The 15 Greatest Edward Norton Movies Ranked

Among late '90s breakout stars that continue to be prominent today, few have had quite the career path that Edward Norton did. Norton didn't start in bit parts or appear in popular young adult films. Instead, he kicked off his career on a high note with a string of acclaimed, Oscar-nominated performances working alongside some of the industry's greatest directors.

Norton is known for his reputation as a meticulous actor who often provides creative input on a film as a whole, which ultimately resulted in his famous ousting from the role of Bruce Banner in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Norton had wanted to take the character in a darker direction and even pitched two concepts for sequels to Marvel before he left the part. The actor even joined the extremely stacked cast of Rian Johnson's murder mystery sequel "Knives Out 2" for Netflix. Here are the top 15 greatest Edward Norton movies, ranked.

15. The Italian Job (2003)

Edward Norton has shown he can portray nuanced and even unlikable characters, but it's rare for him to take on an actual villain. He got the chance in F. Gary Gray's 2003 remake of the British heist movie classic "The Italian Job," which does a great job modernizing the story and delivering equally fun set pieces. Norton's character Steve Frazelli betrays his heist team and kills their leader John Bridger (Donald Sutherland).

Bridger's daughter Stella (Charlize Theron) and the team of Charlie Crocker (Mark Wahlberg), Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), Lyle (Seth Green), and Gilligan (Mos Def) track him down to stage the ultimate robbery as a form of revenge. Norton has a blast chewing the scenery as a character so cruel it's almost comical. His constant bullying nature makes the tragic death of Bridger more infuriating and motivates the team with an emotional goal behind their extravagant heist operation. Seeing Frazelli ultimately deceived and helpless is more than satisfying.

14. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Although it's now considered to be the black sheep of the MCU, 2008's "The Incredible Hulk" is a fairly underrated superhero film that does a lot of things right in telling Bruce Banner's story. While Ang Lee's 2003 film "Hulk" spent laborious time exploring Banner's origin story, "The Incredible Hulk" opens right on the action with Banner (Edward Norton) on the run from authorities in the favelas of South America. Making the film a non-stop chase puts Banner under constant anxiety, something he's trying to avoid in order to prevent himself from transforming into the Hulk.

The film also gave Banner a mystery that would make use of his great intelligence, despite being a fugitive. Banner investigates the Super Soldier Program within the U.S. Government, while the military employs the Russian agent Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) as their next test subject. Banner simultaneously reunites with his childhood love Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Norton crafts a heartbreaking disparity within Banner as he realizes he'll never be able to have a functional relationship with Betty. He can't even be intimate without the fear of unleashing the Hulk.

13. The Illusionist (2006)

Edward Norton has never been a traditional romantic lead, and so it's only fitting that the most romantically themed film of his career is also a twisty mystery. "The Illusionist" was released less than two months prior to Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige," but the two magician-centric period films are completely unique. While "The Prestige" is centered around dueling artists bidding to outdo each other, "The Illusionist" is a sensitive tale of relationships between different social classes.

Norton stars as the talented stage illusionist Eisenheim, who has loved the wealthy Duchess Sophie Von Teschen (Jessica Biel) since his childhood days. Seeking a means to connect with her as he grows older and struggles with their class differences, Eisenheim's stage shows grow more elaborate and build a wide audience. He's caught in a conspiracy and accused of murder, finding himself pursued by Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who gradually comes to respect his targeted subject.

12. Frida (2002)

While Edward Norton is hardly a typical leading man, he had numerous star vehicles under his belt by the early 21st century. As a result, it was somewhat surprising when he took on a smaller role in the 2002 biopic "Frida." Julie Taymor's visually immaculate interpretation of the life of the surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) explores the young woman's coming of age story and focuses on her complex lifelong relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina).

Norton (who did an uncredited rewrite on the script) still comes in for a pivotal moment as Nelson Rockefeller, and the events that transpire while he's onscreen lead to a downward spiral for Frida and Diegos' relationship. Diego holds steadfast to his political beliefs, and despite requiring the funds of Rockefeller to continue painting (his mural is prominently displayed in Rockefeller Center), he's unwilling to mask his communist leanings. 

11. Rounders (1998)

Gambling cinema is a challenging genre to rightfully capture, as the nuances of betting can suffer from a lack of research or prove too obtuse to invest in emotionally. The best gambling films are those that combine attention to detail with compelling characters that experience the realities of the addictive lifestyle, and 1998's "Rounders" is one of them.

The film follows law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), who takes time between his classes in New York City to participate in underground Texas hold 'em tournaments. After losing $30,000 to the Russian mobster nicknamed KGB (John Malkovich), his life is put in immediate danger. As he tries to recoup the money by taking an honest job, Mike is reunited with his childhood friend Lester Murphy (Edward Norton), who has recently been released from prison. Lester is also in serious debt, and the two team up to help each other despite Lester's history of cheating.

