Top 10: Best Directorial Debuts From Actors

For many A-list actors or actresses, success in Hollywood often leads to a transition into filmmaking. Directorial debuts by actors always have an additive intrigue, as both audiences and pundits are curious to see if they have what it takes to make the transition behind the camera. Sometimes, the result is unremarkable; in other circumstances, the talent shown suggests a strong future.

Below are ten of the best directorial debuts from an actor or actress. Just this month, Max Minghella was the latest to try his hand at filmmaking with “Teen Spirit.” Of course, last year saw Bradley Cooper heavily feted for “A Star Is Born.” The ten cited debuts are next, along with some runner-ups. Efforts like Kevin Costner‘s “Dances With Wolves,” Clint Eastwood‘s “Play Misty For Me,” Ryan Gosling‘s “Lost River,” Charles Laughton‘s “The Night of the Hunter,” Sarah Polley‘s “Away From Her” and Josh Radnor‘s “Happythankyoumoreplease” just missed the cut. Now, on to the ones that made it!

10“The War Zone” (1999)
dir: Tim Roth

It’s a shame Tim Roth has only directed once, as his directorial debut was a harrowing tale executed with intense verve. A family drama about incest, it’s as horrific as any psychological horror, only far more immediate and real. An emotionally upsetting and challenging subject, Roth pulls absolutely no punches here. “The War Zone” is incredibly well done, a film to watch once for its pure directorial style and story, and likely never again.

9“Frailty” (2002)
dir: Bill Paxton

The late Bill Paxton crafted a tremendous genre exercise with his debut “Frailty.” A thriller he also starred in, Paxton earns credit for being one of the first to really give Matthew McConaughey a juicy role to showcase his talent. When the “McConaissance” would occur about a decade later, McConaughey would earn the attention he should have been given from this performance. Much respect goes to Paxton for seeing those dynamic acting talents in the star.

8“The Indian Runner” (1991)
dir: Sean Penn

A two time Academy Award winning actor, Sean Penn is also an underrated filmmaker. His first time behind the camera, Penn loosely adapted the Bruce Springsteen song Highway Patrolman into “The Indian Runner,” an intense character study. A young Viggo Mortensen pairs with David Morse to create a story that sticks with the audience long after the credits roll. This early promise is part of the reason why it wasn’t shocking when Penn blew audiences away with “Into the Wild” years later.

7“Don Jon” (2013)
dir: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

As far as purely enjoyable debuts go, it’s hard to beat this film from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Not only did “Don Jon” entertain, it provided the world with one of Gordon-Levitt’s best performances to date. Turns out, JGL is at his best when directed by himself. The same can be said for Scarlett Johansson, who offers a great comedic performance here as well. Of everyone on this list, Gordon-Levitt is someone who should direct again in the near future. He proved without a shadow of a doubt that he has what it takes.

6“Ordinary People” (1980)
dir: Robert Redford

Few directorial debuts find themselves winning Best Picture, but Robert Redford is no ordinary talent. An intimate, prestige picture, “Ordinary People” not only won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but gave Redford Best Director for his first directorial effort. The Academy Award wins are even more impressive when recalling Redford defeating “Raging Bull” and Martin Scorsese in the process. A superstar at the time he made the picture, the success of the film only made Redford’s star shoot higher.

5“This Is Spinal Tap” (1984)
dir: Rob Reiner

Making a comedy classic your first time out of the gate was an ease feat for Rob Reiner. “This Is Spinal Tap” is a groundbreaking comedy and mockumentary, essentially creating the genre on the fly. To this day, it’s quoted by the masses. “This one goes to eleven,” for example as one of the film’s most noted lines. Reiner would go on to have a bigger career behind the camera than in front of it, with his first directorial effort’s success being a large reason why.

4“Garden State” (2004)
dir: Zach Braff

Upon its release, “Garden State” was lauded as an independent triumph and a sign of great things to come for Zach Braff. The ensuing years have seen that hope diminish, though it is largely undeserved. Braff not only crafts striking visuals and delivers his best performance to date, but the writing is also a strong element in the film. An underrated gem that deserved every bit of acclaim it initially received, the movie is due for a re-evaluation.

3“Lady Bird” (2017)
dir: Greta Gerwig

Technically Greta Gerwig made her directorial debut with “Nights and Weekends,” which she co-directed alongside Joe Swanberg. We’re cheating and using her solo debut “Lady Bird,” an instant classic. Her singular voice shone through in every frame of this coming of age story. Saoirse Ronan and company made those already brilliant words sing with their performances. Simply put, it’s one for the ages.

2“Gone Baby Gone” (2007)
dir: Ben Affleck

When Ben Affleck stepped behind the camera, he was at a low point in his acting career. Opting to finally direct, he shaped one of the most satisfying detective stories of the modern era. “Gone Baby Gone” not just re-launched Affleck, it provided his younger brother Casey Affleck with one of his juiciest roles as well. There’s a reason the elder Affleck became an A-list director in short order. A Best Picture win for “Argo” was not a surprise given the talent shown here.

1“A Star Is Born” (2018)
dir: Bradley Cooper

Perhaps recency bias works in Bradley Cooper‘s favor here, but his iteration of “A Star Is Born” is one of the most accomplished debut features ever. Cooper took an old story, gave it a ravishing new spin, and crafted an Oscar winner. His own acting/filmmaking, the performance of Lady Gaga; it’s all stupendous. As the years’ pass, audiences may look back on this with more esteem. Between every shot and directorial choice, it’s the work of a true artist.

What are some of your favorite directorial debuts by actors? Comment below and share!

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