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The 11 best Christian Bale performances, ranked

As a Christian Bale superfan, you must see every one of these movies

Christian Bale in American Psycho
Landmark Media / Alamy

You may know him as a psychotic murderer, a trickster magician, a malnourished insomniac, or maybe even as an innocent young boy, but you probably know him as Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Whatever the answer is, you’re right. Christian Bale is all of those things and more.

Starting his career at the age of 12, it took Bale just one year to star in Empire of the Sun, which is a big film on our list today. Very shortly after that, he featured in a slew of other films, such as Henry V, Treasure Island, and Newsies, all before he turned 18. Known for his versatility and method of acting, Bale has been in the acting game for the majority of his life (over 45 years). So it’s fair to say that he’s one of the most recognizable actors worldwide at this point, easily in the top 50.

The most likely reason for his popularity involves the dramatic transformations he commits to in order to become the role he is playing, never shying away from a physical challenge. Bale has shifted from 120 pounds to 228 pounds, fat or muscle, to become his character. Bale has since made public statements about his transformations, stating that he will stop doing it at an older age and that it’s not healthy for anyone. In an interview with Yahoo Entertainment in 2019 for Ford v. Ferrari, Bale said, “I worry when it becomes sort of a marker of ‘Oh how committed are you to a role? How much did you lose?'” and, “I worry about this becoming a regular conversation because it isn’t healthy for people to do that. And it becomes kind of a marker of commitment to your craft or whatever, and it was never … I never viewed it as that.” Many are glad to hear him say that because even though his methods certainly worked in his favor, his overall health has suffered in the long run.

What we’re really here to talk about is the incredible performances that come with his roles that he dives headfirst into. Working with many big-name actors and directors is just one highlight of his career that definitely supports his performances, but that’s not always the case, as we’ll see very soon. So let’s begin with the ranking of the best Christian Bale movies.

11. Reign of Fire (2002)

11. Reign of Fire
39 %
pg-13 101m
Genre Adventure, Action, Fantasy
Stars Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Izabella Scorupco
Directed by Rob Bowman
Not many have seen this one but if you have, hear me out for a bit. It’s definitely not the best movie and the effects are pretty dated but I’m not here to rate the movie quality, I’m here to rate the performance of our guy. It’s the lowest on the list today, which I’m sure you can forgive me. A young boy goes to the mine where his mother works on the wrong day: the day that she awakens a giant fire-breathing dragon that kills basically everyone but him. 20 years later, Quinn (Bale) is the leader of a pack of survivors living in a castle, just doing their best to survive the dragons that have since multiplied to the hundreds. Call it a guilty pleasure, this film was my first exposure to Christian Bale, stumbled upon on a fateful solo movie night. Like it or not, this movie is fun and boasts an original premise that definitely gets the imagination going. Enough with the defenses. Christian Bale shows a wide array of human emotions throughout the film, all of which you would expect from a man sheltering families and friends from vicious ash-spewing and flesh-consuming dragons. Not only that, but it works. It definitely helps to have the McConaughey contrast as the American scapegoat, and I thought these two had some great chemistry together.

10. Equilibrium (2002)

10. Equilibrium
33 %
Genre Action, Science Fiction, Thriller
Stars Christian Bale, Taye Diggs, Angus Macfadyen
Directed by Kurt Wimmer
Adopting an Orson Welles futurism theme, Equilibrium explores a sci-fi topic with over-the-top action gusto. In a future world where “peace is achieved,” humans must take daily medication to suppress human emotions. Unfortunately for this society, where there is conformity, there will be rebellion. Christian Bale plays top agent John Preston, called a “Cleric,” who is tasked with locating and eliminating rebels and anything that evokes human emotion — books, art, puppies, etc. Featuring Taye Diggs as a rival Cleric and Sean Bean doing what he does best (if you know, you know), this movie is all-out-action sci-fi fun to a highly rewatchable degree. When Preston begins to see the negatives of what he is doing, his arc has surprising depth for a movie with a Syfy channel film quality. Beyond his stellar performance, this is the first film we get to see Bale in fast-paced Batman-like action but with more of an anime/kung fu feel to it. When it’s not a thoroughly entertaining movie, Bale basically carries the film through whatever metaphorical mud puddles we occasionally encounter in the plot.

