Bill Paxton movies: 15 greatest films ranked from worst to best

Bill Paxton movies: 15 greatest films ranked from worst to best
Bill Paxton's Top 15 Films

Bill Paxton left a sustainable mark on the world of cinema before his untimely passing in 2017. Although he had over 90 acting credits to his name, these 15 films stand out from the pack as Paxton's most iconic roles. From his early collaboration with director James Cameron to his emotive turn in an all-time classic Western, Paxton demonstrated exceptional range and versatility as a performer.

As we revisit his most notable films, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Bill Paxton was one of Hollywood's most consummate professionals and an actor capable of disappearing into wildly diverse characters across genres. While narrowing down Paxton's rich filmography to just 15 titles was no easy task, these particular movies capture him at his very best.

15. Streets of Fire (1984)

Streets of Fire (1984)

In an early supporting role, Paxton plays Clyde the Bartender in Walter Hill's rock n' roll fable Streets of Fire. Though his screen time is relatively brief, Paxton makes the most of his scenes as the wisecracking barkeep who crosses paths with Diane Lane's Ellen Aim and Michael Paré's Tom Cody. With dyed hair and some weight on his frame, Paxton is almost unrecognisable as Clyde. However, his natural charisma and comedic timing shine through in his interactions with Lane and Paré. Paxton helped ground the fantastical world of Streets of Fire with his wry, down-to-earth presence.

14. The Evening Star (1996)

The Evening Star (1996)

A continuation of Terms of Endearment by director James L. Brooks, Paxton took on a rare romantic lead as Jerry Bruckner in the 1996 drama The Evening Star. Though the film itself received a tepid critical response, Paxton's layered turn opposite Shirley MacLaine and Juliette Lewis earned praise. Jerry's relationship with MacLaine's character, Aurora Greenaway, forms the emotional crux of the film. Paxton deftly balances Jerry's rugged masculinity with a softer, nurturing energy that's irresistible to the guarded Aurora. Through Paxton and MacLaine's lived-in chemistry, their May-December love story feels organic and profound. And as single father Jerry, Paxton projects an easy warmth that grounds the character.

13. Weird Science (1985)

Weird Science (1985)

Bill Paxton terrorised nerdy teens Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith in John Hughes' zany 1985 sci-fi comedy, Weird Science. As older brother Chet, Paxton epitomises the crass, bullying jock stereotype with aplomb. Popping up throughout the film to torment our young heroes, Chet meets a suitably over-the-top demise when Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) transforms him into an anthropomorphic blob of slime. Paxton clearly relishes the chance to play an outrageously repugnant character, spitting out insults in a crude Texas drawl. Chet gave Paxton one of his juiciest early showcases for on-screen villainy—a talent he would revisit to chilling effect later in his career.

12. One False Move (1992)

One False Move (1992)

Paxton teamed up with Billy Bob Thornton, who wrote the script for Carl Franklin's 1992 critically acclaimed thriller One False Move. He turns in one of his most emotionally compelling performances in the lead role of Dale "Hurricane" Dixon. As an Arkansas police chief attempting to capture Thornton's escaped convict, Dixon initially comes across as a hapless, hick cop. However, Dixon's sharp investigative skills soon emerge along with his complex past. Through nuanced storytelling, creative wordplay, and technical precision, Paxton creates a memorably idiosyncratic character within the framework of a taut neo-noir. And his chemistry with co-stars Cynda Williams and Bob Thornton electrifies their scenes together.

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11. The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

In James Cameron's explosive 1984 sci-fi thriller The Terminator, Paxton has a small but pivotal role as a rival gang member who crosses paths with Arnold Schwarzenegger's relentless cyborg. Though he's only on screen for a few minutes, Paxton makes an impression as the fierce, spiky-haired punk leader dressed in leather and chains. He injects a dangerous, unpredictable energy into his confrontation with the Terminator in the alley behind Tech Noir nightclub. And Paxton's defiant final moments as the punk leader encapsulate how seemingly ordinary people become brave heroes when facing unimaginable terror. For even seasoned fans, it's easy to forget that Bill Paxton helped kick off this sci-fi/action juggernaut.

“Nice night for a walk, eh?”

