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Sam Mendes American Beauty - 1999

―An unusually clever and shrewdly corrupt first feature‖

– Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Casually winning 5 Oscars (Director, Film, Actor, Screenplay and Cinematography) and narrowly missing the elite Big Five, with Annette Bening nominated for Actress, there‘s nothing like throwing yourself head first into the awards pool with your first feature. Mendes‘ equally stunning and visceral follow up ‗Road to Perdition‘ were to prove also that this was no fluke. This acerbic and cynical portrait of suburban family life is something of a rarity, not merely for its accumulation of awards, but also how quickly it found its way into people‘s hearts - it is both a critic‘s wet dream and massively popular.

In fact it manages to encapsulate quite a lot of dichotomies – both stylistic and substantial. It is beautifully and mesmerisingly captured by cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, particularly the infamous Mena Suvari rose petal dream sequence and the aimlessly drifting plastic bag sequence; contrasting the utter tedium of suburban life with the desire for passion, eroticism and most of all youth. And for all the saturated colours, quirky angles and slow, evocative sequences, it is never indulgent or overly artistic. The acting it goes without saying is spot on. Kevin Spacey is one of my favourite actors and you could justify such an assertion on this performance alone – the asparagus scene crystallizing the deft juxtaposition of incisive wit and mind-numbing boredom as he begins a journey of self-discovery. I could easily fill this blog post with praising adjectives for his performance alone, but alas the whole ensemble is impressive. Everything about this film tingles with perfection. From Thomas Newman‘s musical score to the precise editing and skilled direction. This is a searing, hilarious and hauntingly poignant film – a masterpiece perhaps and quite frankly a bloody amazing way to start one’s career.

Sidney Lumet 12 Angry Men – 1957
―If Lumet is not among the most famous of American directors, that is only because he ranges so widely he cannot be categorized. Few filmmakers have been so consistently respectful of the audience's intelligence‖.

- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times Pitch this to any Hollywood producer nowadays and it would probably be sent straight to the bottom of the pile. Such is the genius of Lumet‘s enduring courtroom-thriller set in one room, over one day that it matches, if not exceeds the tension, excitement and profundity of any modern action film. And yet its classic Hollywood through and through – one man, against 11 of his fellow jurors sets out to deliver justice, expose prejudices and triumph over the flawed law system. Credit then to Lumet‘s sterling filmmaking, creating an intelligent, multi-layered and gripping story. Proving that sometimes less really is more.

Frank Darabont The Shawshank Redemption - 1994
“[Darabont is] a first-time director with evident respect for the intelligence of his audience... this is an engrossing, superbly acted yarn‖

- Time Out London
Having just watched this again yesterday I was once again blown away by the sheer richness of this film. Both narratively – weaving in the stories of several inmates, emotionally – tackling hope, fear, salvation, freedom and all those other big, super profound themes, as well as visually and aurally. You can really feel the rain pouring down on Andy (Tim Robbins), smell the shit he has to crawl through and you are drawn into every word that Red (Morgan Freeman) has to say; it is bravura filmmaking. Some might say, as the lawyer who prosecuted Andy did, that‘s its all rather convenient. The prisoners are too likeable for convicts, the escape too unrealistic; but in a way that‘s the brilliance of this film, that it tips the scale toward the saccharine but is ultimately perfectly balanced between artistic/poetic and powerful and absorbing. A highly quotable, watchable and moving film – a classic by any standards.

Duncan Jones Moon – 2009
―A fresh blast of old-school sci-fi, bursting with ideas‖ - Empire magazine

Despite changing his name to the less conspicuous Duncan Jones, formerly Zowie Bowie, you get the impression David‘s son still needed to prove he was more than just the spawn of a rockstar. And with the smallbudgeted but well received ‗Moon‘ he did just that. This is a high-concept sci-fi movie. Not the Steven Spielberg cinema-filler sort, but an original, thoughtprovoking and well-executed take on the genre that harks back to classic sci-fi movies such as ‗Alien‘ and ‗2001:A Space Odyssey‘, wherein Sam Rockwell is an energy company worker stuck by himself in a space station on the moon who experiences an existential crisis. Jones‘ debut is pared down, stark and devoid of big-budget CGI, unlike follow-up ‗Source Code‘, but it makes the situation appear realistic and utterly relatable. Funny, chilling and quite frankly more refreshing than a glass of ice tea.

Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck The Lives Of Others – 2006
“a suspenseful, ethically exacting drama, beautifully realized by the writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck —melancholy, elegant and complicated.‖ - New York Times Set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall it follows a lonely police investigator whom finds a compassion for the artists, actors and writers he is employed to suppress. Don‘t be put off by the subtitles or by the potentiality for a dry German history lesson – this is one of the most thought-provoking and brilliantly disturbing films I have ever seen. It gets under your skin and forces you to examine a society where rigidity and authority threatens creativity and expression. Comparable to Shawshank there is a quiet dignity and hope to characters surrounded by a grey exterior of bleak immorality and totalitarianism. The restraint demonstrated by Donnersmarck is the mark (unintentional pun) of a fantastic director – shame he went on to direct The Tourist – in that he explores delicates issues with pure subtlety and perfection. Taut, tragic and torturously authentic.

Quentin Tarantino Reservoir Dogs – 1992
―Seminal, in terms of its discursive dialogue, bursts of ultra-violence and unsettling machismo, Reservoir Dogs still seems groundbreaking.‖ - Empire magazine

Oozing as much class as blood – the makings of Tarantino are all here; dialogue as sharp as the knife that de-ears Mr. Blonde‘s victim, stylish as the suits the failed criminals don, wickedly funny and sickeningly violent. Tarantino is an acquired taste and there‘s no denying that despite an original set-up (following the aftermath of a heist gone wrong) and creative editing there is more than a smattering of immortality and distastefulness. But boy has it got bite. Edgy, cinematic and a soundtrack to die for.

Ben Affleck Gone Baby Gone – 2007
―Ben Affleck may possibly have saved his career in the improbable role of director"
- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

Intelligent, complex and quietly devastating – from Ben Affleck?! His directorial debut is certainly a far cry from some of his performances, but such is the pleasant (in no way referring to the film‘s subject matter) surprise proffered by this film. His achievement here is capturing the bleakness of society wherein a young girl‘s disappearance leads to a soul-destroying search. The pace, mood, dialogue and portrayal of the desolatate Bostonian neighbourhood all resonate as much as the sticky topic of child abduction. It‘s a hard-hitting film that asks some tough questions, but done so with a tone of objectivity and understanding. Gritty, graphic and gripping. Gone, baby gone are Affleck’s days of mediocrity.

...and the best of the rest...

Anton Corbijin – Control, 2007 An ultra-stylish, moving and memorable music biopic. Neil Blomkamp – District 9, 2009 Politically charged and expertly rendered, a unique sci-fi. Richard Ayoade – Submarine, 2010 Quirky, cringy and refreshingly honest. A devilishly funny British coming-of-age tale.