Who knows when we'll see the next Avatar movies, and after that, you have to wonder when we'll get another James Cameron original movie. So, if you need your fix of spectacle, humor, and heart, you have to sift back through the Cameron catalog to see what he has to offer.
But what's James Cameron's best movie? Is it on land, in space, or under the sea? James Cameron is a precious filmmaker who creates stunning portraits of art that also seek to entertain the masses. So let's rank his movies like the heathens we are and talk about why each of them matters.
Come with me if you want to live...vicariously through this master filmmaker's career.
Also: I left the docs off the list. They are both excellent and I have no idea where they'd land. but check them out if you have time.
The James Cameron Movie Ranking
Look, there's only one "bad" movie on this list. The rest of them are so much fun I had the hardest time putting them in any kind of order. This is an attempt, and I am looking forward to you all telling me how wrong I was in the comments.
8. Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
This film is legendary. There was Italian money put up to create a horror movie sequel to the modestly successful Joe Dante film. James Cameron, a technical supervisor, swore he could make the movie on the cheap. Then, after it was shot, all the footage disappeared. The Italians took it back to Italy and legend has it...Cameron stole it back and created his...well he created the best movie you could get out of the footage
I love the idea of James Cameron skulking around corners, taking out guards to get the footage to this movie back. Still, I think this is probably where Cameron showed his passion for the first time. He was willing to do anything to create the world he saw in his mind.
Even pull off a heist to get his movie back. Which might be better than the actual movie.
7. Avatar (2009)
The second highest-grossing movie of all time is a sight to behold. Avatar is still one of my favorite movie-going experiences. At the time, we hadn't had a Cameron movie in a decade, and out of nowhere, he pops up with this auspicious look at man versus nature and other types of conflict.
While many people have derided the derivative nature of the script, I still think this movie has a lot to offer. At two-plus hours, it still moves quickly.
While I don't know how all the Eywa stuff holds up, or the ponytail sex with animals and each other the movie pulls no punches.
It found ways to connect and changed the game when it came to CGI world-building and characters.
6. The Abyss (1989)
I love this movie. Recently, Michael Biehn called it Cameron's misstep, but I think it was just a precursor to us understand the word "visionary," which only applies to a handful of directors in my opinion. Cameron, at this point in his career, was already famous for taking audiences on journeys they never thought possible.
I mean, for this movie he hollowed out a nuclear power plant, flooded it, and shot inside it.
The Abyss covers some of Cameron's biggest questions: Are we alone? What does humanity mean to one another? How do we handle the pressure?
This movie is poetic and at times, feels like nothing Cameron has ever done before. It has a brooding dramatic quality that we see later in his documentaries.
There's patience here that I appreciate.
5. The Terminator (1984)
The ultimate chase movie. It's hard to imagine having a world where we don't have this as a reference for anything. The Terminator is essentially a road movie except they never leave the city until the end. It has rom-com elements. A meet-cute that goes awry quickly. A passionate night of love-making.
And plenty of pipe bombs.
The one thing that feels dated in this movie is the soundtrack. I'd love to see a rescore. But I do have a soft spot for the synth and digital tracks at the machine heart of this film.
The performances are underrated, but the excitement and cultural impact is not.
4. True Lies (1994)
I love this movie. It's a James Bond send-up that's Cameron getting into a sentimental phase in his career. This is the best performance I've ever seen Schwarzenegger give. He plays so mild-mannered and then is able to turn into a super spy in the blink of an eye.
There is the undeniable chemistry between him and Jamie Lee Curtis. The movie does wonders recalibrating the idea of a family adventure. And it has a chase scene on horseback. Plus he destroys terrorists, a nuclear bomb actually explodes, and there's another chase in a limousine!
James Bond movies are so sanitary. This is about baggage. It's about loving your job and losing sight of your family. It's about being a bad husband. It's about being BORED.
The movie is deep, people!
3. Aliens (1986)
The top four of these movies are close to equal in my eyes. So as the hate rains down, I'll just pull a Ripley and say "Get away from her, you bitch." The "her" I am referring to is my article. I'm not sure it totally works but you get the picture.
Aliens is awesome. Dope cold open as Ripley is literally plucked from space and wakes up on a mission back to a planet infested with Aliens. The tension is ratcheted all the way to eleven as Bill Paxton uttered "Game over, man. Game over!"
The final set-piece, with Ripley in the suit fighting the Queen, is burned into my memory as one of the most spectacular hand to claw combat moments in cinema history. and then Cameron homages himself in Avatar, but this time you're rooting for the beast!
This is Cameron's fastest-paced film, but still over two hours long. You feel the scenes breeze past, and get to see how he slowly became a master of shooting action and practical effects. there's a grit compared to the gloss of other movies on this list.
Also, he took what was a science fiction thinker and turned it into a bad-ass action film. He knew that sequels had to be different. And he showcases that a little later on the list.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Look, everyone asks what the best action movie is of all time. And I'm here to tell you that it's Terminator 2.
Cameron completely flips the expected on its head here. We get two terminators coming back, but this time the one who was so evil in the first is a good guy. We see the dystopic ripple effects of what has happened to Sarah Conner since the first film, and we learn that John Conner is just a kid who needs some parenting.
And a motorcycle helmet.
Honestly, you want set pieces? This movie has all the set pieces. And the liquid nitrogen.
It has Arnold with a minigun. It also deals with the moral complexities of saving the future by killing people in the present. It asks what life is worth and makes hardline choices.
And, somehow, Cameron one-ups "I'll be back" with "Hasta la vista, baby."
1. Titanic (1997)
Come on. This is his opus. It got him ALL the Academy Awards. The bigger budgets. And was the reigning champion of the box office until he dethroned himself. I was in third grade when Titanic came out and all I knew about it was one of the girls in my class saw it eleven times with her Mom.
As I got older, I found the movie on cable and was able to see it in theaters for a special screening.
The effects still hold up. The love story is still moving. and the stars are still stars.
I keep wondering when Leo and Cameron will re-team. Bring Kate back too.
The story is truly as epic as the filmmaker. Paxton is back as a cad with a boat. Diving for buried treasure in a twenty-five-minute opening that sets us off for adventure. The story is narrated by a centenarian who has an impeccable memory.
The cinematography is breathtaking. The acting makes every character pop off the screen. And I don't think anyone will ever forget the score or Celine Dion's voice.
True story, I was in the church bell choir as a kid and they made us play that song. It had ZERO to do with the church. I was kicked out for making fart noises. But I remember every beat of that song.
We don't really get movies like this anymore unless they're based on comic books. Cameron was so smart, using the story of the Titanic has part of his public domain intellectual property. I mean, everyone knew the boat was going to sink. And they still went because the story was about the reason you have not to drown.
Man, it's a special achievement in every aspect of filmmaking.
And I am so happy Rose makes it to heaven later and Leo is waiting for her there.
Cameron, you sensitive son of a bitch. I want to live in your afterlife.
What's next? The Harry Potter Movie Ranking!
I love Harry Potter like he was a member of my muggle family. It actually pains me, cruciatus curse-style, to do a Harry Potter movie ranking list. This seems like an idea from he who must not be named… But, when the topic came up in our weekly meeting, I salivated at the chance to return to Hogwarts and get all of you mad at me all over again.
Click the link for more!