Few filmmakers explore a more vivid range of humanity in their films than Sam Mendes. After earning acclaim as a stage director, Mendes transitioned to film with the Oscar-winning “American Beauty,” before embarking on a career marked by stories about struggling individuals, complex relationships and an ultimate, often desperate search for something hopeful. Celebrating his 54th birthday on August 1, Mendes’ cinematic career turns 20 this year; to commemorate that benchmark, Moviefone ranks all of the director’s films.
7. “Spectre” (2015)
James Bond has seldom been treated more poorly than in this clumsy reimagining of some of the series’ iconic mythology (iconic baddie Ernst Stavro Blofeld inexplicably blames the super-spy for his unhappy childhood and consequently created an international terrorist network in order to exact his revenge). Mendes fails even to generate some compelling action set pieces, something the series can typically be relied upon to provide even when the story is lacking, but the film’s “Star Trek Into Darkness”-esque efforts to retcon the Daniel Craig era films into a cohesive whole only underscores how disjointed and uneven they’ve actually been.
6. “Revolutionary Road” (2008)
Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 book of the same name treads some of the same territory as his award-winning debut film “American Beauty.” Solid performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn and others fail to breathe new life into its story of troubled relationships, especially since it's set in the time period of the book, which makes the whole thing feel outdated and redundant. Moreover, Mendes doesn’t earn the film’s final coda, empathizing with a character who does not deserve the audience’s compassion.
5. “Jarhead” (2005)
Anthony Swofford’s memoir of his military time serving during Operation Desert Shield is unique not only in the frequent beauty of its imagery, but in being a “war film” that purposely has no war in it. The film offered solid early evidence of Jake Gyllenhaal’s talents as a dramatic actor, especially as he’s supported by a great cast that includes Peter Sarsgard and Chris Cooper. But the film also revisits a lot of similar ideas that have been covered in earlier movies about conflict zones and the psychological impact of maintaining constant readiness. "Jarhead" is compelling but not quite essential viewing.
4. “Road to Perdition” (2002)
Mendes helped audiences discover his (and our) future James Bond casting Daniel Craig in a supporting role in this unlikely but effective drama (based on an obscure comic book) about a hit man who delicately bonds with his son after his family is targeted by the mob. Working against type, Tom Hanks nevertheless molds Michael Sullivan Sr. into a compelling and sympathetic figure even as he displays some of the most brutal violence of the actor’s career, while Craig shines as his former boss’ jealous son and a thoroughly mussed Jude Law delivers a chilling turn as an even nastier assassin.
3. “Away We Go” (2009)
A sweetly intimate story about an expecting couple who travels the country looking for a new place to set up their family, Mendes proved he could chronicle romantic security and happiness as well as he already had done with disharmony. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play the parents-to-be as they encounter friends (and not-so-friendly acquaintances) who educate them not only about various cities where they could raise a family, but also about what kind of Mom and Dad they want to be. If it’s not his best film, it’s by far his most unappreciated.
2. “Skyfall” (2012)
Edged out only slightly by his debut, Mendes’ first Bond film easily ranks not only among his best films, but the best of the 007 franchise, as he creates a foe (Javier Bardem) going after not him but his cantankerous, beloved M (Judi Dench). Tapping into the legacy of the series and the evolving political complexities of a world that needs spies but sometimes doesn’t want to know what they’re doing in the name of national (and international) security, Mendes creates the spy equivalent of “The Dark Knight,” supplying thrills essential to the series while investing them with new emotional and sociopolitical substance.
1. “American Beauty” (1999)
20 years after it was released, it’s easy to look at Mendes’ debut as a superficial, almost glib portrait of suburban dysfunction, especially given how many similarly themed films were released around the same time and have perhaps aged better ("Fight Club," "Office Space," etc). But the film’s merits unfold with increasing nuance over the years, generating a compelling familiarity that shifts as you age with the film, lending new perspectives and humanities to characters audiences may originally have found themselves at odds with. Mendes captures the fractured surface beauty of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), the toxic juxtaposition of his ambitions and his wife Carolyn’s (Annette Bening), and then the transcendent, mundane imperfections of a younger generation determined not to relive the experiences (and mistakes) of their parents. It may be forever overshadowed by Spacey's personal ickiness, but its artistry shines on.