The Top 28 Kevin Costner Films

Did any movie star make braver choices than Kevin Costner, at the peak of his powers? We count down his 28 best films...

Kevin Costner

People who read this site on a fairly regular basis may already be familiar with my personal favuring of the film works of Kevin Costner. As someone who grew up with movies in the late 80s and 1990s, he’s the only movie star that regularly comes to mind when I try to think of people who were making bold, bold choices at the peak of their powers. Mel Gibson made one or two, and there are actors and actresses who took the occasional gamble. And yet Costner – whilst choosing a few commercial projects – kept taking them, time after time. You could argue that his box office luck eventually ran out, but even then, the films he chose to make tended to have something about them.

What I’ve tried to do here is put together a personal list of my 28 favorite Kevin Costner films, then. And why.

I’ve left one or two out. He was barely in Man Of Steel, but then it’d barely scratch the list for me. I really don’t like Dragonfly (his worst film for me) and 3 Days To Kill much at all, while 3000 Miles To Graceland never did a thing for me really either.

There are some you may well like that also don’t make my list. Revenge, for instance, was one that never quite worked when I watched it, while Rumor Has It likewise I thought was okay, but not much more than that. The New Daughter is a come-and-go watch, I quite liked The War but it didn’t really stick in my head, The Gunrunner is best forgotten. Sizzle Beach USA is a forgotten classic, of course.

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But these 28? Not all great films – although some of them are – but they’ve each got something interesting about them…

28. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Kevin Costner in Jack Ryan: Shadown Recruit

“You’re operational now”

We’ll start then with one of Costner’s recent endeavours, the attempt to reboot – not for the first time – the Jack Ryan movie franchise. Kenneth Branagh took the helm for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, with Chris Pine in the title role. And that left space for Costner to take on a character actor piece, as the shadowy CIA man who recruits Jack Ryan in the first place.

Had Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit become a box office juggernaut, then the plan would have been to spin Costner’s character out into his own movie. The $135m worldwide gross (against a production budget of $60m) was certainly solid, but no franchise starter though.

Still, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a decent enough thriller, and Costner slips into the ‘mentor who isn’t a mentor’ role with ease. There’s sufficient mystery to him, and he gets a reasonable amount to do. It’s far from his best thriller, but it’s not a bad way to spend two hours.

27. The Bodyguard

Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard

“Not on my watch”

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I know there’s a by-law that suggests I’m not allowed to like The Bodyguard, or that I have to make a remark about Costner’s haircut in it. But I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the film. This was Costner’s outright movie star film, released at the height of his box office powers, and earning sizeable earnings as a consequence. The teaming up with the late Whitney Houston, then one of the biggest music stars on the planet, did the film’s commercial fortunes no harm. It’s a solid thriller, and a decent romance, and whilst it would have been intriguing to see what Ryan O’Neal and Diana Ross – for whom the movie was originally written by Lawrence Kasdan in the 1970s – would have done with it, Costner and Houston hardly shortchange us.

We wrote more on The Bodyguard here.

26. Swing Vote

Kevin Costner in Swing Vote

“I’m an American aren’t I?”

A sweet one, this. Swing Vote stars Costner alongside Paula Patton, with the kind of contrivance that the movies used to thrive on at the heart of it. Costner plays Bud, a down on his luck slacker, who has a daughter but not much else in his life. Come the day America elects its President however, a power cut as he places his vote suddenly makes him the most important voter in the country. With, er, the Presidential race a dead heat, Bud has two weeks to re-cast his vote, and basically choose the President.

That’s the backdrop of the film, although inevitably it spends a lot of time at the fore. Elsewhere, there’s a father-daughter story, and a growing companionship to fit in. It evolves into gentle Sunday afternoon fare, opting to go nowhere near political commentary, but also keeping the comedy side more on the back burner too. The result is a good, one-watch film.

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25. McFarland

Kevin Costner in McFarland

“I’ve got five bucks and seven boys who have never seen the ocean before”

It’s not top grade Costner Sports Movie (TM), but then that’s a crowded chamber already. However McFarland is a welcome, engaging piece of work from Whale Rider director Niki Caro. It’s her commitment to bringing small town America to the screen that lifts the production, with Costner playing the football coach in proverbial last chance saloon. He agrees to coach a school running team, and you can likely correctly sketch out most of the beats of the movie from that point on. But Costner gives it weight, as does the young cast. The result? A good, solid piece of work.

