Friday, June 14th marks the release date of Bill Murray’s newest film, The Dead Don’t Die, a deadpan zombie comedy directed by indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. That got me thinking about my favorite Bill Murray films and thus brings us to this list. As you’ll see I’m a bigger fan of the later Murray films, not so much his output in the 1980s. Without further discussion, here are my favorite Murray movies.
Groundhog Day (1990, dir. Harold Ramis)
This is no sleeper, its a film with a broad audience and deep love for it. Murray plays sarcastic asshole weatherman Phil Connors who is sent, against his protestations, to cover the Groundhog Day festival in, Pennsylvania. He discovers he’s trapped in a time loop without any sense of how to escape and he goes through a myriad of emotions on his way to learning how to deal with the sticky situation. This type of character was Murray’s bread and butter in the 1980s, and he just came off of playing a version of this in Scrooged. What makes Groundhog Day such a magical film is the way Murray plays off his stellar supporting cast. You have Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brian Doyle-Murray, Rick Overton, Rick Ducommun, David Pasquesi, Michael Shannon, to name a few. It’s a great collection of improv actors who take the script and add personality to the whole affair.
What About Bob? (1991, dir. Frank Oz)
I think audiences have been sleeping on the soft trilogy of the late 80s/early 90s films Frank Oz made: Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and What About Bob? These are three near-perfect comedies that are endlessly rewatchable. What About Bob? is all about the performances of Murray and Richard Dreyfuss and how they bounce off of each other. Each man is playing to their type (the loveable goofball and the grumpy curmudgeon) and then amp that up to a thousandfold. Oz isn’t afraid to go dark with comedy, but the picture never gets mired in the same tonal inconsistency that so many dark comedy films get mired in. Murray can take a simple premise of a quirky, off-kilter decent guy and make him simultaneously charming and obnoxious. You feel Dreyfuss’ pain as Bob’s psych Leo Marvin, but you also wouldn’t mind hanging out with Bob at your lake house. Any attempt to remake this film would be impossible because the two key roles are so much a product of those specific actors. Also, Julie Hagerty plays Leo’s wife and is pitch perfect.
Rushmore (1998, dir. Wes Anderson)
I first read about this movie in a copy of Time Magazine while I was working at my public library while in high school. I wouldn’t see until two years later when I was a freshman in college, and it took a few viewings for my mind to open to the unique worlds of Wes Anderson. This Murray performance is not a contrast to his earlier work, as some critics will imply, but I can see the dry snark of Ghostbusters and Stripes, he’s just dropped the irreverent part of that comedic delivery. This is Murray playing the comedy dry and leaning into his character’s sadness as a place of pathos and humor. Murray’s Herman Blume goes to war with high school student Max Fischer over the affections of kindergarten teacher Rosemary Cross. The aesthetics of the film are what most viewers notice and then the stylized acting choices that would become a trademark of Anderson. Murray’s character gets the girl but in the most roundabout, funny, and bittersweet way. One of the all-time great films made better by Murray’s presence.
Lost in Translation (2003, dir. Sofia Coppola)
I am a huge fan of Sofia Coppola’s 1999 drama The Virgin Suicides, a major American film debut that gets overlooked too much. When her follow up, Lost in Translation, was announced I was excited to see what she did next. It turns out she was not a one-hit wonder and delivered an even arguably better picture. Murray stars as a version of himself, burnt out and aging actor Bob Harris. Harris is abroad in Japan for a celebrity endorsement gig and meets fellow American Charlotte. Charlotte is married to a chic fashion photographer and spends her days stuck in a boring hotel. The two form a friendship that becomes a significant turning point in their lives. There are slight touches of humor throughout, but this is most definitely more dramatic and contemplative than much of Murray’s work previous. I would argue this was the real reinvention of Murray over his performance in Rushmore. The film was huge amongst the college, indie film crowd of the time and I think it suffered some from the hype. With sixteen years past, I think Lost in Translation is a great film to revisit and rediscover just how good this movie is.
Broken Flowers (2005, dir. Jim Jarmusch)
Murray stars as Don Johnston, a former ladies man now living in a comfortable retirement after investing well. On the same day that his girlfriend leaves him, Don receives an anonymous letter from a person claiming to be a former lover who wanted Don to know he has a nineteen-year-old son. With the help of his mystery novelist neighbor Winston, Don embarks on a journey across the country to visit some of his old flames from around 19-20 years ago. Murray’s character finds his disaffected, above it all nature failing him as he meets these women and discovers the impact or lack of one he had on their lives. We start to see him as an old man trying to see if anything he did mattered and in many instances, it didn’t. Director Jim Jarmusch is not a filmmaker interested in tying up all his loose ends and leaves plenty of things for the audience to mull over when the movie concludes. If all you know Murray from is his early work, Broken Flowers will surprise you.