Few actors are quite as beloved as Gene Hackman, a two-time Oscar winner who appeared in a wide variety of movies from the early 1960s until his retirement from acting in 2004. He brought a certain amount of dedication and intensity to just about every role he played, becoming such an acclaimed actor because he never phoned it in, and could always reliably deliver great performances, even in movies that overall might not have been great.
As for the following movies? They are all good to great, and represent Hackman’s best work as an actor, and the overall best films that he appeared in throughout his remarkable acting career. Few actors can claim to have excelled in such a large number of movies, and across almost every genre under the sun, with all the following titles serving to demonstrate Hackman’s unparalleled acting chops.
25 ‘Prime Cut’ (1972)
Prime Cut is a strange film, and not one of Gene Hackman’s best known, though it did come out shortly after he became a big star. In it, he plays a villainous character who goes by the name Mary Ann and runs a slaughterhouse while also having connections to the mob. Specifically, he owes them a great debt that he refuses to pay.
The film essentially involves him clashing with the protagonist played by Lee Marvin, who’s a mob enforcer/debt collector. Despite taking place in brightly colored countryside locations, it’s quite gritty, violent, and shocking at times, making for an uncomfortable yet undeniably unique watch that’s worth checking out for those who like their crime movies offbeat.
24 ‘Heist’ (2001)
Everyone loves a good heist movie, and 2001’s Heist makes it clear right from the start that it’s a heist movie. It almost couldn’t be anything else, with such a direct title, and it has a similarly straightforward premise that sees an aging thief facing hard times, which motivates him to pull off one large, final job to sort all his various financial woes out.
It was one of Hackman’s final starring roles, and given how many great crime films he’d starred in over the past four decades, his performance here is one he could almost do in his sleep. But as always, he commits and doesn’t sleepwalk through Heist, which, beyond Hackman’s performance, is also a pretty decent crime/thriller movie with a cast that also includes the likes of Sam Rockwell and Danny DeVito.
23 ‘Crimson Tide’ (1995)
Crimson Tide is often held up as one of Tony Scott’s best movies, and it was one of two that he made with Gene Hackman (and one of many that he made with Denzel Washington). It’s a paranoia-heavy thriller set on a submarine, and centers on a young officer leading a mutiny to prevent his captain from prematurely launching nuclear missiles.
Washington’s the officer, and Hackman plays the captain, with it being one of his most forceful and intimidating performances in a career that was full of them. As a film, it builds tension quite well within its enclosed setting, and features a premise that’s equal parts intriguing and disquieting, especially given real-world fears surrounding nuclear weapons.
22 ‘Get Shorty’ (1995)
Even though Get Shorty might feel a little one-note as a comedy, at least its main source of humor is an admittedly amusing one. It’s a crime/gangster movie set in Hollywood, revolving around the idea that gangsters and Hollywood producers are just as cutthroat as each other, with the two businesses practiced by each combined for comedic effect.
John Travolta plays a mobster who gets wrapped up in Hollywood life, and Gene Hackman’s the Hollywood producer who believes he may be able to make the mobster’s life into a movie. Cue plenty of meta humor and self-deprecating jabs at life in Los Angeles, with it being one of the best comedies Hackman ever starred in.
21 ‘Enemy of the State’ (1998)
Three years after Crimson Tide, Tony Scott and Gene Hackman collaborated on a second film, Enemy of the State. Hackman’s role is a memorable supporting one (it’s a good deal of time before his character shows up), with Will Smith playing the protagonist: a man who accidentally gets roped into a conspiracy plot involving political corruption, surveillance, and murder.
Though some of its action sequences reflect the 1990s at its most excessive, many of the themes present in Enemy of the State have remained scarily relevant, with surveillance of the public being even more of a concern in the 2020s than it was in the 1990s. It’s an effective thriller, with Smith and Hackman making for a great pairing.
20 ‘The Birdcage’ (1996)
The Birdcage is a significant film within LGBTQ+ cinema, and was among the first to achieve widespread popularity. It’s a farcical comedy about two gay men who are partners, and find themselves needing to pass as straight for a family-related event where they’ll be meeting the conservative parents of the fiancée to one of their sons.
It’s a film with a very strong cast, featuring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in the lead roles, and Gene Hackman as the seemingly conservative Senator Kevin Keeley. It’s an amusing and good-natured movie, and also stands as one of the most well-known movies directed by Mike Nichols (and doesn’t represent the only time Nichols directed Hackman, either).
