The 20 Best Christian Bale Movies, Ranked

Christian Bale is known as one of the best actors of his generation, delivering first-rate performances since his childhood. A 12-year-old Bale was granted the rare opportunity to work with the legendary Steven Spielberg in his breakout film "Empire of the Sun," and he's one of the few child actors who's been able to make the transition into a prolonged career.

Oscar winner Bale is an incredibly versatile performer who has worked within nearly every genre, including action blockbusters, comedies, psychological thrillers, westerns, biopics, mysteries, and even musicals. Whether he's being completely charismatic or utterly detestable, Bale can always be trusted to deliver a committed performance. He's also known for his ability to radically change his physicality in order to transform for a role.

Narrowing down Bale's best work is no easy task, and some great films had to be left off the list. But make no mistake; these are the 20 greatest Christian Bale movies, ranked.

20. Public Enemies (2009)

"Public Enemies" features one of Bale's more understated performances. Although Bale is known for his ability to steal scenes, he had to let Johnny Depp take center stage in this 2009 biographical crime thriller. "Public Enemies" tells the true story of John Dillinger (Depp), the infamous 1930s outlaw. Bale co-stars as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who was assigned to track Dillinger down and eliminate his operation.

If there's any director out there who approaches directing with the same meticulous attention to detail that Bale gives to his performances, it's Michael Mann. Mann didn't want "Public Enemies" to look or feel like just another cat and mouse crime story, or the Hollywood films of the 1930s. Instead, he wanted the film to feel like it takes place in the actual '30s. Asa  result, instead of turning Dillinger into a Robin Hood-type public hero, Mann shows how tormented the notorious outlaw actually was. However, Purvis doesn't come across as a hero either; he chases down and executes Dillinger's fellow outlaw, Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), in one of the film's most brutal sequences.

Both Dillinger and Purvis have to face the consequences of their lifestyles and carry the weight of their public personas. After a while, their passions begin to fade. Somehow, Bale and Depp show the similarities between the two men, even though they only briefly share the screen together.

19. Reign of Fire (2002)

With the massive success of films like "Thor: Love and Thunder" and "The Dark Knight Rises," the box office has been kind to Bale lately. Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case. Bale played a major role in "Reign of Fire," a truly excellent fantasy adventure epic that sadly underperformed when it debuted in theaters in the summer of 2002. It's always sad when a good movie flops, but it's particularly tough when a potential franchise is squashed before it can even get started. "Reign of Fire" has a great premise, a slew of fun characters, and perfectly sets up more installments. If audiences had just gone out and supported it, "Reign of Fire" could have inspired a great fantasy series.

"Reign of Fire" is set in the post-apocalyptic world of 2020, which somehow isn't as scary as what 2020 actually looked like. England isn't facing the consequences of Brexit or COVID, but the British do have another problem in front of them: dragons. The medieval creatures have emerged from their ancient slumber to become the dominant species on Earth. The humans that have survived are led by two very different men: Quinn Abercromby (Bale) and Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey). Bale is known for his commitment to his roles, but McConaughey actually gave him a run for his money when they were working together on "Reign of Fire," refusing to break character during shooting.

18. Equilibrium (2002)

A post-apocalyptic world. A dystopian society ran by "the elite." Black leather. Slow motion action. Cold, emotionless characters. Were you thinking of "The Matrix"? What about "Dark City"? If you've already seen those two countless times (which you probably have), then 2002's "Equilibrium" might be worth a watch. You can't say that "Equilibrium" is all that original, but as far as "The Matrix" knock-offs go, it's rather entertaining. "Equilibrium" knows what audiences are looking for. The central premise is pretty simple, and for the most part, the film focuses on kung fu and gunplay.

Anyone who complained that Bale's Batman didn't see enough action in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" trilogy will be pleased to see Bale pop up in this non-stop thrill ride. "Equilibrium" imagines a world where the survivors of World War III have formed a totalitarian government that keeps humans from feeling emotions. In the city-state of Libra, the government has assigned a group of law enforcement officers, known as "Grammaton Clerics," to terminate any "Sense Offenders" in their society. Bale's character, John Preston, is a senior Cleric who slowly begins to see the error of his ways.

