Total Recall

Christian Bale's Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Out of the Furnace star.

by | December 4, 2013 | Comments

Christian BaleHe’s been Batman, Bateman, and battled Terminators — and this weekend, Christian Bale battles Woody Harrelson for the fate of Casey Affleck in Out of the Furnace, the latest eminently well-cast drama from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper. In honor of Bale’s latest cinematic excursion, we decided to take this opportunity to pause for a fond look back at some of the brighter critical highlights from an acclaimed career that’s still collecting them at an impressive pace. It’s time for Total Recall!


10. The Machinist

Critics almost always fawn over actors who alter their bodies for a role, to the point where it’s even become sort of a joke for some film fans. There’s nothing funny, however, about the lengths Christian Bale went to for 2004’s The Machinist: wanting to adopt the physical appearance of a man who hadn’t been able to sleep for a year, he subsisted on a diet of coffee, apples, and tuna fish for more than four months, eventually dropping over 60 pounds before being ordered to stop losing weight. The work of a dedicated artist, to be sure — and it worked, making Bale something of a living special effect in Brad Anderson’s dark psychological thriller. Sadly, it also had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing pretty much everything else in the film; even those who haven’t seen The Machinist know it’s “the one where Christian Bale lost all that weight.” Fortunately, unlike its star, the movie has plenty of meat on its bones; in the words of the Arizona Republic’s Bill Muller, “though Bale deserves all the credit that can be heaped at his feet… there is far more to this sinister psychological thriller than just exhibiting [his] emaciated form.”


9. I’m Not There

Bob Dylan’s music has inspired a great many things over the last five decades and change, but it seems a safe bet that very few of those things have been as deliberately unusual as Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, a sort of strange hybrid between Short Cuts-style vignette storytelling and musical biopic that loosely follows the framework of Dylan’s life story using six actors — including Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Heath Ledger — to embody the different sides of its subject’s personality. (Bale actually covers two “Dylans,” appearing as both a young folksinger named Jack Rollins and an evangelist preacher named Pastor John.) Though some critics found I’m Not There‘s non-linear style more provoking than provocative — Peter Howell of the Toronto Star called it “a rolling shambles” — response was largely positive; thanks to writers like Roger Ebert, who argued that “what Haynes does is take away the reassuring segues that argue everything flows and makes sense, and to show what’s really chaos under the skin of the film,” it earned a spot on many year-end best-of lists.


8. Empire of the Sun

For a lot of actors, starting a career means taking a certain number of thankless roles in less, shall we say, prestigious productions — think Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Christian Bale, however, got his first big break from none other than Steven Spielberg, who put him in the lead for 1987’s Empire of the Sun after receiving a recommendation from Bale’s former co-star (and Spielberg’s then-wife), Amy Irving. Playing a thinly fictionalized version of author and former POW J.G. Ballard, the teenaged Bale had to take his character from the pampered (and frankly obnoxious) youth in the first act to the hollowed-out husk who staggers through the final scenes. It was a task that would have been beyond the grasp of many a more seasoned actor, but Bale came through with flying colors, earning a specially created award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures to go with the many positive reviews from critics like Cole Smithey, who remarked, “Christian Bale’s debut is a doozy.”


7. Batman Begins

Bale’s early films may not have been big hits, but they did cover a lot of bases, proving he could carry himself in everything from action epics and costume dramas to dark, low-budget thrillers — which is precisely what convinced Christopher Nolan that Bale was the right man to capture all the many facets of Bruce Wayne when he agreed to direct the long-in-the-making Batman reboot. Bale’s dedication to the role was immediately put to the test; after losing a dangerous amount of weight for The Machinist, he had to quickly reverse course — and he did, hitting the gym to pack on over 100 pounds in just a few months. The end result was the first of the big-screen Batmen to not only act the part convincingly, but look it, too — a good thing, since Nolan’s vision for the character’s origin story had plenty of dramatic depth to go with its fisticuffs. Though not all critics responded to Batman Begins‘ more realistic, less tongue-in-cheek approach (Rex Reed notably said it was “for morons”), most reviews were in line with the movie’s remarkable $370 million worldwide gross; as Desson Thomson of the Washington Post put it, “here’s how any great franchise should start: with care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere.”


6. 3:10 to Yuma

Elmore Leonard’s 1953 short story took its second trip to the big screen with this James Mangold Western, which managed to revisit Delmer Daves’ 1957 original — and substitute Bale and Russell Crowe for Van Heflin and Glenn Ford — without provoking many unfavorable comparisons. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the source material provides a classic example of the good vs. evil showdown that fans of the genre have always loved; all any Yuma update needed was a pair of solid actors to hold it down, and Mangold chose his wisely. Audiences rewarded the new 3:10 to Yuma with a healthy $70 million worldwide gross — and critics responded too, lauding Mangold’s direction and Bale and Crowe’s performances in equal measure. Writing for the Houston Chronicle, Bruce Westbrook called it “cathartic and intelligent” and “the best Western since Unforgiven,” going on to add, “while a wildly eventful action-adventure and outlaw shoot-’em-up, it’s also a vibrant story of heroism, villainy and hard-earned redemption.”


