John Sayles

Elizabeth Pena and Chris Cooper in Lone Star (1996)

Elizabeth Pena and Chris Cooper in Lone Star (1996)

  • Born:  1950
  • Rank:  70
  • Score:  542.45
  • Awards:  LAFC (for Screenplay)
  • Nominations:  2 Oscars / 3 WGA / BAFTA / Golden Globe (all for Screenplay)
  • Feature Films:  16
  • Best:  Lone Star
  • Worst:  Passion Fish

Top 5 Films:

  1. Lone Star – 1998
  2. Silver City – 2004
  3. Matewan – 1987
  4. City of Hope – 1991
  5. Sunshine State – 2002

Top 10 Best Director Finishes

  • 1987 – 10th – Matewan
  • 1991 – 10th – City of Hope
  • 1996 – 2nd – Lone Star

He started out writing low budget films like Piranha and Alligator before coming up with the money to make The Return of the Secaucus Seven, a huge hit on the independent film scene.  He then started bringing a regular troupe of actors together, including Chris Cooper, Joe Morton and his classmate from Williams College, David Strathairn.  He continued making rather off-beat films away from studio financing until the critical acclaim of Matewan allowed him to bring in higher profile actors and his films started to get more notice.  But he has essentially followed the same formula for his entire career.  He writes a strong script, brings his regular actors together, makes a good film (sometimes a great film), gets really good reviews, gets for the most part ignored by all the awards groups (except the Independent Spirits) and then moves on to the next film.  He gained a bit more notice for Lone Star, and of course, it was worth the notice, but quickly slipped back into his routine (his follow up was the Spanish language Men With Guns).  He is one of those rare directors who has had a long solid career and never made even a mediocre film.

Lone Star – #1 film of 1996

A young, scared Mexican immigrant is hiding under a bridge.  He has just swam the river and fled his native country and is now in Texas and hiding, hoping not to get caught, hoping not to die.  The local sheriff, Charlie Wade, is a vicious racist and if he is caught he will likely die.  Then the camera starts to pan up, to move along the under side of the bridge and up to the boots of a sheriff standing on the bridge looking down.  And it is 30 years later and these are the boots of Sam Deeds, searching through the past to figure out who might have killed Charlie Wade and planted his body out in the desert.  It is a shot like few others in film history, and all the brilliance of the film, its direction, its amazing script, its unbelievably brilliant editing, its fantastic cinematography, its anchor in the great performance of Chris Cooper (getting to play the good guy for once) are all  encompassed at once.  This is Lone Star, the best movie of one of the best years in film history, a film that rivals L.A. Confidential and Schindler’s List for 2nd place in the whole decade (behind GoodFellas).

On one level this seems like a simple story.  A sheriff discovers that someone was murdered.  He finds out his father might have been involved in it.  He wants the truth to come out, the kind of truth that often gets buried in a small town.  But because this is John Sayles, because Sayles is such a good writer, there is so much more to this story.  By finding out this story we find out the story of this whole town, how the lives intersect, how worlds can intersect.

The film is anchored by the performance of Chris Cooper.  Cooper is most remembered for the hard driven father in American Beauty and the crazed orchid hunter that he won the Oscar for in Adaptation, but here he plays the honest sheriff, the man who knows he will never measure up to the legend of his father, but is determined to be a good and honest man.  But the other performances are also important, notably Kris Kristofferson as a purely vile racist who once ruled the town with an iron fist and Matthew McConaughey in a great small role as Buddy Deeds, the town legend.  It’s worth remembering that much like Brad Pitt’s small electrifying role in Thelma and Louise, before he became eye candy and forgot how to act, McConaughey once could actually act.  And of course there is Elizabeth Pena, as Sam’s childhood girlfriend in a performance so perfectly filled with longing and lust and beauty that she made my list of 50 Sexiest Performances in Film History.

And then of course, there is the ending.  It is the ending it should have.  And love finds a way.  Love always finds a way.  The end explains so much of what has come before, but to me it changes nothing.  Because they are who they should be and who they will be.  Love will always find a way.

I must add that in the last two days, I have covered two of my mother’s favorite movies.  Given the way she talks about it, in fact, this might be her favorite film of all-time.  And it’s worthy of such a designation.