Sunday, July 11, 2021

Sunday Best: Top 10 Richard Donner Movies


With the passing of the great Richard Donner, I thought it would be appropriate to look at his film legacy and examine his 10 greatest films.

10. Lethal Weapon

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As I wrote earlier, this movie helped change the genre.  It combined good action with great performances.

9. Lethal Weapon 2

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A sequel that improved on the original.  The best thing about this was the growing relationship between Riggs and Murgtaugh.  They didn't have to start over at square one and they began to play off of each other in a cinematic short-hand.  The best part of the movie was the callback to the first film when Murtaugh rolls his neck before firing his gun.

8. The Omen

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I dislike this movie very much because it makes me tense, scared, and uncomfortable.  But those are the things that Donner wants me to feel.  He wants me to leave the movie disturbed and freaked out.  Mission accomplished.

7. Ladyhawke

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For some reason, I love the juxtaposition of the medieval setting and the modern 1980's score.  The movie is actually a great deal of fun with a neat story.  For some reason, I always love the solution to "A night without a day and a day without a night."  Even though the main villain is a Catholic Bishop, I got the sense that it wasn't an attack on Christianity but on corruption.

6. Maverick

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This movie is too long, but my goodness it is charming and a great deal of fun.  Mel Gibson, James Garner, and Jodie Foster have fantastic chemistry.  I get such a kick out of Graham Greene's performance as the grifter who has play into American Indian stereotypes while conning his mark.  James Coburn and Alfred Molina round out the cast nicely with some other fun cameos.  And Donner makes people sitting around playing cards as exciting as an action scene.

5. Lethal Weapon 3

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For my money, this is the best of the series.  It isn't as raw as the first two, but by this film, the main characters feel like old friends.  Joe Pesci and Rene Russo compliment the actors so well that it enhances the fun of the story.  The movie effortlessly shifts from comedy to action to drama.

4. Scrooged

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There have been a lot of modern retellings of A Christmas Carol.  Donner takes what could be a very fun, surface-level story and adds surprising depth.  Make no mistake, he some of the funniest bits from any of his movies here.  Every Christmas part of me wants to watch The Night the Reindeer Died.  But watch what Donner does with the tone as he shifts into nightmare mode.  Most takes on the story wait until the story reaches the Ghost of Christmas Future.  But while still in the present, Frank finds Herman frozen to death.  The scene is so eerie and surreal.  It feels so out of place, but in the right way to unnerve us and realize Frank's journey is not a safe one.

And I cannot believe how much Donner trusts Murray's performance by giving him so much screen time to pull the movie together with that amazing monologue at the end.  That is a a director who knows how to unleash and actor's potential and have it explode on screen.

3. The Goonies

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This movie is the standard by which I measure kid adventure movies.  The inherent silliness of the premise never takes away from the enjoyment of the film.  The kids believe in the premise so much that it pulls you in.  Re-watching it recently, it is surprisingly dark with the dead body in the freezer and the like, but Donner knows how to tap into that child-like response to such terrors with fear but also exhilaration.  The movie also wonderfully balanced, with every character having a distinct voice and adding something unique to the mix.  And on a personal note, as the asthmatic kid with the more athletic older brother, I loved how this character was the hero of the film.

2. Superman II (The Donner Cut)

Beneath the film title, the torso of Superman wearing a suit and white shirt is shown. The shirt is pulled apart to reveal a large red 'S' symbol

I love the original cut of Superman II, but I was surprised how improved the elusive "Donner Cut" was upon it.  Donner filmed the first two Superman movies back-to-back before the first movie was released.  After the original was released, Donner was unceremoniously fired and Richard Lester was hired to fill out the rest (especially a new ending since Donner was forced to use the ending for the second film for the first movie).

The Donner Cut has all of the iconic moments from the theatrical cut (KNEEEEL before Zod!), but adds some wonderful layers.  The biggest improvement is giving Lois a lot more agency.  Her discovery of Clark's identity shows that she is wonderfully intelligent and cunning.  But best of all, it removes a number of the more broadly comedic elements so that it fits in so much better with the epic and mythic tone of the original.

1. Superman

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(the following is taken from an earlier post)

This is, hands down, the masterpiece of superhero films.  It is THE standard by which all others in the genre are compared.  When Christopher Nolan did Batman Begins and Patty Jenkins did Wonder Woman, they both cited Richard Donner's Superman as their template.


Richard Donner's genius was to not try and have Superman fit the age he was in, but to have the world be drawn to the goodness of Superman.

Donner communicates his intentions with that genius opening shot:  It begins with the theatrical curtains being pulled back and the words "June 1938" appearing.  We then see the pages of a comic book as a child's hand flips through the pages and begins reading.  As he does, the camera is pulled in to a panel and the picture comes to life.

There is a great deal to unpack here.  Using the theatrical curtains and the comic book, Donner is signaling that this movie is to be a theatrical experience but one that is firmly rooted in the experience of the comic book.  The child's voice resonates with innocence and nostalgia.  Many of us were first drawn to comics because of the bright colors and exciting pictures.  Not only did we read them, but they seemed to come alive in our imaginations.  Donner's transition from comic panel to movie image is the perfect representation of how those images would come alive in our child-like minds.

And that is what he does with Superman.  Donner takes all of the wonder and imagination of reading a comic book and infuses that into a cinematic masterpiece.

Another incredibly important thing Donner did was that he decided not to make an action movie.  Yes, Superman does have plenty of grand-spectacle set-pieces.  But the pace and the tone do not conform to the modern sense of an action movie.  Instead, Donner takes his time with beautiful, lingering shots.  Compared to most superhero film today, the movie may seem to move at glacial slowness, but Donner chose to let the emotion of the film gradually sink in.  Instead of an action movie, Donner made the story of an American god-hero...

Part of Donner's genius was in how he contrasts all three worlds: Krypton, Kansas, and Metropolis.  Once we get to the big city, the pace picks up, the shots are tighter, more claustrophobic, and everything is noisier.  After all that set-up, Donner plops our hero into the "real world," where no one knows who he is and the audience feels in on the secret (this is especially true when Clark breaks the fourth wall briefly after he catches the bullet).

This all leads to the most powerful moment in the movie: the death of Lois.  I have watched this sequence over and over again.  It is a powerful visual experience, free of dialogue, dependent on the visuals.  Donner puts the camera in just the right places as you feel suffocated with Lois and helpless with Superman.  Those overhead shots has he hovers over her body make the Man of Steel look so incredibly small and powerless.  He goes to kiss her, but watch her fall away helpless gives him no closure.  The injustice and unfairness of that moment is palpable.  After only doing good things and saving so many, is this to be his reward?  The sadness turned to rage is explosive. 

That is why the ending works.  Many have complained about the "turning back time" ending either from the illogical of the science to the narrative loophole it creates.  But the reason why people accept it is because they cannot accept the pain of Superman's loss.  This ending was originally planned for Superman II, but Donner was forced to move it to the end of the first where it works better.  The reason it works better is because Donner created an emotional debt that the audience was willing to pay with their suspension of disbelief.  Superman made us want to believe.


In the end, Superman is an experience that makes you feel good inside.  It is a film that touches the right chord of harmony between fantastic power and moral virtue.  Superman is the ideal we all strive for: using our strength for goodness.  When we finish the movie a new day dawns as Superman looks right at us and smiles, we feel like everything is going to be okay.  As he flies into the unknown, he does so with hope and encourages us to hold on to that same hope: hope that we can be better and that the world can be better.

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