7 best comeback movies ever, ranked

John Travolta and Uma Thurman twist and shake onstage.
Miramax Films

Hollywood loves a good comeback. The industry that transforms actors and directors into giant stars will also facilitate their downfall. One mistake, and it’s back to the bottom of the heap. J.J. Abrams, a massively talented writer and director, has not directed a film since the reviled Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Taylor Kitsch has not had top billing in a movie since a pair of massive flops from 2012: John Carter and Battleship. The film industry can be ruthless and cutthroat.

Hollywood rarely offers second chances. However, there are some notable examples of success stories for the actors and directors who receive the opportunity to make a comeback. Several resurgences led to Oscar wins, while others revitalized actors’ status as top stars. We’ve ranked the seven best comeback movies for actors and directors.

7. Birdman (Michael Keaton)

Michael Keaton being followed by a man in a bird costume in a scene from Birdman.
Searchlight Pictures

Who doesn’t like Michael Keaton? The actor won over audiencesthanks to his charm and comedic timing in the 1980s with roles in Night Shift, Mr. Mom, and Beetlejuice. Keaton’s career reached new heights in 1989 when he starred as Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s Batman. Keaton’s stoic interpretation of the titular superhero in Batman and Batman Returns is considered one of the best portrayals of the caped crusader.

Keaton remained active for the next 20-plus years as he transitioned to supporting roles in the 2000s. Ironically, Keaton experienced a career resurgence in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as Riggan Thomson, a declining actor who once played a popular superhero and who is hoping for a shot at redemption as the star of a Broadway play. It’s a plot that shares many similarities with Keaton’s career. Unsurprisingly, Keaton gives a career-best performance as Riggan that resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Rent or buy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) on Prime Video, YouTube, Google, and Apple.

6. John Wick (Keanu Reeves)

John Wick holds a grenade launcher while standing on a car.
Summit Entertainment

Keanu Reeves is one of the unlikeliest action stars to come out of the 1990s. At a time when Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Steven Seagal relied on their physicality, Reeves leaned into a quieter, more vulnerable presence. This everyman persona ignited Reeves’s action career in Point Break and Speed before he became an international superstar in The Matrix. Yet, Reeves’s luster wore off post-Matrix trilogy, culminating in 2013’s 47 Ronin, a critical failure and box office bomb.

In 2014, Reeves starred in John Wick as the titular assassin, who returns to the criminal underworld to seek revenge on the thugs who stole his car and killed his dog. Backed by magnificent stunt work, John Wick was instantly beloved by action fans. The character was a return to form for Reeves, who thrives as a no-nonsense protagonist. Three John Wick movies later, Reeves is back on top of the action world, just like he was in 1999.

Stream John Wick on Peacock.

5. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier)

Pam Grier as Jackie Brown behind the wheel of a car in Jackie Brown.
Image via Miramax

In the 1970s, Pam Grier became a household name for her work in blaxploitation films, including Coffy and Foxy Brown. Grier was relegated to supporting roles in the 1980s, with her biggest hit part coming in 1988’s Above the Law starring Steven Seagal. It was not until 1997’s Jackie Brown that Grier returned to top billing for the first time in over 20 years.

Quentin Tarantino knew Grier was a star; she only needed the right part, similar to how Tarantino felt about John Travolta when casting for Pulp Fiction. Tarantino persuaded Grier to play the title character in Jackie Brown, his homage to blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Grier lights up the screen as the confident and charismatic Jackie Brown. For her excellent work, Grier received a nomination for Best Actress at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards.

Stream Jackie Brown on Tubi and Peacock.

4. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck)

Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck looking in the same direction in the movie Gone Baby Gone.
Miramax Films

Ben Affleck was destined for stardom from a young age. After winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting, Affleck became one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood, with leading roles in ArmageddonPearl Harbor, and The Sum of All Fears. Because of his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, Affleck became a tabloid sensation with constant attention from the paparazzi. Unfortunately, the increased attention hurt Affleck’s mental well-being and career, with 2003’s Gigli being the movie that sank his status as Hollywood royalty.

