The 14 Best Ewan McGregor Movies, Ranked
From starring in cult favorites to playing a Jedi Master, the Scottish actor has long been a fan favorite.
"You were the chosen one!" shouts Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi towards the epic conclusion of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the series of movies that transformed his career and put him on the path to the present moment. In Revenge of the Sith, he's speaking to Anakin Skywalker, his wayward young trainee. But looking back now, the line serves as a fitting encapsulation for McGregor's own increasingly fascinating, occasionally frustrating career. Even if he wasn't always comfortable with the role, he was Hollywood's chosen one for a bit.
After emerging with two Danny Boyle-directed indie hits, 1994's Shallow Grave and 1996's Trainspotting, McGregor became a blockbuster leading man with 1999's The Phantom Menace, one of the most eagerly anticipated (and subsequently picked-apart) movies ever made. He carved his own path in the next two decades, working with internationally acclaimed filmmakers on smaller projects, while still popping up in the occasional action epic or horror sequel. Even as the industry changes around him, he charges ahead, moving into TV with his recent Emmy-nominated work on FX's Fargo and Netflix's Halston. Given his well-documented love of motorcycles, that makes sense.
This week, an older and wiser McGregor will return to the role of Jedi Master with Disney+'s Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries. To mark the occasion of McGregor's return to the deserts of Tatooine, we're peering through our macrobinoculars at the peaks and valleys of McGregor's long career, selecting 14 of our favorite roles from his eclectic filmography. After nearly three decades of stardom, the force is still strong with this one.
14. Birds of Prey (2020)
McGregor's villainous performance as Roman Sionis in Birds of Prey lands on this list simply because the actor is having so much fun. The DC team-up led by Margot Robbie casts McGregor as a preening gangster with an affinity for garish home design, a homoerotic relationship with his henchman (played by a very blond Chris Messina), and a murderous desire for a diamond. Cathy Yan's very fun and underrated spin on the superhero turns McGregor's Moulin Rouge! leading-man image on its head to great effect. —Esther Zuckerman
13. The Island (2005)
Michael Bay's riff on Logan's Run flopped upon its release, and it remains underappreciated amid the noise of his Transformers series and movies about blowing up space rocks and escaping from high-security prisons. But The Island is one of the director's better films, a time capsule of mid-2000s technological and medical anxieties led by McGregor and Scarlett Johanssen playing childlike clones who discover that everyone in their giant facility has been grown to be used as organ transplants or baby surrogates for wealthy sponsors. McGregor has the dual challenge of playing an action star with the mind of a naive adolescent (as well as, eventually, his smarmy human counterpart), which lends little moments of gravity and comedy—"He's taking a dump in a can!"—amid the shaky-cam lens-flare Bayhem. —Emma Stefansky
12. Haywire (2011)
As a cloak-wearing Jedi, McGregor has spent hours swinging a lightsaber, dodging lasers, and leaping across floating platforms. In Steven Soderbergh's wickedly brutal spy thriller, he gets a chance to engage in a more tactile, bone-crunching form of combat. As pretty-boy villain Kenneth, a mysterious intelligence world operative and ex-boyfriend to Gina Carano's private contractor Mallory, he exudes smarm, cynicism, and lethal competence. When he finally faces off against Mallory on a beach in the movie's sand-throwing MMA beatdown conclusion, McGregor gets a few sharp moves in. But the defining moment for his character, a government-trained weasel to the end, is when he tries to run up the side of a rocky cliff and make a cowardly escape, only to be pulled down by Mallory's avenging angel. —Dan Jackson
11. Last Days in the Desert (2016)
Is Ewan McGregor the sexiest movie Jesus? His windswept hair and pale-blue eyes make a strong argument, but they're not all Rodrigo García's film has going for it. McGregor plays both Yeshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus) and Satan, the latter a hallucination haunting the biblical messiah during his 40-day fast. Making Jesus and the devil doppelgängers is a subversive spin, and even though Last Days in the Desert remains a fairly quiet meditation, McGregor differentiates between the two by giving the prince of darkness a mocking lilt. These aren't the actor's most expressive performances, but that's the point: Jesus' internal conflicts and childlike hope emerge in small doses, making him more human than the average faith-based dramatization allows. —Matthew Jacobs
10. I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)
Given how handsome he is, it's hardly surprising that McGregor often gets cast as an object of obsession and desire. In this dark comedy from the writing-directing duo of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who penned the similarly acidic Bad Santa, McGregor plays the titular Phillip Morris, an inmate with whom Jim Carrey's con artist Steven Jay Russell falls madly in love while serving time in a Texas prison. Carrey, seemingly overjoyed to be free from the constraints of the family comedies he was cranking out at the time, has the flashier role, but McGregor, playing the more naive Morris, needs to convince you that Morris would actually go to such great lengths (like escaping prison multiple times) to be with him. McGregor's sweetness is an asset here, helping to sell both the farce and the romance. —DJ
9. Doctor Sleep (2019)
Mike Flanagan's Stephen King adaptation was not the first time McGregor offered a new spin on a well-known character (more on that below). As a grown-up Danny Torrance, the traumatized psychic child from The Shining, McGregor is subdued and exhausted, still troubled by his connection to the terrifying spirit world yet using his powers to ease the passing of hospice patients. When a new evil enters his life, searching for people who "shine" just like him, he reluctantly saves the life of a young psychic girl, journeying back to the Overlook Hotel one final time at the movie's climax. Doctor Sleep is a masterpiece of sickening tension and hypnotic horror, and never tries too hard to emulate what came before. McGregor plays Danny as an adult altered and evolved by the decades since we last saw him, yet still haunted by the traumas of the past. —ES
