Ron Howard has been in show business for almost 60 years, starting as a child star on such TV series as “Dennis the Menace,” “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” the latter of which turned him into the kind of omnipresent icon that usually happens once in a lifetime. Except that for Howard, it happened twice: His Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” would become affixed in American hearts and minds as the quintessential, squeaky-clean television teenager.
That image would dog Howard for years – he got his break directing only because he agreed to star in a film for Roger Corman. The shadow Howard needed to escape to forge a new path was his own.
But escape he did and over the course of 23 feature films — which have brought in more than $3.6 billion worldwide — Howard has evolved into a director and producer who seems focused on telling the stories of those whose achievements have too long gone unheralded – including astronauts, mathematicians, journalists, boxers and parents. His diverse interests — science fiction and comedy, fantasy and historical epics — have branded him the kind of journeyman director whom Hollywood used to churn out but rarely does anymore.
When he falters as a filmmaker, it’s not for lack of skill, it’s when we the audience sense that he doesn’t quite empathize with his characters. When he doesn’t feel for them, neither do we.
So when looking back at Howard’s filmography as his latest, “Inferno,” hits theaters, and attempting to rank something so inherently subjective as art, that was the lens we chose. Here’s our take on the work of Ron Howard from best to worst.
1. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
If a film could be described as ruthlessly tender, it’s this, the true story of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a mathematician whose prodigious gifts carry with them a delusional burden in which Howard deftly makes the viewer complicit. Howard won his only directing Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” which also took best picture.
2. Apollo 13 (1995)
A disaster movie that does what all disaster movies should, but so rarely do: explore that disaster through the eyes of everyone it touches. So the story of Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and the crew of the doomed Apollo 13 is told through the eyes of the astronauts themselves, the NASA crew on the ground (led by Oscar nominee Ed Harris) and the families bracing for disaster.
3. Frost/Nixon (2008)
Who knew that the machinations that led to a mere conversation between two men, and that event itself, would be so captivating? But Howard treats the interviews between David Frost (Michael Sheen) and Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) like a cat-and-mouse thriller where words are like bullets.
4. Parenthood (1989)
By revealing the lives of a family across generations, Howard delivered a film that could be all things to all people: funny, sad, triumphant, romantic, depending entirely on who was watching.
5. Splash (1984)
While this film didn’t age quite as well as one might hope – Daryl Hannah’s Madison the mermaid does have agency of her own, but the attitudes of the men around her, save Hanks’ Allen, are mired in chauvinism -- it still remains a sweet little romance. And it’s always good to watch two stars emerge in front of you.
6. Night Shift (1982)
Howard’s second film was also his randiest. It is, after all, a comedy about two friends (Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler) who decide to transform a morgue into a whorehouse. As far as ‘80 sex comedies go, it’s positively puritanical — but it is also entirely effective.
7. Cinderella Man (2005)
Even though we’ve seen this narrative before – gutter upstart takes to the ring to prove his worth against an opponent he has no chance to beat – Howard’s film succeeds through savvy casting (Crowe and Renee Zellweger) and sheer earnestness.
8. Rush (2013)
Formula One racing was never a sport Americans cared much about, but Howard took all the technical savvy he’d accumulated over the decades and funneled it into placing viewers inside those adrenaline rockets and helping us understand why men risked death over and over.
9. The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Hanks is as reliable a star as exists and Dan Brown’s book was a global sensation – it’s no wonder Howard wanted to adapt the religiously themed puzzle-box thriller. It would be a hit no matter what. That he made it a more than competent genre exercise – which is, really, all it had to be -- is a testament to his skill.
10. EdTV (1999)
This prescient look at what reality TV — and our culture’s pervasive obsession with fame — could do to a normal guy (Matthew McConaughey, at his most normal guy) is an amiable little confection. Not deep, but it wasn’t aiming for depth.
11. Cocoon (1985)
You can see the joy on the screen Howard must’ve felt at getting a host of classic Hollywood actors (such as Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) together to make this sci-fi tale of aliens who give the residents of a rest home new leases on life. It’s a gossamer-thin tale, but sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with a little gossamer.
12. The Missing (2003)
It’s laudable that when Howard made his western — as so many filmmakers seem driven to do — he made one that honored the Native Americans who are so often ignored in films like these. But there’s a grimness here that’s required for the subject matter — a fractured family further torn apart by a kidnapping — that doesn’t sit well.
13. The Paper (1994)
This day-in-the-life of a newspaper staff suffers for the things that it’s not. While it is light on its feet, with a somewhat sardonic edge, when compared with other pictures about journalists it neither has the teeth of an “All the President’s Men” or the heart of “Broadcast News.”
14. In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
It’s unclear whether today’s audiences care about “Moby-Dick,” let alone the real story behind “Moby-Dick,” even with Thor playing the obsessed sailor. And for as competent a film as it is, “In the Heart of the Sea” never catches the wind.
15. Angels & Demons (2009)
Another Dan Brown thriller as source material, another go with Hanks as puzzlemeister Robert Langdon, same as the first, only a little less for not being new.
16. Ransom (1996)
It’s not fair to say that there are certain things we want from artists and certain things we don’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that the kind of heart-rending angst at the center of this Mel Gibson movie, about the kidnapping of a child, didn’t gel with Howard’s sensibilities.
17. Grand Theft Auto (1977)
First movies rarely set the tone and the tenor for a career, and Howard’s first is no different. It is just a ramshackle romp of a road movie, one that he agreed to star in only if he could direct.
18. Backdraft (1991)
More of a technical showcase than a storytelling one – the ingenuity put forth to make the fires in this firefighter movie feel like actual characters overshadows the actual firefighter characters themselves.
19. Willow (1988)
Some people love this fantasy on which Howard collaborated with George Lucas, with Warwick Davis as a small hero who does big things and Val Kilmer as the rogue who aids him. Others see it as a blandish “Star Wars” knockoff that’s not nearly as endearing as “The Princess Bride,” which came out a year earlier.
20. Gung Ho (1986)
A weird pseudo-comedy that attempts to play on the xenophobic fears engendered by the Japanese push into corporate America, but finds none of the nuance.
21. Far and Away (1992)
Howard’s desire to tell the story of the Irish immigrant experience in America is a laudable one, and parts of this Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman romantic epic are lush and fully realized. But so too are parts clichéd and just hinting at a depth never felt.
22. The Dilemma (2011)
If the dilemma was “How to make a romantic comedy about infidelity that feels neither romantic nor funny,” then I’m afraid the dilemma remains unsolved.
23. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Occasionally, the planets align, the gods smile and all the elements are assembled in a perfect harmony to produce a film that will live in the hearts and minds of a civilization for eons to come. This, however, is the polar opposite of that.