With a Bill Murray movie, you always know broadly what you are going to get, but there will usually be something markedly different that confounds that expectation.
It’s fair to say he is one of the most loved comic actors, with an appeal that spans across generations. In addition, there’s a healthy round of stories, such as photobombing engagement pictures, stealing french fries or doing the washing up at a house party, which regardless of whether true or not just add to his legend. The incredible thing is throughout his career as he metamorphosizes from brash cynic to weary odd-ball is he will constantly star in yet another career-defining movie in any one of a number of movie genres.
So in chronological order, here are five of the best Bill Murray movies.
Having come up through the increasingly familiar National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live path this was the movie that really put Murray’s name (and the funny horror comedies genre) on the map. Ironically the role of Peter Venkman was not originally for him, it was for co-star Dan Akroyd’s comedy partner John Belushi. Following Belushi’s death in 1982 and a re-write, the role came to Murray.
Operating in part as the leader and a sarcastic foil to the more nerdy Ray (Akroyd) & Egon (Harold Ramis) the film became a Box Office smash. With some brilliant lines (“We came. We Saw. We kicked some ass!” “No job is too big. No fee is too big.”) and some spooky scenes (hello ghost Librarian) Ghostbusters will always have a place in our hearts.
Groundhog Day (1993)
As with Ghostbusters this was also directed by Harold Ramis and this film has had such an impact it has entered our common language (we’ve all said something along the lines of ‘this feels like Groundhog Day’). In theory, this is a pretty straightforward Rom-Com; Murray’s grumpy weatherman Phil Connors needs to mend his ways to win the affection of Rita Hanson (Andie McDowell).
Of course, the big difference is that Connors has to relive the same day, over and over again (and quite brilliantly, there is no explanation as to why this is happening). Given the various states of Connors’ mind, it allows Murray to really play around with a whole range of emotions each time putting a lovely comedic spin on them.
Lost In Translation (2003)
Unlike some modern comedies (for example films like Bridesmaids or movies like Mean Girls come to mind), this is a very tender film. Set in Tokyo Murray’s Bob Harris and Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte find themselves as two lost souls, who form an unlikely bond that sees them address their feelings of alienation, concerns over their past and future whilst dealing with the cultural differences that Japan provides.
It’s shot in a very low-key way and really makes you feel that you have just got off a very long flight and haven’t slept. Indeed the idea of trying to find ‘something’ in a land that is entirely alien to you all while peering through tired, red eyes really makes you feel for the characters and the way they support each other makes for a bittersweet, enigmatic ending to the film.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
In truth, you could pick anything Murray has worked with director Wes Anderson on (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums for starters) but we’re going with Life Aquatic where he plays the titular character, Steve Zissou, and clearly enjoys the eccentricity of the role. As with a lot of Wes Anderson’s movies, it is presented in a very lurid, kitsch style that can take a bit of getting used to but once that settles down you realise it’s perfect for the story that is being told.
It wasn’t warmly received on release but has thankfully been reappraised. Zizou is also entirely unaware of his eccentricities which adds subtle comedy into the film, rather than going for all-out wacky laughs. There also has to be a nod to Seu Jorge’s soundtrack, largely Portuguese cover versions of David Bowie songs, which are a delight.
The Jungle Book (2016)
In Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book, Bill Murray absolutely brings the house down as Baloo. Very often you feel that when actors are only voicing roles and not on screen their natural charisma can be lost. Not in this case, there is an irreverence and vibrancy brought to Baloo that is Murray at his finest.
If you want to be really critical, perhaps there never really needed to be a remake of the original (or at least a re-release with remastered or re-done animation) but again the strength of his performance (in a supporting role) helped get the film over the line.
Notable mentions in the best Bill Murray movies list must also go to a couple of cameo roles, appearing as himself in the enjoyable Zombieland is a highlight of a very entertaining film. Also the scene ‘Delirium’ in Coffee and Cigarettes where Murray, GZA and RZA (of the Wu Tang Clan) shoot the breeze. As with most films he has worked on, he is always watchable and always a highlight.