Robert Zemeckis’ Ten Best Films

Mentored by Steven Spielberg, Academy Award winner Robert Zemeckis has been one of the finest directors in American cinema for more than twenty years. One can see, and often feel the influence of Spielberg’s work in his films, but Zemeckis has managed to put his own very personal stamp on all of his best work. That said, while he has enjoyed great success at the box office, the critical community has often been mixed on what they think of his work, in the same manner they were with Spielberg early in his career. The thinking seems to be, if the film is making money, how can it be a great film? I hate that elitist crap. Where does it say that good or great films must be seen in little art houses and have no audience? Why can a director not make a film that is embraced by the public and perhaps half the critical community, though sure it’s nice when all the critics like your work, however that should never be the reason a film gets made, for critical approval. Granted a lot of really bad movies make money, but I cannot see a truly bad film on Zemeckis’ filmography! What a shame Zemeckis has his finger on the pulse of what the North American movie going public likes!! The success of his films bear him out, and frankly though he has won an Oscar, there should have been a few more nominations. The DGA nominated him for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1987) while Oscar did not, and for me Back to the Future (1985) deserved greater attention in 1985 beyond the massive success at the box office and strong reviews. 

His career almost stopped just as soon as it began, with his screenplay to Spielberg’s massive flop 1941 (1979) perhaps the most unfunny comedy in film history. Yet as Sid Sheinberg believed in Spielberg, so did he believe in Zemeckis, and he trusted the young director with work that impressed both audiences and critics. Spielberg managed to get Zemeckis a job directing I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) which he produced for the younger filmmaker, enjoying his role as mentor. Zemeckis has stated that he loved working with Spielberg as he learned so much from the filmmaker, and their friendship has spanned more than forty years, each growing substantially as artists. Though the work of a new director, rough around the edges there is a great deal of heart in I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and as he should have, Zemeckis has consistently made better films through his career. Through his career, Zemeckis has often felt the guiding hand of Spielberg, but states clearly that “never did Steven interfere with my work, never did he say, you must do it this way, he suggested, we talked and resolved where I struggled early on. In later years he was my greatest friend and champion.”
In fact it was Spielberg who presented the Academy Award to Robert Zemeckis for Best Director for his film Forrest Gump (1994) with the very personal words, “Alex, your father just won the Academy Award” speaking to Zemeckis’ son, as opposed to “the Oscar goes to…”
After a long stint working with animation and motion capture technology, with varying degrees of success, (though I adore The Polar Express) he is back with live action film, Flight, a character study with the great Denzel Washington in a role that could land him back in the Oscar race. The film is currently impressing critics at screenings and opened this weekend, returning Zemeckis to where he belongs, among the elite of directors working today.

In my opinion, his best films are as follows:

1. CAST AWAY (2000)…the first time I screened this film, like most critics I was stunned by the genius of the extraordinary Tom Hanks performance which won him the New York Film Critics Circle Award as Best Actor, a Golden Globe Award and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. How did he lose? This is one of the screens greatest male performances…period! Having watched the film many times since, I love how Zemeckis draws the audience into the film, displaying to us how much time means to Chuck (Hanks) in his everyday life, and how little it will come to mean to him on the island when survival becomes all important. Alone on the island for several years, Chuck measures time no longer by minutes and seconds, but rather by sun rises and sun sets, and slowly loses track of it, letting it become strokes on a cave wall rather than seconds and minutes on a stop watch.  The central theme of the film, that the sun will come up tomorrow despite what happens in our lives is one I admire, and hope I live by (I’m trying). No matter what Chuck is thrown, he survives, and without really knowing she is doing it, so does his love, Kelly, portrayed by Helen Hunt, who thinking him dead tries to move on with her life, marrying and having a child. She is what keeps him going on the island, they are the loves of one another lives, and he so wants to get back to her. When the come face to face with one another after all that time, the love is still there, but each is now on their own island of isolation, kept apart by the choices each made during his absence. She cannot break up her family, and he loves her enough to set her free, to let her go. The transformation Hanks undergoes is breathtaking, leaving behind modern man and becoming primal man, his body thin and ripped, scarred and sun burnt, his hair and beard long and bleached by the sun, long past caring about cooking his fish, eating it raw after killing it with a spear in one of the great film cuts in modern history. So much better than it was given credit for being, Cast Away (2000) was one of the very best films of its year and for me remains the finest film Zemeckis has made.

