Critically acclaimed English filmmaker, Sam Mendes, is known for his brilliant vision, both in the theatre and cinema. He has won Academy Awards as well as the Tony in 2019 for directing the play, The Ferryman. His filmmaking legacy is considerably great as well, with brilliant works such as American Beauty, 1917 and more.
Although Mendes was interested in cinema, he was turned down by the University of Warwick when he applied to study as part of their film course. Instead, the budding filmmaker studied English from Cambridge University, a factor which continues to be a visible influence in many of his narratives. He also developed a passion for theatre and joined the famous Marlowe Society at Cambridge. Speaking of his influences, he cited Paris, Texas, Repo Man and True Stories as three “seminal film moments”.
On his 55th birthday, we take a closer look at the amazing filmography of one of the most accomplished contemporary filmmakers.
All of Sam Mendes’ Films Ranked:
8. Spectre (2015)
Spectre, admittedly, is one of the mediocre James Bond films despite having a budget of almost $300million. The stunning visuals and sound design are in constant conflict with the presentation of the same old clichés that one can expect from a Bond film. That said, two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz puts up a brilliant performance as the main antagonist, Blofield.
With psychologically driven narratives and the engaging tension of a crime thriller, Spectre had the potential to be one of the best in the series but it never really explores the issues it presents. Although it has its flaws, it is hard to disagree with the fact that it is an entertaining watch.
Speaking about the plot of Spectre in an interview, Mendes said, “You don’t have to immediately set out your story by giving context, telling the audience who the characters are, or anything like that. You can start in the middle.”
He added, “I wanted to make full use of that freedom in Spectre and drop the audience right into the middle of something, and give them almost no signposts. Put them in the middle of a labyrinth and let them work their way out of it with the character. And then, gradually reveal story later.”
7. Revolutionary Road (2008)
Set in 1950s America, Revolutionary Road is an exploration of the idea of a romantic relationship and the normative and performative roles all of us are expected to play. Mendes proves that he is more than capable of telling intimate stories that are universal in their appeal. Based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel of the same name, Revolutionary Road is an intelligent adaptation in which Mendes adds something of his own to make the film feel familiar but new at the same time.
Mendes’ 2008 film is a tragic story of an entropic marriage that, like everything else, is inevitably doomed. The Wheelers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are brilliant and manage to create very memorable characters. Mendes earned his second Golden Globe nomination for this film.
“We’ve all been in those situations,” Mendes said. “Maybe not as extreme as April and Frank, but we’ve all found ourselves in bad relationships. We’ve all found ourselves trapped in situations we felt were not of our own making. And we’ve all found ourselves being dragged away from what we felt we really wanted in life. I think if I didn’t find some parallel with myself than I would have found it more difficult to make.”
6. Away We Go (2009)
Sam Mendes’ 2009 comedy-drama is a poignant story about a couple of would-be parents who travel across America in order to find the perfect place to raise their child in. Away We Go is a delightful film that is a unique addition to Sam Mendes’ filmography because it has none of the high-octane action that Mendes is famous for. It is an honest investigation of the concept of “home” and what it really means.
Sweet and sensitive, the two lead performances (played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) play a monumental part in making the film sentimental and funny. Mendes makes the characters seem real instead of two-dimensional entities that fail to move anyone.
Describing it as a ‘road-movie’, Mendes said, “I love the road movie genre and the road movie format. I like the simplicity of it: Start at A. Got to get to B. And the audience knows where you’re heading because they’ve got the itinerary. It’s like chapters in a book. The other thing I loved about this movie is that people keep trying to label it a ‘romantic comedy’, which it isn’t.”
5. Jarhead (2005)
One of Mendes’ finest works, Jarhead, is a subversive delight that destroys any voyeuristic expectations one may have about what a war movie should be. Sam Mendes’ vision is simultaneously hilarious and unsettling. He deconstructs the idea of what war is by presenting us with soldiers who do not know why they are fighting against enemies that do not seem to be there.
