Cameron Crowe is one of the more interesting filmmakers of the last 30 years. He has made some beloved films, but one cannot write about the career of Crowe without acknowledging the incredible peaks and valleys that exist within his filmography — as well as the fact that he hasn’t really made a great movie in the past 20 years. This is what makes Crowe such a fascinating figure to me, at his best he garnered praise from fans and critics alike and made some truly special films. At his worst he made incredibly forgettable, misguided, and valueless films that were widely criticized by those same people that once praised him. His struggle, in recent years, to regain the magic that his early films once possessed has been disheartening and frustrating for fans, like myself, to watch. Still, I chose to write about Crowe because he genuinely has made films that I love but also I figured it would be interesting to take a look at what separates his great films from his disappointing films.
There is a hopeful and sincere quality to almost all of Crowe’s films. His main characters are often idealistic underdogs fighting to beat the odds in someway. When he is at his best, and this style is working, the films Crowe makes are full of an endearing sense of warmth. Crowe is a filmmaker who unapologetically injects a great amount of heart into each of his films. When this style is not working though, the result is often a film that feels cheesy, uninspired, forgettable, and uninteresting. It is almost impossible to believe that the same man who created characters like Lloyd Dobbler, Penny Lane, and Jerry Maguire, also created the dull and lifeless characters that inhabit the films Elizabethtown and Aloha. Crowe’s hopeful storytelling, and belief in the underdogs of the world, make up his definitive style though. A lot of artists can be described as cynical, but Crowe has made a career crafting optimistic works of art, which is not always an easy thing to do. When watching Crowe’s films, it is apparent that this is a man with a real interest in a certain type of character. He has been quoted saying, “The battered idealist. It’s just my favorite character … To me, a hero is somebody who is able to accept the environment of the world, deal with the stuff that’s thrown in their path … and somehow keep their heart.” The addition of characters with this heart and reluctant spirit, that Crowe is referring to, is what helped make his early films so endearing— it also helped establish what the look and feel of a “Cameron Crowe film” is. However, in the more recent stages of his career, I believe this particular style has been his undoing. The hopeful characters, and the warm heart that fill his more recent films feel more inauthentic, less compelling, and more artificially constructed than those same qualities in his early films. It is interesting to note that many of the stories he was telling early in his career were more personal, which is perhaps why they came across as more organic and natural, and resonated more with audiences. Crowe is a filmmaker who excels in telling personal stories that are born close to his own heart. When he ventures away from that, the results are usually disappointing.
Music is, of course, very important to Crowe, a man who somewhat famously wrote for Rolling Stone magazine at the young age of 15. His love for, and knowledge of, music shines through in all of his films. Regardless of the overall quality of the film, it is always a virtual guarantee that a film made by Crowe will be accompanied by an incredible soundtrack. That heart I was referring to can be felt in these soundtracks as well. It is clear he curates his soundtracks with care and attention-to-detail. The song choices and music cues in his films all have purpose and meaning behind them. I will say though, in his less successful films, there is a greater sense of awareness on the part of the viewer in terms of how a certain music cue is attempting to manipulate you, or draw out some sort of emotion. Meanwhile, in his greater films, the music feels more natural, seamless, and intertwined with the story being told. These music cues are effective without being distracting, or feeling in any way constructed. Throughout his career Crowe has used music to create some of the most iconic music moments in film history — whether it’s the famous boombox scene in Say Anything…, or the “Tiny Dancer” sing-a-long in Almost Famous — he certainly knows how to use a song to implant a scene or an image into the viewers memory. As I said earlier, Crowe became a contributor for Rolling Stone at the age of 15, so it’s fair to assume his love for music started at a young age. I bring this up because the idea of youth, and what it means to be young, is something that has long been important in both pop music, as well as in some of Crowe’s films. This is interesting to note because Crowe was at his best as a filmmaker when he himself was younger, and he was telling stories about youthful, rebellious, outsider-type figures. As Crowe has aged though, the characters in his stories have aged with him, and he seems to have had trouble capturing the emotions that come with the later stages of life. When I wrote a “Ranked” piece on Noah Baumbach, I wrote about his impressive ability to grow as a filmmaker and capture different stages of the human experience. Crowe does not seem to have this ability, in fact, as his career continues he seems to have less of an understanding of the characters that fill his films.
Despite his complicated filmography, I still believe Cameron Crowe is a great filmmaker, and his early work will always remain very important to me. I will continue to have hope for a career resurgence as I do believe he has at least one more great film in him. But while we wait for that, let’s take a look at each one of his previous films.
