The 25 best Michael Keaton films
Warner Bros.

The 25 best Michael Keaton films

Michael Keaton's acting career has spanned six decades and there's no sign he's about to stop. Whether playing a superhero, recovering addict, or a hard-hitting journalist -- and just about everything in between -- Keaton has been among the great actors of the modern era. 

Here's a ranking of the 25 best movies he's starred in (with preference given to those films he either had the lead or prominent role).

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25. "Gung Ho" (1986)

"Gung Ho" (1986)
Paramount Pictures

Michael Keaton and Ron Howard teamed up on a few occasions when it came to making movies. Now, Gung Ho might not be among Keaton's -- or Howard's -- elite films, but it's a comedy that's entertaining enough to earn some love on this list. Keaton plays Hunt Stevenson, a foreman trying to keep an auto plant open, then ultimately gets his American employees to work in concert with their new Japanese management. There's a decent balance of humor and drama, but Keaton is serviceable in the lead role. 

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24. "First Daughter" (2004)

"First Daughter" (2004)
20th Century Fox

Keaton plays John MacKenzie, President of the United States, in this satisfactory comedy. While he might be a popular president, he's struggling as a father to allow his college-aged daughter Samantha (Katie Holmes) more freedom as she moves into adulthood and longs for a more normal life. He's not the focal point of the movie, but it's enough to make Sam's life difficult at times. Of course, letting go of a daughter is never easy for any dad, even if you're the leader of the free world.

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23. "Pacific Heights" (1990)

"Pacific Heights" (1990)
20th Century Fox

Diabolical, or just plain evil, are a couple of ways to describe Keaton's Carter Hayes (aka James Danforth) in this psychological thriller that also stars Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine. Hayes is the worst possible tenant house landlords can ask, but Keaton plays it in delicious fashion. The film got mixed reviews, but did relatively well at the box office ($55 million worldwide) and was enough to keep Keaton in leading-man roles. 

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22. "White Noise" (2005)

"White Noise" (2005)
Brightlight Pictures Distributed by Universal Pictures; Entertainment Film Distributors

Through the years, Keaton has made his share of so-called "popcorn" movies. Those films that are meant to entertain and kill a couple of hours without much thought needed for involvement. White Noise follows that model. While not popular with critics, it did well at the box office ($91.2 million). Keaton is solid as Jonathan Rivers, an architect, who is led to believe his recently deceased wife is trying to communicate to him through electronic voice phenomena (EVP) and becomes obsessed with getting to the bottom of it all.

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21. "Dumbo" (2019)

"Dumbo" (2019)
Walt Disney Pictures

We mentioned Keaton's frequent work in Ron Howard films. He's also fond of appearing in movies directed by eclectic visionary Tim Burton. Both as the hero (as we'll see later on this list) and the villain. It's the latter in this imaginative Disney live-action adaptation of the beloved animated classic, where Keaton's ruthless entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere purchases the circus that Dumbo is part of, with the purpose of exploiting the flying elephant to draw even bigger crowds to his own corporate circus/amusement park. The movie received sub-par reviews in relation to the hype, but Keaton is quite good as the smarmy bad guy.

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20. "The Dream Team" (1989)

"The Dream Team" (1989)
Universal Pictures

First off, "The Dream Team" is a highly underrated movie. Keaton plays Billy, an inpatient at a New Jersey mental health facility. He's a petrological liar, but also sane enough to lead a group of his fellow patients -- played by Christopher Lloyd, Peter Boyle, and Stephen Furst -- through the streets of New York City when they are unintentionally left alone while attending a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. It's a good comedy with some endearing moments that doesn't try to be anything more.

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19. "Worth" (2020)

"Worth" (2020)

As audiences saw here with Worth and more films on this list, Keaton is quite good in the biopic genre. Keaton offers a strong portrayal of Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney tabbed by the United States Congress to head the "September 11th Victim Compensation Fund." Feinberg was emotionally conflicted during his time in the real-life role, and Keaton does an above-average job of bringing that to life.

