On Wednesday, June 7 the Academy of Motion Pictures honored iconic director Richard Donner in a special tribute acknowledging his contributions to the film industry. Over his career Donner was a divisive director at best, responsible for some pretty serious flops, but also responsible for bringing several iconic films to the masses as well as some not too recognized gems that have been criminally under-appreciated. To honor the man himself, I decided to put together my own list acknowledging the best films of Donner’s celebrated directorial career.
For this list I examined Donner’s directorial credits and took my personal picks for the best ten based on factors such as quality, their iconic status, and legacy. As I usually do, I decided to make my life infinitely more difficult by limiting myself to ONE film per franchise…which as almost anyone familiar with this director’s work will know means that a few great entries in a couple franchises won’t be on this list. Also anyone who knows Donner’s history also knows at least once in his career he didn’t received official credit upon the release of a film, but at long as he HAS received credit in some form as a director of a film it qualified for this list.
Without further ado here they are, the top 10 Richard Donner films!
10. “16 Blocks”
Donner’s last directorial work to date, “16 Blocks” saw Bruce Willis as a detective trying to protect a witness, played by Mos Def, and, as you would expect, the two come under fire as they try to traverse 16 blocks of New York City. An action packed thrill ride of a film, “16 Blocks” is often overlooked by Donner’s earlier projects, but it is worthy of recognition for its effective use of real-time narrative as the viewer experiences everything along with the centric characters as they would truly happen. Willis and Mos Def were credited by many for their charisma and even received credibility from renowned reviewer Roget Ebert, who actually enjoyed many of Donner’s projects. While not a true theatrical hit, the film almost matched its production budget in rental and DVD sales alone making it an interesting success after its box office run. In my opinion it’s an action packed crime thriller worth a look.
9. “Inside Moves”
Another hidden gem for Donner, “Inside Moves” is an inspiring story that focuses on the trials and tribulations of handicapped people after a man finds himself handicapped from a suicide attempt only to bond with a barman with a bad leg who has failed to see his basketball dreams realizes due to his own handicap. While the suicidal man finds a new lease on life after bonding with his fellow handicapped people, the barkeep finds success with the Golden State Warriors and sees his basketball hopes come to fruition. It’s an eye-opening tale of two men from different situations faced with reassessing how their individual handicaps hold them back and overcoming adversity as they prove to the world, and to themselves, that they can be more than their physical limitations allow them to be. The film earned Diana Scawid an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the handicapped Louise and also feature real-life disabled veteran and Oscar winner Harold Russell in a role with the entire project focused on drawing attention to the negative stigma of disabilities as a weakness and attempting to inspire a more positive outlook rather than depression and hopelessness by those limitations.
8. “Conspiracy Theory”
This 1997 action thriller was one of numerous pairings of Donner and actor Mel Gibson and featured the now-controversial star as a taxi driver and government conspiracy theorist who partners with his friend Alice, a Justice Department attorney played by Julia Roberts, as the two become embroiled in a real conspiracy. While not the most critically acclaimed film, with a 52% Rotten Tomatoes score, the film was a financial hit and managed to combine the action and intensity of Donner’s famed “Lethal Weapon” franchise with a more literal tone warning of the possibility that conspiracy theories may not always be a ridiculous as they seem. The movie is almost a love letter of sorts to those who, for better or worse, think outside the box when it comes to the way things are run in the world around them and speaks to the paranoia in everyone that sometimes things may not always be as they appear.
A modern Christmas staple, “Scrooged” starred Bill Murray in a modernized version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” with Murray as a selfish and brutal television executive who is visited by his former mentor and three ghosts who try to open his eyes to his sins and inspire him to change his ways as the Christmas holiday approaches. Dark, gritty, and in many ways hilarious, “Scrooged” was a moderate box office hit but became a cult classic in the years following its release in 1988 and to date is one of Murray’s most iconic performances, continuing his massive success in the 1980s that included “Caddyshack” and “Ghostbusters”, the later of which was referenced in the advertising for “Scrooged” as Murray was once again pitted against a series of paranormal entities. It’s a fun, memorable, and unique take on an already overdone story that provided a modern spin on a classic tale.
