Highs and lows from Forrest Gump to Back to the Future.
In the world of A-list Hollywood directors, Robert Zemeckis has always seemed like Steven Spielberg's wise-ass kid brother: somewhat less celebrated for his nostalgic, crowd-pleasing work, even as he generally seems to be having more fun. But now, with Flight already generating Oscar buzz in advance of its November 2 wide release, we're reexamining his whole filmography, and finding it full of non-Spielbergian delights.
15. The Polar Express (2004)
Next to helping Forrest Gump steal the Best Picture Oscar away from Pulp Fiction (and apparently deciding it would be a good idea to remake Yellow Submarine… in 3D!), Robert Zemeckis's greatest crime against cinema is his inexplicable devotion to "performance capture" technology. Like one of those theme park rides where the chair shakes while you pretend you're on an actual roller coaster, The Polar Express is synthetic in every conceivable way. The animated characters are lifeless (and borderline creepy), the stakes are non-existent, and the generic holiday platitudes seem to indicate true Christmas spirit means believing in Santa Claus even when you're way too old, which… uh, no.
14. Beowulf (2007)
Many were disappointed that Angelina Jolie's nude scenes in the performance-captured Beowulf were only computer simulations. But even more disappointing was the director's ongoing fascination with a technique that falls somewhere between animation and live action without the virtues of either. Yet even though much of Beowulf feels like watching someone else play video games, this adaptation of the epic poem (and Lit 101 staple) at least boasts a truly scary Crispin Glover (as the voice of deranged monster Grendel), Jolie as his sinister mother, and the truly amazing technological miracle of Ray Winstone sporting digitized washboard abs.
13. Death Becomes Her (1992)
As you may have surmised, Zemeckis sometimes lets his fascination with gizmos and special effects get in the way of more important filmmaking elements (like, say, compelling characters). Exhibit C is Death Becomes Her, which plays like an overlong episode of Tales From The Crypt (which the director produced from 1989 to 1996). Yet, while the one-joke "eternal youth gone bad" premise eventually wears thin, it's fun to watch Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn chew the gothic scenery as dueling show-biz divas, and the early CGI delivers some nifty visual punchlines.
12. A Christmas Carol (2009)
The first cinematic adaptation of A Christmas Carol was 1901's Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost. Since then, the holiday chestnut has been reimagined for the big screen with musical numbers, Mr. Magoo, Muppets, Bill Murray, and everything in between. So why not add a performance-capture version to the pile, complete with everybody's favorite miser snow-surfing behind a horse and buggy like Marty McFly in Back to the Future? It's hard to go wrong with the source material, Jim Carrey is passable in multiple roles, and while there's nothing particularly memorable about Zemeckis's (mostly) faithful version, there's nothing especially wrong with it either. (Except the creepy dead eyes, again.)
11. Used Cars (1980)
The essential difference between the Spielberg and Zemeckis worldviews can be seen in this sloppy, raucous, cheerfully cynical tale of battling hucksters in the post-Nixon era. Kurt Russell plays a shamelessly corrupt used-car salesman whose goal is to become a shamelessly corrupt politician… and he's the good guy! In the film's energetic DVD commentary track, the director says his friend Spielberg was appalled by the very notion of corrupt politicians at the time, while Zemeckis figured his protagonist's amorality was okay because, to paraphrase Hitchcock, people always love a character if they're good at their job. It's a fair point, as Russell's can-do charisma smooths over most of the rough spots in this rattletrap comedy, and the low-budget climax (featuring a cavalry of clunkers racing through the Arizona desert) is still more exciting than all the CGI expended in the first four slots of this list.
10. Cast Away (2000)
Tom Hanks went the full DeNiro for this modern-day update of Robinson Crusoe, dropping fifty-five pounds and picking up a fifth Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as a FedEx employee stranded on a desert island. The performance is harrowing and the "man alone" survival drama is well-executed, though at a punishing 143 minutes, the film is way too long, and it's telling that the most memorable character is a volleyball.
9. What Lies Beneath (2000)
Zemeckis famously shot this small-scale psychological thriller while Tom Hanks was dieting down to skin and bones for the second half of the Cast Away shoot. For my money, the side project is a tighter and more generally satisfying production (not to mention one I might actually want to watch again someday). Michelle Pfeiffer is solid as the damsel in distress haunted by supernatural secrets, but of course — twelve-year-old spoiler alert! — the real fun is finally getting to see hall-of-fame hero Harrison Ford play a flat-out villain.
8. Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Maybe just an okay movie on its own, Part III gets elevated to the eighth spot on this list as a warm capper to the overall Back to the Future trilogy, one of the smartest, most entertaining mainstream franchises of the blockbuster era. Plus, Mary Steenburgen is a sweet comic match for Christopher Lloyd's slightly mad scientist, there's a flying train, and ZZ Top has a cameo playing old-timey music.
