Great Girl

Gillian Flynn’s book “Gone Girl” was a rarity in the publishing world – a word-of-mouth bestseller. It parked itself on the fiction bestseller list shortly after it was published and stayed there for almost 2 years. Part of the appeal of the book was a third-act twist that changed everything. With that kind of readership, it was not a question of “if” but rather “when” the book would be made into a film. The biggest question, though, was if the film version of Gone Girl would be a good one.

When David Fincher signed on as the director, the odds it would be excellent rose to almost a sure thing. Fincher cut his teeth on twisty thrillers such as Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club, which had its own remarkable third-act twist. In recent years he expanded his reputation with the true-crime thriller Zodiac, the beautiful Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the Oscar-winner The Social Network. He also did the English-language adaptation of another phenomenal mystery, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If anyone was a perfect fit for Gone Girl, it was Fincher.

Fincher asked Flynn to adapt her novel. Flynn, a former “Entertainment Weekly” writer, had never done a screenplay before, but she distilled the book to the essential scenes and reworking some of them so the 400+ page novel is faithfully transferred to the screen. If you’ve read the book, the movie is like watching the visions of what happened that you saw in your mind recreated on a panoramic screen.

If you haven’t read the book, the bare bones of the plot is this: On his 5th anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is called home by a neighbor who’s noticed Nick’s front door is standing open. Nick finds evidence of a struggle, and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing. Det. Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) finds some curious things, including an envelope marked “Clue One.”  Amy has celebrated their wedding anniversaries by creating scavenger hunts for Nick, but with her disappearance the hunt takes on an ominous air.

Amy is a minor celebrity thanks to a series of children’s books that chronicle the adventures of “Amazing Amy” that were written by her psychologist parents Rand and Marybeth Elliott (David Clennon, Lisa Banes). The search for Amy becomes a media circus, while Boney’s investigation turns up disturbing evidence about Nick. Is he a cold-blooded killer, is he innocent, or is the truth something much more messy and messed up?

Flynn and Fincher keep the novel’s format, contrasting Nick’s experiences after Amy’s disappearance with her diary that records their life before she vanished. It allows the absent Amy to be a major character. Affleck captures Nick perfectly with a restrained and nuanced performance. His career had just about imploded thanks to Gigli and the whole Bennifer tabloid mess, but Affleck has done the almost impossible and completely reinvigorated his career, both behind the camera (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo) and in front of it with the last two movies. If anything, his experience with the tabloids helps his embodiment of Nick.

Fincher is excellent at casting a film, and often will make unusual choices that hit the bull’s eye, such as Rooney Mara in Dragon Tattoo. Originally, Reese Witherspoon had purchased the movie rights, intending to play Amy. Fincher didn’t see her in the role, though, so instead she’s one of the film’s producers. Fincher’s choice was a gutsy one: Rosamund Pike’s first major movie was the final Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, Die Another Day. Since then she’d done a number of supporting roles, including Jane Bennett in the Kiera Knightly Pride and Prejudice. Last year she was the female lead in Tom Cruise’s version of Jack Reacher, a role that was badly underwritten and reduced her to damsel in distress status. Gone Girl shows how fine an actress she is as she delivers a riveting, devastating performance as Amy. I would not be surprised to see her nominated for an Oscar.

The rest of the casting is similarly fine. Kim Dickens, who’s mostly worked on TV series like “Deadwood” and “Saturday Night Lights,” invests Boney with a sharp intelligence as well as an iron backbone. Multi-hyphenate Tyler Perry plays Tanner Bolt, the sharp lawyer Nick finally turns to for help, while Neil Patrick Harris is Desi Collings, a man from Amy’s past who shows up when she disappears. Rounding out the cast is Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous), Missi Pyle (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Casey Wilson (“Happy Endings”) and Sela Ward (The Fugitive). Of particular note is Carrie Coon, who plays Nick’s twin sister Margo – Go for short. She’d only done a couple of one-off TV roles before this year, when she won the role of Nora Durst on HBO’s “The Leftovers.” She was good on that series; in Gone Girl she’s a revelation, providing an emotional heart to the story.

As he did with The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher recruited Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) to do the soundtrack. Reznor creates a tone-poem to support the action that goes into white-noise dissonance at times, a perfect match for the story. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who also did Network and Tattoo as well as Fight Club with Fincher, keeps a moody edge to the film with shadows and diffused light throughout.

The old saw is that a movie is never as good as the book it’s based on. The movie version of Gone Girl is shorter than the book, but it is as good as the source material. That is an accomplishment for all involved.

Watching the Pages Turn

After appearing in prestigious films like The Mission, Excalibur, and Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson has completely reinvented himself as an action hero. That he did it at an age when most actors in that genre are past their prime makes it more of an accomplishment. Starting with Taken in 2008, he took his 6’4” frame and honed it into an imposing physical presence, and then built on it with the Taken sequel as well as Non-Stop, The A-Team, and The Grey. While they’ve been financially successful, no one would confuse them with the artistic power of his earlier work. Now he has a chance to take his action persona in a literary direction with A Walk Among the Tombstones.

The movie is adapted from a book by 4-time Edgar Award winner Lawrence Block, part of a series that follows former NYPD detective Matthew Scudder. There are now about a dozen and a half books in that series. That’s an impressive number, until you know that Block, a Grand Master and former president of the Mystery Writers of America, has written “in excess (oh, wretched excess!) of 100 books” as it says on his website. There was one previous appearance by Scudder on the silver screen, in 1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die. The film had Jeff Bridges playing Scudder and was directed by Hal Ashby (Bound for Glory, Being There) from a script by (pre-Platoon) Oliver Stone and Robert Towne (Chinatown). Even with all that talent, the movie was a failure; it’s been said they forgot about Block’s book and made up the script as they went along.

That doesn’t happen this time. Tombstones was adapted and directed by Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplays for the Elmore Leonard books Get Shorty and Out Of Sight. As a director, Frank made the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt crime-drama The Lookout, working from his original screenplay. Frank stays true to Block’s book, so much so you can almost feel the pages turning as you watch the film.

Scudder (Neeson) left the NYPD in 1991 after he was involved in a shootout while half-drunk. The movie jumps forward to 1999, with Scudder receiving his 8 years clean coin at an AA meeting. Scudder makes his way as an unlicensed investigator – “I do favors for people and they give me gifts,” is the way he explains his work. Albert (Adam David Thompson), a junkie artist who met Scudder at an art show, asks him to help his brother, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), whose wife was kidnapped and then murdered in spite of Kenny paying the ransom. Scudder realizes Kenny is a drug dealer and at first refuses to take the job. Kenny, though, eventually convinces Scudder to look into the case.

Scudder discovers that Kenny’s wife wasn’t the first victim. Two psychotic and sadistic killers have found the perfect people to prey upon – the loved ones of drug dealers. Scudder is helped by T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless teen who basically lives at the public library. As he draws closer to the killers, Scudder doesn’t know they have already set their sights on their next victim, the daughter of a Russian trafficker.

Neeson wears Scudder like an old but beloved coat. After years of listening to his familiar voice, it may be strange to hear the New York accent Neeson uses in the role, but he does it so well you soon accept it. Those familiar with “Downton Abbey” may feel the same way about Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley on the show. He’s very effective in the role of Kenny, presenting a tightly controlled exterior but giving glimpses of the roiling emotions and devastation just below the surface. Rapper Astro embodies T.J. beautifully, with a confidence that belies his limited acting experience. Icelandic actor Olafur Darri Olaffson has a small but memorable role as James Loogan, a worker at a cemetery where an earlier victim was found who might know more about what happened that he told the police.

The cinematography reflects the movie’s feel – dark, with bleached-out color, where the only brightness is in the graffiti forecasting doom with the coming Y2K crash. It’s reminiscent of the gritty New York City police thrillers of the 1970s such as The French Connection and The Seven-Ups.

This isn’t a cozy mystery – if anything it’s past Hard-boiled on the scale of Miss Marple to Silence of the Lambs. But if you enjoy that style of mystery, then you’ll appreciate taking A Walk Among the Tombstones.

A Cerebral Thriller, and a Bittersweet Goodbye

For over fifty years, the works of John le Carre have been the antithesis of James Bond over-the-top spy thrillers. His novels have almost no gunplay and nary a car chase; the thrills are cerebral as you watch damaged people struggle to unlock a puzzle box and reveal the secrets inside. On the silver screen, the first adaptation of a le Carre book, 1965’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, created its own subgenre in competition with Bond – the world-weary spy. Without From the Cold, it’s unlikely there’d have been The Ipcress File, The Quiller Memorandum, or A Deadly Affair (based on another le Carre book).

Le Carre’s books have continued to be adapted over the years, with The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House, and the BBC versions of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People,” both starring Alec Guinness as spymaster George Smiley. With the new millennium, though, le Carre has had a bit of a renaissance on the screen. Along with the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (starring Gary Oldman and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch), you have The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardner, which won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz and was nominated for another three Oscars. The newest addition to these fine movies is A Most Wanted Man. Sadly, it marks the last major film role of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, an experience German spy who, after a debacle in Beirut, has been put in charge of a small counterterrorist unit based in Hamburg. They operate in the gray area where the police can’t go, and their focus is turning terrorist assets and compromising their funding, rather than making the headline-grabbing arrests the police seek. Their current target is Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy benefactor of Islamic charities who preaches peace and understanding, but who might be siphoning off funds for terrorists through a shadowy Cypriot shipping company.

Then Bachmann’s second-in-command, Irna (Nina Hoss), catches the trail of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim wanted by the Russians on terrorist charges. He’s slipped into Germany through the port of Hamburg, which has a history of being a porous entryway to Europe. He’s seeking out a German banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose bank was involved in questionable deposits under Tommy’s father. To help with his status in Germany, friends of Karpov put him in touch with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer working with a sanctuary group. Bachmann’s work is complicated by the police, who just want to arrest Karpov and be done with it, as well as interest from the CIA in the person of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Is Karpov a terrorist meaning to strike in Germany, or a victim of the Russian war in Chechnya, or is there perhaps a third option?

Director Anton Corbijn started with rock documentaries featuring U2, Depeche Mode and Metalica, then made the well-received Control and the George Clooney bomb, The American. He gets his mojo back with A Most Wanted Man, letting the camera become a spy itself, eavesdropping on the characters. Stephen Cornwall (le Carre’s son) is one of the film’s producers, and le Carre himself is an executive producer, ensuring a faithful adaptation of the book.

The casting is excellent, especially with McAdams and Dafoe as innocents (perhaps) caught up in the intrigue. Wright is wonderfully enigmatic, while Hoss provides excellent support as a woman who’s loyal to Bachmann but who also sees many things with greater clarity than her boss. At first Dobrygin appears to be everyone’s nightmare terrorist, but as more of his story is revealed, he wins sympathy while still retaining the edge of danger.

The movie, though, belongs to Hoffman. Bachmann is rumpled and experienced, constantly in need of a shave and a cigarette. Yet within Bachmann is honor and a bit of an idealist who has dedicated his life to serving in a shadow world for the greater good. Hoffman submerges himself in the role, using only the subtle trace of an accent in his voice and a soft, shuffling physicality. The acting world lost a one-of-a-kind talent with Hoffman’s death.

Just as it’s unusual to have a tense thriller without gunfights and adrenalin-pumping car chases, it’s also unusual to have a spy film where you care deeply about the characters. But that’s the key to the le Carre world. His heroes are tarnished every-mans who, while they’re in situations far apart from normal life, are completely relatable to for the audience. It makes for devastatingly effective story telling.

Not Long Ago but Still Far, Far Away

Writer/Director James Gunn has balanced comedy and thrills before, with the comedic horror movie Slither that starred Nathan Fillion, and the superhero takeoff Super, starring Rainn Wilson. Neither of these were hits, though they have their fans. It seemed unusual that Gunn would be entrusted with a new Marvel franchise and a budget of $170 million (more than ten times the budget of Slither). But Marvel knew that for Guardians of the Galaxy to work, the thrills needed to be delivered with several stiff shots of wry humor. And deliver Gunn has.

On the face of it, Guardians of the Galaxy is a risk. It doesn’t have the built-in fan base of the Ironman, Thor, or Captain America series that have been going for decades in the comics. The Guardians first showed up in Marvel Comics in 1969, and then disappeared until 2008 when Dan Abnett and Andy Lansing reformed the team. Rather than superheroes on earth, you have regular guys in the far reaches of space – or at least as regular as a genetically-modified raccoon, a walking tree, and a green female assassin could be. With its off-world settings and space opera story, Guardians of the Galaxy has little in common with the rest of the Marvel universe. If anything it’s closer to the original trilogy of a story from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As a place to live, that’s not a bad neighborhood.

After an unusual preface for a Marvel movie, we meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an earthling who now wanders the galaxy, making his way as a scavenger. Quill also goes by the name Star Lord. On a deserted planet, he finds an orb that he’s been asked to recover by his mentor/partner Yondu (Michael Rooker). However, he’s interrupted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a servant of Ronan who’s also come looking for the orb. Quill manages to escape and decides to sell the orb himself on Xandar, the home planet of the Nova civilization.

Ronan (Lee Pace) plans to destroy the Novans, and wants the orb’s contents to help him obliterate Xandar. He’s assisted by two genetically-mutated adopted daughters of Thanos (Josh Brolin): the blue-skinned, bald Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the green-skinned, black-haired Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s engineered to be an assassin. (If you stayed around for the tags at the end of The Avengers, it was Thanos who showed up at the end of the first tag, flashing a very creepy smile. Another character from a previous tag – the Collector (Benito del Toro) from the end of Thor: The Dark World – has a longer role in Guardians. And do stay for the end of the credits for Guardians, where the tag features another legendary, even infamous, Marvel character.) Ronan dispatches Gamora to recover the orb, unaware she’s decided to betray both him and Thanos.

What distinguishes the Guardians story is how they form themselves into a team. With the Avengers, it makes sense for them to cooperate, even if Tony Stark doesn’t play well with others and one of them is a green rage monster who’s happy to hit friend or foe. With Guardians, they’re actively working against each other at first. When Quill tries to fence the orb, he comes to the attention of bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a walking tree with a limited vocabulary. They strike at the same time as Gamora does, causing mass pandemonium and resulting in them all being thrown in prison by Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly). There Gamora becomes the target of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has a vendetta against Ronan for killing his wife and daughter. Watching them come to understand that they must work together to defeat Ronan and save Xandar is a delight, and is beautifully written by Gunn along with his co-screenwriter, Nicole Perlman. (Perlman was an uncredited script doctor on the original Thor and is now working on a spinoff for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.) An even greater accomplishment is that you grow to care deeply for each of these characters.

Chris Pratt has transformed himself into a heroic physique, but he retains the gift for humor that he’s displayed on “Parks and Recreation” for five years. Zoe Saldana has displayed her action prowess in several movies now, such as Avatar and Columbiana, and she’s perfectly cast as Gamora. In a way she’s the straight person of the group, though you usually don’t that in a kickass character. Former wrestler Dave Bautista has always had the physique, but here he displays a killer simplicity. When Rocket says that metaphors go over his head, Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too good; I would catch it.” Cooper does excellent voice work as Rocket, so much so that you forget it’s Cooper doing the role, while Diesel is able to mine both comedy and emotional depth from three words. For a movie like this to work, you also need believable villains, and both Lee Pace and Karen Gillan provide the right amount of antagonism for the story.

It has to be mentioned that what adds a cockeyed delight to this movie is the musical score. When Quill dances while looking for the orb during the credits, lip-synching “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, you know this is not your ordinary Marvel adventure. A central factor of the plot is his mix-tape of 70’s hits, including songs like “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” by Elvin Bishop. It provides a giddy counterpoint to the action. (How his cassette could survive for a couple of decades without stretching, or where he could find batteries for his Walkman, is not explained. Don’t worry about it; just enjoy the music.)

