Cillian Murphy is one of the most notable contemporary actors to make the leap from Ireland to Hollywood. After spending the late 90s and early aughts appearing in short films and indies, Murphy landed his breakout role in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2002. Since then, Murphy has been a consistent muse not only for Boyle but also well-known director Christopher Nolan.
The actor has appeared in no less than five Nolan films to date. However, Murphy is perhaps best known for leading his role as Thomas Shelby in the series Peaky Blinders. Now that the show is coming to an end, fans may expect Murphy to appear in more feature films, possibly in future Nolan projects.
Updated by Svetlana Sterlin on July 29th, 2021: The recently released A Quiet Place Part 2 has made its way onto the list of Cillian Murphy’s best movies, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 91%, which is impressive for a movie of the horror genre. Murphy is an accomplished actor with a wide range of projects under his belt, and he’s just one of many respected actors appearing in the recent wave of critically acclaimed horror films. No two Cillian Murphy movies are the same, but these are some of his best.
15 TIE: The Delinquent Season (2017) & On The Edge (2001) – 67%
- The Delinquent Season is available on Tubi, The Roku Channel, and Hoopla
The Delinquent Season follows two couples in Dublin whose relationships begin to fall apart under pressure. Cillian Murphy plays Jim, who finds himself entangled in his neighbors’ marriage. The role is emotionally demanding as Murphy’s character falls in and out of love, all while struggling to maintain a relationship with his children.
On The Edge is an Irish dark comedy movie in which Murphy plays Jonathan Breech, a young man dealing with severe mental health struggles. After instigating a string of dangerous activities, Jonathan must choose between a stay in a psychiatric hospital or a jail. This role is a little more nuanced, offering Murphy the chance to play comedy with a character who’s deeply troubled and in denial of his struggles.
14 Free Fire (2017) – 69%
- Available on Netflix, Kanopy, and Hoopla
This dark comedy film is set in 70s Boston, where a black market weapons deal goes horribly wrong. As part of an ensemble cast, Cillian Murphy portrays Chris, the buyer. Full of shoot-outs, thrills, and violence, this movie isn’t for everyone, though the comedy aspect may make it more appealing to a broader viewership.
The silly, almost slapstick aspect of the film and its action sequences explain the average Rotten Tomatoes score, but the medley of genres may make it appealing to a broader audience. Murphy’s performance, along with the rest of the cast, is one of the highlights of this film, which is otherwise a rather pedestrian contribution to the action-comedy genre.
13 Intermission (2003) – 73%
- Available on Hulu
Another Dublin-set movie, Intermission is a black comedy with a twist of crime. The film follows a set of interconnected storylines shot in the style of a mockumentary. Cillian Murphy plays John, who, after his recent separation from his girlfriend Deirdre, feels that his life lacks purpose.
Murphy’s part in this film is limited, as most of the plot revolves around his friends and the criminal activities they take part in. Nevertheless, it’s a clever film with a distinct sense of humor. The target audience for Intermission may be niche, but it’s an entertaining film, which makes it one of Cillian Murphy’s best movies.
12 Girl With A Pearl Earring (2003) – 73%
- Available on Amazon Prime Video and Epix
This historical romantic drama follows Griet, a maid who works for the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in the 17th century. Vermeer is captivated by her and she soon becomes the subject of his paintings, including the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring. While in town for her work, Griet also catches the attention of Pieter (Murphy), the butcher’s son.
Pieter is a delicate character who may have been challenging to play, not least because the story takes place in the 17th century. Pieter also forms a delicate connection with the reserved Griet, and he knows it’s not his place to dally with the maid and muse of a famous artist. This subtle film is an admirable adaptation of the book upon which it’s based and is well-deserving of its 73% rating.
11 Sunshine (2007) – 77%
- Available on Hulu
Murphy has forged a strong creative relationship with the film director Danny Boyle after appearing in 28 Days Later. Five years later, the two explored the cosmos in Sunshine. This sci-fi movie tells the story of a group of astronauts who, in the year 2057, are tasked with reviving the dying sun. Murphy plays Robert Capa in the film, one of the physicists on the dangerous mission.
Sunshine is considered to be something of a cult classic, given its poor commercial performance at the time of its release. Since then, it has become more appreciated by critics and casual viewers. Despite its high concept, the adventure movie does a good job of balancing suspense with character growth.
10 Red Eye (2005) – 79%
- Available to rent or purchase on Amazon
In the thriller Red Eye, Murphy plays Jackson Rippner, who works for a terrorist organization. He meets a hotel manager named Lisa on a red-eye flight and charms her with his suave undercover persona. However, when he reveals his true identity, he blackmails her into helping him assassinate a U.S. official.
Murphy’s character turns out to be a bit unhinged, which is no small feat for an actor to play convincingly. The film is also surprising in the way it subverts its audience’s expectations. Lisa rejects the stereotype of a damsel in distress and decides to try and outwit Jackson when he threatens her family.
