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Almost Famous is the movie Cameron Crowe has been waiting a lifetime to tell. The fictionalization of Crowe's days as a teenage reporter for Creem and Rolling Stone has all the well-written characters and wonderful "movie moments" that we expect from Crowe (Jerry Maguire), but the film has an intangible something extra--an insider's touch that will turn the film into the ode to '70s rock & roll for years to come. We are introduced to Crowe's alter ego, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), at home, where his progressive mom (Frances McDormand, just superb) has outlawed rock music and sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) has slipped him LPs that will "set his mind free." Following the wisdom of Creem's disheveled editor, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in an instant-classic performance), Miller gets on the inside with the up-and-coming band Stillwater (a fictionalized mixture of the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and others). A simple visit with the band turns into a three-week, life-altering odyssey into the heyday of American rock. Of the characters he meets on the road, the two most important are groupie extraordinaire Penny Lane (Kate Hudson in a star-making performance) and Stillwater's enigmatic lead guitarist (Billy Crudup), who keeps stringing Miller along for an interview. From the handwritten credits (done by Crowe) to the bittersweet finale, Crowe's comedic valentine is an indelible, heartbreaking romance of music, women, and the privilege of youth. --Doug Thomas
From its first gliding aerial shot of a generic suburban street, American Beauty moves with a mesmerizing confidence and acuity epitomized by Kevin Spacey's calm narration. Spacey is Lester Burnham, a harried Everyman whose midlife awakening is the spine of the story, and his very first lines hook us with their teasing fatalism. It's an audacious start for a film that justifies that audacity. Weaving social satire, domestic tragedy, and whodunit into a single package, Alan Ball's first theatrical script dares to blur generic lines and keep us off balance, winking seamlessly from dark, scabrous comedy to deeply moving drama. The Burnham family joins the cinematic short list of great dysfunctional American families, as Lester is pitted against his manic, materialistic realtor wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening, making the most of a mostly unsympathetic role) and his sullen, contemptuous teenaged daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, utterly convincing in her edgy balance of self-absorption and wistful longing). Into their lives come two catalytic outsiders. A young cheerleader (Mena Suvari) jolts Lester into a sexual epiphany that blooms into a second adolescence. And an eerily calm young neighbor (Wes Bentley) transforms both Lester and Jane with his canny influence. Credit another big-screen newcomer, English theatrical director Sam Mendes, with expertly juggling these potentially disjunctive elements into a superb ensemble piece that achieves a stylized pace without lapsing into transparent self-indulgence. Mendes has shrewdly insured his success with a solid crew of stage veterans, yet he's also made an inspired discovery in Bentley, whose Ricky Fitts becomes a fulcrum for both plot and theme. Cinematographer Conrad Hall's sumptuous visual design further elevates the film, infusing the beige interiors of the Burnhams' lives with vivid bursts of deep crimson, the color of roses--and of blood. --Sam Sutherland
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