Mendes.  Few modern auteurs have a resume that includes the 1-2 punch of American Beauty and The Road to Perdition and can (with confidence) boast that they’ve made the best James Bond film (it’s right there with Goldfinger). Jarhead and Revolutionary Road (as evidenced below) are far from misses as well. His work may be a little less authorial distinct than some of his peers (like a Lynn Ramsay who I’ll be getting to shortly on this list) but he has 1 top 500 film, 3 films that are in the top 100 of their decade, and makes gorgeous films.

Best film:  American Beauty. I’m not going to relitigate the “best debut of all-time” here but it’s safe to say there aren’t many with a stronger first film than Mendes. Welles, Godard, Truffaut to name a few. But I think Mendes debut is better than the Coen’s Blood Simple and many others typically mentioned when the topic comes up. Mendes’ film blends strong imagery, a throughout engaging narrative, and repetition in the surrealism sequences that indicate superior film form is on display.

it is, at the same time, a gobsmackingly sublime image (as art museum piece photography) and the work of a formal master who returns again to the surrealism sequences throughout
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another from American Beauty– the choice for the wide angle, the light pouring out of the door

total archiveable films: 5

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….and Jarhead (above) and Revolutionary Road (below) are supposed to be his “misses”
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top 100 films:  0

top 500 films:  1 (American Beauty)

top 100 films of the decade:  3 (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Skyfall)

most overrated: Mendes doesn’t have an overrated film. For some reason his films (as I’ll get to in the category below) are depressingly underrated. American Beauty is his only film in the TSPDT top 1000 and it’s at #808. I’m at #294 – but 1999 is semi-recent so that’s not awful.

most underrated:  Road to Perdition is superb. Of course it’s not in the TSPDT top 1000— so I went to the 21st century list and it is ranked as the #57 film (not bad, right?)—- well sort of— it’s ranked as the #57 film of 2002!!! Haha. Ahead of it are films like Chicago, About a Boy, Bend it Like Beckham… absolutely ridiculous.  

The Zoom-In Dolly-out Vertigo/Jaws shot here in Road to Perdition to great effect and magnificence
this entire sequence of the film in Road to Perdition should be Mendes’ case — I’d love to have this photography hanging on my wall
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Road to Perdition is littered with shots like these- look at the lighting choices, the dedication to designing the background
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Road to Perdition may be the single most underrated film of the 2000’s decade

gem I want to spotlight:  Skyfall. After 2009’s Away We Go (I’ve only seen it once and didn’t love it) Mendes was at a weird spot in his career (Jarhead and Revolutionary Road didn’t get great reviews either). He rebounded and brought his high-art style to a franchise that, even when it has been good in the past, has never had this kind of artistic ambition. The results are remarkable.

bringing cinema’s finest production design and photography to the action genre
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another from Skyfall — I’m still shocked Mendes was able to try so much artistically in a franchise not typically known for it

stylistic innovations/traits:  I’ll start with Sir Ridley Scott’s quote again because it’s one I love so much—“People say I pay too much attention to the look of a movie but for God’s sake, I’m not producing a Radio 4 Play for Today, I’m making a movie that people are going to look at.” – Ridley Scott. Look at Mendes’ images here- unless you’re blind or you prefer to read your cinema on the page it’s clear he’s one of the great talents to emerge on or since 1999. Mendes is simply a modern master of production design—staggeringly beautiful compositions.  His first two films were collaborations with the great Conrad Hall as his photographer and then Jarhead, Revolutionary Road and Skyfall were all with Roger Deakins. Before you try pushing artistic credit onto those two all-time great DP’s you’d have to consider what that would be saying about the career of say the Coen Brothers (the only directors to collaborate with Deakins more frequently—the Coen Brothers and Deakins have collaborated 12 times)—and look at Conrad Hall’s career— 1967 is tough to beat with In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke but I think you could argue it’s Hall’s career that needed Mendes’ as much, if not more, than the other way around.

top 10

  1. American Beauty
  2. Road to Perdition
  3. Skyfall
  4. Jarhead
  5. Revolutionary Road

By year and grades

1999- American Beauty MS
2002- Road to Perdition MS
2005- Jarhead R
2008- Revolutionary Road R
2012- Skyfall HR

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives