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.