8. Shallow Grave (1994)
When McGregor first appears on screen in Shallow Grave, filmmaker Danny Boyle's grisly comedic thriller, he disarms the viewer with his floppy hair, his soft voice, and his megawatt grin. This is a nice Scottish boy, right? Quickly, his character, a sarcastic journalist named Alex, reveals his true nature: cruelly mocking a potential flatmate, teasing his friends, and, eventually, disposing of a corpse. The escalating violence and nihilism of Boyle's debut, a sensation in England at the time of its release, can be stomach-churning, a series of Hitchcockian twists executed with music video brio, but McGregor charms and seduces you every step of the way. As a stylish portrait of a young sociopath, Shallow Grave doesn't exactly cut deep. With McGregor anchoring the action, it doesn't need to. —DJ
7. The Star Wars prequels
Love them or hate them, it's impossible to understate the Star Wars prequel films' impact on pop culture, or their impact on McGregor's career. If you didn't know of him before, you definitely did once he took on the unenviable task of making an iconic role his own. Playing a younger version of Alec Guinness' Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi (remember when they used to just cast younger actors instead of digitally de-aging ghosts???), McGregor pops in and out of interstellar conflicts while flaunting his memorable tan robes, providing a calming, authoritative baseline against co-star Hayden Christensen's moody angst. The prequel trilogy is as much Obi-Wan's story as it is Anakin's, and McGregor's bits are routinely even more entertaining, as he evolves from Jedi trainee to powerful knight in the service of a tainted political power. You'll never hear the phrase "hello there!" the same way ever again. —ES
6. Big Fish (2003)
Tim Burton's Southern-gothic fairytale may be full of the director's signature fantastical style, but much of its charm relies on McGregor. As the young Edward Bloom, it's him we follow through all of grown-up Edward's (Albert Finney) stories, from traveling with a giant to his days in the circus. His expressive face manages to capture all kinds of wonder, making it truly feel as if time could stop, popcorn floating midair, when he rests his eyes upon his soulmate. And with that Alabama drawl, it's no wonder the residents of Spectre wanted him to remove his shoes and stay forever. While the father–son dynamic at the center of the story finds a bittersweet end and Bloom's tall tales aren't as tall as he made them out to be, there's a magic to McGregor's performance that still leaves you wondering otherwise. —Sadie Bell
5. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Perhaps no other film cemented McGregor's heartthrob status better than Baz Luhrmann's gaudy musical spectacular (spectacular) Moulin Rouge! Playing the lovelorn poet Christian, who moons after Nicole Kidman's Satine while singing Elton John and David Bowie tunes, McGregor radiates an Old Hollywood song-and-dance-man charm mashed up with a pop-star suaveness. His and Kidman's lust is palpable, and Luhrmann's camera highlights his pristine pale cheekbones. Moulin Rouge! is not for everyone, but McGregor nailed its over-the-top, baldly emotional tone and won himself legions of fans. —EZ
4. Down with Love (2003)
Peyton Reed's 1962-set Down with Love is both an homage to and parody of classic Doris Day and Rock Hudson "no-sex sex comedies." It's a dichotomy that McGregor balances well as "ladies man, man's man, man about town" Catcher Block (that name!), coming off as both exceedingly dashing and an eye-roll-inducing womanizer. When he blows off feminist writer Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) and the opportunity to promote her book, he finds his playboy world turned upside down and comes up with a dirty little scheme to pretend to be a charmer named Zip and sweep her off her feet. Seeing McGregor brush eyelashes off cheeks and take seductive bites out of chocolate bars, you can tell he's having a ball with the movie's stylish rom-com coyness. It's a film that goes down like a Manhattan with a Maraschino cherry. —SB
3. Trainspotting (1996)
Recklessly sprinting through the streets of Edinburgh, sardonically exploring the values of "choose life," and eventually crawling headfirst into "the worst toilet in Scotland," McGregor's turn as heroin addict Mark "Rent Boy" Renton remains one of the definitive Gen X performances. He embodies the movie's wild, nihilistic energy. Director Danny Boyle attacks Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel with unrelenting style, layering the soundtrack with ear-grabbing songs and cutting together each sequence at a rapid pace. Like many films about drug use, the viewing experience can be draining. With his shaved head and twitchy eyes, McGregor grounds Renton's struggle in real emotions, finding humor and pathos in the never-ending chase for the next high. —DJ
2. Beginners (2010)
Mike Mills' Beginners is a very special film. Based on the writer/director's own experience of his 75-year-old father coming out just five years before his death, the indie dramedy sees McGregor as Mills' stand-in Oliver and Christopher Plummer as Oliver's father as he's dying of cancer. Told in multiple timelines (Oliver's childhood, shortly after his mother dies in his adulthood, and after his father's death), McGregor holds this character study close to his heart. Relearning to love the father he thought he knew, living with grief, and putting the romantic lessons his father left to good use, it's a rare emotional showcase for the actor, who never strays from portraying all of the nuances of Oliver's wavering depression and optimism. Plummer may have won an Oscar for his performance, but McGregor is an understated match for the legend (and even his Jack Russell terrier co-star!). —SB
1. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
McGregor bares it all in Velvet Goldmine: his fleshy contours, his decadent wit, his anarchic soul. Todd Haynes' glam-rock fantasia is an ode to David Bowie that borrows the Citizen Kane template, but McGregor's Curt Wild has the spirit of Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop, making him a testament to the American id. He's bratty, sensual, volatile, and even a bit romantic. It's one of those rare opportunities that actors only get once or twice in their careers, when their leashes are untethered and they can flail about with all the disorderliness that the rest of us have to bottle up. He's made bigger movies in the intervening years, but none of them are as outsized as Goldmine. —MJ