5. The Dark Knight Rises

Trilogy-concluding sequels don’t come much more highly anticipated than 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, which put Bale’s gravel-voiced Batman on a backbreaking collision course with the nefarious Bane (Tom Hardy) while setting up the cataclysmic conflict that brought the story Christopher Nolan started with Batman Begins to an appropriately senses-shattering conclusion. And although Rises failed to meet some critics’ expectations after The Dark Knight, it still did pretty well for itself, racking up over a billion dollars in worldwide box office while amassing an impressive number of critical accolades from the likes of the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, who called it “A disturbing experience we live through as much as a film we watch” and added, “This dazzling conclusion to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is more than an exceptional superhero movie, it is masterful filmmaking by any standard.”


4. Little Women

By all rights, a book’s fifth trip to the big screen shouldn’t be a magnet for audiences, let alone positive reviews, but Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women proved the exception to the rule, earning a very respectable 90 percent on the Tomatometer — not to mention $50 million at the box office, proving once again that a timeless story can succeed no matter how many times it’s told. Women continued a string of period pieces for Bale, one which started with 1992’s Newsies and 1993’s Swing Kids — but where those films were critical and commercial flops, this was something of a prestige picture, even if most of the heavy lifting was done by the titular leading ladies (a list that included Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Winona Ryder). Here, Bale plays Laurie, the family friend-turned-paramour whose on-again, off-again presence in the life of Amy (played by Dunst and Samantha Mathis) is one of the movie’s subplots — and one of the reasons Women received effusive praise from critics like Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who wrote, “ladies, get out your hand-hemmed handkerchiefs for the loveliest Little Women ever on screen.”


3. Rescue Dawn

It must have come as awfully small consolation after being imprisoned, tortured, and watching friends die horrible deaths, but before his death in 2001, Dieter Dengler could at least take pride in having lived a life so incredibly fascinating that it provided the inspiration for both an acclaimed documentary and a critically lauded dramatization — both of them directed by the one and only Werner Herzog. After befriending Dengler during the making of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog decided he wasn’t finished telling the story of the former Navy pilot’s escape from a Laotian POW camp, and set about streamlining Dengler’s experiences for Rescue Dawn. Though the liberties Herzog took were criticized by surviving members of Dengler’s escape party, that didn’t prevent Dawn from earning largely positive reviews from critics — many of whom focused on Bale’s physically harrowing journey into Dengler’s painful past, such as the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr, who predicted that audiences will “hang on Bale’s muscular portrayal of a man who refuses to say die.”


2. The Fighter

It took an awful lot of struggle to get it to the screen, but like the pugnacious boxers in its real-life story’s spotlight, David O. Russell’s The Fighter persevered — and although it looked very different from the days when it was supposed to be a Mark Wahlberg/Matt Damon production (or the brief period when Brad Pitt was supposed to step in for Damon), that didn’t put a dent in the number of accolades the movie ultimately acquired. Starring Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward and Bale as his brother/trainer Dicky, The Fighter earned more than $120 million at the box office and picked up seven Academy Award nominations, winning two — including a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Bale. “Wahlberg gives a deceptively low-key performance as the movie’s still point,” wrote Moira MacDonald for the Seattle Times, “perfectly setting off the crackling fuse that is Bale’s Dicky, a grinning strutter who knows he’s screwed up but can’t quite say goodbye to the limelight.”


1. The Dark Knight

Having already brought an end to the candy-colored, Schumacher-wrought nightmare that gripped the Batman franchise in the late 1990s, Nolan and Bale had fans primed for a successful second act — but even after the smashing success of Batman Begins, few could have guessed just how popular The Dark Knight would be in the summer of 2008. A sprawling superhero epic that somehow managed to make room for jaw-dropping visuals, a compelling storyline, and stellar performances, Knight climbed out from under months of intense speculation — not to mention the shadow cast by Heath Ledger’s shocking death — with a worldwide gross in excess of $1 billion, a towering stack of positive reviews, and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ledger. Amidst all this, it was easy for Bale’s work to be overlooked — and really, it’s Ledger’s electric performance as the Joker that powers the movie — but without Bale providing a steady counterweight, it wouldn’t have been, in the words of Richard Roeper, “a rich, complex, visually thrilling piece of pop entertainment, as strong as any superhero epic we’ve ever seen.”

In case you were wondering, here are Bale’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Dark Knight — 94%
2. Batman Begins — 94%
3. The Prestige — 92%
4. The Dark Knight Rises — 90%
5. Empire of the Sun — 90%
6. The Fighter — 89%
7. Newsies — 89%
8. 3:10 to Yuma — 86%
9. American Psycho — 85%
10. Little Women — 84%

Take a look through Bale’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Out of the Furnace.

Finally, here’s a young Bale in the made-for-TV movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, from 1986: