7. Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Now we get into the good stuff. Sense and Sensibility doesn’t feel as inspired as a period piece as something like Pride and Prejudice (2005), but damn is it consistent throughout. It’s filled with dashing leads and Elinor Dashwood is an elite Jane Austen lead, pining for love while feigning a pleasant demeanor to for those around her.
The screenplay rightfully won the award at the Oscars, as it smartly removes the less essential elements without butchering the elegance of the dialogue in Austen’s works. Perhaps it is not quite what Lee does best, but it’s hard to find that much wrong in a drama so solid throughout.
6. Lust, Caution (2007)
If you want a Lee movie that constantly throws it in your face how good of a director Lee is, Lust, Caution is your film. Set during WWII, it concerns as theater troupe attempting to kill an official in the Japanese government. How do they do try to do it? By using one of their own as seducer.
As you can imagine, Lee goes absolutely nuts indulging in each patient, tantalizing scene of seduction. The NC-17 sex scenes may have been the talk of the town in 2007 but they really just overshadow how great of a slow burn the dynamic between the two leads is. And who thought a film like this could even be sustained for over 150 minutes? It’s insane the production design is operating at such a high-quality, immersive level. And Lee isn’t distracted with the amount of money he has nor the special VFX he can play with. He zeroes in on slowly transitioning what seems to be a playful take on the spy genre into a no-nonsense, incredibly tense thriller.
5. Life of Pi (2012)
Life of Pi isn’t this low because it’s bad, far from it. It has no right to be engaging as it is with Pi alone for so long. Some of the visuals are breathtaking and it’s one of those rare feel-good movies that don’t feel cheap in any capacity. It is every bit as inspiring now as it was back then and an absolute powerhouse on the emotional front. The final goodbye is one of cinema’s most bittersweet, and Pi’s story of faith is one of the least contrived you will ever see, an authentic showcase for the importance of faith when life is at its worst.
But at times it does feel like Lee is trying to just present the most mystical imagery possible. And while it was impressive in 2012, like Gravity, the initial wonder has worn off. Still very pretty to look at but can feel like an experiment rather than a natural part of the story. Furthermore, the blending in of Pi’s past can feel clunky, specifically for the first hour of the film’s runtime and is arguably handled better in the novel, but on the whole Life of Pi is a great Ang Lee movie deserving of much of its praise.
4. The Ice Storm (1997)
The coldest part of The Ice Storm isn’t the weather; it’s the unrelenting coldness with which each character treats the rest of their family. It’s an all-time family drama, using a glorified event such as Thanksgiving to expose the animosity and jealousy in a distinctly American family.
While you can usually get a strong sense of hope in Lee’s movies, The Ice Storm is nearly all despair. Scene after scene we just get brutal truth after brutal truth revealed. The main couple grow increasingly hostile and are more swept up in the idea of cheating on their spouses. Their daughter, robbed of love from her parents, seeks to fulfill the hole by dabbling in sex with a teenage boy. And with such choices, comes fallout nearly unbearable to watch. But the tense moments are not quite as impactful as the soft ones, when Lee focuses in on the devastation on the faces of the main trio, expertly complemented by the shots of nature and a slightly haunting school. The Ice Storm deserves all the hype and more, an Ang Lee work that should be up there with the best with an all-time ending to boot.
3. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Both an exquisite father-daughter movie just as telling and emotionally packed as Interstellar, and a loving tribute to food that will make you as hungry as Big Night. This is the first essential Lee movie. If Evil Dead II is Raimi’s perfect balancing act of comedy and horror, this is Lee’s perfect balance of comedy and drama. He seamlessly weaves in and out of sobering moments of drama and delightfully cheery banter in the family. It is the first of his works that really exemplifies his eye for detail, which manifests both in the performances and the food itself.
The opening cooking sequence is one of his best scenes, and it overall is brimming with a passion for food. But it also is more about food bringing people together. It is about fast-food chains dominating the smaller, higher-quality restaurants in the world. It is Lee again wrestling with tradition, this time analyzing how recipes and more traditional cuisines have given way to food that does not carry meaning. It is so much about food and the hidden complexities with the stuff we eat every day. But it also is so much not about that, and so intensely set on family love and troubles. Well, it is about both of these things, and so much more. A film as filling as the meals on screen.
2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain is one of cinema’s finest love stories. Equal parts heart-wrenching and moving, Brokeback is just what you want out of a forbidden love story. Jack and Ennis are near immediately endearing, and Gyllenhaal and Ledger do a marvelous job in making their romance feel as authentic as possible.
It seems inevitable the romance will collapse, but that does not stop their separation from being any less painful. Even when Gyllenhaal and Ledger are not on the screen, Lee gives us both their spouses enough complexity to make us care for each of them and their respective heartbreaks. And by the end, Brokeback is more than just a watershed moment for love stories, but an immediate classic when it comes to the wistful agony of having and losing a love.
1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
There could really only be one. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the perfect mix of the best of Ang Lee. It has the beautiful, breathtaking spectacle he strives for in something like Life of Pi while having the script and character strength of a drama like The Ice Storm. Crouching Tiger was probably the closest a foreign film got to winning Best Picture before Parasite, and deservedly so. It was a phenomenon, a film from another country that had the same entertainment value and even better action than the blockbusters released at the time. The battle between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi remains one of the finest fight scenes of all time, and the film as a whole remains one of the greatest achievements in cinematography of the century.
Naturally, Crouching Tiger is so much more than a bunch of well-executed sword slashing. Crouching Tiger is a moving story of self-actualization, love, and tradition colliding with a new tomorrow. The three leads are in perfect harmony with respect to their screen time, and the fights themselves never feel like distractions from the plot. The action very much is the plot and tell stories of recklessness vs. mastery and skill vs power. The tale of the green destiny is a story of one of cinema’s greatest macguffins. Not just a deadly weapon, but a symbol of greatness that must be truly earned, not cheated in any way, shape, or form. Crouching Tiger is Lee’s greatest achievement, an ass-kicking, thoroughly entertaining film with a superb story advanced by the intimate details Lee and the cast inject into the story. One of cinema’s finest.