Robert Zemeckis has always talked about how he never fit in at film school at the University of Southern California. “The graduate students at USC had this veneer of intellectualism,” Zemeckis has said. “So [partner Bob Gale] and I gravitated toward one another because we wanted to make Hollywood movies. We weren’t interested in the French New Wave. We were interested in Clint Eastwood and James Bond and Walt Disney because that’s how we grew up.” This made him a perfect avatar for his time, when populist entertainment was taking over Hollywood: He was Spielberg-adjacent before he even knew who Spielberg was. (They ended up longtime partners, although Zemeckis has sometimes picked up Spielberg’s bad habits and few of his good ones.)
Zemeckis has his flaws as a filmmaker, most notable a tendency to choose his soundtrack songs from the Now That’s What I Call Period Appropriate! collection. But he has a big heart and a comfortable, cheerful idealism, consistently believing that good things happen to good people and it all works out in the end. That makes him an ideal Hollywood filmmaker, but can make his films often feel a bit shallow. (Unlike Spielberg, he’s rarely evinced much interest in being a serious auteur. Even his most acclaimed films have a pop pulse to them, a multiplex vibe.) But Zemeckis has no patience for cynicism or gloom, which might explain why his “weirder” films are some of his most intriguing: Do not forget that the master of feel-good also gifted the world with the poisonous Death Becomes Her and the scrappy Used Cars.
With the release of Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen, we ranked his 19 theatrically released films.
19. Beowulf (2007)
The epic poem everybody has to read in middle school and everybody hates gets an entirely unnecessary motion-capture 3-D rendering that seems to exist mostly so Zemeckis can make a video-game version of Angelina Jolie for fanboys to fantasize over. Honestly, this is a bit much.
The movie was sold almost entirely on that scene — the trailers made it look like it was CGI porn — and the rest of the narrative barely rises above that level. Needless to say, the CGI looks downright primitive now. Also, it’s strange that Zemeckis ever worked with Neil Gaiman and old Quentin Tarantino pal Roger Avary.
18. A Christmas Carol (2009)
Truth be told, we prefer this Jim Carrey Yuletide film to his other, better-remembered one, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Of Zemeckis’s three mo-cap movies, A Christmas Carol actually grossed the most worldwide — and thank god the technology had improved significantly in the five years between this and The Polar Express, bringing more character detail and emotional shading to the digital faces. Carrey ably plays Scrooge, as well as the three ghosts who visit him on Christmas Eve, and Zemeckis is willing to go dark, illustrating the depth of the man’s cruelty and the horrifying fate that awaits him unless he changes his ways. Unfortunately, the filmmaker also tries to improve Charles Dickens’s enduring tale by adding action sequences and comedic high jinks, almost as if he was nervous that he’d lose the holiday family audience if he didn’t play to the cheap seats. Zemeckis returned to live-action films after A Christmas Carol, which was probably best — he’d spent enough time on a marginal technological advancement that not enough people were interested in seeing. (We do wonder, however, how he now feels about living in a world of Jungle Books and Mowglis.)
17. The Polar Express (2004)
The film that introduced the term “uncanny valley” to moviegoers, Zemeckis’s ambitious animated adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book boldly embraced motion-capture technology, giving us a virtual world in which a group of kids take a nocturnal ride to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. A lot of The Polar Express is wondrous (all the stuff that doesn’t involve the human characters), and much of it is creepy (the human characters). For all of Zemeckis’s visual acumen, the film’s subpar rendering of people became an easy metaphor for The Polar Express’s overall limitation: It’s all glitz but no soul. (CNN critic Paul Clinton said at the time that the film “should be subtitled The Night of the Living Dead. The characters are that frightening.”) And yet, the movie has its considerable charms, playing into the nostalgia and wonder of Christmas, which mostly transcends the technical flaws. It’s become a holiday staple almost in spite of itself.
