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50 Most Memorable Ian McKellen Movies Ranked Worst To Best

With a career nearly six decades in the making, Sir Ian McKellen has gone on to become one of the most prolific actors of our time. Getting his start performing on stage, which he continues to do to this day, he also has an impressive number of films to his name that are well worth discussing.

Not content with just being one of the most talented actors in history, McKellen has also spent a considerable portion of his life as a champion for LGBT+ rights. This passion for activism is prevalent in many of his films, making his impressive filmography that much more significant.

Below, we'll be ranking 50 of the best films that the legendary actor has been in over the course of his storied career. From the far-flung realms of fantasy to the pages of history, there's hardly been a genre left untouched by McKellen over the course of his incredible life on screen.

50. Cats

It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise for anyone who's actually seen "Cats" to discover it at the bottom of our list. The 2019 adaptation of a Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber didn't sit right with audiences even before its release, thanks to the questionable appearance of its characters. And while awful effects in a film are bad enough, the visuals on display in "Cats" managed to fall somewhere between passable and terrible, landing right into the uncanny valley.  

McKellen's role in the claw-tastrophe is Gus the Theatre Cat, who provides some much-needed wisdom on performing to the rest of the felines. And if the unsettling character design isn't enough to scare you away from this one, "Cats" was a box office flop upon release, meaning we likely won't be seeing McKellen returning for a follow-up film anytime soon (at least, we can hope).

49. Neverwas

In one of his first projects after the conclusion of the critically acclaimed "Lord of the Rings" series, McKellen's 2005 film "Neverwas" never was quite able to get off the ground. It didn't receive a theatrical release and hasn't been remembered too fondly by the critics who did see it, so it's a long way from the top when compared to some of his career highlights. The casting definitely wasn't to blame, however, as McKellen was joined by Brittany Murphy as well as Aaron Eckhart just a few years before his famous role as Two-Face in "The Dark Knight."

The plot follows Eckhart's Zack Riley as he takes on a new career at a psychiatric institution. His newfound job turns out to have a much deeper connection to his family history than previously thought, which he only begins to fully uncover after getting to know McKellen's character of Gabriel Finch. A patient at the institution himself, Finch seemingly suffers from delusions of grandeur that pertain to the literary works of Riley's late father, T.L. Pierson. The more he interacts with Finch, however, the more Riley begins to question if the elderly patient might be onto something bigger as the two slowly unravel the true meaning behind the work that Pierson left behind. And despite the aforementioned critical failings, a lukewarm but not abysmal audience reception leaves "Neverwas" an option for fans of McKellen's work looking to take a chance on a less-discussed entry.

48. The Da Vinci Code

A promising cast typically helps to elevate a film to mediocrity, at the very least, but "The Da Vinci Code" manages to prove the exception to the rule. The 2006 thriller was an adaptation of a bestselling novel by Dan Brown, with McKellen acting alongside actress Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks. Hanks's character, Professor Langdon, becomes implicated in a crime he didn't commit during a trip to Paris, as the city is gripped by a mysterious and disturbing murder. And as Langdon works to uncover the truth, he discovers a vast conspiracy with implications far more serious than anyone could have imagined. McKellen's role in the madness is as Langdon's trusted colleague and friend Sir Leigh Teabing, who suggests some shocking revelations about the truth behind the Holy Grail. 

Despite its flaws, "The Da Vinci Code" proved to be just as popular in the cinema as it did on bookstore shelves. Raking in over $760 million worldwide, we only have ourselves to blame for the glut of equally maligned sequels that inevitably followed its release. Easily one of the weakest titles in McKellen's filmography, even the film's lead Tom Hanks has recently come out to give his less than enthusiastic thoughts on the series as a whole.

47. The Shadow

Remembered fondly for his key role in a number of "X-Men" films, McKellen has always been more than capable of handling a lead role in a big-budget superhero film. The folks in charge of casting an actor for Magneto likely weren't thinking of "The Shadow" when they picked McKellen for the role, though. In this 1994 crime drama, Alec Baldwin plays the titular pulp-style antihero, who gets his start as a top-level criminal until he is convinced by a Tibetan Tulku to leave behind his life of crime. Now a master of his supernatural craft, he balances a normal life as a New York socialite with that of his alter ego: The Shadow.

Despite the fairly standard superhero flick fare so far, the rest of the film proves to be anything but. The Shadow's first arch-nemesis turns out to be one of Genghis Khan's descendants, who hopes to complete his ancestors' quest for global conquest. The way he plans to do this, of course, is by coercing McKellen's character, top-level military scientist Dr. Reinhardt, to build a nuke in the name of the new Khan empire.

46. Asylum

One of many period pieces McKellen would act in over the course of his long career, "Asylum" isn't set quite as far back in time as some of the others. It takes place in 1960s Britain, as forbidden love brews between Natasha Richardson's Stella and a patient (Martin Csokas) who receives treatment at the psychiatric hospital where her husband works. The thing is, the object of her newfound affection is especially infamous at the hospital, since he has been committed after his conviction for the murder of his ex-wife.

Their risky affair continues, even as it becomes more difficult by the day to balance with her everyday life. To complicate matters even further for the pair, a fellow doctor at the hospital, played by McKellen, has caught wind of the sordid relationship, hoping to drive a wedge between them and claim Stella's love for himself. "Asylum" was one of the last films that the late Richardson starred in before her untimely death, and unfortunately, it didn't fare too well upon release. An increasingly implausible plot left audiences scratching their heads, and as a result, it's best avoided in favor of some of McKellen's better films ahead.

