It’s time to stop underrating James Cameron movies. He’s not perfect but he’s better than he gets credit for. Cameron is an auteur working at the highest level of the studio system, like a proto-Christopher Nolan. His budgets are record-breaking but so are the box office returns.
If we can agree that James Cameron films are worthy, what are his best films and why? In this post, we’re going to rank James Cameron’s filmography from worst to best. Along the way, we’re going to point out specifically what makes each film stand out. Whether it’s advancing filmmaking technology, mixing genres, pushing strong female leads, or crafting clean and compelling action sequences.
Let’s take a look at the perfect marriage of technology and art.
Watch: How James Cameron Directed a Disaster
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DIRECTOR JAMES CAMERON MOVIES
Who is James Cameron?
His filmmaking began for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures as a prop maker. He quickly moved up to the production designer and got his first directing gig after that. It was while working for Corman that he learned low-budget filmmaking techniques that he carries with him to this day.
James Cameron is also an avid deep-sea explorer and, in 2012, became the first person to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench in a solo expedition. He races motorcycles and drives out to the desert to shoot guns. He’s also an environmentalist and a vegan...go figure!
From top to bottom, James Cameron is a self-made man and his contributions to cinema cannot be understated. Now that we’ve got a quick backstory, let’s get to the films.
JAMES CAMERON ALL MOVIES LIST
8. Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
You only need to read the title of this film to know exactly what you're getting. It's a schlocky piece of exploitation, one of the plethora of Jaws rip-offs from the late-'70s/early-'80s.
Cameron got the gig while working for Roger Corman's and that one time he electrocuted some maggots. That's right. The story goes that he was working on a special effects unit meant to capture a shot of maggots writhing. But they weren't moving. So, Cameron rigged the prop with electricity, and the little larvae started dancing. Ovidio Assonitis, a producer, was so impressed that Cameron could get a performance out of the maggots, he gave him the job.
No one, including Cameron himself, takes Piranha II seriously. He dubbed it, "the best flying piranha movie ever made!" And he might be right. But it is a fun little picture, and you can tell it was directed by James Cameron from the underwater sequences alone.
We all gotta start somewhere, right? Unless something goes horribly wrong in his future films, Piranha II will forever occupy the bottom of every ranked James Cameron filmography.
JAMES CAMERON'S MOVIES
7. True Lies (1994)
It's no surprise that the action in True Lies is next level. The set-pieces are pure Cameron, and they are just as exciting as anything he's done.
What we might not have expected is the humor. Despite a throwaway joke here or a quick visual gag there, films directed by James Cameron are mostly humor-less.
Tom Arnold had the freedom to improvise, and he didn't let that opportunity go to waste. The best "buddy cops" have undeniable chemistry and the Schwarzenegger/Arnold combination doesn't disappoint.
The bravura moment in True Lies is the action sequence that begins 30 minutes in. It starts with close-quarters gunfire in a public bathroom. The fight spills out into the streets as a horse-chasing-a-motorcycle sequence. They crash into a high-society dinner function and ride parallel elevators up to the roof.
The sequence stands up, especially considering it is crafted with practical effects. For how tech-savvy Cameron can be, he still takes the time to keep sequences like this grounded. Watch the video below to see just how crazy yet dedicated Cameron is to getting authenticity and realism into his films.
True Lies isn't a bad movie, per se. It's competently executed and rather exciting in certain parts.
The reason it lands so far down the list of the best James Cameron's movies has more to do with the other films being so good.
JAMES CAMERON FILMS
6. The Terminator (1984)
When anyone questions James Cameron's filmmaking skill, just remind them of The Terminator. For a sci-fi action thriller, the film was made for a fraction of what a studio film would cost. The practical effects Cameron learned from Roger Corman work wonders in a movie whose imagination is larger than the budget.
The models, miniatures, and rear-projection are dated but, remember, that wasn't the case in 1984. Cameron got the most out of his budget and smartly set 90% of the film in the present day. Watch the clip below to get the inside story on the film’s production.
What's so fascinating about The Terminator is the mix of genres. There's the sci-fi plot straight from the best sci-fi movies, but it looks like a neo-noir, and it's structured like a slasher film. These genres aren't just haphazardly thrown together, Cameron takes the best of each and creates something new. The purposefully named Tech-Noir club sums the aesthetics up perfectly.
