Director Retrospective: Ron Howard
As part of my project to watch a bunch of new (i.e. new to me) films by the “Top 200(ish) Directors” on a list that I’ve arbitrarily created, I decided to watch a bunch of movies last week by Ron Howard. In doing so, I realized that I have seen a lot of Ron Howard films in my life (i.e. 19 films and counting). Moreover, in realizing that and because I have also been wanting to make some sort of (more) regular use of my website, I thought it might be fun to write a brief retrospective of Ron Howard’s filmography to this point.
The Big List
First off, here are the Ron Howard films that I’ve seen to date (listed here in chronological order by release-date). If it’s not listed here, then I haven’t seen it, so it won’t factor into my later thoughts. [NOTE: If there’s a Ron Howard film not listed here that you think I should watch, let me know!]
Anyway…without further ado, here you go: Night Shift (1982); Splash (1984); Cocoon (1985); Willow (1988); Parenthood (1989); Backdraft (1991); Far and Away (1992); The Paper (1994); Apollo 13 (1995); Ransom (1996); How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000); A Beautiful Mind (2001); The Missing (2003); Cinderella Man (2005); The Da Vinci Code (2006); Frost / Nixon (2008); Angels & Demons (2009); Rush (2013); In the Heart of the Sea (2015).
The Top 5
In my humble opinion, here are Ron Howard’s best five films (from #1-#5, with some brief thoughts on each)…
Apollo 13 (1995) – To my mind, this is both Howard’s best film and his most rewatchable film, which is a rarer feat than one might initially expect. In fact, I tend to watch this film about once a year (or so), and it’s maintained its appeal and its entertainment factor after 20+ years. The cast of astronauts — played by Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon — is superb, Ed Harris is at peak “Ed Harris-ness,” and both Gary Sinise and Kathleen Quinlan provide underrated performances as an astronaut (mistakenly) grounded at the last-minute and an astronaut’s concerned yet stoic wife, respectively. There’s a real sense of peril here and a real sense of accomplishment afterwards. I am an unabashed fan of smart people being unabashedly smart and solving problems in smart ways — and this film demonstrates that theme again and again.
Frost / Nixon (2008) – On the surface, this seems likely to be boring: One guy is conducting a series of TV interviews with another guy. Of course, the stakes are raised somewhat when the interviewee is former U.S. President Nixon, following his resignation because of the Watergate scandal. Still…this has the clear potential to be a talky, snooze-fest. However, Howard manages to make this anything but boring, ramping up tension in each of the scheduled interviews, as a disgraced President and a campy talk-show host (played brilliantly by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, respectively) play a cat-and-mouse power game that results in one of the most famous journalistic conversations ever recorded.
Rush (2013) – Talking to my friends, I feel that this is a film that a lot of people sadly skipped. Perhaps it was due to the fact that the trailers weren’t exactly “selling” the movie very well. Perhaps it was because it was a story about drag-racing (not exactly a hugely popular sport in America). Perhaps it was because it starred Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Baron von Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) in the main roles. Speaking for myself, these were all reasons why I had no interest in seeing this film when it was first released; and I only watched it because I had nothing else to do. What a pleasant surprise to discover this wonderful sports film — one that I’ve re-watched several times since! Again…Howard manages to take a tired genre — in this case, two tired genres (the sports film and the biopic) — and crafts a fine movie that feels well-paced, excellently acted, and emotionally resonant.
A Beautiful Mind (2001) – Arguably, Howard’s most “prestigious” film thus far in his career in terms of its thorough acknowledgement by the Academy for its acting, directing, etc. The Academy is often wrong, though, in this case, there’s much to appreciate. Russell Crowe gives one of the best performances of his career as the mathematician John Nash (whose significant contributions to game theory and economics were complicated by his severe struggles with mental illness); and there are a number of excellent supporting performances as well — notably from Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany. A beautiful, sad, tragic, empathetic, ultimately triumphant film about a very smart man.
