Everyone loves Bill Murray. It’s nearly impossible not to: he’s an everyman, a goofball, a star who has built his deadpan comedic legend on his own terms. Despite the classic titles in his canon, he famously doesn’t have an agent or manager, and has missed out on some great roles over the years by missing offers left on his answering machine. A true renegade, the Chicago native’s 40-year career has been a storied journey, from blockbuster comedy star to has-been to indie darling to living legend.
There is a lot to cover here, so let’s begin at the top, with THE top ten Bill Murray movies. The movies are ranked not just by quality, but how quintessentially Bill Murray they are.*
*Advance warning to Royal Tenenbaums fanatics.
The 10 Essential Bill Murray Movies
10. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
At the crest of Bill’s indie revival came this starring role in Wes Anderson’s fourth film. While it may have shown some of the first early signs of Anderson’s descent into design-obsessed self-parody, The Life Aquatic was nonetheless a triumph of aesthetic, absurd comedy and Murray’s bigger-than-cinema personality that made it come alive.
9. Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)
Bill Murray portraying friend Hunter S. Thompson. Need we say more?
8. Meatballs (1979)
The definitive screwball summer comedy, Meatballs laid the ground work for many, many imitators to follow. It was a transitional period for Murray, from SNL star to movie icon, and this film helped solidify his reputation as America’s favourite goofball.
7. Scrooged (1988)
Christmas movies aren’t easy, but there was a great string of classics in the late 80’s/early 90’s (just before comedy entered fully into the Age of Irony) and Scrooged holds its own with Christmas Vacation and Home Alone, mostly because it rests on Murray’s shoulders. How does he make sarcasm and cruelty so charming?
6. Caddyshack (1980)
A true star-making turn, and one that has been imitated for decades. Like the greatest of clowns, playing dumb this well is a mark of brilliance. Caddyshack was a smash in its time, and deserves its place in the canon of great American comedy.
5. Rushmore (1998)
Rushmore was a definitive film for both Bill Murray and Wes Anderson. While it was Anderson’s first real triumph, it was also Murray’s first step towards becoming the post-modern icon he is today. It steered his career in a whole new direction – remember, this was only a year after The Man Who Knew Too Little – and boasts one of the better performances of the actor’s career. If the whole movie can be whittled down to one scene that is truly testament to the brilliance of both Murray and Anderson, it’s the silent poolside monologue, in which Murray’s Herman Blume throws golf balls into the family pool during a party, before taking a plunge that we’re not sure he’s going to wake up from. It is genius.
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
A hit in its time and a classic of well-polished 90’s comedy, Groundhog Day may see Murray playing as close to “type” as any other movie, making the arch from bitterly sardonic to ultimately loveable his own. The fantasy-driven plot needed a real personality to anchor it (which is why similar Harold Ramis flicks Bedazzled and Multiplicity never quite worked) and they don’t get any realer than Phil Connors punching out insurance salesmen on the street, or ordering flapjacks from a police officer, or seducing his co-worker with French poetry and snowballs.
3. What About Bob? (1991)
Perhaps Murray’s straight-up funniest movie, What About Bob? is an example of a comedy that knows how to execute a simple premise to the extreme, until each scene becomes an absurd exercise in one-upping the last. Murray plays Bob, a psychological mess who follows his new, egomaniacal shrink to his vacation home, where by sheer dumb charm he ingratiates himself completely into the psychiatrist’s family life. The Good Morning America scene is priceless, awkward genius, and the movie itself – while a success and late-night TV staple – still remains underrated to this day.
2. Lost in Translation (2003)
In the last decade and a half of Murray’s career, as he has become a sought-after muse for capital-F filmmakers ranging from Jim Jarmusch to George Clooney, the actor has played burnt out and jaded several times. Lost in Translation, however, is Murray’s purest post-modern performance and the best film of his late-career renaissance. Playing a movie star who finds inspiration and sort-of-romance with Scarlett Johansen’s bored artist’s wife in Tokyo, Murray provides a depth and insight into stardom, aging and masculinity that has rarely been seen on film before. And he’s funny, as always, in an effortless, almost reluctant way.
