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10 Strong Directorial Debuts From Actors-Turned-Directors

Features
by The Playlist Staff
August 13, 2013 5:05 PM
41 Comments
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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.

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41 Comments

  • Jeff | September 3, 2013 11:16 AMReply

    "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)."

    Agreed with this assessment. There are quite a few (Robert Duvall, Tim Robbins, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth and Robert De Niro are prime examples) who venture into directing when they have a story they want to tell, one that won't be told unless they do so. But acting has always been their main thing, even if they prove themselves able behind the camera.

  • Stephen S. | August 29, 2013 5:10 AMReply

    How about Denzel Washington? I thought his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, was outstanding.

  • SaintSinner | August 28, 2013 9:00 PMReply

    Ethan Hawke's THE HOTTEST STATE is one of my favorite indie films as well.

  • SaintSinner | August 28, 2013 8:59 PMReply

    Mark Webber's EXPLICIT ILLS & THE END OF LOVE are great independent films from a solid young actor.

  • marie louidon | August 27, 2013 3:30 PMReply

    Ben affleck. THE TOWN !

  • Carole | August 26, 2013 12:55 AMReply

    Ben Affleck Gone Baby Gone - MY FAVORITE

  • Dan | August 22, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    Richard Ayoade's Submarine is like the best debut film by an actor ever.

  • elche | August 20, 2013 1:36 PMReply

    Todd Field and 'In the Bedroom'

  • M | August 18, 2013 5:26 AMReply

    where the fuck is mel gibson?

  • ^^ | August 22, 2013 4:25 AM

    No shit!

    Apocalypto is better than every film mentioned on this list.

  • ^^ | August 22, 2013 4:25 AM

    No shit!

    Apocalypto is better than every film mentioned on this list.

  • ^^ | August 22, 2013 4:22 AM

    No shit!

    Apocalypto is better than every film mentioned on this list.

  • ^^ | August 22, 2013 4:22 AM

    No shit!

    Apocalypto is better than every film mentioned on this list.

  • ^^ | August 22, 2013 4:22 AM

    No shit!

    Apocalypto is better than every film mentioned on this list.

  • lily | August 15, 2013 1:58 PMReply

    @1974 am sure you never saw the movie stupid haters.In the land of blood and honey was such a great move,very hard to watch but well done .Angelina did an awesome job the accolades the film recieved were well deserved and the movie is been used in universities to teach sexual violence in wars.She really has a good eye for a director looking forwed to unbroken

  • RR | August 15, 2013 10:52 AMReply

    I think Ben Affleck did a phenomenal job with Gone Baby Gone, but The Three Burials of... (I can't spell it) is a fantastic movie and Tommy Lee Jones goes above and beyond with it.

  • Casey | August 14, 2013 7:25 PMReply

    Robert Redford - Ordinary people. He won an Oscar.

  • ramses | August 14, 2013 2:26 PMReply

    KELLY I mean

  • ramses | August 14, 2013 2:25 PMReply

    GENE KELLE, On The Town

  • TheoC | August 14, 2013 3:48 AMReply

    Other commentors, they've gone for movies less than 10 years old so no Clooney or Charles Laughton and mostly have picked established actors, though I guess Tom McCarthy is an exception.

    If you actually read the intro paragraph these parameters are established!

  • TheoC | August 14, 2013 3:44 AMReply

    Great list, really enjoyable read. I like that you went for more recent stuff, and Whip It would have made my list purely for its like-ability.

  • Leonardo | August 14, 2013 12:00 AMReply

    Todd Field, George Clooney and Scott Cooper should be here.

  • Mr Fist | August 13, 2013 11:38 PMReply

    What about Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter? Granted it's his only directed work but still...

  • jimmiescoffee | August 13, 2013 10:44 PMReply

    'I'm Still Here' really is genius. phoenix gave arguably the best performance of all time. unfortunately it is beyond categorization.

  • Ram | August 13, 2013 8:49 PMReply

    De Niro - A Bronx Tale?

  • PA | August 13, 2013 8:40 PMReply

    I recently worked as a PA on two actor-turned-director movies, one by Chris Messina and the other is Helen Hunt. Both make great directors and both will be great movies.

  • PA | August 13, 2013 8:39 PMReply

    I recently worked as a PA on two actor-turned-director movies, one by Chris Messina and the other is Helen Hunt. Both make great directors and both will be great movies.

  • PA | August 13, 2013 8:39 PMReply

    I recently worked as a PA on two actor-turned-director movies, one by Chris Messina and the other is Helen Hunt. Both make great directors and both will be great movies.

  • PA | August 13, 2013 8:39 PMReply

    I recently worked as a PA on two actor-turned-director movies, one by Chris Messina and the other is Helen Hunt. Both make great directors and both will be great movies.

  • Ade | August 13, 2013 7:25 PMReply

    Michael Keaton, The Merry Gentlemen.

  • kris | August 13, 2013 6:16 PMReply

    alan rickman - the winter guest

  • shark | August 13, 2013 6:05 PMReply

    I would make the argument Whip It! is a great film unfairly forgotten. It was written off as a stupid GIRL POWER thing, but it's really sweet, and aside from a misstep or two, and some rough editing, a terrific debut for Barrymore. Plus it has fantastic performances from Marcia Gay Harden and Kristen Wiig.

  • Chris Van Horn | August 13, 2013 6:00 PMReply

    What about Vincent Gallo? Or Dennis Hopper?

  • Drew Morton | August 13, 2013 6:16 PM

    Chris,

    Judging from the tag in the www address, it was supposed to be "recent" debuts... I can't think of any other reason why KANE would be left off. ;)

  • Drew Morton | August 13, 2013 5:30 PMReply

    No love for Clooney's CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND?

  • Drew Morton | August 13, 2013 6:00 PM

    Kaufman's name is on the project. Read the book, read the script, saw the movie. From what I recall, there weren't any major alterations. I think CK was just pissed that Clooney left him out of the collaborative loop.

    I third the motion for Todd Field. IN THE BEDROOM really holds up.

  • Brett | August 13, 2013 5:50 PM

    Considering he butchered it so badly Charlie Kaufman took his name off the project, I'd say leaving it off the list is a good call

  • Brett | August 13, 2013 5:49 PM

    Considering he butchered it so badly Charlie Kaufman took his name off the project, I'd say leaving it off the list is a good call

  • 1974 | August 13, 2013 5:29 PMReply

    In the Land of Blood and Honey strong debut??? Honestly, it is one of the worst movies recently.

  • CARY | August 13, 2013 5:23 PMReply

    Where are Todd Field (In the Bedroom) and Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart)? I think their feature debuts are better than most of movies listed here.

  • rotch | August 13, 2013 5:47 PM

    I second Todd Field. Two minor masterpieces under his belt already.

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