Kathryn Bigelow’s filmmaking career began more than 40 years ago now, and though her filmography isn’t huge, it is varied and consistently interesting. It’s also home to several great movies, and several more that are still probably worth a watch. She specializes in making gritty action movies, thrillers, and war films, but has explored plenty of other genres, too. She also has the distinction of being the first-ever female filmmaker to win an Academy Award for directing (after about eight decades of only male winners).
Due to the eclectic nature of this body of work, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to rank the films of Kathryn Bigelow, especially if one’s to do so in a way that’ll annoy as few people as possible. What follows is nevertheless an attempt to do just that, with all 10 feature films directed by Bigelow ranked below, beginning with the not-too-bad/interesting/somewhat flawed, and ending with the best.
10 ‘The Weight of Water’ (2000)
Starring Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley
In a post-2022 world, it’s hard to talk about The Weight of Water without thinking about a certain epic-length sequel to a fairly obscure 2009 movie known as Avatar, especially because for a couple of years, Bigelow and that film’s director – James Cameron – were married. The Weight of Water versus The Way of Water. It feels uncanny. Of course, the two movies couldn’t be more different when it comes to genre, because the former’s a crime/thriller, rather than a sci-fi epic.
The plot centers on a woman looking into a strange murder that occurred well over a century ago, and finding her own life starting to reflect aspects of that past ordeal in strange ways. It’s an overall not-terrible film by any means, thanks to having a decent cast and overall solid visual presentation, as one would expect from a filmmaker like Bigelow. It’s not hugely memorable or unique necessarily, but it does the job well enough for this kind of film, and for its time, too.
9 ‘K-19: The Widowmaker’ (2002)
Starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson
K-19: The Widowmaker has some surprising competition in the “thrillers set on submarines” department, and does ultimately come up short against movies like The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, and (especially) Das Boot. But that doesn’t mean it’s lacking the capacity to offer some solid action and thrills for those who don’t mind some cinematic claustrophobia… it’s a given, after all, when much of a story is set in such a confined space.
The story of K-19: The Widowmaker is inspired by real events, and involves the crew of a nuclear submarine having to prevent a potential catastrophe after unforeseen complications/malfunctions arise. It represented a small uptick in quality compared to The Weight of Water, but is still one of Kathryn Bigelow’s lesser films, perhaps being most memorable for featuring an interesting Harrison Ford performance, given the whole Russian accent thing.
Watch on Peacock
8 ‘Blue Steel’ (1990)
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis
A thriller starring Jamie Lee Curtis that gets surprisingly dark and uncomfortable in places, Blue Steel certainly feels like a relic of its time. It might’ve felt a little more streamlined or believable back when it was released, but watching it now does reveal quite a strange – yet ultimately intriguing – film. It essentially revolves around a rookie cop, played by Curtis, and the way her professional life unravels after she kills a man while stopping an armed robbery on her first day on the job.
Things get a little far-fetched when a witness to the shooting becomes dangerously obsessed with Curtis’s character, and her falling for him doesn’t feel believable, given the heinously bad vibes he gives off right from the get-go. But that aside, Blue Steel does still succeed in being intense and unpacking the difficulties of being a woman in a workplace that’s traditionally seen as masculine and/or patriarchal, and certainly works more often than it doesn’t.
Watch on Tubi
7 ‘The Loveless’ (1981)
Starring Willem Dafoe
Long before he became one of Wes Anderson’s favorite actors, Willem Dafoe had an early starring role in Kathryn Bigelow’s feature directorial debut: The Loveless. As is often the case with debut films, it has a smaller scope and a more personal narrative than many of the director’s subsequent films, principally here revolving around a motorcycle gang causing havoc in a small town they stop at, with Dafoe playing one of the main bikers in said gang.
If the premise sounds familiar, it’s because almost 30 years prior, an early Marlon Brando film – The Wild One – featured the same basic story, and also served to be a pivotal role for that actor. Still, the angsty themes around rebellion and alienation were as topical in the 1950s as they were in the 1980s, and The Loveless functions well as an update to the premise in question. Bigelow certainly went on to bigger and better things, but this is a pretty good debut, all things considered.
Watch on Tubi
6 ‘Strange Days’ (1995)
Starring Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett
From here on out, things generally get very strong ranking-wise, with the half-dozen best movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow are all pretty close quality-wise. One of these essential films of hers is Strange Days, which wasn’t particularly popular upon release, but has gone on to develop more of a (well-deserved) cult following as the years have gone along. As far as memorable and well-made sci-fi movies released during the ’90s go, it has to be one of the best.
