The 15 Greatest Ethan Hawke Movies Ranked

Ethan Hawke is one of the most unique artists working in the film industry today, and to label him as just another Hollywood star would be a severe misinterpretation of his talents. Hawke is an author of several novels centered around the plight of artists and romantic figures, a screenwriter who has worked alongside many great directors, and the director of three off-Broadway plays. He's done some of his best work on television thanks to "The Good Lord Bird" and crafted some brilliant directorial efforts, including his 2018 feature "Blaze," a highly personal musical biopic set in Austin, Texas.

Hawke has been appearing in cinema classics since childhood, and 2022 is a massive year for Hawke. Not only will he be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the villain Arthur Harrow in "Moon Knight," but he'll also appear in the horror film "The Black Phone," the Viking epic "The Northman," and Rian Johnson's mystery sequel "Knives Out 2."

Here are the 15 greatest Ethan Hawke movies, ranked.

15. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

A great actor can steal a movie even if they're only on-screen for a few minutes. Ethan Hawke is one of those actors, and in an extended cameo, he is one of the most memorable parts of Luc Besson's 2017 space opera "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets." This ambitious adaptation of Pierre Christin's comic series "Valerian and Laureline" is truly one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the past decade, showing a remarkable amount of imagination and incredible scope.

The story focuses on United Human Federation special agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who go on intergalactic missions to protect thousands of planets that remain at peace thanks to a collaborative space station. During their adventures in the massive intergalactic metroplex, they encounter many eccentric characters, including Hawke as the eccentric Jolly the Pimp. Hawke chews the scenery as the mean-spirited employer of Bubble (Rhianna), who escapes his clutches to join Valerian and Laureline.

14. Tesla

Michael Almereyda's 2020 biopic "Tesla" is about as untraditional as a historical film can get. Utilizing modern technology, flashbacks, eccentric comedy scenes, and even an on-screen fact-checker, "Tesla" subverts expectations while looking into the mind of one of the greatest innovators in history. Despite the strange stylistic choices, the film stays true to the essence of Nikola Tesla's genius, and Ethan Hawke takes the titular role to heart, capturing his inner torment.

The film focuses on Tesla's initial discoveries when he was employed by Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), leading to his first meeting with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). Hawke does a great job at showing the meticulous nature of Tesla's development process, and he's attuned to the historical details. It's a very demanding role that requires him to do some strange things. At one point, he even sings a cover of Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World."

13. The Magnificent Seven

Ethan Hawke has worked with director Antonie Fuqua many times since their acclaimed first collaboration in 2001's "Training Day." Fuqua is a fascinating filmmaker. Although his work tends to be fairly mainstream, he successfully incorporates complex characters and storylines into crowd-pleasing spectacles. Fuqua's experience prepared him to craft a remake of the 1960 Western classic "The Magnificent Seven" — which itself is a reimagining of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 epic "Seven Samurai." 

The film tells the story of a village threatened by marauders and forced to ask for help from a group of seven bounty hunters. Among the group is U.S. Marshal Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), the quick-witted Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt), mountain man Jack Thorne (Vincent D'Onofrio), Chinese assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee),  Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), exiled Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and former Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke). Goodnight has an interesting origin: He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his wartime experience.

12. Predestination

The 2014 science fiction mystery-thriller "Predestination" is one of the most confusing movies ever made, but for viewers who can follow the film's twisty storyline, it's a fascinating and exciting noir of identity. It's nearly impossible to fully comprehend "Predestination" on initial viewing, but the dynamic performances make the film worth rewatching. Ethan Hawke has experience in horror, science fiction, crime cinema, and drama, and he puts it to good use in a film that seamlessly blends multiple genres.

Hawke stars as a bartender in New York who strikes up a conversation with a mysterious stranger named John (Sarah Snook) who explains the complicated series of events that led to their meeting. John was born a woman named "Jane" and trained to be an astronaut in the Space Corp program. However, Jane discovers that Space Corp is actually a cover for a time travel program called the Temporal Agency. What Jane doesn't realize is that the bartender is also a time traveler.

11. Sinister

Ethan Hawke frequently appears in horror films and given his experience in independent cinema, he's well-positioned to make even supernatural stories feel realistic. "Sinister," Scott Derrickson's reinvention of the haunted house thriller, is one of the scariest horror films in recent history, combining true crime, jump scares, and prolonged sequences of tension to create an anxiety-inducing experience. It's also a story about a family in crisis in which Hawke captures the challenges of fatherhood.

Hawke stars as acclaimed true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt who moves his family to a house in the fictional town of Chatford, Pennsylvania. The home's previous occupants were murdered by hanging. Ellison wants to use the residence as he conducts his research on the case, but his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is concerned with his fascination and how living in the crime scene will affect their children. Hawke perfectly portrays the obsessive nature of a driven author.

