Robert Zemeckis Movies Ranked

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Robert Zemeckis Movies Ranked

Robert Zemeckis Movies Ranked

On December 21st, Robert Zemeckis is releasing his new film, Welcome to Marwen.  It is a dramatic retelling of the true story exhibited in the astonishing 2010 documentary, Marwencol.  It is about Mark Hogancamp, a man who after a brutal assault, has massive physical and emotional problems.  He builds a model WWII town in his backyard and pours his heart and soul into the project. It is his artistic and therapeutic outlet to make sense of the tragedy that befell him.  Steve Carell portrays Mark in Welcome to Marwen. If you have seen the trailer, you know this is going to be an incredible performance. In addition, the trailer shows that patented technical wizardry Zemeckis is known for.

Throughout his career, Robert Zemeckis has been dazzling us with his unique ability to combine masterful storytelling with state-of-the-art special effects.  Whether it is through gorgeous motion-capture animation or flawless CGI integration into his live-action stories, he has been wowing audiences for four decades.  His filmography is immensely impressive. What follows is all of Robert Zemeckis-directed films ranked.

#18: Used Cars (1980)

The Robert Zemeckis/Bob Gale sophomore outing is the weakest of Zemeckis’s career.  This mediocre comedy follows two brothers’ rival used car lots. One brother’s dealership is going down the tubes so he hires the sex-crazy Kurt Russell to turn things around.  It is all pretty bland, and the stuff that does work comes courtesy of overcomplicated, convoluted nonsense. Gone are any lofty ideas or any depth of character. All that is left are a few chuckles here and there.

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#17:  I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

This is the film that Robert Zemeckis cut his teeth on.  It is a charming movie that encapsulates Beatlemania on the eve of The Beatles’ performance on Ed Sullivan.  A group of girls will stop at nothing to see the group, not unlike the 2009 comedy Fanboys.  In Fanboys, a group of rabid Star Wars fans are trying to get to see The Phantom Menace.  Well, the rabid Beatles fans in the 60s put Star Wars nerds to shame.  Again, like Used Cars, this is a small movie…and we are accustomed to big and flashy from Zemeckis.  Still…it is a great rookie movie from the man who will evolve to make some full-blown masterpieces.

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#16:  The Walk (2015)

Robert Zemeckis’s career is the best example of how special effects should enhance and support storytelling.  It should not be THE focus of the film. The Walk is the first time that Zemeckis dropped the ball with this theory.  It tells the true story of Phillipe Petit, a man who walked a tightrope across the span of the World Trade Center in 1974.  The event was masterfully told in 2008’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.  That film had copious amounts of home videos and stock footage, and it was amazing.  The Walk is so concerned with making the actual walk look perfect, and it does, that it forgets to inject any heart into the movie.  It is a technical marvel of a movie, especially if seen in IMAX, but it is also a bit hollow and sterile.

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#15:  A Christmas Carol (2009)

Robert Zemeckis returned to the Christmas Genre with A Christmas Carol.  If a filmmaker is going to make ANOTHER version of this Dickensian classic, they have to bring something new to the table.  Zemeckis brought Jim Carrey in motion capture performances. Well, the design of this film is incredible, but the tone is all over the place.  The original novel, A Christmas Carol, is a ghost story first and a Christmas story second.  It is dark, scary, and deals with death.  The story’s adapter has to choose what they want the film to be.  However, Zemeckis tries to have it all ways. It is extremely serious and macabre at parts and jovially ridiculous in others.  It is as if in trying to appeal to everyone, he wound up appealing to no one. His realization of a CGI 19th-century London is a pleasure to look at, but you won’t be filled with too much holiday spirit when it’s over. 

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#14:  Allied (2016)

The best way to describe this film is as Robert Zemeckis’s Casablanca.  Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard headline a story about two government agents who hook up after their paths cross in North Africa in 1942.  The film is an energetic espionage film about trust, love, and a whole bunch of silly spy stuff. Zemeckis crafts the film to a glossy sheen. So much so that it actually comes across surreal in its aesthetic.  It feels like a Brian DePalma film. Allied is well acted and pretty, but it is also a bit artificial and predictable.

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#13:  Beowulf (2007)

After the rousing success of The Polar Express in 2004, Robert Zemeckis set out to make an adaptation of the epic poem, Beowulf.  Yes, it is the story we all dreaded reading in high school and college.  Though, it is a swashbuckling epic with beefcake men, sexual encounters with goddesses, mutant creatures, and dragons.  The film is made with a lot of energy and talent, and it does look beautiful. However, the artificiality of Ray Winstone’s Beowulf and Angelina Jolie’s Mother of Grendel doesn’t quite work as well as it did in The Polar Express.  It all seems to sterilize the brutality of the story.  Crispin Glover’s Grendel is perfectly frightening, but the motion capture used for this story felt like an odd decision.  

