Total Recall

Total Recall: Ang Lee's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Life of Pi director.

by | November 20, 2012 | Comments

Ang Lee

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.”


9. Hulk

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.”


8. Ride with the Devil

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.”


7. Lust, Caution

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.”


6. The Ice Storm

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.”


5. Brokeback Mountain

The vast majority of Hollywood love stories tend to sort of blur together, but Brokeback Mountain is an exception to the rule: A beautifully filmed adaptation of the E. Annie Proulx story about the anguished affair between a pair of Wyoming ranch hands (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) whose years of self-denial slowly wreak havoc on their lives — and the lives of their loved ones. A three-time Oscar winner, Brokeback proved a triumphant return to form for Lee, and enjoyed almost universal critical acclaim on its way to becoming one of the biggest surprise box office hits of the year. “It has become shorthand to call Brokeback Mountain the ‘gay cowboy movie,’ but it is much more than that glib description implies,” scoffed Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “This is a human story, a haunting film in the tradition of the great Hollywood romantic melodramas.”


4. Eat Drink Man Woman

Using the family dinner table as a cornerstone, Lee delved into family dynamics with his second film: 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman, a richly layered look at the complex interactions between a widowed Chinese chef (Sihung Lung) who uses his craft as a way of staying close with his daughters (Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, and Yu-Wen Wang) as they grow into adulthood and try to navigate their way through careers, affairs, and tragedies. “What makes a movie like this work is how much you care for the characters,” observed Chris Hicks of the Desert News, “and each one here is very well-drawn and fully dimensional.”


3. The Wedding Banquet

Lee picked up his first Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his second feature film, 1993’s The Wedding Banquet — a smartly balanced dramedy about a gay Taiwanese American immigrant (Winston Chao) who tries to hide the truth about his sexuality from his family by marrying an artist (May Chin) who needs a green card. Of course, his plans go comically awry when his traditional parents insist on showing up to plan (you guessed it) a wedding banquet. “What makes the film work is the underlying validity of the story, the way the filmmakers don’t simply go for melodrama and laughs, but pay these characters their due,” observed an appreciative Roger Ebert. “At the end of the film, I was a little surprised how much I cared for them.”


2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The movie that took Ang Lee out of the arthouse and catapulted him into the ranks of upper echelon Hollywood filmmakers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set amazing (and utterly gonzo) martial arts battles against the beautiful scenery and tasteful drama of a story about a 19th century master (Chow Yun-Fat) whose retirement is complicated after his treasured sword is swiped by a mysterious woman (Zhang Ziyi) who may have ties to his sworn enemy (Cheng Pei-pei). A massive worldwide success that would go on to earn more than $200 million and net Lee a Best Picture Academy Award nomination, it moved an appreciative Roger Ebert to deem it “The most exhilarating martial arts movie I have seen.”


1. Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen’s books have inspired countless films, but with 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, Lee proved there was still cinematic gold yet to be spun from her stories. Working from an Oscar-winning screenplay by Emma Thompson (who also starred as the noble Elinor Dashwood), Lee offered a faithful representation of Austen’s 1811 novel about the financial and romantic aftershocks that reverberate through a landed British family after their patriarch passes away. Bolstered by an excellent cast that also included Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman, Sensibility resonated with Jeanne Aufmuth of the Palo Alto Weekly, who echoed the sentiments of the vast majority of her peers when she asked, “Enduring love, heartbreak, undying passion and bitter betrayal. What more could you ask from Jane Austen, and for that matter, from a film?”

In case you were wondering, here are Lee’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Eat Drink Man Woman — 90%
2. Sense and Sensibility — 88%
3. The Wedding Banquet — 85%
4. Lust, Caution — 82%
5. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — 81%
6. The Ice Storm — 79%
7. Brokeback Mountain — 77%
8. Ride with the Devil — 62%
9. Taking Woodstock — 47%
10. Hulk — 34%

Take a look through Lee’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Life of Pi.

Finally, here’s a clip from Lee’s debut film — Pushing Hands, from 1992: