12 Best Action Movies of All Time For Filmmakers To Study.

Published:
Updated:

As an umbrella term, the action genre includes every other genre – from fantasy to science-fiction – with abundant action scenes that carry the plot forward.

The genre keeps you on the edge of your seat with elements like high-speed car chases, mega battles between good and evil, and intense hand-to-hand combat.

Here is a curated list of the best action films of all time (in no particular order) that every aspiring filmmaker and movie buff should watch – and why you should watch them!

1. The Matrix (1999)

  • Genre: Science Fiction/Action
  • Directors: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
  • Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hugo Weaving, Carrie-Anne Moss

Why It’s Essential: “The Matrix” is a seminal work for its innovative visual effects, particularly the use of “bullet time.” It’s also a study of blending philosophy with action, showing that action movies can be intellectually stimulating and visually exhilarating.

Example: The lobby shootout scene combines groundbreaking special effects with choreographed gunplay, setting a new standard for action sequences.

It’s still the best of the Matrix movies and one of only a handful of films I saw twice in the movie theatre.

If you like The Matrix as much as I do, you might also like this article on the best female characters in sci-fi movies.

2. John Wick (2014)

  • Genre: Action, Thriller
  • Director: Chad Stahelski
  • Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen

Why It’s Essential: This film revitalized the action genre with its “gun fu” style, a blend of martial arts and gunplay, showcasing the importance of innovation in action choreography. It’s also an excellent example of world-building within an action movie, creating a unique and compelling universe.

With possibly one of the greatest origin stories ever (which is why I enjoy it more over the sequels), John Wick, an ex-hit-man, comes out of retirement because someone kills his dog and steals his car.

That leads to a chain of events giving us some of the greatest fight scenes ever to grace a TV.

Example: The nightclub scene perfectly illustrates the movie’s choreography and world-building, with John Wick moving through a uniquely realized criminal underworld.

3. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

  • Genre: Science Fiction / Action
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Patrick, Linda Hamilton

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the Terminator movies greatly impacted my childhood and teenage years and how I think special effects in movies should look.

Why It’s Essential: A landmark in using CGI and practical effects, “Terminator 2” showcases how technology can enhance storytelling in action films. Cameron’s vision for the T-1000 was groundbreaking, demonstrating the potential of visual effects to create compelling and believable antagonists.

Example: The T-1000’s morphing abilities due to the liquid metal construction were visually impressive, adding depth to the character’s menacing presence.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

  • Genre: Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
  • Director: George Miller
  • Screenwriters: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris.
  • Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, and Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Growing up in the 1980s, I remembered seeing the original Mad Max action films and loved the dystopian depiction of the future.

So when Mad Max: Fury Road came out, I was skeptical and excited. Luckily, it didn’t disappoint.

Why It’s Essential: This film is a prime example of visual storytelling and practical effects in action cinema.

Notice how the camera subtly zooms into the frame and draws you in without you even noticing it.

Mad Max: Fury Road is also an excellent study of world-building and creating a narrative through action.

George Miller’s use of real vehicles, stunts, and minimal CGI sets a benchmark for creating immersive and thrilling action sequences.

Example: The entire chase sequence, which essentially spans the whole movie, showcases innovative vehicle designs, stunt work, and character development through action.

5. Die Hard (1988)

  • Genre: Action, Thriller
  • Director: John McTiernan
  • Screenwriter: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on the novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp.
  • Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, and Reginald VelJohnson, among others.

Why It’s Essential: “Die Hard” set the standard for the modern action thriller, blending suspense, a charismatic protagonist, and innovative action sequences.

It’s a masterclass in building tension and creating a compelling antagonist. The film’s use of a single location (Nakatomi Plaza) showcases how to maximize a setting to increase suspense and character dynamics.

Example: The glass-walking scene is a brilliant example of physical and psychological stakes being used to elevate an action sequence.

It’s a must-watch Christmas movie in many homes.

