Ryan Gosling has come a long way since appearing on the Disney Channel in the early 1990s. Since then, he's starred in some of the best, most iconic, and award-winning films of the 21st century; to be clear, those aren't always the same. That wide swath of success makes it hard to narrow down which films of his we, well, I, can consider best. But I've done my best, combining my taste with some consideration for the agreed-upon success in his significant filmography, to create a definitive list of the best Ryan Gosling movies.
1. First Man (2018)
Based on the biography of Neil Armstrong of the same name by James R. Hansen, First Man weaves together the story of the man who struggled with grief over the loss of a child and the story of a nation’s mission to get a man on the moon. Gosling plays Armstrong as a tough man who fears acknowledging his vulnerability; he conveys a world of emotion beneath a quiet exterior. The film balances family drama, particularly scenes between Gosling and Claire Foy as Armstrong’s first wife Janet, with visceral sequences of rocket testing that place the audience alongside Armstrong and the other pilots to give a complete picture of a man trying, and failing to compartmentalize his feelings.
2. The Ides of March (2011)
The Ides of March’s lesson, that politics is a cold and ugly business, may not be revelatory, but it’s so well told, and Gosling’s central performance is so believable that the film still succeeds. Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon (who adapted the story for the screen with director George Clooney), The Ides of March follows Gosling’s Stephen Meyers as he discovers that his political hero is all too human and that to get anything done in politics, you have to set aside your beliefs and play dirty. Gosling plays the frustration and despair of watching his ideals crumble beautifully and makes us believe Meyers’ loss of faith.
3. The Big Short (2015)
The Big Short tells the story of the investors who shorted the collapse of the housing market in 2008. If that doesn’t mean much to you, that’s okay; the film does a fantastic job of explaining the details of the stock market and what happened to the housing market during the financial collapse of 2008. But it’s also shockingly entertaining, full of movie stars like Gosling and Christian Bale in lead roles and fourth-wall-breaking cameos from Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain. Gosling plays one of the bankers who realizes that the market will crash and learns how to profit from the crash because there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
4. Half Nelson (2006)
The movie that earned Gosling his first Academy Award nomination, Half Nelson, stars him as an inner-city teacher who struggles with addiction. When one of his students discovers him getting high, it opens their relationship up in a way that could lead to destruction or a stronger sense of trust. I won't spoil which way it goes, and it's not exactly just one or the other. But it's not the plot that lands it on this list; it's the opportunity to watch the relationship between Gosling and Shareeka Epps as his student Drey.
5. Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Lars and the Real Girl could easily be a movie that's too silly for its own good. The premise of a man struggling to connect with other people introducing his brother and sister-in-law to his new girlfriend, a life-sized adult doll, is undeniably pretty ridiculous. But in playing the film straight and having genuine empathy for all the characters involved especially Gosling's eponymous Lars, the film succeeds as a sweet, heartwarming, and still hilarious film that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
6. The Believer (2001)
Based loosely on the story of Daniel Burros, a Jewish man who became a neo-nazi, The Believer stars Gosling as Daniel Balint, a violent and hateful young man who has aligned himself with far-right causes and espouses a hatred for Jews despite his Jewish heritage and education. The Believer is not an easy film to watch, but Gosling’s performance and the nuanced script by writer/director Henry Bean make it a rewarding film. It dives deep into questions of identity, culture, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s a powerful film and features one of Gosling’s earliest and most powerful performances.
7. La La Land (2016)
La La Land reunited Gosling and Emma Stone for the third time after Crazy, Stupid, Love (which may make an appearance higher up on this list) and Gangster Squad (which would rank high on a list of Gosling's worst films). The two share an easy movie-star chemistry that's impossible to avoid in any context. Here, writer/director Damien Chazelle creates a modern ode to the Classical Hollywood musical around that brilliant chemistry. The film tells the story of two ambitious young people in Los Angeles who fall in love but struggle to reconcile their relationship and dreams.
8. The Nice Guys (2016)
The Nice Guys pairs Gosling with Russell Crowe as an odd couple investigative team searching for a missing girl. Gosling plays the bumbling but somehow effective private investigator Holland March while Crowe's Jackson Healy is a gruff enforcer for hire. With March's daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, who transcends the precocious tween role), they discover that the disappearance is just a piece of a much larger conspiracy with wide-ranging implications. It's a buddy comedy neo-noir that's got something for fans of either genre and is a match made in heaven for fans of both (like me).
9. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
One of the most successful legacy sequels of the recent glut, Blade Runner 2049, manages to build on the themes of the original 1982 Blade Runner without becoming something entirely different. The film follows Gosling's replicant (synthetic human) blade runner (replicant hunter) as he discovers the possibility of a child being born of a replicant and seeks to confirm whether the child exists. It's a gorgeously shot film that tells an engaging and exciting neo-noir sci-fi mystery story while also asking grand questions about the boundaries of what we consider “human.”
10. Only God Forgives (2013)
Likely the most controversial pick on this list, Only God Forgives brought Gosling and writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn together again after their massive success with Drive (hmm, I wonder if that will be higher on the list) for a painfully slow, style-as-substance crime story. The film follows Gosling's Julian, an American drug dealer living in Bangkok, and Thai Police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) after Chang helps a man kill Julian's brother in revenge. The movie takes viewers on a journey into a hyper-violent, stunningly neon-lit underworld where its story of inevitable conflict and destruction plays out like a Greek tragedy, with hints at incestual relationships and all.
11. Blue Valentine (2010)
Blue Valentine is the first film Gosling made with writer/director Derek Cianfrance, and it's easy to see why they re-teamed just two years later for The Place Beyond the Pines. The film centers on Gosling and Michelle Williams as a married couple whose marriage is falling apart. But it's not only a story of the dissolution of a once-loving relationship. The film is told in two timelines, the first showing the couple's courtship and initial falling in love. It's a beautiful, devastating film featuring some of Gosling and Williams' best work.
12. The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)
Few films feel like great novels, even many of the ones that are based on great novels, but The Place Beyond the Pines is one of those films that grapple with enduring themes in a way that feels grand. The original story by Derek Cianfrance and Ben Coccio tells a tale of fathers and sons and their parents' legacies that children are forced to grapple with. It's broken into two parts, the first in the mid-1990s, where Gosling's Luke is a carnival stuntman and bank robber who wants to provide for his girlfriend and baby son, and the other, fifteen years later, in which his now teenage son comes into conflict with the son of the cop who brought his father down.
13. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)
I may be overly biased as a fan of Gosling's, but more than a decade after its release Crazy, Stupid, Love remains one of the best mainstream romantic comedies of the 21st century thus far. The ensemble film stars Gosling as a pick-up artist who begins to fall for a girl genuinely, Emma Stone as that girl, Steve Carell and Julianne Moore as a married couple navigating a break-up, and more wonderfully charismatic stars in supporting parts. But unlike the majority of ensemble romantic comedies of the last twenty-odd years, Crazy, Stupid, Love makes every plot line work and brings them together in one of the most delightfully chaotic finales rom-coms have ever given us.
14. Drive (2011)
There isn't any other movie that can top a list of the best Ryan Gosling films. Drive, adapted from the novel of the same name by James Sallis and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, became an instant cult classic upon its release in 2011 and hasn't lost any of its power or grace since then. The film follows Gosling's unnamed driver as he falls for his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and becomes the target of a criminal syndicate after helping her husband rob a pawn shop. It's a film that's impeccably shot and told in such a way that despite its sometimes graphic violence, it feels more like a tragic romance than a hard-boiled crime story.