Take the first appearance of The Terminator. A frenzy of flashing lights and electricity drops the machine into our world. The dark, urban setting and chiaroscuro lighting recall classic L.A. noir. And the punks he encounters are slaughtered swiftly and brutally like Michael Myers on steroids. For all intents and purposes, this is the first movie directed by James Cameron. It’s got his fingerprints all over it.
5. Avatar (2009)
Avatar doesn't have the most original plot...and maybe that's an understatement. But where James Cameron may have skimped on narrative originality, he more than compensated for it in the visuals. There's no denying the leap in CGI evolution in Avatar.
He had the idea for Avatar many years before he started filming--he only waited for the technology to reach a point of viability. Like he did with The Abyss and Terminator 2, Cameron INVENTED the technology needed to realize his vision. Most filmmakers are at the mercy of whatever the industry can provide.
But Cameron waits for no one. If you’ve got the time, the making of Avatar embedded below is a truly fascinating watch for any filmmaker.
For better or worse, Avatar also kicked off a 3D renaissance. And to watch Avatar on an IMAX screen in 3D might be the most immersive filmgoing experience to date. James Cameron movies consistently give the audience something they’ve never seen and nowhere is that more apparent than in Avatar.
But what truly makes Avatar so revolutionary is the ability to capture and render the actors' performances. What we had seen up to this point are dead-eyed moving dolls. But, when we get close-ups of Neytiri, the slightest flick of the eyes or mouth gives her life.
And look at the overall design of Pandora as a location, the creatures that inhabit it, and the wonder it all inspires. This is what the promise of science-fiction can deliver and it’s one of the most thrilling films directed by James Cameron.
The world-building in Avatar is truly inspiring. We’ve collected some of our favorite design images from the film in a StudioBinder shot list. You can use this feature to create a mood board or design portfolio for your own projects. Follow the link below!
Even if Avatar's story is sub-par, the action is top shelf. The epic final battle, intercutting between multiple fronts, is massive and gripping. There's an art to crafting such colossal battle sequences, and Cameron has shown here that he's one of the best.
JAMES CAMERON DIRECTED MOVIES
4. The Abyss (1989)
The success of The Terminator and Aliens granted him some clout. The Abyss is the first time James Cameron gets to indulge in his life's other passion fully. He took this opportunity to marry his passion for filmmaking and his obsession with the ocean.
Like every film before and after, The Abyss pushes what's possible in filmmaking. There's no discounting Cameron's success in personally evolving industry-standard CGI. The water column effect, for example, is still dazzling 30 years later.
Again, look at how Cameron was able to apply lo-fi techniques like miniatures and rear-projection with cutting edge CGI. This is a filmmaker who doesn't merely accept the status quo of what's possible. He pushes himself, his crew, and the entire industry forward.
The making of James Cameron movies is almost as exciting and jaw-dropping as the films themselves. The production on The Abyss is legendary and you can see for yourself in the clip below.
The showstopper in The Abyss is the rescue/salvage sequence. It is a study in claustrophobia and suspense that lasts for 15 minutes. James Cameron films the journey through sunken Montana plays like the scariest haunted house flashlight tour. The cold water, absolute darkness, dead bodies floating through debris, and the panic, when things go wrong.
Again, without CGI.
The Abyss was a notoriously difficult shoot, but the results are breathtaking and somehow it is one of the most underrated James Cameron movies.
JAMES CAMERON MOVIES LIST
3. Titanic (1997)
Critics of Titanic focus on the sentimentality of the love story, but they forget just what a mammoth undertaking this film was. They could have rendered the sunken Titanic in CGI, but they didn't. They took a dozen expeditions to the actual wreck to obtain footage. They built a full-scale model of the Titanic to film the exteriors. Going the extra mile like this doesn't automatically make Titanic a great film.
But it doesn't hurt. Here’s another amazing making of documentary on the making-of Titanic. It’s required viewing for any serious filmmaker.
Jack and Rose's romance might be the focal point of the film's criticism, but that reflects more on the critic. Cameron pitched the film to the executives at Fox as "Romeo and Juliet on the ocean," and that's pretty much what we get. It is a raw, unassuming, and sentimental film that wears its heart on its sleeve. But is that really a problem? If we're honest, there aren't many love stories that are this effective and still hold up decades later.
