Director Spotlight: Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes is a director who has made some stellar films, yet he isn’t praised on the same level as other contemporary auteurs. You might not recognize his broad, adaptable style solely from the movie you’re watching, but his hearty contribution to a wide variety of genres cannot be understated. His films rely predominantly on acting, as Mendes is also a stage director. Breaking out into Hollywood with 1999’s American Beauty, his name has since become one of the Hollywood staples. Ranging from 2009 road trip comedy Away We Go to some of the best of the James Bond franchise, Mendes has proven the range to master any project thrown his way. With his newest film, Empire of Light, set to release this fall, what better way to celebrate this man than by ranking his filmography?


8. Spectre (2015)

I will start this ranking off by saying that although I have Spectre at the bottom of this list, it is not a terrible film; it is, at best, very mediocre. Although boasting some great features such as Christoph Waltz as Bond villain Ernst Blofeld, Dave Bautista as an evil henchman, Hoyte Van Hoytema at DP, and a killer Oscar-winning theme in Sam Smith’s “Writings on the Wall,” Spectre’s attempt to ride the high of Skyfall falls short. Daniel Craig is excellent as always as 007, but the film doesn’t add anything new to the table. I felt that Spectre is too busy paying homage to the previous three Bond films. It forgets about some technical aspects, such as Van Hoytema’s cinematography is off-putting due to the hideous lighting. The only thing keeping it from being worse than 2008’s Quantum of Solace is that Spectre had a more engaging plot.


7. Away We Go (2009)

Without a doubt Mendes’ most obscure film, Away We Go is a simple road trip comedy starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as a couple three months away from giving birth to a baby. As they travel around the US and Montreal, they try to find the proper town to start their family. Like Spectre, Mendes may not bring anything new to the road trip movie trope. However, exceptions can be made as Krasinski and Rudolph are charming together, and Alexi Murdoch’s music fits the film’s tone. Away We Go is vastly different from Mendes’ other work solely based on its brighter tone and comedic aspects. It’s commendable that Mendes tried a new genre, but he probably shouldn’t do it again as his strengths lie elsewhere. Again, it’s not a bad movie as it shoots for simplicity and works. This movie was made on a small budget of $17 million and made a little bit of magic with what limited resources it had.


6. Road to Perdition (2002)

I never thought I’d see Tom Hanks in a film as gritty as Road to Perdition, yet here we are. His acting chops work wonders with Mendes’ direction as Mendes crafts a solid follow-up to his breakout hit American Beauty. Acting as his second film and first/only outing in the crime genre, Road to Perdition is an underrated crime flick. Hanks plays an Illinois mob enforcer on the run with his young son to hunt down and kill the mobster that killed the rest of his family. Hanks isn’t the only star attached to this as Jude Law, Daniel Craig, and others are featured in minor supporting roles. Finally, acting legend Paul Newman is the antagonist mobster fitting the part to a tee. Thomas Newman composes a fantastic score that further develops a strong collaboration between himself and Mendes. Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography is meticulous and worthy of its Oscar win.


5. Jarhead (2005)

Widely regarded as Mendes’ weakest film alongside Spectre, I didn’t mind Jarhead. An intense character study, Jarhead follows a marine, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in one of his best performances, as he goes through basic training to prepare for the Persian Gulf War. During training, he’s offered a gun, and from the first day of using it, he wants nothing more than to kill with it. However, he later learns that the road from learning how to use the gun to achieving his first kill isn’t as straightforward as he thought. Gyllenhaal leads the film with an engaging performance as we see him face the ups and downs of being a marine and wanting to kill. Thomas Newman returns as the composer once again while Mendes makes his first collaboration with Roger Deakins as DP. Both do a stellar job as Mendes gives audiences a glimpse of what it was like being a marine in the Persian Gulf War.


4. Revolutionary Road (2008)

Mendes’ most Oscar bait-y film, Revolutionary Road is hands down Mendes’ most performance-heavy joint. Dynamic duo Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as Frank and April Wheeler, a complicated couple aspiring to be more than what society and 1950s America wants them to be. They dream of moving away from the generic American suburbia in Connecticut to Paris, but obstacles and personal troubles prevent them. DiCaprio and Winslet are joined by a small supporting cast of Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Kathy Bates, and Michael Shannon, who was Oscar-nominated for his role. Shannon may only be in two scenes, but he makes a statement as bold as the leads. As usual, Thomas Newman and Roger Deakins are here doing their thing. Their work is more prominent this time as Newman makes his most dreamlike score yet. Meanwhile, Deakins takes daring measures to get gorgeous shots, with a distinct use of dim indoor lighting. Overall, Revolutionary Road showcases some of the best acting Mendes has had in any of his works.


3. Skyfall (2012)

Easily the best Bond film in Daniel Craig’s tenure, Skyfall is a massive step forward for Mendes with his first crack at the action genre. Despite some action experience in Road to Perdition and Jarhead, Skyfall could’ve easily been a disaster for Mendes. However, he manages to elevate the Bond franchise to new heights.

Bond has his most daring opponent yet in Raoul Silva, played to a tee by Javier Bardem. As Silva’s threatening shadow continues to overcast MI6, secrets from the past come to the surface, and Bond questions everything he’s ever known. Mendes not only crafts an action flick with fight sequences worthy of wowing audiences, but he’s given a script by Neal Purvis, John Logan, and Robert Wade that adds another level of intensity. Bardem once again proves he can make a killer villain, adding relatability to his conniving. Deakins and Newman are, you guessed it, doing their thing as effortlessly as always. However, Adele’s theme song adds a new level of epicness to the film and is easily the best Bond theme.


2. American Beauty (1999)

Mendes’ Best Picture-winning directorial debut is a dreamy yet supremely dark tale of lust and the need to break free. Featuring a groundbreaking lead performance from Kevin Spacey, American Beauty features an effortless ensemble of Annette Benning, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, and Chris Cooper. The movie cements the element of substantial acting ensemble viewers will find in other Mendes films. Looking to break free from his ho-hum life, Lester Burnham becomes infatuated with his daughter’s best friend and makes decisions that hope to make his life better, from buying his dream car to working at a fast-food restaurant. This movie marks the first collaboration between Mendes and Thomas Newman. Newman delivers a score that’s gentle, seductive, and often dark, making for a rollercoaster of emotion for viewers. Conrad L. Hall shot this film, employing a red, white, and blue color scheme to great effect.


1. 1917 (2019)

To put it simply, 1917 was a moment for me! It was a movie that moved me to tears, not always because of something emotional happening on screen, but because the movie was such a beautiful sight to behold.

As two young British soldiers go off on a mission to call off an attack that could change the status of World War 1, they race against the clock to call off an attack, encountering booby-trapped bunkers and German soldiers at almost every corner. In a standout performance, George MacKay leads the film as Lance Corporal Schofield, one of the soldiers tasked to call off the attack. MacKay perfectly captures the resilience that Schofield embodies. Newman is again penning the score and crafts his best work in a Mendes film. Deakins is also back as DP and crafts his second Oscar win with his long-take cinematography and superb use of lighting. 1917 is a movie that took me by surprise and is my favorite Mendes movie as well as my favorite in the war genre.

-Tyler

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