10. The Score (2001)

Frank Oz's 2001 heist thriller "The Score" united three generations of stone-cold movie legends. The film centers around the career criminal and master safecracker Nick Wells (Robert De Niro), who takes one last job offered to him by his employer Max (Marlon Brando). Nick is introduced to the young criminal Jack Teller (Edward Norton) by Max, and the talented thief's aptitude for deception impresses him. Jack is able to infiltrate a highly secure location by disguising himself as a mentally-handicapped janitor.

The palpable tension between Nick and Jack makes the film very exciting. Jack is barely willing to listen to the advice of Nick, who's been in the game for decades, as he's very haughty and arrogant. However, his confidence isn't misplaced, as Jack's innovative techniques keep Nick on his toes. Both men have reason to mistrust each other, as they both suspect that they will be double-crossed.

9. Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Edward Norton first took the director's chair for the 2000 comedy "Keeping the Faith," and it took him almost two decades to helm his next feature. Norton wrote, directed, and starred in an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's novel "Motherless Brooklyn," crafting a highly underrated period noir mystery that serves as both a love letter to New York City and a consideration of the challenging racial prejudice at the heart of its development.

Lionel Essrog (Norton) is a detective with Tourette's syndrome who is frequently mocked for his condition. The one person who seems to give Lionel the respect he deserves and takes advantage of his critical thinking abilities is private eye Frank (Bruce Willis), who is tragically killed in a firefight. Lionel is completely heartbroken and tries to piece together the culprits behind Frank's murder in order to solve the last case his mentor couldn't crack. Mysterious forces attempt to silence him.

8. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Ridley Scott's 2005 medieval war epic "Kingdom of Heaven" was released at a length that didn't do justice to the story. Scott's far superior director's cut fleshes out the tale by giving it an epic scope as well as featuring more scenes of Edward Norton's character. Set in the 12th century, the film centers on French blacksmith Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), who is reunited with his father Godfrey (Liam Neeson) as he mourns the death of his wife. Right before Godfrey dies of critical wounds during combat, he convinces his son to join the Crusades and lead the fight to take back the holy Kingdom of Jerusalem.

When he reaches the holy city, Balian finds that King Baldwin IV (Norton) is a leper, with the city about to undergo armed conflict against the forces of the Muslim sultan Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). Norton's face isn't even seen on screen due to his medical condition, but behind that silver mask, he still gives a thoroughly engaging performance.

7. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

"Moonrise Kingdom" features one of Edward Norton's most sincere and touching performances. Wes Anderson's 2012 coming-of-age dramedy centers on a blooming relationship between two children who are perhaps saner than the troubled adults that surround them, even if they possess a naturally innocent worldview. The young Khaki Scout Sam (Jared Gilman) falls for the wealthier girl Suzy (Kara Hayward), and after the two profess their love for each other they run away together.

Various figures begin chasing after the young runaways, but Norton's character Scout Master Randy Ward actually cares about Sam. He knows of his good nature and understands his frustrations, seeking to find him before he faces the consequences of his actions threatened by Suzy's family. Ward commands his troop of loyal Khaki Scouts in a military fashion in order to track down Sam, and Norton's overly-serious attitude towards the younger cast members is absolutely hilarious.

6. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

Miloš Forman's 1997 biopic "The People vs. Larry Flynt" turns the story of the titular "Hustler" editor into a surprisingly nuanced examination of free speech, patriotism, and censorship. Forman frequently tackles stories of challenging figures who conflict with authority, themes Edward Norton perhaps relates to. Woody Harrelson stars in the titular role and delivers perhaps his best screen performance, and Norton co-stars as Flynt's lawyer Alan Isaacman. At a young age, Norton was able to capture the diligence and intelligence of an emerging lawyer.

Isaacman doesn't necessarily agree or like what Flynt does, but he believes in his right to do so. Isaacman finds it ironic that Flynt is accused of being anti-American, as he sees his ability to publish even the most lurid and disturbingly graphic content as an execution of the rights guaranteed to him within the Constitution. Norton expertly shows how Isaacman conveys these arguments in legal terminology, appearing thoroughly engaging while on the floor defending Flynt. Flynt's frequent off-color remarks and irresponsible behavior cause Isaacman grief, adding humor to the story.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Wes Anderson's films frequently employ large ensembles featuring many great actors. It's not unusual to see a large collection of some of the screen's best performers in a zippy adventure, and some of these screen legends only have brief roles. The fact that Edward Norton doesn't have a huge part in Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" isn't to his discredit, but rather a sign of respect. He's instantly memorable and perfectly delivers Anderson's whip-smart comedic banter.

