The 25 Greatest Directorial Debuts by Actors-Turned-Directors

18. Buffalo ’66 (Vincent Gallo, 1998)

Buffalo 66

Vincent Gallo’s directorial debut is a classic example of independent American cinema. After five years in prison for a crime he did not commit Billy (Vincent Gallo) is released. Not knowing what to do with his life he kidnaps a young dance named Layla (Christina Ricci) and forces her to pretend to be his wife so he won’t show up empty handed at his parents’ house. Layla (also living an empty life) develops some sort of Stockholm syndrome towards Billy and the two begin a strange love-hate relationship.

Gallo’s musical roots can be heard in the film’s soundtrack that makes extensive use of classic progressive rock. Despite its bleak, minimalist look the film is not one to drive you to depression but has a real optimistic message that can be summarized with the cliché (but true) phrase: “love conquers all things”.


19. Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)


Southern Gothics have always appealed to the public because of their almost mythologica themes. Bill Paxton’s directorial debut is one of the best of the genre and is not to be missed. The plot focuses on the strange relationship of two young boys and their strange father. Dad Meiks (Bill Paxton) is a religious fanatic who believes he was chosen by God to kill all the demons disguised as people; so he forces his sons to take part in the series of murders that he commits in the name of the Lord.

This terrifying story is told through the use of flashbacks as it is recalled by Fenton (Matthew McConaughey), the older son now a grown man. The movie features dark gripping imagery and also a couple of plot twists that no one can see coming. Truly one of the great films of its genre.


20. City of Ghosts (Matt Dillon, 2002)

CITY OF GHOSTS, Sereyvuth Kem, Matt Dillon, Stellan Skarsgard, 2003, (c) United Artists
(c) United Artists

Films that mix cultures, beliefs and ways of life have always been interesting. Especially those that mix cultures that are radically different. This is the case with Matt Dillon’s film “City of Ghosts” about a con man that travels to Cambodia to collect money off of an insurance scam but ultimately finds himself looking for redemption.

After terrible hurricanes hit the United States Jimmy (Matt Dillon) – the owner of the insurance company of the damaged houses – flees the country as his whole business is nothing but a fraud. He goes to Cambodia to meet with his business associate and collect his share of the money.

With the help of a local driver named Sok (Kem Sereyvuth) Jimmy tries to track down his business associate and gets into a lot of trouble on the way. Not accustomed to the Cambodian way Jimmy must adapt fast to his new dangerous surroundings. Ridden with guilt Jimmy starts to reevaluate his situation and stars seeking redemption for his soul in one of the most spiritual places on Earth.

The film has an international cast (including American, Cambodian, French and Swedish actors) and takes the viewers to the mystical places and temples of South-East Asia while giving him an interesting story to follow.


21. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney, 2002)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

With George Clooney the director it’s either hit or miss. He won universal praise for his political films (“Good Night and Good Luck” and “The Ides of March”) but was panned for his comedies (“Leatherheads” and “The Monuments Men”). His first film however received mix reviews and it divided audiences and critics alike.

“Confessions of a Dangerous” is a loose adaptation of the memoirs of Chuck Barris (played by Sam Rockwell), the host and producers of many popular TV game shows in the 60’s. In his memoirs Barris claims he led a double life as an assassin for the CIA but this was never proven.

The film chooses to believe this hypothesis and gives Barris’s imagination free range. Once it establishes this Clooney’s film becomes more of an action film that your typical biopic giving Barris some kind of James Bond allure. This is the main factor that confused viewers who didn’t know how to interpret all this. Nonetheless Clooney’s debut as a director is very interesting of worth a look.


22. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

This beautiful and haunting film was wrongfully classified as a western. If anything it is a neo-western but even that term doesn’t do the movie justice. It is simply a tale of old values such as loyalty and ambition. Inspired by real life event the film was written by “21 Grams” and “Babel” writer Guillermo Arriaga in his typical non-linear fashion.

Tommy Lee Jones beautifully directs this film but also provides a strong performance as the lead actor. Melquiades Estrada is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who comes to Texas looking for work as a cowboy. There he befriends Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones).

When Pete learns of Melquiades’s death he makes it his goal to track down the man who killed him and fulfill his friend’s wish to be buried in his homeland. Peter finds out that Melquiades’s murderer is patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) so kidnaps him and forces him to go with him to Mexico to bury the body of his friend.

Both men are changed by this strange trip and being to explore their own mortality as they take Melquiades on his last ride on this Earth. All of the characters in this movie seem to drift in their own lives and the sense of loneliness is one that is very acute.

In order to achieve this dramatic effect Jones gave his actors a copy of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger”. Although nothing like the famous novel the theme of alienation is omnipresent in this film. Combine that with the beautiful imagery and the powerful sense of friendship and loyalty and you have a cinematic masterpiece.


23. Away from Her (Sarah Polley, 2006)

Away From Her

This is such a heart-warming film that no description will do it justice. Its screenplay is based on a short story by recent Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Alice Munro. The film in set in the rural landscape of Ontario, Canada. In this peaceful area lives a retired married couple: Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie). Fiona is beginning to lose her memory and she is quickly diagnosed with Alzheimer disease.

To avoid being a burden to Grant she checks herself into a nursing home where the main rule is that she is not allowed any visits for 30 days until she adjusts to her new situatian. Grant reluctanly agrees but is striken with pain when at his first visit after 30 days he realizes that she has forgotten him.

Throghout the course of the film Grant reflects (through flashbacks) at their marriage and his constant infidelities. Fiona is more than aware of them but they decide let the past sleep. This film is an intense experience that drains the viewer of emotions but rewards him with rich and complex acting performances and a powerful direction from Sarah Polley.


24. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)


“Gone Baby Gone” came just in the nick of time for Ben Affleck. At the time his acting career was not doing so well and this film was the perfect refresh button. “Gone Baby Gone” is an excellent detective story with neo-noir accents.

It follows the investigation, of a private detective, on a missing person case in the south side of Boston. Detective Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) grew up in south Boston and knows most of the people so his door knocking might be more successful than that of the police. The mother of kidnapped little girl is a drug addict so the authorities feel no sympathy towards her and her fate; all they care about is the girl.

Patrick, on the other hand, believes that justice must be done at all costs and is the only one that believes the mother can change and that reuniting her with her daughter is the most important thing. The moral dilemmas that this film poses are very plausible and can generate endless hours of discussions between right and wrong.


25. Quartet (Dustin Hoffman, 2012)


It took Dustin Hoffman 75 years to direct his first film but better late than never right? The great actor’s directorial debut is a sweet little comedy about a group of retired musicians who get together for an annual concert celebrating the birth of the famous Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. It all seems to be going well until the wife of Reg (Tom Courtenay), one of the musicians, comes to the retirement home for an unannounced visit. This shakes things up a little and does nothing but damage to the rehearsals.

The lives of the retired opera singers are put on display for the audience as this unexpected arrival forces them to confront their past. Dustin Hoffman directs this movie with a remarkable lightness allowing the actors to play off each other and give their best performances.

Hoffman was supposed to direct the crime film “Straight Time”, back in 1978, but found starring and directing at the same time very stressful so he backed down just after a few days asking Ulu Grosbard to take over. This time he chose not to appear in the movie and concentrate on directing and the result is truly delightful.

Author Bio: Horia Nilescu is a 30-year-old cinephile from Brasov, Romania. He works at a local bookstore as a multimedia & events manager (handling supplying issues in regards to cd’s and dvd’s and also organizing local events). He is passionate about film and fascinated by its diversity. He has created a local film club in Brasov (going of 3 years) in which he handles all aspects. He likes to talk and write about movies but most importantly he likes to watch them.