Titanic was the #1 film at the box office...for 15 weekends in a row. That's more than just a fun bit of box office trivia. That's proof that there's something about Titanic that resonated with people for nearly four months straight. Was it the extent Cameron and his crew went to capture realism and authenticity? Was it the pitch-perfect romance bolstered by a pitch-perfect ballad?
The film was the most expensive production of all time. It went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time. Once again, Cameron was swinging for the fences, and, once again, he smacked a seam-buster over the stadium walls.
JAMES CAMERON FILMS
2. Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott's original Alien (1979) is a masterpiece. Cameron's sequel certainly benefits from the original's success, but it is also an achievement all its own. Part of this success is due to Cameron avoiding the trap of sequels that simply try to replicate the original.
Aliens is what great sequels should do: take the original as a launching point but take a slightly different route.
The original captured a sci-fi/horror hybrid perfectly. Aliens still retain the horror elements but adds a war film to the mix, making this one the best James Cameron movies.
James Horner's score is gripping and as dark as the cinematography. The production design picks up where The Terminator left off — creating a hellscape with a larger budget. And Stan Winston's creature effects don't get much better than the Queen Alien. Take a look at the making of Aliens below…it’s a doozy.
Perhaps better than anyone, Cameron crafts compelling female characters, and performances. And he makes this look effortless. In this case, he inherited Sigourney Weaver's Ripley but amplified her qualities that were beginning to show in the original.
The Academy typically ignores sci-fi, action, and horror films. But Weaver earned an Oscar nomination as the lead in a movie that combined all three. Just think about that for a second.
We won't make the mistake of claiming Aliens is one of the rare sequels that is better than the original. But we will confidently declare that Aliens is just as good as Alien. And maybe better.
DIRECTOR JAMES CAMERON MOVIES
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Let's consider the areas in which James Cameron films excel. Show-stopping action sequences. Strong female protagonist. Sci-fi theme mythology. And filmmaking technology creating never-before-seen imagery. Now, is there any film that maximizes these elements more than T2?
Just like his approach to Aliens, Cameron's sequel takes what works in the original and expands it. When other filmmakers attempt the same thing, it often feels forced, cheap, or unearned. But Cameron has found that magic mix between homage and evolution.
Linda Hamilton's follow-up performance as Sarah Connor cannot be overstated. The physical transformation is just the beginning. She is haunted, crazed, tough-as-nails, and sympathetic. We are supposed to believe that Sarah will raise her son, John, to be a military leader capable of leading the resistance against the machines. After the first Terminator film, this is a dubious proposition at best. In this film, we can see it immediately when she turns to face Dr. Silberman...with those eyes.
The last 45 minutes of T2 is one, massive action sequence. Read that last sentence again. It begins with a raid at Cyberdyne, turns into a freeway chase, and ends in a hellish fistfight at a foundry. Mixed in are motorcycles, helicopters, a semi-truck, a minigun, liquid nitrogen, and molten metal. Go big, or go home.
James Cameron films action set-pieces effectively with simplicity and authenticity. Sure, he likes using semi-trucks to chase people, but it's only ONE truck. He could use movie magic to fake these sequences, but almost everything we see is REAL.
He tends to only use CGI for elements that can't be created practically. And it is this commitment to restraint and realism that action filmmakers today could learn from.
James Cameron’s new movies
Cameron has only made 2 feature films in the last 22 years but he hasn’t stopped working. He’s directed deep-sea documentaries and produced major film releases like Alita: Battle Angel (2019), which he also co-wrote, and his return to the Terminator franchise with Terminator: Dark Fate (2019).
James Cameron’s upcoming movies include 4 sequels to Avatar that will be released in 2022, 2024, 2026 and 2028. If we’ve learned anything about James Cameron, a presumed absence from directing only means that he’s crafting the next major step in studio filmmaking and preparing to set the bar even higher.
The Best Sequels Ever Made
Along with the impending Avatar sequels, James Cameron movies include a couple of stunning sequels. Both Aliens and T2 made our list of the best sequels ever made. Follow the link to find out what other movies either topped their predecessors or just turned out to be iconic movies in their own right.