Ron Howard's Best Movies
In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Rush director.
Movies about race car drivers don't always have the easiest time with critics (see: Days of Thunder, Stroker Ace, Six Pack), but if there's a director in Hollywood capable of turning driving really fast in circles into a solid all-around blockbuster, it's probably Ron Howard. He gets his chance this weekend, as the already well-reviewed Rush (currently playing in Europe and in limited U.S. release) expands nationwide with the fact-based tale of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), 1970s racing stars whose rivalry proved memorably entertaining on as well as off the course. Of course, this isn't Howard's first trip around the track, so we decided to dedicate this week's list to a rundown of some of the brighter critical highlights from a career full of crowd-pleasers. Goodbye gray sky, hello blue -- it's time for Total Recall!
Howard isn't exactly known for his way with a pulse-pounding thriller, but nobody blends action with soul-curdling anguish quite like Mel Gibson, and with 1996's Ransom, Howard brought him a role he was more or less born to play: Tom Mullen, a wealthy man with an anger management problem and some skeletons rattling around in his closet. Mullen's past sins come back to haunt him when a group of kidnappers, seeking a $2 million ransom, kidnap his young son -- but because this is a Mel Gibson movie, rather than simply forking over the money, Mullen ends up turning the tables in a brutally high-stakes game, going on television and offering an equal amount of money to anyone who can bring his tormentors to justice. "Ransom is dark and risky in a way that's become almost unthinkable for mainstream movies in the '90s," opined Salon's Charles Taylor. "It doesn't resolve its conflicts or allow the audience triumph or release. In the guise of a thriller, Howard made a serious examination of the ambiguity of power."
Only a year after scoring his Best Actor Academy Award for Gladiator, Russell Crowe resurfaced on Oscar ballots for his work in Howard's A Beautiful Mind, which dramatized the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a Nobel-winning economist whose struggles with schizophrenia have darkened a remarkable life. Though its historical accuracy was questioned, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman was accused of cherry-picking details from Nash's life to make him a more sympathetic character, the result was still a film that grossed more than $300 million and earned four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as another Best Actor nomination for Crowe). As Bob Bloom of Lafayette Journal and Courier wrote, "A brilliant performance by Russell Crowe, who takes his audience on a terrifying journey inside a man tormented by self-created mental demons, propels A Beautiful Mind."
Round up a group of wily old acting pros like Don Ameche, Maureen Stapleton, Wilford Brimley, Jessica Tandy, and Hume Cronyn, and you can have them do pretty much any old thing and make it well worth watching -- even if the script in question is a gauzily sentimental sci-fi dramedy about senior citizens accidentally stumbling across a batch of age-reversing alien pods while Steve Guttenberg does his uniquely 1980s Guttenberg thing. The threat of heartstring-tugging sap was high with Cocoon, but screenwriter Tom Benedek (working from David Saperstein's novel) treated his characters with dignity, and Howard's direction left plenty of room for the cast to carry the movie with remarkably deft performances that managed to be funny, thought-provoking, and heartbreakingly poignant -- sometimes within the same scene. "Mr. Howard brings a real sweetness to his subject, as does the film's fine cast of veteran stars; he has also given Cocoon the bright, expansive look of a hot-weather hit," wrote Janet Maslin for the New York Times. "And even when the film begins to falter, as it does in its latter sections, Mr. Howard's touch remains reasonably steady."
One good biopic deserves another, so A Beautiful Mind teammates Ron Howard and Russell Crowe reunited four years later for another life story -- the tale of Depression-era heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, who was dubbed "The Cinderella Man" even before he overcame 10-to-1 odds and defeated Max Baer to claim his title. Surrounded by a top-shelf cast that included Renee Zellweger, Paddy Considine, and Paul Giamatti (who received one of the film's three Oscar nominations), Crowe embodied both the raw physicality and the inner struggle of a fighter who risked his health, and his marriage, to stay in the ring. Though Cinderella Man wasn't a Beautiful Mind-sized hit, it did break the $100 million mark -- and it earned the admiration of most critics, including Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, who wrote, "How exceptional a film actor is Russell Crowe? So exceptional that in Cinderella Man, he makes a good boxing movie feel at times like a great, big picture."
6. The Paper
Howard reunited with his Night Shift star, Michael Keaton, for a very different kind of project in 1994: The Paper, an ensemble dramedy about the frantic goings-on behind the scenes during 24 hours in the life of a New York City newspaper. While things have changed drastically for the publishing industry in the years since The Paper's release, rendering the movie's backdrop rather quaint, the sharp writing (from brothers David and Stephen Koepp) and rock-solid acting -- rounded out by a showy cast that also included Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Jason Robards, and Marisa Tomei -- are timeless. "Howard, after stumbling with Far and Away, is back in form, and perhaps at the top of his game," enthused Chris Hicks for the Deseret News. "There are times when the sheer size of the film seems enough to throw it off the track, but Howard manages, for the most part, to keep things rolling along in his usual slick, if sometimes obvious fashion."