By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jun 24, 2001 at 2:43 AM

A recent trend in Hollywood is actors stepping behind the camera to direct. Those who have successfully given it a try are Sean Penn, Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, Edward Norton and Robert De Niro. All turned in more than respectable efforts on their first try and Penn is quickly becoming an outstanding director.

Actors Alan Cumming ("Spy Kids") and Jennifer Jason Leigh ("Backdraft") not only co-directed the new film "The Anniversary Party," they co-wrote it as well. The results are impressive, and there's finally a good movie to see this summer.

Cumming and Leigh star as Joe Therrian and Sally Nash. They were married for a few years before Joe ran off to Europe and experimented with his sexuality. Now he is back and they are having a big party at their home with all of their closest friends.

Joe and Sally have an impressive guest list for the party due to the fact that Joe is a well-known novelist and Sally is a famous actress. All of their friends are form the entertainment industry.

Oscar winning actor Jack Gold (Kevin Kline) and his wife Sophia (Kline's real life wife Phoebe Cates) are the closest to Joe and Sally. Jack and Sally are even filming a movie together, directed by another close friend, Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly).

The rest of their friends include Mac's wife Clair (Jane Adams), Judy Adams (Parker Posey) and her husband Jerry (John Benjamin Hickey), Gina Taylor (Jennifer Beals) and Levi Panes (Michael Panes).

Also attending the party are Joe and Sally's neighbors, Monica Rose (Mina Badie) and her husband Ryan (Denis O'Hare), and young actress Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow). Much to Sally's dismay, Skye is starring in a big screen adaptation of Joe's novel and happens to idolize her.

After all of the guests arrive and the evening progresses, things get very interesting, thanks to a lot of alcohol and some ecstasy. Confessions and secrets are told, tempers flare and Joe and Sally's relationship is put to the test.

Cumming and Leigh have done a remarkable job here. The story isn't exactly groundbreaking but the writing is sharp, witty, honest and insightful. The situations and actions are authentic.

The acting is outstanding across the board, probably due to the fact that Cumming and Leigh are both performers and maintained a comfortable set. It's all incredibly natural and loose and each person is given a meaty role.

Another plus is the movie's look. It's shot on digital video by veteran cinematographer John Bailey and it looks spectacular, adding to the film's intimate feel. Between this movie and "The Center of the World," digital video is looking like the way to go for independent films.

Unlike most of the big summer movies, "The Anniversary" manages to be compelling and entertaining at the same time. Much more than just an experiment by a group of actors, it's one of the year's best movies.

Grade: A-

"The Anniversary Party" opens Fri., June 22 at the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse.