By Danilo Castro
Ron Howard has never really gotten the credit he deserves. While the auteur theory has elevated ‘80s stalwarts like George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg to legendary status, a director like Howard, who offers little in the way of style or voice, is derided for being a craftsman. Granted, there’s some truth to these critiques, as Howard’s worst films (“Far And Away”, “The Dilemma”) have proven, but to write him off completely is to ignore just how good a craftsman he can be.
Over the course of his five-decade career (Seven if you count his acting stints on “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days”), Howard has proven himself to be one of the most reliable and versatile directors in Hollywood. His ability to careen from one genre to the next; whether it be comedy, fantasy, or biographical drama, is unmatched by all but a few, while his sentimental bent makes him the rare storyteller who can still appeal to viewers of all ages.
Howard’s latest film, “Solo: A Star Wars Story”, is now in theaters, and to commemorate its release, we’ve decided to rank the ten movies that best define his career.
10. Backdraft (1991)
1991’s “Backdraft” has a lot going on. The film sees Howard and screenwriter Gregory Widen pull out every dramatic stop imaginable, from a sibling rivalry between firefighters (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin) and their troubled love lives to the arsonist crimes they’re tasked with solving and a mass conspiracy involving the fire department and local politicians.
It’s all pretty ridiculous (sex on a fire engine, anyone?), and the plot twists can be seen coming a mile away, but Howard directs with gusto, and the supporting cast, made up of Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, J.T. Walsh, and Donald Sutherland are as good as you’d expect them to be. Even better are the scenes involving fire, which plunge us so convincingly into the flames that we share in the panic and disorientation of the characters. The film knowingly puts excitement over intellect, though given how much fun it is, that’s not a bad thing.
9. Splash (1984)
Howard’s breakout film “Splash” embodies what made him such a popular comedy director in the 1980s. The laughs are frequent, the emotions are genuine, and the film’s premise– a man (Tom Hanks) falls in love with a woman (Daryl Hannah) who is actually a mermaid– is deftly handled to appeal to modern audiences while maintaining the charm of the screwball comedies that influenced it. Every scene has a pratfall or a visual gag that’s expertly timed, proving that Howard isn’t afraid to commit to outright farce when the situation calls for it. The seafood dinner is still one of the funniest bits in his oeuvre.
Hannah, John Candy, and a crazed Eugene Levy all come through in memorable parts, but it is Hanks, as the quietly dorky lead, who proves the film’s biggest revelation. Howard was the first director to utilize Hanks’ everyman appeal, and the positive experience of making “Splash” led to a friendship that’s lasted forty years and four additional films.
8. Ransom (1996)
“Ransom” is one of Howard’s leanest and meanest films. The very nature of its story, which sees an airline owner (Mel Gibson) and his wife (Rene Russo) forced to do business with the criminals who kidnapped their son, goes against the family-friendly material Howard usually works with, and yet he makes the transition seem effortless. One would never guess the guy who made the cutesy “Splash” would be able to ratchet up the suspense to the extent that he does here. The phone conversations between Gibson and the kidnappers are terrific, every bit as menacing as those in the “Taken” films (“Give me back my son!”) but with greater emotional resonance.
The film also sees Howard step up his visual game. He directs with speed and force, tearing through scenes like the botched money exchange and the climactic chase with all the panache of a thriller expert. It’s a genre he would eventually return to with the glossy Robert Langdon films (“The Da Vinci Code”, “Angels & Demons”, “Inferno”), but none of them have been able to recapture “Ransom’s” dynamic energy.
7. Cinderella Man (2005)
Coming off the mammoth success of “A Beautiful Mind”, Howard and leading man Russell Crowe reunited for another heartfelt biopic, 2005’s “Cinderella Man.” The film tracks the improbable rise of James J. Braddock, a day laborer during the Great Depression who went on to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Admittedly sparse on originality, given that Braddock’s story has been copied numerous times onscreen, Howard’s film still manages to come out on top due to its solid performances and affectionate storytelling.
Crowe brings an earnest charm to the role of Braddock, showing his determination and resilience without flattening him into a one-dimensional hero. Howard takes a similar approach, making sure the underdog theatrics never get in the way of the supporting characters or the poverty of the film’s setting. Some scenes are understated while others are overstated, giving us a film that mirrors the peaks and valleys of the boxer’s life. It may not be “A Beautiful Mind”, but it’s a veritable knockout in its own right.
6. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
“A Beautiful Mind” occupies a strange place in Howard’s filmography. It was a colossal hit that went on to win the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in 2002. It was also heavily criticized for its depiction of mental health, and the liberties it took with the real life of mathematician John Nash (played by Crowe). It’s simultaneously Howard’s biggest film and his most divisive, a rarity for such an agreeable director. The film’s reputation has worsened over the years, and it’s become one of the Best Picture winners that critics like to retroactively bash on, but anyone who claims they aren’t entertained by “A Beautiful Mind” is kidding themselves.