2. FORREST GUMP (1994)…Yes Pulp Fiction (1994) was and is a better film, a more important film, but this wonderful fable, a walk through post-war modern American history is an absolute delight, beautifully acted by Tom Hanks in an Oscar-winning performance. Zemeckis brilliantly uses the simple-minded Gump as everyman in America, bumping his way through history, with an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time over and over. Capra-esque in many aspects, we can clearly see the message from Capra, “over thy neighbor”. and watch as the characters overcome many obstacles before finding peace. Forrest’ scene at his beloved Jenny’s grave is one of the films great moments, filled with honesty and pain, and grief and love. The movie is so many things, but most of all a superb love story between Forrest and his Jenny, Forrest and his mother, Forrest and Lt. Dan, and Forrest and Bubba. Oh to have a friend as loyal as Mr. Gump!  History encounters Forrest constantly, and he someone finds himself in the midst of history, but love dominates his world, for his family and friends. And of course the world embraced Forrest, making the film a major box office hit and winner of six Academy Awards. In addition to Hanks, Gary Sinise, Robin Wright Penn and Sally Field deliver brilliant performances as the important people in his life. Somewhat of a surprise was the fact neither actress was nominated for Best Supporting Actress despite doing work worthy of such.
Watching Hanks one marvels at how he came up with that odd delivery of lines, and the body language he uses in the film. On the page, there is nothing to help him or guide him, this is an actors artistry at one with his directors vision.

3. BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)…is so much more than a simple time travel adventure, but also a lovely study of a sons’ awareness that his parents were once teens just like him, with their entire lives ahead of them, making mistakes, struggling with peer pressure and bullying, finally finding one another, in this case with a little help from their eventual son. Brilliantly written, the film plunges Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) into the past where he encounters his parents before they met. His life in 1985 is not what he hoped it would be, his dad is a doofus, his mom a drinker, and his family dysfunctional. So into the past he goes with his hyperactive friend Doc Brown (the great Christopher Lloyd) to escape terrorists after the good doctor, landing in the fifties, where they spend their days trying to get back to the future. Fox was never better, Lloyd superb, and the crisp writing in the film merges comedy with some interesting drama and nostalgic humor. I love how gently they allow Fox to change the destinies of his parents, and therefore his own, without tearing apart the fabric of time. The bizarre Crispin Glover is unique as his father, and their scenes together crackle with electric humor. Possibly the greatest time travel movie ever made.

4. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1987)…a miracle of a movie that seamlessly blends animation with live action and plunges audience into an extraordinary world where cartoons are real and exist among us. Drunken Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by Marvin Acme to find his biggest star Roger Rabbit, who has disappeared. When Acme turns up dead, Valiant suddenly has a greater reason to find the zany star rabbit. The film is a wild ride from beginning to end, non-stop action, with every major animated character in the history of the movies making an appearance. Jessica Rabbit, voiced by the sultry Kathleen Turner made many a heart go pitter-patter, even though she was a cartoon!! The visual effects are breathtaking and the characters are incredibly together in the same frame. Very adult, very funny, and a great film. a technological marvel that never loses sight of the fact it is both an entertainment and film with great human and toon heart. A guilty pleasure moment? After years of seeing that damned road runner get away it was a delight to see another annoying cartoon character, the weasel get kicked right square in the stones…well, made me laugh….

5. FLIGHT (2012)…beyond the hair-raising plane crash that dominates the film’s opening the film is about a great more many things. Zemeckis tops his plane crash from Cast Away (2000) with one that is awe-inspiring and terror inducing in this film, but it is the commanding performance of Denzel Washington that gives the film is power. As a flawed, drug addicted and alcoholic pilot, the actor gives his finest performance in years and should find himself among the Oscar nominees for Best Actor. Initially hailed a hero, he is later accused of being under the influence and blamed for the crash and the outcome. Watching the actor as a man in a deep hole of despair is to see a master actor at work, as he is simply superb, towering above the film’s impressive effects. John Goodman continues to have a great year as his drug buddy and Don Cheadle is terrific as his much-needed lawyer. Like Robert Redford, Washington, a greater actor is at his best when he portrays deeply flawed men. An outstanding film.

6. CONTACT (1997)…for many years this film was going to happen with Debra Winger in the lead role as Ellie, but as her star fell and the studio could not get a screenplay they liked, Jodie Foster stepped in with Zemeckis directing this adaptation of Carl Sagan’s brainy science fiction thriller. When a message from deep space reaches earth letting us know life is out there, Dr. Ellie Arroway, who has spent her life searching for extraterrestrial life, is bumped from her own project by the headline grabbing, pious scientist portrayed with smart and politically correct arrogance by Tom Skerritt. Matthew McConaughey is excellent as a man of God who climbs the political ladder eventually working as an advisor to the President at the time Ellie is working on her project. The aliens have sent instructions on how to build a machine that will allow mankind to travel to meet the aliens. What you think it might be, it is not, and the film has plenty of wonderful surprises. Fosters’ performance is poetic and beautiful; watch her face at the moment she sees the endless cosmos; at that moment she becomes the reaction of all humanity staring into endless space and the realization we truly are not alone. The film has moments of breathtaking beauty, deep humanity and a superb Foster performance. Incredibly that sound that comes space has such urgency, almost human desperation in its tone…perfection.

7. THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004)…while the film has its detractors, I have loved it since the first moment I first screened it with my then four-year old daughter in IMAX (3-D if I recall?). I seem to remember my beautiful four-year old reaching out for the snowflakes falling at the film’s beginning? For me the film transported me back into the past of my childhood, when Christmas was less commercial, when the snow was endless, when there was magic in the air that Santa was coming that night. Zemeckis and his artists created a North Pole that was exactly as it was in my childhood dreams, every detail of the whole Santa operation realized, from the making of the toys, to center square where Santa takes of with his reindeer to make children around the globe smile. The animation is simple astonishing, and the little moments, the waving snowman, Billy’s isolated house, the wolves running in the woods, and the arrival at the North Pole, are magical moments we could only get in the movies. It is not without its flaws, an overused score, and the Stephen Tyler elf was odd, but it is a wonderful movie experience, sweeping audiences back to a time when things were simpler, when the imagination conjured so much without the aid of technology, and when Santa, in his red suit, with that flowing white beard, existed, and we knew it, we just knew it, with all our hearts.

8. ROMANCING THE STONE (1983)..How could Zemeckis not be influenced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)? His answer to that was this wild adventure ride that takes a romance writer, mousey and shy portrayed winningly by Kathleen Turner into the jungle with a ne’er-do-well adventurer played with great joy by Michael Douglas obviously having the time of his life. Yes, it is Raiders-light, but with the central role a female part, it takes a different view. It is goofy good fun, with wonderful chemistry between the two actors, and a surprisingly effective performance from Turner as a seemingly weak woman who proves to be as tough and resourceful as her man. The action is fast and furious, which makes the fact the actors gave such fine performances all the more impressive, and the love story at the heart of the film is what gives the picture its heart. Grand fun.

9. USED CARS (1980)…I like Kurt Russell. Always have since seeing him as Elvis (1978) in the TV movie directed by John Carpenter. Loved him as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981) and in The Thing (1982) and felt he more than proved his acting chops in Silkwood (1983). Here as a sleazy used car salesman, Russell gives what might be his best screen performance in a strange satire about a car salesman who wants to get into politics. Again Spielberg trusted the young director to deliver, and though the film did not make a ton of money, the reviews were solid, it became something of a cult film, and was a strong early renter on VHS when that business exploded.

10. BACK TO THE FUTURE III (1990)…Part II was simply too confusing and out there. Part III plunks Marty McFly into the old west where he goes to find Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) after learning his friend is going to be killed in a gunfight on a certain date. Hurtling back in time, naming himself Clint Eastwood, he encounters his own ancestors fresh from Ireland, and goes to war against the ancestors of Biff, his tormentor in the future and through time. The Doc finds love and is forced to make a tough decision, but for Marty it is all about getting back to the future. The romance that blooms between Doc and Clara (Mary Steenburgen) is at first cordial and gentle, but their attraction is fierce, and she realizes he is indeed worth fighting for, even across the ocean of time that separates them. Not art, far from perfect, but great fun.

Honorable Mention

  • Death Becomes Her (1992) is much better than it was ever given credit for being, with a superb Streep performance and Hawn matches her step for step. It is a true black comedy, with a soul as dark as its characters. They disciver a potion that allows them never to age, but the cost is high and they watch as all their friends die around them, just as nasty and as bitchy as they ever were. Sadly they are stuck with one another for what could be an eternity, eventually in pieces.

A Christmas Carol (2010) broke far too often from the basics of the Dickens story, and had simply too much Jim Carrey. No that’s unfair, how about too much out of control Jim Carrey when it was in Zemeckis’ power to control the actors work more than ever before? He was terrific, as expected as Scrooge, but was it really necessary to see him as all three Christmas ghosts? And the first is simply ridiculous. Described in the book as not male nor female, Zemeckis chose to make the ghost a flame in a candle, in which Carrey spoke oddly, in a ghostly manner that was more distracting than fantastical, ghostly I suppose, but as stated…a distraction. He was OK as the jolly ghost of Christmas present, a giant Santa Claus really, and in full disguise as the ghost of Christmas yet to come. Gary Oldman’s animation did not work for me at all, and I think they chose a subject that was made iconic in 1951 with the superb Alister Sim version from Britain, shown many times over the holidays and timeless. It’s not that Zemeckis made a bad film, just not a very good one. I feel the same about Beowulf (2005) and even less good will towards his modern-day ghost film What Lies Beneath (2000) which he made while waiting for Tom Hanks to lose weight during Cast Away (2000). To predictable. You can see the ending coming partway through the film, there’s no mystery, no thrills.

What are your Zemeckis preferences??