7. Forrest Gump (1994)
It may not have been fair, but for many, the showdown between Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump at the 67th Academy Awards played like a national litmus test. While blue-state Gen-Xers rooted for the former, red-state Baby Boomers embraced this rose-colored fairy tale about a good-natured simpleton who tumbles into fame and fortune during the '60s, '70s, and '80s by sticking with traditional American values, even as the dirty hippies get what's coming to them. However, if you leave aside the intentional or ascribed politics (and forgive Zemeckis for spawning the Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant chain), it's hard to argue with the ambitious sweep and iconic imagery of a film that became a cultural phenomenon (and added "Life is like a box of chocolates" to the Top Twenty list of annoyingly ubiquitous Hollywood catchphrases).
6. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
Zemeckis hit the ground running with his sweet, funny directorial debut about four Jersey girls chasing The Beatles, who've just arrived in New York for their legendary first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Unfortunately, a breezy script and likable cast (including Nancy Allen and Zemeckis regulars Eddie Deezen and the late great Wendi Jo Sperber) weren't enough, and the film flopped despite critical acclaim and positive test screenings. (Like many lost classics, I Wanna Hold Your Hand eventually developed its own healthy cult in the cinematic afterlife of VHS and DVD.)
5. Romancing the Stone (1984)
Sure, maybe Romancing the Stone was just an attempt to duplicate the box-office mojo of Raiders of the Lost Ark (though the screenplay by Diane Thomas actually predated Spielberg's swashbuckling hit). And, no, Michael Douglas's Jack T. Colton is no Indiana Jones… in part because he's meant to be the romance novel version of manly manhood. Kathleen Turner's nerdy writer meets Colton when she travels to Cartagena, Columbia in search of a missing sister. Old-school thrills and chills ensue, with Danny DeVito as Zemeckis's wild card.
4. Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Unlike some other sprawling, overstuffed Hollywood trilogies I could mention, the Back to the Future saga is a Rube Goldberg machine of clever plotting and well-paced slapstick ingenuity, thanks to smart scripting by Zemeckis's longtime creative partner Bob Gale and the influential decision to shoot Parts II and III back-to-back. The true brilliance of Part II is the way it subverts the usual Hollywood practice of cranking out carbon-copy sequels, by literally repeating the first movie with a brand new plot threaded through it like a Möbius strip.
3. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Bob Hoskins is a fine actor, but it's tempting to speculate how much better this film could have been with a more dynamic star like Bill Murray or Harrison Ford (both of whom were considered for the lead, but ultimately proved unattainable). Even so, the dream team of animation all-stars assembled for Zemickis's hybrid noir comedy resulted in a one-of-a-kind entertainment experience. Just the sight of Dumbo the elephant flapping his ears outside a live-action office window is weirdly enthralling, and the "worlds collide" moment of Bugs Bunny sharing screen time with Mickey Mouse packed way more of a wallop than DeNiro and Pacino's big scene together in Heat or The Hulk, Iron Man, and the gang finally coming together in The Avengers. Now, if someone could just pair up Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Rabbit…
2. Contact (1997)
Yes, the ending is divisive (I think it's fine, though some viewers and critics found it anticlimactic, schmaltzy, or just plain dumb). And everything about Matthew McConaughey's performance is… odd, from the basic character (a sexy theologian named Palmer Joss?) to the actor's off-kilter eyelines and stilted line readings throughout. Yet while the film may not be perfect, this adaptation of Carl Sagan's only novel scores high on ambition, originality, and entertainment value. Alternately suspenseful, thought-provoking, and humane, the Zemeckified take on Close Encounters features a stellar cast (Jodie Foster, John Hurt, James Woods, et al.) and some great set pieces (the opening galactic zoom out, a jolting terrorist attack, etc.). But what really sets Contact apart from typical Hollywood blockbusters is its honest curiosity about humanity's Big Questions (and the eternal friction between religion and science) in a pop-culture landscape where out-and-proud atheism is still a fairly alien concept.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
Though Spielberg has managed some romantic and funny moments in his films, sex and comedy have always been his Achilles heels. So while he may ultimately be a better and more "important" director, it's hard to imagine him pulling off what Zemeckis achieved in his best work. When Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly time travels to the 1950s and accidentally attracts the unwanted affections of his then-teenage mother (Lea Thompson), the moment is awkwardly goofy rather than off-putting or icky. And for all its head-spinning chronological twists, the plot is basically a breezy and relatable deliberation on nostalgia and human nature packed with clever throwaway gags. The heart of the film is Fox's chemistry with Christopher Lloyd's Emmett "Doc" Brown; they're a classic screen duo whose adventures I'm happy to revisit again and again.