Sunday, August 18, 2013

Power Rankings: The Films of Robert Redford
Ever since I saw Quiz Show, my first Robert Redford movie, I have been a fan. Every one of the films that he so carefully chooses to direct has a sense of urgency and painstaking attention to detail. He also lets his actors do their thing. His movies are more realistic than most directors, almost in a Norman Jewison type of way (another one of my favorites). He is not a showy director. He has no real recognizable style or look, which makes his consistent greatness even more astonishing. Within the last few weeks, I have finally completed his directorial filmography, so I thought it would be a good time to rank/rate his films. Plus, today is his birthday. Check it out!

9. The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) **1/2
This is the only one of his films that doesn’t completely work. It is lighter than it should have been. It is essentially a Promised Land-type movie, but without the underlying serious tone throughout the movie. The technical aspects are great, as is the inspirational final act, but overall it falls just short. His sophomore slump did not last long, though. He clearly learned from this misstep, seeing how his peak came with his next three films.

8. The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) ***
This is exactly the type of movie that makes Redford as great as he is. Under lesser hands, this would have been a corny and sappy sports movie. With the beauty of his direction and the subtlety of the performances, the film becomes a Field of Dreams-level fantasy films with a great emotional impact. It is a beautiful little movie that got an unfair poor reception when it came out.

7. The Company You Keep (2013) ***
This is a totally solid, richly detailed journalism thriller. There are a few points where the film loses its way, but that is the case in every movie of this kind outside of All the President’s Men. It is smart thriller, as well as a very realistic one. The film may not be the deepest or most significant of Redford’s works, but it is an entertaining and intelligent film with one of the most impressive casts assembled in years.

6. Lions for Lambs (2007) ***
I do not know of a single person who appreciated this movie as much as I do, but I really think this is a brilliant movie. Sure, the film had high expectations, but I never understood why everyone was so disappointed. The overly talky style is all that the film promised, and it delivered some of the deepest conversations I have had the pleasure of experiencing in a movie. Redford clearly saw something in the young Andrew Garfield, making his screen debut with arguably his most memorable performance playing opposite Redford himself. The other two sections are not quite as good, but they have their moments. The film is essentially in real time, which only heightens the urgency. This is tense stuff. It is too bad that no one else saw that.

5. Ordinary People (1980) ***1/2, #5 of 1980
Robert Redford’s critical favorite is one of the more interesting Oscar Best Picture winners. It was Redford’s directorial debut. It is also a domestic family drama, not exactly the most Oscar-friendly material. The way the film has gained its reputation is through its expert storytelling. Every one of the characters is completely fleshed-out and authentic. The movie has a deep and impactful final act. There really are not too many movies out there quite like this. It is a case of a talented actor who was clearly paying close attention to his directors and using the best parts of each of them in his mini-masterpiece debut.

4. The Horse Whisperer (1998) ***1/2
This is certainly Redford’s most surprising movie. It is here where I realized that he may be the best working director at pulling greatness out of younger actors. Scarlett Johansson gives her best work ever in this film. The movie is a big, long, gorgeous western of sorts that has a very strong emotional impact as well as eloquent style. It is his most family-friendly movie, and arguably his most widely appealing. Each time I revisit this movie, I just sit there in awe of the landscapes and in the raw beauty and emotional resonance of a film by a director fully in his element.

3. The Conspirator (2011) ***1/2
I get it: there have been countless films made about Lincoln and his death. However, this has got to be one of the most intriguing takes on the period that I have come across. The film is certainly a political movie, but it is also a To Kill a Mockingbird- type courageous courtroom drama. It has a dynamite cast and a razor sharp script. The artistic and technical aspects of the film are as good as any Redford has done. The film plays like a thriller, but it actually has a very human drama at its core. It is a blistering experience and probably the most haunting film of Redford’s canon.

2. Quiz Show (1994) ****, #5 of 1994
This is undoubtedly the best script that Redford has had the pleasure of working with. The film is one of those films in the category of The Truman Show where it has a plot clearly made for the movies, but underneath it all there is a message about celebrity and the deception of the entertainment fields. The movie flies by in one of the most low-key thrillers in the past couple decades. It is probably Redford’s most impressive direction and best film, but there is one movie that holds a special place in my heart…

1. A River Runs Through It (1992) ****, #2 of 1992, #79 on Top 100
This is Robert Redford’s masterwork. It is one of the most nostalgic movies ever made. It is one of the most beautiful and unique movies made about teenagers. It has a few shots that will be forever engrained in my head. The score is fantastic. The performances are subtle and true. The direction is the most assured and professional that Redford ever accomplished. There is nothing like this movie anywhere. It is inspiring, sensitive, richly detailed, and always deep and cautiously devastating. It is one of the best films of the 90s and the main reason why Redford is one of my favorite directors. 

Thoughts? Comments? Anyone else a big fan of his directions? Is he the best actor-turned-director? Who else is excited for his next film, A Walk in the Woods, written by Michael Arndt? Sounds like a winner to me! Hit me up in the comments.


  1. I think "Ordinary People" is one of those Best Picture which has aged pretty badly. Can think of several 80s movies that tackled similar content more effectively. Obviously "Raging Bull" deserved Best Picture that year, but the Academy was yearning to give Redford the Oscar.

    Like and agree with the list overall, although I still haven't seen "River." Have not seen his two most recent and fell asleep during "Lions for Lambs" (felt like the whole movie was like listening to the long-winded hippie professor he played). I love "The Horse Whisperer" so that would probably be my #1.

    1. I definitely need to watch "Ordinary People" again. I only saw it once and was pretty impressed. It is right there in that "Kramer vs. Kramer" mold. I find it strange to think that they would have been itching to give Redford an Oscar when that was his first directed movie and he has only one career acting nom. Maybe he really was just that popular, but if he couldn't get in for "Butch Cassidy" or "All the President's Men" and such, then I don't know why him directing would be such a guarantee. But then again, I wasn't even alive so...

      You are not alone on "Lions for Lambs". "A River Runs Through It" seems like a slam dunk Zach movie. Definitely check it out sometime.