Total Recall

Definitive Ron Howard Movies

We look back at the films that have helped mold the career of the In the Heart of the Sea director.

by | December 9, 2015 | Comments

A Hollywood pro from the age of five, Ron Howard set the template for every actor who’s ever hoped to make a successful jump behind the cameras after scoring a plum role on a hit TV series (or two). A beloved small-screen star on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, he’s spent the last 35 years focusing on directing — and his latest effort, the aquatic drama In the Heart of the Sea, arrives in theaters this weekend, 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!

Night Shift (1982) 92%

Night Shift

Howard could have been accused of tempting fate when he elected to direct his Happy Days buddy Henry Winkler in 1982’s Night Shift — a particularly risky move considering that in the movie, Winkler shed his Fonzie cool to play the nebbishy Chuck Lumley, a newly hired morgue attendant who finds himself going against his better judgment to participate in the cockamamie schemes hatched by his fast-talking co-worker Bill Blazejowski (Michael Keaton) and ends up becoming the de facto co-manager of a thoroughly unusual brothel hosted by a free-spirited hooker (Shelley Long). Ralph Malph was nowhere in sight, in other words, but there was plenty of sitting on it going on — and loads of critical praise, including a positive review from Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who wrote, “This isn’t as snappily directed or as caustically conceived as the subsequent Risky Business, which has a similar theme, but it’s arguably just as sexy and almost as funny.”

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Splash (1984) 91%


Starring in a frothy romantic comedy as a man who falls in love with a mermaid may not seem like the surest path to starting a film career, but then, 1984’s Splash was no ordinary movie — in fact, it started a lot of things, among them an entire studio (Touchstone Pictures, created to allow Disney the ability to release more “adult” fare without sullying its name brand), a surge in the number of girls named Madison, and, supposedly, a name change for the Disneyland ride that eventually became Splash Mountain. Not bad for a movie featuring a pair of largely untested stars (Hanks was fresh from Bosom Buddies, and Hannah was known mainly for her role in Blade Runner) and a director most people still thought of as Opie Taylor (or Richie Cunningham). Nearly $70 million in domestic receipts (and one Academy Award nomination) later, and all three were on their way to bigger and brighter things, thanks in part to positive critical buzz that has proven surprisingly durable; recently, Empire’s Ian Freer held it up as “the movie that really showed Tom Hanks’ promise as a deliverer of great comedy and heart-warming pathos.”

Cocoon (1985) 79%


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.”

Parenthood (1989) 91%


Ten years after redefining doofus comedy with 1979’s The Jerk, Steve Martin had (mostly) traded in props and pratfalls — and he cemented his more reflective, mature on-screen persona with his appearance as sensitive dad Gil Buckman in Ron Howard’s Parenthood. Blending comedy and drama with crowded casts was trendy for a time in the late ’80s (thirtysomething, anyone?), and there are few better examples of the “dramedy” subgenre than this tender, witty look at the tangled bonds between parents and their kids; Parenthood was greeted with a wave of glowing reviews upon its release, many of them reserving their highest praise for the uncommon dexterity with which the story (written by Howard, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel) jumps between its numerous threads. As Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers pointed out, “It’s a shock, and a welcome one, to see Steve Martin cast against type as a doting dad. Martin’s nippy wit continually lifts this movie above the swamp of sentiment.”

The Paper (1994) 88%

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.”

Apollo 13 (1995) 96%

Apollo 13

Splash buddies Tom Hanks and Ron Howard reunited for 1995’s Apollo 13, a dramatization of NASA’s aborted 1970 lunar mission that combined one of Hanks’ biggest personal passions — space travel — with Hollywood’s favorite thing: a blockbuster prestige picture. With a cast that featured a number of similarly prolific actors (among them Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Hanks’ Forrest Gump costar Gary Sinise), Apollo probably would have made decent money even if it had played fast and loose with the real-life details of the launch, but Howard and his crew strove for verisimilitude, going so far as to shoot portions of the film in actual zero gravity. The result was a summertime smash that restored some of space travel’s luster for a jaded generation — and made for an exceedingly good filmgoing experience according to most critics, including Roger Ebert, who called it “a powerful story, one of the year’s best films, told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics.”

A Beautiful Mind (2001) 74%

A Beautiful Mind

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.”

Cinderella Man (2005) 80%

Cinderella Man

One good biopic deserves another, 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.”

Frost/Nixon (2008) 93%

Frost Nixon

Howard earned some of the better reviews of his career for 2009’s Frost/Nixon, which adapts the Peter Morgan play that dramatized British broadcaster David Frost’s (played by Michael Sheen) efforts to secure and sell a series of TV interviews with the politically exiled former president (portrayed by Frank Langella). Although plenty of pundits took umbrage at the way Morgan’s screenplay took liberties with the actual events that inspired the film, for the vast majority of critics, Frost/Nixon‘s flaws seemed pretty minor when weighed against the script, direction, editing, completed picture, and Langella’s performance — all of which received Oscar nominations. For the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Steven Rea, it all added up to “A must-see for political junkies, history buffs, and folks still fascinated by the paranoia-fueled follies of the twitchy, sweaty, decidedly uncharismatic 37th president.”

Rush (2013) 89%


As he’s shown repeatedly throughout his career, Howard is adept when it comes to finding the cinematic drama in a nonfiction story — and there was plenty of it to distill for the fact-based fuel that powers Rush, his 2013 biopic about the real-life rivalry between Formula 1 racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Where many filmmakers might use a racing biopic as an excuse to focus on glossy, Days of Thunder-style revving and zooming, Howard honed in on the human element at play between his dual protagonists, crafting an engrossing tale of two temperamental opposites conjoined by a career that could kill either one of them every time they step on the track. “Howard keeps his cameras small and all over the cars, to show us dazzling machinery in motion, the ground whizzing by in a blur underneath,” observed Stephen Whitty for the Newark Star-Ledger. “Playing to his own strengths, though, he keeps this a movie about character.”

  • Moby85

    I needed Backdraft to be there. Seriously, have you seen that movie recently? It’s still great and all the effects hold up gloriously. Has aged very well.

  • dbooners

    If I remember correctly, it was Michael Keaton’s character in Night Shift who was “newly hired.” I’m thinking Henry Winkler’s character had been there for years, and had even been passed over for an expected promotion.

  • Daniel Wright

    What? where is Backdraft? that movie was awesome. Kurt Russell’s
    finest moments

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