Ranked: Ron Howard Films, From Worst to Best

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With Made in America's release, we look back at the feel-good director of Apollo-13, Cocoon, and A Beautiful Mind.

Ron Howard made his directorial debut in 1977 after years as a working actor on The Andy Griffith show and Happy Days. Ever since, he has vacillated between directing deeply affecting, emotionally charged human dramas and more watered-down mainstream fare. With the premiere of Made in America, the Jay-Z concert documentary out this week, we’re evaluating Howard’s entire filmography. 

23. The Dilemma (2011)

The Dilemma is a classic example of Ron Howard piling too many ideas into one film. Here he attempts to blend slapstick comedy and complex human drama to disastrous effect. Vince Vaughn, Winona Ryder, and Channing Tatum earn points for trying to make sense of the alternately darkly heavy and cheaply funny storyline, but unfortunately, their efforts are largely wasted. 

22. The Da Vinci Code (2006)

It’s no surprise Ron Howard earned a Razzie nomination for this slow-moving, unexciting adaptation of Dan Brown’s international bestseller. While Ron Howard and Tom Hanks usually bring out the best in one another, their collaboration on this project tarnishes their respective bodies of work. Hanks has never seemed more out-of-place as the brilliant and methodical professor Robert Langdon, and Howard can’t help but take the urgency that made the novel famous and throw it out the window. All this combined with unnatural plot twists make The Da Vinci Code a real misfire.  

21. Gung Ho (1986)

With Gung Ho, Howard succeeds in creating the most fundamentally unlikeable protagonist in his repertoire. Michael Keaton as Hunt Stevenson, is so self-serving, he’s painful to watch. What’s worse, the light-hearted film abounds with problematic social and cultural messages, including stereotypical, one-dimensional portrayals of Japanese managers and a perplexing anti-union attitude. 

20. Grand Theft Auto (1977)

Ron Howard famously didn’t get paid to direct his first feature film, and it shows. Grand Theft Auto is juvenile, lowbrow, and far too slow moving for an 84-minute production almost entirely about car chases. 

19. EDtv (1999)

The poor man’s Truman Show, EDtv takes the complex subjects of celebrity, public surveillance, and voyeurism and reduces them to a string of light-hearted jokes and dramatic, one-dimensional sound bites.  

18. Angels and Demons (2009)

For all its problems, Angels and Demons shows growth from Howard, who obviously learned from The Da Vinci Code that an action movie can be ridiculous, implausible, and hard to follow as long as it isn’t boring. Hanks reprises his role as Robert Langdon, this time solving a murder and investigating possible terrorism in the Vatican. Howard made a decent, relatively crowd-pleasing action film with a compelling villain (played by a surprisingly fresh-faced Ewan McGregor), demonstrating that he has the directorial chops to make a fast-paced blockbuster.  

17. The Missing (2003)

The Missing had the makings of a quality film with layered performances from Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones as an estranged father and daughter on the New Mexico frontier, but the Western relies too heavily on the genre’s conventions to really go anywhere. 

16. Far & Away (1992)

As an epic spectacle, Far & Away works. Shot in 65mm with gorgeous cinematography by Mikael Solomon, the film captures urban and frontier scenes with equal precision while hearkening back to an Old Hollywood widescreen tradition. However, like many Howard films, Far & Away lays on the fluff and shies away from substance. The result is a visually stunning production about two mismatched Irish immigrants that doesn’t lend itself to meaningful contemplation or discussion. Tom Cruise’s cartoonish Irish accent doesn’t help matters, either. 

15. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Critics hated Howard’s version of this Dr. Seuss classic, calling it everything from shrill and emotionless to crude and too self-consciously ironic. The way I see it, it’s biggest crime is that it isn’t the 1966 animated original.

14. Ransom (1996)

Like most films fully available on Youtube, Ransom isn’t exactly a masterpiece. With that said, Howard delivers solid directing that, for the most part, masks the script’s major weaknesses and plot holes. 

13. The Paper (1994)

Frenetic pacing, quippy dialogue, and a great ensemble cast including Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, and Marisa Tomei keep The Paper interesting. Whether its portrayal of a day at a New York newspaper is actually accurate is unclear, but at the very least, Howard proves he is capable of successfully blending comedy and drama together.

12. Night Shift (1982)

How this film about a morgue turned brothel didn’t verge into creepy, necrophiliac territory is beyond me. I guess it’s a credit to Ron Howard, who always manages to keep even the most lurid topics somewhat family-friendly. The early 80s film is funny, albeit less edgy or engaging than its counterpart, Risky Business.

11. Backdraft (1991)

This sentimental ode to Chicago firefighters stands as one of Howard’s more successful box office hits, currently holding the title for the highest grossing film about firefighters ever. Once again, it demonstrates Howard can direct a decent action film that’s crowd-pleasing and entertaining. Howard’s knack for beautifully capturing fire in vivid sequences easily upstages the stock hero performances from Kurt Russell and William Baldwin. 

