Top 10: Ron Howard

Ron Howard is one of the original actors turned directors. His early acting work on The Andy Griffith Show as well the numerous seasons of Happy Days immortalized him as an acting touchstone of my parents’ generation. As he migrated into motion picture work, like George Lucas’ American Graffiti, he soon took the next evolutionary step and relocated his interests to behind the camera. With the 1970s nearing a close, he began to pick up work as a director, knocking out I’m a Fool, Grand Theft Auto, and Fire on the Mountain before finding a real piece of success with Night Shift, starring Michael Keaton. Before long, hits with professional backing, like the George Lucas-produced Willow, the family drama Parenthood – the basis for the present-day NBC show of the same name – the period piece Far & Away, starring soon-to-be-romancers Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and the under-seen The Paper (I, too, haven’t seen it) were being donned “A Ron Howard Film” by posters and movie teasers alike.

With two Oscar wins, four career nominations, a producing role on the cult favorite Arrested Development, a lifelong career in show business, and a list of favored films connected to his name, Ron Howard is of Hollywood’s most lauded movie makers. This weekend, we see the release of Howard’s newest film, Rush, which spotlights the rivalry between F1 drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nicki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Independently produced, mostly by Howard himself, early reviews have applauded its technicality, the chemistry and dynamic of the leads, and Howard’s assured handling of the material – a story to which he had a huge personal attraction.

In preparation for Rush’s release, here are our 10 favorite Ron Howard films, listed in ascending order:

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Howthegrinchstolechristmasposter.jpg10) How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – It’s hardly a classic by Hollywood standards (though it did break $200 million) but it has become a holiday season, ABC Family staple since its release in 2000. For its dark atmosphere, sinister playfulness, and overall crudity, I’ll go out on a limb and call its direction pretty bold. Other Dr. Seuss adaptations rarely dip into the same level of strangeness that Howard depicts in his live-action take, but that’s kind of the charm of Grinch and what makes it particularly interesting within the director’s repertoire. A step down from Chuck Jones’ animated classic – the favored iteration among the previous generation – though Jim Carrey does shine (and excessively scene-chew) in the title role. It’s lewd and trippy, possesses tons of irony, lacks any sense of sentimentality or sweetness, and pushes past its ‘kids movie’ label at many points, but Grinch has surely found a way onto most family’s televisions during one December or another. It’s atypical Ron Howard, and for almost that reason alone it deserves some last-slot recognition.

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The da vinci code final.jpg9) The Da Vinci Code (2006) – Maybe it was the anticipation and expectations that surrounded Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s best selling, though highly controversial thriller that brought down a rain of hatred eventually branding The Da Vinci Code with a shameful 25% on RottenTomatoes. But in the seven years since its release I’ve still found little to contest about the flick. I’ve read Brown’s novel and find Code to be a very worthwhile and mostly faithful adaptation with solid performances from leads Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, as well as Ian McKellen and Paul Bettany in key supporting roles. While all possible subtlety is totally absent – a common Howard misstep is him being too forceful – I was engaged and entertained by the story on screen just as I was when I read it on the page. Howard’s progression through Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay keeps the action flowing. Like Grinch above, Code may not be a consensual ‘Best of Ron Howard’ gem but its merits are unfairly suppressed and it proves that even the safest of directors can find their way into controversial circles.

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Backdraft poster.jpg8) Backdraft (1991) – Brutal and intense, Backdraft is a pyro-heavy effects film recognized for its succession of fire-raging set pieces and all-star ensemble above its character dynamic and half-baked mystery plotline. William Baldwin and Kurt Russell star as firefighting brothers whose incurable sibling rivalry extends into adulthood when they find themselves working alongside one another. Baldwin, the younger brother, is eventually reassigned to arson investigation – captained by a fantastic Robert De Niro – tracking purposefully set oxygen-induced fireballs known as ‘backdrafts.’ Though bloated, congested, and over-produced for sure, with some superfluous characters – i.e. Donald Sutherland’s imprisoned pyromaniac – it’s still a raw and engrossing film full of spectacular fire sequences, each consecutive one escalating in scale and ferocity. Its Howard-ian melodrama is forgivable due to his insane control of the raging infernos and the confidence he instills in his ensemble to put the iffy narrative pieces together. This is one of Howard’s bravest films because he lets the actors knit together Backdraft’s drama amidst the hellish and surely dangerous special effects.