45. The Keep

With a film career over half a century in the making, Ian McKellen has been a part of just about every type of project imaginable. And though they're few and far between, he has done a few horror films, even if his rare role in the genre is far from the best-received film out there.

Set during the earliest days of World War II, a group of German soldiers discover a derelict building deep in Romania. When they disturb its contents (always a mistake), they meet a grisly fate at the hands of a mysterious being who has been awakened suddenly from its slumber. From there, the creature goes on a murderous rampage, with the only hope of stopping it resting on the shoulders of McKellen's Professor Cuza. An expert in the occult, Cuza's wealth of knowledge seems to be the thing needed to stop the powerful beast. That is, until the monster's otherworldly powers turn the professor into an unlikely ally. Sloppy and confusing, "The Keep" is still something of a cult classic thanks to its interesting take on the dark fantasy genre, but not one you'll want to subject yourself to repeat viewings.

44. Swept from the Sea

Set during the late 19th century, a ship headed for the United States finds itself shipwrecked just off the coast of a small British village. The sole survivor, a young Ukrainian man named Yanko, stumbles his way into town, to the shock of its inhabitants. Unfortunately, though, the town's residents are a lot less welcoming than you might expect, save for one girl in particular named Amy, who's an outcast herself. A budding romance begins to form between the two, overcoming both the language barrier and the hard labor Yanko is forced into performing for the villagers.

Like love itself, however, it can't ever be that simple, as it's gradually revealed that Amy isn't the only one in town who has fallen for the strange sailor. One of the first to figure out where Yanko is from, McKellen's Dr. Kennedy, finds himself competing with Amy for Yanko's attention, hoping to drive her away from the mysterious newcomer. And despite some unsavory opinions from critics, audiences were generally kinder to this 1997 drama, so there are likely at least a few viewers out there who will find this one an underrated gem.

43. The Golden Compass

Though it had the makings of a fantasy epic for younger audiences, "The Golden Compass" wound up disappointing audiences everywhere, thanks to its sloppy handling of the source material. Set in a dystopian society in which free will and thought are heavily controlled by an organization known as the Magisterium, it's up to a young girl and her talking polar bear sidekick Iorek to team up and liberate the world from their oppressors. And while they didn't go so far as to put McKellen in an armored bear suit, he does provide the voiceover dialogue for the character. And although we're probably making the film sound a bit goofy, it does incorporate quite a bit of the imaginative fantasy world that was present in Pullman's original novel. Problem is, the film pulls its punches when it really shouldn't, paling in comparison to the novel it's based on.

And though a poor adaptation of a book is always a recipe for disaster, the troubles of "The Golden Compass" went far beyond that, having caused some real-life controversy. The production and release of the film were heavily challenged by organized religious groups at the time, making this a memorable moment in McKellen's filmography for all the wrong reasons. 

42. Apt Pupil

One of the earliest films in disgraced director Bryan Singer's filmography, "Apt Pupil" was released right after his critically acclaimed "The Usual Suspects," but with much less enthused reactions from critics and audiences alike. The 1998 thriller follows high school student Todd Bowden, who begins to suspect that his elderly neighbor has a hidden past. Some amateur sleuthing ends up confirming his beliefs, revealing that McKellen's aging Arthur Denker is a former member of the Nazi SS named Kurt Dussander.

Motivated by a morbid fascination with what Dussander did during the war, Bowden blackmails the war criminal into discussing the details of the numerous atrocities he committed. Along the way, Bowden becomes increasingly captivated by Dussander's exploits, slowly transforming into a monster himself. Despite its intriguing premise and a solid performance from McKellen, "Apt Pupil" went about its sensitive subject matter in a way that at times felt exploitative, and ultimately failed to meet its potential — and this is to say nothing of the shadow that hangs over it now that young cast members have come forward with allegations of sexual assault against Bryan Singer.

41. Plenty

Renowned actress Meryl Streep has had enough great films over her long career to rival McKellen's own filmography, but the 1985 film "Plenty" certainly wasn't one of them. Opening during the middle of World War II, the film follows Streep's Susan Traherne as she struggles to adjust to everyday life in peacetime. As it's the only film in which the two prolific actors are cast together, it's just a shame the end result didn't meet its full potential.

In post-war Europe, Susan's life settles back into normalcy as she enters the world of British political and social life. One failed relationship after another batter her ego, until she eventually accepts the fact that no aspect of her life going forward will ever match the thrills of combat. Ambitious and filled with a capable cast, "Plenty" should have worked thanks to its profound subject matter, but a meandering plot leaves all but the most uncomplaining audiences with plenty of better options. McKellen still delivers a solid performance as Andrew Charleson, the boss of Susan's husband at his government job, though his brief time in the film isn't enough for us to wholeheartedly recommend this one.

40. Emile

Though McKellen's more serious roles are often the ones that earn him the most praise, simply having the prolific actor in a starring role doesn't always spell success. Such is the case with the 2003 film "Emile," which suffers from its story being told in a way that feels repetitive and manages to negate all the tension you would hope for it to have.

Returning to his childhood home, McKellen's Emile finds himself reflecting on the circumstances that drove him away years ago. Mistreatment from his family was one reason, but his own selfishness was just as responsible for his absence. Now that it's too late for him to right all his wrongs, he tries to pick up the pieces and salvage what little he has left.