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#12:  What Lies Beneath (2000)

Filmed on hiatus while Tom Hanks lost the weight he needed for Cast Away, What Lies Beneath is Robert Zemeckis’s Hitchcockian thriller.  It is mostly a take on Rear Window, with Michelle Pfeiffer wonderfully portraying the voyeur.  Harrison Ford unusually plays her morally ambiguous doctor husband.   However, at risk of spoiling a bit, there is a sequence here that also emulates Psycho.  It involves a bathtub and paralyzation.  It is absolutely, gut-wrenchingly frightening.  That scene and a swooping camera shot that seems to go through the floor only to look up at the subject are perfect demonstrations as to why Zemeckis is a first-rate director.  The rest is a decent thriller that even seems to delve a bit into the supernatural. It will provide a decent amount of twists and chills to make it worth your while.

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#11:  Back to the Future Part II (1989)

After the monumental success of Back to the Future, the sequel had a LOT to live up to.  Ever since Doc, Marty, and Jennifer took off in the DeLorean, the world wondered where they would wind up.  Well, it was 2015, and an alternate 1985, and 1955 again. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale really paid respect by properly expanding the Back to the Future universe so well, but Part II just doesn’t have the heart the original and Part III do.  What it does have is a convoluted, paradoxical attitude that is supremely fun, but is a bit cartoony.  Not that that cartoonish quality is necessarily BAD, but it is superficially entertaining compared to the other films in the trilogy.

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#10:  Death Becomes Her (1992)

Death Becomes Her is definitely the strangest film on this list.  It is a black comedy starring Meryl Streep (the funniest she has ever been), Bruce Willis (the funniest he has ever been), and Goldie Hawn.  It tells the story of an aging screen siren (Streep) who takes a beautification potion that also renders her immortal. So of course, she immediately has an accident and her body is killed.  Willis is her husband, a former plastic surgeon turned mortician, in full manic mode. In the rarest of rare Oscar occurrences, this full-fledged comedy won the Best Visual Effects award. The way Zemeckis has Streep and Hawn’s characters “die” is ridiculously inspired.  The crazy antics, opulent sets, and larger-than-life performances make the entire film worth your while, but when Streep’s neck is twisted and Hawn has a hole blown in her stomach, it is an astonishing sight to behold.

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#9:  Back to the Future Part III (1990)

There are many detractors for Back to the Future Part III, complaining about the fact that it is essentially a western, through and through.  They couldn’t be more wrong. Sure, it doesn’t have all the time-hopping zaniness of Part II, but there is a maturity of filmmaking, acting, and storytelling that really puts the story arc stamp on the franchise.  Marty has learned a lot. Doc has fallen in love. Also, the audience is treated to a climactic action sequence that Robert Zemeckis has never bested.  Zemeckis and Gale had a vision of Part III in the old west, and they don’t pull any punches.  This conclusion is just what the franchise lovers needed and deserved.

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#8:  Romancing the Stone (1984)

This is the film that Robert Zemeckis really hit big with right before he struck gold with Back to the Future.  Romancing the Stone is kind of the great concept pulled off to admirable perfection.  The film really is the adaptation of a romance novel.  However, in the best way. Kathleen Turner plays Joan Wilder, a very famous romance novelist whose sister is kidnapped.  She has a treasure map and Joan is now tasked with getting that map to Cartagena, Columbia. She is not adept at jungle trekking, so it is good that she runs into Jack Colton (Michael Douglas).  The laughs, the adventure, the romance…the two leads make it all come so effortlessly. Danny DeVito brings a lot of laughs as well as the kidnapper’s brother. All in all, this is a wonderful escape.

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#7: Flight (2012)

Flight is a unique film in the career of Robert Zemeckis.  Other than a harrowing airline disaster opening scene, the film is basically a straightforward acting tour de force for Denzel Washington.  In any other year, he could have received his 3rd career Oscar for the role of Capt. Whitaker, but 2012 was the year of Daniel Day-Lewis and Lincoln.  Still, Washington is electric as a competent, heroic pilot who performs a death-defying stunt to save a passenger jet from certain doom. The problem is that he is a virulent alcoholic and drug addict and that all comes out during the forensics of the event.  The way the film balances the heroism and the disease is riveting. Did Whitaker’s substance abuse cause the event? Or was he heroic in spite of it? Or heroic because of it? It all plays out with the tension of an action thriller, all because of Washington (though John Goodman has a great supporting role).  There is a bit of disappointment that the perfect final line of the film is teed up and not used. It would have been such a great final stamp on a great film.  

