Top 10: Best Christian Bale Performances

Christian Bale got his start in acting back in the eighties. After two television specials, he made his feature film debut in the Oscar-nominated Steven Spielberg film “Empire of the Sun.” That led the way to many more film roles. In the early nineties, his face was plastered on the walls of many teenage girls’ bedrooms after he starred in movies like “Newsies,” “Swing Kids,” and “Little Women.”

Eventually, it became clear that Bale was more than just a pretty face. He started displaying serious acting talent as he chose roles that were darker and deeper. To date, he has been nominated for three Academy Awards, winning his first in 2011 for “The Fighter.”

This week, to celebrate his latest film “The Promise,” we are taking a look back at Christian Bale’s Top 10 performances.

10. Jim Graham, “Empire of the Sun”

Christian Bale

Exceptional performances from children are rare, but Bale was a standout in “Empire of the Sun” in 1987. Jim is British kid who is separated from his parents in Shanghai during World War II, and even at such a young age, Bale was able to convey the fear and helplessness, and ultimately resourcefulness anyone would feel in that situation. It is no surprise his performance ignited a career that hasn’t stopped.

9. Alfred Borden, “The Prestige”

If, for some reason, you haven’t seen this yet, we’ll avoid spoilers. But Christian Bale’s work as a vengeful magician is pure magic in this collaboration with Christopher Nolan that came in between Batman films. While it’s easy to think Hugh Jackman is clearly the hero in this story, Bale makes a strong case that both of them are heroes and both are villains.

8. Trevor Resnick, “The Machinist”

It would be difficult to find an actor more committed to a role than Bale was when he signed on to “The Machinist.” Dropping down to somewhere between 110 and 120 pounds, he was almost unrecognizable in this film. His Trevor Resnick is a man crippled by such extreme insomnia that he hasn’t slept in over a year. His condition makes it difficult to make emotional connections with people as he tries to piece together the details of a past trauma. Not only was the startling weight-loss noteworthy, but this performance was memorable too.

7. Dan Evans, “3:10 to Yuma”

It’s rare for a remake to be as good or better than the original, but “3:10 to Yuma” managed to succeed. That is due to the great work by both Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. This time Bale is definitely the hero; a father and husband who signs on to a dangerous job out of a desperate need to take care of his family. He brings a quiet dignity to the role, perfectly balancing Crowe’s in-your-face bravado.

6. Irving Rosenfeld, “American Hustle”

Nominated for Best Actor against the unstoppable Matthew McConaughey, Bale took his leading role in “American Hustle” to heart, giving a performance that was funny and bold and smart. While many of his stand out roles tend toward introspection, Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is the opposite. And it works perfectly in an ensemble piece where he still stands out as the lead.

5. Dieter Dengler, “Rescue Dawn”

Intense war movies are a dime a dozen, but this true story about a group of soldiers captured as Prisoners of War in Vietnam stands out. The film recounts Dengler’s attempt to lead his group through an escape attempt, but things go wrong. Bale portrays the real-life hero in a way that shows the man’s optimism and resourcefulness, but without making him seem too larger-than-life.

4. Bruce Wayne, “Batman Begins”

After dropping to a sickly 120-ish pounds for “The Machinist,” Bale followed that immediately by gaining 80 pounds of solid muscle for “Batman Begins.” While “The Dark Knight” is arguably the best of the Christopher Nolan Batman flicks, that honor is due mostly to Heath Ledger’s unrivaled performance. But Bale is one of the best to ever don the Batsuit and his work in the first of the trilogy brought the right amount of levity to the role. He isn’t silly. Bruce Wayne definitely broods, which is something Christian Bale is good at. But he turns those inner demons into something useful. He finds the right balance in a way others haven’t been able to do with this character. And, say what you will about his Batman voice, but at least he tried to disguise it.

3. Michael Burry, “The Big Short”

In a film that is undeniably an ensemble piece, Bale managed to receive his most recent Academy Award nomination. This time, he portrays another real-life person, Michael Burry, who correctly predicted the collapse of the housing market in 2007, and was the laughing stock of the financial world until he turned out to be right. Bale plays the only character in the film who spends large portions of it by himself. It’s a distinct and quirky role that Bale doesn’t try to oversell.

2. Dicky Eklund, “The Fighter”

Portraying another real-life person, Bale received his first Academy Award nomination and win for playing Dicky Eklund. Eklund is a washed up boxer and drug addict who trains his younger brother “Irish” Micky Ward. While the story definitely belongs to Mark Wahlberg and Micky, Bale’s performance is exceptional as he faces his own struggles, disappearing at critical times. Despite the frustration of watching him go through drugs and arrests, Bale manages to draw in the audience in such a way that you just don’t want to give up on him either.

1. Patrick Bateman, “American Psycho”

For all the great roles he has played, the one that stands out from the crowd is that of Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” Never has a conversation about Huey Lewis taken such a scary turn. He captures the odd likability of a sociopath who seems like “such a nice guy” until he chops you up with an ax. There isn’t much to say about this one. His work speaks for itself.

Let us know: What is your favorite Christian Bale performance?
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About Karen M. Peterson

Karen Peterson is a Southern California writer and blogger whose obsessions include movies, television, awards shows, Batman, and basically any project ever connected to Christopher Nolan or JJ Abrams. She is also unapologetically in love with Tom Cruise.
  • Joey Magidson

    10. Batman Begins

    9. The Prestige

    8. The Big Short

    7. The Dark Knight Rises

    6. American Hustle

    5. The Machinist

    4. The Dark Knight

    3. Rescue Dawn

    2. The Fighter

    1. American Psycho

    Honorable Mention: Empire of the Sun, Harsh Times, and Out of the Furnace

  • Paul

    I haven’t seen American Psycho, so I’ll say The Fighter.

    • Oh, definitely give American Psycho a shot. It’s weird, but so good. There are some other familiar faces in it too.

  • Tee

    1. American Hustle
    2. American Psycho
    3. The Machinist
    4. The Fighter
    5. Batman Begins
    6. The Prestige
    7. Empire of the Sun
    8. 3:10 to Yuma
    9. Rescue Dawn
    10. Equilibrium

    I am that unimpressed with his work in The Big Short.