The film follows the adventures of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), charismatic manager of a grand hotel renowned for the meticulous orchestration of his procedures, as well as his intimate relationships with older women. Gustave begins to mentor the young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and invites him to join his adventures. However, Gustave's relationship with the elderly Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) goes awry when she is found dead, and Gustave is accused of her murder. Norton appears as the local investigating detective of the police force, Albert Henckels, who is tasked with apprehending Gustave, but the elusive manager escapes his clutches with Zero. Norton doesn't make Henckels into a clueless fool, but he's constantly confused by what's going on and incompetent at apprehending his top subject. When Gustave battles Madame's vengeful relatives later on in the film's final act, Henckels is once again caught in the chaos.

4. Fight Club (1999)

David Fincher's 1999 film "Fight Club" showcased his off-putting stylistic choices, challenging themes, and twisty storytelling techniques. This might be why the film is so often misunderstood. Although it was targeted by critics and skeptics during its initial release for being a celebration of toxic masculinity, the film is actually a deeply critical examination of why men are drawn into violence and the misguided thinking that sparks radicalization. None of this commentary would have been apparent if it wasn't for the terrific performance at the film's center by Edward Norton.

Norton is the film's initially unnamed main character, and his constant commentary keeps the viewer engaged in his journey. Seeing the story from his perspective isn't only a great way to invest in the narrator's situation/perspective, but establishes that the version of events we're seeing is based on his interpretation of reality, something that makes the film's shocking twist more effective later on. Norton perfectly captures the bored, pathetic life of the character, and why the charismatic thug Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) becomes such an inspiration to him. Norton and Pitt have outstanding chemistry throughout.

3. Primal Fear (1996)

It's pretty hard to top a debut performance as instantly impressive as Edward Norton's work in the courtroom thriller "Primal Fear." The dynamic role introduced the unknown Norton as an actor who could embody complex, dynamic characters who the audience would be forced to question. The film features one of the most iconic plot twists in film history, and it wouldn't have been nearly as effective if Norton hadn't done the work early on to make it consistent with the rest of the story. A great plot twist requires evidence and context provided by the rest of the film, and Norton makes it utterly convincing.

Norton plays Aaron Stampler, a 19-year-old altar boy accused of murdering the priest Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson). Aaron lacks confidence and has a severe stutter, making his guilt a topic of controversy within the community, and the leading criminal defense lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere) decides to take him on as a client. As Martin dives deeper into Aaron's history as he interviews him, he discovers that the boy is hiding deep trauma beneath the surface. Aaron reveals himself to have an alternate personality, named Roy. Compared to the shy behavior of Aaron, Roy is rude and violent. He has no control over when he switches between the personalities, and Martin must find a way to explain this complex disorder to a jury. Norton brilliantly captures the sudden shifts in behavior.

2. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Alejandro González Iñárritu's 2014 satirical surrealist dark comedy "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" granted Edward Norton with one of the most self-referential roles of his entire career. With his reputation of being difficult to work with, the film casts him as the highly temperamental theater actor Mike Shiner, whose overwhelming commitment and pretentiousness causes continuous hardships for Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton). It was a hilarious way for Norton to poke fun at himself, but there's depth to the character of Mike.

Thompson was once a major Hollywood star who led the highly popular "Birdman" superhero franchise, but he's since hit a career slump and is trying to launch a comeback. Thompson has decided to direct and star in a stage production of Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," which is scheduled to hit Broadway soon. After an accident during rehearsal critically injures one of the main stars, Thompson is forced to find a last-minute replacement, and he wants to get a big name in order to attract attention to his seemingly doomed production. He eventually settles on Mike and convinces him to join. Mike's involvement only increases Thompson's stress and adds more on-set difficulties.

1. American History X (1998)

"American History X" is one of the darkest and most disturbing films ever made about the realities of American fascism and the corruption of youth. It's also essential viewing to understand the challenging topics of radicalism, racism, and generational hatred. Some films that tackle these highly sensitive subjects, particularly those that have now grown older, simply don't hold up in a modern context or take into account the complexity of these issues. "American History X" is, sadly, more relevant today than it's ever been. Edward Norton gives a meticulous tour de force performance that fits the importance of the subject matter.

Norton stars as Derek Vinyard, a violent young man who is part of a growing Nazi cult within his community. After witnessing a robbery by a group of African Americans outside his neighborhood, Derek violently chases them down and beats them to death. He's captured by police and sent to prison, and years later his brother Danny (Edward Furlong) begins to develop similar beliefs, choosing Adolf Hitler as the subject of his history studies. The film unfolds in a nonlinear format, showing both brothers' journies. Derek is brutalized in prison and gradually changes his thinking, yearning for his release so he can walk his brother down a similar path.