10. Parenthood (1989)

From this point on the list forward, the rankings get more difficult. Despite various missteps, Howard is a talented director with an eye for creating real, accessible characters and families. With Parenthood, he does just that. Steve Martin as Gil Buckman, an uncertain father of three with a fourth along the way, conveys all the anxieties that come with parenthood comically and charismatically. Dianne Wiest as Helen, his divorced sister struggling to raise two children on her own, earns her Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress and then some.

9. Cocoon (1985)

Ron Howard might be king of the “based on a true story” genre of films, but the campy sci-fi hit Cocoon is easily one of his crowning achievements. Howard directs this warm-hearted film about crotchety seniors who discover a veritable Fountain of Youth in their retirement home swimming pool, along with alien cocoons. Of the over-50 cast, Don Ameche received the most recognition, including an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but if you ask me, Wilford Brimley delivers the most engaging performance. 

8. Made in America (2013)

This concert documentary about Jay-Z’s Made in America festival is more than just footage of live acts like Pearl Jam, Skrillex, and Odd Future. Howard’s talent for bringing out the softer, more vulnerable sides of his subjects to produce films with emotion transforms this behind-the-scenes picture into an inspirational and surprisingly heart-warming film about artists across levels of fame and experience in their careers. Watch if only to hear Janelle Monae remember her Kansas City upbringing and time at Blockbuster before catching her big break. (Not to mention, a silly and hilarious scene where Howard learns how to deejay.)

7. Willow (1988)

It took every ounce of restraint in my fangirl heart not to rank this critically panned film even higher on the list. Howard really understands the fantasy genre, and Willow is by far one of his most creative directorial features. Obviously, this film is not without its flaws—dated special effects, clunky dialogue, weak plot points that don’t hold up under close observation, Val Kilmer—but I can forgive all of them simply for the offbeat casting and spoofy nature of the film. 

6. Splash (1984)

With Splash, Howard proves himself to be an actor’s director, bringing out the best in his leads. Tom Hanks, who earned his big break from the film, is at his most likeable as Allen Bauer, an average Joe who falls in love with a mermaid who saves his life twice, and Daryl Hannah exudes ingénue charm as said mermaid. Equal parts silly and swoony, this fantasy film stands as one of Howard’s best for delivering smiles and heart without an overly heavy hand. 

5. Cinderella Man (2005)

Cinderella Man, the film inspired by the true story of Great Depression era boxer James Braddock, was such a box office bomb that AMC Theatres started offering a money-back guarantee to boost sales. The strategy didn’t work, which is too bad since it’s actually a compelling feature. Never one to pass up an opportunity to make a feel-good movie, Howard finally balances mush with well-timed restraint in Cinderella Man, making it one of his best films. 

4. Rush (2013)

I caught an advanced screening of Rush, and was thoroughly impressed with Howard’s latest action drama. Based on the true story (of course) of Formula One racers Niki Lauda (an excellent Daniel Bruhl poised for superstardom) and James Hunt (a characteristically beefy Chris Hemsworth) as they work to outpace each other on the racetrack, the film is slick, stylish, and fast. Basically, Rush outdoes Ron Howard’s first car-centric project, Grand Theft Auto, at every turn. 

3. Apollo 13 (1995)

Apollo 13’s greatest strength is in what it lacks: an overstuffed storyline, an inflated sense of drama, and warm and fuzzy sentimentalism about space as the final frontier. Howard’s restraint in this docudrama about the Apollo 13 crew’s struggle to return safely back to earth after an oxygen tank explodes and threatens their oxygen supply, results in a nail-biting, intensely gratifying action experience that never feels overdone. The production remains consistently sober and focused, allowing Tom Hanks to shine as veteran astronaut Jim Lovell. All in all, the combination of largely accurate, NASA-approved science, harrowing performances from an impressive ensemble cast, and clear-eyed direction earn Apollo 13 a spot amongst Howard’s greatest films.     

2. Frost/Nixon (2008)

When Howard gets it right, he really gets it right. Frost/Nixon’s pacing creates a gripping sense of urgency around David Frost’s attempts to both produce and sell hard-hitting journalism interviews with Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal. In the hands of a lesser director, the film could have meandered or caricaturized Frost and Nixon; instead, it creates a strikingly realistic adversarial relationship between the two while capturing them both as flawed but nevertheless accessible individuals. When David Frost finally hits gold in his last interview with Nixon, eliciting the response “when the president does it, it’s not illegal,” the victory is bittersweet and yet, exhilarating. 

1. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

On its face, A Beautiful Mind is just another one of the biographical dramas Ron Howard is famous for making. However, the masterfully directed, emotionally wrenching film does more than follow the life of famed mathematician and Nobel Laureate in Economics, John Nash. Instead of sticking to the straight facts about Nash, his career, and his schizophrenia, the film modifies and experiments with his story in an attempt to visualize and understand the interiority of mental illness and capture the essence of a deeply complex man. Howard’s decision to cue Nash’s sparks of creative thinking with flashes of light never feels campy or expected, and his emphasis on Nash’s wife, Alicia (a magnificent Jennifer Connelly), allows him to tactfully address the complications mental illness brings to relationships. 

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