24. Message In A Bottle

“Got my name in all my underwear”

A decent success from 1999, based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. The key reason to see Message In A Bottle is Paul Newman in truth, who plays Costner’s father in this one. But Costner too is good, as the widower who leaves the message in a bottle of the film’s title. Said bottle is discovered by Robin Wright’s Theresa, and before you can say ‘Sleepless In Seattle‘, she vows to track down the person who wrote the message.

What follows is a solid three hander, that lifts above its mawkish moments by being willing to take one or two unconventional turns. Furthermore, Costner and Wright make a couple at least worth registering an interest in. But it’s Newman who steals it.

23. The Guardian

Kevin Costner in The Guardian

“22… the only number I keep track of”

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Imagine Top Gun, but set amongst the world of Coast Guard rescue divers. Imagine too that Top Gun was a lot longer, and spent more time with the instructor than the student. Imagine that the bloke from The Fugitive came in to direct it, and thought that casting Ashton Kutcher was a good idea. There, friends, is the rough recipe for The Guardian. Oh, with a dose of Cliffhanger sprinkled on top.

It’s a film that’s way too long, and the story of Costner’s ageing rescue diver is the more interesting one here. However, amidst that bloated running time there’s at least a very good hour, and some excellent water rescue sequences. By distance, Costner’s character is the most interested and – here it comes – deep. The film has too much baggage around him though.

22. For Love Of The Game

Kevin Costner in For Love Of The Game

“I don’t know if I have anything left”

Arguably Costner’s least successful sports movie – Sizzle Beach USA wasn’t about sport, right? – For Love Of The Game nonetheless has its merits. Here, he plays a pitcher whose career we see in flashback as he plays what may be his last game. Does he take a trade to another team, or choose to go with the woman who may be the love of his life, played by Kelly Preston?

He certainly takes his time working it out, and one criticism aimed at Sam Raimi’s movie is that it feels an unnecessarily long one (137 minutes, including credits). Costner’s made lots of long films, to be fair, but this one feels it. Unlike his other sports films, this one works better when it’s focused on the sport itself, rather than the life behind it. The home life story feels a little less cooked, and it doesn’t help that Costner’s character, Billy Chapel, isn’t really one you find yourself rooting for. It’s not a bad film, but For Love Of The Game is well below Costner and Raimi’s best.

Extra trivia: the film has an infamous scene that was cut as a result of a test screening. We’ve detailed that in this article here.

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21. The Company Men

Kevin Costner in The Company Men

“You’re a shitty carpenter”

A recent low key drama, set in the aftermath of the world’s recent financial meltdown, The Company Men brings together an ensemble cast, in which Costner takes a small role. The main protagonist is Ben Affleck, a man with a lucrative job, who’s stripped away bit by bit as he loses said job, then struggles to find another. His attempts to brass it out become gradually less convincing.

Costner comes in sporadically in an important role as a self-employed builder, one who views Affleck’s character as a rich man who doesn’t really do proper work. It’s not a heavy tension between them, but it’s a notable one. Costner’s work is fine, and you’d happily trust him to work on your house. He’s your go-to-guy if you want a loft conversion.

One-time West Wing showrunner John Wells writes and directs this one, and it’s a solid drama, although arguably Margin Call takes a more interesting angle. There’s no Costner in that one, though…

20. Draft Day

Kevin Costner in Draft Day

“You’re on Twitter?”

As we’ll see, Costner’s sporting movies rarely bring sport that much to the fore, and as a result, don’t rely on that much of an understanding of whatever game the movie is set around. Draft Day is perhaps a little bit of an exception, set around US football, and the system of drafting and trades. It’s not a massive learning curve you need to surmount though if it’s a sport you don’t know the ins and outs of.

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Here, Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr. That’s important, as Sonny Weaver Sr has left a bit of a reputation behind him. Weaver is the general manager of the long-suffering Cleveland Browns, a team that has number one pick in the annual NFL draft. He needs to use it wisely, and he also needs to work out how to step out of his father’s shadow, and manage a burgeoning romance.

