Total Recall: Ang Lee's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Life of Pi director.
Over the course of his Academy Award-winning career, Ang Lee has crossed over from Taiwanese box office successes to American arthouse classics and Hollywood blockbusters, proving his hand with family drama, comedy, period pieces, epic martial arts action, romance, and even superheroes along the way. But up 'til now, he's never tried making a 3D adventure about a shipwrecked boy and his CGI tiger -- so in honor of this weekend's Certified Fresh Life of Pi, we decided to take a look back at Lee's wildly eclectic filmography, and came up with a list that has something for pretty much everyone. You know what that means: It's time for Total Recall!
10. Taking Woodstock
A rare critical misfire for Lee, 2009's Taking Woodstock found the director heading back in time to 1969 to tell the story of Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), the interior designer who helped make Woodstock happen by offering the festival organizers boarding at his motel after hearing they'd lost their permit. While most critics agreed that Lee did a fine job of capturing the period detail of a watershed moment in America's cultural history, many felt he failed to effectively convey the dramatic stakes of his story -- although for a handful of dissenters, the whole was still more than the sum of its parts. "This is very light material, and, unusually for a Lee picture, not everybody in the ensemble appears to be acting in the same universe, let alone the same story," wrote Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, then conceding, "On the other hand: It's fun."
One of the most highly anticipated films of the summer of 2003, Hulk represented Lee's first foray into the CGI-assisted world of big-budget superhero blockbusters. Filmed just as the genre started coming into its own as something other than purely escapist entertainment, Hulk proved that comic book flicks had something to offer for "serious" directors -- even if the end result was regarded as something of a critical and commercial letdown. The character would return a few years later in a hastily convened reboot, but for some scribes, Lee's take was just fine on its own -- including Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer, who called it "an interesting effort to give one of the staples of mass entertainment something extra in the way of insight and feeling."
Skeet Ulrich, Tobey Maguire, and Jewel in a Civil War movie? Leave it to Ang Lee, who teamed the three in his Civil War-set period piece about a pair of young southerners (Ulrich and Maguire) with different backgrounds, but the same goal: To fight for the Confederacy. Battling the North with an eclectic crew of fellow soldiers (including a former slave played by Jeffrey Wright), the duo crosses paths with a pregnant widow (Jewel) whose presence signals a shift -- and potential break -- in their friendship. "This isn't the usual Civil War tale of learning to respect a man regardless of his race," observed Jeffrey Overstreet of Looking Closer. "It's about how true freedom comes from love, from respect, and from self-sacrifice."
Before taking his audience to the 1960s for Taking Woodstock, Lee traveled back in time for his previous film, 2007's Lust, Caution, a World War II drama that uses the adulterous affair between a Hong Kong college freshman (Tang Wei) and a politician (Tony Leung) as the fuel for a sumptuously filmed romance-slash-espionage thriller spanning several years -- and some of the most crucial moments in 20th century global politics. Admitting it could be "overwrought and overlong," the AP's Christy Lemire argued that "Lust, Caution nevertheless has some moments of exquisite beauty and a potentially star-making performance from newcomer Tang Wei."
He probably wasn't the first director that anyone expected to weigh in with a trenchant observation on the American cultural mores of the 1970s, but that's exactly what Ang Lee did with 1997's The Ice Storm -- an impeccably cast, sensitively filmed adaptation of the acclaimed Rick Moody novel about the largely unspoken divisions festering in a well-to-do suburban Connecticut family. Replete with sadness and populated by deeply flawed characters, Storm could have been an unintentional parody of the '90s indie scene in less capable hands -- but instead, as Rick Groen wrote for the Globe and Mail, it's "a remarkable film that takes us straight into John Updike territory, duplicating on screen exactly what the writer achieves on the page."