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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

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Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump."
Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump."

The best of director Robert Zemeckis

"Return to form" is a phrase frequently tossed at the upcoming pilot drama, "Flight." It's not intended for the film's star, Denzel Washington; he's been on his A-game for about two decades now.

Nope, it's for director Robert Zemeckis. In the '80s and '90s, he was one of America's top directors, winning a Best Director Oscar in 1995. But then the new millennium hit, and Zemeckis hitched his creative wagon to the wrong horse, i.e. creepy motion capture movies like "The Polar Express" and "A Christmas Carol."

But why linger on those technological terrors? Let's look back at five films that show why Zemeckis' legacy deserves better than "the producer behind 'Mars Needs Moms.'"

"What Lies Beneath"

While Hollywood struggles today with making decent horror movies, it would be advised to head to Netflix and try out Zemeckis' 2000 domestic thriller "What Lies Beneath." The Harrison Ford-Michelle Pfeiffer film is a classic ghost story; in fact, much of the movie functions as a pretty clever tribute to the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Similar to last year's "Super 8," sometimes the movie gets too in love with being an homage, which cuts back on the story's freshness, and the ending gets a bit goofy. However, it's not very often you see a horror flick as tautly directed as "What Lies Beneath." Just look at the horror options this year.

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit"

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit" can be enjoyed by almost anyone at almost any age. If you're a kid, you can enjoy "Roger Rabbit" for the zany animation-meets-human hijinks. When you grow up, it's fun to watch Zemeckis' film for the clever jokes and the film noir story. And if you're a film nerd, you can enjoy it for its revolutionary ability to get animation to interact so realistically with reality. Zemeckis always had an eye for technological wizardry; it's just too bad he thought the soulless faces of animated motion capture were the way to go.

That isn't to say that "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" is a perfect film; it's admittedly pretty dark and unpleasant at points, and in a post-"Avatar" world, it doesn't look quite as good as it once did. But in a world with four "Shreks," four "Ice Ages," three "Madagascars" and countless other talking animal features, you won't see many kids movies quite like it.

"Cast Away"

If you're going to make a movie that mostly consists of one guy sitting on a beach alone, trying to survive while slowly going insane, you'd better cast an actor audiences are willing to stick around with. Enter Tom Hanks, and enter "Cast Away" onto this list. True, the film's final act seems to go on forever, but it takes a pretty impressive tandem of actor and director to make a guy stuck on a deserted island riveting and touching entertainment for almost two hours (without involving smoke monsters, hatches and countless flashbacks).

"Forrest Gump"

Much like any Oscar winner, there's been a decent amount of backlash toward Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump." A lot of it is probably based on the fact that it beat out both "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Pulp Fiction" for Best Picture. For one, the Oscars are entirely arbitrary; they do not decide what is good or better. They're a glorified conversation starter. And second, we should just be happy "Pulp Fiction" got nominated considering the Academy's legacy of being consistently behind the times.

Anyway, where was I? Yes, "Forrest Gump." No, it's not the most realistic film ever created (how does he conveniently participate in all of these important American events? Screenwriter logic, that's how), but I like to look at the film like a Greek epic, sending a character through the annals of history. In that regard, it's a brilliantly crafted journey featuring some pitch perfect performances, not just from Hanks but Gary Sinise, as well.

"Back to the Future"

Zemeckis' 1985 science fiction classic is pop culture made perfectly. Sometimes, everything comes together just right. The casting (Eric Stoltz was the star for four weeks of shooting before they fatefully switched over to Michael J. Fox), the performances, the special effects, the characters, the direction and the story meld together so flawlessly that the results become indelibly engrained in our collective mind. There's really no science to it, and the magic can't be duplicated.

"Part II" and "Part III" are entertaining enough, but neither can really match the effortless charm and energy of the original. It proves that, every now and then, Hollywood can do its job pretty damn well.

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