Directed deftly by Ivan Reitman, Draft Day doesn’t quite play out as the comedy you might expect. Instead, it’s an engaging sports drama, that gradually manages to notch up interest to its really rather good finale.

Bonus nerd spot: a pre-Black Panther Chadwick Boseman.

19. Waterworld

Kevin Costner in Waterworld

“Nothing’s free in Waterworld…”

The thing about Waterworld is that pretty much every crticism you can aim at it will hit to some degree. It is too long. It is an aquatic retread of The Road Warrior. It does have huge logic gaps.

Yet accepting that, I’ve always quite liked it. I’ve liked its willingness to invest heavily in a difficult, practical action film with director Kevin Reynolds once again demonstrating that he’s an underrated action helmer. There’s a fluidity (haw haw) to his action that keeps what’s happening firmly in frame, and allows you to follow what’s going on.

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Furthermore, Dennis Hopper’s Deacon may make very little sense, but he’s good value as a baddie, and every time you think the film’s about to run out of steam, it manages to generate something else that impresses. It’s a mess, certainly, but Waterworld‘s an entertaining one. I’d take it over many CG-driven bloated blockbusters, certainly.

18. Wyatt Earp

Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp

“I’ve been in a really bad mood for the last few years, so I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave me alone”

If we’re going to cite one expensive film on this list that it took a movie star with clout to get made, then surely Wyatt Earp is it. Costner reunited with director Lawrence Kasdan for this one (Kasdan penned The Bodyguard, and infamously left Costner’s scenes on the cutting room floor in The Big Chill, before directing him in Silverado) for a fairly straight telling of the Earp story. Running to 191 minutes and costing $63m just to make, the film’s thunder was stolen by the more action-driven Tombstone.

An example of Wyatt Earp‘s more low key approach is how it brushes quickly over the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corrall – an event that full films have been wrapped around before. It’s almost blink and you miss it in this one.

The cast here is great, mind, and you get to spend a generous amount of time with them: Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman and Costner himself are the standouts. But there’s a sense that Wyatt Earp – whilst beautiful to look at – overstays its welcome by some time. That said, it’s still quite an absorbing western at times, that demands patience and goodwill to get the most out of. Yet it’s not without significant merits.

Sadly, its financial failure meant it’s the last overtly big budget western of this ilk that we’ve had since 1994.

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17. The Postman

Kevin Costner in The Postman

“Wouldn’t it be great if wars could be fought just by the assholes who started them?”

Probably the moment where Kevin Costner’s career changed this one, and certainly the last time he was given an awful lot of money to make a film off the back of his name. The Postman, oddly enough, was originally going to come to the screen with Tom Hanks on board, but David Brin’s book eventually landed on Costner’s desk. With an adaptation from Brian Helgeland, he opted to make it his sophomore directorial effort, following Dances With Wolves, and this time, the naysayers drew blood. Reviews were savage, the box office was poor (it cost $80m to make, it took $17m in the US), and Costner swept the risible Razzies.

Yet if The Postman is a failure, it’s an honourable one, and a film better than it’s generally given credit for. We look at it in a lot more detail in this article, here.

Costner turned down Air Force One to make The Postman. In spite of all the hassle and snark he got in exchange, we suspect he doesn’t regret it.

16. Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves

Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves

“This is English courage”

A film of real contrasts. There’s an awful lot to like about Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Alan Rickman’s scene-robbing work as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Kevin Reynold’s kinetic action sequences, Elmo from Brush Strokes, Michael Kamen’s wonderful score and a generous dose of humour for a start. But there are also troubles. The film runs for a long time, it’d be fair to say that Costner isn’t its strongest asset (although once you’re over the infamous accent, he’s perfectly fine), and it takes a long, long time to get going.

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Perhaps most troubling of all is the fact that the last act hinges on a scene of attempted rape, played for comedy. The young me who watched Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves didn’t appreciate that was going on, and it was a real favourite of my youth. I struggle with it – for all its qualities – now I’m more aware of what’s happening.

There’s that song, too. You might have heard of it.

15. Fandango

Kevin Costner in Fandango

“I guess I’m just not officer material”

Kevin Reynolds has directed Kevin Costner more than any other helmer, across Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Waterworld, and Hatfield And McCoys. Their first union though, and another film that gave Costner a real breakthrough role, is in this very good road trip movie, about five friends facing adulthood.

