Every Robert Zemeckis Movie Ranked

Robert Zemeckis is one of the defining popular filmmakers of the close of the 20th century. A commercial juggernaut and, to a lesser extent, a critical one, Zemeckis has won some of the highest honors a filmmaker can receive. He also dawdled away a decade of his peak on fusty motion-capture experiments and has churned out a few stinkers

But Zemeckis is, on the whole, a great and influential filmmaker. The peaks of his filmography account for some truly outstanding, seminal popcorn flicks.

This past month, I caught up with all of the Zemeckis movies I had never seen as part of a “Zemecktrospective” on my podcast.

Here are the episodes where Brian and I talked through Zemeckis’s career, took a deep dive on his second film, Used Cars from 1980 as a case study, and then counted down our five favorite Zemeckis movies:

Also, I highly recommend you check out friend-of-the-site Hunter Allen’s Zemeckis retrospective over at Kinemalogue. He’s a deeper diver than me, and I learned a lot from his reviews.

For the purpose of this ranking, I am only including feature-length films in which Zemeckis has the solo directing credit. I’ve also included my prescribed “Is It Good?” rating for each film.

21. Pinocchio (2022)

Is It Good? Very Not Good (1/8)

There is a tiny kernel of something there with Tom Hanks’ take on Geppetto as an old man who pours his love into his creations after being mentally broken down from a long, sad life. Sadly, this is only that movie for about 10 minutes of its runtime. Everything else is a worse-than-average (and that’s saying something) Disney “live action” remake that fizzles out to a total nothing: the movie ends right after the Monstro escape with Jiminy Cricket pondering “Will he become a real boy? Who knows?” and cut to credits. There’s a punchline that Pinocchio’s name could be “Chris Pine” that made me want to throw a sledgehammer through the screen like I was Steve Jobs hocking Macintosh computers in 1984.

(Full review here)

20. Beowulf (2007)

Is It Good? Not Good (2/8)

It’s kinda cool that Zemeckis was so gung-ho with mo-cap technology innovation that he threw all of his resources and a decade of his peak into making it happen. But alas, it was “fetch” — not gonna happen. I would not begrudge any ranking of the three mo-cap features, but for me, Beowulf is the worst because of its pathetic macho-cool posturing. (Stories about ancient manly-man heroes just rub me the wrong way, I guess — it’s my only hangup with last year’s technically outstanding Northman.) I’d play the crap out of this video game if it was released for Playstation 3, but as a feature film, it’s a slog.

19. The Polar Express (2004)

Is It Good? Not Good (2/8)

There are moments of The Polar Express I really like. Segments of the train ride expertly capture dream logic: A ticket always just out of arms’ reach, the train’s profile growing and shrinking to match every whimsical scenario. The problem, first of all, is that the kind of dream it replicates is one of those really stressful ones where you wake up and find you’ve been grinding your teeth. But it’s also just a boring movie, overlong and narratively void, ugly and reliant on 3D pop-out gimmicks.

(Full review here)

18. The Witches (2020)

Is It Good? Not Very Good (3/8)

I like Anne Hathaway in general, and I really like Anne Hathaway vamping around in wacky outfits with an outrageous accent and trying to murder children. Movie fans sometimes talk about being “scare-oused” by certain unsettling characters, which is not a sensation I have often felt, but I think this qualifies. The Witches has a few great moments, especially the scene where the Witches’ hatch their plan to turn all children into mice, but is burdened by a reliance on shitty animal CGI and some narrative cruft. It looks only slightly better than your average streaming fare.

17. A Christmas Carol (2009)

Is It Good? Nearly Good (4/8)

Pretty easily my personal favorite of the Zemeckis’s mo-cap movies, mostly because I just really like A Christmas Carol, and this is a pretty faithful and dark adaptation. I also think this movie makes the most of motion capture as a means to bring stylized character designs to life: Jim Carrey’s Scrooge is memorably gargoylish. If only Zemeckis hadn’t padded it all with some horseshit roller coaster gimmicks.

(Full review here)
(Podcast episode here – as part of a Christmas Carol survey)

16. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)

The opening fifteen minutes Zemeckis’s first movie are pretty great — they set the expectation of an early-’60s ensemble hangout comedy that uses The Beatles as a lens into shifting cultural mores. Then it turns into a more chaotic comedy splintered across a bunch of threads. It’s occasionally terrific — I love the shot of Pam reckoning with a very phallic bass guitar — and every now and then straight-up bad — like the bit where Grace tries to prostitute herself for $50. But mostly it just hums along in a not-unpleasant comic mode with a few flashes of Zemeckis’s achievements to come.

(Full review here)

15. Used Cars (1980)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)

There’s a very real chance that if I watch this again, it would scramble somewhere else on this list, and I frankly couldn’t tell you where, though likely a bit higher. Used Cars is an anarchic comedy film built on a preposterous notion — crimes committed on behalf of a business are pinned on the owner of that business; but if the owner of that business is secretly dead, the workers can get away with any crime without consequence. I laughed a lot during the R-rated dark comedy opening half of this film, though it has a slightly cheap air about it like one of those bad sex comedies of the era. But then the movie pivots to a weird genre hybrid for its third act — wacky courtroom drama and urban western — and I just couldn’t get my finger on its pulse. How satiric and parodic is any of this supposed to be?  Even when the pieces don’t quite fit together, it’s still pretty fun, with lots of memorable silliness within, plus some remarkable set pieces predicting Zemeckis’s comfort with blockbuster filmmaking.

14. Romancing the Stone (1984)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)

Romancing the Stone is not a “great” movie, but it is also squarely in the “recommended” category, so I guess we’ve hit a new tier on this list. It doesn’t quite realize the promise of its very fun premise: homebody romance author lives out the type of adventure she’d typically write about. The flavor is a horny jungle Indiana Jones, though not quite as fun as that sounds.  There are some remarkable on-location adventure sequences, including a rowdy finale that involves a severed hand.

(Full review here)

13. Flight (2012)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)

Flight opens with a corker — Denzel Washington guides a crashing commercial plane to safety using a ballsy technique that would make Sully blush. It’s the most Zemeckis-esque moment in that it relies heavily on us buying into an outlandish special effect. The rest of the movie traces the fallout of that opening and its troubled pilot. It’s addiction drama 101, but a pretty good specimen of the genre carried by Denzel and some intrigue around the notion of flawed heroics. The coda lights on fire any of the movie’s thoughtful ambivalence, unfortunately.

12. Welcome to Marwen (2018)

Is It Good? Uh… let’s go with Good (5/8)

Here we have the most curious case in Zemeckis’s entire filmography. Welcome to Marwen is baffling and astonishing to me. It is a deeply interesting and fascinating film while face-planting on many of the metrics by which I typically evaluate movies. Marwen is Zemeckis’s bizarro Fabelmans via biopic wherein he reckons with his compulsion to create art. But it’s weirder than that because it quasi-ironically leans into many of the criticisms that have accumulated over his career: Mo-cap is uncanny? Let’s use it to render doll-people. Occasional misogyny? Let’s literally objectify the women. Uneven blend of satire and sentimentality? Let’s dogpile on a heart-of-gold, PTSD-suffering weirdo who can’t form a normal relationship with another human. Unwieldy shoehorning of a moral? Let’s climax the movie by taking down two villains: a gang of homophobic thugs and the personification of drug addiction. It’s so gnarly that I get why a large percentage of the people who saw it — which is not a lot of people; this is one of Zemeckis’s biggest flops — despised it. I can’t even blame them. But I just couldn’t look away, and I love it for being so bananas yet earnest as a character study.

11. Allied (2016)

Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)

Here we have the polar opposite of Welcome to Marwen. If anything it is too safe and down-the-middle. And yet I had a hell of a time with this one: It’s a classic Hollywood-style spy thriller built around terrific star power. The story hook is great: spy lovers in World War 2 begin to suspect the other is reporting to the bad guy. Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt are incredibly charming as the leads and have scorching chemistry. It builds to an effective ending though the middle is content to simmer.

10. Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)

A satisfying conclusion to the Back to the Future saga, but fairly modest in comparison to the first two. It’s delightful fun to see remixes of all the now-familiar Back to the Future dynamics in the old west, complete with a steam engine-based climax. And it sends the series out on a warm and conclusive note. It’s not exactly a bold piece of storytelling, but it will make you smile.

9. What Lies Beneath (2000)

Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)

A riff on about three Hitchcock movies but spiced up with supernatural spooks and just a smidge of erotic thriller, What Lies Beneath is carried by memorable performances from Harrison Ford and, especially, Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s on the slow side and has a couple of dumb twists, but ratchets to such an intense and suspenseful climax you won’t much care when the credits roll that it should have been trimmed by 20 minutes.

