Latest vs. Greatest looks at directors, actors, actresses, screenwriters and composers to assess the state of their career as it stands. We’ll look back at the latest 10 movies the artist has done, rate them and then average them out to see where they stand today. We’ll also rank their 10 greatest movies and give them the same treatment to compare what they have been doing to their very best work. (A quick side-note: if an artist is/has been a regular on a TV show we’ll also grade the seasons individually; artists need 10 projects to qualify).
Ron Howard has been in front of or behind the camera literally his entire life. From playing Opie on The Andy Griffith Show to Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, Howard grew up in front of America. When Happy Days was past its peak, Howard appeared in George Lucas’ American Graffiti, but instead of developing ambitions of a career as a leading man, he became extremely interested in becoming a director.
Howard made his directorial debut with 1977’s Grand Theft Auto and, after directing several TV movies, had his first real breakout hit with the adult comedy Night Shift starring his old Happy Days co-star Henry Winkler. This begins the distinct two parts to Howard’s career as of this point: the 20 years pre-Oscar and the 13 years post-Oscar. Howard is a chameleon as a director. He doesn’t have a signature style. You can’t watch a movie and discern it’s a Ron Howard movie just from stylism. However, Ron Howard built a steady stream of increasingly high-profile and diverse hits into a portfolio of a director whose films could not be ignored. He had the misfortune to make Apollo 13 the same year as Braveheart and in one of the toughest Best Picture races ever (though Howard not being nominated for Best Director was even more egregious than Affleck’s snub last year). I think you might have to go back to Lawrence of Arabia vs. To Kill a Mockingbird to find a tougher call. Howard lost out there, but triumphed over Fellowship of the Ring with his very generous biopic of mathematician John Nash: A Beautiful Mind.
Since 2002 when Howard pocketed his two Oscars, the quality of his projects and his directing has taken a nose dive. Whatever you think of Dan Brown’s books, the movie adaptations have been among the most boring blockbusters in recent memory. Angels and Demons is better than The Da Vinci Code, but it’s shades of gray. Howard, who has a long-standing friendship and working relationship with Tom Hanks dating back to Splash, is also largely responsible for derailing Hanks career for several years with that nonsense. In 2011, Howard directed a Vince Vaughan/Kevin James “comedy”. I had to triple check to see if it was the same Ron Howard. What the heck is he doing wasting his time with junk like that? Then there’s the ultimate desecration: The Grinch. I love Dr. Seuss. I loathe his widow for how she’s managed his legacy. She has been as bad a custodian of his life’s work as Christopher Tolkien has been an excellent one for his father. There is nothing about Jim Carrey’s horrific masquerade as The Grinch or the garish, bloated commercial mess that would have made Dr.Seuss anything but heart-broken. The movie is an abomination.
What’s frustrating is that in the decade of horrors, the old Ron Howard shows up from time to time. Cinderella Man is one of the best sports movies ever made (there needs to be a 20 year ban on boxing movies though; seriously, it’s not the only sport). Frost/Nixon is riveting with a career defining performance by Frank Langhella and a deft directing job by Howard to keep a reign on a massive amount of information and make it accessible, informative and entertaining.
Howard’s two best films, by far, are Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. We talked a lot about Apollo 13 during Tom Hanks’ profile. Had he been nominated, he should have won the Oscar that year. Apollo 13 was as great an achievement in space with the F/X of the time as Gravity was last year. To achieve the weightless scenes, he was able to make use of a C-130 cargo plane that ascends to a high altitude and then makes a sharp parabola, giving the crew and the actors 30-45 seconds of weightlessness per shot to do what they needed to do, The principle is not unlike when your car hits an unexpected rise and you float out of your seat….but on a cargo jet called “The Vomit Comet”. Howard, his crew and his cast made more runs in that plane than most of the astronauts in NASA ever had. To do that and to still draw stellar performances from your actors is an astounding achievement.
