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Every Christian Bale Movie Performance, Ranked

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There’s a no-bullshit quality to Christian Bale’s persona — both onscreen and off — that’s been the hallmark of actor’s actors since Marlon Brando. Everything he does seem to be performed with maximum intensity and a minimum of vanity, most notably for the many times he’s either gained or lost a lot of weight for various roles over the years. That rare child actor to evolve into an indomitable leading man, Bale is notoriously dismissive of celebrity. And he has a prickly love-hate relationship with his craft, once saying, “There are moments of real sort of hatred of it and thinking that it’s the most pitiful, funny, ridiculous profession that you could ever pick. And it feels like anything but art; it feels as far from art as you could ever get. And then other moments where you go, ‘I love it! There’s all that crap that goes with it. Holy shit! I love it as well.’”

That intensity can cut both ways. At his best, the 48-year-old Oscar winner gives performances that feel bone-deep, his characters shedding parts of their souls as they struggle with demons they can’t control. At his worst, well, you have moments like his infamous 2009 freakout on Terminator Salvation cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, when his profanity-laden tirade was captured on audio and quickly went viral. And yet, the two projects that rank in the top spots on our list of his best performances are surprisingly modulated, even muted affairs. Sometimes, Bale overdoes his all-or-nothing demeanor, but he can bring complexity and humanity to iconic superheroes and smiling psychopaths.

With The Pale Blue Eye now streaming on Netflix, we’ve decided to revisit the actor’s career. What follows is our rundown of his 40 films, with our rankings geared toward his work, not necessarily the quality of the movie itself. (In at least one instance, Bale’s greatness easily outshines the project’s.) Not all of his choices have been winners, but there’s very little that’s pitiful or ridiculous on this list.

40. The Flowers of War (2011)

If you only see one film about the 1937 Nanking Massacre, make it Lu Chuan’s harrowing City of Life and Death, which depicts that atrocity in apocalyptically bleak terms. Unfortunately, Bale was in the other movie, a strained attempt at spectacle by House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou. The actor plays an American mortician caught in the middle of the conflict, trying to help a group of young women (including some prostitutes) escape the Japanese onslaught. The Flowers of War cheapens this story with a trite tale of noble heroism, and Bale’s sincerity doesn’t do much to enliven this well-intentioned dud.

39. The Promise (2016)

An unfortunate spiritual twin to The Flowers of War, The Promise is another misjudged melodrama based on real-life tragedy. The Armenian genocide serves as the backdrop of this drab romantic triangle between an Armenian pharmacist (Oscar Isaac), a gutsy American journalist (Bale), and the beautiful Armenian woman (Charlotte Le Bon) they both love. Terry George’s romantic drama never really takes off, and the depiction of the gathering Turkish threat possesses little sting. Even worse, this is one of Bale’s dutifully righteous performances, full of dull fire. Like the rest of The Promise, he succumbs to an excess of worthiness.

38. The Secret Agent (1996)

Bale has never been opposed to playing a character with some sort of affliction, and he got some early swings at it in this dead-on-arrival Joseph Conrad adaptation about an 1890s Londoner (Bob Hoskins) who gets involved in all sorts of accidental spy craft, with tragic consequences. Bale plays the son of a woman (Patricia Arquette) who finds herself stuck with many unfortunate people, and it’s early enough in Bale’s career where you can understand why he’d think it was a good call to play a kid with “mental retardation” in a movie with Bob Hoskins, Gerard Depardieu, and Robin Williams. It wasn’t.

37. All the Little Animals (1998)

And here’s another one with Bale playing a character with a mental affliction, from just a couple years later. All the Little Animals is a small movie about a young man (Bale) with brain damage suffered in a car accident who comes across a gentle older man (John Hurt) who spends his days burying animals killed on the side of the road. The movie is way too precious and self-aware, embodied in many ways by Bale’s performance, which is mannered in a way he’d mostly filter out when he got older.

36. Equilibrium (2004)

Eventually, Bale would become the linchpin of one of the biggest action-movie franchises of all time, but he was still feeling his way around here with this ridiculous “futurist” thriller about a police officer (Bale) drugged to have no emotions — until he misses a dosage and begins to feel. The movie, co-starring Taye Diggs, is incredibly dumb (it’s directed by a guy who once made a movie starring Brian Bosworth and M.C. Hammer), and the poster reveals it to be the Matrix knockoff you already suspected it would be. As it turned out, the Bale-Diggs combo would not go on to become box-office gold.

35. Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Holy Moses, is this movie silly. Putting aside for a moment that Ridley Scott cast white actors to play Egyptians, Exodus: Gods and Kings is the sort of old-fashioned, corny, lavish biblical epic that has little room for error. (Otherwise, it’s all just laughable.) Bale does what he can in the role of Moses, the man who will lead his people to freedom, but as with several of the films down at the bottom of this list, Exodus mostly demonstrates that the actor’s penchant for boringly decent heroes is a major liability. When the character is as dynamic and complex as Batman, it works. But when it’s a drab Moses who comes across as a pale rewrite of Russell Crowe’s Gladiator character, it doesn’t.

34. Terminator Salvation (2009)

Mostly known now for Bale’s infamous on-set rampage — always worth a revisit — this reboot of an eminently rebootable franchise ultimately isn’t worth the effort and dedication (insane dedication, but dedication nevertheless) that Bale brought to it. The movie is slow and turgid and forgettable, so much so that later Terminator sequels would pretend it never happened. Bale gets a big scene at the end, but all told, his John Connor might well be the most boring of all the John Connors. It’s fucking distracting!

33. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)

Well, this overly gauzy, sentimental, dull period romance hasn’t gotten any less dopey now that Nicolas Cage has been, well, Nicolas Cage for the last 20 years. Still, Bale has a couple of nice moments as Mandras, a Greek fisherman who loses his fiancée (Penelope Cruz) to a mandolin-playing pacifist (Cage, of course) but, all told, is pretty reasonable about it. Watching this now, Bale’s accent is surprisingly good — he has always been good at accents — and he looks far more comfortable than anyone else in the cast with all this cheese. This does not make the film that much easier to watch.

32. Harsh Times (2005)

Later in his career, David Ayer would become the alpha-male these-hard-streets director of End of Watch and Fury, along with the big-budget what-happened-here? director of Suicide Squad and Bright. But his first film as a director was the Very Male and Very Dramatic story of a former U.S. Ranger (Bale) who ends up getting caught up in the drug trade while dealing with his own post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a lean, muscular performance in a film that maybe has a little bit too much going on, and Bale’s the best, most honest thing about it. But it still feels like a rough draft for just about everyone involved.

31. The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Bale has a small role in Jane Campion’s famously stuffy and musty adaptation of the Henry James novel — Campion remains an underrated and underappreciated director, but this adaptation remains a poor fit; the whole film feels straitjacketed — and he hits his marks and does his job and takes no risks like everyone else in the film. He was still in his post-kid career at this point and didn’t quite have the confidence to take over a movie just yet. But he was getting there.

30. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

In the mood for Bale in a light Shakespearean comedy? Michael Hoffman’s slight, charming adaptation isn’t well-remembered — probably because the Bard’s work was getting the big-screen treatment a lot back then and, also, the tragedies tend to be more dynamic. Nonetheless, Bale is completely acceptable as Demetrius, an anxious young man engaged to one woman (Calista Flockhart) but in love with another (Anna Friel). Magic potions get involved — not to mention a surfeit of whimsy — but the actor does his best to ground the cutesiness in something real.

29. Reign of Fire (2002)

“I’m kind of attracted by movies where there is a real possibility of it going badly wrong. There have been movies where other people have said to me ‘You’re nuts for doing this! Why would you risk doing this?’, and I’ve kind of realized that that’s what I enjoy.” Bale’s gonzo instincts were probably never more rewarded than with this dragon-themed action movie, set in a near future — 2020, in fact — where humanity battles winged, fire-breathing monsters for dominion over the planet. To use a highfalutin film-theory term, Reign of Fire is totally bonkers, and Bale and co-star Matthew McConaughey have a blast playing survivors waging war against the beasts. This movie is not good … but it doesn’t go badly wrong, either.

28. Laurel Canyon (2003)

Lisa Cholodenko’s family dramedy about two East Coast academic snobs (Bale and Kate Beckinsale) who end up living with his sexually experimental mother (Frances McDormand) and her Britpop musician lover (Alessandro Nivola) is a bit of a mess, a movie with some great moments but also one that feels overly constructed and contrived. If nothing else, it’s a wonderful showcase for McDormand, who has as much of a blast as you’d think she would. Bale is a little dull here, but by design. He can play normal, everyday people if you want him to. But why bother?

