American Beauty is in no way a bad film. It was the first film directed by Sam Mendes after a career in the theatre, and it's clear that the director put a huge amount of work into it. Similarly, writer Alan Ball put a lot of his personal experiences and views into the script over the better part of a decade, and that care is apparent on the screen.
But was American Beauty, the Lolita-esque film about a rich middle-aged man creepily grooming his teenage daughter's best friend to have sex with him, really the best film of 1999? Of course, it wasn't. It sure wasn’t the worst (that would be Wild, Wild, West), but it’s such a unique product of its time, it’s hard to imagine anyone being particularly sympathetic to Lester Burnham in 2017.
The film resonated so well with critics and Academy Award judges in 1999 because it was well crafted, and because it had legitimately funny pitch black humour in abundance – which was a novelty at the time. Most importantly, though, all the narratives and themes in the film resonated with privileged, white, middle-aged males. You'll recognise that as the exact demographic that makes up basically the entire Academy Awards voting bloc, and in 1999, the vast majority of the film criticism industry.
Due in no small part to its creepy sexism, fragile masculinity, and profoundly nostalgic views, a critical backlash has emerged in the ensuing years. Even Sam Mendes has stated that he thinks the film was ‘over-praised’ when it came out.
It still might look gorgeous, but it sure feels a whole more shallow than it once did.
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