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10 Strong Directorial Debuts From Actors-Turned-Directors

10 Strong Directorial Debuts From Actors-Turned-Directors

This week, after a limited but promising initial release, Lake Bell’s directorial debut “In A World” is due to expand and distributors Roadside Attractions have good reason to hope that it will mirror the success of other Sundance breakouts like “Fruitvale Station” and “The Way, Way Back.” Regardless of how it performs financially it’s already firmly a critical favorite, with our own [A-] review suggesting that “while the film is hysterical, its real strength lies in the way it is able to deal with an issue like sexism in the [Hollywood voiceover] industry and work it out in a funny, honest and very real way.” And 34-year-old triple threat writer/director/star Bell can count it as a more or less unmitigated triumph on all three fronts, most impressive considering that after just a couple of short films this is her very first directorial feature.

Of course as an actor-turned-director she follows a very well-trodden path. Some stick with it to become better known in the latter role like Ron Howard, Rob Reiner or Sofia Coppola; some seem to scratch the itch and don’t necessarily long to get behind the camera again (Tom Hanks, John Malkovich); while others occasionally dabble but never stray too far from the day job (Al Pacino, Stanley Tucci, Steve Buscemi); and still others achieve the kind of fame in both areas that means they’ll be Oscar-winning hyphenates forever (Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson). It remains to be seen where on that spectrum Bell will eventually carve her niche, though we’re already fans and hope that “In A World…” will open up doors not only to future writing and directing gigs, but also might put her back the radar for something other than The Wisecracking Best Friend role that she tends to be relegated to in Hollywood films.

Back on topic, Bell’s strong inaugural directing gig got us to thinking about other times an actor has decided they want to call the shots but rather than focus on those aforementioned names that we’re all already familiar with, we thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about some of the more contemporary examples. Therefore we’ve limited our list to established actors who made their directorial debuts within the last 10 years—discounting shorts, documentaries, TV movies, co-directing credits or omnibus entries. Here are ten of the strongest films/directors that met our criteria.

Ben Affleck — “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)
If anyone is the recent poster boy for the move from acting to direction it’s Ben Affleck, who pulled himself out of a wilderness period in the early noughts in which he starred in a string of turkeys (“Gobble, gobble”) to emerge as a seemingly fully-formed director (with a minor in Boston-set dramas) with 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone.” Based on the Dennis Lehane bestseller, for our money the story takes a twist too many in the final act (it’s something we’re not too fond of in Lehane adaptations “Shutter Island” and “Mystic River” either) which somewhat undercuts the restraint and intelligence that has characterized it up to then. But from a directorial standpoint the film is largely a triumph. The dark, psychologically and morally complex story revolves around a low-rent Bostonian girlfriend/boyfriend detective team who are hired to investigate the disappearance of a little girl, and the conflict that arises between them and the police and media surrounding the case.

The performances are just stellar, from Ben’s brother Casey compounding his extraordinary 2007 (his other role that year was the by-all-rights career-making turn in Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), to the sympathetic and restrained-as-ever Morgan Freeman, to a bristling, brilliant turn from Ed Harris as the abrasive Remy Bressant, and a perfectly judged performance from Amy Ryan as the girl’s junkie mom. But as good as the performances he marshals are, Affleck’s really impressive talent is in creating mood and tone: an atmosphere of murky moral ambiguities in which no relationship is simple and right and wrong are not so much blurred as laid on top of one another, as ambivalent and indivisible as two sides of a coin. Affleck has since gone on to other directing successes with “The Town” and Best Picture winner “Argo,” but his hot-ticket status as a director, and of course the fact he has cast himself in those latter two films to good effect has also led to some high-profile acting gigs. Once the latest of those—the lead in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”—has wrapped, Affleck is expected to settle back into the director’s chair, going back to the Lehane adaptation well for “Live by Night” in which he will also star.

Tommy Lee Jones — “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005)
Criminally overlooked at the U.S. box office, Tommy Lee Jones’ theatrical debut (he had directed a TV movie prior) is an absolutely riveting and agonising modern-day western that deals with lofty themes of morality, intolerance, male violence and redemption with consummate grace and intelligence. Winning Best Actor and Best Screenplay (for regular Inarritu collaborator Guillermo Arriaga) at Cannes where it played In Competition, we’ll never really understand why this film wasn’t also recognised by the Academy, which just a few years later would shower the (also brilliant, obviously) Jones-starrer “No Country for Old Men” with every award around. It may not have quite the same punch as the Coens’ movie, but it comes pretty damn close.