27. Metroland (1997)

A straightforward, oddly mature movie about a young 1970s couple (Bale and Emily Watson) dealing with the sacrifice of their dreams and artistic ambitions for a dull middle-class lifestyle, Metroland is performatively earnest about this dilemma — one we’ve all seen in a thousand movies — and impressively understated. Bale gives a casual, almost calm performance as a guy who feels like his life has passed him by without him noticing, embodying the sensation without ever feeling particularly self-aggrandizing. The movie’s a little too modest to give you much to sink your teeth into, but it’s a quieter performance with a growing power.

26. The New World (2005)

Bale’s first pairing with Terrence Malick was in a supporting role, showing up deep into The New World as John Rolfe, an Englishman who swoops in to woo Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) after her love affair with John Smith (Colin Farrell) ends. It’s unusual to see Bale portray such an obviously nice guy — Rolfe is essentially the meek third leg of the movie’s romantic triangle — and his character represents the so-called civilized world that this young woman has never known. Bale gives Rolfe a little gravitas, but it’s not a particularly memorable part. (He and Malick would team up later for a meatier role about a decade later.)

25. Swing Kids (1993)

Probably the last of Bale’s “kid” roles, he’s Thomas, one of two best friends (along with Robert Sean Leonard’s Peter) who obsess over Benny Goodman and dance halls — until Nazi Germany takes over and the boys must choose their sides. Bale has the more interesting role as the youth who at first chooses Hitler out of expedience, but then becomes seduced by power and status. He’s a jagged edge that keeps the movie on its toes. Swing Kids is a bit silly, but you have to admire any actor who can stay in character when someone says to him, “You’re becoming a Nazi,” and he responds, screaming, “SO WHAT IF I AM?” The movie is very, very dated, but Bale’s performance isn’t.

24. Velvet Goldmine (1998)

You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Bale was in this sexy, challenging snapshot of 1970s glam rock. Velvet Goldmine focuses on its two most dynamic characters — the Bowie-like Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and the Iggy-esque Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) — with Bale playing an ’80s journalist investigating whatever happened to the reclusive Slade. Conceived as a strutting, glittery riff on Citizen Kane — different people the journalist interviews fill in Slade’s epic story — Todd Haynes’s film is best in its dizzy evocation of a boundary-shredding musical scene, but Bale’s curious reporter, understandably, just isn’t as dynamic as the rock stars.

23. Out of the Furnace (2013)

This gritty Rust Belt revenge thriller finds Bale playing Russell, a very flawed man and convicted felon, who goes looking for his missing brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), fearing that the Iraq War veteran and underground boxer may have been killed. Out of the Furnace overdoes the self-seriousness — it’s a movie about the neglected working class, man — but Bale is strong as someone with nothing but regrets. These sorts of portraits of tortured, thwarted masculinity are what he was put on Earth to do, and while it’s unsurprising that he’s great in the role, it also, well, doesn’t allow for a lot of surprises.

22. Hostiles (2017)

This story of an 1890s soldier (Bale) learning that the Native Americans he once despised are, in fact, people too, could have been obvious and overly self-righteous, and at times it is. But Bale gives a terrific lead performance as a man with passions and biases but also a basic human decency that he cannot deny. It’s probably too good a performance for the movie; it keeps finding truths that we’re not sure the movie is entirely interested in, and he has a lot of wordy dialogue to gnaw through in the screenplay. But Bale always gives you his all, even in a role a lot of leading men would sleep through. He does nothing halfway.

21. Little Women (1994)

Playing Laurie — that’s the Timothée Chalamet role to you — Bale flexes his swoon-worthy-romantic-interest muscles in Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel. And he succeeds in the part — he has good chemistry with both Jo (Winona Ryder) and Amy (Samantha Mathis) — although, as good as this Little Women is, it pales in comparison to both Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version and the work that Bale has done subsequently. It’s hard imagining this Bale coming back anytime soon, although it is a nice reminder that he can be dashing and lovable onscreen.

20. Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Saying Bale is the best thing in this bloated, erratic, weirdly lazy Taika Waititi sequel is to state the obvious: That Bale even tries at all gives him a leg up on just about everyone on either side of the camera. (Except for the screaming goats.) And Bale really tries, giving his Gorr the God Butcher a deep, penetrating sadness that the movie itself has zero interest in trying to match. Bale said he disliked making the film because of all the green-screen acting, but he’s the only one here who looks even slightly engaged. His energy is wasted.

