Total Recall

Robin Williams' 10 Best Movies

We count down his best-reviewed work.

by | August 13, 2014 | Comments

Robin WilliamsOver the course of his long and distinguished career, Robin Williams won five Grammys, four Golden Globes, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Emmys, and an Oscar, not to mention more than $3 billion in lifetime grosses — not bad for a stand-up comedian who became a household name as the star of Mork and Mindy, a Happy Days spinoff sitcom about a goofball alien. Now, please join us in paying tribute to one of Hollywood’s most eclectic stars by looking back at some of his filmography’s many dazzling critical highlights. We’ve focused on Williams’ larger roles, which meant leaving out memorable-but-brief appearances in films like Hamlet and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but we think you’ll agree that what ended up making the cut was still pretty darn impressive.

· Robin Williams: 1951-2014
· Robin Williams’ Filmography


10. One Hour Photo

He rose to fame on the strength of his maddeningly energetic comic persona, but Williams started to settle down a little in the 1990s and early aughts, first with dramedies like Mrs. Doubtfire, then with more serious fare, such as Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come. Some of these projects were more warmly received than others, but each of them gave audiences a glimpse of just how deeply Williams could sublimate the frantic restlessness that defined his public image, and they culminated with 2002’s One Hour Photo. Here, Williams plays Sy Parrish, a profoundly lonely photo technician whose desperate, hidden attachment to his customers sends him down a dark path, and it’s a testament to his skill as an actor that even though Parrish is an obviously disturbed and frankly disquieting character, Williams makes it hard not to identify, if not outright sympathize, with his sad plight. Photo was a moderate success at the box office, but critics were nearly unanimous in their praise for its star’s performance. “Sy is a complete character with a physicality, inner monologue and motivation that we haven’t seen from Mr. Williams in a long time,” wrote Joe Lozito of Big Picture Big Sound. “And it’s a pleasure to watch.”


9. The Fisher King

Williams reunited with Terry Gilliam, who’d earlier directed him in a small role for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, for this heartfelt 1991 drama about an abrasive radio deejay (Jeff Bridges) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a homeless man (Williams) who has a poignant connection to his past. A tale with a decidedly smaller scope than the average Gilliam production, The Fisher King traded its director’s trademark special effects-assisted whimsy for a tale of redemption and simple human kindness — and earned Williams his third Best Actor Oscar nomination in the process. “Working within the constraints of a big studio film has brought out Gilliam’s best,” observed Newsweek’s David Ansen. “He’s become a true storyteller and a wonderful director of actors. This time he delights not only the eye but the soul.”


8. Dead Poets Society

It’s a movie seemingly seen by an entire generation, and one that contains some of the most eminently quotable lines in Williams’ entire filmography — so what’s Dead Poets Society doing so far down on this list? Fact is, as much as its cult has grown over the years, this inspirational drama about an embattled English teacher at a private academy was initially dismissed by a number of top critics, including Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Roger Ebert, who called it “shameless in its attempt to pander to an adolescent audience.” Most filmgoers disagreed, of course, helping Poets rack up more than $235 million in worldwide grosses as well as four Academy Awards nominations (including Best Actor for Williams). Christopher Null of Filmcritic agreed with the crowds, saying it all added up to “The best stories and performances, one of the greatest films of the 1980s and a rare classic that should be treasured.”


7. Awakenings

Williams netted his fourth Golden Globes nomination for his work in this Penny Marshall drama about the true story of British neurologist Olivier Sacks (played by Williams as the fictional, and American, Malcolm Sayer), whose pioneering pharmacological studies help achieve a breakthrough with a catatonic patient (played by Robert De Niro). Nominated for three Academy Awards — including Best Picture and Best Actor for De Niro — Awakenings wasn’t quite the major Christmas hit it was cracked up to be, grossing just over $50 million during its theatrical run, but it was a critical favorite for scribes like Rita Kempley of the Washington Post, who called it “cause for rejoicing, a literate and compassionate film in this season of chintz and barbarism.”


6. World’s Greatest Dad

Though he’d been helming features since the early 1990s, eyebrows still raised when it was announced that Bobcat Goldthwait would be directing Robin Williams in a comedy about a milquetoast high school teacher who pens a phony suicide note for his son after discovering him dead of auto-erotic asphyxiation. It’s every bit the black comedy that its premise would suggest, but World’s Greatest Dad also contains plenty of Goldthwait-style absurdity, including a scene where Bruce Hornsby shows up as himself — and it earned praise from critics like Robbie Collin from News of the World, who wrote, “Beware that poster, with its jolly red writing and Mork from Ork’s face thereon. This is not the Robin Williams of Old Dogs and License To Wed.”


5. Moscow On The Hudson

Released during the peak of the Cold War 1980s, Moscow on the Hudson dramatized the plight of a Soviet circus musician (played by Williams in an early dramatic role) who defects to the United States while he’s in New York for a performance. While films that illustrated the basic humanity at the heart of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union weren’t exactly rare in the 1980s — heck, even Rocky IV explored a similar message — Hudson rose above the pack thanks to its talented cast, not to mention some typically solid work from writer/director Paul Mazursky. Scott Weinberg of eFilmCritic called it “The first good look we got at Williams trying to broaden his horizons” and pronounced it “Well done.”


4. Good Morning, Vietnam

It’s almost impossible to read the title of this movie without hearing Williams’ booming voice shouting it. A huge success that earned him his first Oscar nomination and first Golden Globe, Good Morning, Vietnam dramatized the wartime experience of real-life Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer, finding belly laughs as well as poignant drama in his attempts to survive the war while finding friendship and battling the hypocrisy of his superiors — all to the strains of one of the decade’s best-selling soundtracks. “Make no mistake about it,” admonished the New York Times’ Vincent Canby. “Mr. Williams’s performance, though it’s full of uproarious comedy, is the work of an accomplished actor. Good Morning, Vietnam is one man’s tour de force.”


3. Insomnia

Even Williams’ most manic work has always been limned with a palpable sense of sadness, helping him navigate between comedy and drama since the beginning of his film career — and, as Christopher Nolan discovered with 2002’s Insomnia, making him a natural for bone-chillingly creepy villain roles like Walter Finch, the crime writer suspected by police detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) of having something to do with the death of a teenage girl. The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick called it “A four-course gourmet alternative to summer popcorn flicks, serving up the meatiest performances Al Pacino and Robin Williams have given in many years.”


2. Aladdin

The early 1990s were a busy but critically uneven time for Williams, giving us a Cadillac Man or Toys for every Fisher King or Mrs. Doubtfire. But his largely ad-libbed voice work in 1992’s Aladdin represents the best of both worlds: Williams firing on all cylinders and delivering some of his funniest lines without having to carry the film. “Robin Williams and animation were born for one another,” observed Roger Ebert, “and in Aladdin they finally meet.”


1. Good Will Hunting

After earning Oscar nominations for his work in Good Morning America, Dead Poets Society, and The Fisher King, Williams finally scored a win for his crucial supporting work in Good Will Hunting. As the therapist who helps Will Hunting (Matt Damon) move beyond his troubled past, Williams provided an impetus for the film’s touching final act while delivering some of his most sensitive dramatic work. “Even rarer than a breath of fresh air is a breath of fresh Hollywood film,” declared Jay Carr of the Boston Globe, adding, “Brainy and heartfelt and right on target, Good Will Hunting is such a film.”


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