The world tragically lost Robin Williams in 2014 and he is sorely missed to this day. Starting as a stand up comic in the 70s, Williams first graced out screens as Mork from sitcom Mork & Mindy. This paved the way for him to appear in a number of Hollywood comedy films, where he soon became a star thanks to his energetic performances and famed improvisational skills. However, Williams also proved himself as a highly talented actor in a number of dramas, helping him to earn an Academy Award in 1998. Here are his 10 greatest films.
10. What Dreams May Come
An often overlooked Robin Williams movie, 1998’s What Dreams May Come is a fantasy-drama based on the novel of the same name. The film sees Chris Nielsen (Williams) marry and have two kids, only for both to die in a car crash. Life becomes difficult and they consider divorce, but then change their mind. On the anniversary of the day they decided not to divorce, Chris himself is killed in a car crash. He lingers on Earth and attempts to communicate with his wife, but moves on after being unable to do so. Guided by the voice of an old friend (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Nielsen learns about the afterlife. However, after his wife commits suicide and ends up in hell, he decides to try and rescue her. Like he does with every role, Williams has a brilliant ability to embrace the soul of his character and deliver a touching performance.
While we were used to seeing Williams take on serious roles, we had never really experienced him taking on dark and creepy characters before. This is what made his appearance in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 mystery/drama Insomnia so striking. He would also play a creepy role the same year in One Hour Photo (which we also highly recommend, although it didn’t make this list). In Insomnia, Al Pacino stars as a sleep deprived LAPD detective who is about to be investigated by Internal Affairs. He is sent to solve the murder of a 17-year-old in a small fishing town in Alaska, where a local crime writer (Williams) becomes the key suspect. Although Williams does not appear until the final third of the film, his chilling portrayal and the mind games he plays with Pacino’s character ensure that this is one of his most striking and surprising performances. Bleak, clever and suspenseful; this is often an underrated Nolan film.
8. The World According to Garp
1982’s The World According to Garp was the first successful film that Williams starred in, playing the titular T.S Garp in an adaptation of the novel of the same name. Garp is the illegitimate son of a feminist mother, Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), who is also a successful feminist themed author. When Garp grows up, he too develops an interest in writing but in topics that his mother has little interest in. Jenny becomes a feminist icon and opens her own center for troubled women, while Garp starts a family and spends a lot of time with his mother and those at the center, including a transsexual ex-football player played by John Lithgow. Although it is not a classically wild and energetic performance from Williams, it is brilliantly acted and helps to make it a highly entertaining film. With this role, audiences got a glimpse of what was to follow.
Awakenings (based on Oliver Sacks’ memoirs) saw Williams co-star along with another of Hollywood’s finest, Robert DeNiro. This 1990 drama tells the story of a neurologist, Malcolm Sayer (Williams) who discovers the benefits of the drug L-Dopa, which he administers to catatonic patients that survived the epidemic of encephalitis lethargica between 1917 and 1928. DeNiro plays one of the patients, Leonard Lowe, who is awakened after decades of catatonia and has to deal with entering a new life. Playing almost the opposite of what audiences had become accustomed to seeing, Sayer is painfully shy but thoroughly enjoys and cares about his work. Through learning from his patients who come to appreciate life, Sayer learns a great deal and overcomes his own difficulties. The subtly of Williams’ performance make it a touching tale and another excellent example of his ability to take on varied roles.
6. The Fisher King
In 1991, Williams was able to combine his comedic talent with his more serious acting skills for one of his most famous performances of all-time. The Fisher King, directed by Terry Gilliam, follows a radio shock jock (Jeff Bridges) whose comments inadvertently cause an unstable caller to commit a mass murder-suicide. In a depressed state years later, he is mistaken for a homeless man and attacked, but is saved by a deluded homeless man, Parry (Williams), on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Parry’s state is revealed to have come from witnessing his wife’s murder at the hands of the radio caller. He is haunted by visions of a red knight and he is obsessed with the legend of the Fisher King. Whilst his oddball character provides entertainment, we also get an insight into his inner demons, his traumatic past and his sweet character.
5. Mrs. Doubtfire
Robin Williams is often best remembered for his wacky comedies, and there were none greater than 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire. A loving father of three, Daniel Hillard (Williams) is devastated when his wife asks for a divorce which results in him losing custody. As a way of seeing his kids, Hillard poses as an elderly Scottish nanny called Mrs. Doubtfire, which he manages with the help of his brother who works as a makeup artist. His ex-wife unknowingly hires him, and soon he, his kids, and his ex-wife all benefit from the situation. Williams’ transformation into Mrs. Doubtfire is nothing short of spectacular, with one highlight involving him having to quickly alternate between himself and his alter ego whilst attending a dinner party and job interview at the same restaurant. This is Williams at his best in a wild and hysterical yet incredibly heart-warming film which was powered by his brilliant performance.
4. Good Morning, Vietnam
Barry Levinson’s 1987 military comedy-drama Good Morning, Vietnam is the film which spring-boarded Williams to stardom after a handful of largely ignored roles in the 80s. The key difference was that Williams was given the green light to do what he does best — talk. Starring as radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, on Armed Forces Radio Service in Saigon during the Vietnam War, Williams largely improvised his fantastic and mile-a-minute speeches which are a ball of energy that drive the film forwards. Whilst the troops love Cronauer’s radio show, many of his superiors are infuriated with his “irreverent tendency.” Very much a vehicle for Williams to showcase his unique comedic talents, this remains one of his greatest performances and it is one of the key films in the military genre. Williams earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and picked up a Golden Globe for the same category.
Perhaps his most iconic role, Robin Williams stole the show as the voice of Genie in the 1992 Disney animated classic Aladdin. This is Williams at his hilarious motor-mouthed best, also benefiting from Genie’s ability to shape shift, which created a fantastic character in one of the greatest animated films. Able to make both kids and adults laugh, Williams improvised heavily and performed several hilarious celebrity impressions, as well as making many pop culture references, which play a huge role in the comedy of the film. However, the comedy is only a part of what makes Genie such a beloved character. He also has a soft and sweet side and wants nothing more than his freedom, making him a sympathetic character as well as a very funny one. The role was written specifically for Williams, who was convinced after seeing the character animated to his own standup routine.
2. Dead Poets Society
The inspirational teacher who changes the lives of a group of young students is a familiar story, but it has never been done better than in 1989s Dead Poets Society. Set in the fictional elite boarding school Welton Academy in 1959, English teacher John Keating (Williams) opens a group of students’ eyes to the beauty of the world around them through teaching poetry. Each student begins to live their lives on their own terms, making it an extremely heart-warming and inspirational story with a powerful message. The acting is excellent from everyone, but Williams steals the show as the optimistic, kind-hearted and passionate teacher who has a profound impact on the boys. The film is fondly remembered for the final “O Captain! My Captain!” scene and the Keating quote “Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
1. Good Will Hunting
Earning his only Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actor), Robin Williams turns in a flawless performance in Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s heart-warming 1997 drama Good Will Hunting. Williams provides support as therapist Sean Maguire, who is the only person able to get through to a troubled unrecognized 20-year-old genius — Will Hunting (Damon). However, this is also a two-way street, as Will helps Sean to move on from the death of his wife. The scenes between the two are mesmerizing as they have some incredibly raw, emotional, heart-felt, and even funny exchanges. There is something inherently human about Williams’ character as a kind-spirited man who also has anger and sadness within him, making it a powerful and emotional watch. This is now furthered following Williams’ tragic death, but it is a magnificent film and performance and fully deserving of the Oscar.