8. Forrest Gump (1994)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)***

Notice that I have given Forrest Gump a lower “Is It Good?” ranking than a couple of the films preceding it on the list. Most Zemeckis filmography rankings would place Forrest Gump in the top three without hesitation. I have a lot of cognitive dissonance on this one, because I fully recognize the achievement and significance and populist appeal of this Best Picture-winner, and also know I could be one rewatch away from sliding that rating up a notch or two — or, frankly, down a notch or two. Few movies simultaneously stir and befuddle me more than Forrest Gump: For all the huge and impressive production values, plus the kind of performance from Tom Hanks that reminds us he’s the most reliable American actor of his generation, it’s an overly-long and -manipulative film with some truly troubling cynicism at its core. It’s boomer catnip; Family Guy for people who like Tucker Carlson. It dismisses half a century of counter-culture as rabblerousing and debauchery whose end-product is AIDS. The Vietnam segment is astounding black comedy on the one hand; the ping pong tour is idiotic pandering on the other. Let’s call it a catastropiece.

(Full review here)

7. Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)

Catalog it under “slightly frustrating triumphs” or at least “extremely goofy triumphs”: Back to the Future Part II is an absolute masterclass of futuristic production design and innovative filmmaking that does things like put two Michael J. Foxes in one frame. (It reminds me that Zemeckis is a descendant of Georges Méliès more than many of his peers.) But the time travel rules are Swiss cheese nonsense, and there’s a slight sense of deflation spending so much of the movie revisiting beats of the first from different angles, even if it has a “gee whiz” factor. Still a great adventure.

6. The Walk (2015)

Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)

One curious wrinkle from the stretch of movies of that followed Zemeckis’s mo-cap decade is that many of them contend with self-destructive artists or talents. I believe Zemeckis saw himself in these characters: if Mark Hogancamp from Welcome to Marwen is the self-loathing and incisive reflection, Philippe Petit from The Walk is the heroic and inspiring reflection. Joseph Gordon-Levitt narrates in an exaggerated French accent the story of a man whose spirit called him to always conquer the next, bigger challenge until he was, almost literally, on top of the world. I found Petit’s story (like Marwen, inspired by a documentary) to be genuinely stirring and rousing. The staggering sense of height above the recreated World Trade Center towers is a breathtaking visual achievement. (He gives the towers a touching and tasteful farewell at the end of the film.) I really wish I had seen this in 3D.

5. Death Becomes Her (1992)

Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)

A screwball horror satire with some groundbreaking body mutilation special effects, Death Becomes Her sounds pretty insane on paper. And, sure enough, it’s an unhinged film: The story doesn’t have all that much of a shape because it transforms itself into a new film every few scenes, growing more Expressionistic and surreal across its runtime. I love the sheer inventiveness and unceasing playfulness, not to mention the gut-churning flashes of wacky violence. The tone is a bit too sour; Zemeckis is flippantly cynical of shallow women, yet forgiving of the long-suffering man. I know that’s baked into the satire, but it’s astringent. It’s a minor blemish on an otherwise joyfully baroque film.

4. Contact (1997)

Is It Good? Exceptionally Good (7/8)

Zemeckis’s most serious and cerebral film is Contact, the drama about a SETI scientist who discovers an alien signal. The movie could have worked just fine as a procedural story, but the screenplay, based on a Carl Sagan novel, devotes its runtime to considering the relationship between faith and science. It’s decidedly non-blockbuster material, but Zemeckis makes it feel expansive and also touching. The final act is twisty and gripping with a final scene that ties a perfect bow on the movie’s themes.

3. Cast Away (2000)

Is It Good? Exceptionally Good (7/8)

You can make a case for any of the top three to be in the #1 slot on this list, so if you don’t like my ranking just pretend it’s your preferred order. With Cast Away, Zemeckis once again leans on America’s dad to carry his movie, and Hanks once again delivers. The director and actor pair to make the experience of Chuck Noland visceral and human: e.g., the saga of befriending a volleyball is not silly but heartbreaking. Every step of Noland’s survival is clearly and cleanly communicated so that the audience feels every victory and defeat. The only reason I’ve held off on slapping on the “Masterpiece” label is because I still have mixed feelings about the ending. There’s no proper, fully satisfying way to end this story. I think Zemeckis and writer William Broyles, Jr. do a good job of addressing both the practical and symbolic elements of a return to society, but I always hit the credits feeling just a bit deflated rather than triumphant at Noland’s long journey. It could very well be the point — in fact I’m sure it is — but it still tickles the back of my brain in an uncomfortable way.

