Michael Fassbender first eyes when he appeared as a young and arrogant Spartan in Zack Snyder’s 300. A few years later, when he stole a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourioius Basterds, he became the focus of star speculation from everyone who saw the movie. Then he became an outright movie star, taking on franchises like X-Men and Alien, working with more big-name directors, and garnering multiple Oscar nominations. But for unknown reasons, he hasn’t made a movie since 2019: the reviled Dark Phoenix (so maybe that does explain the hiatus?).
2023 sees him returning with not just one but two starring roles in David Fincher’s The Killer and Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins. So the opportunity has arrived to mark a beloved star’s return to the spotlight by, well, spotlighting twenty of the best films he’s made in his twenty-year career.
1. Prometheus (2012)
With Prometheus, Ridley Scott returned to the Alien franchise after decades away to deliver a fascinating, if barely related to the original, prequel. The film follows a group of scientists who follow a star map found in a cave to a planet they believe will bring them face-to-face with humanity’s creators. Things, as they often do in horror movies, don’t go as planned.
Fassbender plays David, an enigmatic android whose interests lie more in experimenting on humans than working for them. Pushed partly by David’s actions, Prometheus offers a viscerally and intellectually thrilling picture, and ranks as one of the best Michael Fassbender movies.
2. 300 (2006)
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, which tells the story of 300 Spartans who stood against an invading Persian army in the fifth century BCE, stands as one of the most iconic action movies of the 21st century full of iconic, and quotable lines. While “This is Sparta!” remains the most quoted line from the film, “Then we will fight in the shade” runs second most quoted.
Fassbender’s Stelios speaks the line in response to a Persian who warns that their army has enough arrows to “blot out the sun,” and it’s one of the most memorable one-liners in modern action cinema. It helps that Stelios can back up his bravado with fighting skills and features heavily in several of the hyper-stylized action movie’s most exciting battle sequences.
3. Haywire (2011)
2011 marked Fassbender’s ascension to A-list status. Even in his supporting roles that year, he made an impact. Especially so in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, in which he fights former MMA fighter Gina Carano, delivering what may be the most thrilling action scene in a movie full of thrilling action scenes.
The movie follows Carano’s black ops mercenary Mallory Kane after a betrayal as she seeks answers and revenge. Fassbender plays a crucial role in her betrayal, first posing as her husband (and offering up some sizzling chemistry between the two) and then attempting to kill her. He’s among many recognizable men in the film, including Ewan McGregor and Bill Paxton, but makes the most significant impression because of the ferocity of their fight.
4. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds overflows with astounding performances, from Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning turn as the “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa to Melanie Laurent’s resilient and vengeful Jew Shosanna. Among them, Fassbender’s turn as an English Lieutenant Archie Hicox stands out for just how memorable he makes his performance with minimal screen time.
Hicox goes behind enemy lines with the eponymous American Basterds, posing as a German soldier. But his not-quite-German accent when speaking the language raises questions about his and his comrades' identities, leading to one of the most nerve-shredding scenes in the film, and arguably of the 21st century.
5. Alien: Covenant (2017)
In Ridley Scott’s followup to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant, Fassbender returns as the android David and appears in a new role as the current, less ambitious model android Walter. The film, which clearly ties into the Alien franchise, follows a crew who land on a mysterious planet and discover David living there.
Covenant partially functions as a retelling of the original Alien film, with the discovery of a hostile creature that slowly makes its way through the crew. But the film also dives deep into themes of creation, religion, and hubris. Alien: Covenant has a lot going for it, from the visceral scenes of sci-fi horror to thought-provoking discussions about faith and, most exciting for this list, two Fassbenders.
6. Hunger (2008)
Hunger tells the story of Bobby Sands (Fassbender) who led an IRA hunger strike in 1981 to regain political status stripped by British authorities. The film begins during the “dirty protest,” which saw prisoners refuse to leave their cells to bathe or relieve themselves, going so far as to smear feces in their cells to demand better conditions.