A Beautiful Mind is a much different sort of directorial exercise. In this case he had an excellent, though pretty fictional, account of the life of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who developed schizophrenia and fought his was back to win the Nobel Prize for his work on “game theory”. Howard had Russell Crowe delivering one of two perfect performances in his career, Jennifer Connelly emerging from a long period of inactivity to brilliance, Ed Harris who is never bad, Paul Bettany, Christopher Plummer and a host of other brilliant actors and they collectively crushed it. They were so good they allowed Howard time to experiment stylistically and A Beautiful Mind is his most elegant and inventively presented film as a result.
One other film I want to highlight before we get into Howard’s scores is Ransom. There was a time when Mel Gibson was not the pariah he deserves to be and in the mid-1990’s he was emerging not just as a director but as a leading man, as well. Braveheart and Ransom back-to-back is a doubleheader any actor would be proud of but this film seems to get lost in Howard’s career shuffle. This is the best kidnapping film I’ve ever seen. It is authentic, raw, gritty, horrifying, frightening and unpredictable. Rene Russo and Gary Sinise give wonderful performances and the film is the best thriller/action picture on Howard’s resume.
I don’t mean to gloss over wonderful and timeless films like Parenthood, which is wise and funny and has spawned a TV show just as good as the movie. Splash and Cocooon; two somewhat dated films, but still touching and remarkable for getting Howard’s nascent career rolling. The inspiring (if a touch melodramatic) firefighter drama Backdraft. Also noteworthy is the fantasy film WIllow in a time when NO fantasy was being made. With today’s F/X and a slightly stronger script, this would have created a franchise for Warrick Davis and Val Kilmer.
It’s nearing 3 a.m. as I write this so I need to wrap it up for the safety of anyone who has to interact with me tomorrow, but one last note before we look at the latest 10: he doesn’t direct it so I can’t give him credit, but Arrested Development would be nothing without Howard’s dry, witty narration and his hilarious season four guest spot.
So here are the latest ten films for Howard and you can see the majority are mediocre, but for three spikes of brilliance.
HOWARD’S LATEST TEN:
1. Rush (2013)…………………………6.25
2. The Dilemma (2011)………….2.50
3. Angels & Demons (2009)….6.00
4. Frost/Nixon (2008)…………….9.50
5. The Da Vinci Code (2006)…3.00
6. Cinderella Man (2005)……….9.00
7. The Missing (2003)……………..5.00
8. A Beautiful Mind (2001)….10.00
9. How the Grinch
Stole Christmas (2001)…………….1.75
10. EDTV (1999)………………………..6.25
HOWARD’S CURRENT AVERAGE: 5.925
Lowest Current Average of Any Director So Far
There’s actually only one current score lower than Howard’s and its Brad Pitt, but that’s not Pitt’s fault. He’s been the best part of some bad movies; Howard made bad movies happen. To be honest, my scoring was generous. You can clearly see why it’s so frustrating to see him flailing about when you look at his career score which is three points higher and better than Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis and Ridley Scott.
HOWARD’S GREATEST TEN
1. Apollo 13 (1995)………………………..10.00
2. A Beautiful Mind (2001)…………..10.00
3. Ransom (1996)………………………………9.75
4. Frost/Nixon (2008)………………………9.50
5. Parenthood (1989)……………………….9.25
6. Cinderella Man (2005)………………..9.00
7. Backdraft (1991)…………………………..8.25
8. Cocoon (1985)………………………………8.25
9. Splash (1984)…………………………………8.00
10. Willow (1988)……………………………..7.00
HOWARD’S GREATEST AVERAGE: 8.975
Rush, while flawed, was a good step in the right direction and had the most stunning cinematography and, arguably, sound, of any film in 2013.
Howard’s next project, Heart of the Sea, is based on the fantastic book by Nathaniel Philbrick about the 1820 event, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a sperm whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home. It will star Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson. It will also reunite Howard with Rush’s fantastic cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Heart of the Sea is in post-production with a 2015 release. After than, Howard has been announced in connection with the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning children’s book The Graveyard Book.
With promising projects on the horizon, I hope Howard can get back to the premiere director status he had . Ron Howard films were once events and they can be again if he stays away from Dr. Seuss and Dan Brown.