In my opinion a criminally underrated work, “Ladyhawke” was a 1985 fantasy film featuring Matthew Broderick as a thief caught between two lovers who are cursed to never be human at the same time, with the woman transforming into a hawk by day and the man into a wolf at night. The thief joins in on an epic adventure to see the curse broken and the two lovers reunited as humans once more. While a box office failure, the film featured great backdrops and real-life castles and was critically praised for Broderick’s acting ability and the choice of characterizations for the film’s leads. In hindsight, the movie is an often-overlooked gem that was a critical success. It’s a film worth checking out that combines a romantic subplot with action and adventure in spectacular fashion.
Another Mel Gibson-Richard Donner team up, 1994’s “Maverick” was based on the 1950s television show of the same name and took viewers back to the American old west with Gibson playing the titular role as a high-stakes poker player drawn into a major tournament for money and glory. Filled with laughs, misadventures, and more cameos that you can count the film was a true tribute to the western film genre and sparked critical and commercial success for Richard Donner as well as earning an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. The film also featured the last existing sternwheel tugboat in America as the gambling boat, the Lauren Belle. The film was partially credited for adding new legitimacy to the western genre in a time when such films were considered out of date and in short supply.
4. “The Goonies”
Now we’re getting to the cream of the crop. A film that defined the childhoods of many, including my own, 1985’s “The Goonies” is an adventure comedy film that has stood the test of time. When a group of young friends find their homes threatened with demolition they come together to hunt down a legendary treasure to pay off the debts, fending off booby traps and a family of escaped convicts along the way. Featuring an over-the-top adventure with some of the most quotable dialogue of its time, “The Goonies” was nothing short of a critical and financial success and is still a cult classic that parents share with their children to this day, continuing its reputation as a must see family film. While rumors of a sequel or remake have been circling the web for years, nothing will ever top the original adventure that is still celebrated almost yearly, even over 30 years after its release.
3. “Lethal Weapon”
It was a tossup between which of the first two “Lethal Weapon” films would be on this list, but I had to go with the first film in the series that helped bring the buddy cop genre back to the spotlight. The 1987 original was the first time Donner and Mel Gibson worked together with the movie pairing two mismatched LAPD officers together as partners, leading to plenty of action, humor, and self-referential character puns that would spark one of the most successful action franchises ever. A massive hit commercially and critically, “Lethal Weapon” was everything to adults that “The Goonies” was to children in the 1980s, a film that helped define a generation of moviegoers for years to come and today is still a powerful franchise with a recent television program continuing its legacy. The film is so iconic it spawned parodies and has been referenced in numerous television shows for its cultural impact as well as essentially becoming the blueprint for nearly every buddy-cop film that followed, redefining a genre that had gone cold well before its release.
2. “The Omen”
Richard Donner’s first certified hit, “The Omen” is a legendary 1976 horror film that is still considered among the defining works in the 1970s rebirth of the horror genre. “The Omen” continued a growing trend of “evil children” movies of that era, sparked by “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, and was one of the year’s most successful films. Although many at the time did accuse it of playing off of the tropes that made for cash grabs in the genre at the time, “The Omen” held its own becoming a critical darling and earning two Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Original Score. The film focused on the son of an American diplomat who is marked by the number of Satan, 666, and slowly becomes suspected of being the Anti-Christ. The movie featured spectacular effects for its time that, surprisingly, hold up relatively well today compared to other films of the era. For many this was the introduction to Donner’s work and while “The Omen” franchise itself eventually faded into obscurity, the original is still often considered among the most iconic in an over saturated genre.
It would have been very easy to put the “Superman” sequel on this list, which Donner didn’t officially receive credit for helping direct until the “Richard Donner Cut” was released, but there’s no denying that 1978’s “Superman” remains the director’s most iconic project and is also his most critically praised and financially successful film with a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes and a monster $300 million take at the box office worldwide. The film was highly anticipated, promising the world they would believe a man can fly as the most iconic comic book hero of all time was brought to life in his first big budget adventure, and one that would kick off an eventual obsession the public would embrace with comic book inspired films. With groundbreaking an iconic special effects and a hero everyone could get behind, this film, along with “The Omen”, legitimized Richard Donner as a true directorial force and one to be respected if given the right material to work with. It’s because of this film that Donner really became a household name and many of the works on this list would probably have never been conceived had it not been for Donner being trusted with one of the most lucrative pop culture properties of the time.