By the late 1970s, dozens of new directorial talents rose to prominence in the film industry, giving rise to such distinguished filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. Crafting the same light-hearted genre films as Steven Spielberg, Zemeckis skyrocketed to the forefront of the film industry by the mid-1980s, his movies dominating the box office and achieving long-standing critical popularity throughout the past several decades. In some cases, Zemeckis’s most well-known films – like Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit – have even achieved coveted iconic status in the years since their release.
From his time-bending work on beloved sci-fi comedy trilogies to his noirish mysteries set against the Golden Age of Animation, check out some of the best Robert Zemeckis movies, ranked from best to worst.
Back to the Future (1985)
It’s challenging to think of a movie more iconic in Zemeckis’s filmography than Back to the Future. One of the most famous movies ever made, it’s Zemeckis’s lasting contribution to the world of film, filled with side-splitting comedy, whimsical characters, and even a heartfelt message about seizing life by the moment. The movie that catapulted Zemeckis to stardom remains as critically favored now as it had been upon its original release in 1985. Of all the best Robert Zemeckis movies, this one stands out.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Next to Back to the Future, audiences know Zemeckis for crafting the immaculate comedy-drama Forrest Gump. Containing what might very well be the single greatest performance of Tom Hanks’ career, Forrest Gump takes viewers on an original and evocative journey through the second half of the 20th century, from the chaos of the Vietnam War to the counterculture movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. More than that, it also reaffirms the infinite possibilities associated with existence in general, encouraging audiences to live their life to the absolute fullest.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
From a technical (and perhaps even narrative) standpoint, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is doubtless Zemeckis’ most impressive work to date. Merging traditional 2D animation with live-action film, Zemeckis pioneered a whole new genre of animation that laid the groundwork for countless movies. As awe-inspiring as its blend of animation and live-action footage is, Who Framed Roger Rabbit also deserves praise for its meticulous references to the Golden Age of Animation, unfolding like a hard-boiled cross between a noir film and a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Zemeckis’s strongest outing in years, Flight, is propelled forward by Denzel Washington’s powerhouse performance in the main role. As the substance-abusing airline pilot Whip Whitaker, Washington creates a haunting three-dimensional portrait of an alcoholic well aware of his flaws – yet completely unwilling to change his ways. With similar sublime performances from Don Cheadle, John Goodman, and Bruce Greenwood, it’s a masterful drama that ranks among Zemeckis’s very finest work.
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Setting up a potential sequel in the closing moments of Back to the Future, Zemeckis returned to the franchise that made him famous with 1989’s Back to the Future Part II. Defying expectations when it comes to subpar additions to a beloved series, Zemeckis cranked out a sequel that lived up to the heights of the original Back to the Future. With a more high-stakes storyline involving branching timelines, the crisscrossing chronological events of Back to the Future Part II allowed for a faster-paced adventure film with a darker edge.
Romancing the Stone (1984)
While many of Zemeckis’ earliest films bear a startling resemblance to the work of Steven Spielberg, this characteristic is most glaringly apparent with 1984’s Romancing the Stone. Drawing inspiration from Raiders of the Lost Ark, one can describe Romancing the Stone as a dexterous spoof of kitschy grocery-store romance novels (the kind with burly-chested hunks and scantily-clad women on the front cover). Like most of Zemeckis’s films, the movie alternates between each of its distinct genres with ease, blurring the lines between a screwball comedy and an Indiana Jones-esque adventure serial.
Cast Away (2000)
Another luminous collaboration between Zemeckis and Tom Hanks, Cast Away’s minimalist nature may not appease a universal audience. Still, a realistic depiction of survival rewards more patient viewers willing to sit through Cast Away’s substantial runtime (just under two and a half hours). Enduring life on an isolated tropical island for four years, Hanks’ lone survivor battles the elements, starvation, dehydration, and – perhaps most threatening of all – tedious boredom. Like a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, Hanks holds viewers’ attention for most of the film, giving Cast Away its life and personality.
Used Cars (1980)
Following up his debut effort on I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Zemeckis’s next project saw him partner with his recurring writing partner Bob Gale for the 1980 dark comedy Used Cars. A hilarious satirical piece lampooning used car salesmen and dishonest business tactics, its one of the most underrated movies among the best Robert Zemeckis movies. Backed by a razor-sharp screenplay and some stellar performances from its main cast (especially lead star Kurt Russell), there's little wonder as to how Used Cars has achieved such a significant cult in the years since its release.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
Zemeckis’s directorial debut came with 1978’s refreshing historical comedy, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. True to the titles’ name, I Wanna Hold Your Hand details the rabid fan obsession that made up Beatlemania following several teenagers’ attempts to attend the Beatles’ first musical appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. A hilarious and loosely formatted teen comedy, it’s a stylistic successor to George Lucas’s earlier work on American Graffiti, predating Richard Linklater’s ensemble love letter to the 1970s with 1993’s Dazed and Confused.
Like his tonal contemporary Steven Spielberg, Zemeckis has always expressed an interest in genre-based work, whether in the form of humorous adventure movies like Romancing the Stone or more cerebral sci-fi films like Contact. An ideal companion piece to thought-provoking sci-fi epics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact handles its subject matter and main themes with expert intelligence, pondering about the potential for life beyond the stars.
The Walk (2015)
Zemeckis’s definitive foray into the biographical genre, The Walk follows the hair-raising life of French high-wire artist, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – a man who made history by walking a tightrope between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. Dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their life on 9/11, Zemeckis’s treatment of his historical subject is as harrowing as Petit’s actual tightrope walk. Framed from Petit’s point of view, Zemeckis dangles viewers 1,300 feet over the streets of New York, creating one of the most suspenseful sequences in all of Zemeckis’s filmography.
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
The weakest of the Back to the Future films, Back to the Future Part III falls into the same pitfall that most series struggle with – delivering a decent third outing that achieves the same critical success as its predecessors. Though not quite as good as the original two Back to the Future movies, Part III nevertheless concludes the story of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) on a blessed high note. With its Western setting and more poignant thematic undertones, it harkens back to the original Back to the Future’s idea of creating your own ideal future. (Or, to put it in Doc’s far more eloquent terms, “Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.”)
The Polar Express (2004)
Starting with 2004’s The Polar Express, Zemeckis began to express a deep interest in C.G. animation, returning to more realistic motion-capture designs with later movies like Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, and Welcome to Marwen. As visually impressive as these later movies are, one can find the best of Zemeckis’s computer-animated movie with The Polar Express. A vivid and philosophical look at growing up and the general power of belief, it’s an intricate Christmas film filled with the charm and imagination of a Rankin/Bass holiday special.
A stylish homage to Hitchcock’s Notorious, Allied pairs Brad Pitt with Marion Cotillard as two Allied spies posing as a married couple in WW2-era Casablanca. As they work on sabotaging the German Army’s operations in the city, the artificial couple soon develops genuine romantic feelings for each other, jeopardizing the underlying importance of their mission. While some of its story elements might disappoint, Zemeckis’s direction, the performances of Pitt and Cotillard, and the atmospheric recreations of ‘40s Casablanca in Allied will sustain viewers.
After using motion-capture animation for his 2004 holiday film The Polar Express, Zemeckis relied on the same animation technique with his 2007 effort, Beowulf. A loose adaptation of the Old English poem of the same name, Beowulf’s significant deviations from its source material might aggravate some viewers. However, Zemeckis’s grounded interpretation of its ancient story allows for a far grittier fantasy movie than audiences had ever seen before – aligning itself more to 300 than the light-hearted epics of The Lord of the Rings.