16. Welcome to Marwen (2018)
In April 2000, visual artist Mark Hogancamp was savagely beaten outside a bar — it was a hate crime; he told his attackers he occasionally likes wearing women’s shoes — and nearly died, left without any concrete memories of his earlier life. He reacted to the emotional and physical trauma by crafting a fictional world of dolls set in World War II Belgium in which he stars as a tough-talking military hero. Hogancamp’s story was turned into the superb 2010 documentary Marwencol, and Zemeckis adds a Hollywood gloss to this tale while also tapping into the man’s need to escape into his imagination. This is undoubtedly a Forrest Gump-esque tale of an innocent, and the director uses his expertise in motion-capture to bring Hogancamp’s doll world to life. But while Steve Carell is heartfelt and vulnerable as Hogancamp, Welcome to Marwen rarely rises above a shallow examination of how art can heal broken souls, and the extended Back to the Future references feel too cheeky for a film about a man whose life was shattered by violence and intolerance.
15. Back to the Future Part III (1990)
So you’ve got the most thrilling time-travel action-comedy of all time, and you’re coming off a whizbang lunatic sequel in which timelines cross over timelines that then cross over more timelines. What do you do to close out the series? You make a … Western? The Old West locale does the series no favors; it’s fine when Hill Valley is shot on a Universal back lot, but this Western looks as fake as a Family Ties set. The movie ultimately does right by its characters in the end, but seriously, this is how you finish off the Back to the Future saga?
14. What Lies Beneath (2000)
We’re going to assume that an 18-year-old movie doesn’t need a Spoiler Alert, so we’ll just say at the top that one of What Lies Beneath’s chief selling points is that Harrison Ford turns out to be the bad guy. This film, written by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actor Clark Gregg, is a grown-up horror story concerning Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer), an empty-nester who becomes obsessed with her neighbors, convinced that the husband killed the wife. Sort of a supernatural Rear Window, What Lies Beneath follows Claire as she tries to figure out what happened, while paranormal forces seemingly guide her investigation when they’re not freaking her out. When Zemeckis dabbles in genre exercises, you can sense his remove — for better or worse, they’re not infused with the emotional investment that marks his biggest hits. That said, What Lies Beneath is expertly crafted, and the reveal of Ford, playing Claire’s patronizing husband, as the story’s villain proved to be a fun counterpoint to his years as America’s unofficial action-hero dad. But this is mostly an accomplished doodle.
13. Allied (2016)
Sometimes, tabloid gossip kills a film before it even had a chance. In the buildup to Allied’s release, rumors swirled that stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard had engaged in an affair, and no amount of denials could keep that from becoming this espionage thriller’s prevailing narrative. That’s unfortunate for Allied, which deserved to be judged on its own terms — although, to be fair, the movie has flaws that are completely separate from any celebrity scandal. Pitt and Cotillard play Resistance spies trying to take out a German ambassador in 1942 Casablanca and end up falling in love — so, right, Allied is like Casablanca if Rick and Ilsa had gotten their happy ending. Knowingly old-fashioned, the film shifts gears in its second half, in which Pitt’s character begins to distrust his wife (and the mother of his child) when it appears she might be a double agent. There’s a universal anxiety coursing through Allied — can we ever fully know our partner? — and Zemeckis explores that with an emotional nuance not always seen in his films. Allied was a commercial disappointment, and while we won’t make the case that it’s some misunderstood masterpiece, it’s a film that might warrant reappraisal in a few years.
12. Contact (1997)
After capturing the Zeitgeist with Forrest Gump, Zemeckis would have been hard-pressed to re-create that lightning-in-a-bottle moment with his follow-up film. Nonetheless, he swung for the fences, delivering a wannabe epic by adapting Carl Sagan’s 1985 best seller about alien contact. Jodie Foster plays Ellie, a scientist who’s convinced there’s life Out There. (Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey is a hippieish philosopher and Ellie’s onetime lover.) Contact yearns to marry the procedural tone of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the my-God-it’s-full-of-stars wonder of 2001, and Zemeckis builds suspense for the movie’s inevitable big finale where Ellie says hello to the aliens — and, conveniently, also resolves her daddy issues. There’s a bit too much doe-eyed preciousness to Contact, but its scope and its daring — not to mention its touchingly naïve belief in its own profundity — produce its share of awe-inspiring instances.
11. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
Zemeckis’s first film made plain what his career’s driving thematic obsession would be: the power of the past. I Wanna Hold Your Hand takes us back to ground zero of Beatlemania, the night the Fab Four played The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, by focusing on a handful of teens who are determined to see their heroes live in the flesh. The missing link between American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is perhaps the director’s most unbridled, purely fun film. He and co-writer (and former USC classmate) Bob Gale aren’t so interested in interrogating the cultural and political currents of the era — they just want to revel in the epochal music that meant so much to these characters (and themselves). It’s a limited worldview, to be sure, but Zemeckis loves it so deeply that his affection rubs off on the viewer.
10. Used Cars (1980)
If this were the only Zemeckis movie you ever saw, you might think that the director was some sort of pitch-black satirist constantly undermining our collective delusion about the American Dream. It turns out that Zemeckis is as capitalist a filmmaker as has ever existed, but Used Cars points to what might have been, and what once was, with its story of dueling sleazy car dealers in Las Vegas. He gets wild, fun performances out of both Kurt Russell and Jack Warden, and the energy he brings to this project feels like Joe Dante, or even early Spielberg. He’d settle down and fly straight after this movie, but it’s sort of giddy to see back when he was so cheerfully anarchic.
9. The Walk (2015)
If you happen to have a giant IMAX screen in your home, The Walk might leap to No. 1 on this list. Since you probably don’t, it’s a little tougher to forgive the dopey story choices, too cutesy tone, and typically overly obvious music choices that mar this otherwise cheerful and occasionally awe-inspiring fictionalization of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the two World Trade Center towers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fun but maybe a little too affected as Petit, and his story, away from the towers, is never particularly interesting. But the minute he steps on that wire, the narrative fades away and you are instantly right there, back at the towers, back on top of the towers. The wire-walking segments are inspiring, even if you are watching them on your phone … but seriously, you should have seen it in IMAX.
8. Flight (2012)
After three straight mo-cap films, Zemeckis was bound to be overpraised for his return to live-action filmmaking, simply because he was leaving behind those zombie-ish, dead-eyed characters. And yet, Flight really did feel like a comeback of sorts — and not just for him, but also Denzel Washington, who hadn’t found a role of such complexity in years. He plays Whip, an addict who’s also a commercial pilot; on a routine flight, electrical issues force him to make an emergency landing, skillfully saving his passengers from certain death. Just as Whip is declared a hero, though, his substance abuse comes to light, threatening his livelihood and his freedom. Relatively low-budget by the standards of most Zemeckis films, Flight is largely a character drama — the technical razzle-dazzle is relegated to the harrowing opening sequence — and the director acquits himself beautifully. What we have here is a story about denial, and Washington superbly portrays Whip’s bluster as a defense mechanism that keeps him from admitting the truth to himself.
7. Romancing the Stone (1984)
As hard as it might be to imagine now, there was shortly a stretch where America thought that Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner might be the next Tracy and Hepburn. That all began with this old-timey romantic swashbuckler that displayed the two’s undeniable comedic chemistry while feeling, like a lot of Zemeckis’s movies, like a lighter, less serious, still perfectly pleasant version of a Spielberg movie. This was Zemeckis’s first real hit, and its success allowed him to make Back to the Future, which launched him into the stratosphere and is the primary reason you’re reading a list about him today. Douglas and Turner would make two more movies together, The Jewel of the Nile (a direct sequel that was a lot worse) and War of the Roses (a much darker satire from Danny DeVito that’s a lot better).
6. Back to the Future Part II (1989)
The first one is a picture-perfect piece of Baby Boomer Fantasia. The third is, as mentioned, a dopey Western. But this one is just pure time-travel silliness, taking the conceit from the first film and just running gonzo with it. The movie is often moving so quickly that it takes you a second to realize exactly which timeline you’re in. Zemeckis is far too straightforward an entertainer to go too far down the rabbit hole; this isn’t Philip K. Dick by any stretch of the imagination. But it still wrings every bit of pleasure out of its time-travel conceit that it can find, and it does it in an enjoyable enough way that, to this day, the idea of traveling back in time and wagering on sporting events to make yourself rich is known as “pulling a Biff Tannen.” It’s not as well-constructed as the original, but it’s just as enjoyable.
5. Death Becomes Her (1992)
More than any other of his major studio movies, Death Becomes Her feels like a throwback to Zemeckis’s hellzapoppin’ crazy Used Cars days: Perhaps not surprisingly, audiences and critics rejected it out of hand. But it has aged well, and the grand-dame battle between Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn is now seen as two beloved comedic actresses having a blast hacking at each other for two hours. (And bonus points for an amusingly neutered Bruce Willis.) Zemeckis goes darker and more satirical than he had in years, to often uproarious results. That everybody hated it at the time led him to get “serious” with Forrest Gump two years later, which turned out great for him. But you can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he continued down this path.
4. Cast Away (2000)
Tom Hanks’s performance — the best of any Robert Zemeckis movie, and there isn’t anything particularly close — carries Cast Away as far as it can possibly go. (By the way, we’ve always found remarkable, when he’s been on the island for years and has lost all that weight, how much the actor looks like the old Bachelor Party Hanks.) Working as minimalist as he has to with just one actor onscreen for most of the movie, Zemeckis is forced to be spare and thus resist some of his more over-the-top, time–for–a–Creedence Clearwater Revival–song instincts. But for a director who was about to go down the motion-capture well, there’s something awfully appealing to Zemeckis just having to stick his camera at Hanks and get out of the way. The movie loses its momentum when he escapes the island, and the ending is a big groaner, but for that middle hour-plus, this is riveting, timeless cinema.
3. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
The craziest thing to us, to this day, about Who Framed Roger Rabbit is how much it gets away with in a corporate sense: You’ll never ever see Donald Duck and Daffy Duck performing together again. This ability to balance studio interests and what the audience came here to see is one of Zemeckis’s signature traits, and he pulls off the magic trick here, with the help of an impressively game Bob Hoskins in the lead role. The movie’s film noir setting never quite jives with Zemeckis’s sensibility — as usual, everything he shoots feels made on a back lot — but it works just fine as a canvas with which to slap whatever is in arm’s reach onto. And shout-out to Jessica Rabbit, who didn’t invent cosplay … but she was drawn that way.
2. Forrest Gump (1994)
“Jack Rapke, my agent at the time, said, ‘I really need you to read this script. It’s a quality piece.’ He actually said, ‘It’s a quality piece.’” That’s how Zemeckis was introduced to screenwriter Eric Roth’s adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel about a quixotic man who stumbles his way through some of American history’s most tumultuous recent moments. Forrest Gump is among Zemeckis’s purest distillations of his filmmaking strengths and thematic interests: The film is technical know-how and bighearted emotions infused with comforting reassurances that, deep down, we’re all basically good people. The reason that so many viewers loathe this Oscar-winning generational statement is the same reason that so many others love it — Forrest Gump presents sappiness as honesty and intellectual simplicity as hard-earned wisdom. And you may still bawl your eyes out anyway — even if you know there’s something a little phony and orchestrated about the whole thing. But what has already redeemed Forrest Gump is the sincerity Zemeckis and Tom Hanks brought to the material. Without a shred of doubt, they wholeheartedly believe in the film’s lightly sarcastic vision of an America that’s weathered trying times and found its equilibrium, despite all the tragedies along the way. This remains a movie worth wrestling with, its sentiment and ideas no less powerful and pointed a couple decades down the road.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
Who among us hasn’t, at one point, wanted to go back and see our parents when they were young, before we showed up and made their lives so complicated … and them so dull? The genius of Back to the Future is not the time machine, or Doc Brown, or those Libyans. (That, and the Chuck Berry gag, are the only things that haven’t aged so well in 33 years.) It’s that universal notion: What were my parents like when they were my age? Marty McFly gets to find out, and in the process, gets his parents to remember what they loved about each other in the first place. The structure is so simple and yet also profound: The movie is fiendishly and sturdily put together like the watches you see in the opening shots. And Michael J. Fox is the ideal ’80s avatar, the cool, cocky kid you can’t help but cheer for. Most of Zemeckis’s films feel of their moment, for better or for worse. But Back to the Future, fittingly, remains timeless.