Despite its issues, McKellen's not one to deliver a lousy performance, and the one on display in "Emile" definitely isn't half bad. That being said, the legendary actor in the lead role still isn't enough to save this one from middling ratings.

39. X-Men: The Last Stand

Undoubtedly one of McKellen's most famous roles is that of the X-Men's arch-nemesis Magneto. And though fans can debate whether he or Michael Fassbender portrayed the character better, it can't be denied that McKellen did a phenomenal job providing the level of depth needed to make Magneto's character believable. Still, his performance is just one component of a sprawling ensemble franchise, and it's not enough to prevent "X-Men: The Last Stand" from being the weakest of the three in the series.

The events of the film are kicked off after the discovery of a young boy who researchers announce possesses the key to "curing" mutants. Conflict between the mutants immediately emerges, with Magneto leading the charge against what he considers to be tantamount to genocide. While the concept for the third film isn't bad, it's in the execution where everything falls apart. Marvel was able to balance an ensemble cast effectively in later films like "Captain America: Civil War" and "Avengers: Infinity War," but key details of the plot fall to the wayside in this one, and prevent it from telling as impactful of a message as the other entries in the series.

38. The Priest of Love

Far from his roles in big-budget action flicks, McKellen took on a much more subdued role as the star of this 1981 period piece. Set amidst the earliest days of World War I, the English writer D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda find themselves engaged in a battle within their own community: Not against any members of the Central Powers, but against those within English society who view Lawrence's work as morally reprehensible. Combined with the hostile attitudes towards Germans at the time, which prove to be problematic due to Frieda's own heritage, they choose to begin a journey across Europe and the Americas in hope of finding a life of peace and solitude. Sadly, however, they discover that trouble seems to find them one way or another, no matter how far they run.

More or less true to the real-life experiences of the English writer, that historical accuracy comes with a fair share of dull moments. And though it lacks the same flashy battles and exciting sequences from some of McKellen's best-known titles, that's not exactly a detriment to the film's quality. Touching and at times equally poignant, "The Priest of Love" is a slow-moving film that will likely be enjoyed by equally patient viewers.

37. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Arguably the most iconic role McKellen has had over the course of his long career is his performance as the wizard Gandalf. (And given the quality of some of his best work, that's saying something.) To be fair though, that distinction was owed much more to the successes of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and a lot less to the adaptation of Tolkien's novel "The Hobbit" that followed some years later.

The final entry in the "Hobbit" trilogy, "The Hobbit: The Battles of the Five Armies" picks up in the immediate aftermath of the second film, opening with Smaug the dragon laying waste to the nearby village of Laketown. With Smaug soon slain, the horde of treasure he leaves behind becomes the object of everyone's desire, with a massive battle waged by the five armies, all hoping to claim it for themselves. And while the film takes a step backwards when compared to the other two entries in the trilogy, it is still a satisfying conclusion to the series, even if it pales in comparison to "Lord of the Rings."

36. Alfred the Great

One of McKellen's earliest film releases, the legendary actor has just a small role in "Alfred the Great." Set towards the end of the 9th century, a Viking invasion of England is repulsed by Alfred the Great before his succession to the throne. In a reign marked by conflict, the Vikings aren't the only foe Alfred faces: The nobility disapproves of many of the king's new ideas, threatening to upend the entire kingdom if they fail to rally against their common enemy.

Though he barely appears in this historical film, McKellen plays a nonetheless important role as the leader of a group of bandits who provide Alfred the Great with a place to stay during tensions with the nobility. Despite the young actor's contributions, this is one entry that isn't remembered too fondly. "Alfred the Great" is bogged down by a number of dull scenes that make this film a bit of trudge to get through.

35. A Touch of Love

Sometimes big movie stars are lucky enough to have their talents gain widespread recognition with their debut feature. Typically though, it takes a lot of hard work and even more time for an actor to become an established name — this is certainly the case with Ian McKellen. Released in 1969, "A Touch of Love" was the first theatrically released film that featured McKellen. If you look past the significance of its subject matter, his debut film is fairly middle of the road when compared to his best work.

Centered around a college-age woman in late '60s Britain, Rosamund Stacey's promising life as a student runs into an unexpected obstacle when she finds herself pregnant by McKellen's George Matthews. The typical sort of melodrama you might expect from this premise is cast aside, however, and the film instead takes a look at the challenges she faces with the dilemma of being pregnant out of wedlock. And though this one does wind up feeling a bit dull at times, it nonetheless foreshadows some of the more socially relevant films that McKellen would play a part in during his extensive acting career.

34. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

When it was first announced that the land of Middle Earth would be revisited through a film adaptation of "The Hobbit," fans were abuzz with excitement, to say the least. Even better, Academy Award-winning director Peter Jackson would again be in charge, practically guaranteeing the films to be a smash hit. And though it, unfortunately, didn't ultimately pan out quite as well as we had all hoped, there's still enough in "The Hobbit" trilogy for avid fans of Tolkien to enjoy.

Revisiting the iconic Shire, the film is presented as a retelling of Bilbo's adventures across Middle Earth years prior to the events of "Lord of the Rings." When introduced to a band of dwarves by his friend Gandalf, Bilbo is roped into going along with them on their journey. Led by their king, the dwarves hope to reclaim a horde of treasure stolen from them years ago by the dragon Smaug. With generally positive reviews from critics and fans alike, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a solid jumping-off point for a fairly inconsistent trilogy.

