Christian Bale
(Credit: Harald Krichel)

From Christopher Nolan to Werner Herzog: Christian Bale’s 10 best films ranked

Art is something to be proud of. Art is no compromise.” – Christian Bale

English actor Christian Bale has become an instantly recognisable talent in the world of modern cinema. He is known for his exceptional method acting and his versatile approach, featuring in immensely popular films like The Dark Knight trilogy as well as cult-classics like American Psycho. Bale has several accolades to his name, including an Academy Award and two Golden Globe Awards.

While speaking of his acting method, Bale said, “There is a much easier way, but I can’t do it. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have any training. I see actors who can just be themselves and then switch and give these really incredible performances, and then switch back to being themselves. I find I start laughing because I’m too aware that it’s still me. So I try to get as distant as possible. Otherwise, I can’t do it.”

He also revealed, “I am not in it because I like being the centre of attention. In fact, I can’t stand it, unless I am acting – then I can do anything, I don’t care. But as myself, I like to be very low key in my life. I’ve always really admired actors, but I don’t know the history of movies very well and I am not really a movie buff in the slightest. So I do just consider the bigger roles to be other acting jobs and then I am very surprised when people say, ‘Oh, you are a movie star now.’ I really don’t think I’m cut from that cloth.”

On his 47th birthday, we take a look at some of the finest acting roles in Christian Bale’s illustrious oeuvre as a celebration of one of the top actors of his generation.

Christian Bale’s top 10 films ranked:

10. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog – 2006)

Based on the true story of a German-American pilot (played by Christian Bale) who was shot down and captured during the Vietnam War, Rescue Dawn is a film about the human condition. It focuses on Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape his hellish captivity, against all odds. For his performance, Bale earned a Satellite Award nomination for Best Actor.

Bale recalled, “With us, Werner included, doing things that everyone was looking at saying, ‘But guys, you’re going to die! What are you doing? You’re going to really catch a wild snake and maybe get bitten by it!’ Those are great times. These crazy helicopter pilots in Thailand taking off the tops of trees as we were flying so low over the jungle; those times were great for me. I just enjoy them monumentally.”

9. Out of the Furnace (Scott Cooper – 2013)

A deeply performance-driven film by Scott Cooper, Out of the Furnace stars Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as the Baze brothers. When Rodney (Affleck) gets into trouble with the wrong guys and disappears, Russell (Bale) embarks on an intense search for his brother.

Speaking of Bale’s character, Scott Cooper said, “This is a man who as I was writing this character, I always thought of him as a very good man who is beset on all sides by a relentless fate. It was based on someone in my life who has suffered a great deal of tragedy and pain and loss, and who is one of the most positive people that I know, and is someone who has given me a great source of inspiration.”

8. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg – 1987)

Based on J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun gave Bale his first starring role at the age of 13. He is brilliant as a young schoolboy who gets separated from his parents during the Japanese Invasion of Shanghai, capturing the existential terror of such a situation. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and ‘Best Motion Picture’ at the Golden Globe Awards.

Spielberg reflected, “I really had come to terms with what I’ve been tenaciously clinging to, which was a celebration of a kind of naiveté… But I just reached a saturation point, and I thought Empire was a great way of performing an exorcism on that period. I had never read anything with an adult setting… where a child saw things through a man’s eyes as opposed to a man discovering things through the child in him.”

7. The Machinist (Brad Anderson – 2004)

Mostly remembered for Bale’s remarkable display of body transformation, The Machinist is a competent psychological thriller which stars Bale as an insomnia patient who is extremely emaciated because of his condition. The film chronicles his descent into paranoid insanity in a gripping way. For this role, Bale ended up losing more than 62 pounds.

Bale said, “It’s an amazing experience doing that. When you’re so skinny that you can hardly walk up a flight of stairs … you’re, like, this being of pure thought. It’s like you’ve abandoned your body. That’s the most Zen-like state I’ve ever been in my life. Two hours sleep, reading a book for 10 hours straight without stopping … unbelievable. You couldn’t rile me up. No rollercoaster of emotions.”

6. Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold – 2019)

One of the most popular films of 2019, James Mangold’s highly engaging sports drama features Matt Damon as an automobile designer and Christian Bale as a race car driver. They team up in order to design a unique racing machine for Ford, battling institutional interference along the way. For his performance, Bale earned several nominations including a Golden Globe bid.

“I think you don’t have to give a damn about cars at all,” the actor said. “Everybody can relate to the story in terms of the passion they have for something that they want to do with their lives and the hurdles that are standing in their way, whether it be from outside sources or demons in themselves.”

5. American Hustle (David O. Russell – 2013)

Inspired by the FBI Abscam operation, David O. Russell’s 2013 crime comedy features Christian Bale as a balding, obese con artist who gets stuck helping the FBI in a sting operation designed to expose corrupt politicians. Bale received high praise for his brilliant work, winning a SAG Ensemble Cast Award, as well as earning his second Oscar nomination and his second nomination for a Golden Globe.

The director commented, “I knew that Christian was going to be very excited about that — playing somebody that looked nothing like anybody he’d ever played before, and whose whole energy in his soul — you know, it’s not just about the outside. I mean that’s what makes someone a great actor, is it’s all from the inside.”

4. The Big Short (Adam McKay – 2015)

A funny yet painful biographical film about the financial crisis of 2008, The Big Short explores the ignorance surrounding the precarious condition of the housing bubble in the United States before it all unravelled. Christian Bale is brilliant as Michael Burry, a shy financial expert who predicts the stock market collapse and defies pressure from his investors in order to capitalise on his conviction. He earned his third Oscar nomination as well as his third Golden Globe nomination for his phenomenal performance.

Bale said of Michael Burry, “I think he enjoys separating himself from Wall Street, from any influences that would not be positive. He knows what he’s doing. He just wants to be left alone to get on with that. He’s not your slick typical Wall Street financier. He doesn’t go near Wall Street. Has a brilliant mind. And really no vanity about him. So, very entertaining, charming character who I really enjoyed getting to know.”

3. The Dark Knight Trilogy (Christopher Nolan – 2005, 2008, 2012)

Many argue that Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the mythology of Batman is probably the most fascinating addition to its rich cinematic legacy. At the centre of Nolan’s investigations is Bale’s Batman, a complex figure who violently oscillates between the civility of Bruce Wayne and the darkness of Batman. The underlying psychological conflict that Bale brings ends up adding immensely to the always elusive figure of the masked vigilante.

“Batman, he’s this very, very dark, messed-up character,” the actor said. “I found when I put on the suit I went, ‘I just feel like a bloody idiot if I don’t use this as a means to (show) his true, monstrous self that he allows to come out in that moment.’”

2. The Fighter (David O. Russell – 2010)

Based on the life of boxer Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg), this 2010 sports drama film stars Bale as Ward’s half-brother/trainer who struggles with addiction and turns to a life of crime. Bale is stunning in his approach to the character, showcasing his penchant for showcasing the undeniable pathos. For his powerful performance, Bale won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

Bale explained, “The Fighter is about brotherly love, it’s about loyalty, about family, family dysfunctions, the need to change, the pain of change, but ultimately, the triumph of people who love each other, managing to find a healthy way to unite and that they’re unstoppable at that point.”

1. American Psycho (Mary Harron – 2000)

One of the most well-known investigations of the mind of a psychopath in popular culture, American Psycho is a terrifying case study of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). Bateman is a wealthy investment banker who follows his capitalist conquests to its logical conclusion, indulging in homicidal fantasies and acts of transgression. Bale is extremely convincing as the psychologically deranged banker, constructing an iconic character who is truly hard to forget.

Harron said, “At the time [it came out], people who didn’t like the film or were dismissive of it were saying, ‘Oh, well, we knew all that about the ’80s.’ But to me, it was never just about the ’80s. It was about American vulture capitalism—and not just American, really. Bateman is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with [this system], all the worst and craziest forces—obsession with surfaces, obsession with status, obsession with acquisition.”

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