Willow (1988) – Probably the most “controversial” pick for my top-five Howard films. After all, Willow is, in many ways, pretty standard fantasy fare: A young, naive (but pure of heart) protagonist takes an unlikely quest to save a princess from an evil wizard/witch and, along the way, meets a worldly warrior, a kind wizard/witch, and various comedic companions. The hero learns the typical lessons one learns in a journey-based tale (i.e. lessons about the self, friendship, home, etc.). And there are some notable problems with Willow — e.g. the “comedic” (note the quotes there) performances by Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton land with a thud, which is about what you’d expect from a story written by George Lucas (you know…the guy that thought Jar Jar Binks was the most pivotal character in the Star Wars prequels…yeah…). Also, some of the special-effects haven’t aged particularly well. That said, there’s genuinely amazing chemistry between the two leads, Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer, that makes up for the film’s flaws and differentiates this from similar fantasy films. In the end, it’s a nostalgic pick for me. If you go into it with the right expectations, I think you’ll find it a fun film.
The Underrated One
Among casual viewers, I think I would argue that Rush is Howard’s most underrated film, as it ought to be considered one of the greatest sports movies ever (because it is just that). But I’ve already talked about that movie above. So here’s another underrated one: The Missing (2003). A spiritual cousin of sorts to John Ford’s The Searchers (arguably the best Western ever), this Western is about a young woman abducted by a photography-obsessed “brujo” (basically, a type of shaman, I think) and her mother’s and her long-absentee grandfather’s mutual journey to rescue her. Great performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett, and some really interesting supporting turns from Evan Rachel Wood, Eric Schweig, etc. Currently, it’s rated 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I think it’s better than that score indicates — particularly, if you like Westerns.
The One to Avoid
There are a few contenders here: Angels & Demons (2009), The Da Vinci Code (2006), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), etc. You’d probably want to avoid Backdraft (1991), unless you’re looking for something so mindless that it’s mildly entertaining. You’d probably want to avoid In the Heart of the Sea (2015), unless you are really interested in Moby Dick. But for this “honor,” I’m going with Far and Away (1992). Whatever you think about Tom Cruise off-screen, he generally has charisma on-screen; and Nicole Kidman is a talented actress. However, they’re both terribly boring here in a terribly boring movie. There is no reason for you (or anyone) to watch this boiler-plate American immigration story. The famous “land-race” scene is impressive, simply because of its practical effects and the fact that it’s bonkers (and, apparently, true to real life); but you have to sit through a couple hours of dreck to get there.
The Place to Start
This probably isn’t very applicable here, since Ron Howard’s a hugely successful commercial director and, chances are, you’ve seen multiple films by him. However, if you somehow haven’t seen a film by Howard, I thought I’d offer a good place to start in his filmography (to see if you might want to watch other movies by him). This doesn’t always happen, but I actually think I’d jump right in with Apollo 13 (1995). I think it’s probably his best film; it’s highly accessible / entertaining; and it also demonstrates a lot of the themes and techniques that he uses in his other movies.
The Final Word
Those of a certain generation will probably always associate Ron Howard with his acting — in roles like The Andy Griffith Show or Happy Days or perhaps in George Lucas’s excellent American Graffiti (which you should watch at some point). Those slightly younger might recognize him from his voiceover narration in Arrested Development — i.e. one of the greatest television shows of all time. He’s obviously a prolific filmmaker in terms of quantity. Interestingly enough, after watching most of his films, I’d also argue that Howard is a deceptively good director or, perhaps more accurately, that he’s not merely a director who can appeal to broad audiences but also has some real film-craft as well. I admire that he’s tried his hands at a number of genres (comedy, fantasy, historical epic, Western, Christmas movie, sports movie, etc.); and he demonstrates, I think, a particularly deft hand at the biopic (or biopic-like) film with movies like Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, Rush, etc. His films seem interested in masculinity. We’re presented with men who are trying to achieve greatness (Night Shift), who feel the weight of responsibility (Parenthood), who deeply resent the perceived slights from others (Frost/Nixon), who are trying to prove their own manhood (Far and Away) or are desperately trying to recapture it (Cocoon). And, on an unrelated note, for those anxious about his recent directorial involvement in the upcoming Han Solo project, keep this in mind: For the past decade, Howard’s films have alternated pretty regularly between “hits” and “misses.” If the pattern holds, that means the Han Solo film should be pretty good (since Howard’s previous film was lackluster). Fingers crossed.