Told elliptically, using skillfully looped flashbacks that show us the same event sometimes a few times over but never redundantly, ‘Burials’ tells the story of Pete (Jones), a rancher in a dead end town in Texas whose best friend, the titular illegal immigrant cowhand Estrada, is shot and killed as a result of an overreaction by border patrolman Norton (the great and usually underused Barry Pepper, here getting a real role and rising to the occasion). Trying to fulfill a promise he made to Estrada, Pete kidnaps Norton, and along with the exhumed body they travel to Mexico to bury Estrada in his hometown (shades of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” abound). But the surreality of the encounters along the way, the shifting relationship between the two living men, and the skillful pen portraits of the women left in the awful vapidity of the small Texas town (January Jones and Melissa Leo) lift the film out of the realm of simple quest movie and onto the plane of parable, acutely observed with a kind of detatched intelligence that belies its strong, uncompromising moral streak. It’s lovely and sometimes chilling to look at too, and perfectly judged by Jones both as a performer and as a director. We couldn’t be more eager for his next theatrical outing “The Homesman,” which also tackles an on-the-trail story and stars Jones, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep and Hilary Swank amongst a stacked, enviable cast.

Sarah Polley “Away from Her” (2006)
From “Road to Avonlea” to Zack Snyder’s “Dawn Of The Dead,” child actor-turned-adult-actor-turned-writer/director Sarah Polley ran the gamut of acting roles before she began her directorial career. But even factoring in the experience she may have gained working alongside auteurs like Terry Gilliam, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and many more, we couldn’t have been quite prepared for just how preternaturally good she is at filmmaking. Nominated for two Academy Awards (including Best Adapted Screenplay), Polley’s debut is incredibly mature, extremely well-composed and devastatingly touching. An adaptation of Alice Munro‘s short story “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” “Away From Her” stars Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent as an elderly couple whose marriage is tested when the female half begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s and has to enter a nursing home. It’s heartbreakingly wrenching stuff; the kind of drama that’s attentive to and considerate of genuinely real human emotion and interaction. As her exceptional recent follow-up films “Take This Waltz” and the documentary “Stories We Tell” demonstrate (two films many of us adore), Polley has become one of the most thoughtful and impressive directors of her generation and at this pace, if she keeps it up, her intelligent and absorbing approach to filmmaking is going to place her up there among the modern greats—the next generation of them anyway.

Ralph Fiennes — “Coriolanus” (2011)
A brutal, brilliantly imagined restaging of one of Shakespeare’s less heralded plays, Ralph Fiennes revealed himself as as much a Shakespearean scholar as an actor with this endlessly surprising and inventive directorial debut. Keeping the original language and creating a parallel, modern-day Roman state in which to have the action play out, are both audacious decisions that require not just a thorough but a highly creative understanding of the source material, not to mention a cast able to navigate the archaic language to make it feel fresh and to lay its meaning bare. Fiennes succeeds on both levels here, finding astonishing tenors of contemporary relevance that satirize everything from media spin (special mention to real-life TV anchor Jon Snow tackling the 16th/17th-Century dialogue like a pro) to modern warfare to political hypocrisy, and stacking his cast with actors who can shrug off the anachronistic vocabulary and deliver its bitter jokes and grandiose soliloquies with ease. This fluency normalizes the language and makes their characters’ intentions and motivations clear, which is vital, because these are anything but stock characters—the titular Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most ambivalent, compromised “heroes,” trapped endlessly in the contradiction that while he is unshakably certain of his rectitude and of being the warrior the Roman people need, he can never be the man they want. Fiennes is astounding, bloodsoaked and rigid and choleric, but good as Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain and even Gerard Butler (who’d have thought?) are in their various roles also, the film’s real MVP is Vanessa Redgrave in a titanic turn as Coriolanus’ more cunning but no less ruthless mother, Volumnia.

