Weekly Top Five: Films directed by actors

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The Night of the Hunter
  • The Night of the Hunter
In this week's paper, J.R. Jones recommends the new comedy Bad Words, the directorial debut of actor Jason Bateman (Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses). Of the film, Jones writes, "[I]t's not much to look at, but at least [Bateman] has the nerve to push the insolence, profanity, and brutal insult humor to its absolute limits." I haven't seen the film, but such an evaluation seems fitting of not only Bad Words but most films directed by actors, which tend to focus on dialogue and performance more than visual and formal design. I think this comes naturally—after all, the bulk of an actor's job lies in dialogue and performance. Bateman is a prominent comedic actor, so it's really not surprising that Bad Words places an emphasis on "trashy, ribald laughs."

That's not to say a movie necessarily turns into a performance showcase when an actor sits in the director's chair. Many take significant aesthetic risks and reveal further nuances of an individual's artistry. After the jump, you can see my favorite films directed by actors. (Note: I didn't include any films by people like Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen simply because their reputations as directors have, over time, superseded their reputations as actors.)

5. Little Murders (dir. Alan Arkin, 1971) In his review, Dave Kehr faults Arkin's direction of this black comedy, claiming he "has trouble distinguishing between funny ha-ha and funny peculiar." To me, this curious, at times uncomfortable mix of tones is not only handled more eloquently than Kehr posits, but it speaks to the film's unique sense of humor, which dares the audience to laugh at some disarmingly brutal stuff.

4. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (dir. Tommy Lee Jones, 2005) Traces of Sam Peckinpah and Anthony Mann find their way into this somber western. Jones's deliberate composition is the visual equivalent of his steady Texas drawl, measured and thorough, but never slow or oppressive. The film has an obvious moral stance, but Jones avoids proselytizing of any sort, allowing his characters and situations to exist naturally onscreen.

3. Bulworth (dir. Warren Beatty, 1998) This satire of racial discrimination and political doublespeak is the best directorial effort of Beatty's career, crackling with biting humor and an irreverent view of race relations in the Clinton years. Beatty isn't much of a visual stylist, but he has an impeccable ear for the way people speak to one another, a skill he applies to a series of hokey but nevertheless inspired raps delivered by his character.

2. Wanda (dir. Barbara Loden, 1970) A difficult film to track down, but easily one of the preeminent if underappreciated American independent films. It's also not an easy film to watch—indeed, its depiction of a wayward woman (Loden) who aligns herself with a crook after suffering a series of abusive relationships is sufficiently bleak. But Loden's elegant, naturalistic direction—the film's visual style has been compared to Robert Bresson's—eases the experience, though it doesn't necessarily lessen the blow, much in the way Bresson's human tragedies have a sort of aesthetic grace.

1. The Night of the Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955) An obvious answer, sure, but the correct one. So much has been said and written about this undeniable masterpiece, notable for its expressionistic cinematography, dark if sweet and mesmeric story, and array of stunning performances, the most towering of which belongs to Robert Mitchum, of course. In my mind, these notions were only further solidified during a series of recent revival screenings of the brilliantly restored 35mm print.

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