The Town, and the Other 8 Best Recent Movies That Star the Director
This weekend sees the release of the gritty, critically acclaimed heist movie The Town, where Ben Affleck carries the action not only in front of the camera in the lead role, but also behind the camera as the film's director. Indeed, some of the greatest movies ever made were directed by actors who also appeared in their films -- consider that highwater mark set by Orson Welles with Citizen Kane -- but how have cinematic multitaskers like Affleck, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood and others fared over the past decade?
Good question! Here's a run through the nine best films, dating back to 2000, that were directed by someone who also had a major acting role in the film. Your mileage may vary, of course; tell me all about it in the comments. [Films are listed in chronological order.]
Best in Show (2000)
Best in Show stands out as the best of the three Christopher Guest mockumentaries (For Your Consideration was not filmed in the mockumentary style). Guest has a knack for mocking the inherently mockable: First, in Waiting for Guffman, the simpleton behavior of people in a fictional Missouri town (note to angry Missourians: I am originally from Missouri, and he's right, we deserve it); then, more recently, folk music in A Mighty Wind. Best in Show details the process of entering a prized show dog into a competition -- which, in real life, is quite possibly the most unintentionally hilarious event ever broadcast in the history of television (well, right behind Manimal). Also, the sign of a great actor/director (hold that thought): Christopher Guest gave the best lines to other members of the ensemble cast.
Yeah, sure, I'd rather have included Swingers, but Jon Favreau only wrote that film (hey, Doug Liman!) and it came out in 1996. I was tempted to include Favreau's Iron Man, too, but then I remembered my own archaic "major role" rule. So that's out. We're left with the money laundering mob comedy, Made, which I seem to appreciate more every year, almost just for the fact that Favreau and Vince Vaughn spend the whole film with disfigured faces from armature boxing. In our second adventure with Favreau and Vaughn -- in what seemed like a dream paring until it ... just ... kept ... happening ... in films like The Break-Up, Four Christmases and Couples Retreat. Why does Made deserve to be on this list? Because it's not The Break-Up, Four Christmases, or Couples Retreat.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Gran Torino (below) is the superior film when comparing the two directly, but Million Dollar Baby did, you know, win a Academy Award for Best Picture. And yeah, admittedly, it can come off as a little too preachy: What starts as a movie about boxing becomes a statement as society as a whole. Whatever. Eastwood, as always, is fantastic. As much as I would like to ignore Million Dollar Baby, it's impossible to leave it off of this list.
Garden State (2004)
Prediction for the first comment: "I stopped reading when I got to Garden State." But regardless of your feelings toward star and first-time director Zach Braff, the movie itself is good. Though, it's probably not quite as good as its proponents want you to believe: This coming-of-age story does a fine enough job portraying the current state of a generation so drugged up on prescription medication that the ability to feel anything is gone. Also, compare Garden State to Braff's other films as an actor -- The Last Kiss and The Ex -- and it really drives home the point that Braff should probably just stick to the films that he directs. Hey, regardless, it probably introduced you to The Shins! Prediction for second comment: "I owned Oh, Inverted World in 2001. I stopped listening to The Shins after Garden State." Duly noted.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
George Clooney costarred as producer Fred Friendly in this black-and-white Edward R. Murrow biopic, which netted him an Academy Award nomination for directing. (He lost to Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain.) Sure, Clooney didn't play the lead role, but his subtle touch as a director was perfect for a film dealing with McCarthyism -- a touch which, unfortunately, appeared to have been cleaned with a Brillo Pad by the time Leatherheads entered all of our lives. Luck also lost that year's Best Picture Oscar to Crash; in a fair world, Clooney's film would have won. (Note: In a fair world, any of the other four nominated films would have won over Crash.) At least Clooney won the Oscar that same year for his supporting role in Syriana.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Ben Stiller has been hit and miss as a director. Reality Bites was a hit, The Cable Guy (which does have a cult following) was a miss. Zoolander was originally a miss, then somehow became a hit. But this Hollywood send-up marks Stiller's best work behind the camera, even enabling Robert Downey Jr. to pick up an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of self-serious Method actor Kirk Lazarus. (Jack Black, alas, did not pick up an Academy Award nomination.)
Gran Torino (2008)
Really, this could just be the Clint Eastwood list since he's the reigning champ of acting and directing. And who can blame him? Eastwood turned 80 years old this year; why would he want to take direction from filmmakers literally less than half his age? Torino, the tale of a fairly bigoted Korean War veteran named Walt developing a close relationship with his Asian neighbor. Eastwood could have gone over-the-top with the role, really made Walt more of a "lovable" Archie Bunker type -- a lesser director would have. Sure, there are some similarities in the statements that they make, but what may be "hilarious" on a sitcom comes off as excruciatingly awkward on film as a drama. Eastwood has declared Torino his last film as an actor -- for now. Hopefully he will change his mind.
Whip It (2009)
The most underrated movie on the list -- the little film that should have, getting the most out of its roller-derby subject matter and the talent assembled. Unfortunately, just about nobody went to see Drew Barrymore's feature film directorial debut.
The Town (2010)
Speaking of giving other actors the best lines: Ben Affleck may have the largest part in The Town, a film he also directed, but he saved the best roles for Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm. When Renner is on screen, the tension is remarkable; the guy is absolutely electric and Affleck, a wise director, is smart enough to realize this.