Patrick Swayze's 10 Best Movies, Ranked

The late, great, Patrick Swayze was taken from us far too soon, but left behind a legacy of phenomenal films, performances, and characters to hold near and dear. Before pivoting into a full-time acting career, Swayze was trained in ballet, ice skating, martial arts, and football. Pairing this with his dazzling good looks and acting prowess allowed him to thrive in a variety of film genres, playing fast-dancing heartthrobs and action hunks in equal measure. He had his professional breakthrough as a dancer with the Disney Theatrical Group before taking on the replacement role of Danny Zuko in a Broadway production of "Grease." This put him on the radar of Hollywood, and he made his film debut as Ace in the 1979 film "Skatetown, U.S.A." 

But when the 1980s came calling, Swayze exploded in popularity and became a household name. While he certainly hit his peak when I was just a child, Swayze was my mom's favorite actor which meant I had seen all of his films at least a half-dozen times each before hitting my teen years. Of course, all lists are subjective, and my word or ranking should not be the definitive word on his career. He was one of those actors who you could ask 50 people to name his best role and they could all give a different answer and still be correct. With that in mind, let's get into Patrick Swayze's 10 best movies, ranked.

10. Donnie Darko

Patrick Swayze is by no means the lead or even supporting lead performance in Richard Kelly's mind-melding sci-fi thriller "Donnie Darko," but he's arguably the most essentially cast character in the whole film. Jake Gyllenhaal's psychologically troubled performance as the titular lead is iconic for a reason, but the film utilized Swayze in a way that no other film had dared to do before — they made him the "f***ing antichrist." Okay, so his character Jim Cunningham isn't the actual antichrist, but Donnie Darko has no problem equating him to the devil, knowing this motivational speaker is full of it and a genuinely dangerous person.

Swayze's casting is somewhat metatextual because the reason Cunningham is able to get away with his disgusting private activities is because he's such a handsome, charming, and well-liked person that no one would ever suspect the truth. Swayze has always had a reputation for being an actor that people loved and was even named People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1991. That's usually not the type of person society teaches us we need to worry about being predatory, but Cunningham serves as a cautionary reminder that anyone is capable of villainy. "Donnie Darko" is a powerful and greatly influential film, and Swazye's performance helps the film be the best it possibly could be.

9. Red Dawn

The first time I saw "Red Dawn" was in sixth grade social studies class the same year a few months after the September 11th terrorist attacks. That doesn't have anything to do with the placement of this film on the list of Swayze rankings but it's such an insane anecdote I would be doing a disservice by not sharing it. Bless the American public school system! If you've somehow missed "Red Dawn" (or its questionable 2012 remake), the film is set during a fictional World War III following a Soviet, Warsaw Pact, and Latin American states alliance invasion of the United States. Our heroes are a group of teenage guerilla fighters known as the Wolverines in Soviet-occupied Colorado. Swayze plays Jed Eckert, the oldest member of the group and defacto leader trying to avenge his father, keep his squad safe, and potentially single-handedly end the war.

"Red Dawn" is arguably one of the greatest examples of Republican fantasy in cinema history with a painfully conservative view of international relations and what it takes to "win" a war. This is a gun nut's wet dream and a story that can only exist if you believe the asinine belief that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, even if the "good guy" is a teenage boy. And yet, "Red Dawn" is still addictively rewatchable because of the dedication of the young cast, led by a stand-out performance from Swayze.

8. Youngblood

More of a vehicle for Rob Lowe than anything else, the hockey drama "Youngblood" provides Swayze with an ice rink-sized playground to really lean into his skills of eliciting sympathy from viewers. Despite being a teen sports movie, "Youngblood" is a risqué, R-rated film about a 17-year-old farm boy named Dean Youngblood (Lowe) who happens to be a gifted hockey player who joins the Hamilton Mustangs and is taken under the wing of an older, now-injured player named Derek (Swayze) to become the best skater he can be and stand up to his bully on the ice. The film wasn't a critical darling or huge financial success but developed a cult following thanks to video rental and late-night cable screenings. This is a favorite film of most hockey fans, but it's sadly gone the wayside in general conversations about sports movies.

And it's a shame because "Youngblood" is one hell of a picture. It's got the funny, light-hearted sense of humor of most '80s teen movies, but the action-packed hockey scenes and the on-and-off-ice rivalries are treated with seriousness and intensity. As is the case with the majority of films from this time period, there are a handful of situations and some language choices that have aged horribly, but "Youngblood" is a classic underdog hero's journey. Swayze has always been great at playing the older, more experienced teen/young adult leader to help guide the rookies, and this oft-forgotten pic released between "Red Dawn" and "Dirty Dancing" is certainly one of his best in the arena.

7. 11:14

Did you know that in the early 2000s, Rachael Leigh Cook, Ben Foster, Clark Gregg, Colin Hanks, Shawn Hatosy, Barbara Hershey, Stark Sands, Hilary Swank, Henry Thomas, Jason Segel, and Patrick Swayze starred in a black comedy neo-noir? Don't worry, most people don't know this film exists either, and it's a shame because the direct-to-DVD (following a festival run and very limited theatrical engagement) thriller "11:14" is the definition of "underrated" cinema. The film tells multiple stories interconnected by two car accidents that took place at 11:14 p.m. At first, the stories don't seem connected, but slowly reveal how all of their interactions led to these two accidents. If this sounds like the Oscar-winning movie "Crash," you're on the right path, but the difference is that "11:14" is genuinely great and not shamelessly pulling at heartstrings.

"11:14" came during the wave of filmmakers clearly inspired by Quentin Tarantino wanting to make something utilizing old-school, exploitation-era methods of storytelling while still set in the current era, and lived-in characters that feel so grounded in reality that it borders on frustrating. Every character in this movie is a bit of an idiot, but that's because in the face of danger or in a situation that requires a split-second decision, we're all a bit of an idiot. While Swayze had his heyday in the '80s and '90s, "11:14" showed that he still had the goods in his 50s. This is a film best watched without knowing anything more, so I'll hold the spoilers. Just trust me when I say, you will not be able to predict where these stories go.

6. The Outsiders

If this were a ranked list of general movies, "The Outsiders" would be much higher on the list. However, as a Swayze movie ranking list, "The Outsiders" ends up just shy of the top 5 simply because there's not enough Swayze in it! Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of S.E. Hinton's novel of the same name is arguably the greatest coming-of-age crime drama ever made, and the ensemble cast of C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Leif Garrett, Darren Dalton, and Patrick Swayze is one of the best ever assembled. The story of a teen gang of Greasers in Oklahoma at war with the Socs (short for "socials") takes a turn for the serious after Ponyboy (Howell) and Johnny (Macchio) accidentally kill one of the Socs and are forced into hiding. The Greasers must contend with the paths they've all set themselves on by embracing violence, but the members splinter in their approaches to what to do next. 

Swayze plays Darrel "Darry" Curtis, the older brother of Ponyboy and Sodapop (Lowe) who has been forced into a paternal role following the deaths of their parents. He's given up on his dreams of going to college and playing football in order to keep his family together, a sacrifice that hangs over his feelings when Ponyboy and Johnny get themselves into trouble. He's the unofficial leader of the Greasers despite not being as actively involved in social club activity since he's working two jobs, but he's truly the glue that holds all of "The Outsiders" together.

5. Ghost

I'm sure my mom, aunt, grandmother, and any other woman above the age of 40 probably want to molly-whop me for putting "Ghost" all the way at number 5, but understand that Swayze's top 5 films are all interchangeably great. Any one of these titles could take the top spot and they'd be the correct choice, so this ranking is by no means a definitive list. Jerry Zucker's supernatural romance story, "Ghost," was the highest-grossing film of 1990, and at the time of release, was the third highest-grossing film of all time. It walked away with five Academy Award nominations, winning two (Best Supporting Actress for Whoopi Goldberg and Best Original Screenplay for Bruce Joel Rubin), and turned pottery into an erotic art.

Swayze plays banker Sam Wheat who is murdered by his friend and corrupt business partner Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn), leaving his artist girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore) at risk of being killed by Carl and his henchmen. Sam seeks out the assistance of psychic Oda Mae Brown (Goldberg) to keep Molly safe and put an end to Carl's crimes, making "Ghost" as much of a crime thriller as it is a heartbreaking love story about grief and the afterlife. A true genre-bender of a movie, "Ghost" was met with pretty average critical reception at the time of release, but has since gone on to be deemed an all-time classic. Moore and Goldberg are obviously doing great work, but let's not kid ourselves here — audiences were coming out in droves to fall in love with Patrick Swayze and develop the Pavlovian response of crying their eyes out to the word "ditto."

4. Road House

One of my favorite subgenres of film is what I like to call "Hell Yeah, Brother!" cinema, and 1989's "Road House" might be its patron saint. It's a film with a nonsensical plot but a charismatic lightning-in-a-bottle performance from Patrick Swayze that elevates the film into the stratosphere. As /News's Jeremy Smith correctly pointed out when comparing the film to the recent 2024 remake with Jake Gyllenhaal, "Critics initially wrote it off as a mindless meathead programmer from mayhem merchant Joel Silver, but the aptly-monikered director Rowdy Herrington and the screenwriting duo of David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin understood their ludicrous assignment and aced it with knowing aplomb. Their unabashed commitment to inherently risible material turned 'Road House' into the 'Citizen Kane' of bar bouncer movies."

