Ed Harris: 20 Best Movies Ranked

As we rank his 20 finest films to date, clear patterns emerge: Harris is drawn to movies that push boundaries and explore the extremes of human experience.

Ed Harris: 20 Best Movies Ranked

Actor Ed Harris has delivered riveting performances across a wide range of genres over his decades-long career. From hard-boiled thrillers to poignant dramas, Harris continually impresses with his intense portrayals of complex characters. As we rank his 20 finest films to date, clear patterns emerge: Harris is drawn to movies that push boundaries and explore the extremes of human experience.

20. Needful Things (1993)

Needful Things (1993)

In this Stephen King adaptation, Harris takes on the role of Sheriff Alan Pangborn, the observant guardian of the small town of Castle Rock. His life takes a twisted turn when Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow), a friendly antique dealer, opens the store "Needful Things," peddling unique objects of desire to residents. But soon greed and chaos consume Castle Rock, with Harris’s Pangborn emerging as an unlikely moral hero battling encroaching supernatural darkness.

Through subtle emotional depth, Harris elevates Pangborn beyond a stock sheriff character to a relatable everyman. As those around him succumb to temptation, Pangborn remains steadfast, relying on intuition and integrity with understated courage. It’s a masterclass in nuanced acting, with Harris peeling back layers of humanity and relatable heroism amidst the encroaching madness.

19. State of Grace (1990)

State of Grace (1990)

Harris exudes brooding intensity in this gritty mob drama as Frankie Flannery, an Irish-American gangster ruling Hell's Kitchen with ruthless authority. When childhood friend Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) returns home after a long absence, he's drawn back into Frankie's violent world, forcing him to confront past debts and future dangers. Harris delivers a magnetic performance as an ambitious kingpin whose charming exterior masks an explosive temper.

"You and me, Terry, we could own this whole goddamned town!" - Frankie lays out his vision for seizing power.

18. Places in the Heart (1984)

Places in the Heart (1984)

Sally Field took home Best Actress for this Depression-era drama, but Harris provides sturdy support as her steadfast partner. After Field's character loses her husband, Harris steps in to help work the land and provide stability. Together, this makeshift family perseveres through hardships with perseverance and compassion. It's a tender turn from Harris in a role that relies on subtle strength rather than typical on-screen fireworks.

"Family is family, flesh and blood. But family are also the people you choose." - Harris's character provides loyalty amidst loss.

17. Mother! (2017)

Mother! (2017)

Darren Aronofsky's surreal psychological thriller torques up Harris's intensity as "man," the mysterious domineering husband to Jennifer Lawrence's "mother." Strange guests begin invading their home, driving "mother" mad and causing increasingly bizarre violence. Harris exudes a sinister authoritarian quality throughout this stylized, nightmarish allegory that leaves viewers unsettled as reality crumbles around his character's wife.

"He's an artist. This is his process. He owes it to the world to finish this piece." - Harris's "man" drives "mother" to breakdown in his quest for artistic glory.
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16. Just Cause (1993)

Just Cause (1993)

In the 1995 legal thriller "Just Cause," Ed Harris delivers a captivating and unsettling performance as Blair Sullivan, a complex and deeply flawed death row inmate maintaining his innocence for the gruesome rape and murder of a young girl. As Harvard law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) investigates Sullivan's case, Harris taps into the character's unnerving intellect and unpredictability.

With manipulative charisma, Sullivan keeps those around him off balance, using his formidable mind to stage an elaborate web of mystery and intrigue. Though outwardly controlled, he's prone to sudden emotional outbursts exposing his inner volatility. Hints about Sullivan's traumatic childhood arise, alluding to events that warped his psyche. And crucially, his true motive for the heinous crime remains chillingly unclear, with Harris excelling at embodying such moral ambiguity.

15. Walker (1987)

Walker (1987)

As the title character, Harris leads this biopic of real-life 19th-century American adventurer William Walker with grizzled grit. After a failed foray leading soldiers in Mexico, Walker essentially names himself president of Nicaragua, dreaming of controlling a Central American empire. Harris captures Walker's delusional ambition and frayed psyche as his repeated attempts to conquer land by force ultimately consume him.

"No law beyond do what you please." - Walker enjoys early victories before defeat and disgrace.

14. Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Ben Affleck's directing debut sees Harris as a Boston police captain trying to safely recover a kidnapped girl from the city's neglected neighbourhoods. He serves as the moral compass for younger detectives (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) confronting ugly truths under urban blight. Harris adds gravitas along with a streetwise, empathetic quality as a veteran who understands there are no easy answers.

"I think finding that little girl will rip the scabs off a lot of things that people around here don't want to deal with." - Harris sees justice is complicated on mean streets.

13. Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer (2013)

In a dystopian future where Earth has frozen over, survivors live aboard the perpetual-motion train Snowpiercer. Harris plays an icy security minister, enforcing draconian orders to maintain balance. But as class warfare brews, his brutal tactics to suppress rebellion fail. Snowpiercer cement's Harris's ability to embody imposing authoritarian characters defined by steely conviction.

"Everyone has their preordained position." - Harris's minister preaches a rigid hierarchy.
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12. Nixon (1995)

Nixon (1995)

Oliver Stone's Nixon biopic features Harris as the legendary E. Howard Hunt, the CIA agent directly involved in the Watergate scandal that brought down Tricky Dick's presidency. With reptilian shiftiness, Harris portrays Hunt's shadowy machinations, from orchestrating Nixon's dirty tricks to overseeing the failed break-in and subsequent cover-up. It's a supporting part that lets Harris display his talent for subtle menace.

"I was operating under clear political authority...I relied on the highest authority in this country." - Hunt tries passing the blame as treasonous secrets emerge.

11. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Ron Howard's moving drama about schizophrenic mathematician John Nash features Harris as Parcher, a mysterious Defence Department operative who recruits Nash (Russell Crowe) to decipher coded enemy transmissions. Or so it appears, as Parcher is later revealed to be a hallucination, one of the governmental spies that populate Nash's psychosis. Harris brings the appropriate otherworldly quality to the role.

"You're going to have to study in ways you've never studied before." - Imaginary Parcher convinces Nash to embrace state surveillance projects.

10. The Hours (2002)

The Hours (2002)

This literary melodrama interweaves the lives of three women from different eras who are profoundly impacted by Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Harris plays Richard, renowned author Woolf's husband, striving to provide support and stability to his partner despite her mental health struggles and eventual suicide. It's a tender portrayal of a loving partner who ultimately cannot rescue his beloved writer from her inner demons.

"Someone has to take care of you. If you don't, I will." - Harris as Richard promises devotion to the troubled Woolf.

9. The Rock (1996)

The Rock (1996)

Face off! Harris goes tête-à-tête against Sean Connery's seasoned spy in this explosive Michael Bay action thriller. Harris plays the rogue general who commandeers Alcatraz, threatening to attack San Francisco with poison gas unless extorted funds are paid. He makes for an intimidating militant baddie, constantly thwarted by Connery's slick secret agent prowess. Over-the-top fun, with Harris providing the necessary gravitas.

"I will not tolerate failure!" - Harris barks orders as the renegade general prepared to unleash lethal weapons upon civilians.

8. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

A powerhouse ensemble cast populates this biting David Mamet (writer) satire about cutthroat city real estate salesmen who will seemingly stop at nothing to close deals. Harris plays a low-tier predator trying to survive this jungle full of alpha snakes like Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino. He's constantly desperate, scrambling for leads, and struggling to stay afloat, providing a textbook example of emasculated corporate anxiety.

"My watch! Somebody stole my goddamn watch!" - Harris spirals as his already shaky life crumbles further.

7. The Way Back (2010)

The Way Back (2010)

Inspiration arises amidst unfathomable hardship in this epic historical drama directed by Peter Weir. Colin Farrell stars as a young Polish prisoner who escapes a Siberian gulag alongside other refugees (including Harris) fleeing oppression. As the group undertakes a perilous 4,000-mile trek to freedom, Harris plays the elder Mr. Smith—worldly, compassionate, and determined to survive so that truth might prevail. Though the role is small, Harris's steady presence provides moral weight to the journey.

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6. A History of Violence (2005)

A History of Violence (2005)

Harris reteams with director David Cronenberg for this unsettling thriller about a seemingly ordinary small-town family man named Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who kills a pair of menacing drifters threatening his diner’s patrons. But soon sinister gangsters arrive, trying to extort Tom, believing he is legendary gangland assassin Joey Cusack.