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18. "Much Ado About Nothing" (1993)

"Much Ado About Nothing" (1993)
The Samuel Goldwyn Company; Entertainment Film Distributors

As the dim-witted, highly unintelligent constable Dogberry, Keaton is one of the underrated gems in this romantic comedy based on the William Shakespeare play. Dogberry's vocabulary leaves much to be desired but manages to be rather successful at his job when needed the most. Both Keaton's performance and the movie, overall, are worth the time and effort to sit through.

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17. "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017)

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017)
Columbia Pictures; Sony Pictures

When Keaton takes on the role of a villain, he makes the most of the opportunity. As Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture, Keaton's character in this addition to the Spider-Man big-screen family is a disgruntled salvager, who turns to arms dealing to make money after his previous employer goes out of business. In some ways, Toomes is a Marvel bad guy that viewers might sympathize with since he wants to provide and look out for his family. Of course, doing so in a misguided way with a high-tech alter-ego to boot.

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16. "Johnny Dangerously" (1984)

"Johnny Dangerously" (1984)
20th Century Fox

As we'll see later on this list, 1982, '83, and '84 were the springboard for Keaton to sustain himself as a leading man in Hollywood for the rest of that decade and into the early 1990s. Johnny Kelly is just trying to help pay off his mother's mounting medical bills and help put his brother through law school, so he hitches his wagon to a local crime boss for help. It's a fun comedy, nothing more, and Keaton is well worthy of the leading role. Plus, we get to hear the word "fargin" in that over-the-top, New York City mobster accent.

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15. "Clean and Sober" (1988)

"Clean and Sober" (1988)
Warner Bros.

While Clean and Sober was not Keaton's first turn as a dramatic leading man (there was the 1986 romantic comedy-drama Touch and Go), there was nothing funny about Daryl Poynter. Keaton's cocaine-abusing, embezzling real estate salesman, who while running from the law lands in rehab and ultimately comes to grips with the trouble he's caused. One can argue that this was the professional moment that Keaton was seen as a versatile actor and one who should be taken seriously going forward.

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14. "The Trial of the Chicago 7" (2020)

"The Trial of the Chicago 7" (2020)

Keaton didn't receive major screen time in this recent Academy Award-nominated film (which appeared on Netflix, but his performance is nonetheless impactful. His portrayal of then-United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark is obviously key to the plot of the film and the trial of the infamous group of anti-Vietnam War protestors known as the "Chicago Seven," who were charged with inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. 

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13. "Jackie Brown" (1997)

"Jackie Brown" (1997)
Miramax Films

As ATF agent Ray Nicolette, Keaton gives a sound performance in his supporting role in this popular Quentin Tarantino film. It's one of Keaton's better supporting projects, perhaps because he does well in an ensemble cast setting and doesn't draw any unnecessary attention to himself. Especially with Pam Grier and, most notably, the late Robert Forster giving standout performances. It's also an example of Keaton working with another big-time director.

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12. "The Founder" (2016)

"The Founder" (2016)
The Weinstein Company

Another biopic moment for Keaton. This time as Ray Kroc, the businessman who got the McDonald brothers to franchise their fast-food restaurant. Keaton was lauded for his portrayal as the persistent Kroc, and once again showed that the veteran actor is more than capable of playing any type of role. That versatility has allowed Keaton to remain an A-lister knocking on the door of his 70th birthday. 

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11. "Live from Baghdad" (2002)

"Live from Baghdad" (2002)

"Live from Baghdad" was not released in theaters, but a huge movie hit for HBO. Keaton received positive reviews for his portrayal of on-location CNN producer Robert Wiener, whose book the movie was based on and co-wrote the screenplay. Detailing the lives of news media covering war, in this case, the Persian Gulf War, when Wiener opted to continue reporting from Iraq while others had fled the area. Keaton received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actor -- Miniseries or Television Film.

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10. "The Paper" (1994)

"The Paper" (1994)
Universal Pictures

Another turn with Ron Howard, Keaton is part of a stellar ensemble cast that includes Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, and Marissa Tomei. Keaton's Henry Hackett is a workaholic New York City newspaper editor and father-to-be trying to get the real scoop on a story his rag missed a day earlier. It's a fast-paced, day-in-the-life story of a big city newspaper, with Keaton exceptionally leading the charge.