19. Newsies (1992)

Considering Newsies’ reputation today — and the massively successful Broadway show it inspired — you would think everyone loved it back in the day. But the film was a financial disaster, on par with Howard the Duck and Ishtar. (It actually got six Razzie nominations, and won Worst Original Song.) It’s sort of remarkable to think now, because, hey, the movie’s pretty good! And it has a good message for kids! And it has a lively, very-light-on-his-feet performance from Bale, who was only 17 when he made the film but carries it effortlessly. There’s an inherent troublemaking nature to him that can’t be repressed by the big Disney musical. And he can dance too. Can we see him dance like this again?

18. I’m Not There (2007)

Todd Haynes’s kaleidoscope of Bob Dylans — reflecting the legendary American singer-songwriter during different periods and personae — features Bale as a more straightforward representation. He’s Jack Rollins, the folkie-era Dylan who was honing his “voice of a generation” rep while penning protest tunes. The actor nails the musician’s mumbling, scrawny awkwardness, and then does a clever shift to Dylan’s born-again period. There’s soulfulness and wit in the performance, although that doesn’t change the fact that some of the other Dylans are more dynamic or moving. (Ironically, Bale’s future Batman co-star, Heath Ledger, makes a greater impact playing an actor who plays Jack Rollins in a biopic.)

17. Amsterdam (2022)

For as much as Bale shows up in David O. Russell’s films, he often seems more tethered and focused than his director himself. Bale may like the maelstrom of madness of a Russell set, but he always anchors his characters in something real and stable. That’s certainly true in Amsterdam, in which Bale plays Burt Berendsen, an eccentric drug-addicted World War I veteran who has a fake eye, tons of Russell-familiar quirks, and, as it turns out, the biggest heart of anybody in the film. The more Russell stops and focuses on Bale, the better the film is. But the mess that surrounds Bale’s performances makes it ultimately impossible to find anything to latch onto.

16. The Pale Blue Eye (2023)

This dark (but oddly conventional) historical-fictional drama switches up the usual Bale dynamic: He plays straight man Augustus Landor, a brilliant detective called upon to solve a murder at West Point, who teams up with, of all people, Edgar Allan Poe, a cadet at the school. Harry Melling is all quirks and elaborate line readings as Poe, and he’s fine, but he doesn’t leave much scenery for Bale to chew. Instead, Bale portrays Landor as a tortured, grieving widower with a secret in his past. It’s a good performance and another sign of how he never sleepwalks through anything. But it still might not have been worth his time.

15. Knight of Cups (2015)

Yes, it would be fair to call this Terrence Malick project “polarizing.” Which is to say: We might be the only people on the planet who like Knight of Cups. But we do like it, partly because Malick has a way of making anything feel epic and eternal (even the story of a morose screenwriter whose life is somehow miserable even though his main problem in life is having to choose between Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman), and largely because of Bale, who finds a spiritual center to this sad sack of a character in spite of it all. This movie is so all over the place that Ben Kingsley is briefly a narrator even though he’s not in the film — Thomas Lennon’s report of how he ended up in the film is a must-read — but Bale, against impossible odds, gives it a weighted foundation around which all the madness spins. Ignore all the other stuff and just watch Bale. He’s consistent, even when nothing else in the film is.

14. Rescue Dawn (2006)

Pair filmmaker Werner Herzog (an artist known for his bleak view of humanity) and actor Christian Bale (an artist willing to put his body through physical ordeals in service of a dramatic story), and you’d expect a movie that isn’t for the faint of heart. And while Rescue Dawn is certainly harrowing — a drama about real-life pilot Dieter Dengler, who was captured by the enemy during the Vietnam War and then fought his way to freedom — this ends up being one of the most crowd-pleasing films in either man’s oeuvre. Dengler endured endless torture and other miseries — escaping from prison was just the beginning of his ordeal in the jungle — but Bale plays him as a determined optimist, an indomitable spirit that cannot be crushed. A little underrated, Rescue Dawn is ripe for rediscovery.

13. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

A wonderfully manly man showdown between tough-guy actors, this remake casts Russell Crowe as a charming outlaw who will be transported by Bale’s beleaguered Civil War vet to the titular train, which will take him to his trial. As one might imagine, things don’t go smoothly, and much of the pleasure of 3:10 to Yuma comes from the back-and-forth posturing of these two characters: one, funny and pure evil; the other, honorable but troubled. Crowe has the showier part, but Bale imbues the movie with a sense of what it means to be heroic in trying circumstances — he’s not just fighting to bring this man to justice but also to redeem himself. This gripping, no-nonsense Western needs Bale’s steady hand, and he delivers with a performance that is surprisingly moving and rousing.