19 ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972)
Gene Hackman won his first Oscar in 1971, and then in 1972, he got the leading role in one of the biggest blockbusters he ever appeared in. That movie was The Poseidon Adventure, which is a large-scale and even epic disaster movie about an ocean liner that capsizes, plunging everyone on board into a desperate fight for survival, where failing to escape will lead to almost certain death.
It’s very of its time, because these sorts of big disaster movies with lots of characters – and notable stars playing them – were particularly big in the 1970s, but not so much outside the decade. Still, The Poseidon Adventure is certainly one of the better ones, with some gripping sequences that hold up well, and a central performance from Hackman that anchors (pun intended) the movie.
18 ‘Postcards from the Edge’ (1990)
Postcards from the Edge is first and foremost a movie that stars Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, with Gene Hackman’s role being comparatively minor. It’s a film based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher, which was about her relationship with her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, and her struggles with addiction.
Despite the title, it does feel like something where some of the edge was potentially removed, because the film ultimately chooses to focus on the mother-and-daughter dynamic, and doesn’t explore addiction much beyond the first act. Yet it still works well as a dramedy, being fantastically acted by Streep and MacLaine, and having a strong supporting performance from Hackman as a director named Lowell Kolchek, who Streep’s character collaborates with on and off.
17 ‘No Way Out’ (1987)
An underrated 1980s thriller, No Way Out stars Kevin Costner as a Navy Lieutenant who gets entangled in a very complex situation. He begins having a relationship with a woman who’s also having an affair with Kevin Costner’s character, Defense Secretary David Brice, who has powerful connections that he ends up using once the two men cross paths.
To say more about a twist-filled thriller like No Way Out would be doing it a disservice, and it all builds up to one kind of ridiculous – but also memorable – ending. It largely works and feels pretty well-paced overall, and Hackman once again shows how great he is at playing characters who are equal parts sleazy and intimidating.
16 ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (1977)
Among all the great war movies out there, A Bridge Too Far feels like one of the most large-scale, and also one of the longest when it comes to runtime. It has a huge ensemble cast and runs for just shy of three hours, taking a detailed look at 1944’s Operation Market Garden, which was an important World War II event, the success of which would likely make an Allied victory in Europe possible.
Beyond Hackman, the cast also includes Michael Caine, James Caan, Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, and Robert Redford, among many others. It’s packed with stars and has a scope that still impresses to this day, being a long yet ultimately rewarding World War II epic.
15 ‘Night Moves’ (1975)
Gene Hackman plays a private detective in the neo-noir movie Night Moves, and it’s overall one of the most underrated movies of its genre from the 1970s. Hackman’s character at first believes his task to be a simple one – finding a missing girl – but as always happens in movies like this, what he discovers is anything but straightforward.
It’s certainly a moody and unpredictable movie, and though it sometimes feels like a slow burn, it’s never boring to watch. It’s easy to recommend to both Gene Hackman fans, and those who like the kinds of steadily paced – and often bleak – crime movies that were popular in American cinema during the 1970s.
14 ‘Scarecrow’ (1973)
The pairing of lead actors in Scarecrow is worth the price of admission alone, as this is a film that stars both Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. It’s about two drifters who, fittingly enough, lack a direction in life, with the movie around them similarly lacking a straightforward narrative, and instead showing how the two men pass their time.
They naturally have bigger dreams they want to accomplish, too, but the bleakness of the world they inhabit ultimately has other plans. It’s a sad and slow-paced movie, but it leaves a mark, and things are undeniably helped by the fact that two of the greatest actors of all time are both featured as the lead characters.
13 ‘Superman II’ (1980)
A well-received superhero sequel that was even better received when it got a 2006 director’s cut, Superman II isn’t quite as good as the 1978 movie it follows, but is nevertheless compelling. It increases the stakes and number of villains for the titular hero to combat, with Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor still in the picture, and new foes – led by General Zod – coming to Earth after their banishment from the planet Krypton.
Zod might steal the show, but Hackman’s Luthor still doesn’t kneel before him in totality, given Hackman still shines when returning to one of his best-known roles. Lex Luthor isn’t a subtle or understated villain by any means, but it’s great to see Gene Hackman play someone so outwardly villainous, and it helps that it also looks like the actor is having a good time in the role.
