We take James Cameron for granted. The man has delivered some of the greatest blockbusters of all time and did so again with Avatar: The Way of Water, which continues to make history at the box office. Now we’re seeing another one of his classics in Titanic returning to theaters in 4K and 3D.
Looking back at Cameron’s incredible array of motion pictures and deciding which ones I believe are the greatest is a tough act. Now, this is akin to Sophie’s Choice for me, as Cameron has yet to make a bad film, Piranha II: The Spawning notwithstanding. So bask in these glorious rankings knowing I could reshuffle most of them in nearly any order depending on my mood.
9. Pirahna II: The Spawning (1981)
I’ve seen the sequel to Joe Dante’s B-movie classic once, and I honestly don’t remember anything beyond fish with tiny wings. I will continue to label Pirahna II as a monumental success since it gave Cameron the confidence to press forward with his filmmaking career. In an alternate reality, he grows disenchanted with Hollywood following the horrible production of the fish fest and goes back to making low-grade Roger Corman movies. Gross.
8. The Abyss (1989)
When The Abyss is one of your worst movies, you know you’re doing something right. Honestly, Cameron’s ambitious 1989 misfire is terrific for about 75% of its runtime and then sort of falls off the rails in a final act that strives for Close Encounters of the Third Kind greatness but feels like a soggy imitation of Steven Spielberg’s epic. The pic also suffers from pacing issues and long stretches where nothing noteworthy transpires — and don’t get me started on Alan Silvestri’s overblown score.
That said, the underwater action is quite spectacular; its stakes are real. When The Abyss focuses on its human characters, specifically Bud (Ed Harris) and Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and their efforts to keep bonkers Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) from detonating a nuclear weapon, the film soars to incredible heights.
Cameron also made enormous strides with CGI for the classic water tentacle bit that still holds up to this day.
Ambitious but ultimately flawed, The Abyss lacks the punch of Cameron’s more noteworthy efforts yet remains a fascinating exercise in creativity worth watching. Can we please get the 4K, Jim?
7. Avatar (2009
Reading the online comments, I assume I’m the only person on Earth who likes Avatar. Without my efforts, this astonishing motion picture would never have reached over $2 billion at the global box office or become one of the best-selling Blu-rays of all time.
Look, I get it. Avatar is predictable and a tad lazy in the story department. However, Cameron’s epic still packs a wallop thanks to incredible special effects, exciting action sequences, and strong performances from the cast. Avatar is classic cinema told on a grand stage, the work of a true visionary.
I watched this in Imax when it was released a few months back and found the experience exhilarating. As few films do, Avatar dazzles the eyes and touches the heart; it’s pretty brilliant. The destruction of Home Tree sequence is worth the price of admission alone.
Indeed, Avatar does fantasy better than most Star Wars movies. So while I wouldn’t rank it above Lord of the Rings, Dune, or The Empire Strikes Back, Cameron deserves kudos for achieving the impossible: he made an entertaining story out of the blue cat people, folks. No one else could have pulled that off.
And who knows, Avatar: The Way of Water might pave the way for a spectacular franchise and make us appreciate its 2009 predecessor even more.
6. The Terminator (1984)
Cameron first made his name with this modestly priced sci-fi thriller that shot Arnold Schwarzenegger to fame and put a unique new dystopian spin on the slasher formula.
The Terminator stomps from one action beat to the next, keeping viewers engaged with its unique plot, fantastic action sequences, and chilling standoffs. Arnold’s T-800 achieves greatness in terms of design and execution. Here is a terrifying villain who walks like Michael Myers, murders like Rambo, and feels as much remorse as the shark in Jaws. The actor is superb in the role, crafting a believable performance that often gets overlooked due to its simplicity. The Terminator’s takedown of an LAPD station remains one of the all-time great sequences.
And if you need proof of how bad this could have gone, take a gander at Terminators 3 through 6. If anything, those later entries make me appreciate Cameron’s genius even more.
5. True Lies (1994)
True Lies ranks at the top on the short list of films that absolutely deserved sequels. This frenetic, enjoyable, action romp goes for broke to tell its story of Harry (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis), a husband/wife combo whose relationship is in dire need of a tune-up. Unbeknownst to Helen, Harry is a super spy working for the United States military who spends his nights battling terrorists. After a series of circumstances, Harry and Helen unite to take down Salim Abu Aliza (Art Malik) before he unleashes stolen nuclear weapons on the world.
A series of outrageous stunts, spectacle, and well-timed comedy follows, each seemingly more impressive than the last. Cameron brings the juice on this one and has a blast with an extended third act featuring Harrier jets and all the action an audience could ask for.
True Lies doesn’t move the cinematic needle in any direction. Still, its novel story about a husband and wife rediscovering each other for the first time in years strikes a chord, and its action is undeniably sensational. Plus, where else will you see Tom Arnold and Bill Paxton nearly steal the show in hilarious supporting roles? Or witness one of the great stripteases of all time? This movie has something for everyone — it’s a shame we didn’t get more!
4. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
I’ve seen The Way of Water multiple times now and am confident enough to slate it as James Cameron’s fourth-best film. There’s something about The Way of Water that hits home. Its familial themes are a welcome change of pace from the Hollywood machine, while the plot about a mother and father doing whatever it takes to protect their offspring from danger is something I can relate to. Visually, the sequel is gorgeous to behold, and the action ranks amongst the best Cameron has ever achieved. The three-hour runtime zips by and once the credits roll, I’m eager to relive the adventure once more.
