This year’s Toronto International Film Festival sees two directors offer personal tales of their love for movies. Steven Spielberg has The Fablemans, while Sam Mendes brings Empire of Light. The latter director is already primed as one of the certifiable Oscar contenders of the festival after Empire of Light wowed critics at both Venice and Telluride (although not unanimously). Moreover, Mendes will be making a stop at the TIFF Tribute Awards to pick up the Ebert Director honour. That’s a good bellwether since the last honourees were Chloé Zhao (who won the Oscar for Nomadland) and Denis Villeneuve (who strangely missed an Oscar nom for Dune despite the film netting the biggest haul of awards and nominations).
Empire of Light is a tale of love and cinema starring Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, and Colin Firth. It’s tale of a troubled marriage and of love found through the escapism of movies should be an extra shot of inside baseball for fans reared on Mendes’ filmography. Over the last 20 years, Mendes has directed eight feature films, which makes for a relatively doable but substantial retrospective. From a TIFF People’s Choice winner to a double-shot of 007, here’s a look back at the career of TIFF Tribute Award winner Sam Mendes. – Pat Mullen
The Films of Sam Mendes
American Beauty (1999)
Winner of the People’s Choice Award at TIFF in 1999, American Beauty was one of the year’s most acclaimed and awarded films, winning 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film was lauded for its strong performances and nuanced themes. The story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) as the everyday suburban couple trapped in a prison of their own making captured the minds of critics and audiences alike. Mendes’ directorial debut put to celluloid the fears of middle America: the white picket fence you bought and 2.5 children and created aren’t actual markers of success, they’re simply a sign of mundane conformity. American Beauty was also praised for its striking imagery and rich visuals. Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall leaned heavily into colour theory using smatterings of vibrant red to emphasise the jolt of passion and new life Lester saw and felt in his world of grey. They also created some of modern cinema’s most iconic images: a shower of rose petals falling from Mena Suvari’s chest and, of course, the plastic bag that floated through the sky.
Two years after the release of American Beauty, the world changed. Post-9/11, American Beauty suddenly didn’t seem as abundant with philosophical questions and thought-provoking discourse. Instead, the whining of the rich felt empty and meaningless. Fast-forward 20 years and the world has drastically changed again. Finally, misogyny and homophobia aren’t as readily accepted in our films and TV shows, especially when deployed to assist a 40-something straight rich dude in finding happiness and closure in his lily-white world. (The idea that Lester’s last minute decision not to have sex with his under-aged daughter’s friend because she’s a virgin was ever interpreted as honourable is nauseating.) Time has not been kind to this film, a sentiment that only intensified when Spacey was accused of making unwanted sexual advances towards an actor who was 14 at the time, among other allegations of sexual assault and harassment. American Beauty is a film that’s the product of its time, and one that could be made with a great deal more tact today. – Rachel Ho
Road to Perdition (2002)
The crime drama marked Mendes’ meticulous attempt at bringing Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner’s Depression-era graphic novel to the big screen. Expertly crafted and starring an enviable cast of A-listers including Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stanley Tucci, and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, the film is a meditative look at revenge, violence, self-discovery, and family wrapped up in the trapping of a traditional mob movie. Conrad L. Hall’s Oscar-winning cinematography was particularly lauded by film fans and critics alike, and it’s no wonder, given the film’s truly memorable aesthetic and atmosphere. That said, despite its stellar visuals, an evocative Thomas Newman score, and some truly excellent performances, the film has often been criticized for failing to connect with audiences emotionally, leaving many cold. In fact, Road to Perdition is rarely mentioned in larger career retrospectives of those involved, but it’s a film well worth revisiting–even if just to decide for yourself. – Emma Badame
A film about boredom that is far from boring, Sam Mendes’ 2005 Gulf War Marine drama feels often overlooked amid his filmography. Less about war than the effects of battle on the U.S. Marines stationed near Kuwait, Mendes’ film tells the real-life tale of sniper Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his spotter (Peter Sarsgaard) as the isolated soldiers struggle with maintaining composure and their sanity while the world around them falls apart.
