Genius At Work: Best Actor-Director Combos

4 08 2009

Watching Judd Apatow score another #1 if underwhelming comedy with so many familiar faces (still waiting for a Craig Robinson feature) got me thinking about some of the best combos of director and actor(s). These days it seems almost every big director has their go-to star or stars who they trust to both bring a strong performance and bank at the box office. Sometimes it works wonders (Knocked Up) and at other turns they disappoint (Funny People). But who are the best collaborators in the business today?

5) Spike Lee and Denzel Washington
Malcolm X, Inside Man, He Got Game, Mo’ Better Blues

While Denzel lately has worked more with Tony Scott, it’s Spike who manages to bring out the best in him. Malcolm X (with Training Day and A Soldier’s Story) is probably the actor’s defining role and the two combined on the most commercially successful film of Spike Lee’s career in Inside Man. You know what, Denzel is my favorite actor and Spike is the only director that pushes him out of that “He only plays one role” mode so they’re making the top 5. Deal with it.

4) David Fincher & Brad Pitt
Se7en, Fight Club, Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This duo might have been higher if not for the visually stunning but ultimately letdown that Benjamin Button turned out to be. Se7en is still one of the great thrillers of the last 20 years and Fight Club stands on its own as a modern classic. Without Fincher, it might have taken Pitt longer to prove he was more than just a pretty face, and were it not for the actor’s chops, Fincher might still best be remembered for Aliens 3 (unfairly labeled as a dud).

3) Christopher Nolan & Christian Bale
Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight

With as much of a beating as Bale has been taking lately for his one-note performance in Terminator: Salvation and an unmemorable turn in Public Enemies, some of his best work has come with Nolan behind the camera. Beyond the two Batman movies, Bale absolutely carried the underrated sleeper hit The Prestige. The two reportedly work as closely together in coming up with creative elements to a story as any pair in the industry and it shows.

2) Martin Scorsese & Leo DiCaprio
The Departed, Aviator, Gangs of New York

Arguably the best director and actor of their generation working together is just too perfect a scenario to miss. Three movies together and three Best Picture nominations speak for itself, and the upcoming Shutter Island looks pretty damn good.

These two working together is like watching Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant run for the title with zen-like focus (except nobody hates Leo). The director of the show has been there before with one the all-time greats (Robert Di Nero/Michael Jordan) and after two failed attempts on the biggest stage together the duo finally broke through with a win (Scorsese’s best director Oscar/Phil’s 10th ring). You could make a strong case these two belong at number 1 if it were not for…

1) Tim Burton & Johnny Depp
Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice in Wonderland

Let’s face it, when you see a Tim Burton movie you expect Johnny Depp to appear somewhere and steal the show. With the upcoming Alice in Wonderland adding another to the list, Depp and Burton have worked together on seven films, including their best in Edward Scissorhands and Oscar-nominated Sweeney Todd. The two are linked at the hip like Peanut Butter & Jelly, Wilt & Russell or Husband & Wife (frequent Burton collaborator Helena Bonham Carter). Are you really telling me you didn’t see this coming when you read the list? I hate giving into clichés but in this case it’s true.

Honorable Mention:

Wes Anderson & Luke/Owen WilsonBottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Ridley Scott & Russell CroweGladiator, American Gangster, Body of Lies, A Good Year, Nottingham

Quentin Tarantino and Uma ThurmanPulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2

Robert Zemeckis & Tom Hanks – Forrest Gump, Cast Away, The Polar Express

Kevin Smith & Jason MewesClerks I & II, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, Zack and Miri Make a Porno




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