When the dirty protest and a previous hunger strike fail to improve conditions for the prisoners despite apparent concessions from the British government, Sands decides to reinstate the hunger strike. Hunger offers one of Fassbender’s most physical and fiery performances, seeing him transform into a man whose commitment to justice outweighs his commitment to his survival. The film, the feature debut of frequent Fassbender collaborator Steve McQueen, also garnered several awards for both McQueen and Fassbender, including the prestigious Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
7. Jane Eyre (2011)
Another 2011 movie marking Fassbender’s ascension to the A-list, Jane Eyre sees him take on a classic literary hero. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre follows Mia Wasikowska’s eponymous Jane through several stages of her life. A cruel aunt sends the young orphan Jane to a strict boarding school. Jane becomes a governess after leaving school and falls in love with her employer, the mysterious Mr. Rochester (Fassbender).
The movie stands as one of the best adaptations of the book for many reasons. The adaptation shifts the novel's events around, telling some of the story in flashbacks. It looks stunning in every moment, from its Oscar-nominated costumes to its gorgeous lighting and set design. Fassbender and Wasikowska both deliver affecting performances that garnered significant critical acclaim and awards attention.
8. Shame (2011)
Shame, Steve McQueen and Fassbender’s second collaboration, follows Fassbender as Brandon, a sexually-addicted businessman in New York whose life grows more complicated by a sudden visit from his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Her arrival leads to heartbreaking moments between Mulligan and Fassbender, whose chemistry as siblings is uneasy and believable precisely because of that uneasiness.
Of all Michael Fassbender movies in 2011, Shame offers his only leading role, and he makes the most of it. The movie shows some of his best work as Brandon struggles to fulfill his desires while continuing to function as a high-level businessman, and that’s before Sissy arrives.
9. Slow West (2015)
Despite its name, Slow West doesn’t move that slowly. The film follows Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young Scotsman who’s come to the American West seeking the woman he loves. Jay, a soft and inexperienced man, employs bounty hunter Silas (Fassbender) to help on his quest. But things are more complicated than they initially appear.
Silas spots Jay’s beloved and her father on wanted posters, complicating his involvement and posing a moral question for the bounty hunter. Slow West plays out like a fairly standard but well-scripted and beautifully shot Western, elevated by the performances of all involved, including Ben Mendelsohn and Rory McCann.
10. The Killer (2023)
David Fincher returns to color and violence with his film The Killer, and Fassbender’s right in the middle of it all as the eponymous killer. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and Luc Jacamon, The Killer follows the unnamed killer as he tracks down people who harmed his girlfriend after he botched a job.
While The Killer sees Fassbender globetrot and engage in some exciting action sequences, the film feels small, and that’s by design. The Killer poses existential questions about what matters, or rather what doesn’t matter, and how we create meaning in our lives. It’s an existential film dressed up as an action thriller.
11. Macbeth (2015)
Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth stands alongside Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet as one of the most visually stunning cinematic adaptations of the Bard. Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw bring to life a fog-shrouded and blood-soaked vision of medieval Scotland that makes their Macbeth a joy to behold.
Fassbender plays the titular Macbeth, and Marion Cotillard takes on the iconic Lady Macbeth in two performances that stand out not only as some of the best iterations of these classic characters but also as two of the most unique. Their performances register as quieter and more reflective than the usual bombastic versions of these characters, making the tragedy of the play all the more devastating.
12. A Dangerous Method (2011)
It speaks to Fassbender’s talent that many brilliant directors, including body-horror master David Cronenberg, seek him out. But Cronenberg didn’t cast Fassbender in one of his sci-fi horror films; instead, he cast the Irish-German actor as early psychiatrist Carl Jung. A Dangerous Method tells the true story of Jung’s tumultuous relationships with Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).
Jung and Spielrein initially meet as doctor and patient. But soon their relationship develops into both a romantic and a professional one as Jung becomes an advisor on her academic work. Similarly, Jung and Freud begin a correspondence and become friends before several aspects of their personal and professional lives force them apart. A Dangerous Method centers on performances and ideas in a film that’s not for everyone but a joy to those interested in early psychoanalysis.
13. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Based on the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Northup’s twelve years of servitude in the American South in the 1840s and 50s. Northup begins the film as a free man living in New York, but he’s captured and sold into slavery by con men.
His years as a slave highlight the horrors of the institution, especially during his time with his second owner, Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Epps is cruel and enjoys beating his slaves, as well as regularly sexually assaulting one of the young women slaves. 12 Years a Slave challenges audiences to look American history in the face and doesn’t offer much reprieve from the horrific reality of slavery. Though unpleasant to watch, it makes the film so powerful.
