In this list we look back to some of the best films starring Christian Bale – one of the most meticulous, devoted and talented actors of his generation, a man constantly searching for the next intriguing performance.
Here are 10 Christian Bale films that are essential viewing, whether you’re a Christian Bale fan or not.
10. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg, 1987)
Based on the book by the English novelist J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun is a World War II film directed by Steven Spielberg, starring John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantoliano and the twelve-year-old Christian Bale.
A little boy named James Graham – touchingly portrayed by Bale – sees his comfortable, privileged life fall apart as the Japanese invade the Chinese city of Shanghai in 1941. Separated from his family, the spoilt young boy must face the hardships of life and learn to survive on his own when he is transferred to a prison camp.
There he meets Basie, a kind ship steward that takes James under his wing during the hard times of their imprisonment. James slowly learns to stand on his own two feet, inspiring those around him and giving them strength to overcome their own fears.
Empire of the Sun is semi-autographical and recognisably a Spielberg movie, with its highly energetic filming style and its carefully depicted development of characters, especially that of little James. Christian Bale was selected for the role – his first in a film – from among 4000 other children, having appeared only in the TV movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna prior to this.
Even though Spielberg initially struggled to get Bale to inhabit his character, he was ultimately able to instill some of his artistic wisdom in him, eliciting a magnificent performance from Bale who soon came to be known as a notable child actor.
Bale’s performance beautifully captures the enormous change wrought to his character through the setbacks he faces. The film is moving but despite its many emotional moments, it has its fair share of action sequences and the cast deliver impressive performances.
9. 3:10 To Yuma (James Mangold, 2007)
Based on the novelist Elmore Leonard’s short story ‘Three-Ten to Yuma’, James Mangold’s film 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the original 1957 film adaptation helmed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford and Van Helfin.
Dan Evans is a small-town rancher concerned with the sale of his land and the future of his family. One day he witnesses a stagecoach robbery carried out by Ben Wade, a notorious outlaw who is soon captured by the local authorities and sent to Contention city. In need of money and of his son’s acceptance, Evans agrees to participate in the escort team formed in order to take Wade to the 3:10 to Yuma train.
However their journey will be perilous as Wade’s former gang is seeking revenge and he himself is not an easy-going man. Even though there are some mishaps in Mangold’s filmography, he is considered a notable director and a good screenwriter, with films varying from biographical dramas and romances, to all-star crime films, thrillers and westerns.
3:10 to Yuma falls in the latter category with Mangold directing and Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, being responsible for the screenplay in a remake that pays respect to the original film.
Set mainly in New Mexico and California, the film combines the old splendor of classic westerns with a more contemporary touch, remaining true to the cinematic legacy of great creators such as John Ford and the spaghetti western master, Sergio Leone. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is superb, enriching the frames with dusty landscapes, vast deserts and rough paths that lead straight to the heart of the original western genre.
3:10 to Yuma is a film that combines all the virtues of old school Hollywood cinema with a contemporary feel, thorough directing and a cast that fits Mangold’s world like a glove. A well made remake for an authentic all American original film.
8. American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)
David O. Russell returned with American Hustle in 2013 after another good year. In 2012 his movie Silver Linings Playbook was considered one of the best films of the year, with Jennifer Lawrence winning the Best Actress Oscar for her role as the moody Tiffany. O. Russell is a very capable creator who sees potential where nobody else does, and creates from scratch stories with highly interesting scripts. In American Hustle we are presented with another talented ensemble sharing wonderful chemistry.
Jennifer Lawrence is the crazy (totally crazy, to be more accurate) wife of Christian Bale, a cunning semi-bald con man who is forced to work for an FBI Agent (Bradley Cooper), together with his seductive, stunning partner and lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). In the meantime, mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) is caught between the upcoming war that is ready to erupt between the con men and the authorities.
With fabulous ’70s/early ’80s photography, luxurious costumes and outrageous hairstyles, American Hustle delivers complex characters accompanied by witty, energetic dialogue and much humor. With the dramatic overtones of the film kept at low levels, everyone shines in this film, while the pace of the narrative builds relentlessly until the final scene.
American Hustle’s nomination for 10 Oscars, including the ones for Best Original Screenplay and Film Editing, is an indication of this film’s value. This film really has it all: great script, excellent direction, colorful cinematography, awesome soundtrack and of course top-notch performances, especially from Christian Bale, whom we see in a role that is very different from any he has played before.
7. Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998)
Dipped in glitter, sweat and colorful sequins, Velvet Goldmine is a musical drama that revolves around the golden era of glam rock in the early ‘70s, when superstar performer Brian Slade dominated both the charts and the fantasies of British boys and girls.
In 1984, journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), decides to explore Slade’s career during a time where sex, drugs and glam rock were the everyday pursuits of thousands of young people.
Through his investigation, his interviews with people in the music industry and the ones closer to the irresistible persona of Slade, Stuart recounts the huge impact of Slade’s lustful, larger-than-life personality as well as the sweeping effect of Curt Wild, another rebellious singer who exerted a tremendous influence on Slade and his generation.
Todd Haynes scripts and directs one of the most stylistically accurate films about a dominant musical genre. Velvet Goldmine is a dynamic depiction of the musical world of that time – when singers where treated as sex gods, followed by thousands of loyal groupies and the music itself was enough to make bodies and minds reel in ecstasy.
In a similar vein, in 2007 Haynes directed the musical biography of the legendary Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. The remarkable cast, including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchette, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw, embody different aspects of Dylan’s life, giving strong performances in a film that no fan should miss.
In Velvet Goldmine the carefully delineated characters and the strong performances are complemented by the frenetic photography of Maryse Alberti and together generate the energy at the centre of the film. Haynes creates a micro-universe at the center of a hot and steamy British heart that is pounding crazily, living to its fullest – demanding attention and a reason to go on. Girls fall in love with boys, girls fall in love with girls and boys fall in love with boys in Velvet Goldmine.
The three main characters – Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor – create a love triangle that sets the tone for an entire David Bowie-esque, goldmine generation, glamorously wrapped in feather boas and faux velvet.
6. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)
In 2006 Werner Herzog, one of the greatest and most important filmmakers of our time, directed Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn, a biographical drama based on the adventures of Dieter Dengler, a US Naval Aviator who was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War.
Herzog based his film on a documentary of his, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which revolves around Dengler’s detention. After being shot down, Dengler was taken prisoner by the Vietcong and transferred to a prison camp, where the odds did not seem to be in his favor.
Once again Christian Bale lost a great deal of weight – this time in order to depict a destitute and starved prison camp inmate. Despite the fact that we are never given the Vietcong perspective of the story and sympathize with the American protagonist throughout the film, Rescue Dawn is decidedly an anti-war movie.
However, the lack of an objective perspective does not deprive the film of its genuine drama and it creates a solid base for the casts’ performances. Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies create a powerful leading ensemble, exhibiting obvious chemistry among them.
Herzog follows the characters closely, providing strong, humanist direction. The green, orgiastic Thai landscape and the vast jungle give the sense of a far more dangerous prison than the one where Dengler and the rest are being held.
Without ever being melodramatic, Herzog uses the imprisonment of the main character to manipulate us into believing that Rescue Dawn is a film where the dominant theme is human conflict. However, this autobiographical film draws inspiration from the great Japanese directors, such as Ozu, who had very specific ideas about man’s place in the world. They believed that humans are not the centre of the universe but are only a small part of the infinite universe and eternal nature.
Likewise Herzog’s shots create an edgy contrast between the jungle and the human with nature remaining impassive before man’s problems.