9 The Party (2017) – 81%
- Available on Kanopy, or for rent on Amazon
Sally Potter’s The Party gives Murphy another opportunity to explore comedy. When a woman throws a party to celebrate her work promotion, personalities clash, and the gathering soon becomes a disaster. Cillian Murphy is just one member of a great star-studded ensemble cast.
This comedy is an entertaining watch, but it’s also a clever social commentary. It does a realistic job of showing how different people react when forced to congregate in large numbers. However, the concept may not be original enough for critics to give it a higher rating, even if it is well-executed.
8 Batman Begins (2005) – 84%
- Available on Hulu and HBO Max
With Batman Begins, Murphy began a professional relationship with Christopher Nolan that has lasted more than a decade. One might call it the breakout role of his career. While 28 Days Later put Murphy on the map, the blockbuster Batman franchise cemented his place in the industry.
As Scarecrow, one of Bruce Wayne’s primary villains, Murphy brings frightful credibility to the role. He’s vulnerable one moment, scary the next, and shines in the gray areas in between. This first installment in Nolan’s reimagined Batman franchise has changed the landscape of superhero movies, and Murphy’s portrayal of a key antagonist elevates it
7 The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – 87%
- Available on HBO Max
Though Murphy appears in all three installments of The Dark Knight Trilogy, his role in The Dark Knight Rises is as small as it is in The Dark Knight. Here, Murphy’s character acts as a judge for Gotham City, which essentially means he sends many innocent people to their deaths.
As always, the character of Scarecrow demands a complex, twisted performance. The film succeeds in wrapping up the trilogy’s story in an exciting, satisfying way, though Murphy’s small role has little effect on the audience’s final impression.
6 28 Days Later (2002) – 87%
- Available on Hulu, Paramount+, and Epix
If Scarecrow in Batman Begins isn’t Murphy’s breakout role, then Jim 28 Days Later most certainly is. Murphy makes quite the debut in Danny Boyle’s game-changing and fast-paced zombie movie.
With a no-nonsense approach to zombies, the movie elevates the horror genre while attempting something new in making zombies rabid and energetic as opposed to their typical half-dead laziness, which does a lot to make zombies seem scary again. This is a standout movie in the sub-genre, and Murphy’s performance hits the mark as usual.
5 Inception (2010) – 87%
- Available on Peackock
Murphy often plays villains under Nolan’s direction, but for Inception, the actor shines in a more nuanced role. Rather than an outright antagonist, he plays a targeted middleman to get to the real bad guy – his father.
In a mind-bending plot, dream thief Cobb is tasked with undergoing Inception, which essentially means planting an idea in a person’s head so strongly that they actuate it. Cobb and his crack team must get it through to Murphy’s character to break up his father’s monopolistic business before it’s too late.
4 The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) – 90%
- Available on AMC+
In Ken Loach’s deeply personal examination of the Irish War of Independence, Murphy gives arguably the finest performance of his entire career.
As the Irish fight off British advances, the crux of the drama centers on the relationship between two brothers, Damien (Murphy) and Teddy O’Donovan. Blood does not necessarily prove to be thicker than water when the brothers opt to fight for opposing sides in what becomes a bloody civil war.
3 A Quiet Place Part II (2020) – 91%
- Available on Paramount+
Cillian Murphy joined the cast of John Krasinski’s successful sequel to his 2018 sci-fi film, A Quiet Place. Following the events of the first film, the Abbott family continues their silent journey through the outside world, where they discover that the monsters that hunt by sound are not the only fearsome creatures lurking in their midst.
Murphy plays Emmett, an old friend of Lee’s. Since the death of his own family, Emmett has become a reclusive and cynical survivor. He represents a very specific demographic and is eerily relevant to the times of the film’s release. The timeliness of the film and its consistent focus on the characters’ arcs is what makes it such a strong entry in Murphy’s credit list.
2 Dunkirk (2017) – 92%
- Available on HBO Max
Though Murphy’s role in the mega ensemble of Nolan’s WWII epic Dunkirk is short in screentime, it leaves an impression. Both his acting and the character’s involvement in the plot are impactful and important for the story’s development.
Told from three points of view, the film recreates the German invasion of Dunkirk. As Belgium, Britain, and France try to fend off the incursion, Nolan cuts between the combat of land, sea, and sky to deliver a memorable sensory experience that immerses viewers in a specific moment of the war.
1 The Dark Knight (2008) – 94%
- Available on Hulu and HBO Max
Though Murphy’s role here is smaller than it is in Batman Begins, the Tomatometer rates this Christopher Nolan film higher. Murphy isn’t the star of this film – that honor belongs to Heath Ledger and his tour-de-force turn as Joker, a wildly unpredictable and frightening master villain.
Nevertheless, Murphy reprises his role as Scarecrow, albeit for a cameo near the beginning of the film. The main plot follows Joker’s exploits when he’s hired by the mobs to kill Batman. Overall this is an exciting film that was popular with both fans and critics.