Jeff Nichols

Best movies: Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011)

Up-and-coming directors wish they were as lucky as Jeff Nichols. Only two movies into his career, the Arkansas native has had the good fortune of casting Michael Shannon in both of his projects, Shotgun Stories and last year’s powerfully haunting Take Shelter. The former, a look at how a man’s death causes his bickering sons to boil over with mutual contempt, features one of the Boardwalk Empire standout’s most dynamic performances, showing a more sympathetic side to contrast Shannon’s traditionally creepy and imposing characters.

Take Shelter, on the other hand, is flat-out Michael Shannon’s best work to date. He plays a loving father/husband whose apocalyptic nightmares bleed into reality and cause alarming personality quirks that damage his closest relationships. As many actors will say, though, they’re only as good as the scripts and directors they’ve been connected with, and Shannon’s award-worthy turn in Take Shelter owes a tremendous deal to Nichols. Take Shelter’s screenplay is airtight, and Nichols’ ability to balance unsettling sequences of mental horror with affecting domestic moments between Shannon and powerhouse co-star Jessica Chastain is seamless.

Next up for Nichols: Mud, his first movie without Shannon as his leading man. Instead, the actor will play a smaller part and let stars Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon benefit from the writer-director’s unique chops.