Harris plays the chilling Carl Fogarty, chief enforcer for the Philadelphia mob, who ruthlessly stalks Stall/Cusack to bring him back into the fold. It's soon revealed that Tom has a brutal past he’s kept hidden from his wife and kids. Harris excellently captures Fogarty's sinister swagger and barely concealed explosive menace with minimal dialogue. Together, he and Mortensen lace the film with dread as the full truth emerges.

"I'll be seeing ya, Joey." - Harris exudes predatory danger, promising reckoning is coming for Mortensen's secret fugitive life.

5. Apollo 13 (1995)

Apollo 13 (1995)

Ron Howard's real-life space docudrama captures the aborted 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission that nearly ended in tragedy when an onboard explosion crippled the spacecraft. Marooned astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) scramble against diminishing resources to somehow get back to Earth safely.

On the ground, Flight Director Gene Kranz (Harris) and NASA's best engineers engage in a thrilling battle against the ticking clock to guide the imperilled astronauts home. Harris perfectly captures the chain-smoking Kranz's grit, intensity, leadership, and refusal to accept defeat. His iconic pep talk to rally the NASA team becomes the film's inspirational high point.

"Failure is not an option...we are going to bring them home." - Harris delivers the key motivational moment, inspiring hope amidst a crisis.

4. The Right Stuff (1983)

Harris rocketed to stardom with this role as pioneering astronaut John Glenn. The sprawling epic chronicles the early days of the Mercury space programme, with Glenn standing out as a devoted family man unwilling to take excessive risks. But when mechanical malfunctions threaten his orbital Friendship 7 mission, Glenn must summon his courage, while Harris gets a chance to unveil the aspirational heroism he would become renowned for.

"Dear Lord, please don't let me f* up." - Harris as Glenn steels his nerves before making history.

3. The Abyss (1989)

The Abyss (1989)

James Cameron's aquatic alien epic sees Harris play maverick oil driller Virgil Brigman, pressed into service with his crew to aid a downed nuclear submarine. After a storm causes chaos on their experimental underwater base, they discover luminous alien beings from the depths. Harris brings fiery intensity to the film's first half as he contends with life-threatening danger. Later, as first contact unfolds, he balances wonder and uncertainty about the implications of the momentous discovery.

"They can cure cancer. Why the hell would they bother coming here?" - Harris contemplates existential questions upon meeting the advanced underwater beings.

2. The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show (1998)

Harris earned his first Oscar nomination for playing Christof, the mastermind TV producer behind The Truman Show, an around-the-clock reality soap opera. Unbeknownst to lead actor Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), his entire life has been a televised fabrication, orchestrated by Christof from an expansive behind-the-scenes control room.

As Truman slowly unravels the manipulated artificiality surrounding him and attempts to escape his confined world, Christof becomes increasingly unhinged, trying to maintain his artistic vision. Harris presents the ultimate brooding creative genius—arrogant, controlling, and convinced that the sacrifice of Truman's life and free will is justified by the show's artistic integrity.

"He was born in front of a live audience. His first steps, his first words were all public. I have been watching him his whole life." - Harris as the obsessed Christof who has sinisterly choreographed every aspect of Truman's existence.

1. Pollock (2000)

Pollock (2000)

Harris passion project—writing, directing, and starring—pays tribute to trailblazing abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. 30 years in gestation before finally reaching the screen, the film spans Pollock's alcoholism-plagued career until his untimely death at age 44. Delving deep into the psyche of the volatile artist, Harris humanises his extremes—passionate highs, abusive lows, and manic brilliance.

Through sobriety struggles, tumultuous affairs, and feverish bursts of dazzling creativity that birthed splatter painting, Harris fuses his own forceful talents with Pollock's, revealing the human behind the artistic genius. He deservedly captured the Oscar for Best Actor after years of carrying this labour of love to fruition.

"I choose to leave something behind, some mark upon the world." - Harris captures Pollock's hunger for greatness and transcendence through revolutionary art.

These 20 films highlight his range and magnetism, making him one of the most compelling silver screen presences across the past four decades.

In these roles and so many others throughout his career, Ed Harris has continually forged captivating performances defined by fiery commitment and a willingness to lose himself in complex characters.

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