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9. "Cars" (2006)

"Cars" (2006)

Keaton has lent his voice to various animated projects over the years, but his take as Lightning McQueen's on-track rival Chick Hicks, you're typical 1980s stock car, is arguably the most memorable. Sponsored by HTB, aka Hostile Takeover Bank, Chick wants to follow in the footsteps of "The King," and he will resort to any tactics -- on and off the track -- to make that happen. "Kachicka."

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8. "The Other Guys" (2010)

"The Other Guys" (2010)
Columbia Pictures; Sony Pictures

Though Keaton is not the lead, he's part of enough memorable scenes, alongside stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, in this hilarious buddy cop comedy to land a spot in our top 10. Capt. Gene Mauch is a mediocre police station leader who also moonlights at Bed, Bath and Beyond to put his bisexual sun through NYU to become a DJ. He also has a weird fascination with hip hop group TLC, which he does not admit. 

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7. "Night Shift" (1982)

"Night Shift" (1982)
Warner Bros.

Working with Ron Howard for the first time in a film setting, Keaton earned plenty of praise as high-on-life schemer Bill "Blaze" Blazejowski. He co-stars alongside Henry Winkler, as late-night, county morgue workers who decide to make some extra money by turning said facility into a prostitution headquarters. The movie positioned Keaton as a comedy-film force in the years to come.

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6. "Batman Returns" (1992)

"Batman Returns" (1992)
Warner Bros.

As we'll talk about in a bit, Keaton received high praise for the role of this popular DC Comics character. In this sequel to Tim Burton's 1989 film, Keaton is just as dark and brooding in the title role as he was the first time around, and equally acclaimed. Perhaps because audiences expected that after Keaton was a surprising choice to play the film version of Batman in the first place. Of course, his run as the superhero would end after this film when Burton was no longer part of the franchise. 

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5. "Beetlejuice" (1988)

"Beetlejuice" (1988)
Warner Bros.

Keaton earned A-list status thanks to his lead role in this Tim Burton horror-comedy from the late 1980s. Betelgeuse (pronounced Beetlejuice), is the eclectic spirit called upon by the ghosts of a dead couple trying to scare out the family that moved into their home. It might be Keaton's most over-the-top role, but he certainly had a lot of fun with it. And, so did audiences, who helped the movie make nearly $74 million in the United States.

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4. "Batman" (1989)

"Batman" (1989)
Warner Bros.

There are obviously plenty of times when a starring role makes an actor's career. In the case here, Keaton received such critical acclaim that he can be credited with reviving the Batman character to become a massively successful film franchise icon. Again teaming up with director Tim Burton, Keaton's darker, definitely less campy, turn as The Caped Crusader was well received because it proved, as was seen with less fanfare in Clean and Sober, that he's capable of excelling in a more dramatic role. 

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3. "Mr. Mom" (1983)

"Mr. Mom" (1983)
20th Century Fox

While Night Shift showed Keaton was capable of helping carry a movie when it came to comedies, Mr. Mom made him a bonafide star. Keaton was downright hilarious as Jack Butler, a recently furloughed automotive engineer, finds his new gig as a stay-at-home dad to be the toughest job he's ever held. Jack's initial interaction with advertising executive Ron Richardson (Martin Mull), the new boss of his wife Caroline (Teri Garr), might be Keaton's most memorable film moment ever.

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2. "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (2014)

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (2014)
Twentieth Century Fox

The role that reminded movie fans that Keaton is still capable of delivering an A-list performance (Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination). Like his character, Riggan Thomson, the actor who played an iconic screen superhero (which continues to consume his psyche), Keaton was looking for some Hollywood, leading-man resurgence. He did, and this role and picture will probably be the one that ends up defining his career -- perhaps more so than playing Batman or drawing plenty of laughs in Mr. Mom.

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1. "Spotlight" (2015)

"Spotlight" (2015)
Open Road Films; Sony Pictures Releasing International; Stage 6 Films

While there's no doubt Keaton was exceptional in Birdman, Spotlight is the better movie. Keaton was among the anchors of a star-studded cast, that included Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci, to this Oscar-winning film about The Boston Globe's shocking investigation into sexual abuse allegations involving Boston-area Catholic clergy. Keaton is stoically brilliant as veteran journalist Walter "Robby" Robinson, the leader of the Globe's investigative "Spotlight" team, which exposed what proved to be rampant abuse by said Catholic priests.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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