Broker Check


May 06, 2024

A friend of mine – who is also a huge movie buff – reminded me with a recent post that this is the 25th anniversary of the greatest film year of my lifetime – 1999. A top ten list (or top twenty or even top fifty) from 1999 rivals a top ten list from many other decades. Given that reminder, I thought it fitting to discuss the Best Picture from that year (Oscar winner – not the best film as you will soon read), American Beauty (1999, dir. Sam Mendes).

American Beauty is a story told mostly through the eyes of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who is a deeply unhappy middle-aged man with the appearance of a perfect life. What follows is his mid-life crisis where we see Lester quit his job, blackmail his supervisor for severance, start working at a fast-food restaurant with “the minimal amount of responsibility”, develop a creepy crush on his daughter’s (Thora Birch) best friend (Mena Suvari), and start to push away his domineering wife (Annette Bening). This all plays out with their new neighbors (Chris Cooper, Allison Janney, and Wes Bentley) playing an integral role in each of their lives.

When I first saw American Beauty, I definitely had a higher opinion of it. I still find it to be a fantastic film (being the 81st best film of all time is still remarkable), but there was a time I had it in my top twenty. It has slipped for me as some of the techniques employed get utilized to better effect after the fact and some of the emotional punch is illuminated as movie magic or as I have matured and asked myself why I did not see certain elements coming. However, I would rather spend this space extolling its virtues, of which there are many.

Every aspect of the film succeeds for me. Start with a first-rate script from Alan Ball (possibly best known for his work on True Blood). The dialogue is punchy and realistic enough that it feels like a good play rather than a movie in its immediacy. Add in stellar performances from Spacey, Bening, Cooper, Birch, and Bentley and you improve the end product even more. (For the life of me, I will never understand how Wes Bentley did not become his generation’s Brad Pitt.) Top it off with remarkable technical elements (Conrad Hall’s cinematography is stunning, though I had to watch the DVD commentary track to fully appreciate it. Remember DVD commentary tracks? What a time.), and you have a truly fantastic cinematic experience from start to finish. Well…except for the horrendous performance from Mena Suvari. It seems she recognized all her role required was to be cute and decided she would only work that hard. Imagine if that role were something more – as it certainly could have been in the hands of a more accomplished actor.

But this was 1999. You had great arty movies (Magnolia, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, The Insider, Fight Club, The Matrix, and Bringing Out the Dead). You had great fun movies (Galaxy Quest, Muppets from Space, Office Space, American Pie, Drop Dead Gorgeous) and great innovative films (Eyes Wide Shut, The Blair Witch Project, Cradle Will Rock, South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut). It was an embarrassment of riches where American Beauty stood above them all at the time – both at the Oscars and in reality. Looking back, I believe most would redo that choice (though which film would emerge as the favorite might be a weeks-long argument).

I believe film critic Guy Lodge said it best regarding the film’s triumph and subsequent fall when he said, “Twenty years on, American Beauty isn’t as clever as we thought it was, though it’s inadvertently aged into a kind of wounded, embattled wisdom. Perhaps it’s worth looking closer.”

FUN FACT – The role of Lester Burnham (which won Spacey his second Oscar) was originally offered to Chevy Chase. Read that sentence again. Now try to imagine this film with Chevy Chase instead. Yeah…

Just Watch says that American Beauty is currently streaming on Paramount +, Showtime, Hoopla, and PlutoTV (with subscriptions). It is also available for rent/purchase on most platforms including Apple TV, YouTube, and Amazon Prime.

As a reminder, here is the original post that details the scores and weighting system.