an Academy Award win for Best Original Screenplay for Peele. Get Out spurned critical reappraisal for an oft-maligned genre and attracted a wider audience than ever before. Between Peele’s debut and his follow-up, Us, it’s clear he’s only getting warmed up.

1. Ryan Coogler – Fruitvale Station

One of the most exciting modern directors, and to think that he’s only been at it for less than a decade. He began college on a football scholarship, and a professor encouraged him to pursue screenwriting. He wound up falling hard for cinema, and football’s loss became our gain. Coogler was a graduate student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts when Oscar Grant III was shot on January 1, 2009, inspiring him to make a film on Grant’s last day. It became the start of Fruitvale Station, a passionate call to arms and emotionally accomplished debut. From there, Coogler revitalized the Rocky franchise with Creed before breaking serious records with Black Panther. Coogler is carving out his legacy right before our eyes, and it began with one impressive debut in Fruitvale Station.

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