Critic's Picks: Ron Howard's Films, Ranked Worst to Best

5:54 PM 10/28/2016

by Stephen Dalton

A THR film critic looks back at the director's filmography, from the ridiculous to the riveting.

Courtesy of Photofest

  1. 23
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    The Da Vinci Code

    2006

    Courtesy of Photofest

    In the realm of deluxe trash, Howard rules supreme. Sporting the strangest haircut of his screen career, Tom Hanks stars in this glossy adaptation of author Dan Brown’s bestseller about a risibly silly conspiracy involving albino monks and messianic secrets. Reviews were mostly negative but Howard had the last laugh, launching a critic-proof billion-dollar franchise.

  2. 22
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    In the Heart of the Sea

    2015

    Courtesy of Warner Bros.

    Howard scored a rare critical and commercial flop with this soggy adventure yarn about the real 19th century shipwreck that inspired Moby-Dick. A stellar cast led by Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy and Ben Whishaw starved themselves for their roles, and the 3D CG whale makes a big splash, and yet this maritime disaster movie still lacks suspense and spectacle.

  3. 21
    23

    Cinderella Man

    2005

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Four years after making A Beautiful Mind together, Howard reteamed with Russell Crowe for this handsome but ponderous Depression-era tearjerker based on the true story of impoverished Irish-American boxer Benjamin Braddock. Boasting precisely zero screen chemistry between Crowe and his screen wife Renee Zellweger, this sentimental slugfest punched well below its weight at the box office.

  4. 20
    23

    Inferno

    2016

    Sony Pictures

    Howard’s latest Dan Brown adaptation reunites him with Tom Hanks once more for a bloated bio-terrorism plot unfolding on the streets of Florence and Istanbul. Inferno has already earned mediocre reviews, but as ever, Howard's critics may be steamrollered by big financial returns as this popcorn-munching blockbuster rolls out internationally.

  5. 19
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    The Dilemma

    2011

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Howard took a shaky detour into Judd Apatow territory with this hit-and-miss comedy bromance. Vince Vaughn plays a car designer wrestling with the ethics of whether to tell his best buddy and business partner (Kevin James) that his wife (Winona Ryder) is having an affair. Howard walks a wobbly line between bittersweet humor and strained slapstick, earning lukewarm reviews and pulling modest crowds.

  6. 18
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    Angels & Demons

    2009

    Courtesy of Photofest

    The inevitable sequel to The Da Vinci Code is based on another Dan Brown novel, reuniting Howard with Tom Hanks, who is at least allowed a slightly less ridiculous haircut this time. In fairness, Angels & Demons presses its action blockbuster buttons with slick efficiency as Hanks zigzags around the occult underground fringes of Europe like a modern-day Indiana Jones.

  7. 17
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    The Missing

    2003

    Courtesy of Photofest

    There are conscious echoes of John Ford’s frontier classic The Searchers in Howard’s sumptuous but plodding western. Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones co-star as a long-estranged father and daughter forced into an uneasy truce as they hunt down the murderous outlaws who kidnapped Blanchett’s daughter. Despite impressive attention to detail, including dialogue in authentic Apache dialect, Howard’s ponderous direction sucks all the energy from the story.

  8. 16
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    Grand Theft Auto

    1977

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Using the leverage of his Happy Days TV fame, Howard cut his teeth behind the camera by brokering a smart deal with legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman to direct, co-write and co-star in this extended car-chase movie about young lovers on the run. The stunts are spectacular, but the plot is sappy and the characters too wholesome. This cult curio made a tidy profit and a new career was born.

  9. 15
    23

    Gung Ho

    1986

    Courtesy of Photofest

    A timely but tame satire on Japanese-American industrial relations during the Reagan era, Gung Ho is Howard’s hit-and-miss attempt to make a Frank Capra-style everyman comedy. Michael Keaton plays a former small-town Pennsylvania auto-plant worker who persuades a huge Japanese corporation to re-open his mothballed local car factory, only to burden his fellow workers with impossible production targets and culture-clash conflicts.

  10. 14
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    Night Shift

    1982

    Courtesy of Photofest

    In his first joint venture with his long-term business partner, producer Brian Grazer, Howard directed his former Happy Days co-star Henry “The Fonz” Winkler in his obscure but sharply scripted black comedy about two aspiring entrepreneurs running a part-time prostitution business from the morgue where they work. Shelley Long co-stars while future Howard regular Michael Keaton makes his starring debut.

  11. 13
    23

    EdTV

    1999

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Howard’s gentle satire on the destructive banality of reality television had the misfortune to arrive soon after the far superior The Truman Show, which also concerned an ordinary everyman whose life becomes a round-the-clock soap opera. Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Liz Hurley and Ellen DeGeneres co-star.