1. Ghostbusters (1984)
This is it, the Big One, the Kingmaker. Tent poles like this exist in few artists’ careers, and Bill Murray has only grown from the legacy left behind by this movie, rather than been defined by it. Make no mistake, Ghostbusters was a phenomenon, the second-highest grossing film of 1984 (and #29 on the all-time list, adjusted for inflation), spawning cartoons, clothing, smash soundtracks and action figures. And yet the supernatural comedy feels like it conquered on its own terms, taking the renegade spirit that Murray and Dan Aykroyd pioneered on Saturday Night Live to the masses with giddy charm and originality. Or to quote Peter Venkman “We came, we saw, we kicked it’s ass!”
Despite the strong ensemble, this is Bill Murray’s movie and always will be, and the things that make it so great are the things we celebrate about the man: the snarky wit, the New York attitude, the big heart, the left-field approach and the sheer love of great comedy.
Let’s take a look at the analytics, shall we?
He’s played so many roles that they almost cease to be individual characters, but notes from larger movements that have helped shape pop culture over several decades:
The Favourite Goofball
At his heart, Bill Murray is a true comedic clown, someone who knows that someone can’t make you laugh if they take themselves too seriously. When the actor first broke from late night sketch comedy to mainstream movies, he did so as an ambassador of slack-off 70’s youth, and often played the brat, the idiot, or the wiseass. From Caddyshack to Zombieland, he’s continued to surprise by how deftly he plays dumb, how sharp is tongue can be and how naturally he takes to self-satire.
The Box Office King
For a time, Bill Murray was one of the most bankable names in comedy, which seems like a Hollywood coup for a guy who doesn’t particularly like the system itself. But Murray’s movies have earned hundreds of millions of dollars, and as such he’s been tapped for some extremely mainstream work, from Charlie’s Angels to Garfield, on top of the franchises he himself has helped spawn.
The Dark Days
It’s hard to remember now, but Murray had a post-Groundhog Day dark patch that easily could have veered permanently into Aykroyd or Chase territory. Larger than life, Space Jam, The Man Who Knew Too Little; before bouncing back with critical success towards the end of 90’s, we could have been writing eulogies for the actor’s career at this point instead of celebrating it as we do.
The Serious Actor
Of the past several years, Murray has been given the opportunity to showcase some real acting chops, with acclaimed, serious(ish) performances in films ranging from Lost in Translation to Hyde Park on Hudson to Tim Robbins’s brilliant Cradle Will Rock, which remains a personal favourite to this day.
The Indie Darling
When Wes Anderson tapped Murray for Rushmore, I’m sure he didn’t realize that it would signal such a pivotal shift in the actor’s career. Indeed, he has been muse to many a great filmmaker who have introduced the aging legend to a whole new generation of cynical moviegoers. As such, he never lost his cool and has always, always been in on the joke.
The Scene Stealer
It’s important to remember that even when he isn’t carrying the movie, Bill Murray can swoop in and make the moment his own. He has legendary cameos and supporting roles in Wild Things, Ed Wood, Coffee & Cigarettes, Zombieland and of course Kingpin, which boasts some of the funniest work of his career.
Now that his icon has crossed into post-modernity and survived the digital era, Bill Murray is seriously celebrated on the internet (including, yes, this thing you’re reading right now.) Besides inspiring countless memes, his “real life” has now become the stuff of legend thanks to blogs and zines worldwide:
The Icon and the Muse
And finally, what Master List would this be without a celebration of the fine art that Bill Murray has inspired? Perhaps as much as any other late-20th century icon, Murray has inspired visual homage that has only further solidified his status in history as not just another movie star, but someone who touches people in a way that is transformative. He’s the man, and always will be. Enjoy.