Friday, August 1, 2014

Ranking Sam Mendes Movies

Every now and again, I'll pick out someone in the film world who just happens to be celebrating a birthday and create a list in their honor. Today, the lucky person is none other than brilliant director Sam Mendes who turns 49. A lot of people aren't necessarily familiar with his name, but have definitely enjoyed a movie or two of his. The reason more people don't recognize his name is because there aren't much more than a movie or two on his resume. Since his first big screen feature in 1999, he's only directed six movies. His next isn't scheduled to hit theaters until 2015. Prolific, he is not.

What Mendes is, though, is a masterful story-teller. Part of his magic is that not only are his characters growing human beings, they are often trying to grow on purpose. A common theme throughout his filmography is people searching for some missing element from their life that will make it all better. They don't always succeed. Another oft-used theme is imprisonment, usually in a self made prison (bad marriage, bad work situation, etc.) and the effort to escape that prison.

Enough gibberish, though. Here is how I rank the six full-length features directed by Sam Mendes.

Away We Go
Unfortunately, this one is the obvious choice for the bottom spot. That's not because it's a bad flick. On the contrary, I enjoyed quite a bit. It's just the only one I don't think is amazing. Still, I do feel it is underrated and, thus far, underseen. It stars Maya Rudolph (herself, underrated) and John Krasinski as a couple expecting their first baby and traveling to various locations in North America in hopes of finding the perfect place to raise the kid. They feel like a genuine couple and the movie is a fun, whimsical affair. It also includes a perfectly zany turn by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Call it the rom-com version of another Mendes movie, which we'll get to later. (Click here for my full review)

Speaking of Gyllenhaals, this one stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a marine, trained to be a sniper, stationed in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield. It's a fairly unique war movie in that it deals with how mundane war can actually be, particularly The Gulf War. Our hero fights boredom far more than he does any physical enemy. In fact, that's part of what makes Jarhead a special movie. Mendes shows so much happening even though nothing that the protagonist wants actually is.

Revolutionary Road
What's an unhappily married couple to do to bring the magic back into their relationship? It's simple. Move to Paris. At least, that's the plan hatched by the couple in question in Revolutionary Road. They are played brilliantly Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In fact, everyone who comes onto the screen does great work. That's another trademark of Mendes, getting the best out of his actors. In addition to our two stars, Michael Shannon fares particularly well, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. (Click here for my full review)

The transformation of James Bond into a real human being is complete with Mendes' deconstruction of the character. Sure, Bond has to save the world. More importantly, he has to figure out his place in that world. He questions everything about himself and doubts his own relevance. Mendes masterfully weaves this deep introspective version of an iconic macho man into a movie still featuring tons of insane action. It helps that Daniel Craig absolutely nails the lead role. Craig and Mendes are coming together for the director's next film, the (tentatively?) entitled Bond 24. I'm eagerly looking forward to it because Skyfall is my absolute favorite James Bond movie. Period. (Click here for my full review)

Road to Perdition
On paper, a gangster movie based on a graphic novel and starring the decidedly un-gangster Tom Hanks sounds too bizarre to work. However, in Mendes' sure hands it becomes a masterpiece of restrained story-telling. Hanks plays a mob enforcer who has to go on the run with his son after a job doesn't go as planned. Hanks is wonderful, the score is nerve racking and the look of the movie is simply breath-taking (Conrad L. Hall won the Oscar for Best Cinematography). The legendary Paul Newman earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. However, the real treat is a ridiculously unsettling turn by Jude Law. If you've never seen this, you probably have no idea how scary Mr. Law can be.

American Beauty
Here we have Mendes' debut feature, and it's one that many people consider one of the best films ever made. I can say with confidence that most of you reading this would also put it at the top of your own list of this director's movies. In case you've somehow missed it, it stars Kevin Spacey as a guy going through one hellacious mid-life crisis. His marriage is in shambles, his teenage daughter hates him, he hates his job, and to top it all off, he starts fantasizing about one of his daughter's friends. There's even more than that going on, but I'll stop there. Spacey won an Oscar for Best Actor for his work, here, and deservedly so. In all, the movie would win five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Mendes. To sum it up, I'll just say see the movie if you haven't. It's truly a fine piece of cinema.

How would you rank them? To be honest, you can put numbers 2, 3, and 4 in any order you'd like and I'd be okay with it.

Happy Birthday, Sam!


  1. Love this list! Mendes is such an underrated director. He has so many who give him flack but his resume is quite impressive when you think about it. I haven't seen Away We Go, but I really like/love the rest of his stuff.

    My ranking would look like this:

    1) American Beauty (like, duh)
    2) Skyfall
    3) Jarhead
    4) Road to Perdition
    5) Revolutionary Road

    All great films!

    1. All great indeed! Other than how long it is between films, I'm not sure why people give him flack. I think he's an amazing talent who has delivered greatness time and again.

  2. I've only seen half...and I didn't realise that he's done this few movies. And I really like all three that I've seen.

    1) American Beauty
    2) Road to Perdition
    3) Away We Go

    1. I was going to try and pick just one of the remaining three to say was a must see. I can't because I think they all are.

  3. Hi Wendell! I still need to see three of the films here but of the ones I've seen, I think Road to Perdition would be my fave, followed closely by Skyfall which is so excellent. I still rate Casino Royale as my fave from Craig's Bond films tho.

    1. Casino Royale certainly isn't a bad choice. I'm curious, though. What's the other Mendes film you've seen. Then again, it doesn't matter that much because I'll just say see the rest anyway.

  4. I haven't seen Revolutionary Road, but otherwise we'd have the same list. And I'm with you fully on Skyfall. Easily my favorite Bond film, even if that's not saying much in my case.

    1. Let's just say Revolutionary Road is a lot better than that other movie starring Leo and Kate.Ya know, the one with the boat.

  5. I don't really consider myself a fan of Sam Mendes as I think he's overrated at times but I did love Skyfall which I think is my favorite film of his so far and one of my 10 favorite Bond films. Based on what I've seen, here's how I will rank them:

    1. Skyfall
    2. Revolutionary Road
    3. American Beauty
    4. Road to Perdition
    5. Jarhead
    6. Away We Go.

    1. Love that Skyfall topped your list, but only a top 10 Bond film? Can we at least get a top 5? Just kidding... or am I? Lol at "Based on what I've seen." That's all of them!

      Just yanking your chain. Great comment.

  6. I still need to see Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, though I won't be rushing to see the latter. I'd rank them this way, though I will clarify that I'm a huge Bond fan and have seen all the films:

    1. Skyfall
    2. Road to Perdition
    3. American Beauty
    4. Jarhead

    I like all four of them, though there's a pretty large split between the top two and bottom two choices. I'll admit that I haven't seen American Beauty in a while, so it might be higher if I had a clearer memory of it.

    It surprises me to remember that Mendes only has six films.

    1. Another with Skyfall at the top. Cool. Of the other two, you have the right idea. See Revolutionary Road, soon. I wouldn't hurry on Away We Go, but if you're in the mood for a light hearted comedy, you could certainly do worse.

  7. I would absolutely rank American Beauty as my #1 (I already do, it's my favorite)
    1) American Beauty
    2)Revolutionary Road

    RR and Skyfall are close though. RR kind of makes me sad in away, because I feel like it contributed so much to Mendes and Winslet's marriage ending. I guess it fits with the tone of the film.

  8. Obviously, I'm with you on American Beauty. It's a masterpiece, ain't it? Interesting take on RR. Sadly, that really is fitting of the film's tone.

  9. Great work man. I love Mendes' films. And I agree that while Away We Go is a solid film, it's the easy choice for bottom. Jarhead is one of those odd films that every time I watch it, I actually like it more. That scene near the end, when the vet gets on the bus just slays me. Very powerful.

    1. Thanks. Mendes is a gem, no doubt in my mind. And I completely agree about Jarhead.