The visionary filmmaker, the award-winning James Cameron has been behind the camera for a number of legendary, groundbreaking, and simply mesmerizing films throughout the course of his career. He’s always been one to push the envelope, visually speaking, giving audiences sights and sounds that are unlike anything they’ve ever experienced up to that point. He has also been spoken of as a modern pioneer in the use of 3D filmmaking, a feature that’s become practically a standard viewing option for his contemporary films upon their respective theater releases.
Cameron’s best work usually involves themes that feature anywhere from a strong female lead to a passionate love story, or intriguing elements of science fiction drawing attention to the provocative co-existence between man and machine.
It’s a considerable list of films that are true masterpieces, stemming from his involvement either as a director, writer, producer, or even all three. Determining the best of all of his directorial features though, is certainly no easy task for even the biggest movie expert. Cameron’s films are all, for the most part, very good movies that are well worth the time and attention of his audiences.
These 10 films, directed by James Cameron, are listed from the lowest to the very top.
10. Piranha II: The Spawning
This sci-fi horror flick from 1981 was the first feature-length film of Cameron’s career that had him in the director’s chair. It was, of course, a sequel to the first Piranha horror movie that was released in 1978. The plot in this though, had the menacing flesh-eating fish terrorizing a Caribbean resort, instead of a back-wooded river locale. The veteran actor Lance Henriksen starred as one of the leads in this movie, before reuniting with Cameron on future projects like The Terminator and Aliens. As for this one, well, it wasn’t quite expected to win any Oscars, much less any nominations for one either. In fact, rumor has it that Cameron actually disavowed any association with the project for years after its release before finally admitting that even the best directors had to start somewhere.
9. Ghosts of the Abyss (also known as Titanic 3D: Ghosts of the Abyss)
Not to be confused with Cameron’s underwater epic The Abyss, this one from 2003 is a documentary that featured Cameron and a team of scientists deep-diving to the location of the sunken RMS Titanic. Bill Paxton, a regular actor in several Cameron films went along for the ride and also contributed to the narration of the finished product. The documentary was shot for IMAX 3D screenings and also included reenactments to help viewers get a sense of the scope and scale of the ship prior to its tragic sinking in 1912.
8. Aliens of the Deep
Another of Cameron’s documentaries, this one from 2005, was done in cooperation with NASA to explore mysterious deep sea creatures hidden within both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This project really speaks to Cameron’s affinity for the subaquatic world as well as anything on our planet that could seem extraterrestrial. Once again like Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron directed and co-produced the film and shot the footage for it in IMAX 3D format.
7. The Abyss
In 1989, Cameron wrote and directed his most ambitious film up to that point, The Abyss. The plot centers around the thrilling search for a sunken U.S. submarine, but while events take place underwater, the divers discover something that was unlike anything ever seen on Earth. Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Terminator actor Michael Biehn co-starred in this sci-fi action movie that at the time, visually wowed audiences, and it wasn’t even screened in 3D.
The most memorable shots in this film featured the sea alien that appeared as a life-sized body of water that moved in an alien-like fashion. It was extremely similar in design to the fluid design and animation of the T-1000 character that would feature heavily three years later in Cameron’s Terminator 2. In fact, Cameron has often explained that the efforts to produce the sea alien in The Abyss was practically a dry run that would ultimately help the T-1000 look so seamless in its respective movie. For such painstaking visual effects efforts, The Abyss won the 1990 Oscar for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for three other respective awards in the same related category.
6. True Lies
This action-comedy movie from 1995 doesn’t seem to get as much respect as it should, compared to some of Cameron’s other films. This might’ve been because out of nearly every one of Cameron’s films, this one doesn’t contain any spectacular science-fiction elements at all, even though the plot is still fictional. It also stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as the hero, but compared to all of his other action movies, True Lies has often gone unconsidered after almost 30 years.
The movie follows a man (played by Schwarzenegger) who, on the surface, is a boring computer salesman but is secretly a veteran international spy, unbeknownst to his wife and daughter. Based on French comedy film, La Totale!, this story has its own fair share of humor with lots of action from a well-written Cameron script. And thanks to great performances by Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Art Malik, Tia Carrere, Bill Paxton, and Eliza Dushku, the movie received decent reviews at least. It also earned high marks for its special effects work and even won Curtis both a Golden Globe and Saturn Award for Best Actress, along with Cameron winning a Saturn for Best Direction. A new CBS television series based on the storyline from this movie is set to premiere in 2023.
After the mega-success of the 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien, Cameron was approached to take over from director Ridley Scott’s work on the first entry to work on its sequel, Aliens, in 1986. He was in high demand after the successes of The Terminator and Rambo: First Blood Part II, both films for which he penned scripts so it seemed like a sci-fi film of this magnitude would work well with him at the helm. Actress Sigourney Weaver returned for a second amazing effort as Ellen Ripley, the lone survivor from the first film’s thrilling events. She was joined by castmates Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Carrie Henn, and Bill Paxton for a film that’s easily an awesome experience from start to finish.