12. Public Enemies (2009)

Christian Bale seems like the ideal Michael Mann actor: The Heat auteur often populates his movies with intense, brooding types. But to date, Public Enemies is their only collaboration, although it’s a really good one. As Melvin Purvis, the Fed assigned to take down John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Bale is assigned the tricky task of playing a decidedly uncharismatic fellow. (The irony was that Dillinger, the criminal, was a beloved antihero, while the culture tended to view a guy like Purvis as the villain.) But that dynamic pays off: Bale gives us a law-and-order type who decides to push the boundaries of his authority in the name of capturing this bank robber. (At the time, Public Enemies definitely seemed to be commenting on America’s erosion of liberties in the wake of 9/11.) Bale’s startling as a good guy who’s in danger of going bad.

11. Vice (2018)

It’s here that we remind you that these rankings are based on the performance, not the overall film. Adam McKay’s toxically smug dissection of Dick Cheney fails to take the full measure of this monstrous vice-president, but even so, Bale taps into something elemental about the man’s arrogance and domineering personality. Sure, the Oscar-winning makeup helps transform the actor into Cheney, but the voice and petulance are all Bale, whose conjuring of this scoundrel ought to trigger PTSD for anyone who survived the Dubya years.

10. Shaft (2000)

This John Singleton adaptation/reboot of the blaxploitation classic isn’t particularly interesting — though it’s about 4 million times better than last year’s limp sequel — but it has, sort of out of nowhere, an absolutely thrilling villain performance from Bale. He plays Walter Wade Jr., a slimy real-estate heir who teams with a drug lord to try to take down Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft. It’s a relatively small performance, but it’s fairly remarkable how much Bale looms over the entire film. His smug iciness here would serve him well playing both Patrick Bateman and Bruce Wayne. And goodness, is he chillingly convincing as a racist prick.

9. The Prestige (2006)

Reuniting with Christopher Nolan after their success together on Batman Begins, Bale seemed to enjoy playing a character whose mixture of darkness and light was, this time, far more toward the former. The hypercompetitive magician Borden is locked in mortal combat with his nemesis, Angier (Hugh Jackman), and what remains fascinating about The Prestige is how devoted its cast and director are to depicting this rivalry between two utterly charmless protagonists. We mean that as a compliment: Rarely has a feud seemed so despicable and desperate, and Bale seems to goad his co-star to greater depths of pettiness, each character so obsessed with winning that nothing shall stand in their way. Snide and rocking a mammoth chip on his shoulder, Borden is a terrific son of a bitch, and to Bale’s credit, he never asks us to sympathize with the guy. No wonder this film — and these performances — have earned cult status. It’s wonderfully chilly.

8. The Machinist (2004)

Bale famously lost 62 pounds — getting down to 120! — for the role of an assembly-line worker who is troubled by visions and perhaps the guilt of a horrible repressed crime. Bale actually wanted to get down to 98 pounds, but the filmmakers wouldn’t let him, and it’s difficult to imagine him looking any more disturbing than he does here. He matches the physical commitment with an emotional one: He is playing a man who is truly lost in every possible way, in ways he hasn’t even figured out yet. The Machinist is a little too self-consciously grungy to have the same impact today — the lead character is named after Trent Reznor, for crying out loud — but Bale is as haunting now as he was then. And fortunately, he did eventually start eating again.

7. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Bale was 12 when Steven Spielberg cast him in the incredibly challenging role of Jim, the son of a wealthy British family who gets separated during World War II and ends up in a Japanese prison camp. Originally meant to be directed by David Lean, Empire of the Sun was taken over by Spielberg as an homage to Lean, and while those two filmmakers’ sensibilities and skills might not necessarily match up, it’s fun to see Spielberg taking a bigger, wider swing than he had before. Not all of it works, but Bale is essentially perfect, portraying both the innocence and the increasing alienation of his young hero. In many ways, the child-actor version of Bale feels very different than the grown-up, risk-taking Bale of adulthood. But you can see the overlap here. You can both see the actor he was, and the one he would become.

6. Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

For the first time in his career, Bale got to use his natural Welsh accent here, though he told reporters that it was actually an odd variation, a distinct dialect that’s a little different, and however true to life it might be, here, it sings and sings and sings: This is a movie where you’ll find yourself trying to talk like Bale’s Ken Miles for hours afterward. He has a thick, meaty role as a difficult, temperamental mechanic who is a brilliant driver but also uncompromising. He meets his perfect partner in Matt Damon’s Carroll Shelby, who is more willing to play the corporate game … but only to a point. This is an extremely likable Bale performance, one that’s a little less showy but that still allows him to find the perfect little ridge for him to settle into and make his own. This is also one of the few movies where Bale plays a father. He’s excellent at it.