  12. 12
    23

    Willow

    1985

    Courtesy of Photofest

    George Lucas conceived this Hobbit-style fantasy adventure long before Star Wars, then waited over a decade for special effects technology to make it possible. The heroic quest plot stars former Ewok Warwick Davis as an unlikely anti-hero assigned to protect a precious baby princess from a wicked queen. Howard fashions a decent yarn from familiar sword-and-sorcery ingredients, but Willow is a Lucasfilm at heart.

  13. 11
    23

    Backdraft

    1991

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Howard flexed his macho action credentials in this muscular but heavy-handed ensemble drama about daredevil heroism and sibling antagonism in a Chicago firefighting family. Kurt Russell and William Baldwin play rival fireman brothers with complicated love lives, while Robert De Niro makes a cameo appearance as an arson investigator.

  14. 10
    23

    Cocoon

    1985

    Courtesy of Photofest

    A close encounter of the syrupy kind, Howard’s benign sci-fi fairy tale centers on a group of geriatric Florida retirees being offered a chance at youth again by friendly aliens. Hollywood veteran Don Ameche won an Academy Award alongside a cast of old-timers including Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton and Hume Cronyn. A shameless heart-tugger, of course, but touched by Spielbergian magic.

  15. 9
    23

    Rush

    2013

    'Rush'
    'Rush'
    Universal Pictures

    Howard keeps the action fast and furious in this real-life racetrack biodrama, which reunited him with Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan. Rush recreates another headline-grabbing mid 1970s stand-off, this time the love-hate rivalry between Formula One motor racing champions James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).

  16. 8
    23

    Ransom

    1996

    Courtesy of Photofest

    A virtual dry run for Liam Neeson’s Taken movies, Howard’s superior revenge thriller stars a pre-meltdown Mel Gibson as a two-fisted New York tycoon who turns the tables on his son’s kidnappers by refusing to pay up, instead offering a hefty reward for their capture. The action is well orchestrated while the strong ensemble cast includes Rene Russo, Gary Sinise and Lili Taylor.

  17. 7
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    Splash

    1984

    Courtesy of Photofest

    An early joint success for Howard and his future Apollo 13 star Tom Hanks, Splash is a frothy romantic fairy tale about a lonely New York bachelor (Hanks) who falls in love with a mermaid (Darryl Hannah). The film propelled its two co-stars to A-list status and proved Howard’s mastery of populist schmaltz, scoring major box office rewards.

  18. 6
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    The Grinch

    2000

    Courtesy of Photofest

    This splashy, colorful, live-action adaptation of the much-loved Doctor Seuss children’s classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! stars a heavily made-up Jim Carrey as the hyperactive gargoyle who despises communal fun so much he tries to sabotage the festive season. Howard’s natural flair for family-friendly populist entertainment get a full airing in this underrated heart-warmer, the second highest-grossing holiday film of all time.

  19. 5
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    A Beautiful Mind

    2001

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Russell Crowe stars as Princeton mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., who overcame paranoid schizophrenia to win the Nobel Prize, in Howard’s well-crafted if highly selective biopic. By simplifying Nash’s life story for maximum inspirational uplift, A Beautiful Mind became a commercial smash and won four Oscars, including two for Howard and one for Jennifer Connelly as Nash's wife.

  20. 4
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    Frost/Nixon

    2008

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Howard turns in a brisk adaptation of Peter Morgan’s award-winning, lightly fictionalized stage play about the blockbuster 1977 interviews between playboy TV presenter David Frost and disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen both give powerhouse performances in a juicy two-hander that earned Howard critical kudos but only modest commercial success.

  21. 3
    23

    The Paper

    1994

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Set in the frenetic newsroom of a New York tabloid, this fast-moving ensemble drama features excellent performances from Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Marisa Tomei and more. The tone is unusually biting for Howard, notably a subplot in which Keaton’s motormouth journalist comes under pressure to name two black suspects to a double murder, though he believes them to be innocent.

  22. 2
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    Parenthood

    1989

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Partly inspired by mutual experiences with their own families, Parenthood was a personal project for Howard and his regular collaborators, producer Brian Grazer and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Cutting between four generations of a sprawling Florida family, this warm-hearted comedy boasts a terrific ensemble cast including Steve Martin, Keanu Reeves, Joaquin Phoenix, Mary Steenburgen and Dianne Wiest. It spawned two TV spin-off series.

  23. 1
    23

    Apollo 13

    1995

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Recreating a tense 1970 moon mission that almost ended in tragedy, Howard strikes a fine balance between eye-popping spectacle, forensic technical procedural and flag-waving tribute to all-American knowhow. Playing cool-headed astronaut hero Jim Lovell, Tom Hanks heads a strong ensemble cast that includes Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris and a cameo by Lovell himself. This NASA-endorsed real-life space thriller was a critical and commercial hit, earning nine Oscar nominations and two wins

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