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10. Frailty (2001)

Frailty (2001)

Paxton pulled triple duty on the 2001 psychological horror Frailty as star and director. His passion project featured one of his darkest and most disturbing on-screen roles as Dad Meiks, a widowed Texas father convinced he's been tasked by God to kill "demons" disguised as humans. Driven by religious fanaticism, Meiks drags his young sons into his merciless mission. As Meiks' sanity unravels and his brutal actions escalate, Paxton chillingly captures the delusional pathology of a murderer who believes he is an avenging angel. In an unsettling meditation on the false righteousness of zealotry, Paxton's directorial debut announced his creative range. And over 20 years later, his performance in Frailty still curdles the blood.

9. A Simple Plan (1998)

A Simple Plan (1998)

Delivering career-best work opposite Billy Bob Thornton in 1998's A Simple Plan, Paxton plays Hank Mitchell, a family man struggling to maintain normalcy after he and his brother stumble upon $4 million in lost mob money. As the brothers botch attempt after attempt to cover their tracks, Thornton descends into desperate depravity while Paxton's Hank precariously clings to decency. Director Sam Raimi wrings excruciating tension from the scenario, with Paxton excelling at projecting Hank's internal conflict through subtle expressions and frantic gestures. With Oscar-nominated performances from Paxton, Thornton, and Bridget Fonda, this lean neo-noir thriller represented a summit meeting of acting giants.

8. Nightcrawler (2014)

Nightcrawler (2014)

Dan Gilroy's 2014 thriller Nightcrawler provided one of Paxton's final big-screen roles, playing morally compromised TV news director Joe Loder. A spiritual cousin to the conniving media figures of Paul Newman in Absence of Malice and Faye Dunaway in Network, Paxton's Joe mentors Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom in the insidious art of manipulating violent footage into salable sensationalism. With oil-slicked hair, glasses, and a prized blazer, Paxton oozes smarmy charm and ruthless ambition. His portrayal of this ratings-obsessed gargoyle captures the cynical extremes of tabloid journalism. Paxton clearly savoured Joe's most devious qualities while still hinting at the human weaknesses beneath his slick facade.

“I think Lou is inspired by you. The two of you have really shown what's possible when you work hard in this business.”

Paxton as Joe Loder

7. True Lies (1994)

True Lies (1994)

Re-joining his Terminator director 10 years later, Paxton hammed it up beautifully as sleazy used car salesman Simon in James Cameron's 1994 action opus True Lies. Paxton enjoyed his largest role yet in a Cameron film as megalomaniac terrorist arms dealer Salim Abu Aziz. Gleefully channelling his abilities for villainy, Paxton brings an engaging flamboyance to Simon's over-the-top personality. His elegantly coiffed hair, flashy suits, and arrogant swagger all sell the illusion of Simon's cosmopolitan sophistication. And Paxton clearly delights in mimicking a wide array of accents and affectations with theatrical gusto. Though Arnold Schwarzenegger remains the centre of this bombastic blockbuster, Paxton manages to steal his fair share of scenes.

6. Titanic (1997)

Titanic (1997)

Bill Paxton reunited with director James Cameron once again for the role of fortune-hunting explorer Brock Lovett in Cameron's 1997 record-shattering romantic epic Titanic. As the leader of a submarine crew searching the Titanic's wreckage for a legendary diamond, Paxton brings intelligence, humour, and passion to the role of Lovett. His insightful debates with Gloria Stuart's 101-year-old Rose DeWitt Bukater reveal Lovett to be more than a greedy treasure hunter. Like the wide-eyed explorers of old, his lust for adventure and romantic ideals fuel his ambitious quest. Though Rose remains the heart of their storyline, Paxton provides an endearing counterpoint, conveying childlike wonder and restless curiosity about the secrets of the ship's watery grave.

5. Tombstone (1993)

Tombstone (1993)

1993's Western Tombstone gave the actor one of his meatiest film roles as legendary lawman Morgan Earp, opposite Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp. With an authoritative moustache and steel-eyed glare, Paxton convincingly captures Morgan's stern, no-nonsense attitude. Yet as the perilous showdown with the brutal Cowboys gang looms ever closer, Paxton deftly pivots Morgan from resolute duty to grappling with mortal fear. While Russell justifiably earned top billing as the famous frontiersman Wyatt, Paxton's emotional portrait of his brother Morgan represents an acting high point. Even when facing impossible odds, his belief in law and order never wavers. And Paxton's presence grounds Tombstone as one of the finest latter-day Westerns.

