Zach Braff surprised his “Scrubs” fans with his endearing directorial debut “Garden State” that went on to become an indie sensation after world premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Turns out the funnyman could not only act, but also direct like he’d been doing it for years. He’s finally back in theaters with his sophomore feature “Wish I Was Here,” which opens in select theaters this Friday, so now’s a better time than ever to look back on some of the best, and some of the worst, films directed by folks better known for their acting careers. Let us know your own picks in the comments section.
“Don Jon,” Dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one incredibly charismatic guy. Still, few could have predicted just how assured his directorial debut “Don Jon” would be. Energetic and wonderfully acted, “Don Jon,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to rave responses, also boasts Gordon-Levitt’s best performance to date as Jersey boy, Jon Martello, a modern day Don Juan who loves his porn a little too much. Gordon-Levitt gave the film all he’s got. The script, which he also penned, is incisive about the effect of porn on society and hilarious when it needs to be. The performances he draws from his supporting cast, particularly from a scene-stealing Scarlett Johansson as his needy girlfriend, are pitch perfect across the board. And it’s just a total breeze to watch.
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“Easy Rider,” Dir. Dennis Hopper
A road movie not quite like anything before or since, “Easy Rider” could be seen as the definitive movie of its era, a time in cinematic history when depictions of male archetypes were shifting. Just as Newman and Redford’s iconic Butch and Sundance were the late-’60s reincarnations of the silent western heroes of yesteryear, Peter Fonda and director Dennis Hopper’s biker duo were so unapologetically modern that they still come off the screen as if they were contemporary heroes today. Beyond reflecting the revolutionized social scene and the ever-shifting movie culture, “Easy Rider” sparked the legend of its three primary stars. The third of these is, of course, Jack Nicholson, who would become the American movie star of the next fifteen years, and whose finest moment was perhaps in the form of a physical and audio response to taking a swig, his wide mouth and imposing eyes putting those around him into states of alarm, setting the tone for the style that would make him a historic screen presence.
“Gone Baby Gone,” Dir. Ben Affleck
“One of the most common questions that people get asked in their lives,” Affleck once said, “is a simple one, ‘Where are you from?’ Well, I’ve always been extremely proud of my answer. I’m from Boston.” His three writing credits (including “Good Will Hunting” and “The Town”) feature the city as an equally important character as any of the actual players. “Gone Baby Gone” is based on a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote the source material for “Mystic River”). Rather than cast himself in the lead, as he did on the other two plus Oscar-winner “Argo,” Affleck gave his talented younger brother Casey the role of a detective who endures personal and professional crises during his case to find a missing girl. Affleck’s gifts for direction were on display in his debut effort, which contains a dreary, watercolor atmosphere and superb performances by Casey as well as Ed Harris and Michelle Monaghan. The potential was on display that would grow into his universal acclaim of “Argo.”
“Good Night and Good Luck,” Dir. George Clooney
When no one else seemed to want to make “Good Night and Good Luck,” the story of iconic broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney would not stop pressing. The result was him taking the reigns to himself, starring in a supporting role, writing the screenplay and ultimately, directing the picture. The film earned six Oscar nominations, including nominations for Clooney both in the screenplay and directing categories. This was an important picture for someone like Clooney to champion. Murrow, played by David Straitharn, was responsible for covering a variety of historic moments including the World War II attack on London, but “Good Night and Good Luck” focuses on something more dear to the industry. Murrow challenged Senator Joseph McCarthy like no other journalist would while McCarthy was tainting Hollywood and ruining careers of talented filmmakers assumed to be engaging in communist activity. These people made up the infamous Hollywood Blacklist.
“In a World…,” Dir. Lake Bell
For most, going from acting to directing is a pretty difficult transition. But “In A World…,” a comedy by the always likable Lake Bell, proves that it can be done. The film, which also stars Bell as the main character, follows a vocal coach who wants to do voice-over work for film trailers. The film is hilarious, clever and one of the most poignant pictures released last year. Not only is it an onscreen showcase for Bell, a standout in almost every project, but a behind-the-scenes one too. She directed and wrote the feature, which won a screenplay award at Sundance.
“Into the Wild,” Dir. Sean Penn
John Krakauer’s enriching investigation into the life and death of a man who called himself Alexander Supertramp was required reading in high schools long before Sean Penn decided to give the epic true story a big screen treatment. Starring Emile Hirsch in the lead as a wayward college student turned full-time hitchhiker Chris McCandless, Penn’s episodic screenplay seems to pay homage not only to the explorer, but to the everyday folks he meets along the way. Also directed by Penn, “Into the Wild” co-stars Hal Holbrook (who earned an Oscar nod for the film), Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart and Jenna Malone. Penn’s partnership with Hirsch would reshape into that of co-stars in “Milk,” one of Penn’s most celebrated roles.
“The Station Agent,” Dir. Thomas McCarthy
Although Thomas McCarthy has had supporting roles in “Meet the Parents” and “Syriana” — among others — directing “The Station Agent” is what helped him break through and gain recognition as an artist with a specific vision of his own. The film, which stars Peter Dinklage, centers on a man who finds solace in an abandoned railway station. McCarthy won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay and his film, “The Station Agent,” has been universally acclaimed by critics from across the industry.
“Stories We Tell,” Dir. Sarah Polley
Perhaps because she was born into a show business family — her mother, who died when she was 11, was a stage actor and casting director — it was only a matter of time until Sarah Polley refined her gift of emotional nuance into a directing career. Last year, she helmed her greatest achievement thus far, “Stories We Tell,” a non-linear investigation into human narrative by way of Polley’s own family history. The film weaves together interviews with relatives, friends and strangers from her mother’s past in an attempt to uncover her mother’s identity, the secrets of her parents’ marriage, and, ultimately, Polley’s own paternity (which is called into question at the beginning of the film). By prying into the nitty-gritty personal details of her own family history, Polley makes the specific the universal. “Stories We Tell” toys with the notion of documentary with re-creations of past events casting actors in the roles of Polley’s family. The vast network of interpersonal fabrications, assumptions, and contradictions assemble into an elaborate story told to understand what we can never truly know: each other.
“Tell No One,” Dir. Guillaume Canet
French actor Guillaume Canet has made his fair share of films now (including the ensemble drama “Little White Lies” and his critically panned English language debut “Blood Ties”), but none compare to his bracing sophomore feature, “Tell No One.” The acclaimed French thriller centers on a doctor, who eight years following the murder of his wife, finds himself implicated in a double homicide. Things get even weirder when he receives an e-mail from his thought to be dead wife. Canet, who co-wrote the script, keeps the twists coming at a breakneck pace, yet it never feels contrived thanks to the expert precision of his direction and the deeply felt performance by French star Francois Cluzet in the lead role.
And five of the worst…
“Beyond the Sea,” Dir. Kevin Spacey
Everyone loves Kevin Spacey, but loving the acclaimed actor doesn’t mean that everything he does is great. We’re talking about his 2004 directorial effort “Beyond the Sea,” a biographical film about singer/actor Bobby Darin. The film, which was written and also stars Spacey was a pretty ambitious endeavor, weaving in fictional elements into Darin’s real life experiences. Nevertheless, risk-taking didn’t really pay off, and the film was mostly seem by critics as shallow, a picture that took itself too seriously. “Beyond The Sea,” the second film that Spacey directed after the pretty lackluster “Albino Alligator” is an example of why we should all stick to what we are good at.
“The Broken Tower,” Dir. James Franco
James Franco’s directorial efforts have yet to be wholly embraced by critics, but one of his earlier ones, “The Broken Tower,” stands out as his worst to date. It is a student film, so it feels semi-wrong to harp on it too much. Still, Focus World released it into theaters given it’s a James Franco joint, so trashing it is fair play. Conceived of on the set of Nicolas Cage’s debut “Sonny” (which also coincidentally made the “worst” cut), “The Broken Tower” stars Franco as gay poet Hart Crane in an experimental black and white feature that tries to play like Crane’s poetry (meaning it strives to be challenging and provocative), but just comes across as pretentious and a bit of a snooze despite its brief 90-minute running time.
“I’m Still Here,” Dir. Casey Affleck
While his brother continues to make a mark in the directing world, Casey Affleck’s first effort, the mockumentary “I’m Still Here,” is a difficult one to call good. The film chronicles Joaquin Phoenix’s supposed retirement from acting in favor of a hip hop career. It’s a pretty confusing endeavor for Affleck, who had maintained a pretty solid acting career (“Gone Baby Gone,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) prior to taking on this film. It’s a film that’s not entirely committed to the prank either way and comes off as a trivial art piece.
“Man of Tai Chi,” Dir. Keanu Reeves
For all the flack Keanu Reeves takes, it’s amazing he’s still willing to put himself out there again and again in new, varying fashions within the world of film. He produced and starred in his first documentary in 2012, “Side by Side,” about digital video vs. film. The director-heavy doc earned much acclaim (though, unfairly, not much of it was given to Reeves), and the actor best known for action flicks tried to apply the craft to his own fight film, “Man of Tai Chi” a year later. It seemed like a logical progression for him to move behind the camera as a director, right? Wrong. “The Man of Tai Chi” is an interesting experimental film — if you can see it that way after learning about the various technical feats that went into the shoot — but it’s ultimately brought under by distractingly bad acting and a predictable, fight-heavy story. It’s almost as if Reeves tried to do too much with the camera in order to make up for the rest of it. A big fan of independent film, Reeves should consider a more scaled down character study, a la “My Own Private Idaho” or “Henry’s Crime,” for his next venture. That way he can learn Directing 101 before jumping to the advanced class.
“Sonny,” Dir. Nicolas Cage
James Franco stars as a male prostitute-turned soldier who, after
being honorably discharged from service, tries to avoid being sucked
back into the prostitution business by his mother. With Nicholas Cage at
its helm, what could possibly go wrong? Everything and nothing, all at
once. In his review of the film, A.O. Scott described “Sonny” as
“emotionally incoherent.” Although the absence of clarity works against
the film as a standalone work, in comparing it to the inarticulate and
unstable characters Cage oftentimes played at the height of his career
— particularly, Hi McDunnough in “Raising Arizona” and Ronny Cammarreri
in “Moonstruck” — it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Cage the actor struggled to express ideas clearly upon taking his place in the director’s chair.
[Editor’s Note: Emily Buder, Eric Eidelstein, Shipra Gupta, Brandon Latham, Nigel M Smith and Ben Travers contributed to this article.]