The final moments of Wildlife and A Star is Born involve an acknowledgment of the camera. In Wildlife, that moment is an arranged family photo that pays tribute to a non-existent family. In A Star Is Born, it’s a moment of grief and star-making, one in which something old is destroyed so that something new might blossom.
Neither of these final shots is particularly subtle, but both are hugely effective. They’re emotionally potent specifically because they’re so unafraid of being a little overwrought. Wildlife and A Star is Born come from Paul Dano and Bradley Cooper respectively, two first-time directors better known for their acting.
They’re two of the best examples of actors-turned-directors who did remarkable work this year. They’re joined by John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, which was a box office and critical success early in the year, and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, which is among the year’s most successful independent releases. In addition to coming from actors, all four of these films have an unabashed sentimental streak. They’re movies that foreground emotion at every turn. Because these movies come from actors, they seem more willing to fully engage in the emotions their characters feel, even when those emotions are maudlin or grandiose.
Perhaps the most overtly sentimental movie of the bunch is A Star is Born. There’s nothing ironic or cynical to be found in this movie, which isn’t to say that it’s too self-serious. From its very first scene, A Star is Born asks audiences to trust that they’re going to believe in what they see, even when that something is Bradley Cooper as an aging rock star. It earns your trust early, and then uses it to devastate you.
The film centers on an earnest love story between a rising star and an icon past his prime. It’s honest about addiction, and even in its more heightened moments, like one in which Cooper’s character urinates on stage at the Grammys, it doesn’t take any ironic distance from the events it depicts.
Because Cooper is directing himself here, he is able to forefront the way his character Jackson Maine is thinking and feeling. He holds on his own face, and on the faces of Lady Gaga and Sam Elliott, often. In one key scene, after Jackson has revealed how much he cares for Elliott’s character, Cooper chooses to hold on Elliott’s face as he backs his car up. It’s a choice that emphasizes Elliott’s performance, and asks the audience to invest in how he feels.
Wildlife is a subtler film, but it’s just as fascinated by Carey Mulligan’s performance as Cooper is with his actors. Mulligan plays Jeanette, a housewife whose marriage is falling apart, and Paul Dano handles every one of her emotions with care. Jeanette is not always rational, and, because the story is told from her son’s perspective, it’s clear that she isn’t a great mother.
What’s also clear, though, is how much Jeanette is frustrated by her lack of power. It’s that lack of power that sends her spiraling. Mulligan’s performance is both grand and nuanced, revealing in what she chooses to scream and what she withholds.
Dano’s focus on Jeanette’s emotion is most evident in the extended sequence when she takes her son to dinner with the man she’s seeing. In the scene, she moves from excitement and desire to exhaustion and boredom and back around to desire. Dano traces this journey not just on Mulligan’s face, but also in her posture and gait. Mulligan is always moving like she’s just barely keeping it together.
Wildlife’s journey through the perils of adulthood are tame when compared with Eighth Grade’s horrific middle-school immersion. Bo Burnham’s film is as plotless as middle school actually feels, and instead takes its time to introduce Kayla, an eighth-grade girl preparing to make the leap into high school. Burnham’s direction and writing aren’t flashy, but they have to walk a tightrope, making it clear that Kayla is cool and interesting while also making it clear how awkward she often is.
Burnham is willing to follow Kayla anywhere, with one exception. Near the end of the film, he allows Kayla’s dad, played by Josh Hamilton, to take control. Hamilton delivers a monologue about how little he worries about his daughter. It’s the kind of moment that a more cynical director might want to shorten or make less overt. Instead, Burnham lingers, and lets Hamilton stutter and stammer. He’s allowed to give a performance that feels real and earned, even though his speech is the film’s most heightened moment. Like both A Star is Born and Wildlife, Eighth Grade knows that a film’s climax can come at a moment of quiet, one where the camera just sits on an actor doing good work.
A Quiet Place is the most commercial and plotty movie on this list. It’s also the most tied to genre, but director John Krasinski is still more interested in his actors and the family they play than in the monsters that terrorize them. Like Cooper, Krasinski also acts in his film, but the movie is owned by his wife, Emily Blunt. Blunt’s performance in the film, which is almost silent, is entirely reliant on subtle expressions, ones which often speak volumes about what her character is thinking or feeling.
Much of the film’s subtlety comes from the fact that it’s largely silent, but even still, Krasinski is willing to be frankly sentimental when he needs to. When Krasinski’s family patriarch makes a climactic choice, he allows himself a heartfelt moment with his daughter. It’s a moment of sincere, honest love between a father and his child. It could easily feel maudlin or melodramatic, and that’s partially because it is. It also feels earned, though, because Blunt, Krasinski, and the actors playing his children are all committed to conveying the terror and heartbreak that Krasinski is asking them to play.
Like Cooper, Dano, and Burnham, it’s worth noting that Krasinski is a white man in his 30s or early 40s. All of these actors were given chances in a way that many women and people of color are usually denied. It was a good year for actors-turned-directors, but those actors tended to look a lot alike.
The movies we did get from these actors were willing to be overt in their feelings, though. They were earnest and sentimental, even when they were emphasizing subtlety. Every one of these films was more interested in its characters than in plotting mechanisms, to the benefit of the end products.
Like A Star is Born and Wildlife, both Eighth Grade and A Quiet Place end with acknowledgments of the camera. In Eighth Grade, it’s Kayla signing off from a video she’s made, one designed as a self- affirmation. In A Quiet Place, it’s Emily Blunt’s matriarch cocking a gun, ready to face down the monsters. In all four films, it’s the actors in front of the camera that leave the last impression.