Not every filmmaker wins the Academy Award for Best Director their first time out, but that’s just what happened to Sam Mendes. The filmmaker emerged from the theatrical world into the cinematic landscape with a taste for powerful imagery and heavy melodrama, and although he sometimes struggles to find the right balance between the two, his best films are exceptionally impactful and — sometimes — incredibly fun. Let’s take a look at Sam Mendes’ complete filmography, from his very worst films to his very best.
8. “SPECTRE” (2015)
Turgid and predictable, Mendes’ second outing as a James Bond director is a big step down after “Skyfall.” Bond is back, and he’s investigating a mystery villain who acts just like his classic villain Blofeld but is, in this film’s idea of a twist, actually his classic villain Blofeld. (Christoph Waltz is on the nose but decent as the main villain, but his henchman Mr. Hinx, played by Dave Bautista, is more memorable.) “SPECTRE” makes the mistake of taking Bond so seriously he’s just not fun anymore, even when the story unfolding around him is old-fashioned super-spy ridiculousness.
7. “American Beauty” (1999)
Mendes’ directorial debut won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and won Mendes the Academy Award for Best Director. But nowadays “American Beauty” feels oddly, and awkwardly, backward. Kevin Spacey stars as a middle-aged family man whose life takes a turn for the better when he develops a crush on his daughter’s high-school best friend, which sends everyone around him into a tailspin. “American Beauty” is a series of arch, often artificial moments, but those moments are elevated by Conrad L. Hall’s sumptuous cinematography, Thomas Newman’s mischievous score, and an excellent ensemble cast (although nowadays Spacey’s performance carries uncomfortable baggage).
6. “Revolutionary Road” (2008)
“Titanic” co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunited, with Kathy Bates no less, in a handsome adaptation of Richard Yates’ classic novel, about a married couple suffocating themselves in the confining social mores of the 1950s. Mendes’ approach to the material is confident, relying on the actors and the material to grab our attention, but although everyone turns in fine work — particularly Winslet, and a scene-stealing Michael Shannon — thematically the film plays like just another face-punch to Americana, as though cynicism about social institutions should be more than enough by itself to blow our minds.
5. “The Road to Perdition” (2002)
Based on the graphic novel by Max Alan Collins, which was itself inspired by the “Lone Wolf and Cub” manga and live-action films, “The Road to Perdition” is a crime saga about an assassin who goes on the run from his old employer with his young, innocent son along for the ride. But it’s also a gorgeously filmed arthouse period piece about family tragedy and moral conflict. At the film’s best, Mendes balances his heady aspirations with the story’s lurid violence. At its worst, “The Road to Perdition” falls out of synch and leans so hard on Conrad L. Hall’s fantastic cinematography that the pulpy narrative loses its entertainment value.
4. “Skyfall” (2012)
Mendes’ first James Bond movie is one of the highlights of the franchise. The stunning photography by Roger Deakins returns the series to its alluring glory, the dynamic villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is one of the super-spy’s greatest foils, and the story’s personal stakes lend “Skyfall” more heft than the vast majority of its predecessors. But it’s also, never forget, a 007 movie, so no matter how hard Mendes tries to make this film look like the classiest film ever made, the story still relies on laughable implausibilities and clashing tones. No matter. “Skyfall” gets the mix just about right and stands out as Bond at its best.
3. “1917” (2019)
Mendes’ most ambitious film to date, on a technical level, is a gimmicky World War I “men on a mission” movie about two soldiers ordered to bring a message to the front line, to cancel a misguided attack before thousands of men perish. The simplistic construction of “1917” belies its jaw-dropping technical complexity; Roger Deakins films the action as though it was (mostly) one continuous shot, floating from one unbelievable set piece to another with eerie seamlessness. The actual story plays a lot like watching someone else play a third-person video game, right down to the scavenging side quests — collecting milk solves a puzzle later! — but watching the landscape warp as war transforms the planet, even in microcosm, is undeniably incredible to witness.
2. “Jarhead” (2005)
Mendes’ greatest war film to date is about aggressively masculine men rendered impotent by the modern war machine, and that’s a contrast that carries “Jarhead” all the way. The movie takes place during Operation Desert Storm, a war unlike those of previous generations, one which was difficult to fathom, let alone romanticize. Jake Gyllenhaal enlists, falls into the rhythm of war, and is denied the outlets for that aggression, which would make anybody lose it after a while. Funny and satirical, tragic and dour, “Jarhead” impressively embodies and sends up the madness of war.
1. “Away We Go” (2009)
The majority of Sam Mendes’ films feature heavy storylines and equally forceful imagery, but his best film is his most intimate. “Away We Go” stars Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski as a young pregnant couple who have no idea where to raise their family, and travel North America visiting friends and family as they search for the answer. The film’s episodic structure keeps “Away We Go” centered as a series of amusing vignettes, but the incredible characters we meet along the way — and the absolutely lovable protagonists — are indelibly, delightfully human. Absolutely charming filmmaking from Mendes at his absolute best.