What are the best James Cameron movies? For more than four decades, James Cameron has dedicated himself to providing the biggest, most jaw-dropping theatrical experiences. Time-traveling killing machines? No problem. Historical disasters? Done it. Creating new alien worlds that became a point of obsession for millions? Easy.
The indefatigable James Cameron has taken the helm of some of the best action movies, best science fiction movies, and the most memorable romances. He refuses to be pigeonholed in his quest to make transformative films that fuel our imaginations. Considering he has topped the list of the highest-grossing movies of all time twice – he currently holds three of the top four spots – it’s safe to say he knows how to make the best movies.
But that said, what are the best James Cameron movies? That’s a big question that’ll fuel many a discussion, but we’re here to give you the answer. We’ve ranked all his movies from worst to best, so you know where to start if you’ve never seen any, or are wondering what should be rewatched first. Warning: may contain hot takes.
James Cameron’s movies ranked from worst to best are:
- Piranha 2
- True Lies
- Avatar: The Way of Water
- The Terminator
- The Abyss
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day
9. Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981)
Like many great filmmakers, Cameron got his start working on schlocky spookfests that wouldn’t rank among the best horror movies. His first time in a director’s chair was a happy accident, as he inherited the already rolling Piranha 2 when Miller Drake was fired by producers.
He turned in a functional creature feature that’s only really worthwhile because it’s where the dude who made Avatar and Terminator started. Cameron himself doesn’t often talk about it, and copies aren’t the easiest to find.
8. True Lies (1994)
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis together are always a recipe for success, and they’re magnetic at the center of one of the best ’90s movies. It’s all about balancing daring escapades and humdrum home life. Schwarzenegger, going through a phase of his best comedy movies, revels in hamming up Harry’s struggle to keep his second job as a spy under wraps.
There’s nothing egregious about True Lies, but when viewed in the totality of Cameron’s work, it comes across as a palate cleanser. Something smaller, funnier, and looser after a string of effects-heavy films, before he stepped into the juggernaut that would be Titanic. Fun for what it is, and well-made, but unremarkable.
7. Avatar (2009)
There’s no denying the spectacle of Avatar. The wildlife and landscapes of Pandora are brought to life so incredibly and exquisitely, that one can almost forgive the two-dimensional characters and world-building. Almost.
Avatar is a testament to Cameron’s dedication to existing on the bleeding edge of the theatrical experience. Seen in cinemas, you’re brought into a universe full of vibrant color and wonder straight from the mind’s eye of one of Hollywood’s best directors. Watched at home, it’s a mid-tempo roller-coaster through some half-baked sci-fi tropes narrated by Jake Sully, whose name you’ll forget five minutes after credits.
6. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
Despite waiting over a decade, James Cameron’s follow-up to the adventures of colonization on Pandora did not disappoint. Avatar: The Way of Water takes everything that was amazing about the first movie and gives us better visuals, a grander story, and more spectacle.
Set 16 years after the Na’vi repelled the RDA invasion of Pandora, Jake Sully is adapting to his new life as a family man. However, peace doesn’t last for long once the RDA reverts to their old hostile ways. Avatar: The Way of Water sees a new battle taking place in Cameron’s unique and breathtaking sci-fi world.
5. The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator franchise now is very different from where it started in one of the best time travel movies. It was a lean, action-packed thriller that gave Cameron, Schwarzenegger, and Linda Hamilton their big breaks. You know the premise by now: Sarah Connor’s a regular woman targeted by a robot from the future sent to murder her in order to prevent her son, who’s destined to save mankind from the machine uprising, from being born.
Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as the eponymous, stoic, unflinching killer, each of his few lines now etched in pop culture among those from the best movie villains. Michael Biehn makes an ideal counterpart as Kyle, another time traveler sent back to help Sarah survive.
They trade explosive blows in sequences that continually outdo themselves. Through it all, Hamilton is the key, bringing warmth and humanity to Sarah and the surrounding chaos.
4. Aliens (1986)
Following a perfect entity like Alien would seem like a fool’s errand for most, but most aren’t James Cameron. After years of chasing the project, Cameron got the green light to continue Ripley’s story after The Terminator, proceeding to make a louder, bloodier, and bigger version of Ridley Scott’s horror movie.
Ripley’s dragged down to LV-426 by a rescue mission because, despite what happened to her crew, Weyland-Yutani decided to try and set up colonies around where the xenomorphs live. Cameron’s script may have plenty of comic moments to contrast all the mayhem, but the fear is real when the tension is dialed up. Still a classic despite not topping its predecessor and an integral piece in the Alien timeline.
3. The Abyss (1989)
One can view Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio touching the aquatic extra-terrestrial in pure wonder as a summation of Cameron’s career. Manufacturing ways for us to feel like we can extend a hand and touch something not of this world that’s completely vivid and life-like.
A crew of oil drillers and Navy SEALs also featuring Ed Harris and Michael Biehn are left awe-struck by what they find when looking into a sunken submarine.
One of the best drama movies from Cameron is the beginning of a long fascination with water and our ocean depths, likening the realm to an unexplored galaxy. As the filmmaker’s work has gotten larger, a little bit of magic was left here, where it’s dark and quiet.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The same again, but Schwarzenegger’s the hero this time. Terminator 2 could’ve been a shameless retread. Instead, it’s one of Cameron’s masterpieces, where a shotgun-toting Schwarzenegger works to protect Sarah and her adolescent son from the liquid metal T-1000, chillingly played by Robert Patrick.
The chase is loud and reckless, as you’d expect when the fate of our entire future is on the line. Technophobia and latent nuclear anxieties are melded into Sarah’s trauma for an atmosphere that feels inescapably dire. And yet, the Connors persist, because that’s what we have to do. Every set piece rules.
1. Titanic (1997)
A staggering technical feat and a heartbreaking romance combined for this thrilling blockbuster, which is the epitome of Cameron’s MO. Titanic recreates tragic history through the filmmaker’s remarkable eye for detail, giving us a blistering look at a modern architectural marvel as it’s defeated by the elements.
The ship itself is breathtaking, but what makes Titanic work like it does is the relationship between Jack and Rose, lovers whose meet-cute is interrupted by the untimely sinking. They push through an endlessly rising tide, holding onto any minuscule hope that they’ll get out alive.
Simple desire, captured by Leonardo DiCaprio’s boyishness and Kate Winslet’s unrestrained charisma. They make the incredible scale matter. Read our throwback Titanic review for more.
For more cinematic genius, have a look at our list of the best Steven Spielberg movies, all the Christopher Nolan movies ranked. Or to return to Cameron, read our Avatar 2 cast interview, in which we chat to Pandora’s youngest inhabitants. Speaking of the Avatar 2 cast, we’ve got a guide on them for you, too.
We’ve also got an Aliens review, since we wanted to revisit a classic, and a list of all the new movies coming out soon for you to enjoy. You can learn more about the Dune 2 release date and find out about the Alita sequels James Cameron is planning to make. Yep, more than one.