Every Robin Williams performance was a magic trick.
No, the actor never made anything disappear. One could argue that he didn't even disappear into his roles. The magnetic Juilliard-trained thespian was too large for any script or character description to contain. More often than not, it seemed like scripts and characters conformed to his talents. That was one of the many magical things about Williams. It didn't matter how many movies you'd seen him in or how used to his gifts. Every performance he gave felt like seeing him for the very first time. That's an impossible truth. It transcends truth. It's magic.
Robin Williams was one of cinema's finest magicians. He made you believe men could fly, that genies were real, that an actor could dress up as the caricature of a matronly Irish babysitter and fool the world into believing she was real. Every film of his, good or bad, is worth celebrating for its magic alone.
Here are the 20 best Robin Williams movies ranked.
Robin Williams spent his life and career veering in and out of the darkness. He never felt he should play a morally dubious individual. That was his secret weapon. Williams understood the evil that lurked in men's hearts. The breadth of his knowledge was shocking.
One of the first times Williams displayed that intellect was in Roger Donaldson's "Cadillac Man" — a film that you can heave bushels of criticisms toward. The movie is unquestionably dated, and its jarring shift from sleazy comedy to a riff on "Dog Day Afternoon" doesn't work. That said, Williams' work in "Cadillac Man" is unimpeachable. As Joey O'Brian, a car salesman with no scruples, Williams laid the groundwork for all the violent and queasy work he would do at the turn of this century. His regrettable lack of tact and impulse control is not psychosis, but when he matches wits with the cuckolded hostage-taker, Larry (Tim Robbins, fresh off playing "Bull Durham"), the results are strikingly comedic.
There is joy in the darkness Willams plumbs here, and that earns "Cadillac Man" a spot on this list.
What Dreams May Come
"What Dreams May Come" belongs to a small but mighty canon of late '90s visual phantasmagoria, movies that prioritized scenery and sequences over the story. Think "The Cell" and "James and the Giant Peach." All three of these films are easy to nitpick but even easier to love if you give yourself over to them and relish their visuals.
"What Dreams May Come" director Vincent Ward is counting on your doing so. Screenwriter Ronald Bass does little more with the script (based on Richard Matheson's 1978 novel) than set the stage for visual splendor, and the story he comes up with is confusing at best. That said, "What Dreams May Come" is a wonderful Robin Williams movie because the actor is forced to anchor the threadbare plot and its elastic visuals.
From the Genie in "Aladdin" to Sean Maguire in "Good Will Hunting," Williams has frequently served as a guide to strange and life-altering events. His role as the audience's guide to the afterlife fits like a glove. Add in excellent turns from Cuba Gooding Jr. and Max Von Sydow, and "What Dreams May Come" becomes a worthwhile head trip.
Dead Poets Society
If you've never read Kevin Detmarr's searing feature "'Dead Poets Society' is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities," you're urged to do so, and then watch "Dead Poets Society" again.
Detmarr's core argument against the film is that it is virulently anti-intellectual and that Robin Williams' John Keating "actually allows his students almost no opportunity for original thought." If you love "Dead Poets Society," I regret to inform you that I'm "Team Kevin Detmarr is Right" and will be backing him up here. Peter Weir's movie fights for its characters' spiritual lives only to give them one path to achieving it, a single way to Carpe Diem. That's a confusing and somewhat harmful thesis. One could argue it deliberately misunderstands the way the study of letters works.
So why is "Dead Poets Society" so beloved? As a work of purposefully inspirational craft, it has few peers. Every single person involved, from Weir to Williams to breakout stars Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles, is firing on all cylinders. The film wants you to feel the way Keating wants his students to feel as their hearts race while reading Robert Frost. But because it takes a marred series of shortcuts to that feeling, it gets docked a grade or two.
One Hour Photo
Whether they're recognized or not, all artists have periods. Picasso had his Blue Period. Laurence Fishburne had a run of projects where he inexplicably played characters who would move heaven and earth for their wives ("Hannibal," "Contagion," "Have a Little Faith"). Robin Williams had his villain year.
In 2002, Williams appeared in three movies in which he broke bad: Danny DeVito's riotous "Death To Smoochy," Christopher Nolan's piercing "Insomnia," and Mark Romanek's darker than dark "One Hour Photo." Of the three, "One Hour Photo" has aged most poorly. That's no fault of its own. Its premise is passé at best and byzantine at worst. The film tells the story of a dangerous man named Seymour "Sy" Perrish whose professional access as a photo developer allows him to stalk and torment a family he becomes obsessed with. That premise is a relic of the past now. If the story beats and world of "One Hour Photo" are a bit antiquated, Williams' performance isn't by any measure. Williams makes his most recognizable traits the facade Sy hides behind. He's a wolf in a beaming sheep's clothing, and it's utterly terrifying.
