In My Opinion: Ranking Sam Mendes’s First Five Films

Photo: Focus Features

After enjoying Sam Mendes’s latest film, Away We Go, and only mildly enjoying his previous film, Revolutionary Road, I decided to finally go back and revisit two of his films I hadn’t seen for a long time, American Beauty and Road to Perdition. When I first saw both of these films neither one of them lived up to expectation based on the praise and acclaim they had received. As a result I dismissed them to the back of my mind as mediocre movies I would likely never return to. That was, of course, before I started writing my own movie-based website, which means in order to keep up with the new you can’t forget the old. On top of that, opinions change over time and to make a judgment on a films you haven’t seen in seven and ten years is unfair.

So, with Away We Go expanding its theatrical reach to a whopping 132 theaters, and after getting myself straightened out and up to speed I felt why not take a look at Mendes’s first five films and open up a little discussion. This comes, I should note, on the heels of an announcement Mendes has made a two-year first-look deal with Focus Features, which includes the acquisition of two projects that could be potential directing vehicles for Mendes. You can read all about that right here, but for now let’s head to the list.

Revolutionary Road (2008)
Revolutionary Road had its vocal minority last year, championing the film as something fantastic, but I just can’t agree. However, when the #5 film on this list is one I gave a “B-” that is saying something about the quality of Mendes’s work. What I took away from Revolutionary Road was a skillfully acted film that never really connected as deeply as I thought it should have.
American Beauty (1999)
Admittedly, I enjoyed this movie more the second time around, and where it beats out Revolutionary Road is in its ability to incorporate its supporting characters. There are many similarities between the two films and where the supporting cast adds very little to the Wheeler’s story in Revolutionary Road the same can’t be said for those surrounding the Burnham’s. After this second viewing I really think this is a film I may actually enjoy more and more over the next few years, but only time will tell.
Road to Perdition (2002)
I’m still left with a little doubt when it comes to Road to Perdition although it is a tremendously fascinating film that takes you through so many emotions it’s hard to actually survive. When I first saw it back in 2002 I remember one of my number one drawbacks was Tom Hanks, not that he didn’t turn in a good performance, but I couldn’t seem to get myself to believe him in the role of Michael Sullivan. My issue with that still lingers, but it doesn’t affect me nearly as much as I almost catapulted Road to Perdition to the #2 slot, but it just missed.
Jarhead (2005)
I know I am in the vast minority when it comes to liking Jarhead, but it’s one of those films I just connected to. I’m not sure if it was my ability to enjoy a war film when everyone else wanted to avoid them, or just the fact I was able to take something out of it others weren’t. Whatever it is I truly enjoy this film and its ability to stand on the hill and neither be “for” or “against” war as much as it tries to show you another side of it all with performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx I won’t soon forget.
Away We Go (2009)
It seems unfair to go with such a recent film for #1, but the three films at the top of this list are so tightly nestled I could watch all of them again without complaint, and Away We Go is a film I came out of convinced it was Mendes’s best to date and my opinion on that has still not changed. It is certainly the director’s most accessible film, but I think those that have dismissed it seem to be looking for a film to mirror the somber tone of earlier Mendes features and passing this one off as a sickly sweet indie comedy. In fact, deep down, Away We Go deals with some extremely dark issues while finding a way to thoroughly entertain along the way. As of writing this list, Away We Go is still in theaters and I suggest you get out there and give it a chance. Lord knows there aren’t many better options.

So there you have it. That’s my take and I am sure many will disagree with my top choices vying for the more prestigious pictures, American Beauty and Road to Perdition, but one of the great things about Mendes’s films is there is hardly a line to be drawn between them. His first five films are all relatively solid works and at only 43-years-old and a brand new deal with Focus I expect we will be hearing his name for many years to come.


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