Tinged with dark humour and highlighted by pop songs, Mendes challenges conceived notions of what a war film is expected to look like – for a movie about war, there isn’t much war to be seen in Jarhead. With cinematographer Roger Deakins on hand, the desert vistas transform into otherworldly plains, especially when set among the burning oil fields at night. Co-starring Jamie Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes, the chemistry between the trio of actors (mostly resting on pals-turned-brothers-in-law Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard) is what really sells Mendes’ film. Arguably a better take on the Gulf War than David O. Russell’s Three Kings, Mendes’ third feature film shows that he can make even a large-scale epic feel like an intimate drama, paving the way for his 1917 almost 15 years after Jarhead. – Rachel West
Revolutionary Road (2008)
In a sad tale of life imitating art, Sam Mendes and then-wife Kate Winslet delivered some of the best work of their careers with 2008’s Revolutionary Road before splitting in 2010. The film adapts the novel by Richard Yates about the breakdown of married couple Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) as suburban malaise kills the spark of their happy marriage. If April and Frank seem like Rose and Jack when Revolutionary Road begins, though, don’t be fooled. Revolutionary Road features a brilliant fusion of star persona and performance by casting Winslet and her Titanic co-star in this tale of shattered dreams. The youthful innocence and optimism of Jack and Rose yields to the hardened misery of George and Martha as Winslet and DiCaprio have explosive scenes that evoke the bitterest of showdowns between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Revolutionary Road is my personal favourite of the Mendes’ oeuvre and a nice follow-up to American Beauty and, I think, one that ages better and perfectly capture the soul-crushing hell that is suburban living. – PM
Away We Go (2009)
Sam Mendes’ other marriage story, Away We Go, might be the outlier in his filmography, but I adore its offbeat charm. It’s a road movie through the trials of building a life with a family as Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski) travel the USA and connect with family and friends while finding their way home. Away We Go wears its heart on its sleeve, but I love how it’s such an uncontrived study of what it means to have an authentic relationship, messiness and family drama involved. What I really love about Away We Go is the way it reflects a mature outgrowth of the “Indiewood” aesthetic that unfortunately defined much of 2000s cinema with incessantly quirky films like Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine. Away We Go admittedly has an element of indie cinema kitsch, but it’s more mature and lived-in. A soundtrack of songs by Alex Murdoch, moreover, fuels the road trip with a guiding voice that transports a viewer through the vicissitudes of Verona and Bur’s journey. It’s still one of my go-to soundtracks while cooking a slow meal. – PM
The director’s first foray into 007 territory is not only one of Bond’s best overall outings, but it’s a damn fine film–full stop. Skyfall touches on all of the franchise’s trademarks: gadgets (though streamlined), cars (hello, classic Aston Martin DB5), epic theme songs, high-speed chases, and over-the-top villains (Javier Bardem has never had more fun). It even includes its fair share of callbacks, but Mendes mixes things up enough to prevent the film from seeming stale, which is no mean feat for a series that’s been around for over five decades. What’s never changing, at least when it comes to Bond himself, is the man’s loyalty to Queen and Country, and to the one person whom he trusts above all others: M (Judi Dench). As audiences continue to get to know more about Bond the man-a hallmark of Daniel Craig’s tenure–Skyfall smartly drops the climax right on 007’s front doorstep, allowing legendary cinematographer (and frequent Mendes collaborator) Roger Deakins to showcase the Scottish Highlands as only he could. Though Mendes returned to Bond once more, his 2012 effort was the pinnacle of his contributions to the franchise. – EB
Spectre refreshingly shakes off the influence of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies that demanded franchise films are dark and sombre. Spectre is classic Bond escapism. Directing Bond movies back to back, Mendes works on a larger scale this time with locations that are more exotic, grander sequences, and bigger explosions. Spectre is technically proficient and the elaborate set pieces are impressive, especially the Day of the Dead sequence, and the film finds some additional artistry in the lensing by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has the thankless job of trying to match the breathtaking cinematography by Roger Deakins in Skyfall. Deakins took 007 and transformed the franchise into art, and Hoytema admirably gives Bond a sleek aesthetic. Spectre isn’t a bad but, but it just isn’t Skyfall. – PM
This riveting war film takes the hashtag #OnePerfectShot to another level. The conceit of 1917 is that Mendes stages the drama à la Birdman to resemble a single long take. Through expertly choreographed scenes shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins and imperceptibly edited by Lee Smith (Dunkirk), the film lets viewers experience war in real time as they wade deep into the trenches and onto the battlefields to witness the horrors of war alongside soldiers Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman). 1917 is a physically and emotionally demanding opportunity to retrace the footsteps of soldiers who changed history. It’s also an exhilarating opportunity for the actors to connect with audiences as they provide the eyes through which we experience the war through every step of the soldiers’ journey.
It’s proof that helming Bond-level blockbusters aren’t merely huge paydays as smart filmmakers can really make art films on the same level. 1917 swept the awards season of 2019-2020 until being squashed by Parasite in the best Oscar upset ever. The right film won, but Mendes probably could have grabbed his second Oscar any other year. – PM