The 10 Best Kevin Costner Movies, Ranked

Movies Lists Kevin Costner
The 10 Best Kevin Costner Movies, Ranked

For about four years, the length of a presidential term, Kevin Costner was the king of Hollywood. He made some good movies and/or big hits before 1987 and after 1991, but his run during that period was fairly astonishing in retrospect, though at the time maybe it came across more as a grown-up leading man who happened to make some very good movies. During that time, he was most often compared to the straightforward, steadfast, All-American style of Gary Cooper – and that was before his predilection for Westerns was made clearer. Costner freely admitted to admiring the morally driven masculinity exemplified on film by characters from Cooper, Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy, and if his list of classics can’t necessarily compete with any of those legends, his best movies evoke some of what make the better Golden Age Hollywood productions so special. With the release of Horizon, a Western in (at least) two parts meant to bookend this summer’s releases, we looked at the 10 best Kevin Costner movies – ranked both by their quality as individual films and the particular quality of Costner’s performance therein. They’re surprisingly difficult to separate, not because Costner has a talent for chameleon-like blending (see #9 for evidence that he lacks this entirely), but because he’s so adept at giving the material just the measure of his self that it needs, whether that’s pure movie-star charm or good-guy rigidness.

Here are the 10 best Kevin Costner movies:

10. Thirteen Days (2000)

A fine companion piece to the antsy paranoia of JFK that feels more attuned to Kevin Costner’s specific dad-movie sensibilities, Thirteen Days covers the Cuban Missile Crisis with just enough class to justify its year-end awards-bait release, and just enough workmanlike to not actually get any Oscar nominations. (It would have to make do with its Best Editing nomination from the Golden Satellites.) Costner, ever oscillating between the team player (taking an unflashy role of White House assistant Kenneth O’Donnell) and movie-star ego (making O’Donnell the protagonist of the story), leads a sturdy ensemble that includes Bruce Greenwood as Kennedy and Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara.

9. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

This adventure epic from Kevins Costner and Reynolds was widely derided even as it made bank, impossible as it was (for critics of a certain age, anyway) to avoid comparisons with the brightly colored classic Errol Flynn version. And to be sure, Costner is no Errol Flynn, whether as Robin Hood or elsewhere. His Robin of Locksley is a genially morose fellow, with no hint of Englishness about him. Yet whether it’s the Stockholm syndrome of this Robin Hood being the definitive one for a generation of ’90s kids or a genuinely misunderstood (and typically understated) performance, there’s something oddly indelible about the one collaboration between Costner and frenemy director Reynolds that really works, insane amounts of fish-eye lens and all. Frankly, Reynolds’ over-direction needed someone as steady as Costner at its center, and if Prince of Thieves isn’t exactly convincing as a period piece, maybe the film is better understood as a garish, faintly fantasy-tinged Western-showdown version of the legend. It’s also a classic of a particular form: The movie that’s basically for kids, but feels just inappropriate enough to read as enticingly adult to those kids.

8. Dances with Wolves

Though Dances with Wolves was a massive hit at the time of its Oscar triumph, it quickly became shorthand for the shortsighted stodginess of the Academy Awards, only to gain some later-decades appreciation on its own terms, out of the shadow of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Though it has those classic epic trappings of many ’80s and ’90s Best Pictures, there is something fascinating about the way Dances with Wolves blends Kevin Costner’s old-fashioned Western-spaces filmmaking with a story that emphasizes sensitivity and understanding (however clumsily!) over action-adventure conflict. As much as the story of a Civil War soldier (Costner) going native with a Lakota tribe feels classical in form, it’s really a movie out of time, in the sense that it was an outlier then and, for better or worse, still feels like one now. At three hours, it’s not exactly a brisk sit, but fans of Costner, the genre, or Dean Semler cinematography will find it essential.

7. No Way Out

Kevin Costner’s first film with Thirteen Days director Roger Donaldson is less serious-minded but a better showcase for the fact that his prospects as a romantic lead weren’t always so dusty or manful. He makes a great Hitchcock-style scrambling-man protagonist as an intelligence officer whose lover (Sean Young) is killed by the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) – who also happens to be his boss – in a way that will inadvertently implicate him (and make him the perfect fall guy for the Secretary). Though his earnestness remains intact throughout several plot twists (including a doozy of a final one), it’s especially fun to watch Costner in more self-serving mode, especially revisiting the film after so many decades of more stolid heroes.

6. The Untouchables

The same year as No Way Out, which takes a seemingly straight-arrow thriller in surprisingly twisty directions, Kevin Costner also brought a surprising amount of straightness, even blandness, to the world of master stylist Brian De Palma, playing lawman Eliot Ness in De Palma’s first classic-TV adaptation, preceding Mission: Impossible. While Sean Connery and Robert De Niro chew the scenery, Costner holds the center in a way that so many wormier, slimier or weirder De Palma heroes cannot, giving the movie classic movie-star gravity that allows De Palma to go nuts with his trademark suspense sequences.

5. Tin Cup

Kevin Costner reunited with his Bull Durham writer-director Ron Shelton for this golf comedy, which, like Shelton’s equivalent work in baseball and basketball, focuses on the character and nature of the game, rather than the mechanics of gameplay. This turns out to be especially crucial with golf, a sport in dire need of a little poetry, and Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy’s self-destructive obsession with landing risky, tricky shots is exactly the kind of cracked sports-movie poetry Costner knows how to sell with a mischievous smile. And sure, Rene Russo had chemistry with just about every middle-aged movie star she was paired with in the 1990s, but boy, her spark with Costner here seems especially pronounced – and while Tin Cup’s rep as a golf comedy is probably assured, it probably deserves some more credit as a particularly satisfying ’90s rom-com, a strong second for Costner’s too-occasional work in the genre.

4. JFK

Kevin Costner doesn’t seem like an Oliver Stone type of hero – he’s more laconic than fiery – yet once again his straight-arrow persona is just what an ensemble of colorful characters inhabiting a world of shadowy conspiracies needs to keep everything from flying off the rails (doubly risky for a Stone picture, even one that turned out to be one of his clear peaks of artistry). Costner’s version of New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison turns the morass of theories regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy into a righteous procedural that seems, at times, neverending in both its intrigue and its ability to resolve the unresolvable. It’s fascinating to see how Costner and Stone’s competing visions of American history intersect – and, improbably but brilliantly, bring out the best in each other.

3. A Perfect World

At the time, Clint Eastwood’s directorial follow-up to Unforgiven and acting follow-up to In the Line of Fire, also serving as Kevin Costner’s follow-up to The Bodyguard, was considered a disappointment after such a string of hits – an anticlimactic movie for anyone who came in expecting a thrilling clash of erstwhile cowboys. This diminishes the quiet power of A Perfect World, which is one of Eastwood’s finer directorial efforts, in part for the woundedness he brings out of Costner, playing a convict named Butch who escapes from prison and abducts an eight-year-old boy. (Eastwood is the lawman on his tail, and the weaker part of the film until it really comes together in the end.) Neither romanticizing nor exploiting his character, Costner plays Butch as a criminal who hasn’t quite hardened, making it clear how rough treatment by father figures can lead to a life of violence. In its exploration of the true consequences of violent behavior, A Perfect World is a gentler but no less mournful companion piece to Unforgiven, with a performance Eastwood couldn’t have managed himself in the lead.

2. Bull Durham

It’s easy to forget just how readily Kevin Costner shares his first baseball picture with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and his ability to step back is exactly what keeps Crash Davis, a minor-league catcher approaching the end of his career, from coming across like an ego-tripping blowhard. Davis tries to impart wisdom onto the spectacularly dumb pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Robbins), knowing that he’s only on the team to serve as a mentor, and chafing at that notion. He’s a more volatile character than the other sports guys Costner would go on to play, yet Costner doesn’t play him as gone to seed or even moving in that direction. Bull Durham, written and directed with great care by Ron Shelton, has been described as a movie about an athlete who loves a sport that may not love him back, and watching Crash grapple with that (and process it in part through his longing for Sarandon’s groupie-guru Annie) gives the movie so much more depth and soul than a big-game blowout. Though the next movie edges this one out for the top spot on this list, Bull Durham might feature Costner’s single best character and performance.

1. Field of Dreams

Is it a coincidence that the only Kevin Costner baseball movie not on this list is the one where he plays a successful major-league ballplayer? Field of Dreams, his unlikely immediate follow-up to Bull Durham, takes Costner even further afield, literally – he plays a farmer who is compelled to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. It should be loopy as hell – or rather, it is loopy as hell, making it all the more impressive the way Costner holds the movie together with utter sincerity. Though the politics of its baseball history now feel, perhaps, oversimplified, Field of Dreams feels like the strongest Costner movie because it best combines his retro instincts with a then-contemporary, now-timeless story, distilling his sensitive masculinity into a single indelible line about playing catch. Shameless, maybe, but also impressive that such a committed cowboy really only needs a ball, a mitt, and a cornfield to make an all-American classic.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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