Strange Days takes place in what was, back in 1995, the future: the year 1999. It unravels a bit like a futuristic film noir, seeing a man trying to get to the bottom of a grisly murder, and coming across all sorts of other characters who don’t always seem trustworthy. The plot unravels as one would expect in this kind of film, with plenty of intrigue and left turns, making for a gripping story that unfolds in an extremely well-presented sci-fi world.
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5 ‘Point Break’ (1991)
Starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves
Kathryn Bigelow has directed her fair share of acclaimed yet somewhat under-appreciated (at least by general audiences) movies, with Point Break ultimately standing out because it’s a very well-known 1990s action movie. It still delivers great action and overall holds up well some 30+ years later now, telling a story about a young FBI agent going undercover to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers who also love surfing, and finding himself increasingly reluctant to eventually take them down.
It’s easy to think of Keanu Reeves as an action movie star now, thanks to appearing in films like those in The Matrix series and the John Wick franchise, but it was Point Break that helped establish how well-suited he was to the genre. It stands as one of Reeves’s best movies overall, and also includes a similarly legendary Patrick Swayze performance, as the leader of the gang at the film’s center. As an action/thriller movie, it is quite bombastic and over-the-top, but in a way that’s genuinely a lot of fun and admirably stylish.
- Release Date
- January 31, 1991
- Kathryn Bigelow
- Patrick swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey, Lori Petty, John C. McGinley, James LeGros
- Action, Crime, Thriller
Watch on Peacock
4 ‘Near Dark’ (1987)
Starring Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton
Though The Loveless was a good debut, it was Kathryn Bigelow’s second feature film, Near Dark, that really demonstrated just how much talent she had as a director. It’s a unique spin on a vampire movie, as instead of belonging to the gothic horror subgenre, it functions like a blend of a modern Western and a supernatural horror movie. It might sound like the kind of thing that could be unwieldy or too bizarre to work, but somehow, it all comes together strikingly well.
The vampires at the heart of Near Dark form something of a gang, and torment those who are unlucky to come across them as they rampage their way through desert towns in the U.S. south. The characters and performances here also make Near Dark stand out more than most horror movies of its time, especially when it comes to the likes of Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton, who both prove very capable of stealing scenes in the best way possible.
3 ‘Detroit’ (2017)
Starring John Boyega and Will Poulter
Once more, it has to be said that Kathryn Bigelow made a very good movie that didn’t get the proper appreciation it deserved – the movie in question being Detroit. It’s one of the tensest and best-acted of the 2010s, and tells an immersive – and oftentimes harrowing – story set in 1967. During that year, in the titular town, there was a large uprising due to controversial police practices, with the ensuing 12th Street Riot being shown here from multiple perspectives.
It always moves along well and unfolds in a satisfying manner over a relatively lengthy runtime that clocks in at just under 2.5 hours. Detroit’s not an easy film to watch, as it deals with heavy themes regarding racism and police brutality, but it serves as a powerful depiction of a real-life event, and was released 50 years after said event happened. Many actors in this film also give arguable career-best performances; principally, the likes of John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Algee Smith.
Watch on Prime Video
2 ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012)
Starring Jessica Chastain
For as great as Zero Dark Thirty is, it might be its strange production that proves the most memorable thing about it. It was originally developed as something very different from what it ended up being, with the death of Osama bin Laden necessitating the story be altered, and it ended up being about the manhunt for the al-Qaeda terrorist leader. Furthermore, news broke after its release that the CIA had also made some changes to the film’s development.
That all makes it surprising that Zero Dark Thirty comes together as well as it does, having a true-life story play out with a combination of facts and some historical liberties taken. It’s a slow burn at times, but expertly builds tension in the way that many of Bigelow’s more recent films have proven very capable of doing, and the film’s finale is well-regarded for good reason. It’s a confronting and sometimes challenging film, but an inevitably rewarding one.
Zero Dark Thirty
- Release Date
- December 19, 2012
- Kathryn Bigelow
- Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau
- Main Genre
Watch on Starz
1 ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2008)
Starring Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie
The Hurt Locker was not Kathryn Bigelow’s most commercially successful movie by any means, but it was her most critically acclaimed and successful Awards-wise, with it winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars. It’s an expertly made war movie set in Iraq, and keeps things intense and personal by focusing on a small group of characters who make up a bomb squad unit, which is an understandably high-intensity thing to be a part of in the Army.
It’s a film that explores the unusual adrenaline rush that can come with being in such a high-risk setting day after day, showing war to be something that can provide a kind of addictive thrill for certain personality types. With its premise and execution, it ends up being a highly stressful war/thriller/drama film, and still holds up excellently to this day… and will likely remain excellent (and nerve-wracking) as even more time passes.
The Hurt Locker
- Release Date
- October 10, 2008
- Kathryn Bigelow
- Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse
- Main Genre
Watch on Max
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