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#6:  Cast Away (2000)

The second of three wonderful collaborations between Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks.  The pair really took their time to do this story of a man marooned all alone on a Pacific island seriously.  They filmed the early scenes of Hanks before the plane crash and his early days on the island first. Then the entire production took a year-long hiatus so Hanks could drop 50 pounds and Zemeckis could make What Lies Beneath.  That kind of method acting is all well and good, but it is for naught if the film doesn’t work.  Well, it is a triumph. Tom Hanks is basically the only actor alive that can be all alone on screen for two hours and no one minds.  He commands the screen, even while sharing it with his volleyball castmate. Also, Zemeckis’s use of sound is some of the best of his career.  The audience really feels trapped on that small isle with Chuck Noland. The wind, the waves, the birds, the crunching sand, it all feels so real.

There is one big problem with this film and it was its marketing.  The trailer actually spoils the ending. Spoiler Alert!!  The scenes when Chuck is back home and acclimating to modern society again is some of the greatest stuff in the movie, but the trailers spoiled the surprise of whether he would get home at all.

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#5:  The Polar Express (2004)

Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks really hit the jackpot with this perennial classic.  The Polar Express is a beautiful children’s book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg.  It tells the simple story of a child whose belief if Santa Claus has been waning. Then, a magical train swipes him up for a trip to the North Pole.  Zemeckis brings his usual technical expertise and Tom Hanks motion captures several characters. The result is an animated film that feels like a dream.  It is so warm and gorgeous that it seems to be a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life. Add on top of that a perfect Josh Groban song, Believe, and you get a holiday film that is a much-watch every December.  

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#4:  Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump really took the world by storm in 1994.  It was so beloved and part of the zeitgeist, that it won the Best Picture Oscar over movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction.  Everyone knows the story.  It follows Tom Hanks as Gump, in a career-best performance.  He is a simpleton in a complicated world. He pops up as a background character in some of the most important occurrences in 20th century American History.  Robert Zemeckis so perfectly uses his special effects mastery to place Gump in old news footage, to recreate the world of the 1960s, and perfectly removed Gary Sinise’s legs for his role of Lt. Dan.  Gump is one of the most watchable, most crowd-pleasing movies of the 1990s.  Also, it is one of the most quotable.

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#3:  Contact (1997)

Carl Sagan’s epic story about a message from Vega is more of a philosophical meditation than it is science fiction.  Jodie Foster is Ellie Arroway, a brilliant radio-astronomer who discovers the signal. On the surface, the film is about the world figuring out what the signal is and what to do with it.  However, bubbling underneath the surface is a powerful tale of Science vs. God, Faith vs. Reason, and Evidence vs. Belief. Ellie is on the side of Science, Matthew McConaughey’s Palmer Joss is on the side of Faith, and the intellectual fencing matches that arrive among the high concept sci-fi is what makes Contact an incredible film.  Many people dislike the penultimate scene of Ellie’s journey.  Though, when you focus on what the film is trying to say, it is perfect.  To watch Foster’s performance during the congressional inquiry proves again that she is one of the greatest actresses alive.

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#2:  Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Never again will there be another Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg audaciously set out to make a live-action/animation hybrid, that has a lot of mature themes and involves every intellectual property they could get their hands on.  In a kind of 1980s animation Avengers project,  Disney, Warner Bros., Hanna Barbera, Felix the Cat, Fleischer Studios, and several others to create an all-encompassing animated universe.  That would be enough to make this film a classic. However, Bob Hoskins plays the lead Eddie Valiant to absolute perfection.   He outdoes everyone who has ever acted opposite animated or CGI characters.  

This film is one of the most elaborate exhibitions of Movie Magic. To see all these beloved characters on screen together was something the industry wouldn’t even come close to until Spielberg’s 2018 Ready Player One.  Out of all the films on this list, Who Framed Roger Rabbit may be the most timeless masterpiece of them all.  

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#1:  Back to the Future (1985)

What other movie could have possibly sat atop this list?  Back to the Future is Robert Zemeckis’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It is his Star Wars.  The film will forever keep him in the conversation of one of the greatest commercial directors of all time.  It was one of his earliest features, and it still remains his greatest masterpiece. Few movies have all the ingredients in place to enthrall kids, their parents, and even THEIR parents to such perfection.  Time Travel stories have been around for over a century, but in 1985, one of the absolute greatest was sprung upon the world. Back to the Future, the DeLorean, Marty McFly, and Dr. Emmett Brown will forever be some of the greatest cinematic creations of all time.

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(Photo credit: Getty Images)

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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