If Nicolas Winding Refn is known for any one thing, it’s style. Each of the Danish director’s films is imbued with a powerful, coherent aesthetic which guides viewers through a dark social underworld. Ranking Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography, therefore, is a practice in ranking the effectiveness of his style. At its worst, it overcomes the film or attempts to distract from an underwritten story. At its best, it augments a captivating narrative and sinks an audience into a neon-soaked dreamscape.

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Nicolas Winding Refn Ranked

8. Only God Forgives (2013)

Following Refn on the Only God Forgives set

Only God Forgives encapsulates the double-edged sword of Nicolas Winding Refn’s penchant for stylization. On one hand, Only God Forgives is visually gorgeous: each shot is a showcase in lighting and mise-en-scene. On the other hand, the film’s plot is vapid and dull.

Only God Forgives came on the heels of Drive, and has Ryan Gosling in the protagonist role once more (except this time, he says even less!). Gosling isn’t the only element Only God Forgives takes from its predecessor: the film pushes the styles and themes of Drive to outlandish extremes, which, while commendable in their ambition, fall flat.

nicolas Winding Refn Filmography

Conclusion

Only God Forgives is perhaps Refn’s most gorgeous film. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t have much else to offer.

Nicolas Winding Refn Films Ranked

7. The Neon Demon (2016)

On the set of The Neon Demon

No, The Neon Demon is not Nicolas Winding Refn’s nickname; it’s the title of his most recent feature, which investigates the darkness within the fashion industry. The film was received similarly to Only God Forgives (getting booed in the middle of a standing ovation at Cannes), which is fitting, as it has similar strengths and pitfalls. 

Refn, who is familiar with the fashion world after shooting several ads for haute couture brands, expertly utilizes the film’s subject matter to create magnificent cinematography from start to finish. But the film’s themes, while no doubt interesting, are mangled and lost in a confused plot populated with non-characters.

Every Nicolas Winding Refn Movie

Conclusion

The Neon Demon is a captivating watch with stunning visuals and gore, but it’s weak plot and underbaked themes are its Achilles’ heel.

Best Nicolas Winding Refn Movies

6. Bleeder (1999)

Refn’s influences in Bleeder

Refn’s second film shows us a director honing his skill. What would become Refn’s trademarks are on full display in Bleeder: stylized violence, striking cinematography, dreamlike sequences, and, unfortunately, uneven plotting.

It’s a film with a lot on its mind, examining masculinity and male relationships, but it falls short of doing these themes justice. The characters at points feel more like caricatures, even though the performances are strong throughout from Mads Mikkelsen and Kim Bodnia.

Best Nicolas Winding Refn Movies of All Time

Conclusion

Bleeder is the work of a visionary auteur finding his footing: it’s flawed but undeniably intriguing.

Nicolas Winding Refn Movies List

5. Valhalla Rising (2009)

The trailer for Valhalla Rising

Yet another divisive work by Refn, Valhalla Rising was beloved as a contemplative masterpiece by some and disregarded as a self-important slog by others. The truth probably lies between these two characterizations.

The film follows One-Eye, played by Refn favorite Mads Mikkelsen, as he trapses through the gorgeous Scottish Highlands with a group of Christian Crusaders. It’s Refn working with his first big budget, and true to form, he infuses it into breathtaking visuals. The plot moves at a glacial pace, but there’s enough here in Mikkelsen’s performance and the captivating setting for it almost to be forgiven.

All Nicolas Winding Refn Movies

Conclusion

Valhalla Rising requires patience, sure, but there’s meat on this slow-roasted bone: Refn provides a fable examining the nature of man and his violence.

Best Nicolas Winding Refn Movies

4. Fear X (2003)

Great performance, slow pace

A rare Refn film where the script is probably better than the direction. Fear X is a solid pulpy thriller: John Turturro is fantastic as Harry, a security guard whose wife is murdered, and Brian Eno’s score is equal parts beautiful and despairing.

The weakness of Fear X comes from the editing, which leans heavily on an atmospheric and wandering pace that sometimes feels inappropriate or just plain sluggish. All in all, however, the film still works, and stands as one of Turturro’s greatest performances to date.

Best Nicolas Winding Refn Movies

Conclusion

Fear X serves mainly as a showcase for its lead actor, but the script, music, and cinematography are also something to behold.

Every Nicolas Winding Refn Movie

3. Bronson (2008)

Tom Hardy on his role as Charles Bronson

In a way, Bronson could be seen in a similar light to Fear X: it’s a showcase of a consummate actor, this time Tom Hardy rather than Turturro. Indeed, Hardy shines in this biopic, bouncing ably between menacing and playful, performative and unpredictable.

But Bronson stands apart from Fear X because Nicolas Winding Refn’s direction is exactly what it needs to be. Refn smartly avoids biopic tropes and opts for something far more unique and captivating, working in service of the script rather than against it. The result is a movie which feels unlike Refn’s others, but which also is one of his strongest.

Best Nicolas Winding Refn Movies

Conclusion

Bronson is a fantastic telling of Charles Bronson’s story. It’s an enthralling rollercoaster ride of a film from start to finish.

Every Nicolas Winding Refn Movie

2. The ‘Pusher’ Trilogy (1996/2004/2005)

Captivating dialogue and camera movement in Pusher

Where it all started. The Pusher films are Nicolas Winding Refn at his finest, investigating seedy underbellies with style and purpose. Pusher was initially intended to be a single film, but the world of cinema is better for its trilogy treatment. With this additional narrative space, Refn is able to investigate the larger structures and themes of the crime world while keeping the immediate narrative individual and personal.

It should be noted, too, that Pusher largely introduced the world to Mads Mikkelsen, and we can’t thank Refn enough for it.

Best Nicolas Winding Refn Movies

Conclusion

Pusher showed audiences the heights that Nicolas Winding Refn could achieve, and its sequels continued to deliver on that promise.

Best Nicolas Winding Refn Films

1. Drive (2011)

Budget cinematography on Drive

Arguably Nicolas Winding Refn’s most famous film, inarguably his best. Everything a Refn fan loves — stylish visuals, graphic violence, themes interrogating masculinity — is on display in Drive, and everything is working in the film’s favor.

This is not to mention the film’s other elements, like the score and performances by Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks, which are also firing on all cylinders.

Drive’s greatest accomplishment is its vibe – it just has a feel that you want to go on forever. Countless filmmakers have tried to imitate it (including Refn himself), but no one has captured the seemingly effortless cool that is Drive.

Top Nicolas Winding Refn Movies

Conclusion

Drive is Nicolas Refn’s crowning achievement, a bold and visionary work which has influenced Hollywood since its release.

UP NEXT

Alfred Hitchcock, Ranked

Like every other working director, Nicolas Winding Refn is indebted to the pioneering films of Alfred Hitchcock, the Hollywood giant who more than almost anyone else defined what a Hollywood movie should look like. We take on the impossible task: ranking his films.

Up Next: Best Hitchcock Movies →
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