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Cocoonposter.jpg7) Cocoon (1985) – To age or not to age? That is the poignant question of Ron Howard’s sentimental but incredibly thoughtful Cocoon. Starring Don Ameche (an Oscar winner for this film), Hume Cronyn, and Wilford Brimley as three thrill-seeking senior citizens who suddenly are reinvigorated with youth and sprightliness after dipping into a pool near their senior care home, Howard’s loving directorial hand allows the characters to bring a science-fiction entrenched story to heartwarming life. The choking techniques that came to define a great deal of Howard’s work are tabled here, and instead he retreats to his beginnings as an actor to understand where the heart of Cocoon lies. The result is emotionally real, tender, and life-affirming. It’s a science-fiction classic without the action or the destruction that can enshroud the genre; like the benchmarks of the sci-fi type, it follows warm characters that make it all become worthwhile. Plus, with a Golden Hollywood cast proving that talent truly doesn’t dwindle with age, Cocoon answers its own philosophical question. This one’s a generational wonder intended to be watched by grandparents and grandchildren alike.

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RansomPoster.jpg6) Ransom (1996) – A morality tale not too distant from this past weekend’s Prisoners, Ron Howard directed his updated version of the 1956 Glenn Ford flick about a self-made multi-millionaire (Mel Gibson) whose life unravels when his nine-year-old son is kidnapped. When his pure attempt to go about the ransom process ends terribly, Gibson takes matters into his own redemptive hands and leads a hotheaded crusade against his son’s kidnappers. As things continue to escalate, Gibson retreats to brute force as a shocking third act gets intensely bloody. Though the mystery is stretched out to 120 minutes when 90 could have surely done the job, and the screenplay’s balance between perspectives erases most of physical mystery, Howard gets points for swimming in decidedly violent waters. In fact, Ransom is surely the director’s most violent movie. In addition, it’s one of Mel Gibson’s top tier performances released during his most prominent years (only a year after Braveheart). One scene where Gibson’s character intends to reverse the kidnappers’ plot by placing a public bounty on their lives is wildly gripping, excellently cut for maximum effect. Howard keeps everything in streamlined focus, even when the realism begins to bend and bloody bodies are strewn about Manhattan streets and alleyways. It’s a biting and tense product birthed by the Howard/Gibson partnership.

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Splash ver2.jpg5) Splash (1984) – Cute, light, bright, loving, and a winner in every sense of the word, Ron Howard’s Splash is a chemistry-filled ‘fish out of water’ romantic comedy…literally. Starring Darryl Hannah as a mermaid in search of her long lost love – a young boy whom she rescued from drowning years before, now grown up into none other than Tom Hanks – she adopts a full human form and roams the streets of New York City. As a fateful reunion and formula would have it, Hanks becomes overwhelmed with love for the former-amphibian but is soon caught in a plot to rescue her from smarmy scientists interested in holding her for scientific observation. While it all sounds very fluffy, Splash made waves at the box office in 1984 and is still a rom-com classic. The innocent youthfulness of both Hanks and Hannah – both very early in their respective careers – is what makes a lot of the fantasy work, namely its gift-wrapped ending; Howard’s soft work creates an airy tone and a wondrous dynamic impossible to uphold without affection. It’s a cutesy, friendly-to-all romance that never feels too sugary, a timeless date movie that cemented Howard as a mainstay filmmaker.

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Frost nixon.jpg4) Frost/Nixon (2008) – The filmmaker’s last beloved success, the film version of Peter Morgan’s Tony-winning stage play became an Oscar-nominated drama earning the writer, star Frank Langella, and the director individual nominations. Though it won zero of the five Oscars it was nominated for, it’s still a mature, situational, and historically assured piece of cinema from Ron Howard. Working at his most subtle – probably ever – Frost/Nixon is a ballet of acting talent as leads Langella and Michael Sheen swing verbal punches dissecting the complex mind and actions of former president Richard Nixon. Inspired by true events and a series of intense interviews that substitute for the rightful trial that Richard Nixon never had, Frost/Nixon is character-centric brilliance delicately handled by the restrained Howard. Memorable supporting roles embodied by Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, and Oliver Platt provide substance outside of the weighty and detailed interview recreations and effectually create a wholly well-rounded picture. It’s a prestige film of true class and the assurance that a seemingly lost Ron Howard needed to get back on track.