If you can look past the factors that date it, "One Hour Photo" is a disturbing rollercoaster ride that delves deep into Williams' many talents.
I need to admit some bias here. "Jumanji" is ostensibly the reason I became an actor. Conversely, that's the reason I write about film and television. Robin Williams made me love entertainment through his dazzling work in this movie. Talking about "Jumanji" critically isn't difficult but being objective about it is impossible.
So let's begin with those criticisms. What holds up about Joe Johnston's effects-happy family film isn't its CGI-heavy set pieces. They have mostly aged quite middlingly. To be clear, Johnston shoots them with his reliable expert's eye (the wasps and monkey beats, which occur back to back, veer from claustrophobically scary to comedically chaotic), but by and large, they are a too uncanny valley to land effectively.
What hits hard is the cast. Kristen Dunst and Bonnie Hunt are reliably brilliant, yet it's difficult to overstate how hard they crush it here. Hunt gets to run the stylistic gamut from romantic lead to action star while Dunst doubles down on the vulnerable streak that made her soar in "Interview With A Vampire." The film also has some shockingly good subtext, positing how childhood games become vehicles for growth. Yet, make no mistake. This is Robin Williams' show, and he all but plays the movie's ringmaster. Every meaningful story beat has to pass through Williams' Alan Parrish, from the playful to the dangerous, and they do with shocking ease.
"Happy Feet" is not a film many would expect to see on this list. Not only is George Miller's animated comedy about a young penguin exiled for tap dancing lovely and funny, but it's also an essential entry in the Gen Z movie canon. It's easy for millennial and Gen X viewers to overlook, but that doesn't mean they should.
What's more, Robin Williams' work in "Happy Feet" matches the high bar he set during the '90s. No voice-over performance by any actor will ever match what Williams achieved as the Genie, but Williams' work as Ramón, Cletus, Lovelace, and the film's narrator is evidence of his kaleidoscopic gifts and a reminder that he was shockingly versatile. Even if Williams' core vibe rarely shifts, the ways it manifests are so disparate that it's almost mind-boggling. That's a gift "Happy Feet" anchors itself in. The rest of the film is quick to match him.
Robin Williams was a trained actor. That's easy to forget given Williams' flair for improvisation and stand-up comedy, but he was a classically trained thespian who studied at Juilliard. Kenneth Branagh didn't forget. He cast Williams in his 1996 adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" — not as Polonius, King Claudius, or even the Gravedigger, but as a minor messenger named Osric.
Was Branagh wasting Williams' gifts? Hardly. In Shakespeare's time, actors were called players. They were part of ensembles commissioned to take on a piece, and they were assigned their roles after. That's how Branagh fashioned his cast for Hamlet. He assembled a murderer's row of talent and figured out where to slot them after the fact. So Williams winds up in a thankless role to which he adds his signature sparkle. It's low-key genius and the key to why "Hamlet" works. There have been many other cinematic Shakespeare adaptations, but few celebrate the creative process that fueled the originals so fervently.
Check it out.
A lesser Christopher Nolan movie is still a Christopher Nolan movie. That means sterling editing, an intricate and overly-complicated story, and big-screen sensibilities. Even the spare and intimate "Following" aspires to be cinematic and larger than its budget reflects.
Even though "Insomnia" was somewhat disappointing on the heels of "Memento" and is hardly as iconic or lasting as "Batman Begins," it still chills and dazzles in equal measure. Here is a grim adult detective story with the size and heft of modern blockbusters. That alone is worth celebrating.
There's more: "Insomnia" also features one of Robin Williams' most dazzling performances. Alan Locke is one of the few characters to lack the actor's trademark whimsy or sad clown pathos. He is ruthless, calculating, and only made merry by violence, which means he's a perfect foil for Detective Dormer (Al Pacino), a cop haunted by his indiscretions. In some ways, Williams walked in "Insomnia" so Heath Ledger could run as the Joker in Nolan's "The Dark Knight." They are excellent examples of casting against type in a major feature. Both roles made room for a charming performer to manifest a strain of pitch-black evil that the mainstream's rarely ready for.