Howard pulls off a daring directorial trick by bringing us into Nash’s schizophrenic headspace, rife with paranoia and a waning grasp on what’s real and what’s not. It creates an emotional bond with the character that’s pivotal, especially given the film’s emphasis on Nash‘s personal life over his professional exploits. Crowe excels, as does Jennifer Connelly, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Nash’s wife, but the film belongs to its director, who’s never been quite as bold or unabashedly sentimental again.
5. Night Shift (1982)
Released right before “Risky Business” took the world by storm, 1982’s “Night Shift” is a similarly crass, and often times, more clever riff on the same idea. Michael Keaton and Howard’s “Happy Days” co-star Henry Winkler play Billy and Chuck, two ineffectual wimps who decide to turn their boring gig at the city morgue into a prostitution racket. Naturally, chaos ensues, forcing the duo to juggle dangerous pimps, suspicious cops, and a growing affection for Belinda (Shelley Long), their biggest earner.
It feels as though Howard is barely directing here, and letting the natural work of the performances lead the way. But that’s precisely what makes it such a notable effort. It takes a high degree of skill to make a scripted comedy feel this spontaneous, and it’s a testament to Howard that he’s able to pull it off in only his second theatrical film.
(Stray Observation: Howard and Michael Keaton are an underrated combo, as this film, 1987’s “Gung Ho” and 1994’s “The Paper” can attest to.)
4. Parenthood (1989)
If ever a Ron Howard film could be considered personal, it would be 1989’s “Parenthood.” As a tribute to children, parents, and the strain they put each other through on a daily basis, the film remains his most transparent release. That’s not to say, of course, that it skimps out on the entertainment. In fact, the director assembles his biggest, and arguably best cast to date (Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Rick Moranis, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards, Joaquin Phoenix, Keanu Reeves) to help breathe life into his suburban mosaic.
The characters and the situations they get into are hilariously relatable, but what makes “Parenthood” stand out from the other ensembles of the period, like Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon” (also starring Martin) or Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”, is its commitment to its theme. Whereas Kasdan and Altman roam the world in search of meaning, Howard knows exactly what he wants to say, and he says it gracefully.
3. Frost/Nixon (2008)
“Frost/Nixon” is a dramatization of the 1977 interviews between British TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) and disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). As a story, it is a perfectly realized chamber piece, a consistent stream of powerhouse acting and sharp prose courtesy of playwright Peter Morgan. In most cases, a director would have very little room to come in and implement their vision, lest they choose to step on the story’s pre-existing virtues. This is where Howard’s talent for unobtrusiveness comes in handy.
Howard dials down the technical flair of “Frost/Nixon” because he knows it would only distract from the real entertainment. He decides to service the audience instead, giving us plain, easily discernible camerawork so that we may appreciate every second of Sheen and Langella’s verbal jousting. It’s an impressively altruistic work, and Howard was rewarded with a whopping five Oscar nominations for his troubles, including Best Picture and Best Director. And they say nice guys finish last.
2. Rush (2013)
In many ways, “Rush” is a spiritual sequel to “Frost/Nixon.” Both films are written by Peter Morgan, both are set in the 1970s, and both focus on a battle of wills between two very different men. Where Frost and Nixon’s was strictly verbal, however, the battle waged between racecar drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) has more severe consequences. The former is a hotshot who gets by on good looks and natural talent, while the latter is a technical genius who relies on precision. Their rivalry plays out over a decade, with Morgan’s script detailing the physical and mental toll it takes on both of them.
Howard matches the outsized personalities of his characters with frenetic pacing. Quick cuts and technicolor reds allow us to share in the titular sensation, while the point-of-view shots from within the car put other racing movies to shame. Paired with the sturdy performances of Hemsworth and Bruhl, and “Rush” is the rare film that elicits as much excitement as it does emotional turmoil. No compromises here.
1. Apollo 13 (1995)
“Apollo 13” focuses on the lunar missile launch that went haywire in 1970, and the trio of astronauts (Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton) who were forced to guide it back to Earth. It’s a simple narrative framework, but what Howard and his screenwriters manage to do with it is nothing short of astounding. Through painstaking attention to detail and a dash of showmanship, they turn the six-day ordeal into a tense masterpiece.
Howard doesn’t waste time on hollow spectacle here; he knows he has a winning script, and he shoots it with the all the reverence of a great documentarian. Every decision he makes is a tactful one, as though holding himself to the standard set by his resourceful characters. The measured acting and spitfire NASA jargon help sell the reality of the crisis, while the stellar visual effects heighten crucial action scenes without overshadowing them. Howard’s sentimental bias comes into play, but here, it’s bolstered by a story that genuinely deserves it.
That the film stills holds up today is as much a testament to Howard’s mastery as it is the brave men and women he depicts.
So what do you think? Do you agree with our list? What are your favorite Ron Howard directed films? For those who have seen it, where does “Solo: A Star Wars Story” fall into this list for you? Let us know in the comments section below and be sure to vote on this week’s poll for the very same question here.
You can follow Danilo and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @DaniloSCastro