Bale certainly knows how to brood. Preston spends a lot of time staring off into the distance as he ponders his moral quandaries. However, when it comes to dispatching with his enemies, Preston is ruthless. Bale's sincere commitment to the self-seriousness of "Equilibrium" manages to elevate the entire film.

17. Knight of Cups (2015)

In all likelihood, an actor like Bale probably wants to know what he's signing up for when he agrees to star in a film. However, Bale wasn't exactly presented with that type of opportunity when he agreed to play the main character in Terrence Malick's bizarre 2016 drama "Knight of Cups." Although "Knight of Cups" was shot with a completed script, Malick wanted to focus on the themes and recurring motifs instead of any semblance of coherence or plot. In an interview with The Evening Standard, Bale admitted that didn't receive any script pages before each day of filming began, leaving both him and his future "Thor: Love and Thunder" co-star, Natalie Portman, unclear on what their final roles in the film would be.

You can't ever doubt Bale's bravery, though, because no matter what, he always commits to the material. "Knight of Cups" is one of those cases where that commitment really pays off. The film follows a depressed Hollywood screenwriter, Rick (Bale), who contemplates his life and mourns the death of his brother by indulging in sex, drugs, and perpetual meandering. This could have easily been nothing but a self-absorbed passion project from a filmmaker who is far past his prime, but Bale installs a deep sense of sadness in Rick. Rick doesn't know what he wants, and he doesn't really know what he's looking for, but his state of confusion actually makes sense within the context of the story.

16. Out of the Furnace (2013)

Although most audiences know Bale best from his collaborations with Christopher Nolan on "The Prestige" and the Dark Knight trilogy, it looks like he has a new favorite director. After starring in "Hostiles," Bale agreed to work with director Scott Cooper again on the Netflix mystery film "The Pale Blue Eye." If you want to see how this partnership began, then you definitely need to see Bale and Coopers' first project together, 2013's "Out of the Furnace." The title may suggest an action-packed thriller, but "Out of the Furnace" is anything but that.

"Out of the Furnace" centers on Bale's character, Russell Baze, who works at a steel mill in North Braddock, Pennsylvania. Russell seems to take no joy in anything, but he does care very deeply for his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is a veteran of the Iraq War, and he's been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, Rodney has coming back to a country that isn't supporting him in return, and he's forced to get into some shady business in order to support himself. When Rodney suddenly disappears, Russell sets out to find his beloved brother.

Cooper is a very patient filmmaker, and he manages to capture raw human suffering unlike any other director, so it's easy to see why he is attracted to an actor like Bale. "Out of the Furnace" had the potential to be either very depressing or very boring; thanks to Bale, it's both moving and insightful.

15. Empire of the Sun (1985)

After a few minor TV roles, Christian Bale began his career in earnest at age 12 in Steven Spielberg's World War II epic "Empire of the Sun." He delivered one of the most impactful child performances of all time, anchored by the beautifully sung ballad "Suo Gân" from his native Wales. "Empire of the Sun" tells a coming-of-age story about the loss of innocence as the realities of war are witnessed through the eyes of a child. Spielberg has often focused on themes of broken families and lost boys, and "Empire of the Sun" is less focused on political controversy than it is showing a young man's transition to maturity.

Jim Graham is a wealthy English child who lives with his family in a Shanghai International Settlement. During Japan's invasion of China in the aftermath of 1941's Pearl Harbor attack, the Graham family attempts to evacuate, but Jim is separated from his parents and forced to survive on his own. He becomes a prisoner of war, learning to retain hope as he looks to his uncertain future.

14. I'm Not There (2007)

There's a reason it took so long for a Bob Dylan biopic to come to fruition. Dylan is a musician of such significant influence that trying to sum up his legacy in a singular story proved to be a challenge. Dylan had an elusive public persona that evolved and changed over the course of his lengthy career, and it would have been impossible for just one actor to capture his essence. Todd Haynes' 2007 film "I'm Not There" took a bold approach to Dylan's life by focusing on six of his different personalities: Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchette), Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), and Jack Rollins (Christian Bale).

The Rollins segment is one of the film's highlights, as it unfolds in a documentary-style fashion and incorporates interviews with Dylan's close circle of friends. Bale explores a fascinating period within Dylan's discography when he was responding to the social and political changes of the 1960s, including the assassination of President Kennedy and the protests against the Vietnam War. It also jumps ahead to the period where Dylan/Rollins became a born-again Christian.

13. The Machinist (2004)

"The Machinist" features one of Christian Bale's most dramatic onscreen transformations as he plays the sickly, highly underweight insomniac industrial worker Trevor Reznik. The actor actually lost 62 pounds to take on the role of Trevor, who is unable to relax and experiences frightening visions that question his sanity. Director Brad Anderson tells the story in a nonlinear fashion, as it's never entirely clear when the events are happening and how much of it is part of Trevor's illusions. Bale is able to hide the film's secrets while hinting at the eventual twists.

Trevor is blamed for a workplace accident in which one of his fellow machinists loses his arm. Trevor is fired, but he believes that the responsibility lies with an enigmatic figure named Ivan (John Sharian) who manages to elude him. Ivan haunts Trevor as he begins a romance with an airport waitress named Maria (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). Trevor feels wracked with guilt, but he's unable to locate the root of his feelings.

12. Hostiles (2017)

Scott Cooper's 2017 film "Hostiles" is one of the modern westerns that has truly established itself as a future classic to stand alongside the golden age favorites. It's a film that examines the nature of western cinema with a sensitive look at the relationship between indigenous people and Americans, and comments on the cyclical nature of men who are drawn to violence. There's a tragic pattern to the development of the American west, and the powerful performances by Christian Bale and Wes Studi help to spotlight this era of history.

War veteran Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Bale) has spent a lifetime fighting against indigenous people and wishes to retire from his dangerous profession. Blocker is assigned a critical mission to transport the Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Studi) to his ceremonial home before he dies, and must travel alongside a battalion of soldiers and Yellow Hawk's family. The tension between Blocker and Yellow Hawk begins to decrease over time as they both reflect on how they've helped perpetuate the conflict, but Bale never portrays Blocker as a hero.

11. Rescue Dawn (2006)

Werner Herzog is a highly demanding director who has used non-traditional filmmaking techniques throughout his career in order to tell gripping stories with fly-on-the-wall realism. It can be challenging for an actor to stand out amidst the significance of Herzog's achievements, but the director managed to bring out the best in Christian Bale with his 2006 Vietnam War drama "Rescue Dawn." The disturbing material is not for the faint of heart, but for those who can stomach the violent content, it's a powerful depiction of survival and perseverance.

Bale stars as German-American pilot Dieter Dengler, held captive by the People's Liberation Army after his plane is shot down over Laos. The crash sequence is brutal, but the majority of the story focuses on how Dengler clings to his health while he's imprisoned. Bale delivers an incredible physical performance as Dengler deteriorates during his captivity. The relationship between Dengler and his close friend Lieutenant Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) is particularly moving.

10. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

There's always a concern when remaking a beloved classic, and few golden age westerns are quite as iconic as "3:10 to Yuma." The 1957 film still holds up as an entertaining adventure, but James Mangold's 2007 remake is a fulfilling film in its own right, fleshing out the characters and moral complexities. Christian Bale stars as the rancher Dan Evans, who takes on the dangerous task of transporting the ruthless bounty hunter Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a train that will take him to prison.

Evans was injured during his military service and has chosen to live a simple life outside of the city. However, his ranch is facing financial hardship and Evans knows he needs the money to support his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and son William (Logan Lerman). Although most of the law enforcement want to see Wade hanged immediately, Evans takes the honorable route of trying him through the justice system. Unforeseen danger forces the two men to work together in order to survive.