World's Greatest Dad
"World's Greatest Dad" wants to mess you up. The film is a provocateur of the highest order, calibrated to either trigger or anger almost any audience. If you've seen Conner McGregor enter a boxing ring and marveled at his tactlessness, you're prepared for Bobcat Goldthwait's story of a high school English teacher and his miserable son.
That said, "World's Greatest Dad" has aged well despite itself. The film predates "Dear Evan Hansen" by several years yet is ostensibly its antidote, a furious and funny look at how grief and memory can put rose-colored glasses on a person's cruelty. It also doubles as a scathing takedown of cults of personality that spotlights Williams at his fiercest. There is so much truth in Williams' art that it becomes borderline discomforting. Yet, his grounded portrayal of an anguished parent in over his head makes the film's comedic twists all the more surprising and wonderful.
"Madagascar 3" is a Noah Baumbach film.
No, the auteur behind "The Squid and The Whale" and "Marriage Story" didn't direct Dreamworks' animated cash cow. He only co-wrote it. Yet, it bears his artistic trademarks. The film's proclivity for pratfalls recalls both "Looney Tunes" and Jacques Tati, but also "Francis Ha" and "While We're Young." "Madagascar 3" builds a more colorful ensemble than the franchise's previous installments. Most importantly, it's funny — muscularly, acerbically funny like all of Baumbach's work.
"Popeye" is Robert Altman's "Madagascar 3." 40 years after the film's release, it's still hard for audiences to believe he directed it. Still, it adds up on close examination. Like "Nashville," "Popeye" is cartoonish and oddly naturalistic. Its script seems entirely improvised. When it does give into visual fancy, the practical effects are charmingly handspun. When it builds to musical numbers, they're as vibrant as anything on Broadway. Altman brought worlds to life, and in "Popeye," (with the help of Robin Williams' fantastic turn as the eponymous sailor man), he built a three-dimensional one from a two-dimensional comic strip.
Like "Madagascar 3," "Popeye" deserves more credit.
Death To Smoochy
Comedies are suspense films in miniature. The contract they make with their audience hinges on suspense. The movie promises its audience they will laugh, and the audience awaits a punchline or payoff with bated breath. Few films illustrate this better than Danny DeVito's sophomoric and scathing "Death To Smoochy," which savages the children's television industry across a series of impeccable set pieces. In one, the disgraced Rainbow Randy (Robin Williams) attempts to sabotage the career of his replacement, the aforementioned Barney-like Smoochy (Edward Norton). He does so by replacing the entertainer's kid-friendly snacks with cookies shaped like male genitalia. While on air, Smoochy reveals the explicit desserts to the horror of all involved.
How he gets out of this predicament bears as much resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock as it does to Judd Apatow. Did you forget "Death To Smoochy" went that hard? Most people have. DeVito's picture is years ahead of its time, a precursor to films and shows that would be more content to make their audiences chuckle nervously than relieve their stress. It's on the same family tree as the infamous "Atlanta" episode, "Teddy Perkins," or DeVito's late-career hallmark, "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia." It's the seed that let them grow. "Death to Smoochy" deserves your eyes, whether for the first, second, or hundredth time.
"Hook" is not one of Steven Spielberg's better movies. Let's get that much clear. The Peter and Tinkerbell subplot doesn't work. The Lost Boys (who totally rock, there will be no Pockets slander here) have felt dated since the movie's opening. "Hook" endures because it's more emblematic of millennials' childhoods than any other film. It's also the perfect Robin Williams vehicle.
It never got better for Williams than "Hook." There was no world in which it could have. "Hook" is the world's greatest director handing the reigns of Earth's most iconically youthful character to an actor who embodied the spark of youth better than most young people. Williams as Peter Pan was lightning in a bottle. The movie matches him gorgeously. Hoffman's villainous Captain Hook is nearly as revelatory. The film's first hour, which is ostensibly the darkest possible sequel to J.M. Barrie's novel, borders on fiendishly clever.
This ridiculous, excessive, and kind of corny movie about staying young at heart is also a corny, excessive, and resonant film about becoming a dad. "Hook" was made by a father, and it shows. That resonance combined with Willams' grace makes it an all-time winner.
