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.