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A thin light-gray crescent Moon stretches diagonally from lower left to upper right against a black background, with a blue and white crescent Earth in the far distance. In front of the portion of the moon that is in shadow on the left appears a small image of the Apollo 13 Command/Service module joined to the Lunar Module, with vapor streaming from a hole in the side of the Service Module — the words "Houston, we have a problem" appear directly above the craft in white lower case lettering. The names of the principal actors appear in white lettering at the top of the image, and the title APOLLO 13 in block white upper-case letters appears at the lower right.3) Apollo 13 (1995) – Ambitious and historical, daring and character-based, balancing a spread out ensemble within a very true and engaging story of ingenuity and the will to carry forth, Apollo 13 is the bona fide Ron Howard movie; Apollo 13 speaks to his greatest talents, a peak he has only reached a couple of times afterward. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Bill Paxton, and Oscar-nominated performances from Kathleen Quinlan and Ed Harris round out this groundbreaking drama about the problem-heavy flight of the eponymous space shuttle. With tremendous focus and steadiness, Ron Howard, utilizing advanced visual effects that still pull their desired punches almost two decades later, recreates the incredible story with astonishing accuracy. Never overbearing or superfluous at any point, the film capitalizes on every moment, every reactionary response, and every authentic emotion and transports us to a distinct time and an outer-worldly place. Impressive from start to finish, Howard’s film is as genuine and treasured now as it was in 1995; a definitive piece of 90’s cinema and of exciting, old-fashioned adventure glazed with history.

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A Beautiful Mind Poster.jpg2) A Beautiful Mind (2001)A Beautiful Mind is an immaculate film closely researched and recreated with a true stroke of genius. Though this might not be Ron Howard’s best film, it has the makings of an awards picture – which it was – without ever striving or pining to be one and its method, central performance from Russell Crowe makes it arguably interchangeable with our number one pick below. Chronicling the life of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, Mind covers Nash’s life from college through his eventual Nobel Prize win. A detailed biopic such as this comes along only so rarely, and the Academy took notice by awarding Howard with Best Director, the film with Best Picture, Jennifer Connolly with Best Supporting Actress, Akiva Goldsman with Best Adapted Screenplay, and numerous other nominations as well. Howard’s approach to the complicated, disturbed mind of John Nash is innovatively daring, literally inserting us into the mind of someone who never knew what was real and what was imagined. It’s scary, heartbreaking, intense, and fully realized with great detail and structure. A beautified tale of tragedy about a man who just wanted to exist in normality but was nearly destroyed by a fractured mind, A Beautiful Mind is forever phenomenal.

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Cinderella Man poster.jpg1) Cinderella Man (2005) – Combining certain strengths of Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man is a stinging biopic authentically situated within a specific time and place, providing the inspiring sports-related story that it intends. The second pairing of director Ron Howard and Russell Crowe proved to be Howard’s most personal and most audacious film – it’s gritty, it’s brutal, it’s focused, and it’s as real as any of Howard’s films have ever been. Tonally, it’s closest relative is Seabiscuit, but the uplift that builds throughout is similarly evoked, yet individual all the same. Crowe’s Jim Braddock fights his way to the top against seemingly unbeatable odds and overcomes the harrowing Depression Era triumphantly, just as the film fights to be wildly detailed and fulfilling – the most admirable of Howard’s directorial qualities. It never nears the sentimental or overdone touches that Howard can delve into and Cinderella Man is thankfully fulfilling in all its genre categories: Biopic, sports flick, and vintage period piece. It’s a near-masterpiece that still hasn’t found the graces it deserves (its release and awards prospects were tarnished by aggressive real-life instances involving Crowe, a hotel bellhop, and a telephone) despite featuring outstanding work from Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti, as well as a restrained Crowe. Cinderella Man is a blistered and brilliant piece of biographical work and represents the absolute pinnacle of Ron Howard’s talent as a director of motion pictures.

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What’s your favorite Ron Howard directed film? Did it make our list? Will you be seeing Rush this weekend?

Article by Mike Murphy

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