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 feature “Mr 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)
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