5. American Hustle (2013)

David O. Russell’s Scorsese homage/ripoff/cosplay is, in many ways, an ode to actorly indulgence, with a whole cast of Big Name Actors, from Bradley Cooper to Jennifer Lawrence to Jeremy Renner to, uh, Louis C.K., playing everything as far over the top as they can. Sometimes that works, but more often it doesn’t; we’re still not entirely sure what Lawrence’s role in this movie is, other than a big lip-sync and dance sequence. Which is why it’s all the more remarkable how centered and focused Bale is. He has a bad toupee and a big gut and a gaudy ’70s and ’80s wardrobe, but it’s him, along with Amy Adams, who keeps pulling American Hustle back from its improvisational excesses and keeping it grounded in real, believable human behavior. The moment at the end, when he and Adams have a private conference to themselves, feels almost like a hideout from the rest of the film: There is calm with the two of them that isn’t there anywhere else.

4. The Big Short (2015)

Michael Burry was a hedge-fund manager who saw the truth before anyone: The housing market was about to collapse due to risky subprime loans. What Burry did in response is just one aspect of Adam McKay’s very entertaining multi-narrative drama, which could be seen as the origin story of the Great Recession. A prickly, antisocial loner who loved numbers and heavy metal, Burry is brought to vivid, sympathetic light by Bale, who sees him as an isolated genius destined to be smarter than all those around him — and for that knowledge not to give him a lot of comfort. The performance is a bit tic-y, but Bale makes him such a ferociously smart person that you get swept up in his feverish intensity. Other elements of The Big Short are funnier, but Bale is perhaps the film’s most soulful individual.

3. The Fighter (2010)

Bale won his Oscar for playing Dicky Eklund, the coulda-been contender who watched his potential slip away as he sank deeper into addiction. This wasn’t the first time Bale lost a substantial amount of weight for a role, but his commitment to that physical transformation helped emphasize how much Eklund had literally wasted away, setting the stage for the bitter rivalry he has with his kid brother, Micky (Mark Wahlberg), who might find the glory in the ring that eluded him. There’s a lot of pain and sorrow in the performance, but also a lot of love as Eklund rallies to become Micky’s biggest champion, willing Micky to become the winner he himself never was.

2. The Dark Knight films (2005, 2008, 2012)

What right did an English actor have playing Bruce Wayne? Also, Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan were the ones who made The Dark Knight a masterpiece. And, seriously, what was up with that growly Batman voice? Those and other complaints have been leveled at Christian Bale ever since he donned the cowl for Batman Begins, a movie that went a long way on his sensitive, intelligent portrayal of a spoiled, wayward Bruce who finally grows up (and fights crime). Before Bale, our Batmen were comics or hams — we’d never had a properly grounded Bruce Wayne — but the Dark Knight trilogy changed the world’s perception of the jet-setting playboy with all the cool gadgets. His villains were flamboyant, but Bruce was mournful, reluctant — no onscreen superhero has more palpably wrestled with not wanting to be a superhero. As for Ledger, as extraordinary as he is in The Dark Knight, it’s Bale’s Batman who provides that film’s final, crushing twist. For movies that made billions of dollars and have been endlessly debated online ever since, it’s very possible that the actor who played the title role still hasn’t been given his due.

1. American Psycho (2000)

Has there ever been a better summary of the greatness of this performance than the fact that Ivanka Trump saw the film and said that Bale’s Patrick Bateman was her “ideal man”? Bale understood what writer-director Mary Harron was doing from the get-go, agreeing to do the film because he thought it was hilarious, which was of course the intention all along. Bale’s Bateman is a monster, but more than anything, he’s the ultimate American monster: His sociopathy is the logical extension of a homicidal ethos of self-actualization, self-realization, and self-care. Bateman is Wall Street (and Main Street, really) greed and avarice taken to a nightmarish degree, and it says all you need to know about the film and Bale’s genius in it that he could murder countless people in horrifying ways and Ivanka Trump would find him impossibly sexy in it. And you know what? She’s sort of right. Bale’s fearlessness and total commitment found the perfect role and director here, and he’ll never match it. Few actors could. Now, if you’ll excuse him, he has to return some videotapes.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

Every Christian Bale Movie, Ranked