News

25 Best Action Movies: The Highest-Rated of Each Year Since 1998

Critics and audiences recommend Mission: Impossible, Top Gun, John Wick, James Bond, Bourne, and more!

by | July 11, 2023 | Comments

We’re celebrating 25 years of Rotten Tomatoes with a look back at the most celebrated movie of each year since 1998, concluding the series by saying, “Action!” It’s a genre that has much overlap with previous articles, especially for science-fiction and superheroes. But we sent the likes of Avatar, The Matrix, and even The Hunger Games into sci-fi consideration, and all the elevated tumblin’ and brawlin’ of Marvel, DC, and Archie Comics under the purview of the superhero genre.

What remains is a toned, finessed list of the best action movie of each year, chosen by applying our recommendation formula. It’s a calculation based on the Tomatometer and Audience Score that prioritizes titles that stood out among critics and fans, combined with a pinch of curatorial love from our editors.

And, naturally, the list begins with a possibly controversial pick: 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Obviously, it’s a war movie, though the argument can be made that’s a subset of the action genre. Plus, Steven Spielberg’s re-creation of the D-Day Allied invasion contains more concentrated action filmmaking than some entire franchises.

1999’s Three Kings is an even more offbeat war movie choice, combining a satirical story with more conventional cool. And then we doubt there’ll be much objection to the 2001 selection, Ridley Scott’s relentless Black Hawk Down.

The highest-recommended action movie for 2000 was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and in its wake we see the rise in taste for pan-Asian action movies brought over to America. See: Jet Li’s Hero (2002), Tony Jaa’s Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004), John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008), and Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins.

David Cronenberg makes an unlikely appearance with the graphic A History of Violence in 2005. And in 2006 and 2007, we get the best of Bond and Bourne: 007 reboot Casino Royale, and from the franchise that made James get serious, The Bourne Ultimatum. (Skyfall, the other major Bond highlight from the Daniel Craig era, tops 2012.)

Then get blasted by the ’70s and ’80s with 2009’s blaxploitation tribute Black Dynamite and synthwave-pioneering Drive. After that, we see Mark Wahlberg launch his true-story movie triumvirate with director Peter Berg in 2013’s Lone Survivor. (They later made Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day.)

Starting in 2014, the action game changed with Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise. The two have been going back and forth as the world’s top action star with the John Wick movies for Reeves and the Mission: Impossible and Top Gun movies driving Cruise. With us for the ride are Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (2016), Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017), Mads Mikkelsen’s Riders of Justice (2020), and Bob Odenkirk’s Nobody (2021).

#1
#1
Adjusted Score: 103216%
Critics Consensus: Anchored by another winning performance from Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg's unflinchingly realistic war film virtually redefines the genre.
Synopsis: Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes his men behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan, whose three brothers have... [More]
Directed By: Steven Spielberg

#2

Three Kings (1999)
94%

#2
Adjusted Score: 100345%
Critics Consensus: Three Kings successfully blends elements of action, drama, and comedy into a thoughtful, exciting movie on the Gulf War.
Synopsis: Just after the end of the Gulf War, four American soldiers decide to steal a cache of Saddam Hussein's hidden... [More]
Directed By: David O. Russell

#3
Adjusted Score: 104634%
Critics Consensus: The movie that catapulted Ang Lee into the ranks of upper echelon Hollywood filmmakers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon features a deft mix of amazing martial arts battles, beautiful scenery, and tasteful drama.
Synopsis: In 19th century Qing Dynasty China, a warrior (Chow Yun-Fat) gives his sword, Green Destiny, to his lover (Michelle Yeoh)... [More]
Directed By: Ang Lee

#4

Black Hawk Down (2001)
77%

#4
Adjusted Score: 83153%
Critics Consensus: Though it's light on character development and cultural empathy, Black Hawk Down is a visceral, pulse-pounding portrait of war, elevated by Ridley Scott's superb technical skill.
Synopsis: The film takes place in 1993 when the U.S. sent special forces into Somalia to destabilize the government and bring... [More]
Directed By: Ridley Scott

#5

Hero (2002)
94%

#5
Adjusted Score: 101082%
Critics Consensus: With death-defying action sequences and epic historic sweep, Hero offers everything a martial arts fan could ask for.
Synopsis: In this visually arresting martial arts epic set in ancient China, an unnamed fighter (Jet Li) is being honored for... [More]
Directed By: Yimou Zhang

#6
Adjusted Score: 88300%
Critics Consensus: While Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior may be no great shakes as a movie, critics are hailing the emergence of a new star in Tony Jaa, whose athletic performance is drawing comparisons with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li.
Synopsis: In Thailand, the impoverished village of Ban Nong Pradu has its most precious Buddha statue stolen from the temple. Luckily... [More]
Directed By: Prachya Pinkaew

#7

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
91%

#7
Adjusted Score: 97136%
Critics Consensus: Kung Fu Hustle blends special effects, martial arts, and the Looney Toons to hilarious effect.
Synopsis: When the hapless Sing and his dim-witted pal Bone try to scam the residents of Pig Sty Alley into thinking... [More]
Directed By: Stephen Chow

#8
#8
Adjusted Score: 95981%
Critics Consensus: A History of Violence raises compelling and thoughtful questions about the nature of violence, while representing a return to form for director David Cronenberg in one of his more uncharacteristic pieces.
Synopsis: When a pair of petty criminals attempt to rob his small-town diner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) quickly and easily kills... [More]
Directed By: David Cronenberg

#9

Casino Royale (2006)
94%

#9
Adjusted Score: 105111%
Critics Consensus: Casino Royale disposes of the silliness and gadgetry that plagued recent James Bond outings, and Daniel Craig delivers what fans and critics have been waiting for: a caustic, haunted, intense reinvention of 007.
Synopsis: After receiving a license to kill, British Secret Service agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) heads to Madagascar, where he uncovers... [More]
Directed By: Martin Campbell

#10
#10
Adjusted Score: 102839%
Critics Consensus: The Bourne Ultimatum is an intelligent, finely tuned non-stop thrill ride. Another strong performance from Matt Damon and sharp camerawork from Paul Greengrass make this the finest installment of the Bourne trilogy.
Synopsis: Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) continues his international quest to uncover his true identity. From Russia to Europe to northern Africa... [More]
Directed By: Paul Greengrass

#11

Red Cliff (2008)
90%

#11
Adjusted Score: 94199%
Critics Consensus: Featuring some impressively grand battlefield action, John Woo returns to Asia and returns to form in the process for this lavish and slick historical epic.
Synopsis: In ancient China, the emperor of the Han Dynasty allows General Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) to declare war against the... [More]
Directed By: John Woo

#12

Black Dynamite (2009)
83%

#12
Adjusted Score: 84819%
Critics Consensus: A loving and meticulous send-up of 1970s blaxsploitation movies, Black Dynamite is funny enough for the frat house and clever enough for film buffs.
Synopsis: After "The Man" kills his brother and poisons the neighborhood with tainted liquor, a kung fu fighter (Michael Jai White)... [More]
Directed By: Scott Sanders

#13

13 Assassins (2010)
95%

#13
Adjusted Score: 99816%
Critics Consensus: Takashi Miike's electric remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 period action film is a wild spectacle executed with killer, dizzying panache.
Synopsis: In this remake of a 1963 film based on historical events, Shinzaemon Shimada leads a team of assassins in 19th-century... [More]
Directed By: Takashi Miike

#14

Drive (2011)
93%

#14
Adjusted Score: 104199%
Critics Consensus: With its hyper-stylized blend of violence, music, and striking imagery, Drive represents a fully realized vision of arthouse action.
Synopsis: Driver is a skilled Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals. Though he projects an icy exterior,... [More]
Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn

#15

Skyfall (2012)
92%

#15
Adjusted Score: 111004%
Critics Consensus: Sam Mendes brings Bond surging back with a smart, sexy, riveting action thriller that qualifies as one of the best 007 films to date.
Synopsis: When James Bond's (Daniel Craig) latest assignment goes terribly wrong, it leads to a calamitous turn of events: Undercover agents... [More]
Directed By: Sam Mendes

#16

Lone Survivor (2013)
75%

#16
Adjusted Score: 85320%
Critics Consensus: A true account of military courage and survival, Lone Survivor wields enough visceral power to mitigate its heavy-handed jingoism.
Synopsis: In 2005 Afghanistan, Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew "Axe"... [More]
Directed By: Peter Berg

#17

John Wick (2014)
86%

#17
Adjusted Score: 96436%
Critics Consensus: Stylish, thrilling, and giddily kinetic, John Wick serves as a satisfying return to action for Keanu Reeves -- and what looks like it could be the first of a franchise.
Synopsis: Legendary assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) retired from his violent career after marrying the love of his life. Her sudden... [More]
Directed By: Chad Stahelski

#18
Adjusted Score: 110024%
Critics Consensus: Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation continues the franchise's thrilling resurgence -- and proves that Tom Cruise remains an action star without equal.
Synopsis: With the IMF now disbanded and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out in the cold, a new threat -- called the... [More]
Directed By: Christopher McQuarrie

#19

The Nice Guys (2016)
91%

#19
Adjusted Score: 106441%
Critics Consensus: The Nice Guys hearkens back to the buddy comedies of a bygone era while adding something extra courtesy of a knowing script and the irresistible chemistry of its leads.
Synopsis: Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a down-on-his-luck private eye in 1977 Los Angeles. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a hired... [More]
Directed By: Shane Black

#20

Baby Driver (2017)
92%

#20
Adjusted Score: 114083%
Critics Consensus: Stylish, exciting, and fueled by a killer soundtrack, Baby Driver hits the road and it's gone -- proving fast-paced action movies can be smartly written without sacrificing thrills.
Synopsis: Talented getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) relies on the beat of his personal soundtrack to be the best in the... [More]
Directed By: Edgar Wright

#21
Adjusted Score: 121753%
Critics Consensus: Fast, sleek, and fun, Mission: Impossible - Fallout lives up to the "impossible" part of its name by setting yet another high mark for insane set pieces in a franchise full of them.
Synopsis: Ethan Hunt and the IMF team join forces with CIA assassin August Walker to prevent a disaster of epic proportions.... [More]
Directed By: Christopher McQuarrie

#22
Adjusted Score: 108030%
Critics Consensus: John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum reloads for another hard-hitting round of the brilliantly choreographed, over-the-top action that fans of the franchise demand.
Synopsis: After gunning down a member of the High Table -- the shadowy international assassin's guild -- legendary hit man John... [More]
Directed By: Chad Stahelski

#23
#23
Adjusted Score: 103454%
Critics Consensus: A darkly humorous revenge thriller with satisfying depth and a dash of savory quirk, Riders of Justice makes another compelling case for Mads Mikkelsen as an all-purpose leading man.
Synopsis: RIDERS OF JUSTICE follows recently-deployed Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), who is forced to return home to care for his teenage daughter... [More]
Directed By: Anders Thomas Jensen

#24

Nobody (2021)
84%

#24
Adjusted Score: 98186%
Critics Consensus: Nobody doesn't break any new ground for the genre, but this viscerally violent thriller smashes, shatters, and destroys plenty of other things -- all while proving Bob Odenkirk has what it takes to be an action star.
Synopsis: Emmy winner Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul, The Post, Nebraska) stars as Hutch Mansell, an underestimated and overlooked dad and... [More]
Directed By: Ilya Naishuller

#25
#25
Adjusted Score: 121923%
Critics Consensus: Top Gun: Maverick pulls off a feat even trickier than a 4G inverted dive, delivering a long-belated sequel that surpasses its predecessor in wildly entertaining style.
Synopsis: After more than thirty years of service as one of the Navy’s top aviators, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is... [More]
Directed By: Joseph Kosinski