Although this production was a gamble, it’s one that has paid off and keeps Marvel’s streak of hits going strong. It’s rare for a movie to reclaim the top spot on the box office list in its fourth week of release, but Guardians did just that, and has become the breakout hit of the summer. Needless to say, sequels are already planned. Marvel has added a wise caveat to the whispered line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it well, they will come.” And they’ll keep on coming.

Three Star

By this point in the summer, explosions and car chases are often losing their appeal. It takes a special action movie to go beyond one week atop the box office (such as Guardians of the Galaxy – more on that in my next post). There’s a place for a movie that bucks the big budget trend, and The Hundred Foot Journey fills that slot nicely.

Very Important: if you’ve seen the trailer, you might think you already know what will happen. You may have decided this film is just a clone of Chocolat, especially since they share the same director, Lasse Hallstrom. Hallstrom, though, doesn’t make movies that fit assumptions. He also directed The Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing in Yemen, and had his first international hit 30 years ago with My Life as a Dog. The Hundred Foot Journey is no exception.

The beauty of Hundred Foot is the character interaction. Helen Mirren is excellent – as always – as Madame Mallory, whose restaurant in a small French town possesses one Michelin star. She covets a second star, but she’s use to doing things in the traditional way. Of equal delight is watching actor Om Puri. He’s a pillar of the Indian film community with over 250 credits, though he’s only appeared in a few Western films, such as Charlie Wilson’s War, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Ghandi. Here he plays Papa, the head of the Kadam family, who have come to Europe after a tragedy in their native India. While there’s a comedic element to the character, he also presents Papa with dignity and pride.

The main characters, though, are Hassan (Manish Dayal) and Margeurite (Charlotte Le Bon). Dayal is from North Carolina, and has appeared in TV series such as “The Good Wife,” “Law and Order” (both “S.V.U.” and “Criminal Intent”), and the reboot of “90210.” This is his first starring role in a major picture. Le Bon, who is from Quebec, is more of an ingénue, with a couple of movies to her credit. It’s a joy to watch them on the screen.

The movie’s based on a novel by Richard C, Morais and was adapted by Steven Knight. Knight has an eclectic résumé, having done David Cronenberg’s thriller Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things (which starred Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Amazing Grace, which told the story of slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce. Recently he wrote the well-received Locke, starring Tom Hardy. Knight also created the original English version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” While the adaptation has plenty of humor, it is spiced with pathos and leavened with humanity.

Hallstrom is assisted by Linus Sandgren, whose cinematography infuses the film with the warmth of the southern French countryside. Sandgren’s mostly worked in his native Sweden, but last year he did the photography for the excellent American Hustle. The movie also boasts two major players in Hollywood as producers – Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey – who know a bit about making quality films.

The Hundred Foot Journey chronicles the Kadam family’s long journey to find a new home, as well as Madame Mallory’s journey to understanding others. Sometimes, though we may think there are vast differences between ourselves and others, when we actually make the effort it isn’t such a long trip after all.

 

Plot Twists

It may seem unbelievable these days, but footage of actual tornados was almost non-existent back as late as the 1980s. Then video equipment got smaller and portable so storm chasers could record tornados while they were on the ground. With the digital revolution, now there might be dozens of shots of one storm. Digital technology also changed how twisters appeared in motion pictures. The tornado in The Wizard of Oz was created by filming a thirty-five foot long muslin sock, similar to the wind socks you find at airports. In 1996, computer graphics were used for the second major movie involving tornados, Twister. However, quite a few scenes were still filmed with old-fashion effects, like the truck driving through the rolling house. The two formats didn’t blended well, since there were the dark CGI storms and then bright sunshine in the next shot, like when Bill Pullman and Helen Hunt dodged combines dropping from the sky. Now, 18 years later, comes the next major film dealing with tornados, Into The Storm.

