15 Great Movies With The Director Playing a Leading Role

In the history of cinema there are many films in which directors take on leading roles themselves, grabbing more attention, and one could claim authorship, through their simultaneous work in front of and behind the camera.

For popular movie culture a slew of names are often mentioned when considering what filmmakers balanced these such jobs best, yet often times notable cinema geniuses are forgotten with their work. So, this is a list concerned with which filmmakers were vital in acting within their own visions, with which films are really the best that involve such performances.


15. The Decameron by Pier Paolo Pasolini

the decameron

The first of Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life is this cynical comedy of vignettes rolling into each other, adapted from the text The Decameron and shrunken from the original 100 stories. Many such tales that occur in the film often involve people scamming one another for pleasure or profit.

Unlike other films on this list, Pasolini does not garner much time on screen, yet, his role in the film is absolutely vital to tying together the various tales. He plays Allievo di Giotto, a painter that must complete a fresco. In this pursuit the painter ultimately sheds light on the goals of an artist, there work.


14. A Man There Was by Victor Sjostrom

A Man There Was by Victor Sjostrom

The oldest film on the list, released in 1917, is also the shortest at 48 minutes in length. Coming from Ingmar Bergman’s idol Victor Sjostrom is this powerhouse vision of separation and the pain that comes with it.

Sjostrom plays Terje Vigen, a man that must leave his wife and daughter to find food to support them. He rows across the sea only to be captured by the British on his journey back towards his family. Few films exist that match the beauty of this tale, few excite such strong emotions. Full of gorgeous visuals, and an aching score, a masterpiece.


13. F for Fake by Orson Welles

This great work from Orson Welles stars the magician himself, playing himself. It is of course another matter of whether or not to describe his “role” as such, since he narrates what starts off as a tale of art forgers and their world, into something more introspective, involving Welles’ own life as a liar. The film is about liars, so Welles must include himself in this dialogue.

Also involved in the dialogue of lies and truths is the very nature of the film being a work of fiction itself, implicating itself as a liar. Lines between fact and fiction could not be blurred more than in this work.


12. The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky

The Holy Mountain

A surrealist vision unlike anything else in movies, ambitious in its total breakdown of humanity as a species, Jodorowsky plays the Alchemist.

The Alchemist sits in a tower and awaits the Thief to journey to him, in order to teach the Thief how to transcend human existence and become immortal. Set in a totally absurd world, impossible to predict, a work that cannot be contained.


11. Je Tu Il Elle by Chantal Akerman

A film that includes Chantal Akerman as the central character, playing a woman disconnected. The movie opens up with Akerman naked in a room, using a blanket for warmth, eating sugar alone.

Transitioning from this opening Akerman meets a man, a woman, in this contemplation on sexuality. Bare and simple, one of Akerman’s great and most distinct works.


10. A nos amours by Maurice Pialat

A nos amours by Maurice Pialat

Featuring the 16 year old Sandrine Bonnaire in a breakout performance as Suzanne, Pialat delivered one of the best coming-of-age tales in movie history. Suzanne of course is the lead character, driving a film about her evolution from a sexually emerging girl into a woman, having one boyfriend and then another.

Her relationship with all the men of her life proves to be the central concern of Pialat’s work, with Pialat himself playing her father, portraying a universal and strained relationship on film. Aching with beauty, Pialat and Bonnaire star in some of the most insightful scenes regarding the relationship between fathers and daughters.


9. Under the Sun of Satan by Maurice Pialat

Under the Sun of Satan by Maurice Pialat

Also starring Bonnaire, in a film approaching the subject of sin and a priest that shoulders the entirety of its weight, played by Gerard Depardieu, Pialat created a work of unparalleled philosophical density.

Pialat plays a priest in this film, advising Depardieu in his attempts to understand the complexities of sin, of how to dispel its compulsion. A complex masterpiece that demands multiple viewings to be understood fully.