33. Countdown to War

Whether he's a powerful wizard or a talking cat, McKellen has proven himself to be an actor with an incredible range. There's seemingly no role he can't perform well, even if that role happens to be portraying one of the most heinous figures ever known. As the name implies, "Countdown to War" follows the events that unfolded as the world inched closer to the deadliest conflict in history.

The film shifts narratives between many of the most important figures at the time, with McKellen's performance as Adolf Hitler taking center stage. The likes of Neville Chamberlain, Józef Beck, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin also have key roles as the leaders all try to anticipate each other's next move in the tense months to come. Though it's a story many of us are familiar with, "Countdown to War" still delivers a compelling retelling of the events before World War II broke out with as little deviation from the facts as possible.

32. Zina

Not to be confused with the exploits of a certain warrior princess, the 1985 drama "Zina" would see McKellen in a starring role alongside Italian actress Domiziana Giordana. Another piece to be set in the years leading up to World War II, this one tells the much more subdued story of the final years of the life of Leon Trotsky's daughter, Zina Bronstein.

Due to her father's exile, the daughter of the prominent revolutionary is herself unable to return to their home country of the Soviet Union. The German capital that she now calls home doesn't prove to be much friendlier to her either, as the impending rise of fascism makes Zina an obvious target due to her own Marxist beliefs. Amidst the many potential threats cropping up around her, she regresses into a state of total delusion, believing herself to be the figure Antigone from Greek mythology. Now being treated by McKellen's Professor Kronfield, she reminisces about her relationship with her father while her condition gradually worsens. Towards the middle of our list, "Zina" might be a good fit for hardcore history buffs looking for something new.

31. The Good Liar

One of the most recent picks on our list, this R-rated thriller sees McKellen star as Roy Courtnay, a professional British swindler who specializes in separating the wealthy from their cash. A master of his craft with many previous victims, one final score is the last thing between him and a lavish life of luxury. And when Roy discovers that the widowed Betty McLeish is sitting on a fortune that numbers in the millions, he begins to concoct one last scheme to rob her blind.

Gradually gaining her trust and manipulating her finances is abhorrent enough, but when one of Roy's criminal associates crosses him, we see firsthand just how far he's willing to go to accomplish his goals. And while the plan to rob Betty was already complex enough, pretty soon it becomes clear that Roy is hiding a lot more than we thought, and not just from his latest target. Full of twists and turns, nothing is as it seems in "The Good Liar," making it one of the most elaborately plotted films on our list.

30. The Promise

Based on a play of the same name, "The Promise" is another one of McKellen's earliest films, released in 1969. It also has the distinction of being the first time McKellen would star in a film adaptation of his previous work on stage.

Set during the prolonged and bloody siege of the Soviet city of Leningrad during the Second World War, the film is centered around three teenagers trying to survive amidst the carnage. A love triangle emerges between the trio, which comes to an abrupt end once the two young men, Leonidik and Marat, grow into fighting age. As the war finally comes to a close, only McKellen's Leonidik returns from the front, promptly marrying the love he left behind. When an unexpected old friend arrives home one day, though, their situation becomes more complex than ever. Told in three distinct segments, "The Promise" is a great pick for fans of history and McKellen's work alike, and is well worth watching if you can track down this elusive piece of film history.

29. Edward II

Continuing the exploration of McKellen's earliest works, the TV movie "Edward II" carries some extra significance when looked at from the perspective of the prolific actor's personal life. McKellen would star in this one as the real-life historical figure of King Edward II, who reigned as king of England in the early 13th century. The monarch causes a stir amongst the nobility after he rescinds the banishment of Piers Gaveston, who just so happens to be Edward's close friend and, many medieval sources allege, his romantic partner.

McKellen, who has made advocating for LGBT+ rights an important aspect of his public image, took the role nearly two decades before coming out in 1988. And with the number of his other films that would follow exploring similar themes, as well as his continued history of activism, this unassuming TV movie from the early '70s marks an early stepping stone in McKellen's continued career of excellence.

28. Restoration

Robert Downey Jr. took on the star role as Doctor Robert Merivel in "Restoration," an Academy Award-winning period piece. Falling into the good graces of King Charles II, Merivel is offered the opportunity to marry one of the monarch's many mistresses. Though the marriage is in reality a sham, and the two are forbidden from having a sexual relationship, it serves the needs of all involved: The king can keep his mistress nearby, and Merivel can maintain a comfortable life of luxury. After accepting the King's proposition, however, Merivel finds it harder to resist temptation than he thought.

Though the audience response was lukewarm, critics recognized this forbidden love story as worthy of attention. Roger Ebert praised the performances in "Restoration" as anything but dry in his 1996 review, stating that, "The people in this film occupy a world of unlimited choice, playing flamboyant roles, relishing in theatricality, mixing science with superstition, discovery with depravity. And by capturing that energy, 'Restoration' avoids the pitfalls of pious historical reconstructions and plunges right into the cauldron." And though this is decidedly a picture dominated by Robert Downey Jr.'s lead performance, McKellen never fails to disappoint in his role as Will Gates, one of Merivel's servants during his days of opulence and splendor.

27. All Is True

Whether on stage or on the silver screen, many of McKellen's best performances over the years have been retellings of the works of William Shakespeare. And though he wasn't cast as the legendary English playwright himself in this one, the 2018 film "All Is True" sees him portray a significant figure in Shakespeare's life: the Earl of Southampton, one of his artistic patrons. Set during the twilight years of Shakespeare's life and beginning with the destruction of the Globe Theatre, the film examines the relationship between Shakespeare and the family that he sidelined for so long in the name of his art.

The loss of the theatre leaves him with no choice but to return home and confront his neglected wife and children. With his wife Anne still traumatized from the loss of their son years ago, the arrival of an old friend of the playwright, played by McKellen, only further tests the couple's marriage. Although the film is firmly in the realm of historical fiction, it's still an engaging pick for devoted fans of Shakespeare and history buffs alike.

26. Macbeth

Leaving the pages of history and entering those of Shakespeare's work, "Macbeth" is the perfect example of McKellen's skills in the medium of theatre. This 1979 TV movie blurred the line between stage and cinema, little more than a recorded version of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of one of his most iconic works. However, that shouldn't deter viewers from giving this one a try, as any opportunity to see McKellen's talents on stage is worth seizing.

McKellen stars as Macbeth, an ambitious Scottish general who is visited by three witches on a gloomy night. As they prophesize his eventual ascension to the throne, Macbeth becomes consumed by a lust for power that ultimately proves to be his downfall. And despite the seemingly endless iterations of the play, McKellen's version of "Macbeth" deserves to be remembered as one of the best renditions of this classic story.

25. Jack and Sarah

A married couple with a baby on the way is a typical setup for lighthearted fun, but this fairly run-of-the-mill rom-com gets off to a rough start when the expectant family is rocked by tragedy. Jack's wife Sarah dies in childbirth, resulting in a downward spiral of excessive alcohol use for the grieving widower, played by Richard E. Grant. The responsibility of caring for his newborn daughter falls on the rest of Jack's family, who ultimately decide to use her as a tool to help him turn his life around. And despite the depressing setup, "Jack and Sarah" does ease up from there.

Ditching the bottle and learning how to become a loving father takes time, but Jack relies on William (Ian McKellen) for support and a bit of comic relief. Previously a heavy drinker and a drifter, William also undergoes a quest for sobriety that ends with him essentially becoming the family's butler.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

24. Bent

Amidst the seemingly endless stories of hardship and atrocities that consumed the globe during the Second World War, it's easy for some pages of history to fall out of the public consciousness. And though some of the greatest war films ever made focus on key battles, equally as important are the ones that shine a light on less-discussed struggles that ordinary people had to endure.

Following the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, the brutal campaign of subjugating those that the party believed to be undesirable came into full effect. In Berlin, a gay man named Max is forced to flee the city with his partner in an effort to evade the violence consuming the city. When the pair are captured, however, Max's own sense of identity is put to the ultimate test. McKellen plays Max's Uncle Freddie, who offers his nephew a path to freedom at the high price of leaving his partner behind. And though his role in this one is relatively minor, "Bent" remains one of the most meaningful films of McKellen's career.

23. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The middle entry of "The Hobbit" trilogy is widely regarded as the best of the three, coming the closest to the enchanting Middle Earth magic that we fell in love with in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Continuing on their journey to reach the Lonely Mountain, the danger for the gang ramps up as they're closely pursued by orcs and elves alike.

The second film in the saga, although overall quite good, has its share of ups and downs. Some of the most memorable moments in this entry are undoubtedly found in Bilbo's interactions with Smaug, which are some of the best scenes in all of Tolkien's film adaptations. The introduction of Legolas into the series was notably a point of contention, as astute fans can point to his absence from the original novel. And of course, McKellen again contributes a rock-solid performance as Gandalf the Grey, proving himself to be the only actor who has the necessary presence to bring the character to life.

22. Walter

Released in 1982, this TV movie would star Ian McKellen as the titular Walter, a young man in mid-20th century England who has a learning disability. Despite his parents' best efforts to help him succeed, their tragic passing results in Walter being put in the hands of social services, who seem content to let him disappear into a psychiatric hospital. While there, he comes face-to-face with a government institution that has fallen into disrepair and is forced to endure the poor living conditions that permeate the facility.

Confronting real-world issues is never something McKellen has been afraid to do with his work, and "Walter" is yet another example of this in practice. The film challenged audiences to ask uncomfortable questions about society's treatment of people with intellectual disabilities, and as such, deserves to be remembered among some of McKellen's more frequently discussed titles.

21. Walter and June

Continuing the story of Walter's life, the sequel "Walter and June" picks up nearly two decades later from where the first film left off. Still living in the psychiatric hospital, Walter falls in love with a fellow patient at the facility named June. Their shared connection leads them to imagine what life would be like on the outside, and the pair eventually begin to plot their escape from the facility. If the first film taught us anything, though, it's that not every story has a fairy tale ending, with "Walter and June" being no exception.

Though the pair of films may be tough to find nowadays, they're wholly worth the watch to experience one of McKellen's most underrated performances. A third film titled "Loving Walter" was also released that combined and condensed the events of the first two films, and remains an option for viewers looking to give these titles a try.

20. Infinitum: Subject Unknown

One of Ian McKellen's most recent films, "Infinitum: Subject Unknown," begins with a woman named Jane waking up bound and gagged in the attic of a home with no memory of how she got there. Once she finally breaks free from her constraints, she arrives right back in the attic where she started. We discover that she's trapped in a much darker version of the comedy classic "Groundhog Day," forced to repeat the same steps over and over again while trying to inch towards freedom. And while the suburban town she finds herself in seems abandoned, she soon learns that a select few people know the truth about her situation.

Though this one definitely has some budget constraints, shot entirely on an iPhone, the exciting premise shines through and makes "Infinitum: Subject Unknown" a hidden gem. And though McKellen's cameo as the mysterious Dr. Charles White gets less screen time than many of his other films, it's still great to see him in a compelling sci-fi thriller.

19. King Lear

We weren't exaggerating when we said that McKellen's Shakespeare adaptations were among his best works. And for the accomplished actor, they are also some of the most frequent projects he takes on. Once again cast in the starring role of a Shakespearean play, this time McKellen shows off his acting prowess as Lear. One of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, "King Lear" tells the story of an aging monarch whose sanity and strength fail him amidst a rash of betrayals within the royal family.

In another recording of a Royal Shakespeare Company production, the set design is predictably sparse for this one. We wouldn't call it a flaw, though, as it allows audiences to focus their attention solely on the incredible performances by the actors on stage. For avid fans of Shakespeare, this production of "King Lear" is a must-watch. And for those simply looking to fully explore McKellen's filmography, it shouldn't be missed.

18. The Ballad of Little Jo

McKellen would go all the way back to the Wild West for "The Ballad of Little Jo," a 1993 period piece with an unconventional take on its equally unconventional protagonist. After giving birth to a child out of wedlock, Josephine Monaghan loses both her status and home when her parents kick her out. As difficult as that would be for anyone nowadays, the time period makes it practically impossible for her to make it on her own without involving herself with some unsavory characters. With no one left to turn to, Josephine decides to completely reinvent herself in the West.

Donning men's clothes and a gruff voice to boot, she takes on the identity of Jo in the hopes of blending in better and carving out a hardscrabble life as a rancher. And while altering her appearance is easy enough, the true grit of the West proves to be a harder obstacle to overcome.

Not often discussed in conversations regarding the best of the Western genre, "The Ballad of Little Jo" is an underrated entry packed with emotion and drama. And though portraying the villain isn't anything out of the ordinary for McKellen, his character of Percy Corcoran in this 1993 film is definitely one of the most heinous he's played so far.

17. The Tragedy of King Richard II

The best of several stage productions to be transferred to film, "The Tragedy of King Richard II" would showcase the very greatest of McKellen's theatrical skills, recreating the experience of seeing him live. Breaking from the fictional and fantastical, this Shakespeare play follows the life of King Richard II of England and the reckless steps he would take that would ultimately unseat him from the throne. With some of Shakespeare's most famous works being tragedies, it makes sense that his historical works would touch upon many of the same themes.

Everything we said about McKellen's previous stage to film pieces such as "Macbeth" and "King Lear" applies here, so don't go into this one anticipating the same visual feast as some of McKellen's big budget epics. That said, true enthusiasts of McKellen's acting prowess will find a lot to enjoy from taking a look at any of his stage recordings, especially one that comes so early on in his career.

16. Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny

Remembered nowadays for a catchy disco song named in his honor, Grigori Rasputin may have been one of the most eccentric figures in Russian history – in both life and death. The master of mysticism gained a reputation for being an invincible force, which is fully explored in "Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny." Focusing on the twilight years of the holy man's life, this 1996 historical drama sees fellow Shakespearean actor Alan Rickman in the titular role with McKellen co-starring as Nicholas II.

When the tsar of Russia's son is struck with illness, none of the leading doctors at the time can seem to cure him. Willing to try anything, the royal family seek the assistance of Rasputin, whose alleged powers result in the boy's speedy recovery. Fully believing in the apparent miracles that Rasputin can achieve, he rises to become one of the most trusted advisors to Tsar Nicholas II. As any history buff is well aware, though, tragedy lurks on the horizon for the royal family and all their associates.

Though it isn't afraid to play into certain beliefs surrounding its historical inspiration, this one still keeps enough of the facts intact to not feel inaccurate. And with solid performances and visuals, "Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny" is a great pick for casual fans of history and experts alike.

15. Cold Comfort Farm

One of the top-rated comedies on our list, "Cold Comfort Farm" is inspired by a novel of the same name, and is also one of the first films in Kate Beckinsale's career. The fish out of water romp is told through the eyes of Beckinsale's Flora Poste, an inexperienced author who's forced to find a new place to call home after the untimely passing of her parents. After weighing her options, the recently orphaned Poste ultimately decides to settle with the estranged Starkadders, whose oddball personalities and rural way of life couldn't be more different from her own city-dwelling demeanor.

Released in 1932, the original novel that serves as the film's basis was a riff on the literary trend at the time of so-called "rural fiction," which was coincidentally popularized by D.H. Lawrence. Unlike his time portraying the writer in "The Priest of Love," though, McKellen strikes gold with his portrayal of Amos Starkadder in "Cold Comfort Farm," whose eccentric preaching only adds to the Starkadder family's absurdity. Remembered fondly for its sardonic humor and great performances, this 1995 comedy would rank far closer to the top if we were discussing anything but the works of Ian McKellen on this list.

14. X-Men

The first film adaptation of "X-Men" kicked the franchise off on the right foot, staying true to the tone of the source material and retaining many of the same themes as the comics. Some of the most memorable cast members such as Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman worked alongside McKellen to truly bring the characters to life, and can be credited with making the series as a whole work as well as it did.

In a bold decision that would foreshadow the moodier stories the "X-Men" franchise would tackle, the film opens during the closing days of the Second World War. From there, the world of mutants and their relation to humanity at large is fully explored, as is their nemesis Magneto's belief that the two dominant groups of mutants can never coexist. Though the series is not without its misses, "X-Men" is one of many hits over the years that have helped the films become an enduring favorite for fans of Marvel comics and films alike.