Costner’s Gardner is the clear ringleader of Fandango, dragging the bunch into some memorable scraps, the best of which is a hugely entertaining extended sequence at a parachute school. Reynolds, though, who also wrote the script, has his eye firmly on human matters, with the melancholic fear of the Vietnam War draft, for example, regularly in the background.

Often very funny, Fandango holds up extremely well, and whilst it’s a bit of a sod to track down, it’s a real treat on the early Costner CV. Co-star Judd Nelson is also strong.

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14. The Upside Of Anger

Kevin Costner in The Upside Of Anger

“I dial your number ten times a day and hang up”

A sadly little-seen drama from director Mike Binder, who has reunited with Costner on Black And White more recently, The Upside Of Anger is a thoughtful drama with some light moments to it. Costner plays Denny Davies here, a friend of widower Terry, played by the always-brilliant Joan Allen. Terry has four daughters, and that in itself brings complications as she starts to fall for Costner’s former baseball player.

The cocktail of Binder’s strong writing, one of Costner’s best performances and Joan Allen at the heart of the film really adds to something here. There’s something grown-up and non-gimmicky about the stories The Upside of Anger wants to tell, and how it tells them. Do seek it out.

13. Silverado

Kevin Costner in Silverado

“All I did was kiss the girl!”

Ah, the mighty Silverado. A really, really good western this. Often very funny, but also with a strong western story at its heart, Silverado is an ensemble film that gave a then-young Costner an important role in his career. He plays the livewire younger brother of Kevin Kline, who finds himself locked up at the start of the film.

Everywhere you look in Silverado, you find a good performance

. Highlights include Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover, Kline and Scott Glenn. There’s Linda Hunt on a stool, too. Costner holds his own, but it’s hard for him to shine too brightly given the breadth of the company. Not that he needs to. He takes his place in an excellent, entertaining film, a tonal contrast from Kasdan and Costner’s next western together, the aforementioned Wyatt Earp

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12. A Perfect World

Kevin Costner in A Perfect World

“Never underestimate the kindness of the common man”

The few stories that have come out of the production of A Perfect World suggest that Clint Eastwood the director and Kevin Costner the actor had an element of chalk and cheese about them. Eastwood’s infamous for shooting quickly, and using the first take wherever he can. Costner – and he’s not the first actor to reportedly grumble about this – prefers at least two or three. Eastwood, on at least one occasion, was said to have just moved on, leaving Costner behind. John Badham’s referred to this in his book, John Badham On Directing.

Out of this however comes arguably Costner’s best, and riskiest, performance. In 1994, he was still regarded as a movie star hero, and yet he plays effectively the villain, Butch Haynes. That was not such a common switch on 20 years ago. He’s the convict on the run, who kidnaps a young boy (played brilliantly by T J Lowther), and strikes up a surprising bond. When the film focuses on them, it’s excellent. When it switches attention to Eastwood’s U.S Marshall, it’s less interesting. But A Perfect World – a financial disappointment, and no awards magnet – is still a real treat. It takes its time, Eastwood shoots it wonderfully well (reportedly only finishing the edit less than two weeks before opening day – and that’s before digital distribution), and Costner deserved far more credit than he ever got. It’s just a shame A Perfect World seems to have all but disappeared.

11. Mr Brooks

Kevin Costner in Mr Brooks

“I do it because I’m addicted to it”

The later films of Kevin Costner haven’t garnered anywhere near the attention that his earlier movies did. And as a result, Mr Brooks -an at-times quite brilliant thriller – has flown under many people’s radar. To be clear up front: Mr Brooks has its fair share of problems, and the TV show Dexter isn’t too far away from it at times. Yet this is Costner very much against type, in the title role of Earl Brooks. He’s a seemingly everyday man, who just happens to have a murderous alter-ego, personified by William Hurt.

Casting Hurt as the other side of Costner’s character is one of the many interesting choices that co-writer/director Bruce A Evans makes (his only previous directorial credit was the ’90s Christian Slater vehicle Kuffs, fact fans). He also draws an excellent performance from Costner, not least in exploring his relationship with his daughter.

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If I have a problem with Mr Brooks it’s the last five minutes. Not because they’re bad, rather because they have the potential to be absolutely wonderful. But saying more would spoil it.

