×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Christian Bale’s 10 Best Performances

In conjunction with the world premiere of Scott Cooper’s western “Hostiles,” actor Christian Bale will receive a tribute to his screen legacy at the Telluride Film Festival this weekend. It’s a rare treat for the Oscar winner, who tends to avoid this kind of thing. But he’s passionate about the new film and, following a string of undeniable performances that many would say qualifies him as the greatest actor of his generation, now is as good a time as any to raise a glass to one of the great ongoing cinema careers.

Bale’s commitment to the form has been evident from the word go. A former child actor who effortlessly bridged the gap to an acclaimed run of commercial and art house successes, he has been noted for his versatility and dedication to character. His portfolio is wide and varied, so settling on his 10 best performances thus far, pre-“Hostiles” — let alone ranking them in a satisfying fashion — is a fool’s errand.

But let’s give it a shot anyway…

10. The “Dark Knight” Trilogy (2005-2012)
It’s probably unnecessary to break Bale’s work as billionaire Bruce Wayne and caped crusader Batman out in separate films. Across a trilogy, directed by Christopher Nolan, the actor capitalized on fantasy casting and delivered a grounded portrayal to hang a franchise on. When Warner Bros. got serious about rebooting the character, Bale’s name was already high on fan lists, thanks largely to how he handled an entirely different duality in the number-three movie on this list. Three movies and billions of box office dollars later, he had completed the kind of character arc rarely observed in the genre.

9. “The Machinist” (2004)
Bale famously dropped a scary amount of weight to play a man plagued by the edges of insanity, so haunted by his transgressions that he hasn’t slept in a year. The physical and mental commitment to the character is more than the material probably deserved, but Bale always shows up.

8. “3:10 to Yuma” (2007)
The understatement of Bale’s work in James Mangold’s 2007 western remake is what sends it soaring. There is a wounded masculinity at play, both thematically and within the performance, that he seems to understand thoroughly. A clenched sense of duty and integrity writhes around below the surface, and right in the face of showier portrayals from Russell Crowe and Ben Foster.

7. “The Fighter” (2010)
Bale won a supporting actor Oscar for his performance as Dicky Eklund, the drug-addicted brother-trainer to Mark Wahlberg’s amateur blue-collar boxer Micky Ward in David O. Russell’s film. It was a showy character but Bale steered clear of needlessly painting him with broad strokes. His considerable effort helps the film maintain a tonal tightrope walk throughout.

6. “American Hustle” (2013)
As slippery con man Irving Rosenfeld in David O. Russell’s spin on the 1970s FBI Abscam sting operation, Bale provided something essential to his best performances: layers. There’s a frazzled exterior to Rosenfeld (loosely based on real-life charlatan Mel Weinberg), but he’s a well-oiled professional as well, with a tender interior that dares to peek out at times. Bale also excelled in the role without overshadowing the ensemble, perfectly tuned as a cog in the overall machinery.

5. “Rescue Dawn” (2006)
The combination of Bale and director Werner Herzog held considerable promise, and it delivered. Taking on the role of Vietnam vet Dieter Dengler, the downed Navy pilot Herzog first chronicled in his 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” Bale suffered for his art, conveying the hardships Dengler endured as a prisoner of war. But beyond that, in the realm of character work, he conjured an enigmatic mixture that presented the very spirit of a man.

4. “The Big Short” (2015)
Mannered but believable, Bale’s Oscar-nominated work as eccentric hedge fund manager (and 2008 financial collapse prophet) Michael Burry was exactly what Adam McKay’s film needed. It was already manic in its depiction of heady material, but if it was going to adequately deconstruct a tragic chapter in modern history, it was going to need a showcase deconstructor. Bale adopted that role with aplomb.

3. “American Psycho” (2000)
Probably still his most heralded performance to date, Bale was a lightning rod in Mary Harron’s adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel. Words like “dedicated” and “committed” fly around a lot when discussing his work, but they’re never so apt as they are here. There’s a simmering rage that often explodes on the surface, but there’s also an unsettling calm and strained affability that speaks so brilliantly to the character. In many ways it’s a movie about the crushing casualness of a performative existence, and Bale plays those notes deliciously.

2. “Empire of the Sun” (1987)
That Steven Spielberg has an eye for talent, eh? This really is one of the great child actor performances, and it seems Bale never gets enough credit for it. Tackling the role at 12 years of age, he displayed stunning range in the story of a young British boy’s experiences in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of World War II. He also got to exercise some of those singing chops that would serve him well in “Newsies.”

1. “Out of the Furnace” (2013)
The word that comes to mind with Bale’s greatest (and certainly most undervalued) performance is “real.” It’s not just the natural chemistry he shares with on-screen brother Casey Affleck, but the unfussy ease with which Bale embodies the Job-like figure of Russell Baze, a blue-collar mill worker suffering day-to-day realities in decaying Appalachia steel country. Bale’s first outing with director Scott Cooper produced incredible results. This year’s Telluride Film Festival will soon reveal the fruits of their latest collaboration.

More Film

  • Inside Amazon's New Feature Film Strategy

    Amazon's New Film Strategy: Straight-to-Service Titles and Starry Sundance Buys

    It was close to midnight when Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke got the text. The company had failed in its quest to acquire “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a body image dramedy that captivated Salke when she saw it at Sundance. A sales agent on the project messaged her to say that a competitor offered a [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron71st Annual Writers Guild Awards,

    Alfonso Cuarón on Academy's 'Inevitable' Reversal on Televised Oscar Categories

    Alfonso Cuarón isn’t exactly surprised that the Academy reversed its decision and will now air all the Oscar categories during the live show on Sunday. Feb. 24. Calling the decision “inevitable,”Cuarón tells Variety that he thinks the Academy should take things even further. “Let’s stop calling them technical categories!” he told Variety on Sunday night [...]

  • TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab

    TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab (EXCLUSIVE)

    The TorinoFilmLab has announced the 20 feature projects and five story editor trainees who have been selected to take part in the 2019 edition of ScriptLab, an initiative focused on the development of fiction feature film scripts in early development stage. Beginning in March, this year’s participants will team up with filmmakers from around the [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    North American Box Office Declines From Last Year With Weak Presidents Day Weekend

    “Alita: Battle Angel” easily won a tepid Presidents Day weekend with a $34.2 million at 3,790 North American locations, estimates showed Monday. Overall domestic moviegoing for 2019 has plunged 22.1% to $1.24 billion as of Monday, according to Comscore. That’s $350 million below the same date a year ago and the lowest figure at this [...]

  • Queen + Adam Lambert perform at

    Queen to Perform at Oscars

    Queen will perform at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, the Motion Picture Academy announced on social media today. The move, which is not completely a surprise, comes in the wake of the blockbuster success of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic about the band and its late singer, Freddie Mercury. The band now performs under the [...]

  • Richard E. Grant Variety Facetime Interview

    Richard E. Grant on How to Survive Awards Season With Flair

    An Oscar would certainly be nice, but Richard E. Grant doesn’t need a golden statue to walk away from this awards season as a winner. The 61-year-old actor landed his first Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Jack Hock, the loyal accomplice of author-turned-literary forager Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in the biopic “Can You [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    'Alita: Battle Angel' Banks on Foreign Audiences to Save It From Box Office Disaster

    “Alita: Battle Angel” beat expectations with its $27 million debut at the domestic box office, but Fox’s cyberpunk fantasy adventure has a long road to travel before it can claim victory. When it comes to achieving profitability, the CGI-spectacular may never arrive at that particular destination. With a production budget hovering at $170 million (Fox [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content