13. X2: X-Men United

Picking up soon after the events of the first film, Xavier's mission once again becomes an object of national scrutiny when a rogue mutant is responsible for an attack on the White House. Led by Army Colonel William Stryker, a team is sent in to raid Xavier's mansion and kidnap many of its members, with Professor X among them. The lucky few mutants that manage to evade capture regroup, hoping to uncover the truth behind Colonel Stryker and free their fellow mutants. With their numbers greatly depleted and lacking Professor X's guidance, though, they are left with little choice but to turn to their recently imprisoned nemesis Magneto to try and stop an even greater threat. 

Right in the middle of the original "X-Men" trilogy, "X2: X-Men United" isn't bogged down by any of the problems that afflicted some of the other films. Each of the wide array of characters are handled with care, and it fully delivers the emotional themes and real world allegories that fans of "X-Men" have come to expect. Plus, some truly brutal action sequences round this one out as a worthy sequel and a timeless classic for any comic book fan.

12. Mr. Holmes

When it comes to the past few years, the quality of the films McKellen's been in can be a bit hit or miss. His portrayal of the iconic detective in "Mr. Holmes," however, proved that the prolific actor hasn't lost his touch. The same can't be said for the hero of our film, though, as an aging Holmes battles his own failing memory as he tries to recall some of his greatest exploits.

The now-retired detective disagrees with his old partner Watson's account of one of their many cases, and hopes to set the record straight. His difficulty in accurately retelling the tale proves harder than he expected, with Holmes ultimately being forced to rely on the people around him to help him fill in the blanks. While it lacks the suspense and thrills we've grown to love from series like "Sherlock," "Mr. Holmes" more than makes up for it with a phenomenally acted and at times somber character drama in which the mysteries on screen are gradually solved through flashbacks.

11. Six Degrees of Separation

Getting the lead role in the '90s classic "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" was the key to making Will Smith a household name. During his six years on the show, Smith also found time to star in a few feature films along the way, with this 1993 drama being one of the very first to his name. Funnily enough, it also ended up being one of the best flicks that the Fresh Prince would star in, nearly 30 years on.

Set in the upper crust neighborhood of '90s New York City, Smith's character of Paul fits right in. With a taste for the finer things in life and a smooth talking personality to match, he finds it almost too easy to integrate himself into the lives of the city's elite. Unbeknownst to his newfound acquaintances, though, Paul's been putting up a facade the whole time he's been around them, with the end goal being to hustle and con them out of as much as he can. And while it is decidedly a Will Smith movie, McKellen does have a memorable supporting role as an old friend of the family Paul plans to scam.

10. The Scarlet Pimpernel

Set during some of the goriest days in French history, the grisly machine known as the guillotine found itself a common sight in everyday life. At the time "The Scarlet Pimpernel" takes place, the French Revolution has been raging for years, with the so-called "Reign of Terror" responsible for countless deaths at the hands of the newly formed Committee of Public Safety. Amidst the continued slaughter of the French aristocracy, their only hope for survival lies in the hands of the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel. Along with a handful of allies, the elusive figure tries to save as many lives as possible before they fall victim to the violent fervor that's gripped the nation.

The Scarlet Pimpernel cannot operate with reckless abandon, however, as McKellen's Paul Chauvelin is hot on his heels. A senior member of the Committee of Public Safety, Chauvelin is looking to track down the Pimpernel and reveal his identity to the world. Dramatic, full of action, and with some surprising comedic moments, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is one of McKellen's best films and one of the most fun to watch.

9. X-Men: Days of Future Past

After focusing on other projects at the time that "X-Men: The Last Stand" was in development and taking a decade-long break from the franchise, Bryan Singer would again take the helm in 2014 for the release of "X-Men: Days of Future Past." And despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the longtime "X-Men" director, critics and fans still agree that this one ranks among the best in the franchise.

The only entry outside of the original trilogy to feature McKellen, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" explores some awesome time travel themes as we watch Wolverine get sent into the past to prevent a newfound threat called the Sentinels from exterminating mutants in the future. To do that, though, he has no choice but to try and convince Magneto and Professor X to unite for the greater good. Some time travel hijinks combine with a new look at familiar characters, with the end result being some of the best storytelling that the "X-Men" series had to offer. (That is, at least until "Logan" came along.)

8. Scandal

Though it differs in some details, "Scandal" is heavily inspired by the true-to-life Profumo affair, which sent shockwaves throughout the British government at the time. Beginning with her introduction to Stephen Ward, a member of Britain's upper crust with a number of powerful connections, a young woman named Christine Keeler finds herself at the center of international controversy. After she is revealed to have been involved in an affair with married Secretary of War John Profumo, the domestic disaster turns into a question of national security when it's discovered that he wasn't the only prominent figure to have taken an interest in Keeler.

Despite the complex nature of the Profumo Affair, as well as its far-reaching ramifications that are still felt today, "Scandal" manages to present all sides of the issue in a wholly entertaining way. McKellen plays John Profumo himself, whose career as the Secretary of State for War in the British government collapses, thanks to his involvement in a salacious affair. And though the events depicted in "Scandal" are decades old, the issues presented and the more profound questions they pose are still just as relevant some 60 years on.

7. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Now that we've gotten the other Tolkien trilogy out of the way, we can get started on what just about everyone agrees is the better of the two: "The Lord of the Rings." A renewed search for the One Ring, an object imbued with the power of the Dark Lord Sauron, is enveloping Middle Earth in darkness. The only way in which the powerful object can be destroyed and prevent Sauron's rise is by casting it into the fires of Mount Doom, where it was initially created.

