American Beauty (1999)

British theatre director Sam Mendes made a splash with his debut feature about suburban midlife crisis, centred around an Oscar-winning performance by Kevin Spacey.

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“A wonderfully resourceful and sombre comedy, as much about the perennial themes of self-delusion, conceit and madness as it is about the ephemeral idiocies of the day.”
Kevin Jackson, Sight & Sound, 2000

Downtrodden fortysomething Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) throws his family’s life into upheaval when he falls for his teenage daughter’s sexy best friend (Mena Suvari). While the theme of midlife crisis in the suburbs was hardly new, the treatment was, with stylised dialogue and voiceover by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood), beautifully matched by Spacey’s dryly idiosyncratic delivery.

Director Sam Mendes – working with veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall – displayed a visual fluency that was unexpected given his background in British theatre. Arguably though it’s Thomas Newman’s intricate and subtle score that has proved most enduring, especially the mournful piano and strings that accompany a shot of a plastic bag caught on the breeze, recycled by TV ads and trailers for more than a decade.

American Beauty and Mendes’s 2002 follow-up Road to Perdition were the last two films shot by veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who died in 2003 aged 76.

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