Jake Gyllenhaal puts up a powerful performance as an insignificant soldier who is lost in the vortex of confusion and anxiety. The cinematography is stunning and helps in creating a compelling battlefield that is left with the unfulfilled anticipations of more violence.
Mendes explained, “In its frustration of male desire it draws attention to the nature of male desire and it anatomises male desire. It’s a meditation, in a way, on it. That’s how this movie works, it’s a meditation on what makes men want to fight, what training a man to kill does to a man and how by frustrating it, it can destroy you in a different way. That’s where the heart of the film lies.”
4. Road to Perdition (2002)
Tom Hanks plays the role of a hitman during the Depression-era Midwest in Mendes’ 2002 film. Although it is a steep deviation from the roles he usually plays, Hanks puts up a convincing performance in this slow burn crime drama. Mendes rejects modern cinematic norms and sticks to classical conventions, choosing to focus on the beautiful visuals and impeccable set design as events on screen slowly unravel.
Mendes explores omnipresent concepts like crime, family and honour. The world that he recreates is one of decay and destruction. This 2002 film is an engaging examination of the historical specificity of its context which is still relevant.
“It seemed to me to have the grandeur of a Greek tragedy. I thought the story had one great idea, which is that the Tom Hanks character was forced to kill his own father, or his surrogate father [Paul Newman], in order to save his son,” Mendes elaborated. “But it was also set in a time when you could be cut adrift in the mythic landscape that was Prohibition-era America.”
3. Skyfall (2012)
Skyfall is one of the better James Bond films in recent memory. Sam Mendes re-imagines the Bond genre and creates something that is truly dark and visually stunning. Bond films are often memorable for their antagonists and this is one of the best examples of that. Javier Bardem fits the bill and plays around with the boundaries of his character, to great effect.
It is a very smart addition to the extensive legacy of Bond films. Sam Mendes stays true to his style and sets up a framework where the audience keeps expecting the archetypes associated with James Bond but Mendes keeps subverting them, in an insolent fervour.
In a 2012 interview, Mendes spoke of his own motivations behind making this film, “I have been down some blind alleys and felt I was repeating myself. I did Skyfall to shock and wake myself up. And it has certainly done that – and then some.”
2. 1917 (2019)
Mendes’ latest feature film is a moving account of two young British soldiers during the First World War who are ordered to go behind enemy lines in order to deliver a message. Mendes is successful in weaving the atmospheric tension into every scene. Although not as Beckettian as Jarhead, 1917 serves as a constant reminder of our own fragile mortalities.
A massive part of this immersive experience is made possible by the masterful cinematography of none other than Roger Deakins. It won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography this year. The film also won Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Editing, proving that it is one of the finest products of the craft of filmmaking.
“This is a war that finished that ended over 100 years ago, and we are still so aware of it, and that the generation of men that went missing,” Mendes commented. “If you go to the Somme, you go to these places which are very, very moving — these beautifully kept memorials to the fallen — the number of unmarked graves is what strikes you, just white crosses everywhere. And it struck me as very appropriate, therefore, that the two men we should follow are unknown, in a sense.“
1. American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty was Sam Mendes’ powerful directorial debut and was critically acclaimed when it was released, a film which explored the emptiness of middle-class life and the corrupted inclinations that found their genesis in ennui and bourgeois sensibilities. Although a lot has changed since then and the condemnable personal life of Kevin Spacey dampens the cinematic experience for new viewers, the film remains Mendes’ finest film and if it is unsettling, it is because it is meant to be so.
Mendes won his first Academy Award and his first Golden Globe for his spectacular debut, establishing himself as a force to reckoned with. He also earned a BAFTA nomination. There have peen few debuts as impactful as American Beauty.
Reflecting on his 1999 film, Mendes said, “American Beauty was perfectly timed. It was the end of the millennium, there was an obsession about older men and younger women in the era of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, it was post-Columbine, everyone was obsessed with what weapons were being made next door. And it was pre-9/11. I think if it had been post-9/11 it would have been seen as a very navel-gazing movie, but at the time it was perfect.”