"Laugh to keep from crying." That's an old maxim that Robin Williams all but turned into a singular art form over nearly four decades. The actor's best performances are deeply sad. And while no one would mistake "Mrs. Doubtfire" for a tragedy, nobody can call it a walk in a park. Chris Columbus' film could've been a lesser effort about a divorced dad who wins his children back by becoming their fictional Irish nanny. Instead, the film's comic set pieces counterbalance the pain of separation. Sally Field and Williams verbally duke it out with their children in earshot. Pierce Brosnan's Stu is a genuinely good man who is only a rival to Williams' Daniel because he is handsome and kind to Field's Miranda. If family films are a bridge to more mature concepts, "Mrs. Doubtfire" is that and then some.
Make no mistake, though, "Mrs. Doubtfire" is also hysterical. Yes, the film's gender politics have not aged well, but Williams still owns the role of Euphegenia Doubtfire, harnessing his penchant for truth, extreme dialects, and sincere comic ribaldry into one ridiculous but believable package. When Doubtfire's makeup comes off during the film's climax, it's all too easy to see why Daniel's family (and strangers alike) buy into his ruse. Mrs. Doubtfire wants them to smile.
"Mrs. Doubtfire" is a mirror for the sadness and potential heartbreak love always risks. It's easier to laugh than cry.
The World According To Garp
"The World According To Garp" has been lost to time. Even though George Roy Hill's layered dramedy is streaming on Prime Video, it barely registers as an essential part of Williams' career, in part because 1982, the year it was released, was an incredible year for film. "Blade Runner," "E.T.," "The Thing," "Poltergeist," "Gandhi," and "Tootsie" all came out within months of "Garp." Any film would be easy to forget in that company.
"The World According to Garp" shouldn't be forgotten. Not only does Hill's film give us Williams is near Frank Capra-mode, but it also speaks to our modern age in eerie and surreal tones. The film contains wild feminist parables, a fairly sensitive transgender subplot, and a stark look at how and why the world will evolve beyond white male protagonists. Does all of this sound very current? It is. It's also an opportunity for Williams to sink his teeth into the kind of material he would dominate later in life — seriocomic and disarmingly genuine. Watching Garp unravel is a masterclass in acting, so it's worth remembering 'The World According To Garp" exists the next time you want to check out some of Williams' best work.
The Fisher King
Like Robin Williams, Terry Gilliam was (and remains) fascinated by magic. Equal parts visual splendor and quirky construction, the worlds of Gilliam's films are as consistently fantastical as any director's. When you think that "The Fisher King" was sold to audiences as "the guy who played Mork and the guy who made 'Brazil' approach naturalism," it's a wonder it connected with audiences at all.
But "The Fisher King" connects and hits hard. A parable about human redemption with a heart as wide as the Atlantic, Gilliam's lowest-key movie stars Jeff Bridges as Jack Lucas, a shock jock whose penchant for nihilistic advice sends a listener on a murder spree. Years later, he's washed up and meets a homeless man (Williams) who believes he's an Arthurian knight. How the two connect (and how they're connected even before they meet) is too rich to spoil here.
"The Fisher King" blends horror and wonder in ways few films can manage. It has terrifying knights and whimsical waltzes in Grand Central Terminal. There's transforming devastation and even more transforming redemption. Gilliam trained his eye on the erratic, unreal pulse of human existence in "The Fisher King" and brought out the best in Bridges, Williams, and the audience, proving the real world is magic too.
Everyone involved with "Awakenings" is trying to do something different. Dr. Malcom Sayer, played by Robin Williams, is trying to find new means to treat catatonic patients. The ones he miraculously wakes up, Robert De Niro among them, are attempting to adjust to a modern world they don't recognize. De Niro, Williams, and director Penny Marshall (who, at the time, was known for the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the iconic comedy "Big") were all attempting to redefine their careers. On multiple levels, everyone's efforts are rewarded, however briefly.
Why briefly? Because one of "Awakenings" chief messages is to live with as much care as you can in the time that you have. Jazz musician Dexter Gordon, who appears memorably in the film, died shortly after its release. Marshall and Williams have also both left us, as has Max Von Sydow. The patients that Sayer treats eventually revert to their catatonic states despite the best efforts of all involved. All of this makes "Awakenings" sound like one of the dourest trips in cinematic history, but it's infused with so much life and yearning that it's impossible to resist. As a vehicle for the power and pain of growth, it has few equals. It transformed the careers of almost all involved (including Julie Kavnar, Bradley Whitford, an uncredited Vin Diesel) just as the film's patients transform those around them into more caring humans. That's the mark of essential art.