That notwithstanding, Mr Brooks is a fascinating film, not always a great one, but strong enough to warrant digging out. And it’s Costner really stretching himself too.

10. Hidden Figures

Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures

“Here at NASA, we all pee the same color”

Costner’s output in the last few years has been quite patchy, with the likes of Criminal and 3 Days To Kill best left on the shelf, in truth. But heck, did he strike gold with Hidden Figures. He takes on a significant supporting role here, as Al Harrison, the man charged with getting the data in place to allow America to overtake Russia in the space race.

Set in the early 1960s, Costner’s performance is arguably his finest supporting role, stepping out of the limelight at the right time to allow the brilliant Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae to shine. It’s one of a trio of excellent films set in and around the same time period that Costner has made, too. I’m coming to the others shortly… 

9. No Way Out

Kevin Costner in No Way Out

“Hi Bill. Could you close the slide please?”

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Many people in the UK first got to see No Way Out courtesy of BBC One’s decision to screen it one Christmas Eve evening. The BBC was fulfilling its public service quota right there. This is a taut, tight, windy, brilliant thriller, and one of Costner’s pivotal breakthrough roles. Plus: a bit on bonking on Christmas Eve. We’re sure Santa would approve.

Kicking off relatively early with that sex scene then, one that was marvellously spoofed in Hot Shots! Part Deux, Costner is a naval officer who’s tasked with investigated a murder in Washington. Said murder is pinned on an apparent Soviet sleeper agent by the name of Yuri, and Costner finds himself going toe to toe with Gene Hackman, who’s superb, as he tries to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

Costner thoroughly proves his leading man credentials here, in a film that builds tension courtesy of a computer

taking an age to enhance a photograph. One Pentium 4 processor could kill this film dead. Yet that computer enhancement is No Way Out‘s ticking clock (how things have moved on since High Noon), and director Roger Donaldson wisely reminds us of it often, before delivering an ending that, it would be fair to say, significantly enhances the already strong thriller that’s gone before. If you’re not seen No Way Out, do check it out, and know as little as possible before switching it on. If that ending had occured in the internet age, you’d already know all about it…

8. Bull Durham

Kevin Costner in Bull Durham

“And when you speak of me, speak well”

Kevin Costner’s other great baseball film, and his other great Ron Shelton movie. This was back when making romantic comedies for adults meant targeting the brain more than the bedroom. Although, er, there is a bedroom in it. Quite a nice one, as it happens.

Bull Durham centres on a minor league baseball team – the Durham Bulls – although you require no knowledge of the sport to get a lot out of it. Instead, sit back and enjoy the exquisite interplay between Costner’s ‘Crash’ Davis, Susan Sarandon’s Annie and Tim Robbins’ Ebby. Shelton’s writing deserves particular plaudits too (and won many), marrying up his themes with an often very funny comedy.

It’s a perfect role for Costner too, showcasing his strong comedy timing, and his sheer charm when he lands the right part. Were it not for one other film, it’d be his finest baseball movie.

One more thing: there were plans for a Bull Durham 2, but Shelton said he could never crack it. But a Bull Durham stage musical? That’s a thing…

7. Tin Cup

Kevin Costner in Tin Cup

“Can I have a mulligan?”

For me, the best Hollywood romantic comedy of the 2000s. It’s the film that Costner came to off the back of Waterworld, and reuniting with his Bull Durham director, Ron Shelton, proved a masterstroke.

Here, he plays Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy, a one-time golf pro struggling to make a living at his armadillo-infested driving range. Enter, then, Rene Russo’s Dr Molly Griswold, who’s in need of lessons. Oh, and she just happens to be dating McAvoy’s long-time rival, David Simms, played by a deliciously sleazy Don Johnson.

Crackling with great dialogue, and with a loveable rogue of a character for Costner to get his teeth into, Tin Cup is an absolute treat, that plays some things the conventional way, but goes a little off-piste with others. Shelton puts together an ensemble of interesting characters, and ends up making you care about how a fictional golf game is going to pan out too. Keeping sentiment aside, Shelton and Costner deliver for a second time here. Hopefully, they’ll find a third project to unite on in due course.