(Disclaimer: This is a ranking of films Crowe directed. So, films he wrote but did not direct like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life will not be appearing.)
10. Elizabethtown (2005)
“I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.”
Crowe’s sixth film lands at the bottom of my list. Elizabethtown is perhaps the true turning point of Crowe’s career, as this film was unsuccessful at the box office and widely disliked by critics upon its release. The film is a romantic dramedy of sorts, starring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. The story follows a young man named Drew (Bloom) who, after recently being fired from his job for a costly failure on his part, has to travel to Kentucky because his father has died. On his way there, he meets a charming stewardess named Claire (Dunst). This is not a good film. The meandering script is filled with far too many ideas, and none of them truly reach their full potential. Bloom is underwhelming as the lead and delivers an, at best, inconsistent performance. Dunst’s Claire character was literally the origin for the iconic phrase, Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Nathan Rabin invented the label for this very character in a 2007 column. The length of the film is a problem as well, as it struggles to keep the viewers attention for the full 123 minute runtime. Elizabethtown is a great example of a Crowe film intended to have a great amount of heart, that ultimately falls flat and fails to have its desired emotional impact on the audience. There are some moments of this film that do work better than others though. Dunst does give a good performance, even if the character itself is troublesome. As with all Crowe films, the soundtrack is wonderful, and especially effective during the third act of the film. The love story in the film has its endearing moments as well, even if most of it feels inauthentic and distant from reality. Overall, Elizabethtown is not a completely unwatchable film, but it is an incredibly flawed film that I wouldn’t recommend.
9. Aloha (2015)
“In any of its many forms, I have found that nothing beats fun.”
Crowe’s most recent film, Aloha, is one of the more disappointing films I’ve seen in the past five years. Despite his struggles in the years leading up to 2015, at the time I convinced myself that this would be Crowe’s comeback — and with a cast that included Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, and Alec Baldwin, I thought there was no chance this movie wouldn’t work. I was very wrong. The main problem with Aloha is that it feels like multiple movies all shoved into one, in the worst way possible. This film has far too many things on its mind, and no idea what it wants its tone to be. The characters are unrealized, the plot is beyond confusing, and the conflicts don’t elicit any real emotions from the viewer whatsoever. The plot of this film is hard to describe, but in its most basic terms, Aloha is a story about a military contractor (Cooper) reconnecting with an old love interest (McAdams), while also unexpectedly falling for a new love interest (Stone). It also contains themes of the military vs. the private sector, the importance of conserving nature, and global warfare. It’s a messy film. Aloha was also not helped by the casting controversy that came with it at the time of its release. Crowe, and the film itself, were widely criticized the casting of Emma Stone as a character that is supposed to be one-quarter Chinese, and one-quarter Hawaiian. The main reason this movie ranks slightly ahead of Elizabethtown on my list is because I have to, on some level, admire the ambition of it. Elizabethtown just feels like a lackluster, unoriginal, and boring romantic comedy that misses the mark, while Aloha seems to be at least trying to have some original ideas.
8. The Union (2011)
“That’s what happens when you save people’s lives.”
The Union is one of two documentaries that are going to appear on my list. This particular doc takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Elton John and Leon Russell’s collaborative album, “The Union.” This is a good documentary, but ultimately works better as a companion piece to the album rather than a stand alone film, which is why it ranks towards the bottom of my list. The film’s best moments are the ones that capture the relationship between Elton John and Leon Russell. In fact, its highpoint is when Russell announces he has written a song for John. Crowe utilizes a split-screen technique so we can see Russell playing the song and John reacting at the same time. It is a really powerful moment shared between the two men. This film is nearly impossible to find anywhere online, but I would recommend it to any music lovers out there. During its best moments, The Union is a fascinating film to watch.
7. We Bought A Zoo (2011)
“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage.”