10. Lord of War

Ethan Hawke has a surprisingly strong ability to capture the personality of law enforcement officers, showing versatility in his depictions over the course of many different characters. Compared to some of the darker roles in which his characters were anti-heroes, Hawke gets remarkably sincere in his depiction of Interpol agent Jack Valentine in 2005's "Lord of War." Although he's more or less the antagonist of the story, his character is relatable. Valentine is hot on the heels of Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), an arms dealer responsible for selling weapons to various governments and terrorist organizations.

Valentine isn't ignorant, but he's idealistic about his role and quickly catches on to the threat that Orlov could be. Compared to the other corrupt officers on his team, Valentine doesn't seek personal glory and cannot be paid off — which makes him difficult for Orlov to evade. Hawke captures the humiliation that Valentine feels when Orlov eludes him. Despite gathering all the evidence to convict him, Valentine watches his target walk free through his connections.

9. Tape

Ethan Hawke and writer-director Richard Linklater have worked together on projects like the "Before" trilogy and "Boyhood" that spanned large swaths of time. However, the 2001 microbudget movie "Tape" is bound to a single location for one night. Based on Stephen Belber's brilliant play of the same name, "Tape" is a gripping story of anxiety and isolation. Hawke's experience on the stage prepared him well for the adaptation. He's an actor who can utilize an enclosed space to maximize his performance.

Hawke appears as Vince, a volunteer firefighter who also sells drugs on the black market. Vince invites his childhood classmate documentary filmmaker Jon Salter (Robert Sean Leonard) to a hotel room on the pretense of celebrating the premiere of Jon's new film. However, Vince wants to question Jon about a critical moment in their youth that he hasn't forgotten. Vince believes that Jon assaulted his girlfriend, Amy Randall (Uma Thurman). As Vince's motivations are unclear, the film unfolds like a mystery. He is jealous that Amy broke up with him to be with Jon, but he also has genuine reason to suspect him. When it's revealed that Vince has also invited Amy, the situation grows even more complex.

8. Reality Bites

Released in 1994, "Reality Bites" is a landmark film for Generation X, showing the ways in which this generation of young people grew up to question what their lives would look like after college. Although he's best known for his comedic roles, director Ben Stiller captures a realistic depiction of Generation X relationships, and Ethan Hawke is an essential part of this slice-of-life story.

The film centers around aspiring documentarian Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder). Lelaina wants to craft a film centered around the emerging culture of her fellow post-graduates. Hawke co-stars as Lelaina's boyfriend Troy Dyer, a talented guitarist who struggles to find work. Hawke captures a sense of playful irresponsibility, and it's understandable how Lelaina would find his carefree attitude charming. However, Troy becomes impossible to live with when it doesn't look like he's going anywhere. Thankfully, Hawke fleshes the character out over time, and Troy learns to accept responsibility and fashion himself into someone with whom Lelaina can have a future.

7. Gattaca

As an actor, Ethan Hawke is effective at depicting moral dilemmas in complex situations. He also brings an inherent realism to genre films that instills them with a greater sense of empathy. Andrew Niccol's 1997 science fiction classic "Gattaca" explores a very nuanced vision of the future and features complex dialogue that focuses on world-building and its moral implications. The film takes place in a distant future in which mankind uses genetic selection to prioritize desirable genetic traits.

Although explaining how this selection process works requires significant exposition, Hawke makes sure that the viewer is engaged through a character who is directly affected by the dystopian mindset. His character, Vincent Freeman, was born naturally, and consequently, he is stigmatized by society and not allowed to pursue the same things. That's heartbreaking for Vincent, who has dreamed since his youth of traveling to space. In order to surpass the restrictive laws, he meets with Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), a disabled man who agrees to give him genetic material that will allow Vincent to take on his identity.

6. Training Day

Ethan Hawke has shared the screen with some respected co-stars, but few are quite as powerful as Denzel Washington. Washington is one of the greatest movie stars of all time, and he gives one of the best performances of his career (no easy feat) in Antoine Fuqua's brilliant 2001 cop thriller "Training Day." As corrupt Los Angeles Police Department officer Detective Alonzo Harris, Washington subverts his typically principled and heroic persona as a terrifying anti-hero.

As rookie cop Jake Hoyt, who's assigned as Harris' new partner, Hawke is the perfect foil to Washington's dominating performance. It's not a case in which Hawke is diminished by Washington. Hoyt is intended to be completely overwhelmed and terrified of Harris. Hoyt is an honest man who seeks an honorable career, but Harris pushes him to embrace indulgence and cover up his actions by exploiting the ignorance of the higher-ranking officials at the LAPD.

5. Dead Poets Society

Released in 1989, Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society" is one of the greatest coming-of-age films of its era. Its story is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Ethan Hawke and his co-stars depict deep friendships as sheltered boys who break free and develop more mature views of the world.