6. Dances With Wolves

Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct”

You probably know the stories. Labelled as ‘Kevin’s Gate’ during its lengthy production – a nod to one of Hollywood’s most expensive flops, Heaven’s GateDances With Wolves was Costner’s biggest gamble. By this stage, his star was lit, and he could choose to make pretty much whatever major film he liked. But instead, he sunk time, energy and resources into making a three hour western, a third of which would be subtitled.

Seven Oscars later, and over $400m at the box office, it would be fair to say that Costner had the last laugh. Contention remains that Dances With Wolves beat Goodfellas to those Oscars, but that’s no slight against Costner’s film at all. It was and is a compelling western (one backed by a gorgeous John Barry score).

It tells you a lot of what you need to know about Costner as a filmmaker that he lets his story soak, as we follow Lt John Dunbar, who chooses – after an act of heroism – to be posted to the western frontier, wanting to see it before it’s gone for good. There, he discovers that things weren’t quite as he was expecting.

I’ve never been quite as taken with the extended cut of this one, in truth, but the original three hour version of Dances With Wolves is utterly absorbing, moving, and punctuated with terrific scenes (as well as the buffalo hunt scene, that Costner brought in Kevin Reynolds to shoot for him). It’s patient, widescreen cinema, and remains rightly popular.

5. Thirteen Days

Kevin Costner in Thirteen Days

“If the sun comes up tomorrow, it is only because of men of good will. And that’s all there is between us and the devil”

There’s a scene near the end of Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days, where Costner’s Kenny O’Donnell is waiting in the Russian embassy, opposite his Soviet counterpart, whilst Steven Culp’s Bobby Kennedy is behind the door, trying to broker a last minute peace. There’s silence, a look, and a tension between two characters on the opposite side of a major event in history, sat on the cusp of nuclear war. It’s one of the many electric little moments that Thirteen Days captures exquisitely, as it examines the 13 days back in 1962 that threatened to take the world to a devastating conflict.

Thirteen Days goes behind the scenes of John F Kennedy’s administration during the Cuban missile crisis, and examines it from the position of the corridors of apparent power. Kennedy, played wonderfully by Bruce Greenwood, has as much of a fight holding off his military team and the apparent ‘rules of engagement’ as he does with the Russians. And Costner takes on the role of his advisor, a non-showy part in what’s effectively an ensemble drama.

Director Donaldson occasionally cuts away from Washington to what’s going on at sea, but it’s when he focuses on middle aged and elderly white men in suits that his film peaks. It’s a gripping historical drama, one that’s been criticised for its historical inaccuracy (Kennedy keeps his pants on, for a start), but is an excellent starting place to discover a significant piece of relatively recent history.

4. Open Range

Kevin Costner in Open Range

“It’s gonna be messy like nothing you’ve ever seen”

To date, this is Costner’s last film as director, and by the time the credits roll on Open Range, you’ll more than likely find yourself keen to see whatever he helms next.

It’s a story that centres on two men: Robert Duvall’s ageing boss, and his long-time employee, Charlie. The pair are free grazers, taking their cattle across the land without a farm of their own. And that brings them into tension with those who see such free grazers as leeching off others. In particular, Michael Gambon’s off-kilter sheriff.

Yet there are lots of things going on here. The passing of an old way of life to new. Charlie’s attraction to Annette Bening’s Sue. The treatment of outsiders, not conforming to the expectations and ways of a modern society. And then the really quite wonderfully explored relationship between Costner and Duvall. Duvall, in particular, is terrific.

Costner the director is too, opting for substance over showcasing. As a result, his eventual shoot out feels rough, ready and legitimate, and his emotional moments hit hard. Open Range really is a brilliant piece of work.

3. JFK

Kevin Costner in JFK

“Testify”

“It is a great movie”, wrote Normal Mailer in his 1992 Vanity Fair review of JFK. The sting wasn’t long after, as he added that “it is one of the worst great movies ever made”. I’m a big fan of JFK, but I can sort of see where he was coming from.

JFK is arguably director Oliver Stone’s towering achievement, a massively ambitious threading together of two books into an accessible three hour film about the assassination of John F Kennedy. More specifically, about New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s attempt to prove a conspiracy in the murder of Kennedy.