Fortunately for our heroes, the One Ring, which was thought to be lost forever, is in the hands of Frodo, an unassuming Hobbit living an equally simple life in the peaceful land of the Shire. The challenge, however, will be to trek across a perilous landscape between the Shire and Mount Doom, which is filled with the Dark Lord's minions vying to steal the ring back. Easily one of the best films for any fan of fantasy, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" gets the series off to a great start, and is the first part of a rare trilogy where its sequels just kept getting better. It also has arguably one of McKellen's most iconic moments across his entire career, standing his ground against the demonic Balrog deep within the mines of Moria to guarantee the survival of the Fellowship.

6. Richard III

The very best of the Shakespeare retellings we'll be discussing, the creators of "Richard III" weren't afraid to change up a thing or two for this 1995 adaptation of the famous play. Set in a '30s Britain with a nightmarish alternate history twist, the island nation is now consumed by civil war and the looming threat of fascism. McKellen stars as the titular member of the royal family, whose murderous ambitions see him stealing the throne and shrouding the country with his oppressive rule.

Though the idea of adapting the works of Shakespeare and bringing them forward into a modern setting is certainly nothing new, "Richard III" might just be one of the best examples of how it should be done. Preserving the main beats of the original work while adding something new worked perfectly, and has made this pick an enduring favorite for just about any type of viewer.

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The middle entry of the fellowship's journey across Middle Earth, "The Two Towers" winds up being the second best in the series. Picking up from where "The Fellowship of the Ring" left off, our plucky band of heroes find themselves battered by the first leg of their journey. Worse still, the dark forces of Sauron are tightening their grip on Middle Earth as they win ground and inch closer to the scattered fellowship by the day.

Continuing the standard of quality set by the first film, the second helps to cement "The Lord of the Rings" series as one of the premier examples of a fantasy world done right. Some of the best moments in this one include Gandalf's triumphant return from his duel with the Balrog, as well as the gloomy and blood-stained battle of Helm's Deep. Plus, the continued character development amongst the protagonists and the introduction of Gollum to the story give us a much deeper emotional connection to the events on screen.

4. Gods and Monsters

Known for creating some of the most classic monster movies in Hollywood, such as "Frankenstein" and "The Invisible Man," director James Whale undoubtedly left his mark on cinema history. Beyond the glamour of his career, however, some of the more troublesome aspects of his life are central to the events of "Gods and Monsters." Taking a look at the director's twilight years, McKellen portrays a Whale haunted by memories of his past that consume his everyday life, while simultaneously trying to come to terms with his own failings.

Given the time period, Whale's open homosexuality is one of the biggest challenges he faces, as is his rapidly declining health. When a man much younger than Whale becomes the object of his unrequited affection, he is launched further into a downward spiral after his advances are repeatedly rebuked. While the film takes more than a few creative liberties for the sake of storytelling, it is nonetheless a compelling character drama with McKellen's portrayal of the fading artist ranking among his greatest career performances.

3. And the Band Played On

While some of McKellen's more fantastical and lighthearted films McKellen are fondly remembered by audiences, the prolific actor has never shied away from taking on roles that are much more grounded in reality. His 1993 film "And the Band Played On" is one of the best examples of this, which chronicles the events surrounding the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic.

Adapted from a nonfiction book of the same name, the film follows the exploits of real-life epidemiologist Don Francis as he works to uncover the then-unknown cause of the AIDS epidemic. His studies initially yield promising results, but conflicting viewpoints at the time become obstacles in both his and other researchers' attempts to learn the truth. The only support Francis finds is in a small number of individuals who can see the merit of his work, such as McKellen's Bill Kraus, a leading advocate for LGBT rights and AIDS research. The important nature of the subject matter makes this one of the most relevant and impactful entries in McKellen's career, and one that shouldn't be missed.

2. The Dresser

Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins join forces on this 2015 drama, with the end result being one of the best films in both actors' respective careers. Set during the London Blitz, the film provides a counterpoint to the wide-reaching scope of the conflict by confining its setting entirely within a London playhouse, allowing the intimate character drama to shine through. In that same playhouse, McKellen's character of Norman works as a stagehand for Sir, an aging Shakespearean actor played by Hopkins, as the two reflect on what it means to be an artist.

Both poignant moments and more comedic ones help to keep the film's tone balanced, and overall incredible performances by the film's two leads make "The Dresser" an understated gem in McKellen's filmography. And with an added sense of relevance, thanks to McKellen's own storied history when it comes to the works of Shakespeare, it's easy to see why this is regarded as one of his best films to date.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The very best title in McKellen's decades-long filmography is none other than the third and final entry in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The epic conclusion to the saga won an incredible 11 Academy Awards following its release, and if those accolades weren't enough, the film grossed over $1 billion upon release, making it one of the most successful films of all time.

It's hard to pick out just one or two things we love about this one, as the entirety of "The Return of the King" is an absolute tour de force in filmmaking. Nonetheless, the dramatic final fight at Minas Tirith is one of the greatest pitched battles committed to film. And in a title packed with nightmarish villains, the giant spider Shelob and the Nazgûl Witch King are some of the most terrifying.

Above all, McKellen's continued and incredible performance as Gandalf is matched by practically every other cast member, making "The Return of the King" a near flawless film, in our opinion, and one that likely won't be surpassed anytime soon.