Richard Donner was as important to my childhood as Steven Spielberg directing numerous films that often served as my personal introduction to different genres in the 90s. His work brought to life one of the greatest horror films of all time, sparked one of the most beloved buddy cop franchises ever, and made the world believe a man could fly. Donner was considered one of the most reliable makers of action blockbusters in the industry’s history, but his filmography spanned numerous different kinds of movies often meshing together genres to create something relatively unique which makes his death at the age of 91 on July 5, 2021 all the more heartbreaking. Donner’s filmography, including 21 directorial effort and 11 other movies where he served exclusively as Executive Producer, includes some truly amazing classics and while it would be cool to explore his history producing the “X-Men” and “Free Willy” franchises as well as “The Lost Boys”, today I’m looking at the movies he directed and honoring this cinematic legend with my picks for the Top 10 Richard Donner Films.
This list contains what I personally believe to be the best films Donner directed in is decades-long career examining not just now much I liked the movies, but also their cultural influence and legacy on cinema and how memorable I find them to be after all these years. A lot of people have done this list or something like it, especially lately, so I’ll admit my picks will probably fall in line with a lot of others but the fact that so many people have chosen to reminisce on the work of this influential filmmaker speaks volumes for the legacy he leaves behind. Also it should be said that “Superman II” will not be on this list. While there is a Richard Donner Cut which is considered the better version of the movie, it wasn’t completely directed by Donner and was only a recut including footage he shot before he was removed from the project. Consider it an honorable mention that I think you should definitely check out for yourself.
What is your favorite directorial effort from the great Richard Donner? Let me know in the comments!
10. “16 Blocks”
The final film of Donner’s directorial career, “16 Blocks” is an exciting action thriller with a neat structure. The film follows a New York Police Officer played by Bruce Willis who has to escort a witness played by Mos Def to a courthouse, a journey spanning the titular 16 blocks filled with individuals who want to kill the witness. What makes this narrative stand out though is how Donner and writer Richard Wenk chose to tell it: in real-time. “16 Blocks” might not be the most pulse pounding or original film of Donner’s career but the fact that the action plays out with the events unfolding as they would actually happen makes this quite an engrossing experience. It helps you feel the pressure Willis’s character is under to keep Mos Def alive and safe. It rarely rises much above its gimmick, but it’s that gimmick that has made it so memorable for me and deserving of a spot on this list.
9. “Conspiracy Theory”
“Conspiracy Theory” obviously isn’t the best Donner film but it is largely responsible for helping inspire a wake of conspiracy lovers even prior to the major innovations of the internet age. The film stars Mel Gibson in one of many pairings with Donner who plays a taxi driver convinced world events are driven by government conspiracies. The film erupts into a cat-and-mouse game over time as Gibson’s “delusions” are proven to be more factual than previously assumed. He soon becomes the target of the government with his ally, an attorney played by Julie Roberts, torn between helping him and thinking he’s crazy. “Conspiracy Theory” is a fun thriller but one I feel wasted a bit of it’s potential and was maybe ahead of its time in terms of concept. Still, it’s an energetic flick that explores every conspiracy theorists wet dream: being right for once.
Growing up my parents had “Ladyhawke” on DVD and I was surprised how few people knew about this movie. This was a passion project of Donner’s following a young thief played by Matthew Broderick who becomes tangled up in the love story between a warrior played by Rutger Houer and his lover played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Sadly, the lovers are cursed to never be together in human form. The woman is a hawk during the day and the man a wolf at night and Broderick’s character helps them break the curse. I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. It’s one of the few fantasy films I’ve truly enjoyed enough to rewatch time and time again. Its settings and medieval flair are just so delightful. Watching it in recent years I’ll admit it hasn’t necessarily aged well and isn’t as engrossing as I remember, but I still look back on it fondly as a classic of my childhood that helped introduce me to what makes fantasy such a special genre in the eyes of many.
7. “Lethal Weapon 2“
The movie that made “diplomatic immunity” a popular term, “Lethal Weapon 2” is as good a sequel as any action film could be. While a very different movie from what the first film’s writer Shane Black had in mind with his unproduced script, “Lethal Weapon 2” was the true evolution point from simple buddy cop movies to a full-fledged franchise bringing back stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh who face off against Joss Arckland’s Arjen Rudd and his drug dealing cohorts. Sporting the same energy and charm as the previous film, even upping the ante to some degree, “Lethal Weapon 2” might not be as influential as its predecessor and might lean heavily on a lot of the basics provided by the first film, but it was just as important in continuing the popularity of the buddy cop genre in the late 80s and early 90s and holds up pretty well even after over 30 years.