9. American Hustle (2013)

9. American Hustle
Genre Drama, Crime
Stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams
Directed by David O. Russell
American Hustle is a black comedy crime film that tells a fictionalized story inspired by the real-life FBI Abscam operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a brilliant con man, runs a network of profitable scams, including forgery and loan-sharking. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is Irving’s seductive and cunning partner in crime who poses as a British aristocrat named Lady Edith Greensly. Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is an ambitious, slightly unhinged FBI agent determined to make his mark. Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) is the passionate mayor of Camden, New Jersey, concerned about revitalizing his city. Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) is Irving’s unpredictable and volatile wife. Irving and Sydney are caught red-handed by Richie DiMaso, but to avoid jail time, Richie offers a deal to help the FBI trap corrupt politicians in a sting operation.

8. The Machinist (2004)

8. The Machinist
61 %
Genre Thriller, Drama
Stars Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
Directed by Brad Anderson
In his most extreme physical transformation, Bale becomes the 120 lb insomniac for Brad Andersons’ The Machinist. As an industrial factory employee by the name of Trevor Reznik, Bale hasn’t slept in over a year due to his insomnia. As the days go on, he has a very hard time differentiating what is real and what is fantasy. Bale — being the method actor he was so well known to be — prepared for months before shooting, on a daily diet of water, an apple, coffee, and lots of cigarettes. At one point, he mentioned that his physical transformation had him in a very “Zen” state of mind, which sounds like maybe he was chronically on the verge of sleep. Even though this film is famously known for the weight loss that Bale went through to portray the chronic insomniac, that doesn’t take away from the thrilling narrative that successfully makes the audience question the same reality. Like a handful of the films Christian stars in, there is a big twist at the end, which really makes the film the watch-worthy thriller it is.

7. The Dark Knight (2008)

7. The Dark Knight
84 %
Genre Drama, Action, Crime, Thriller
Stars Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine
Directed by Christopher Nolan
In the second and most successful installment of the series, The Dark Knight is renowned as a dark tale that makes you question what side you are on, or if there even are sides. Batman, Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) have kept crime to an all-time low with their untainted service of justice, giving Bruce Wayne the idea that retirement and a happy life with Rachel might be attainable. Until a new enemy bent on absolute chaos, The Joker (Heath Ledger), flips everything on its head. Though Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance shines in the spotlight, Bale brings his best, further exploring the flawed and troubled character of Bruce Wayne. In the third act, the emotional anguish that Bruce feels is evident through Bales’ performance, showcasing the slowly but surely breaking of his spirit. Bale does the character of Batman justice by showing that he and Bruce must be two separate entities, bound by their moral contract not to kill no matter what.

6. Empire of the Sun (1987)

6. Empire of the Sun
62 %
Genre Drama, History, War
Stars Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson
Directed by Steven Spielberg
As mentioned initially, Christian was acting in big productions before he even hit puberty, the most renowned of which is one of the best Steven Spielberg history dramas: Empire of the Sun. When China is occupied by Japan during WWII, a young, privileged English boy named Jim, living in Shanghai, must learn to survive on his own through harsh and shocking times. Christian Bale is about 13 years old in this film, which is hard to imagine since his performance has considerable depth. Granted, this is due in part to Spielberg’s direction — which included having Bale run a few laps and jump around before each take — but that doesn’t take away from the very real emotions we see a young Christian display. Between his separation from his parents (calm down it’s barely a spoiler), the absolute isolation, and the cultural complexity only increased by introducing Japanese culture to the already unfamiliar Chinese customs, you begin to feel how young Jim feels through his experiences and subtle facial expressions. In an interview with Gene Shalit in 1987, Shalit asks a young Christian what he hopes to do next. Christian replies, “I wanna do another film … I can only do one film cause of English laws … But I definitely wanna do acting now.” As we all know, he followed through and became the legend he is today.

5. Vice (2018)

5. Vice
61 %
Genre Comedy, Drama
Stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell
Directed by Adam McKay
In an unlikely film from director Adam McKay, Vice explores a period in recent American history through a lens of black comedy and political horror. Long-time Washington insider Dick Cheney (Bale) is offered the position of Vice President by the newly elected George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), which Cheney graciously accepts along with total control over the bureaucracy, foreign policy, the military, and energy policy. A little exaggerated for comedic effect and shock value, most of the facts displayed in the narrative are true, which makes for more of a horrifying exposé rather than a dramedy. Besides the sometimes wavering plot, Bales’ performance in this role is totally on point with how you might expect a man like Dick Cheney to be. In an on-set interview with Bale, he said that he came to the set with his own political bias at the door, also stating that “I’m going to try as much as I can to come at it from a positive point of view.” Even so, it’s hard not to see Cheney as the big bad wolf of recent American history through this lens, considering the monumental impact that he and Bush’s two terms had on the entire world. Bale has said that he gained over 40 pounds to become this character, a decision he said he later regretted.