12 ‘Young Frankenstein’ (1974)
It doesn’t belong to the official Frankenstein series, as it’s a Mel Brooks spoof, but Young Frankenstein is still a classic nevertheless. It follows the grandson of the original Dr. Frankenstein inheriting the scientist’s castle, ultimately following in his elder’s footsteps, only for the results to be far more comedic than horrific.
Gene Hackman’s role in the movie is essentially just a cameo, as he plays a blind man named Harold who’s briefly visited by Frankenstein’s creature when the monster roams the countryside. Still, it’s fun to see Hackman pop up in a broad and silly comedy movie, and though he’s not in it much, the fact Young Frankenstein’s such a classic still means it’s one of the best movies he ever appeared in.
11 ‘The Firm’ (1993)
The Firm might not have any business being 2.5 hours long, but to its credit, it remains compelling enough to be entertaining for the majority of that lengthy runtime. It’s about a young lawyer who joins a very shady law firm, and then finds himself troubled by the FBI – who want evidence about the firm’s misdeeds – and the powerful executives who serve as the higher-ups at the firm.
Tom Cruise shines as the star of the film, with Gene Hackman playing one of the seniors at the firm whose character becomes more multi-layered as the film goes on. It’s decently suspenseful and well-made overall, and manages to feel like it’s of its time, but not in a way that negatively dates it or makes it difficult to watch nowadays.
10 ‘The Quick and the Dead’ (1995)
Somewhere between directing the Evil Dead trilogy and the Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi also made The Quick and the Dead, which is one of its decade’s best Westerns. It’s about a town that holds a quick-draw tournament, and a dangerous one at that, as it continually ends up proving fatal for many participants.
It has a great cast, with it being led by Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, Gene Hackman, and a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Hackman’s villainous character here is one of the slimiest and most despicable he ever played, being a great love-to-hate character that helps make the otherwise fairly simple story worth caring about.
9 ‘Hoosiers’ (1986)
A compelling and underrated 1980s sports drama, Hoosiers sees Gene Hackman playing a determined – and sometimes divisive – coach of a small-town basketball team. The film takes place in the 1950s, and uses familiar sports movie tropes in telling its story about how this team struggled yet improved under their coach.
It’s a very quiet movie, with the lack of flashiness or explosive action perhaps leaving it within the realm of the underrated. But it’s worth checking out, because it tells a familiar story well, and has some great performances – one from Hackman, of course, but also an equally great supporting turn from an Oscar-nominated Dennis Hopper.
8 ‘Reds’ (1981)
Reds is a mammoth film, clocking in at 195 minutes and telling a large-scale historical story with a truly impressive cast. Beyond Gene Hackman (in a relatively small role), that cast also includes Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, and Jack Nicholson, and is about love and attempted revolutions, centering around an American journalist who wanted to spread socialist principles among the U.S.’s working class.
It might be a little long or even over-ambitious for some, but the effort has to be appreciated, with star Warren Beatty also directing, producing, and co-writing the film. Hackman’s briefly featured as an associate of the main character, with his role here having some similarities to his first credited (brief) performance in 1964’s Lillith, as that also featured Beatty in the lead role.
7 ‘Superman’ (1978)
The original Superman is arguably still the best movie to ever feature the iconic superhero. It’s a pure and good-natured superhero movie, with the titular character doing a whole lot more saving people than fighting them. Its 1980 sequel was good, but the Superman movies (and the 1984 Supergirl movie) that followed weren’t exactly great.
Christopher Reeve is great in the lead role, though his status as a newcomer actor meant he was unfairly billed below both Marlon Brando (who has a fairly small role) and Gene Hackman (who’s the lead antagonist). Still, you can’t deny that the latter is a fantastic villain here, with the film’s overall popularity and status as a classic also making it one of Hackman’s most recognizable works.
6 ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ (2001)
It’s fair to call The Royal Tenenbaums a comedy, so long as you include a disclaimer of sorts that clarifies it’s a very sad comedy at times. It was one of Wes Anderson’s earliest feature films, and expertly blended quirky humor and tragic family drama, telling the story of a dysfunctional family upended further by the return of its on-and-off patriarch, played by Gene Hackman.
It marked the start of Anderson’s foray into directing movies with ensemble casts, given his previous two movies – Bottle Rocket and Rushmore – each had a more restricted scope. And the casting of Hackman as arguably the film’s central character also did wonders for The Royal Tenenbaums, with it being one of his most captivating and complex roles, and the greatest film of his released in the 21st century.