There is much to nourish the brain here but the film is not without its flaws, most notably a certain staginess around the “people of Rome” sections in which perhaps budget, but more likely a nod to the story’s theatrical origins has the same four or five citizens pop up time and again as almost a chorus: where for the most part Fiennes makes admirable, cinematic use of the medium, in those segments it feels slightly airless and artificial. But that’s really a small niggle compared to the overall scope of Fiennes’ achievement his first time at bat—“Coriolanus” was never going to be an easy sell to audiences and in no way panders, but those willing to invest have an incredibly rich, rewarding and compelling experience in store. (Our original review is here)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt — “Don Jon” (2013)
Considering his output on venues like his own multi-media universe hitRECord where he’s made several short films, it was probably only a matter of time before Joseph Gordon-Levitt directed his own feature (which he also wrote). An examination of sex and love via the consumption of pornography and how media images taint our experience and expectations about both, Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” is for all intents and purposes a kind of romantic comedy that uses a smart, funny and entertaining approach to some of the headier subjects that you’re used to seeing in this genre. At the same time, this ain’t no thesis and perhaps some of its brilliance is that you could easily enjoy the film for its more obvious pleasures and not see the texture below the surface. Formerly known as “Don Jon’s Addiction” when it premiered at Sundance early this year, JGL himself stars as the titular lead, an objectifying Jersey lothario who’s addicted to pornography. He chases tail and always gets it, but things change when he meets two distinctly different women—a Jersey goddess (Scarlett Johansson) and a happy-go-lucky but damaged divorcee (Julianne Moore)—who both inadvertently teach him something about sex and love. Our review from Sundance called the film “a charming, assured and impressive directorial debut,” and it’s exactly that, plus funny and utterly entertaining to boot. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but that’s not the point and it’s surely the first of many features Gordon-Levitt will eventually deliver.

Angelina Jolie — “In the Land of Blood and Honey” (2011)
Despite her undoubted status as one half of the most powerful/glamorous acting couple in Hollywood Angelina Jolie had already developed, by the time of her 2011 directing debut, a reputation for political engagement and a very unfrivolous sincerity when it came to her work as a UN ambassador and as a spokesperson for various international humanitarian causes. This meant, if anything, that critical knives were drawn and sharpened with even greater anticipation when she announced that her first film, written and directed by her, would be a love story spanning religious, ethnic and national divides, set during the Bosnian War. I mean, just who does she think she is, right? Undoubtedly the result is not without issues (and there is a rift in our ranks as to whether the central “Romeo and Juliet“-style love story actually works at all), Jolie’s good intentions, her level of craft in many areas and her sheer outright ballsiness in attempting such a thankless film have to be admired. The war she focused on, while underreported by western media at the time, is still an open, festering wound in the region in which it occurred, and, while there are storytelling issues that run script-deep, she never attempted to Hollywood-ize the film, right down to casting local actors, many of whom had themselves lived through the events she evoked. Accusations of bias by the participants, toward one side or another were inevitable, but Jolie’s nerve held and she delivered a grimly compelling film that to an outside observer, especially one unfamiliar with the intricacies of the conflict, felt even-handed and unpatronizing in its politics.

It’s almost ironic that Jolie can deal in the thorny politics with such quiet confidence but it is her eye for human characterization that lets her down. Still, it’s encouraging that someone with so very much to lose can attempt something so overtly uncommercial—so obviously downright unpopular in fact. If the results are compromised it’s not at all for the reasons you might first think, and not because of any lack of intelligence or directorial sensitivity on her part. When she gains in experience as a screenwriter, or perhaps takes on someone else’s script, there’s certainly no shortage of directorial talent and no lack of chutzpah on display here.

Thomas McCarthy – “The Station Agent” (2003)
Following the story of a quiet, withdrawn dwarf who inherits an abandoned train yard and then falls in love with a lovely but confused 20-something female while reluctantly befriending an amiable Cuban/American Jersey goofball and a housewife going through a breakdown, it’s easy for some to dismiss “The Station Agent” as the kind of quirky indie that’s just too light and precious to be substantial. But underneath this whimsical-sounding premise is an exceptional cast of actors who play together like a tight and intuitive powerhouse quartet, as well as an actor-turned-director with a sharp eye and ear for tone and dialogue, and a thoughtful story that’s delicate, poignant, emotional and despite the apparently contrived trappings, recognizably authentic. Starring Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister from “Game Of Thrones”), Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams and, in a hilarious scene-stealing turn, Bobby Cannavale (“Boardwalk Empire“), “The Station Agent” is a little movie; its largest stakes are friendships and broken hearts, but its sweetness, humanity and well-placed humor belies just how big and how wise its heart is. McCarthy avoids the pitfalls of quirkiness and sentimentality to produce what is probably among the best-realized versions of what that film can ever be. He would go on to direct “Win Win” and what some consider the superior “The Visitor,” but this writer would argue “The Station Agent” is just as heartfelt and worthwhile; a superb little examination of loneliness that’s effortlessly charming and endlessly watchable.

Diego Luna — “Abel” (2010)
A minor festival circuit hit in 2010, Diego Luna’s fiction feature directorial debut, following his boxing documentary “JC Chavez,” is a highly original and unusual story that compensates for a slightly rookie-ish unevenness of tone with its overall charm and touching performances, especially from the film’s juvenile lead. With odd shades of Jonathan Glazer’s offbeat “Birth,” though played lighter and more as family/social satire than gothic psychodrama, the narrative details a young, psychologically troubled boy (the terrifically winsome Christopher Ruiz-Esparza) who is allowed home from a psychiatric institution as a test and who begins to take on the mannerisms and personality of the head of the family (his real father is a deadbeat absentee patriarch who has more or less abandoned his wife and children). The opportunities for comedy are well mined, as the 9-year-old wears his father’s clothes, vets his siblings’ schoolwork and even interrogates his older sister’s boyfriend, and Luna even manages to rescue the potentially oogie moments when Abel behaves as a husband toward his mother (Karina Gidi, negotiating a very tricky role with great compassion).

But the tragic and upsetting side of Abel’s condition is never too far away from the surface, and as light a touch as Luna displays in many of the film’s more amusing segments, he never makes light of the fundamental sadness at the heart of this broken family. The return of the real father, and the clear inference that he perhaps is a less suitable role model than his mentally disturbed 9-year-old son, is the event that sets the cat among the pigeons and marks the shift of the film from quirky comedy to something sharper, sadder and darker. While some of the seesawing in the final act feels a little too contrived, it’s to the film’s credit that it never becomes predictable and never goes for the easy option. In the few years since, Luna has become an in-demand director, currently attached to several projects: his biopic of Cesar Chavez starring Michael Pena and Rosario Dawson is due imminently, while he is also at work on his third featureMr Pig,” and signed on to helm, produce and star in a 26-hour series called “La Nina Mala” for Mexican TV. Meantime, of course, you can catch him onscreen in Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” in theaters now.

Casey Affleck — “I’m Still Here” (2010)
Casey Affleck seems to be gearing back up for another busy period, signing on to “Out Of The Furnace” and Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” recently, and of course leading this week’s wonderful “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” but he reportedly needed a bit of a breather after directing the faux-documentary “I’m Still Here.” Effectively sold as a lie to the public and media (and the latter is not famous for enjoying being duped, and will roast you for it later), “I’m Still Here” was positioned as a documentary about the increasingly eccentric behavior and unthinkable career trajectory of actor Joaquin Phoenix. The three-time Academy Award-nominated actor famously went on “Late Show with David Letterman” to announce that he had “quit” acting, grew a scraggly madman beard and declared that he was going to launch a hip-hop career. And so Phoenix dropped out of movies for almost two years while the actor played the part of “Joaquin Phoenix,” a hirsute freak of ever-enlarging girth who behaved strangely, unpredictably and even violently when he showed up in public. Was fame getting to him? Was he addicted to drugs? Having a slow mental breakdown in public? On the eve of the film’s release, Affleck and Phoenix admitted that it was none of the above, and “I’m Still Here,” was essentially a hoax—Phoenix was fine and the brothers-in-law (Affleck is married to Phoenix’s sister) had created a rather brilliant Andy Kaufman-esque art project/prank about celebrity and the nature of reality TV, the media and those who consume it. If anything their commitment to this project was absolutely staggering (Phoenix alone turned down several million dollars in acting opportunities along the way), and as for the movie itself? Well, it works, whether you know the gag or not, as a fascinating, funny exploration of a man in a veritable train wreck of psychological distress. Appearances by P.Diddy, Mos Def and Spacehog guitarist Antony Langdon (a friend of Phoenix’s) are hilarious and Phoenix delivers a tour-de-force performance as the fabricated worst version of himself possible. Both Phoenix and Affleck had to lay low for at least a few months to let the media anger subside, but if you’re over being had (and we never understood that rage, to be honest), “I’m Still Here” is an excellent, convincing and prescient look at a lost soul desperate for spiritual rebirth in exactly the kind of environment that will never allow it. And it’s also a well-made film, suggesting that while Casey’s instincts may be more provocative, Ben is not the only Affleck with a future behind the camera.

Paddy Considine — “Tyrannosaur” (2011)
If you need any kind of evidence to back up the rather obvious claim that actors who become directors are often actors’ directors, you need look no further than Paddy Considine’s blistering debut, “Tyrannosaur.” It’s one thing to get career-best performances from your whole cast, but quite another when you consider that one of them is brilliant-every-single-time character actor Eddie Marsan, and another the peerless Peter Mullan, who burned through Jane Campion’s recent series “Top of the Lake” with another scorching portrait of a man for whom violence comes as naturally as breathing. But as amazing as those two great actors are in roles that feel written organically for their strengths (Considine also wrote the screenplay), the film still has an ace up its sleeve in the shattering performance from Olivia Colman. She is ostensibly the film’s warmth, heart and redemptive hope, only she gradually and totally believably reveals just how irreparably broken she is too. Considine’s power as a writer and director is to absolutely control what the audience knows and where our attention lies at any one point in time, and so the sleight of hand that occurs in the final act is devastatingly effective—blindsiding us even as it comes as an absolutely natural progression of the storyline. The film is very much not for the faint hearted and the disenfranchised North of England lives it features seem trapped in a despairing, ceaseless cycle of alcoholism, violence, viciousness and cruelty. But the film is ultimately about a kind of redemption, so dark and twisted that it could never be recognised as such by anyone not knitted into the story. Considine’s direction is so measured and the performances so unforgettably mesmeric that you are totally submerged in this grim world with topsy turvy morals, and so the film avoids the straight-up miserabilism or depressiveness that it could fall into and by some incredible feat of storytelling, actually manages to lift your pierced heart at its conclusion. We’re huge fans of Considine as an actor too, but on this evidence we very much hope that his next mooted directorial project, “The Years of the Locust” also comes together sooner rather than later. (Original “Tyrannosaur” review here)

Honorable Mentions
Narrowly missing out on a spot on the list was Zach Braff‘s debut “Garden State,” because whatever one thinks of him more recently (and yes, his Kickstarter campaign got up a lot of noses), the film itself is a charming three-hander that is unfairly damned in retrospect for having captured the indie zeitgeist so well at the time. Charles Dance‘s “Ladies in Lavender” (sunk, we have to believe, by that terribly fusty name) is actually a weird and well-crafted drama featuring great performances, while Clark Gregg‘s “Choke,” Dustin Hoffmann‘s “Quartet,” and Vera Farmiga‘s “Higher Ground” also provide some strong acting showcases, but perhaps fall just a little too flat elsewhere for us to get super excited about.

John Krasinski‘s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” has an absolutely amazing cast (amongst whom Bobby Cannavale and Christopher Meloni are particularly memorable) but its talky, Neil LaBute-lite take on the David Foster Wallace short story collection lacks real punch, while Luke and Andrew Wilson‘s debut “The Wendell Baker Story” is almost parodically Wilsonian (it stars Luke and Owen) in its likability, but so insubstantial as to be completely forgettable. And this writer has a soft spot for Drew Barrymore‘s roller derby movie “Whip It,” but we can’t make any particular claims for its greatness.

And the rest
Some others we excluded on the grounds of the directors not being hugely well known as actors, at least Stateside, prior to directing: Richard Ayoade‘s “Submarine” and Andrea Arnold‘s “Red Road” were both not listed for this reason, despite both being definite favorites of ours. Lena Dunham technically qualifies, but again, we don’t feel she was fully established as an actress prior to becoming a writer/director, just as someone like Madonna was not best known as an actress before directing and, let’s face it, “W.E.” wouldn’t have got within shouting distance of our top ten anyway. Hyphenated hyphenate James Franco‘s debut according to his IMDb page is something called “Fool’s Gold” (2005) but it’s unavailable, so we did our duty and watch the same year’s “The Ape” instead, which is time we’ll never get back: suffice to say as exhausting as it is to keep up with Franco’s output, he’s come a long, long way as a filmmaker.

But if Lake Bell is right now the most recent example of an actor taking the reins, she’s not going to be for long. Ryan Gosling‘s “How to Catch a Monster” is due in 2014, Keanu Reeves‘ “Man of Tai Chi” is still awaiting a U.S. release (as is Jean Dujardin‘s “The Players“) and Jason Bateman‘s “Bad Words” will premiere at TIFF 2013. Who have we missed? Who do you think made the leap most successfully and who do you wish would stay on the other side of the camera? Tell us below. — Jessica Kiang and Rodrigo Perez

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