Yet another Donner-Gibson team up, “Maverick” is another movie I look back on fondly from my childhood as one of the first Westerns I ever watched. Based on the TV show of the same name from the late 50s and early 60s, this Western comedy follows Gibson as the titular Maverick who cons people out of money to enter high-stakes poker games and is joined by Jodie Foster and Zane Cooper along the way. A hilarious tribute to Westerns, even including numerous cameos from genre staple actors and performers who had previously worked with its stars, “Maverick” never loses its way in all the homages and winks to the audience still providing an entertaining adventure with a certain charm that lives on to this day. Donner was a very versatile director, but with this film he balanced comedy, Western and action tropes and tones incredibly well making it possibly his most diverse movie in terms of personality.
Speaking of films where Donner blended genres well, “Scrooged” is a must-watch around Christmas time for me and practically everyone I know. Starring Bill Murray as TV studio president Frank Cross, this twisted genre blend of horror and comedy served as a modernized take on the “The Christmas Carol” in the late 80s and even today offers a unique look at a narrative so often overdone. Bill Murray definitely drives the film but the rest of the cast, including the ghosts and Bobcat Goldthwait’s scene-stealing violence spree in the finale, serve to compliment Murray’s talent making “Scrooged” feel more like a homage to Charles Dickens original story rather than a straight up retelling. Sure, the basics are still there, but the tone and personality have shifted and what we get is a movie that builds off of its basic premise rather than depending on it. It’s a rare feat and one that makes “Scrooged” one of Donner’s most cherished classics.
4. “Lethal Weapon“
The original “Lethal Weapon” wasn’t the first buddy cop movie, but it played a big role in helping the genre live on as long as it did and is possibly the most iconic and important film in the sub-genre to this day. The first pairing of Mel Gibson and Donner and the introduction to the chemistry of Gibson and Danny Glover that kept the “Lethal Weapon” series afloat for four films, “Lethal Weapon” set a lot of new standards for what buddy cop and action movies could be at the time and almost instantly became a genre classic while its main duo have become equally iconic in the world of action cinema. It even earned a parody movie in “Leaded Weapon 1” in 1993. To say “Lethal Weapon” has quite a legacy would be an understatement and to say it remains a favorite buddy cop film for me and countless others just doesn’t do justice to how beloved this film deservedly is.
3. “The Omen“
It wasn’t Richard Donner’s first movie, but it is arguably the film that made him a household name. “The Omen” is an iconic 1976 horror film that follows the parents of Damien Thorn, the Antichrist, as his family and those around them begins to suffer the side effects of their child’s demonic origins. “The Omen” received mixed reviews upon release but has gone on to be one of the most iconic horror films of its time, and probably in history, for its Oscar-winning score and its psychological scares including the famous glass sheet beheading scene which many consider one of the most memorable in all of horror. It spawned a franchise of course, but none of the sequels have ever really lived up to the legacy established by this spectacular piece of horror history. Donner might be more well known for his action and light-hearted flair, but it’s important to remember his legacy started with one of the scariest movies ever made.
2. “The Goonies“
When I think about my childhood one movie that always comes to mind is Richard Donner’s adventure comedy “The Goonies” which was written by future director Chris Columbus based on a story by none other than Steven Spielberg. This is still a nostalgic classic for countless 80s and 90s kids like me who saw it as the epic adventure we all wished we could embark on ourselves. Featuring a large cast including young soon-to-be household names like Sean Astin, Josh Brolin and Corey Feldman, “The Goonies” sees the titular gang of misfits embark of a treasure hunt to save their town from being sold while being pursued by the evil Fratelli family. Endlessly quotable, sporting an unforgettable cast of characters and injected with a sense of adventure that’s still a blast to experience to this day, “The Goonies” is probably my personal favorite Richard Donner movie, but what keeps in second place on this list is now much I respect the legacy left by Donner’s most iconic film.
It’s not the most inspired choice but “Superman” is responsible for paving the way for what superhero movies have become and seeing how big of a fan I am of such films I have to give it the top spot here. Richard Donner approached “Superman” wanting to bring that sense of fantasy and adventure comic book readers craved to the big screen rather than depending purely on campiness and he succeeded creating the first modern superhero blockbuster and making the world believe a man could fly. It was groundbreaking in so many ways from its visuals to setting a new standard for what superhero and comic book movies could and should be, something Donner further built on when he helped produce the “X-Men” movies over two decades later. There’s not really much else I can say about this movie. Everything good about it I, and countless others, have rattled on about time and time again, list after list. But when looking at the filmography of the man who made it all possible it’s undeniable that “Superman” is not only one of Donner’s best movies, it’s his most influential, important and memorable as well.