6. Top Gun (1986)

  • Genre: Action, Drama
  • Director: Tony Scott
  • Screenwriter(s): Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., based on an article titled “Top Guns” by Ehud Yonay.
  • Starring: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, and Tom Skerritt

Why It’s Essential: “Top Gun” is exemplary for its aerial combat sequences, which set a new benchmark for realism in action cinema.

Using actual military aircraft and pioneering new filming techniques to capture them in flight offers filmmakers lessons in using practical effects and real locations to enhance the authenticity and excitement of action scenes.

Example: The scene where Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards) have a close encounter with an enemy MiG.

7. The Dark Knight (2008)

  • Genre: Superhero, action, crime drama
  • Director: Christopher Nolan
  • Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. The screenplay was based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer.
  • Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman.

Why It’s Essential: Christopher Nolan’s action approach is grounded and intellectually stimulating.

The film’s practical effects, including flipping an 18-wheeler truck and using IMAX cameras for enhanced visual clarity, demonstrate how high-stakes action can serve the story and character development.

Example: The opening scene where the Joker outsmarts everyone.

Check out the best Joker quotes from Dark Knight here.

8. Aliens (1986)

  • Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Horror
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Screenwriters: James Cameron, with story credits also going to David Giler and Walter Hill, based on characters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett created.
  • Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, William Hope, and Al Matthews, among others.

Why It’s Essential: James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic is a masterclass in building tension and delivering action in a sci-fi setting.

The film’s use of practical effects, set design, and the development of strong, relatable characters amidst chaos are all areas of study for balancing action with storytelling.

Example: The scene where the alien appears behind Newt in the water is as horrifying as they come.

9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

  • Genre: Wuxia, Action, Drama, Fantasy, Romance
  • Director: Ang Lee
  • Screenwriter: The screenplay was written by Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo Jung, based on the novel by Wang Dulu.
  • Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen,Sihung Lung, and Cheng Pei-pei.

Why It’s Essential: This film blends action with art, offering a poetic take on the martial arts genre. Its innovative use of wirework revolutionized action choreography, showing that fight scenes could be beautiful and exhilarating. It’s an essential study in combining genre conventions with artistic vision.

Example: The bamboo forest fight scene demonstrates how to use the environment creatively in action sequences.

10. Inception (2010)

  • Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Adventure
  • Director: Christopher Nolan
  • Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine.

Why It’s Essential: “Inception” combines complex storytelling with innovative action sequences, showing that action films can also be thought-provoking and intricate. Nolan’s use of practical effects and unique concepts, like the rotating hallway fight, offer lessons in creativity and the execution of complex ideas.

Example: The rotating hallway fight scene demonstrates how to use practical effects and choreography to create a visually stunning and memorable action sequence.

11. Gladiator

  • Genre: Action, Drama, Adventure
  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Screenwriters: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
  • Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, and Richard Harris.

Why It’s Essential: “Gladiator” is notable for its epic scale and how it revitalized the historical epic genre. Its combination of storytelling, performance, and action choreography offers lessons in creating compelling character-driven action.

Example: The opening battle scene in Germania showcases how to effectively use scale, practical effects, and character moments to create an engaging and epic action sequence.

12. Saving Private Ryan” (1998)

  • Genre: War, Drama
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Screenwriter: Robert Rodat
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, and Jeremy Davies

Why It’s Essential: This film is a masterclass in depicting realistic and visceral action sequences. Spielberg’s use of handheld cameras and sound design in the D-Day landing scene revolutionized the portrayal of war on film, offering insights into creating immersive and impactful action.

Example: The Omaha Beach sequence is a harrowing and technically impressive depiction of combat that demonstrates the power of action sequences to convey emotion and realism.

You might like the Best War Moves Every Filmmaker and Movie Buff Should See.

Closing Thoughts

So this was some of the best action movies of all time. Studying action movies can provide valuable insights into the art of storytelling, cinematography, and editing.

From classics like “Die Hard” to modern masterpieces like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” these films showcase the power of visual storytelling and the importance of creating compelling characters in high-octane situations.

Up Next: What is Kinetic Editing in Film?

Author

    by
  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.