James Ponsoldt has developed a solid directorial oeuvre in the past decade or so as the figurehead of largely character-driven pictures of independent roots. In this time, the Athens, Georgia native has put 5 films to the silver screen, acting as screenwriter on 3 of them, and garnering a reputation as the sort of filmmaker that can provide the tools necessary for a number of his stars to produce break-out dramatic performances, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Miles Teller and Jason Segel each producing some of their best-ever work under the director’s tutelage. In this edition of Ranked, each of James Ponsoldt’s films – from Off the Black in 2006 to The Circle in 2017 – shall be ranked from worst to best.
As always… if you disagree, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!
5. The Circle (2017)
When Netflix announced a Tom Hanks produced movie about internet privacy starring Emma Watson and John Boyega was to arrive on their streaming service in 2017, a lot of people were positive about what was to come. Unfortunately, what came was – according to our review – “one heck of a miss”. Bad performances, a patronising story, below-standard CG-effects and an overall sense of what could have been made for a lacklustre offering. So far as Ponsoldt is concerned, it seems that the director often went missing at times where the film needed visual inspiration or an injection of character, and it was clear that he felt much less comfortable in the movie’s concept-driven formula than he had in his previous character-driven work. This is, by far, the worst feature length movie of Ponsoldt’s career; a red mark against an otherwise very impressive filmography.
4. Off the Black (2006)
Coming out of the blocks with the sort of character drama he would become admired for, Ponsoldt’s passion project about a teenager befriending an ageing man courtesy of an act of vandalism and a mutual love for baseball featured all of the traits the screenwriter-director’s films would become most notable for, from its slow-paced presentation of suburban American life to its complex characterisations and the high levels of performance. Tackling the famously tough to work with Nick Nolte in his first feature can’t have been an easy feat, but Ponsoldt managed to get an honest, layered and typically high quality performance out of the veteran actor that gifted the film an extra level of investment and really brought the screenplay to life. It may only be one place above The Circle on this list, but it’s head and shoulders above it in terms of quality and a must-see for fans of any of the other entries on this list.
3. Smashed (2012)
“A refreshing and appropriately alternative look at the less glamorous side of alcohol” [our review from 2015], this Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead starring drama about a young married couple whose relationship is founded upon dangerous levels of alcohol consumption was a showcase of its starring actors’ talents, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead being particularly impressive as the wife who looks to sober up only to cause tensions in her relationship. This was the 2nd film in Ponsoldt’s feature-length directorial career, arriving a full 6 years after the director’s first release Off the Black, and was the filmmaker’s true calling card to more character-focused pieces that worked to accentuate the talents of the actors central to them. One particular AA meeting monologue from Winstead’s character in Smashed stands out for its moving writing and, perhaps more significantly, as a moment in the actress’s career where she proved her chops for providing truly moving material. Ponsoldt was getting into a groove that would continue with his next release…
2. The Spectacular Now (2013)
It would be easy to dismiss The Spectacular Now as a typical high-school romance movie given how its promotional material made the choice to lean towards the more romance-driven and comedic elements of the film, but to dismiss this release as anything other than a moving drama that proves coming-of-age tales can still be effective in the modern day would be of great disservice to the overall quality of this James Ponsoldt movie. Much like Off the Black and Smashed, The Spectacular Now is a slow-paced suburban-based character piece, with the central protagonists – played by the emerging talents of Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller – completing journeys that equate to more than the simple beats of falling in love, out of love, and then back into love, that would feature in your typical teen movie, instead using the romance angle to accentuate the film’s presentation of its male protagonist’s much more personal journey into adulthood; one which presents themes as typical as finding a place in the world while still remaining original and insightful, a tough balance to to maintain. Woodley performs admirably in this film, but the true standout performer is Miles Teller whose portrayal of laugh-it-off damaged is presented as both brave and incredibly vulnerable, marking an important point in Teller’s career where the (at the time) relatively inexperienced actor truly shone under the Ponsoldt’s lens, making him one of young hollywood’s most intriguing talents.
1. The End of the Tour (2015)
Ponsoldt’s 2015 offering was a continuation of his character-driven route through cinema, this time presenting the real-life encounter between Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky and famed novelist David Foster Wallace in the aftermath of the author’s ground-breaking publication “Infinite Jest” in 1996. The End of the Tour was a critical success, but it is perhaps best remembered for an excellent performance by Jason Segel, whose move away from comedy was met with universal praise for his portrayal of the troubled author. It was undoubtedly the performance of his career thus far and acted as further proof as to Ponsoldt’s talents for unearthing career-defining performances from his star performers. The End of the Tour was also perhaps the best paced movie of Ponsoldt’s slow-moving filmography, and carried a visual artistry that was more prevalent than in his previous work, lifting the piece beyond its well established competition and into the top spot on this list.
If you see any Ponsoldt film in your lifetime, this one should be it.
Conclusively, James Ponsoldt has developed a career out of exploring human nature and providing the perfect circumstances in which actors can out-perform themselves. He’s a filmmaker with an astute intuition for presenting reality and the dramas of every day life as being truly cinematic, and despite his latest offering being less than impressive, there is still a fair amount of his work to be visited and revisited by those with a particular fondness for human dramas. Whether the best is yet to come, or has already been, James Ponsoldt remains one of the more talented independent directors on the scene today, and at least 4 of his movies prove this. Make sure to check out at least some of his work.