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4. Apollo 13 (1995)

Apollo 13 (1995)

In Ron Howard's 1995 Best Picture nominee Apollo 13, Paxton tackled a somewhat surprising role: astronaut Fred Haise. The actor captured both Haise's jocular camaraderie with crewmates Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), along with conveying the astronaut's utmost professionalism and grace under pressure. Once disaster strikes their spacecraft, Haise perseveres through escalating hazards alongside Lovell and Swiger. Watching Paxton as Haise scrambles to assist his crewmates and help guide ground control through each terrifying crisis makes for an emotional rollercoaster. And seeing this consummate performer navigate scenes set entirely in zero gravity and cramped spacecraft compartments is thrilling. As much as Apollo 13 represents a towering technical achievement, Paxton grounds the Oscar-winning film with immense heart and humanity.

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3. Near Dark (1987)

Near Dark (1987)

Years before the explosive mainstream success of vampire tales like "Interview With the Vampire" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Bill Paxton took a supporting role in Kathryn Bigelow's stylish 1987 horror/Western mashup Near Dark as ruthless bloodsucker Severen. From his opening scenes, Paxton exudes menace with greasy hair, sinister grins, and sadistic wit. Once the leaderless nomadic clan initiates a shy small-town boy into their vampire fold, Severen delights in corrupting his innocent mind with acts of depravity. With sudden explosions of violence, Paxton makes Severen fiercely captivating. And his emotional bond with fellow vampire Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) reveals flickers of humanity within the beast. For fans who know Paxton primarily as a heroic everyman, it's a revelation watching him inhabit such cruel and charismatic darkness.

“I hate to interrupt your meal fellas but me and Whistler here gotta take a leak.”

Paxton as Severen
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2. Twister (1996)

Twister (1996)

The actor's collaborations with director James Cameron understandably earned Paxton his widest acclaim and success. However, re-teaming with Titanic producer Kathleen Kennedy for 1996's tornado thriller Twister gave Paxton his biggest box-office hit and an iconic role. As storm chaser Bill Harding opposite Helen Hunt's Dr. Jo Harding (his soon-to-be ex-wife), Paxton carries the film with charm, heroism, and genuine emotional conflict. Battling carnage and catastrophe over 24 hours of chaos across Oklahoma's Tornado Alley. Bill finds himself forced to confront both Jo's dangerous obsession and his lingering love for her. With an F5 tornado ripping across the Great Plains as their epic backdrop, Paxton nails this role of an ordinary man whose bravery and duty run as deep as the surging storm cellars. And for a nail-biting film dependent on special effects and Mother Nature's fury, his authenticity and passion give Twister the heart and soul so integral to its ongoing legacy.

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1. Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986)

While it was his collaborations with James Cameron that cemented his stardom, the role of wisecracking Colonial Marine Private Hudson in 1986's Aliens remains Paxton's signature performance. Cameron knew Paxton possessed leading-man qualities from their first collaboration on The Terminator and expanded his role for the Alien sequel. Paxton seized the spotlight. Whether spouting off hilarious macho braggadocio or descending into quivering panic once the xenomorph threat escalates, Paxton steals every scene he's in. Yet beneath the comedic bravado lie hints of a profoundly haunted man. And behind the shrieking and blubbering lies a hero who ultimately sacrifices himself for others. In just 10 minutes of cumulative screen time, Paxton achieved the rarest of feats in popcorn action flicks—an icon for the ages. And his terrified wail of "Game over, man!" echoes through sci-fi history.

"Get away from her, you bitch!"

Paxton's Private Hudson defiant until the end

Over a rich career spanning four decades, Bill Paxton has proven himself both a leading man and a consummate character actor. While he never earned award recognition commensurate with his abundant talents, Paxton contributed indelible work to some of the most acclaimed and successful films of all time. Whether as a fierce friend, sinister foe, or ordinary men rising to meet extraordinary journeys, Paxton elevated the cinematic arts through his passion and commitment to the craft. Though his untimely passing silenced one of Hollywood’s most vital creative forces, the remarkable roles captured here will ensure Bill Paxton's rightful place among the immortals of film.