By Josh Rottenberg
Updated September 19, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT

Image Credit: Claire FolgerJust five years ago, Ben Affleck’s career was in free fall. Once one of Hollywood’s most in-demand leading men, he’d had a string of dismal flops: Daredevil, Gigli, Paycheck, Surviving Christmas, Jersey Girl. His love life had made him a tabloid punchline. Hitting him when he was down, a 2003 South Park episode had shown him falling in love with Cartman’s hand puppet, mistaking it for Jennifer Lopez. He’d gone from a Best Screenplay Oscar win in 1997 for Good Will Hunting to racking up six nominations for the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actor in the space of three years. You get the picture.

And look at him now: His second film as a director, The Town, which he also co-wrote and starred in, trounced expectations this weekend to open in first place at the box office, with $23.8 million. The critics lavished praise on the movie, to the tune of a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Our own Lisa Schwarzbaum gave it an A-.) There’s talk of Oscars. The Town has burnished his reputation in the town of Hollywood, where he now has to be considered a major director, and, with positive buzz for his next movie, The Company Men, his acting career has heat again. He could be shaping up to be a star-auteur in the mold of Clint Eastwood. Or maybe the more apt comparison is that Affleck is this year’s Sandra Bullock: a once-easily-dismissed ’90s icon on a major career rebound.

That’s the storyline coming off this weekend, at least. But are you buying it? Did you see The Town? Did it wipe your memory banks clear of all trace of Gigli, or is there still a little bit of “Bennifer” rattling around in there? How would you like to see Affleck cash in his newfound capital: by taking more leading roles in movies or focusing primarily on his directing career?