Cameron’s take on Ripley’s ongoing feud against the deadly queen xenomorph is considered by many fans of the franchise just as good if not superior to the first film and definitely one of the best films overall, of the 1980s. To go further, it’s also believed that without the success of this film, future sequels, video games, comics, the enduring fame and cult following just wouldn’t exist to this day.
4. The Terminator
This is the one that put Cameron on the radar, making him one of the most in-demand filmmakers in Hollywood. This epic sci-fi action film from 1984 also put Arnold Schwarzenegger into a rare position as one of the leading action movie superstars of all time. Cameron directed and co-wrote this story about a cybernetic assassin (played by Schwarzenegger), sent back through time to kill a woman who will eventually give birth to mankind’s only hope against Skynet, artificial intelligence that will one day attempt to wipe out the human race.
This was truly the kind of film that audiences had never seen before when it was released. Sure the special effects weren’t what we’re accustomed to seeing currently, but at the time in the mid-eighties this production overall was groundbreaking. It set the stage for numerous film sequels, a television series, video games, toys, you name it. For the impression it left on society, the film was included in the United States National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
In 1997, Cameron shifted away from dystopian futures, killer aliens, and Schwarzenegger to give the movie masses a true epic of a hybrid: a love-disaster story for the ages in Titanic. This was truly Cameron’s pet project, if he ever had one in his career at this point, seeming like he was doing almost everything but acting in the film. Cameron directed, wrote, co-produced, co-edited, and even had a minor director of photography credit from a small project related to the overall film.
Co-starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in roles that made their ongoing careers bigger than that absolutely massive door they BOTH could’ve fit on top of, this movie could arguably be considered by many to be Cameron’s absolute best. It certainly “berthed” Cameron’s personal fascination, future documentary work regarding the legendary sunken ship, and re-releases of the movie in 3D. Apart from that, Titanic’s success was way bigger than the ship itself, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, worldwide in 1998. Cameron’s Avatar would break that record in 2009. The film won four Golden Globes, 11 Oscars, and even had a multi-Grammy-winning soundtrack.
2. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Most sequels don’t live up to the hype, but when the ones that do end up being better than the first film, it’s likely that James Cameron had something to do with it. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton returned to co-star in Cameron’s second story that featured Skynet’s next attempt at wiping out the human race’s future savior. Cameron was in the director’s chair while simultaneously producing and co-writing the film. This project underscored Cameron’s reputation as a filmmaking visionary as some believe that it was what truly carried the integration of computer-generated special effects into motion pictures going forward.
Cameron had originally developed the initial ideas and subsequent attempts at the realization of the CGI featured in this movie years prior, while working on The Terminator and The Abyss, respectively during the 1980s. What makes it so special as well, is some of the older tricks of the trade like puppetry and highly-detailed makeup effects blended with what was state-of-the-art digitally, to result in a movie masterpiece. What sets this one apart from most of Cameron’s films (and nearly every other modern movie that incorporates CGI), is that this one has much more than the special effects. “T2,” as it’s adoringly called, featured a remarkable cast with a solid and sensible plot, one that still holds up the best throughout the entire Terminator franchise and all of its entries thereafter.
James Cameron’s filmmaking prowess was on full display yet again with the 2009 sci-fi epic, Avatar. Not quite the love story that was featured in Titanic, but in true Cameron fashion the science fiction aspect was mesmerizing from start to finish. And his screenplay featured an intriguing conflict between humans and Na’vi — a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora, the beautifully vibrant planet that serves as the setting for this film. While the humans are in the process of colonizing Pandora, they utilize technology that allows a human being to interact with Na’vi, by way of an “Avatar,” a being that’s identical to a member of the Na’vi tribes. The plot did feature a passion that develops between a human soldier (played by Sam Worthington) using the tech and a female member of the species (played by Zoe Saldaña), the daughter of a Na’vi chief.
Avatar was, for the most part, all envisioned by Cameron. The idea for the film began back in the late 1990s but didn’t go much further because filmmaking technology couldn’t keep up with Cameron’s imagination. In about five years, Cameron developed the fictional Na’vi language, then subsequently penned a screenplay and corresponding universe in which his story would exist.
The film was shot for standard viewing, but was designed with a huge emphasis on 3D viewing — something that Cameron’s previous feature films weren’t. And the production required heavy use of state-of-the-art motion capture technology to portray the Na’vi in Cameron’s precise vision. His efforts certainly paid off when the film went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time, eclipsing Cameron’s other epic, Titanic. Avatar also won three Oscars, two BAFTAs, and two Golden Globes, among countless more accolades.
And it doesn’t stop there. The spectacular success of Avatar has allowed for four more sequels to be released over the next several years. Avatar: The Way of Water will be the next entry in what is sure to be a saga like no other in cinema history. And if it’s anything like its predecessor, this new film and the subsequent films to follow could easily take over the top half of this list.