Ang Lee celebrates his 64th birthday on October 23, 2018. The Oscar-winning filmmaker has worked in a variety of genres and styles to explore the lives of people around the globe. In honor of his birthday, let’s take a look back at 12 of his greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born in Taiwan in 1954, Lee’s interest in film brought him to NYU’s graduate program, where he worked as a crew member on classmate Spike Lee‘s thesis project, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.” He directed his first feature, “Pushing Hands” (1991) at the age of 37.
Lee followed up his debut with back-to-back international successes, each one scoring Oscar nominations as Best Foreign Language Film: “The Wedding Banquet” (1993) and “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994). In both films, the director explored the kinds of complex familial relationships that would animate many of his stories.
He was then drafted by Hollywood to helm the Jane Austin adaptation “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), which brought Emma Thompson an Oscar for screenwriting. The film earned six additional nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Thompson), and Best Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet). Yet despite reaping DGA, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations, Lee was snubbed as Best Director.
The Academy didn’t overlook him for long, however. Just five years later, he returned to the awards race with the martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), which won the prize as Best Foreign Language Film (an award technically given to Taiwan). Lee looked poised to snag his first Oscar as Best Director following victories at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and DGA, yet he lost to Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”).
Lee finally hit the Oscar jackpot five years later with his sweeping, romantic western “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). Based on the short story by Annie Proulx, it stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Wyoming sheep herders who fall in love in 1963. The film swept the precursors, and Lee became the first Asian to win Best Director. Yet it famously lost Best Picture to “Crash,” a wound compounded by the admission of several Academy members who refused to watch it.
It took seven years for him to return to the Academy Awards, this time with the technical marvel “Life of Pi” (2012). This drama about a young man (Suraj Sharma) lost at sea with a Bengal tiger took home four prizes, including Best Director, but lost Best Picture to “Argo.” This makes Lee one of the few people to twice prevail for directing without their film winning, a dubious honor he shares with George Stevens (“A Place in the Sun,” “Giant”) and Frank Borzage (“7th Heaven,” “Bad Girl”).
Take a photo gallery tour of Lee’s greatest movies, including a few for which he didn’t receive Oscar nominations.
12. HULK (2003)
Lee dipped his toes into superhero filmmaking with this talky, interminable Marvel adaptation. In telling the origin story of Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), a genetics researcher who turns big and green whenever he’s angry, the director puts a lot more emphasis on human relationships than the average comic book movie (especially when it comes to the fraught relationship between Banner and his father, played by Nick Nolte).
11. TAKING WOODSTOCK (2009)
“Taking Woodstock” is so thin and empty it could almost float away with a light breeze. It’s 1969 and Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin) has to return home to help his parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Stanton) run their failing Catskills motel. Hoping to drum up business, he invites a bunch of hippies to hold a concert when their permit is pulled in a neighboring town, inadvertently setting up the generation-defining Woodstock music festival.
10. BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (2016)
This adaptation of Ben Fountain’s bestseller buckles under the weight of its technical innovations. Shot in high-definition 3D at a frame-rate of 120 per second, the film comes dangerously close to crossing into uncanny valley territory. That would be all well and good if its story about a 19-year-old Iraq veteran (Joe Alwyn) brought home for a victory tour after a dubious mission could support the massive production.
9. RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (1999)
Lee tackled the western genre with this offbeat Civil War epic. Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich star as best friends Jake and Jack Bull, who join a guerilla-offshoot of the Confederates known as the Bushwhackers after Jack’s father is killed by Union abolitionists. They form an unlikely alliance with Holt (scene-stealer Jeffrey Wright), a former slave fighting for the South. Jake, meanwhile, falls in love with a beautiful war widow (pop star Jewel in her acting debut).
8. LUST, CAUTION (2007)
Lee followed up his Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain” with this sexually-explicit spy thriller. Set during WWII, “Lust, Caution” centers on a beautiful young woman (Tang Wei) recruited by a group of Chinese radicals in Shanghai to help assassinate a high-ranking government official (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) by seducing him. Three years after the plot fails, the two reunite in Hong Kong, leading to some of the steamiest love scenes ever seen in an NC-17 release.
7. EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994)
This charming and delectable drama stars Sihung Lung as Mr. Chu, a master chef who loses his palate when his wife dies. He lives with his three adult daughters (Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang), preparing glorious banquets for them each Sunday. But the three would like to start their own lives away from home. Lee deftly handles the family dynamics while also serving up mouth-watering shots of food (definitely not one to watch on an empty stomach!).
6. THE WEDDING BANQUET (1993)
Lee came to fame with this delightful and surprisingly touching farce. Winston Chao stars as a gay Chinese man living in New York as a successful landlord. When his parents keep asking when he’s going to marry a nice girl, his boyfriend (Mitchell Lichtenstein) suggests he wed one of his tenants (May Chin) in need of a green card to placate them. Problem is, they want to attend the wedding.
5. SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995)
When Lee was hired to helm “Sense and Sensibility,” it raised a few eyebrows: after all, aren’t Jane Austin adaptations reserved exclusively for Brits? Yet as his international hits “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” proved, the Taiwanese-born filmmaker is a good fit for complex familial dramas. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet star as sisters left poor by the rules of inheritance after their father dies, now forced to find husbands.
4. LIFE OF PI (2012)
Lee won his second Oscar as Best Director for this visually stunning, emotionally staggering adventure yarn. Adapted from Yann Martel’s seemingly unfilmable novel, “Life of Pi” stars Suraj Sharma as a devoutly religious teenager whose family is killed in a shipwreck. He finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with the only other survivor: a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The film is usually singled out for its technical aspects: the astonishingly realistic CGI creations, the use of 3D to deepen the frame.
3. THE ICE STORM (1997)
In 1973, an ice storm descends upon suburban Connecticut during Thanksgiving. But for the residents of New Canaan, the weather is the least of their troubles. In adapting Rick Moody’s classic novel, Lee examines the cultural, sexual, and political upheaval of the times through the lens of one seriously screwed-up family. James Schamus’ screenplay creates richly complicated characters for its ensemble cast, including Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Sigourney Weaver as the parents and Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, and Elijah Wood as the kids.
2. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)
At the risk of hyperbole, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is the greatest martial arts movie of all time. Certainly it contains some of the most stunning fight sequences ever (courtesy of “The Matrix” choreographer Yuen Woo Ping), with its actors soaring through the air in gravity-defying feats of spectacle. Set in the 19th century, it centers on a retiring warrior (Chow Yun-fat), his secret lover (Michelle Yeoh), and the young rebel (Zhang Ziyi) who steals a mythical sword from them.
1. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)
When it was released in 2005, “Brokeback Mountain” was often referred to as “the gay cowboy movie,” a derisive and vulgar classification that does little to express its awesome power and beauty. In telling the story of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two Wyoming sheep herders who fall in love in 1963, Lee crafted one of the great tragic romances, a tale of how society can deny two people the only great desire they’ll ever know.