Although it has one of the more peculiar and silly-sounding titles of any film from the past decade, We Bought A Zoo is actually a fairly entertaining ride, and has become slightly underrated overtime. Thought it’s certainly no masterpiece, what I appreciate about this film is it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It knows what it is, and if you go in looking for an entertaining family comedy with a couple solid movie star performances, you’ll be satisfied. The film stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, and they may very well be the two best things about it. Neither of them are doing anything revolutionary, but they’ve both obviously made a career out of being incredibly charismatic on screen, and they use that skill in this film. The story follows a single father (Damon) who uproots his family and purchases a new house in the countryside that comes with a zoo. It may sound ridiculous, but this film is actually based on a true story. This films biggest flaw is perhaps its lack of any real tension or drama within the story. Because of this, its 124 minute runtime can feel long, and the movie would have benefited from chopping off around 20 minutes of that. However, there is something to appreciate in the simple approach Crowe takes to this story. He knows what he has, he knows the limitations of this story, and he doesn’t try to do anything too ambitious. The film does not come close to approaching the quality of Crowe’s great films, but it can still be quite enjoyable if you accept it for what it is.
6. Vanilla Sky (2001)
“I’ll tell you in another life, when we are both cats.”
Vanilla Sky was the second collaboration between Crowe and Tom Cruise, and remains to this day the darkest film Crowe has ever directed. If one were to watch this film without knowing Crowe directed it, it would be impossible to tell. The tone of Vanilla Sky is so different from anything Crowe made before or after it. This departure from his usual style is part of the reason why this has become the most divisive film in Crowe’s filmography. The film is an English-language remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), and stars Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Jason Lee alongside Cruise. The story is an unconventional one, consisting of many twists and turns, but essentially it centers on a selfish and wealthy publishing magnate (Cruise) whose life is changed after a resentful ex-lover causes a car accident. This film can be best described as a psychological thriller, which is not something to expect from Crowe. It is a highly ambitious film that I tend to really enjoy, while understanding the viewpoint of those who do not feel the same way. Cruise gives one of the best performances of his career in this film, and feels like the perfect actor to play this character. The unexpected and, at times, brutal story turns out to be an oddly beautiful one by the conclusion of the film. By no means do I think this film is for everyone, but I must admit it worked on me. Also, I appreciate Crowe stepping out and trying something new. Whether you like the film or not, you must admit it is impressive to see a director like Crowe pull off a film as visually interesting as this.
5. Singles (1992)
“Somewhere around 25, bizarre becomes immature.”
Crowe’s sophomore feature ranks at the number six spot on my list. Perhaps the definitive grunge era film, Singles is set in early 90’s Seattle, comes with an incredible soundtrack, and even includes cameos from the members of Pearl Jam. There is a lot to admire about this relationship comedy, which follows a group of twenty-something year olds searching for love, and navigating their way through various relationships. The simple and relaxed tone is inviting, and makes the viewer feel like they are getting a peak into the real lives of these characters. I have no problems with any of the performances; the film stars Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon. Singles is an honest and authentic film. Its observations of love and relationships feel accurate and poignant. In many ways this film can be considered a sort-of spiritual sequel to Say Anything…, which was Crowe’s debut. The reason Singles ranks lower on my list though is because while Say Anything… has remained relevant over 30 years after its release, Singles comes off as a little dated when viewed today. Perhaps this is because the film is so attached to the era it was released in. Despite some problems with how the film has aged though, Singles is still worth watching today. It shows Crowe’s evolution as a director from his first film to his second, and his willingness to get a little bit more experimental. The dialogue is smart, the chemistry between the characters is believable, and the film possesses genuine heart that never crosses over into cheesy.
4. Pearl Jam Twenty (2011)
“I’m still alive.”
The second documentary to appear on this list is Crowe’s 2011 film chronicling the history of acclaimed rock band, Pearl Jam. This film was released on the 20th anniversary of the bands creation, hence the title, and does a great job capturing the seminal moments that this band, and its members, went through in those 20 years. As a fan of this band, this documentary was fascinating for me. Perhaps those who are not familiar with their music will not feel the same way, which is understandable, but my personal connection with this band and their music is why this film ranks so high on my list. This documentary does a great job of capturing the lives of Pearl Jam’s members over the course of this 20 years. Crowe also examines what the alternative music scene looked like during Pearl Jam’s inception, and how the music industry and that scene evolved throughout the next 20 years. If you are not a Pearl Jam fan, I think this can still be an interesting watch, although I understand if you don’t get as much out of it as someone interested in the band. If you are a Pearl Jam fan and have not seen this film for some reason, I would strongly recommend it.
3. Jerry Maguire (1996)
“Show me the money!”
