Jerry Maguire
"Jerry Maguire" (1996)
Crowe finally found commercial success as a director (and how! the film took nearly $300 million worldwide) with a fairly simple technique -- he teamed up with the biggest movie star in the world, Tom Cruise. But it was certainly a two-way street. In exchange, Cruise got one of the best roles of his career (something we detailed last week), as much as the film showcases the A-lister at the height of his powers. The story gets underway when the titular sports agent (Cruise), has a crisis of conscience (inspired, reportedly, by Jeffrey Katzenberger's memo at Disney), gets fired, and sets up his own company, with only faithful single-mom secretary Dorothy (Renee Zellwegger), her adorable son (Jonathan Lipnicki) and one client, Rod Tidwell (an Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr), an egotistical, underperforming wide-receiver along for the ride. Love inevitably blossoms between Jerry and Dorothy, but will that be enough to see them through financial problems and his emotional unavailability? Crowe's journalistic eye shines through the scenes set in the sports world, which feel firmly drawn from life, but his emotional sensitivity shines through in the more personal scenes, which are far more perceptive and complex than the much-repeated catchphrases. The writer-director admirably steps away, for the most part, from easy outs, and Jerry and Dorothy's relationship (not to mention the one between the agent and his client) are affecting because there are real struggles there, not just contrivances. And it's not only Cruise that's giving some of his best work -- neither Zellwegger or Gooding Jr. have ever matched their charming, funny work here. If you've dismissed the film because of its one-time cultural omnipresence, we'd certainly recommend another look. [A-]

Almost Famous
"Almost Famous" (2000)
Crowe's been consistently unafraid to draw from his own experiences, but his epic "Almost Famous" is certainly his most autobiographical work, telling the tale of how, as an underage high-schooler, he ended up working at Rolling Stone magazine (in this case, covering fictional band Stillwater), falling in love, and coming of age. And unsurprisingly, Crowe produced what's likely his masterpiece. The director recreates the 1970s rock scene as if he was only there yesterday, keeping it palatable (no one's snorting ants or anything), but never quite sentimentalizing it, or at least letting the scales from the eyes of his surrogate William (a wonderful Patrick Fugit). It's a rich and evocative world, and a rich and evocative film, particularly so in the relatively little-seen "Untitled Bootleg Director's Cut," which is 35 minutes longer and gives more texture to the picture, and development to the characters. But the original cut didn't exactly feel lacking either, thanks to Crowe keeping the pace neat and the tone perfectly modulated. Most importantly, he assembled one of the best ensemble casts of the last few decades. From the Oscar-nominated Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson (who has yet to match the promise she showed here), to shoulda-been-nominated Philip Seymour Hoffman and Billy Crudup, to new discoveries who've gone on to bigger things, like Michael Angarano, Zooey Deschanel and Jay Baruchel, every performance is a lived-in gem. It's Crowe's true tribute to mentor and inspiration Billy Wilder (and a film that Wilder loved). [A]

Vanilla Sky
"Vanilla Sky" (2001)
Crowe's reteaming with Cruise was a major departure for the director; a remake of the Spanish hit "Abre los ojos," it's a dark film -- far darker than anything the director's made before -- with touches of science-fiction and horror. It was also Crowe's first real brush with critical disappointment, which must have been bruising, especially coming off his most lauded film. And yet while it doesn't necessarily work as a whole, there's a fair amount to like in the film. Coming at the tale end of the millenial craze for what-is-reality films (see "The Matrix," "Dark City" et al), it's the tale of a vain, callous millionaire who relates his story from a prison cell while wearing a prosthetic mask -- he fell in love with his best friend's girl (Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original), only for his jealous fuck buddy (Cameron Diaz) to try to kill him in a car crash, disfiguring him. From there, his life unravels, and he starts to lose his sanity -- but is there a deeper mystery at play? It's an interesting film because Crowe's usual strengths -- command of tone, dialogue -- are some of the weaknesses here, and yet the director shows what an impressive visual helmer he's become with some genuinely haunting images, and there's a darkness, and genuine eroticism, that isn't present elsewhere in his work. And while Cruz struggles a little, much of the rest of the cast, particularly in the smaller roles (Noah Taylor, Tilda Swinton, Timothy Spall, Jason Lee and especially Kurt Russell as Cruise's psychiatrist, raging at the revelation that he's a figment of his imagination) are wonderful. And some of Crowe's touches -- recreating a Bob Dylan album cover, referencing Monet -- put his stamp firmly on the film. It's a mess, certainly, but a genuinely fascinating and distinctive one, and it makes us hope that it hasn't put Crowe off experimenting in the future. [C+]

“Elizabethtown” (2005)
Confession: when this writer first saw "Elizabethtown," I adored it. It was the start of the second term of university, and I'd just finally, belatedly gotten together with the girl I'd fallen for at first sight the previous Christmas, the two of us having danced round each other for most of the preceding nine months. And maybe it was her resemblance to Kirsten Dunst, or the flush of first love, or Cameron Crowe's undeniable feel for bittersweet romance, which survives even in that film, but I came out of the picture walking on air. I fought in its corner fervently, against friends and against critics, but as it turns out, I probably wasn't paying attention in the first place, because when I rewatched it years later (long after that relationship was done, romantically speaking), I was horrified. Misjudged, miscast, ludicrous, saccharine, underdeveloped and manipulative, it's everything that Crowe's work normally isn't; even his sense of music is absent, the film overloaded with tracks that feel like they were purchased in bulk. Even if it wasn't fatally deflated by a performance by Orlando Bloom that seems to have been sedated, it would still feel like something of a disaster -- free of laughs or tears or pretty much anything that would make you want to see it again. So a lesson in subjectivity, certainly, but as a movie? No, thank you. [D]

Matt Damon, Colin Ford, We Bought A Zoo

"We Bought A Zoo" (2011)
On the face of it, Cameron's Crowe's return to feature filmmaking -- after a brief detour with two music docs, "Pearl Jam Twenty" and "The Union" -- didn't seem promising. With a Christmas release slated in nearly the same slot where Fox had success with "Marley & Me," with cutesy animals and tress slapped on the marketing material, and a self-explanatory title -- we feared for the worst. Though it's not without its flaws, "We Bought A Zoo" was more enjoyable and even a bit more complex than we had anticipated. A bit twee? Perhaps, but wrapped up in the tale about a widowed man buying a zoo for his family to live in, was a trio of compelling plot threads: Benjamin (a solid Matt Damon) finds a new romance with zookeeper Kelly (a charming Scarlett Johansson); his son Dylan (Colin Ford) experiences his first blush of love, falling for Lily (Elle Fanning) and both Benjamin and Dylan work through their uneasy relationship following the death of their wife and mother (respectively). Where in the past Crowe's confidence has let emotional beats speak for themselves, here they are too often pushed by the twinkly score by Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi. And the director favors broad and slapstick a bit too often throughout the movie, which also seems to never want to end (it easily runs about 15-20 minutes too long). But those issues aside, it can't be denied that "We Bought A Zoo" is not only entertaining, but involving, with relationships between characters that are rich and realistically layered, in the way that Crowe fans have long championed. It might not match some of his top tier work, but it was reminder that Crowe's gifts as a writer (the script was co-written by Aline Brosh McKenna) and director are still very much intact, holding the promise of even better things to come. [B-]

-- Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth