This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated to reflect Ron Howard’s latest work.
Ron Howard started acting at 18 months old, was a TV regular by the age of 5, and a household name on The Andy Griffith Show before he hit puberty. This sort of career path has led many a child star into ruin, but for Howard, all it did was give him a healthy respect for the business of Hollywood — and a desire to make a career behind the scenes. He leveraged his acting career to give him directorial opportunities — including working with Roger Corman, as much of an outsider as Howard was an insider — beginning in rough-hewn comedies and eventually hopping around genres like it was the easiest thing in the world.
It can be difficult to nail down what distinguishes a Ron Howard movie, other than his notorious competence and professionalism, but we might argue that the through line is good-heartedness: Even when his movies are dark, they express the fundamental view that the world is going to turn out okay. That works particularly well in an industry that always loves a happy ending, realistic or not. Howard and Hollywood have always been a perfect match … for better and for worse.
With the release of his latest film Hillbilly Elegy, we’re looking at Howard’s 27 features as a director. This is as vast a selection of genres of movies as you can imagine, but they all still feel like his.
27. Angels & Demons (2009)
It can be difficult to keep the three Ron Howard–Tom Hanks adaptations of dull, meandering, needlessly complex novels straight, so as a shorthand: This is the worst one. Delayed by the Writers Guild strike, the movie is somehow both listless and restless, as if they were in a hurry to just get it over with already. The movie is essentially Tom Hanks sprinting through the Vatican yelling exposition at anyone within earshot. Howard and Hanks made one more of these, because at this point, why not?
26. The Dilemma (2011)
Howard had lost a little juice — he hadn’t had a non-Dan Brown hit in quite a few years — so he signed on for this buddy comedy starring Vince Vaughn as a man who discovers that the wife of his business partner and best friend (Kevin James, sure) is having an affair (with Channing Tatum, natch) and debates whether or not to tell him. That’s the whole movie, pretty much. This was the end of Vaughn’s little run as a box-office star, and he, along with everyone else, seems to be straining way too hard for the slightest laugh. Howard’s best comedies have a light, almost effortless touch, but this one is panting and gasping essentially from the opening frames.
25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
How do you screw up How the Grinch Stole Christmas? It’s easy, actually. You display only a surface understanding of what made Dr. Seuss so wonderful — conveniently waiting for him to die to rework his material, going against his wishes while alive — you flesh out less-interesting characters, you needlessly inflate the budget to add in a bunch of needless CGI junk, and you cast a movie star who knows he’s in the Hindenburg and just tries to mug his way through it. Jim Carrey salvages his dignity better than, say, Mike Myers did in The Cat in the Hat, but this thing shouldn’t have existed in the first place, a fact the film can never escape.
24. Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
More so than in any other movie of Howard’s, the characters in Hillbilly Elegy are perpetually complaining. J.D. Vance’s infamous memoir, celebrated by your least favorite relatives as the book You Have to Read to Understand America, is perpetually aggrieved as well — but to hear the droning you don’t understand us from serious actors who desperately would like an Oscar for all this is nearly impossible to withstand for two whole hours. That’s what’s so strange about this for Howard: It’s so grating and grouchy that it seems precisely wrong project for him. He’s professional enough to try to give the film some unearned uplift, but this feels like Howard’s Appalachian safari: a blind trip into a world that he doesn’t understand. It shows.
23. In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
You can’t accuse Howard of being unambitious in his later years: At 61, he released a survival drama about a 1820s whaling expedition that went tragically wrong. Inspired by the same real-life events that prompted Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick, In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a veteran seaman who takes to the open water for adventure — only to find death, terror, and one gigantic whale. While the advertising made it sound like a Jaws-like roller-coaster ride, the film (despite some pretty thrilling action setpieces) is more of a meditation on mortality, destiny, and other weighty themes that Howard didn’t quite have the heft to pull off. It’s fun to watch Hemsworth step away from Thor to do some serious emoting, but we prefer his earlier Howard collaboration far more.
22. Inferno (2016)
The Da Vinci Code movies are so lackluster that filmgoers never even bothered to decide what the franchise name should be. (The Dan Brown films? The Da Vinci trilogy? The Robert Langdon adventures? Those movies starring Tom Hanks with bad hair?) Let the record show that Inferno is the third of these films — and that people could barely bother summoning much enthusiasm for it. It’s the same as the others, with Howard going through the motions and trying to produce a hit after a series of duds in the 2010s. Still, we’ll say this: Inferno has more gusto and urgency than the thoroughly pulseless Angels & Demons, and Felicity Jones proves to be a better foil for Hanks than Audrey Tautou or Ayelet Zurer were. But isn’t this sort of junk better left to a McG or Rob Cohen?
21. EdTV (1999)
Remember when Hollywood movies were absolutely obsessed with reality television? After The Truman Show was a hit, Howard and company learned the wrong lesson — thinking the movie was about cameras rather than the inherent unreality of being alive — and made this dopey comedy about a regular guy (Matthew McConaughey, such a regular guy) who ends up having an entire television channel dedicated to him on the whim of an ambitious producer (Ellen DeGeneres!). It ends up upending his life and the lives of everyone who loves him, including Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman, and Dennis Hopper. This is one of those ’90s movies that tried to capture a certain aspect of the Zeitgeist, but still had a cameo from Jay Leno. Ron Howard does many things well. Satire is not one of them.
20. The Da Vinci Code (2006)
It can be easy to forget what a big deal this film was at the time: a guaranteed blockbuster, starring Tom Hanks, which was based on the best-selling Dan Brown book. And The Da Vinci Code did indeed make a ton of money — at $758 million worldwide, it’s by far Howard’s biggest hit — but that does nothing to erase what a soulless, lumpy work it is. For those who breathlessly extol Hanks’s virtues as a relatable, empathetic leading man, The Da Vinci Code (and its sequels) shows him struggling mightily as Robert Langdon, a know-it-all Harvard professor who doesn’t so much solve crimes as he mansplains to everyone around him while working from clue to clue. If Brown’s novel had any redeeming value, it was that it was trashy, pulpy fun — the critical mistake that Howard makes with the movie is treating the text like holy scripture, crafting a self-serious epic that never once pauses to consider its thorough ludicrousness.
19. Grand Theft Auto (1977)
The video game has sold about 95 million copies, but first came the decidedly lo-fi auto comedy from Roger Corman that served as Howard’s directorial debut. This is the only movie Howard directed that he also stars in, still in Richie Cunningham mode as a guy who just wants to run away with his wealthy fiancée and get married while half the country is trying to chase them down. Howard was still doing Happy Days when he made the film and got to direct the film as part of a deal with Corman to star in a very dumb action film called Eat My Dust! This is better than that movie, but not dramatically so. But it did what Howard wanted it to do: It got him into directing.
18. The Missing (2003)
Howard likes dabbling in different cinematic styles, and The Missing gave him a chance to mark “dark Western” off his to-direct list. (“I wasn’t looking to merely exercise an old genre, but rather to tell a story that was relatable on a human level and exciting and suspenseful — but that still treated the period in an authentic way,” he said at the time.) But despite the presence of Tommy Lee Jones and a wonderfully gritty Cate Blanchett, this movie always feels a tad too theoretical — the studious work of a boyish overachiever biting off more than he can chew. In retrospect, what’s most innovative about The Missing is its willingness to let the two stars be co-leads — in the Westerns of yesteryear that Howard is emulating, Blanchett’s character would have merely been the damsel in distress — but that gender equality can’t replace the lack of soul and awe that the best oaters exude from every pore.
17. Gung Ho (1986)
A potentially politically tinged comedy about a Japanese motor company taking over an American one, with the different cultures and employment styles clashing, could have been a sharp commentary on what was an active American anxiety at the time. But Howard isn’t that kind of director, so he ends up hedging his bets, ultimately landing on some “aren’t we all deep down the same?” platitudes. The movie still has its charms, most of which come from Michael Keaton in the lead role, who was firmly in the fun, scuzzy, Pittsburgh period of his career. There are some “problematic” moments now in 2018, but, considering the subject matter, it frankly could have been a lot worse.
16. Willow (1988)
Howard’s big fantasy collaboration with George Lucas has its defenders, but we’ll confess we aren’t among them. Some of the effects, done by Lucas’s ILM, hold up okay, and Val Kilmer seems to be having a good time as the defender and sidekick of Warwick Davis’s Willow, but this sort of genre doesn’t seem to be up Howard’s alley. More than anything, he seems nervous about messing up Lucas’s vision, which, as we would learn about a decade later, wasn’t always worth preserving so faithfully. Howard was still in the Follow Directions stage of his career, and the result is a bit too earnest and bland. (We are sorry if we are ruining your childhood.)
15. Cinderella Man (2005)
Howard reunited with his A Beautiful Mind star for this true-life tale of boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), who was an inspirational figure during the Great Depression, battling injury, age, and poverty to provide for his family. (It was Crowe, who brought the story to Howard, whose father was a huge boxing fan. “He always held Braddock up as a kind of a shining example of, you know, strong character carrying the day,” Howard would later say of his dad.) Cinderella Man is unalloyed emotional manipulation, and while the cast all dig into the maudlin hooey — Paul Giamatti is especially good as the crusty trainer — nothing here has the spark of real life. It’s a well-meaning, utterly dull movie based on an actual person that takes all its cues from Hollywood, adding little ingenuity to the boxing film or biopic. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once called Howard “an exemplar of honorable mediocrity” — Cinderella Man is the director at his most honorably mediocre.
14. Far and Away (1992)
When Ron Howard released this musty Tom Cruise–Nicole Kidman romantic period drama, one of its big selling points was that it was the first Hollywood film in more than 20 years to be shot in 70mm. Consider that a warning: Far and Away looks absolutely gorgeous, capturing Ireland and the untamed American West in all its glory, but this is still nonetheless the least interesting of Cruise and Kidman’s three onscreen pairings. As Irish immigrants hoping to change their lives in late-19th-century America, the two stars are appealing and exhibit sufficient chemistry. But Howard always tends to be a bit mannered when he’s striving for significance. Far and Away aspires to the grandeur of David Lean, but it tends instead to just be stuffy.
13. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (2016)
Boomer nostalgia crafted with oomph and enthusiasm, this documentary portrait of the Fab Four’s time as touring musicians is a treasure trove of great footage and fun commentary. (The Beatles oversaw the project, which allowed for incredible access, albeit alongside the expected tight editorial control that all their official product brings with it.) At this late date, does any human need to know anything more about this band? Probably not, but Eight Days a Week makes the case, for the umpteenth time, that these guys really were magic, focusing on the camaraderie that John, Paul, George, and Ringo forged on the road and how their eventual exhaustion with playing live helped inspire their retreat into the studio — as well as some of their greatest albums, including Sgt. Pepper’s. Howard, who previously helmed the Jay-Z concert memento Made in America, doesn’t exactly put an authorial stamp on Eight Days a Week — he’s just a fan who, like the rest of us, is enjoying the ride.
12. Backdraft (1991)
As Howard dutifully checked off every genre in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he landed here on Special Effects Blockbuster, and if you withstand all the limitations and clichés that come with that, Backdraft has plenty going its way. It’s basically a serial-killer detective film except with firefighters instead of cops, and Howard does make you feel every flame, of which there are many. The firefighters are standard issue — Kurt Russell is grizzled, William Baldwin is inexperienced but cocky — but when they battle those fires, it really does work. It was such a hit that it ended up with its own ride at Universal Studios. And we still quote “Did you check that door for heat?” from time to time.
11. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
It is, of course, impossible to watch the latest Star Wars stand-alone film and not wonder which parts were shot by Howard and which were handled by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the movie’s original directors, who were famously booted from the project during production. (It’s tempting to assume that the snarky, bromance sections belong to Lord and Miller — and that everything else was Howard.) But no matter who did what, Solo is a pretty entertaining, sometimes inspired lark that imagines how Han Solo (a really quite fine Alden Ehrenreich) met Chewbacca and Lando. The action sequences are nifty, the humor’s solid, and Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and Paul Bettany are capable supporting players. But the film’s raison d’être is the buddy-cop combo of a young Han and Chewie as they do the Kessel Run and figure out how to fly the Millennium Falcon. You’d be forgiven for calling the film Jump Street: A Star Wars Story for how irreverent and dude-friendly it is. How much of that is Howard’s doing? Well, maybe we’ll find out down the line.
10. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Because Howard has always been such a consummate Hollywood pro, it wasn’t surprising that the movie that won him an Oscar was one of his most formulaic and saccharine — the sort of movie, in other words, that’s practically engineered to snag lots of prizes. Based on a true story — well, kinda — A Beautiful Mind starred Russell Crowe as John Nash, a brilliant but troubled mathematics genius whose paranoid schizophrenia risks destroying him. From its stately pace to its anonymously impressive period production design, this biopic is perfectly acceptable in every way, raking in four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. As the membership has diversified in recent years, it’s hard imagining A Beautiful Mind wowing the voters now as much as it did then. (It would be like if recent respectable nonentities such as The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything got the big prize.) This is Howard keeping the trains running on time and staying out of the way — has anyone thought about this movie in 15 years?
9. Ransom (1996)
The same year that Mel Gibson bested Ron Howard at the Oscars, winning Best Picture and Director for Braveheart over Apollo 13, the two men teamed up at the multiplex for what might be Howard’s most underrated film. Based on a script by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, Ransom is a corker of a paranoid, father’s-worst-nightmare thriller in which Gibson plays Tom, a one-percenter who discovers that his son has been kidnapped. This was years before Gibson’s flagrantly bad behavior would become public knowledge, and it was during that phase when he was doing Intense Anguish better than anyone. Beyond its twists and turns, Ransom succeeds because of the sheer panic all over Gibson’s face. (We feel his terror at every moment.) But it also works because, for once, Howard seems emotionally invested in the work in a way that feels personal. The anxiety of knowing that, despite your stature and money, scary men could come and destroy your happy home is a primal fear, and Howard’s movie feels unmoored by that realization.
8. Night Shift (1982)
The first film that made you think Opie might have a little more rambunctiousness than you might have suspected, Night Shift stars his Happy Days pal Henry Winkler as a former stockbroker who takes a job at a morgue but ends up turning it, amusingly, into a prostitution ring, spurred on by a crazed co-worker (Keaton again). This is still a bit of clean-cut Ron Howard Land — there’s a prostitute played by Shelley Long, for crying out loud — but there’s a little more grit under the fingernails, a willingness for Howard, perhaps inspired by his time with Corman, to get his hands dirty. It’s something you sort of wish he had saved more for his later Hollywood movies; the grime looks good on him.
7. Splash (1982)
“It’s the first movie I had a frickin’ blast making,” Howard said in 2016 of this sweet, literal-fish-out-of-water romance. It’s a frickin’ blast to watch, too: Splash is a quintessential 1980s high-concept comedy, pairing then–sitcom star Tom Hanks with Daryl Hannah, a man and a mermaid, finding love together in New York City. To those who dismissed the film as simplistic and dopey, well, that was part of its eternal appeal. Basically, Splash shows what happens when two basically decent people fall for one another, occasionally interrupted by the comic hijinks of John Candy as Hanks’s gregarious brother. (For years, some have argued that this movie would have been better if Candy had played the Hanks role. We don’t entirely disagree, although Hanks’s aw-shucks charm is part of what makes Splash so appealing.) Sappy, silly, endearing — and boasting a great Eugene Levy performance as the film’s bumbling villain — Splash argues that Howard made some of his best work when he didn’t strain for importance.
6. Cocoon (1985)
All right, it maybe wears its Spielberg “we’re all just little kids at heart” sentiment on its sleeve, and there are times when its sight gags of old people doing young people things wear a bit then. (Did we really need Don Ameche break-dancing?) But, again, it’s Howard’s inherent sweetness that holds this tale of a retirement community reinvigorated by aliens together, taking something that could either be treacly or too over-the-top bizarre and molding it into something accessible and pleasant. Also, this is the only acceptable Steve Guttenberg sex scene. And here is your occasional reminder that Wilford Brimley was only 50 when he made this movie, which is the same age as Will Smith, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Owen Wilson, Daniel Craig, and Josh Brolin are right now.
