1999 • American Beauty

American BeautyAbout nine years ago in college, my good friend Chris Ahrendt raved about American Beauty. He swore it was one of the greatest movies he’d ever seen, and it must have been in order to be one of the five DVDs in his small collection. Chris brought the DVD over to my dorm room one night and we sat and watched it on my tiny iBook screen (DVD players were still relatively uncommon then). The next day, I went out and bought the DVD for my collection as well, seeing how I had fully agreed with Chris that American Beauty was in fact one of the greatest movies I’d ever seen too.

American Beauty stars Kevin Spacey as 42-year-old Lester Burnham, currently undergoing a mid-life crisis. He and his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) fight constantly and he is growing distant from his only child, Janie (Thora Birch). Things are turned even more upside-down when the Fitts family moves in next door and high schooler Ricky gets Lester interested in pot smoking. Lester quits his job and blackmails his company for $60,000 and takes a job at a fast food restaurant. He also begins working out in hopes of having sex with Janie’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari). Without any spoilers, it’s tough to say much else about the plot. But we are told at the beginning of the movie that Lester has just one year to live (unbeknown to him), and we are also told near the end that Lester has one day to live, so it’s no surprise that Lester is killed at the end of the movie. Though we find out who did it, the movie ends before any trials. There are alternate endings in the bonus features that show Ricky and Janie being framed for the murder.

Written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, American Beauty offers many different interpretations to many different people. Now I don’t have to feel stupid for not knowing exactly how to interpret it! According to Mendes via Wikipedia, the script seemed to be about something different each time he read it: “a mystery story, a kaleidoscopic journey through American suburbia, a series of love stories … it was about imprisonment … loneliness [and] beauty. It was funny; it was angry, sad.”

As Mendes said, I experienced lots of different emotions during the movie. I laughed out loud several times, I found myself shocked several times, I was sad a few times. My favorite moments included Lester loving life after quitting his job, buying a classic car and sitting around during the day playing with a remote control car; also the scenes with Buddy, the real estate king, had me laughing whether or not they were meant to be funny. I think it was just Peter Gallagher’s wild eyebrows! Another interesting aspect of the movie is that it shows both Janie and Angela topless, which is interesting considering Thora Birch was underage during filming. Not sure how they got away with that!

According to IMDB users, American Beauty is the 39th best movie of all-time and the sixth best Best Picture winner. The film won five Oscars, including Best Actor (Spacey), Best Director (Mendes), and Best Original Screenplay (Ball), and was nominated for several more awards. It is definitely one of my favorites from this project and probably in my all-time top ten movies. I ranked it at #4 on the project!

That’s it for the 1990s… we’re so close to finishing the project! Overall for the decade, I’d say Dances with Wolves was still the best, by a hair over American Beauty. Next up, 2000’s Gladiator.

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