With nowhere to go but up, Affleck stepped behind the camera, making a decision that would shape the rest of his career. In 2007, Affleck directed and co-wrote Gone Baby Gone, a Boston crime thriller about a private detective’s (Casey Affleck) search for a missing girl. The film was lauded by critics, who were impressed with Affleck’s terrific direction. Gone Baby Gone became step one of a three-part comeback. Step two was The Town, which proved Affleck could be a commercial director. The third and final step was Argo, the dramatic thriller that won the 2013 Oscar for Best Picture, the cherry on top of Affleck’s remarkable resurgence.

Stream Gone Baby Gone on Pluto TV.

3. Pulp Fiction (John Travolta)

John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson Jackson as Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield aiming guns in the same direction in the film Pulp Fiction.
Image via Miramax Films

In the late 1970s, John Travolta was arguably the biggest star on the planet. Travolta starred in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, two gigantic hits that were the two highest-grossing films domestically over the eight-month span in which they were released, a rare feat that no actor matched for over 40 years until Timothée Chalamet accomplished it with Wonka and Dune: Part Two.

Yet, the 1980s were unkind to Travolta because of several critical misfires, including Two of a Kind, Perfect, and Staying Alive. After the success of Look Who’s Talking in the late 1980s, Travolta won the role of Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s hit Pulp Fiction. Despite his career downturn, Tarantino knew that Travolta was still a superstar. “It’s only stupid Hollywood that doesn’t realize it,” Tarantino said about casting Travolta on the podcast 2 Bears, 1 Cave. Tarantino was right, as Travolta earned some of the best reviews of his career in Pulp Fiction. Travolta received a Best Actor nomination at the 1995 Oscars, catapulting him to a Hollywood upturn for the rest of the decade.

Stream Pulp Fiction on Max.

2. Everything Everywhere All at Once (Ke Huy Quan)

Ke Huy Quan stands in an alley in Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Allyson Riggs / A24

Does any child actor have a better start to their career than Ke Huy Quan? At age 12, Quan starred as Short Round in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The following year, Quan played the memorable role of Richard “Data” Wang in The Goonies. Yet, over the next 15 years, Quan struggled to book roles, with his most significant appearance coming in 1992’s Encino Man. Quan eventually quit acting in the early 2000s and worked behind the scenes as a stunt choreographer and assistant director for the next two decades.

In 2022, Quan returned triumphantly to acting in Everything Everywhere All at Once, the sci-fi multiversal adventure that changed his life. Quan plays Waymond Wang, the meek, kind husband to Evelyn (Michele Yeoh). Quan’s sympathetic and spirited portrayal of Waymond received universal praise. Quan won nearly every major supporting acting award from critics, highlighted by an emotional victory for Best Supporting Actor at the 2023 Oscars.

Stream Everything Everywhere All at Once on Netflix.

1. The Whale (Brendan Fraser)

Brendan Fraser smiles in The Whale.

Brendan Fraser became one of Hollywood’s most recognizable leading men in the 1990s and early 2000s. After his breakthrough roles in 1992’s Encino Man and School Ties, Fraser transformed into a global action star with his role as Rick O’Connell in The Mummy trilogy. After 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor failed with critics and audiences, Fraser’s career began to decline, leading to a hiatus in the mid-2010s due to a variety of issues.

After appearing in several supporting roles on television, Fraser received his big break in 2022’s The Whale. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, The Whale stars Fraser as Charlie, a morbidly obese English teacher on his deathbed who attempts to reconcile with his young daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Fraser told Digital Trends he hoped The Whale would ” change some hearts and minds.” It did that and more, with Fraser garnering some of the best reviews of his career, culminating with his win for Best Actor at the 2023 Oscars.

Stream The Whale on Paramount+.