Everyone is at the top of their game in "The Birdcage." The city of Miami isn't sentient, but I could build a compelling argument that even it is at the top of its game in Mike Nichols' classic comedy. But even this ludicrous take makes an astonishing amount of sense when you remember that "The Birdcage" is a farce and that farce, by definition, uses outlandishly comedic horseplay as a means to reveal the truth. For it to soar, there can't be a single element out of sync.
From the moment "The Birdcage" opens with a shot that soars into an outlandish Miami club where throngs of drag queens sing Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," it's clear that Nichols' movie has wings. Even by today's standards, it is radically proud and out, lampooning the '90s conservative culture war with aplomb. Gene Hackman's Senator Keeley is the butt of many a punchline, and he shares DNA with the extreme-right-leaning Pat Buchanan, to put it mildly.
Jokes give way to gorgeous character beats. If the whole thing sounds like an endless technicolor celebration of queer existence, that's because it is. In Nathan Lane, "The Birdcage" gave Williams his greatest on-screen foil, an actor whose impish and tectonic-plate shifting energy could go beat for beat with his own.
Good Will Hunting
"Good Will Hunting" is best remembered for making Matt Damon and Ben Affleck household names. But if there was justice in the world, it would be as remembered for Robin Williams' Academy Award-winning performance as Sean Maguire and his story about his dead wife's farts. Some context if you haven't seen "Good Will Hunting:" Shortly after Will (Matt Damon) begins trusting his therapist, Sean (Williams), he admits he's dating a girl. He also admits that scares him. And when Sean intuits that Will is afraid of being seen as imperfect, he discusses his deceased wife's flatulence. "[She] used to fart when she was nervous," he laughs, "that's the [stuff] that I remember. Little things like that. But those are the things I miss the most."
It's a stunningly touching moment that simultaneously gets at the heart of what loving someone means and why Robin Williams was a brilliant talent. Williams was a craftsman. Of this, there is no question. Yet, to watch him was to engage with his chaotic imperfection, to happily make oneself subject to a titanic rush of energy and impulse. Williams often went off script, and when he stuck to it, it almost seemed like he was flubbing lines or making them up. You would never call him sleek. That was half his charm. It's the movie's charm, too. "Good Will Hunting" is a collection of imperfections artistically rendered with shaggy ease and brilliance.
It's hard to qualify why "Aladdin" belongs on any list. "Aladdin" is such a pop culture institution, such an all-time Walt Disney animation banger, such a revelation for children who grew up in the 1990s, that lists practically come pre-stamped with it. Let's try to find a new angle.
There are many purposes to art, among them are signifying community allegiance and gaining an understanding of the world around you or your deeper self through it. Though I cannot scientifically prove it, I would wager there's an entire generation that is as likely to remember the opening bars of "A Whole New World" or lines that Robin Williams maniacally improvised as they are their keys each morning. That's a bond that can bring the most disparate of people into one shared space. "Aladdin" reminds us that we are all diamonds in the roughs we create for ourselves, and growing up means understanding that shining like a diamond is a choice, not a given.
For this alone, though, it's all about Williams. In "Aladdin," Robin Williams gives a performance that goes on the Mount Rushmore of voice-over work alongside Mel Blanc's Bugs Bunny and Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse. "Aladdin" and Williams shaped lives forever. That's worthy of any list.
Good Morning, Vietnam
The title of this article, "The 20 Best Robin Williams Movies, Ranked," can be broadly interpreted in two ways: One could argue it's about the best movies that Robin Williams appears in, or it ranks the movies in which Robin Williams gave the best performances. "Good Morning Vietnam" succeeds as a great film with an excellent turn from Williams, so it's No. 1 on our list.
"Good Morning, Vietnam" doesn't even begin to work or make sense without Williams. Imagining any other actor in the role of DJ Adrian Cronauer is a fool's errand. Williams gives a live-action voice-over performance while doing nuanced physical work — that's a Herculean labor, and he makes it look as easy as breathing. Because of Williams, the film's pointed messages about the Vietnam War and who controls information soar. Even more impressively, Barry Levinson's film doesn't give in to the white savior narrative that a lesser movie might have. "Good Morning, Vietnam" realizes the conflict in Vietnam is too loaded, too traumatic, too awful for any one person to solve.
Grace notes like these make "Good Morning, Vietnam" great, but it's Robin Williams who makes it essential. You could rank any of our last five or so entries as the best movie Robin Williams appeared in, but this is the one no one else could have made. It's the crown jewel of his acting career.
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