4. Batman Begins (2005)

4. Batman Begins
Genre Action, Crime, Drama
Stars Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes
Directed by Christopher Nolan
In the first and highly successful installment of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Batman Begins is undoubtedly original and arguably the best hero origin story for the dark vigilante of comics. When a young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his parents and ultimately blames himself, his revenge attempt is thwarted by another interested party. Shamed by his closest friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) for choosing violence, he banishes himself to the Far East, where he learns how to fight and protect himself, attracting the attention of the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), who hones his fighting and stealth skills to become the Batman. Differing from all other iterations of the character, Nolan’s adaptation creates a Batman story focused on the character and the humanistic flaws of Bruce Wayne. This is something Christian Bale took to heart, portraying a younger and angstier Bruce as well as the elder, more mentally and physically trained Bruce Wayne. Probably his most popular role, many will look at Christian Bale as Batman for many years to come. Fun fact: This production began filming just a short 6 months after The Machinist, forcing Bale to put on almost 100 pounds of muscle in that time.

3. Ford v Ferrari (2019)

3. Ford v Ferrari
81 %
pg-13 153m
Genre Drama, Action, History
Stars Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Jon Bernthal
Directed by James Mangold
In his most recent film Ford v Ferrari, Bale takes on another figure from history, and this time much lesser known. Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the auto designer, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), the driver, share only a couple of things in common: their love for cars and going fast. When they decide they want to defeat Enzo Ferrari and his fine machines at Le Mans, they must partner up against many odds to create a Ford automobile that can meet their standards of speed and efficiency. Ken Miles was a consistent racer and a brilliant mechanic, making him perfect for the job. However, his incessant pushback against corporate control became a problem throughout his career. Bale is hilariously brash in his portrayal of Miles, which I can only assume is exactly how he behaved, considering the detail of this unique biopic. The film properly details the brotherly bond the two men form, maintaining a thoroughly entertaining narrative that is also visually impressive.

2. The Prestige (2006)

2. The Prestige
66 %
pg-13 130m
Genre Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction
Stars Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine
Directed by Christopher Nolan
“Are you watching closely?” Based on the novel from Christopher Priest, The Prestige is a gritty period piece that brings a new edge to magicians in the Edwardian Era who fight to impress and surprise audiences everywhere. Two rival magicians, set at odds by a previous partnership gone awry, compete to achieve the greatest illusion of all: Teleportation. Brilliantly acted by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, both characters vie for your sympathy as they obsessively construct their illusions, sacrificing humanity and decency in the process, as magic is all they have. As both characters are supplied with tragic and divisive backgrounds, it’s pretty hard to pick a favorite and even harder to distinguish who the true protagonist was meant to be. Since we’re talking about Christian, however, this is absolutely one of his best performances. Without getting into spoilers, the end twist is fantastic and makes a second viewing of the film that much more spectacular, making it easier to see all of the intricate details and differences Bale adds to the character. This is one of the best movies with Christian Bale and definitely one of the best Christopher Nolan films to date.

1. American Psycho (2000)

1. American Psycho
64 %
r 102m
Genre Thriller, Drama, Crime, Horror
Stars Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto
Directed by Mary Harron
In the psychological horror/thriller/black comedy American Psycho, we witness a terrifyingly emotionally unstable performance by Christian Bale that is hard to forget. Patrick Bateman (Bale) is a wealthy investment banker with a pretty wife and a pretty life; his hobbies, however, are religious exercise, daily skincare routines, fancy dinners, and plotting and carrying out personally motivated murders. One of the most incredibly intricate performances of Bale’s career, he displays the entire spectrum of human emotion on an exaggerated scale. Between hatred, disgust, jubilance, indifference, soullessness, and distress, Bale becomes the horribly confused and twisted Patrick Bateman to a T. Being a somewhat new face on the silver screen (as an adult), Bale was later informed by co-star Josh Lucas that many of his fellow cast members thought that Christian was “the worst actor they’d ever seen.” Unfortunate to hear for sure, but all this tells me is that, like many viewers upon it’s screening, they simply didn’t understand what the film was trying to be.

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Connor Sheppard
Connor Sheppard is an Oregon-grown culture writer for The Manual. Intrigued from a young age by pop culture and movies, he…
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