14. Fish Tank (2009)
The same year Fassbender appeared as a heroic British soldier in Inglourious Basterds, he played the suspiciously friendly new boyfriend of a teenage girl’s mother in Fish Tank. The film tracks the relationship between Mia (Katie Jarvis) and her mom’s new boyfriend Connor (Fassbender), who at first seems like a near-perfect father figure, but soon boundaries begin to blur.
Fish Tank offers several fantastic performances, particularly from the non-actor Jarvis as the aggressive teen and Fassbender as the incredibly charming adult man whose intentions are unclear. Andrea Arnold also directs the film with a focus on Mia’s point of view, with visual and sonic choices that highlight her perspective on the world and Connor.
15. Steve Jobs (2015)
Few films and fewer biopics feel as much like a play as Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs. The film shows three significant events in the life of Steve Jobs (Fassbender), each of which plays out in real-time. Each of the three acts center the lead up to press conferences in which Jobs announces products, whether from Apple or his independent company NeXT.
Steve Jobs stands as one of the most Sorkinesque films in the writer/director’s filmography, with quick, overlapping dialogue that doesn’t offer the actors or the audience much room to breathe. But Sorkin, director Boyle, and the talented actors ensure that the film also has a beating heart, centered on the relationship between Jobs and his daughter Lisa.
16. Frank (2014)
There’s no denying that Fassbender’s good looks have played a role in his career. But Frank eschews his handsome face as a draw by hiding it under a giant papier-mâché mask for most of the runtime. The film follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a struggling keyboard player, as he’s offered a position with the experimental music group The Soronprfbs, led by the eponymous Frank (Fassbender).
Frank tracks the development of Jon’s relationships with the other bandmates, especially Frank and theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who grows suspicious of Jon and his growing closeness with Frank. The film weaves between genres as a non-musical movie about music that engages seriously with mental health issues but also offers several laugh-out-loud moments, delivering something delightfully unique.
17. Trespass Against Us (2016)
In Trespass Against Us, Fassbender stars opposite Brendan Gleeson as a father and son whose relationship is tested by the son’s attempts at independence. But this father and son differ from most others. They live together in an Irish traveler community, and Fassbender’s Chad often does criminal work for his father, Colby.
Chad loves his father but seeks a better, less dangerous life for himself, his wife, and his children. He wants to go straight, buy a home, and settle down, and he knows that his father won’t approve. Trespass Against Us mingles crime, family drama, and comedy to create an equally thrilling and affecting portrait of a father and son.
18. X-Men: First Class (2011)
While Fassbender’s other 2011 projects may seem more prestigious, there’s no doubt that X-Men: First Class remains the most popular of Michael Fassbender movies of that year. The film serves as a prequel to the original X-Men movie trilogy. It follows the relationship between Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Fassbender) and Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy).
Fassbender’s performance shines in the film as he makes Erik/Magneto the most compelling character in a movie full of interesting and well-cast X-Men characters. In fact, the film is at its best when focused on Erik’s quest to hunt down and kill the war criminals who tortured him and killed his mother.
19. The Counselor (2013)
Several of late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s novels made the transition to screen. But McCarthy only wrote one original screenplay: The Counselor. The Counselor has an incredible pedigree, directed by Ridley Scott and featuring an all-star cast including Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, and more.
Despite the pedigree, The Counselor stands out as one of the strangest films in the filmography of everyone involved. The movie centers on Fassbender’s titular counselor as he attempts to get into the drug trade around the US/Mexico border, and things quickly go wrong. That standard crime movie set-up belies the ridiculous moments and characters that turned the film into a controversial but unforgettable big swing.
20. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
X-Men: Days of Future Past pulls off a fairly impressive trick, combining the cast and the universe of the original X-Men movie trilogy with the characters of First Class to bring to life one of the most iconic stories from the comics. Sadly, the adaptation makes several changes that make Days of Future Past feel less like an adaptation of a beloved comics plotline and more like a solid movie entry.
Days of Future Past features several new to the screen X-Men characters without developing them, choosing instead to focus on the relationship between Charles, Erik, and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). The film doesn’t fail entirely but fails to live up to the source material and its predecessor, First Class. It also just doesn’t have enough of Fassbender in it.