We’ve finally arrived at the top three films of Crowe’s career. There is no question that these are his three greatest films, in fact, there is a decent sized gap between these three films and all his others. These are his masterpieces. At the number three spot, I have Jerry Maguire. Before Vanilla Sky, this is where Cruise and Crowe first collaborated. Cruise plays a sports agent who is fired from his job after questioning his own morals. He then goes out on his own only to be supported by one former client (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and one of his former office-mates (Renée Zellweger). While it at times can feel conventional, there is a reason Jerry Maguire has remained so relevant nearly 25 years after its release. First off, the performances are all great. I wouldn’t include Crowe among the great directors who are consistently able to push their actors to reach their full potentials — but in Jerry Maguire he gets three great performances from Cruise, Zellweger, and Gooding Jr., and even an Oscar win for Cuba. Jerry Maguire is perhaps the best example of Crowe’s optimistic spirit coming through in a film. The film roots on its main character, just as viewers do. The love story between Cruise’s character and Zellweger’s character is both heartwarming and engaging. It never feels contrived, or manipulative. Jerry Maguire remains one of the better sports movies ever made because, as with all the great sports films in history, it’s not really about sports. It uses the world of sports to tell a moving story about real people. It is not hard to understand why this film was such a hit at the time of its release. It is the right kind of “feel good” movie that works audience’s emotions in just the right way. And with iconic lines like “You had me at hello,” “Show me the money!,” and “You complete me” it remains one of the most quotable films of the past 25 years.
2. Say Anything… (1989)
“You just described every great success story.”
Crowe’s directorial debut was released 31 years ago and remains one of the most important teen comedies to ever exist in the genre. This is a simple story: good-hearted underachiever (John Cusack) and beautiful valedictorian (Ione Skye) fall in love. As simple as it may be, the story, and the film as a whole, is executed perfectly. What makes this film so effective is Crowe’s ability to understand how, and what, people around this age are feeling. This film is raw, authentic, honest, and emotional in all the best ways, which is why it remains relevant today, and will be timeless forever. The character of Lloyd Dobbler (Cusack) is iconic because not only did he so accurately represent what it was like to be a teenager for young people in 1989, he still speaks to young people watching this film for the first time in 2020. Cusack’s performance is great, but Crowe deserves a majority of the credit for that. I don’t want to completely discount the performances though. So much of the success of this film is reliant on the chemistry between the two leads, and Cusack and Skye are brilliant on-screen together. Despite their differences, their characters somehow fit, and as a viewer you never doubt their love for each other. Say Anything… is without a doubt the most intimate film Crowe has ever made. I wish he would have been able to return to this level of intimacy at another point of his career, and am still holding on to hope that maybe he will one day.
1. Almost Famous (2000)
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.
The number one film on my list, Almost Famous, is not only my favorite Cameron Crowe film, it is in the conversation for my favorite film of all time. The semi-autobiographical Almost Famous is based on Crowe’s own experiences working for Rolling Stone magazine as a teenager. I said in the opening that Crowe is at his best when he is working with the most personal stories, and there is no better example of that than this film. It is Crowe’s most complete, most well-rounded, and overall best film. The cast of Almost Famous is stellar from top to bottom. Patrick Fugit, Crowe’s stand-in, does a great job as William Miller. Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, and Jason Lee are all fantastic as well. I want to highlight two performances in particular though, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, and Kate Hudson as Penny Lane. Hudson has the much larger role in the film so I’ll start with her. The character of Penny Lane requires an actress with incredible charisma, strength, warmth, and likability. This was not an easy role to pull off but Hudson does so beautifully. The viewer cares about this character as much as the men in the film who fall in love with her do. This remains the best performance of Hudson’s career, and the movie just does not work as well without her. Hoffman’s Lester Bangs character plays a minor but crucial role in the film. Bangs is a mentor of sorts to young William Miller, and Hoffman manages to turn his few scenes in the film into some of the most memorable moments. As great as all these performances are, the script is what makes this movie for me. The personal story is full of incredibly sharp and clever dialogue, as well as real emotional moments. Crowe won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Award’s for this script and it’s not hard to see why. While this script, and this film as a whole, sometimes gets criticized for glamorizing a certain kind of lifestyle, I actually think Crowe has a much more complicated view of the characters in this film than one might think. This is a story about a lot of things, but it’s clear Crowe wanted to explore the relationship between artists and art-critics, and what they are trying to gain from each other. As much as I could spend time trying to intellectually analyze this film, the truth is I love Almost Famous because of the way it makes me feel. There are few films that draw me in the way Almost Famous does, which is why it remains one of my favorite films of all time, as well as my favorite Cameron Crowe film.