The movie is set up as a “found footage” film, similar to Chronicle or the grandfather of the genre, The Blair Witch Project. Here, though, director Steven Quale gives a nod to our digital society in that there are so many cameras involved that every angle is covered. (He does sneak in a shot or two that couldn’t have been caught by someone’s camera, but the pace of the movie is such you won’t notice until after it’s over.) Most effective are scenes purporting to be surveillance video. With the absence of sound, they look like they’ve been culled from YouTube rather than filmed specifically for the movie.

As with most disaster movies, the main focus is the action, and the plot revolves around it, rather than the action illustrating the plot. Into The Storm features three main threads. The central one deals with Gary Fuller (Richard Armitage), the vice-principal of the Silverton, Oklahoma, high school, and his two sons Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress). Both Donnie and Trey help Gary with AV projects for the school, including the current one of interviews for a 25-year video time capsule. Donnie is infatuated with Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), and when she’s in need of help with a video, Donnie cuts out on the school’s graduation ceremony, leaving Trey to record the event.

Of matching importance is the plot thread involving storm chasing Team Titus, who pursue storms in a tank-like vehicle while a van outfitted with computerized weather gear provides support. After a year with no results, Pete (Matt Walsh), the team leader, finds his funding has just been cut. But he sees a chance to re-establish it when a huge storm front comes into the area. His meteorologist, Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), points him toward Silverton, even though he wants to go to another town. When that other town is hit, Pete explodes at Allison, but he’s interrupted by a thunderstorm with golf-ball size hail. In the van they discover the storm has reestablished itself and is heading directly toward Silverton.

As comic relief – and this film is intense enough that comic relief is a requirement – there is self-styled YouTube stuntman Donk (Kyle Davis) and his i-Phone cameraman Reevis (Jon Reep). When they see Team Titus drive by, they’re inspired in their half-functioning brains to become storm chasers themselves. They paint a sign on the side of their pickup truck, grab their cameras, and head off after Team Titus.

After a brief preface that establishes the found footage premise – and gives a major jolt of adrenalin – Director Quale takes a while to establish the stories. Once the storm hits, though, the pace of the movie shoots into high gear. Quale had served as second unit director for both Titanic and Avatar, before his first chance to direct with the 5th installment of the Final Destination series. This is his sophomore effort, and it’s clear he’s a good student. Twister was a bit pretentious, with its script by Michael Crichton, director Jan de Bont coming off his triumph with Speed, and Steven Spielberg as executive producer. In contrast Into The Storm is a lean 89 minutes (24 minutes shorter than Twister) and was made for half the earlier film’s budget. Yet visually it puts Twister to shame. Granted, neither will be singled out as great examples of film as high art, but Into The Storm is a very effective B-movie.

I would give a word of caution to anyone who has dealt with the aftermath of an actual tornado. This film may be too emotionally impacting, and could bring back horrible memories. It probably won’t do any business in Joplin, MO. On the other hand, it does reflect a new reality in our relationship to the weather. “It seems like once-in-a-century storms are now happening every year,” Allison says early in the film. While it aims for thrills, Into The Storm may also be prescient.

10 Best Robin Williams Films

Sometimes the Mask of Comedy hides the Mask of Tragedy beneath it. The news of Robin Williams’ death by suicide at age 63 came as a shock to his multitude of fans. He was beloved for the laughter he brought with his rapid-fire, stream of consciousness delivery, beginning with the alien Mork on “Mork and Mindy.” He was a Tony away from winning all of the major awards, though three out of four is still quite an accomplishment. (It didn’t win a Tony, but his one-man Broadway Show, which was broadcast live by HBO, won a Grammy as the best comedy album in 2002.) On the big screen, the projects he appeared in didn’t always match his talent. Movies like Bicentenial Man, RV, License to Wed and Old Dogs will be forgotten, but he also amassed credits of which any actor would be proud. Below are my choices of his ten best movies, in chronological order.

The World According to Garp (1982)

Williams’ first foray into the movies, Robert Altman’s 1980 live-action version of Popeye was savaged by critics, but he had better luck the second time around. George Roy Hill (The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) directed this adaptation of the John Irving bestseller. The film is also known as a launching point for the career of another very funny actor, John Lithgow.

Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

It wouldn’t be until this film that Williams’ wild comedy style was set free in a film role. Playing real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams got to shake up the radio air waves during the Vietnam War. All of the radio broadcast material was improvised by Williams. The real Cronauer, who was a life-long Republican, was not pleased by the anti-war message of the film, but fans flocked to see the movie and it was the 4th highest grossing movie that year. The role led to Williams’ first Oscar nomination, and the movie also brought notice to Forest Whitaker, in one of his first major roles. (They’d work together again last year, when Williams played Dwight Eisenhower in Lee Daniel’s The Butler.)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Peter Weir’s film continues to gather fans 25 years after its release. It is one of those movies that, once you’ve seen it, it will stay with you forever, especially the climax. Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher who encourages his students not to conform and to find inspiration in poetry. The movie was blessed with a cast of young actors who went on to success, including Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles. The movie added “Captain, my Captain” and “Carpe diem – sieze the day” to the litany of famous movie quotes. Williams’ second Oscar nomination came for this film, though he lost out to Daniel Day Lewis for My Left Foot.

Awakenings (1990)

In Penny Marshall’s movie, Williams plays it straight as Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a fictionalized version of Psychiatrist Oliver Sacks who wrote the non-fiction book on which the movie is based. He holds his own with Robert De Niro, who portrays one of the patients who awakens from a catatonic state thanks to an experimental drug. One bit of trivia – another of the patients is played by famed jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who passed away before the movie was released.

The Fisher King (1991)

Terry Gillam’s film takes a much different tack on Arthurian mythology than did Gillam’s other directing project, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a former DJ who seeks redemption by helping a homeless man, played by Williams. Williams’ character, Parry, is a former college professor who’s become unhinged after witnessing his wife’s murder in a bar shooting – an act unwittingly inspired by Jack. They play out the Fisher King legend in modern New York City, in a powerful tale of loss and redemption. Williams received his third Oscar nomination for this film, but this was also the year that Silence of the Lambs was released.

Aladdin (1992)

Once again Williams’ incredible improvisational comedic skills are on display, and it takes this animated film to a whole different level. When the Genie appears, the energy of the film goes into hyper-drive. It seems unbelievable that Williams hadn’t done an animated film before Aladdin, since the medium is perfect for illustrating his wild flights of comedy fancy.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Director Chris Columbus’ high concept comedy stars Williams as Daniel Hillard, an actor who has gone through a bitter divorce. In order to stay close to his children, he has his gay makeup artist brother Frank, played by Harvey Fierstein, help him become Mrs. Doubtfire, a Scottish nanny. The movie was the greatest financial success of Williams’ career, breaking the $200 million mark at the box office. (It was number 2 that year, behind the juggernaut Jurassic Park.)

The Birdcage (1996)

This was definitely not playing it straight. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the French film La Cage aux Folles has Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple whose son informs them that he’s marrying the daughter of a conservative US Congressman, portrayed by Gene Hackman. The film was a solid hit – #9 at the box office that year – and launched Broadway actor Lane as a film star. Originally, though, Williams was cast in Lane’s role, with Steve Martin in the role Williams eventually played. A scheduling conflict kept Martin out of the film, and opened the door for Lane.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

The fourth time was the charm for Williams, as he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the South Boston psychologist who’s brought in to help Matt Damon’s damaged genius. The film was written by Damon and Ben Affleck, but Williams was able to insert several ad libs, including the final line of the film, “Son of a bitch, he stole my line.”

Insomnia (2002)

This was Christopher Nolan’s follow-up film to his classic debut, Memento, and it’s the only film Nolan’s directed that he didn’t write. Instead it’s an adaptation of a 1997 Norwegian film that starred Stellan Skarsgard (who worked with Williams in Good Will Hunting). Williams plays a killer who is at first hunted by Al Pacino’s LAPD Detective, who’s been imported to Alaska to help solve a murder. Things get strange when Pacino accidentally kills his partner and covers it up, leading to a truce between the two men. Hillary Swank portrays a local officer who throws a wrench in their plans. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller, where you’re never sure who’s the mouse and who’s the cat.

Robin Williams (1951-2014). “Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”