"Road House" plays out like a classic Hollywood western, but is set in a bar in Jasper, Missouri. Swayze plays bouncer James Dalton, who is brought in to be a cooler at a joint called The Double Deuce, the go-to watering hole for degenerates looking for a beer, a brawl, and a broad to take home. Dalton might as well be the sheriff of this dive, and he plays nice until someone gives him a reason not to. From there, we've got Dalton kicking ass and taking names, even ripping a throat out with his bare hands before delivering a flying roundhouse kick to the henchmen who dared step to him.

Is "Road House" a good movie? That's up for debate. But it's certainly a movie that'll have you shrieking "HELL YEAH, BROTHER!" until you lose your voice.

3. Dirty Dancing

Have two actors ever had chemistry so palpable you can practically feel it radiating off the screen more than Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey? The pair famously hated working together so much on "Red Dawn" that it seemed like "Dirty Dancing" was destined to be a disaster, but they were so electrifying to watch that it became a stone-cold classic. Given the way "Dirty Dancing" has been absorbed through cultural osmosis by a majority of the English-speaking world, people often forget just how good this movie is, or mistakenly assume they know how the movie will play out because they've seen the iconic lift at the end of the dance routine. "Dirty Dancing" feels formulaic on paper, but the way each character slinks into and ultimately subverts their role is what keeps the film from being anything but.

But Swayze's Johnny Castle? This is one of those great characters that defy preference in gender and sexuality. For a movie that isn't trying to be erotic, "Dirty Dancing" is an ungodly arousing movie to watch and it's because of the way Swayze looks at Grey. When he says "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," millions of people are ready to risk it all for him. Billy Zane, Val Kilmer, and Benicio del Toro were all considered for the role of Johnny, and we should all thank our lucky stars every day that they went with Swayze. I MEAN, COME ON! HE'S THE SWAYZIEST!!

2. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

"To Wong Foo, Thanks for everything! Julie Newmar" is a movie that doesn't feel like it should exist. In 1995, Wesley Snipes had solidified himself as one of the baddest action stars in the game, John Leguizamo's star was on the rise after "Carlito's Way," and Patrick Swayze was one of the most adored leading men after "Ghost" and "Point Break." And yet, during a time when AIDS was still the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 25 and 44, the trio dressed in drag and starred in a groundbreaking queer film that is still adored by new audiences to this day. Drag superstars Vida Boheme (Swayze) and Noxeema Jackson (Snipes) score highly in a regional drag competition that qualifies them for the National competition in Los Angeles, when they decide to take the "boy in a dress" novice Chi-Chi Rodriguez (Leguizamo) under their joined wing as their protégé on their journey to the competition. The trio winds up in a small town called Snydersville after some car trouble, but their presence shakes up everything.

Sure, not everything in "To Wong Foo" has aged gracefully (it was the '90s!), but the film is still loaded with all-time great dialogue and is shockingly ahead of its time. What starts out as a drag queen road trip movie slowly transforms into a drag queen Western, with Swayze, Snipes, and Leguizamo playing The Women With Fabulous Names. There's empathy, kindness, and a deep well of emotional intelligence behind all of their performances, but especially with Swayze as the maternal Vida. Plenty of men could try their hand at Swayze's most iconic roles and with remakes of "Point Break," "Road House," and the sequel "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," they have ... but there's only one Vida Boheme.

1. Point Break

Kathryn Bigelow's magnum opus also doubles as the best Patrick Swayze film ever made. A bunch of SoCal bank robberies carried out by surfer criminals wearing masks of presidents force federal agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) to infiltrate the gang and take down the leader, Bodhi (Swayze). The intense back and forth between the two play out more like the push-pull tension of "Killing Eve" than the typical bad guy/good guy routine. Johnny and Bodhi are weirdly obsessed with one another and their well-played personas. This is a movie filled with thrill-seeking action set pieces and electric banter, providing Reeves and Swayze with a sandbox to go absolutely buck wild. On paper, "Point Break" seems like absolute nonsense, but in their more than capable hands, it's ballsy, bonkers, brilliant, and painfully bisexual. "I know you want me so bad it's like acid in your mouth" is a very real line Swayze says to Reeves, and we're supposed to not think these two are down bad for each other? Please.

But outside of the must-be-heared-to-be-believed dialogue ("young, dumb, and full of c*m" is an all-timer), there's a layer of physical performance, with Swayze especially, that tells an additional story. All of his years of dance training definitely pay off in "Point Break," because Bodhi is saying so much with his body, bringing the script's subtext to the surface with a glance, a change in posture, or a smirk after jumping out of an airplane. I'm glad to have lived long enough to see the overwhelming reassessment of "Point Break" as a stone-cold action masterpiece instead of the goofy nonsense it was initially perceived as, and I'm doubly glad to live in a world where real ones know that "Point Break" is Swayze's best movie.