Stone weaves together, well, everything. There are different film styles, lots of characters, narrative threads and an abundance of facts and opinions (even the opening narration is partisan). But he turns it into a really gripping political thriller, aided by performances such as Donald Sutherland’s X, the mysterious informer who tells Garrison that “you’re closer than you think”. Sutherland’s scene in particular still sends chills down the old bones.

It’s Costner’s job to knit this all together on screen, only really getting full-on centre stage in the courtroom sequences come the film’s final portion. He’s good value too. There’s little doubt that his name helped get the film made in the first place, but he’s a good core to a film littered with marvellous performances.

Debate raged from day one about Stone’s use of facts here, and whether they were facts after all. But I remember watching JFK the first time, and was mesmerised by how much it put across in such an interesting way. Repeat viewings – including that of the slightly more sinister extended cut – have done nothing to dampen that.

2. The Untouchables

Kevin Costner in The Untouchables

“I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal, and I will do so”

One of those films that feels like a perfect marriage of lots of component parts. Kevin Costner is Eliot Ness in this one, the man charged with bringing down Al Capone in the era of American prohibition. Capone, though, is played by a screen-grabbing Robert De Niro, mixing gentlemanly charm with moments of excessive, sharp, brutal violence. Director Brian De Palma doesn’t shy away from it once.

Nor does he shy away from some of his trademark set pieces, most notably a homage to 1925’s Battleship Potemkin. Squeezing unbearable tension from a wait at a train station, De Palma utilised slow motion, proper build up, Ennio Morricone’s outstanding score, and a willingness to simply wait.

Then there’s David Mamet’s screenplay, which fleshes out and explores a bunch of characters, with Ness’ band of ‘untouchables’ up against heavily armed and resourced mobsters. Costner more than holds his own amongst them, although it’s Sean Connery who earned the acclaim and the Oscar, rightly so, for his gripping portrayal of Malone.

A superb thriller this, that does a lot in two hours. And just going back to that Morricone score: if you’re trying to track it down, don’t short change yourself with the original release. The extended album is expensive, but golden.

1. Field Of Dreams

Kevin Costner in Field Of Dreams

“You want to have a catch?”

I think I watched Field Of Dreams at the perfect time. Well, the first time. I’ve watched it umpteen times since. An adaptation of the W P Kinsella book Shoeless Joe, I caught it for the first time in my early teens, and it’d be fair to say it got me pretty much perfectly. Everyone brings something to any film they watch, of course, and for me, what I brought and what Field Of Dreams offered was a spot on match. I’ll stop being pretentious now, but I’ve struggled to get to the core sometimes of just why I love Field Of Dreams so much. But I really do.

The ending is a large part of it, of course, but I don’t want to write about that here, for fear of spoiling the movie for someone else. I can say that it’s a textbook example of an ending that rewards and enriches everything that’s gone before and, well, I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it in truth.

But there’s substance and little features throughout. I love, for instance, that writer/director Phil Alden Robinson allows Costner to walk in and out of shot right at the start of the film, as Ray Kinsella hears a voice telling him “if you build it, he will come”. The temptation is surely to follow the actor. Not here, and it’s telling of Robinson’s unfussy unfolding of Field Of Dreams‘ story.

Costner has said before that the film boils down to one line. And he’s right. The reason it works, of course, is that the intricate care has gone into the individual characters, and the situations they find themselves in. Just look at Amy Madigan, excellent as Annie, eulogising at a school meeting about the work of author Terence Mann (that’d be James Earl Jones, a man you can get to do something by sticking your finger in your coat pocket. At least in this film). That she does that both makes Ray’s meeting with him something of contrast, but also effortlessly explains why she’d receive him so warmly later in the film. Timothy Busfield’s Mark may come across as a bad guy here, but his intentions are good. A hat tip to the late Burt Lancaster too: Moonlight Graham is but one of the many characters that pull out my heartstrings and play with them like they’re a toy.

There’s not a character or situation in the film – from Costner and his baseball field down – that I don’t buy in Field Of Dreams, and feel completely invested in. And given what it does and what it talks about, it’s a huge leap of faith it asks you to make, yet it feels like a simple step forward. It’s brilliant, unfussy filmmaking, packing an emotional wallop that few films have come anywhere near since. And it sits proudly at the top, for me, of Costner’s films. One glance at the quality of some of those films should give you an idea just what a compliment that is.