9. The New World (2005)

Terrence Malick's "The New World" isn't a standard biographical account of history, reimagining the story of America's settlement as a sweeping love epic of overwhelming visual splendor. The film is less concerned with providing the audience with a history lesson, but rather a story of love, loss, and kinship where Malick handles the indigenous representation quite well. Christian Bale delivers one of his most heartfelt and reserved performances, not expressing true joy until the film's conclusion.

As American settlers begin colonizing the town of Jamestown, Virginia, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) falls in love with the young Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and claims her as his love. However, throughout their relationship Smith grows too focused on his career and forgets that initial spark of romance. As a result, Pocahontas is married to John Rolfe (Bale) while still desiring Smith. It's only after her visit to England that she realizes she never would have received the kindness Rolfe showed her from Smith, and she accepts him as her true love.

8. Ford v Ferrari (2019)

Who wouldn't think of Christian Bale when casting the part of an idiosyncratic, highly committed artist who goes to incredible lengths to do what he loves? "Ford v Ferrari" runs the risk of telling a conventional inspirational sports story, but the great chemistry between Bale and Matt Damon makes the exciting racing drama a heartwarming experience as well. James Mangold knows how to show sensitivity within masculine characters without detracting from the visceral joy of the epic racing sequences.

Based on the incredible true story, the film follows the innovations by the Ford Motor Company to compete in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. Former racer Carroll Shelby (Damon) enlists top racer Ken Miles (Bale) to drive the innovative new Ford vehicle that's designed to break Ferrari's winning streak. Miles can be combative and temperamental, but he and Shelby eventually grow to truly respect each other. The scenes with Miles's young son (Noah Jupe) are particularly heartfelt, as he gets to be a hero in his child's eyes.

7. The Prestige (2006)

Christopher Nolan is one of the most important figures within Christian Bale's career, providing him the opportunity to deliver a fully-formed dramatic performance as a comic book character in The Dark Knight Trilogy that solidified Bale's range. Nolan was an elevated filmmaker who is brilliant at hiding plot twists, and Bale showed the same excellence when he appeared in Nolan's highly complex period thriller "The Prestige." It takes an immensely talented actor to conceal a film's twist until the ending, and Bale's performance is even better for viewers who have watched the film multiple times.

Set in the late 19th century, "The Prestige" follows a competitive rivalry between illusionists Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale). The two start off as allies, but an accident that claims the life of Robert's love interest causes the two to split off and work to outdo each other's stage shows.

6. American Hustle (2013)

One of the most underrated aspects of Christian Bale is how funny he can be given the opportunity. He's renowned for playing dark and tortured characters, but when introduced to more comedically slanted material he can show the same excellence. David O. Russell gave Bale the chance to play an outrageous figure in true crime history with "American Hustle," which opens with the disclaimer "some of this is based on a true story." Bale stars as the notorious con artist Irving Rosenfeld, who succeeds in aiding the FBI in a frantic fraud case alongside his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) that ties in New Jersey politicians, international arms dealers, and the mafia.

Together, Irving and Sydney become informants for egocentric FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and manage to rope in the good-natured Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). As they go through a complex series of schemes, Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to derail the operation.

5. American Psycho (2000)

Charisma is a hard thing for an actor to naturally bring out in a performance. Christian Bale certainly isn't charismatic for every role in his versatile filmography, but he doesn't have an issue with making himself slick and charming if needed. However, it's not just always for traditional reasons, as Bale can subvert the audience's expectations of what a true villain looks like. Patrick Bateman of "American Psycho" is one of the most complex psychopaths in modern movie history because Bale is able to show how even the most seemingly well-adjusted person can be harboring a ruthless dark side.

Beneath the appearance of a highly successful Wall Street businessman lurks a deadly serial killer who stalks and preys on his victims at night. Bale explores the complexities of Bateman's struggle, as he's driven by his impulses and goes to meticulous lengths to hide his crimes. It's a fascinating depiction of toxic masculinity that's also hilarious, and Bale can get the viewer laughing during even some of the most disturbing moments. Should we be laughing or cringing while Bateman hacks up Paul Allen (Jared Leto) to the tune of "It's Hip To Be Square"?