In the film, English professor John Keating (Robin Williams) is hired at the all-male prep school Welton Academy. Keating, a former Welton student, soon learns that the school is incredibly strict, and the boys are under intense stress to prepare for their futures. Keating suspects that this prevents them from developing as individuals and wants them to have a more complex understanding of art and literature. He decides to rip out the rules and develops his own inspiring curriculum that makes him beloved by his students.

Hawke is phenomenal as the sensitive student Todd Anderson who gains confidence through Keating's lessons. Williams is such a powerful performer that it's tough to share the screen, but his dynamic with Hawke is sincere.

4. Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

One of Ethan Hawke's strongest abilities is his talent for capturing the essence of the common man. Perhaps due to the fact that he's worked in so many different artistic fields, Hawke captures reality in a way that is always compelling. This is something that has paid off throughout his career, and in 2007 the late Sidney Lumet used Hawke's unique talents to great effect in his last feature "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead." The realism of Hawke's performance makes the film's complex moral questions even more difficult to consider.

The film centers around two brothers, Hank (Hawke) and Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who live in the shadow of their parents Charles (Albert Finney) and Nanette (Rosemary Harris). The older couple own a jewelry store. Scheming son Andy figures that both he and his brother could stage a robbery to make some quick cash. While Andy feels disillusioned with his parents, Hank is indifferent yet open to the possibility. The robbery goes horribly wrong and Nanette is shot and dies. Heartbroken, the brothers are tormented by guilt as they hide their secret.

3. Before Sunrise

Although Ethan Hawke has worked with writer-director Richard Linklater many times, they collaborated for the first time in 1995 with the romantic dramedy "Before Sunrise," beginning one of the most unique film trilogies of all time. Linklater, Hawke, and co-star Julie Delpy all returned nine years later for the sequel "Before Sunset," and reunited again after another nine years for the trilogy's conclusion in "Before Midnight." A film saga that isn't in the action, adventure, science fiction, fantasy, horror, or mainstream comedy genre is virtually unheard of, but viewers fell in love with the characters as they evolved over nearly two decades.

"Before Sunrise" is the classic that started it all, and Hawke delivers a brilliant performance that makes viewers want to see his story continue. He stars as American student and aspiring writer Jesse. Jesse travels to Europe while studying and meets a French woman named Celine (Delpy). He's instantly attracted to her, and the two travel around Vienna, reflecting on life, love, art, and beauty. The entire film is one extended conversation, and it wouldn't have worked at all if the characters weren't compelling. Hawke and Delpy have incredible chemistry, capturing an attraction that blossoms.

2. Boyhood

"Boyhood" has one of the most unique backstories of any film in history. Director Richard Linklater cast 6-year-old child actor Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr. in 2002 and filmed his childhood over the course of twelve years with a returning cast. That allowed Linklater to develop the story and show Coltrane maturing in real-time.

"Boyhood" required a loyal cast and crew to stick with the production over the extended time, and Hawke delivers a remarkable performance as Mason's father. He's a supportive yet irresponsible young man who is not able to properly interact with his wife Olivia (Patricia Arquette). They frequently argue about the best way to raise their child. Despite deeply loving his son, Mason Sr. doesn't get custody during their divorce. However, he continues to have a strong presence in his son's life, offering him practical and humorous advice as he comes of age.

There's a growing maturity in Hawke's performance and a realization of how he's shaping a young man's beliefs. Simple father and son bonding moments (such as discussions about girls, childhood camping trips, and baseball games) are completely heartfelt. The moments towards the film's conclusion in which Mason Sr. and Olivia reflect that they raised a good man are touching.

1. First Reformed

Faith is an incredibly challenging topic to tackle on screen. Many great writers and directors have struggled to express the deeply personal feelings and beliefs surrounding religion with compelling films that appeal to viewers regardless of their background. Faith is incredibly individual, and it's also hard to wrestle with belief in a modern context. While Paul Schrader has tackled these existential topics with his screenwriting work with Martin Scorsese, his 2018 directorial effort "First Reformed" is a magnum opus of brilliant modern contextualization. A future classic, "First Reformed" explores the trauma of a man whose fundamental thoughts are shaken by both personal tragedy and his growing disillusion with the world around him.

As Ernst Toller, Hawke gives the most powerful performance of his career, bringing to life one of the most complex film characters of the 21st century. Toller is a lonely pastor who is dealing with the death of his son, who was killed in Iraq. Compounding Toller's guilt is the fact that he encouraged him to enlist. Toller is met with more tragedy when a man under his guidance, a radical environmentalist named Michael Mensana (Philip Ettinger), takes his own life. He begins to care for Michael's wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and grows closer to her as he begins to question his beliefs. He asks if God can forgive the world for the destruction of natural resources, and he also questions if he can ever forgive himself and heal.