2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Is It Good? Exceptionally Good (7/8)

The human-toon coexistence represents the most creatively successful technical innovation of Robert Zemeckis’s career, and in many ways the most sophisticated. And while the surreal interface between animation and live action is endlessly engaging, it’s just a vehicle for the fantastic hardboiled noir riff of the story. Bob Hoskins deserves all the awards for this performance, an unwinking and wounded turn that could have come out of a Howard Hawks movie were his costar not a cartoon. The darkness to his performance supports the movie’s undercurrent of racism and class issues that resonates without patronizing. On the flip side, it’s perhaps the first time Zemeckis got carried away with his gizmos, filling the film with familiar (cross-brand!) faces and always poking the boundaries of toon-human existence almost to the point of distraction. But when the resulting film is this fun and smart, who cares?

(Full review here)

1. Back to the Future (1985)

Is It Good? Masterpiece: Tour De Good (8/8)

It’s the ultimate blockbuster movie, every crevice and curve and moment engineered for maximum entertainment value. The time travel stuff, as a start, is fascinating and well-executed without (too many) logical holes. (Sorry, I can get pedantic when it comes to time travel stories.) Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are iconic as the plucky teenage hero and his mad scientist companion, and the screenplay is a marvel of setup and payoff. It’s also a treat how bracing and almost edgy the movie is: It doesn’t sand down the ookiness of waking up pantsless next to your sexy mom, or the cruelty of bully Biff. Alan Silvestri* contributes a soaring, romantic score, and Steven Spielberg’s immersive adventure fingerprints as producer are here, too. But this is a Zemeckis project above all, a blend of all his instincts: crowd-pleasing storytelling and blue-collar muscle and incredible production design and playful wit. A true masterpiece and a reminder why we love movies in the first place.

* (Somehow I didn’t mention Silvestri, Zemeckis’s longtime composer, until the last hundred words of this article. Nor did I call out recurring cinematographers Dean Cundey — first half of Zemeckis’s career — and Don Burgess — second half. And, finally, shoutout to Arthur Schmidt, Zemeckis’s favored editor. There’s no question that Zemeckis’s auspicious career is buoyed by his many productive and continuing collaborations.)

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3 replies on “Every Robert Zemeckis Movie Ranked”

Solid list! I look forward to catching up with the podcast at work later today. Specifics–

Allied: I ought to give it another chance. Maybe being deeper into 40s films now would make me appreciate it more, though I just remember it being draggy and Pitt giving an unusually wooden performance.

Forrest Gump: I do not like Tucker Carlson. <_<

Marwen: funny that you put it in touch with The Fabelmans, at the time, I was blown down by how much it resembled an even-more-curdled, what-if-Parzival-was-45? version of Ready Player One. (They both even have the Delorean, which is WAY weirder in Marwen.)

Cast Away: we're all still all on our own islands, maaaaan.

Contact: feel like the coda to this is more of "whoa!" than it is, in the fullness of consideration, a good idea. I really ought to read Sagan's book one of these days. (I miss Jodie Foster being in things. Hell, I was talking to my girlfriend last night about how irritating the current crop of "upper-middle-class-at-least bozos sell your class resentment back to you" "satires" made me miss the anti-smug seriousness of Money Monster, and how much I miss Jodie Foster directing things.)

I can’t stand Forrest Gump, so I definitely agree with the flaws you’ve identified, both here and in your review of it. In addition to those, it also strikes me as pretty boring, a 2.5-hour drama without a protagonist who merits that much time. The movie highlights and celebrates a host of attributes – extreme conformity/obedience, mindlessness, general blandness – that I find to be neither endearing in a person nor dramatically interesting. I always remember a description from critic Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who lamented that Forrest was “warmly embraced as the embodiment of absolutely nothing.”

Cast Away still makes me cry every time, though. I know it’s flawed, and I’m not sure how many more times I’d need to sit through his entire stint on the island, but when he’s back at Helen Hunt’s house, it gets me. (I’m always a sucker for doomed relationships.) I hear what you’re saying about the ending though – I’m not sure we need Hanks’s monologue about what spurred him to try to get off the island, and closing on that ‘smile at the crossroads’ image feels a bit forced. Still, this would be a very difficult story to end satisfactorily.

I feel like Nate and Hunter are the devil and angel on my shoulder whispering their sage wisdom about Forrest Gump. (I’m not sure who is which.) This is an exact parallel to why I have such a hard time with this film!

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