I’ve already written plenty of articles about Avatar, so I’ll refrain from bowing further to Cameron. Suffice to say, The Way of Water packs a visceral punch and is one of the more staggering cinematic achievements I’ve witnessed on the big screen since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A big round of applause to Cameron and his team for delivering the goods.
3. Titanic (1997)
Rewatching Titanic recently, I came to an important conclusion. Despite the lofty box office take, a treasure trove of awards, and accolades, Cameron’s 1997 Best Picture winner still feels underappreciated. Oh sure, some of it is goofy, right down to the number of times Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) say each other’s names.
But don’t kid yourself: Titanic is still an incredible piece of cinema and a fine example of a big-budget blockbuster done right.
At over three hours, Titanic moves leisurely through its first hour, introducing us to Jack and Rose (and a bevy of supporting players), and engulfs us in their straightforward, albeit effective, romance. Cameron uses his leads to guide us through the doomed ocean liner and allows us to bask in the glory of its exceptional design and technological innovation so that when it sinks, our hearts break to see this vessel of dreams disappear into the Atlantic.
The second half of Titanic is downright terrifying. Cameron shoots the tragic sinking in real-time. We see the panic amongst the passengers and crew slowly escalate as they realize there aren’t enough lifeboats to carry them all to safety, sneer at the selfishness of the upper class, and mourn those who went down with the ship on that cold April night.
We also marvel at the grandeur and spectacle on display. Titanic may pay ample respect to the deceased, but Cameron also delivers a kickass story of survival brought to life with the best special FX money can buy. Seriously, there are shots and sequences in this film that will make your eyes pop.
I saw Titanic at least half a dozen times when it hit theaters in 1997. I couldn’t get enough of the phenomenon — the action, the spectacle, James Horner’s music, the special effects, the romance … all working together to create an engrossing cinematic experience.
We should appreciate Titanic a hell of a lot more, people.
2. Aliens (1986)
My first viewing of Aliens occurred on a small TV in 1990, some years after its theatrical release — on cable, which edited certain aspects like language and violence. Poorly integrated commercial breaks watered down the intensity and my parents made me go to bed before Ripley’s iconic smackdown with the Queen. I didn’t hear “Get away from her, you bitch,” until the following day.
No matter. Cameron’s intense sci-fi action classic held my attention from start to finish. From then on, I wanted to be a Space Marine and often fashioned pulse rifles or smart guns out of spaceships, radios, or other gear lying around the house. So I patrolled my home and engaged in furious combat with imaginary foes, with James Horner’s astonishing score guiding my actions.
Yes, I was a nerd, but a nerd who was up to my neck in Aliens. My love of this iconic picture is infinite: I adore this film with every fiber of my being and freely admit I’ve watched it more than any other entry on this list. Aliens marked my introduction to the world of James Cameron and my first step toward a much darker cinematic universe.
What makes this film pop? For starters, Cameron gives Ellen Ripley (a fantastic Sigourney Weaver) emotional depth and supplies her with a purpose: protecting Newt (Carrie Henn), a young child whose family died fighting the titular baddies. We also meet an impressive array of memorable supporting players, namely Hicks (Michael Biehn), Hudson (scene stealer Bill Paxton), Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), Bishop (Lance Henriksen), and Burke (Paul Riser).
Cameron sticks to the template established by Ridley Scott’s Alien, but takes the franchise in a more action-oriented direction. Horror abounds, to be sure, but Cameron succinctly merges various genres to produce a thrilling epic that shocks the senses and spikes the adrenaline.
As the trailers said, this time, it’s war.
Do yourself a favor, and read about Aliens’ fierce production and Cameron’s meticulous attention to detail. This film hit theaters in 1986 but looks good enough to rival most big-budget modern-day offerings. That’s because Cameron dedicates his time to every aspect of the film, right down to its superb sound design. You can practically see the love and care oozing off the screen — it’s shocking what happens when people who love movies make movies.
Aliens is nearly perfect, a flawlessly executed action extravaganza that continues to thrill to this day.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a work of art. There, I said it, and I believe it. Has there ever been a better example of a summer blockbuster that delivered the goods as skillfully as this long-awaited sequel to 1984’s The Terminator? (One not directed by James Cameron?)
I can think of a few films that come close — Jurassic Park, The Matrix, The Dark Knight, and Inception — but they only graze the surface of Cameron’s extraordinary sci-fi masterpiece.
I’m not kidding. T2 is incredible. From its opening scene, featuring an army of T-800s battling weary soldiers across a fully realized dystopian future, to its final act, T2 expertly builds on themes established in the original, resulting in a far superior film that, frankly, kicks ass. There’s no other way to put it: T2 kicks ass.
Cameron’s sequel is smart, surprisingly moving, and relentlessly thrilling — the rare sequel that trumps the original in every measure.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a kinder T-800 sent back in time to protect John Connor (Edward Furlong), the future leader of the resistance against the machines, from the remorseless T-1000 (Robert Patrick), T2 picks up where The Terminator left off but raises the stakes considerably. For starters, Sarah Connor (a stunning Linda Hamilton) is a lunatic obsessed with preventing the oncoming war and willing to assassinate innocents for the cause — she’s a relentless killing machine, in a clever twist on the formula.
Elsewhere, John is a juvenile delinquent in desperate need of a father figure, and his relationship with the apathetic T-800 adds emotional heft to the expected car chases and shootouts.
Cameron gives his characters a chance to breathe in the opening acts so that we understand their actions when the explosions erupt in the final hour. And whoa, boy, the spectacle on display remains top-notch, even by modern standards.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a non-stop thrill ride.