4. Vice (2018)

Christian Bale often goes through incredible physical transformations to play fictional characters that stem entirely from the imagination, but playing a real figure requires a different type of excellence. It's one thing to play an established person, but Vice President Dick Cheney had been scrutinized by the public for quite some time. Could any actor truly become the man that has appeared in the media so often and be believable? Bale proved it was possible. He doesn't just transform into Cheney, but is able to show him throughout his professional career over many decades.

Bale also gives insights on the events and ideologies that define a man whose story has been shrouded in secrecy. He crafts a Shakespearean villain, and director Adam McKay utilizes a scene from "Macbeth" to make the parallels clear. Although the weight gain and heavy prosthetic work seem bold, Bale has more subtle power in the role, as he never entirely spells out Cheney's motivations. It's left somewhat ambiguous how much agency he has, and how much of his career has been dictated by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams).

3. The Fighter (2010)

Turning tragic figures into complex characters is one of Christian Bale's greatest strengths. He's an actor who can combine impressive physicality with emotional resonance to match, and that's exactly what he did with "The Fighter." Based on a true story, David O. Russell's acclaimed 2010 sports drama is based on the true story of famed boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his training under brother Dicky Eklund (Bale). The film came with the added responsibility of being based on a real man's struggles, as Dicky suffered from drug addiction and was severely underweight.

Bale's physical transformation to play Eklund is haunting when compared to his physical dominance in other roles, as "The Fighter" was released between jacked-up performances in "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises." However, it's not simply the physicality that makes Bale's performance (which earned him the best supporting actor Oscar in 2011) so heartbreaking. Eklund is in complete denial about the realities of his situation, dismissing the concerns of his family with comedic asides and a charismatic persona. Despite his addiction's heavy toll on his health, Eklund truly loves his brother Micky and wants to see him succeed. He pushes back against Micky's girlfriend Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams) trying to hire a professional trainer, as he believes his untraditional approach is all that is needed.

2. The Big Short (2015)

One of the most impressive things about Christian Bale is his ability to find humanity in offbeat, eccentric, and unusual characters. "The Big Short" is a film that takes significant tonal risks, covering the impacts of the Great Recession while showing the greed, corruption, and illegal activities which led to the crisis. The film is clear on how these events devastated the American economy and caused many to lose their jobs and livelihoods, but director Adam McKay uses a hyper-stylized comedic approach to disseminate all that material. McKay incorporates celebrity cameos, nonlinear editing, pop music, YouTube clips, and sardonic voiceovers to bring a sense of levity to the dark material.

"The Big Short" is often uproarious, particularly with bold performances from Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Steve Carrell, but there was a risk that the overwhelming humor could detract from the gravity of the story. However, Bale's more serious performance helps to ground the emotion of the film's impact and gives the film its heart. He co-stars as Dr. Michael Burry, the brilliant analyst who decides to short the housing market. He's initially dismissed as crazy for the seemingly ludicrous bet, but Burry believes in the math and knows the impending crash is a "time bomb." Burry has trouble communicating and connecting emotionally, and Bale is sensitive to these issues.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

It's almost strange to think that Christian Bale's contribution to "The Dark Knight" is in any way underrated considering what an unprecedented success the film was. However, most retrospectives about the legacy of one of the great American films of the 21st century focus on the tour de force performance by Heath Ledger as well as the meticulous direction of Christopher Nolan that brought gritty realism to Bob Kane's characters.

Yet, Bale is the one at the center of the story, and his performance as Bruce Wayne brought out the humanity in the world's darkest superhero. No actor has successfully depicted the tortured soul of Batman quite like Bale, who shows how childhood tragedy and training crafted him into the man he is. Bale delivers subtle work as Bruce hides his pain while putting on the facade of a slick businessman with lavish expenses and gorgeous women at his disposal, forced to hide his truly empathetic nature beneath a plastic public persona.

Bruce goes through some of his most emotional moments in the film as he tries to reconnect with his childhood flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is now dating the idealistic public attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Her death is one of the most heartbreaking moments, and Bale makes it clear that one of the rare hopeful presences in Bruce's life is now gone, intensifying Batman's loneliness.