5. Rush (2013)
While Rush isn’t quite the Amadeus of race-car movies — two male rivals locked in combat, both of them repulsed but also drawn to what’s different about the other man — it’s easily Howard’s best work in recent years, telling a seemingly conventional sports story with a great degree of nuance and ambivalence. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are both excellent: Hemsworth plays charming, glib dreamboat James Hunt, while Brühl plays Niki Lauda, a moody loner who resents Hunt’s flash. It’s a testament to Rush that, years later, we can’t actually remember which racer came out on top. This movie ultimately doesn’t care so much about winners and losers — it’s more about the rush that some people get in competing, even if it’s to the detriment of everything else around them. As much as these men hate each other, deep down they’re scared that they really need one another. After all, who truly understands you except for your archenemy?
4. Frost/Nixon (2008)
Howard’s reputation for being a workmanlike filmmaker — solid, unflashy, without an easily noticeable personal style — proves to be stunningly effective in Frost/Nixon, where the actors and the script are the real stars. Based on the 1977 televised interviews between lightweight TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) and disgraced former president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), this talky, compelling drama has been well-drawn by Peter Morgan, based on his play, who scripts the two men as wary combatants, staging the proceedings as if this were a boxing flick. Howard emphasizes intimacy, putting us into Frost’s head as he slowly absorbs the fact that his entire reputation will be decided by these chats. Frost/Nixon is all theatrical, actorly flourishes delivered with steady craftsmanship and showbiz smarts. It may not be Sheen or Langella’s finest film work, but they thrust and parry with such brio that it might be their most shamelessly entertaining hour.
3. Parenthood (1989)
Yes, kids, this was a movie first, and it was a pretty good one. Howard balances a sprawling cast — seriously, this movie has Steve Martin and Keanu Reeves and Jason Robards and Rick Moranis and Joaquin Phoenix — and finds just the right balance between heartfelt humor and some hard truth. The family in the film has its problems, and not all of them get solved; in many ways, the parents of Parenthood are far more neurotic than the kids. The movie is gentle and forgiving of all its characters, sometimes a little too much, but also with a good heart and a twinkle in its eye. It is a lot harder getting a movie like this to work than Howard makes it look.
2. The Paper (1994)
A throwback to old newspaper rat-a-tat comedies of the ’50s, The Paper updates it to the world of ’90s New York City tabloid papers, with extremely pleasant results that now carry with them their own elements of nostalgia. Clearly modeled after the New York Daily News, the New York Sun features overworked but deeply passionate reporters trying to nail down a police-corruption scandal as their personal lives collapse around them — and they don’t care, as long as they get the story. The movie is a little grubbier than most movies about journalism — you’re clearly meant to be on the journalists’ side, but they’re hardly heroes — and captures, as well as any journalism movie, the frenetic addiction the news business can inspire, and how much of a hold it has on those who love it. It feels sad to watch this today, but still deeply exciting: This is what journalism feels like.
1. Apollo 13 (1995)
Eventually, Ron Howard would get around to making his big This Is What America Is About thesis statement. An earnest cornball with a pure heart, he was a natural to direct Apollo 13, about the astronauts of the titular NASA flight and the can-do scientists who helped get them home safe. This sort of film is utter hokey nonsense … unless it’s done with such precision, sincerity, and unfiltered emotion that you give yourself over to it completely. That’s what Howard achieved here, utilizing America’s Sweetheart Tom Hanks at his most regular guy/heroic Everyman to tell a story that reminded the nation about the great things we can achieve when we all just work together. That’s a romantic myth, but Apollo 13 brings real feeling to the sentiment, delivering thrills, laughs, tears, and cheers with such power that it’s a bit of mystery why the movie doesn’t play every Fourth of July weekend. Give Howard backhanded compliments all you want — dismissing his considerable skill as just sweet, dorky competence — but Apollo 13 cannot work without that kind of manifest belief in people’s inherent goodness and ability to excel in their darkest hour. Apollo 13 may not be deep, but it weaves a dream we all want to believe in.