Whether he’s playing the hero, the villain, or somewhere in between, more times than not, Willem Dafoe is the most interesting actor in any movie that features his name. Despite being one of the best living actors without an Academy Award, Dafoe instantly makes a movie better whenever he steps on the screen. Throughout his career, he’s appeared in superhero movies like Spider-Man, dramas like Platoon, and several of the best Wes Anderson movies.
The list of Willem Dafoe’s best movies is one that features biographical dramas, groundbreaking psychological thrillers, and a handful of controversial films that we are still talking about decades later. Let’s take a look at just a sampling of the legendary actor’s great works.
Still one of the best superhero movies nearly 20 years after its initial release, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man tells not only the story of Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire) transformation into the iconic webslinger, but also that of Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).
It is hard to imagine anyone but Dafoe pulling off the role of Norman Osborn, as he descends into madness and gives Spider-Man his first true test. The way Dafoe is able to bounce between a charismatic scientist running his own corporation, to a crazed villain hellbent on revenge, only makes the instant-classic even more of a treat to revisit time and time again.
The Florida Project (2017)
In the shadow of Walt Disney World lies a world of unlicensed shopping centers, low-budget extended stay motels, and people just trying to make it in life. In that dark, desperate, and uncertain world live the characters that make up Sean Baker’s 2017 drama, The Florida Project, including Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the caring manager of the Magic Castle motel where the young girl lives.
The Florida Project, despite its somewhat depressing setting, has a ton of heart. This is especially true for Willem Dafoe's Bobby, who provides a great deal of emotional depth to the story.
At Eternity’s Gate (2018)
When it was announced that Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) would be directing a biographical drama about the final years of Vincent van Gogh, you could feel the excitement in the air. The anticipation grew even stronger when everyone got their first glance of Willem Dafoe as the tortured artist responsible for some of art’s greatest and most inventive works.
The film changes the way you look at van Gogh as a person and artist, and a lot of that has to do with Willem Dafoe's enchanting depiction of the iconic artist. The wonder and pain in Dafoe's eyes throughout the unique biopic is a testament of his acting and emotional range.
Oliver Stone’s epic Vietnam drama, Platoon, mainly focuses three characters and how they deal with the trauma of war in their own unique ways. There’s the fresh-faced and naïve volunteer Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), the hardened and morally bankrupt Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), and experienced yet caring Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe).
Willem Dafoe is responsible for some of Platoon's most powerful moments, which is one of the reasons why he received so much recognition, including an Oscar nomination. In fact, it's hard to imagine Sergeant Elias' biggest scene with someone else playing the role.
American Psycho (2000)
Released in 2000, Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ disturbing novel, American Psycho, follows investment banker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) as he balances his busy life on Wall Street with that of a sadistic serial killer obsessed with power, blood, and materialism.
When one of Bateman’s colleagues, Paul Allen (Jared Leto), goes missing, Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) begins investigating the strange circumstances surrounding his mysterious disappearance. What’s great about Dafoe’s performance here is the fact that two he shot two different sets of reactions for each of his scenes with Bateman — one in which he knew Bateman was a killer and a second in which he didn’t — which were later spliced together, per Far Out Magazine.
John Wick (2014)
The John Wick franchise has become one of the most popular film properties in recent years, with multiple sequels having been released and more on the way. Sometimes you just have to go back to where it all started in 2014, when John Wick (Keanu Reeves) first came out of retirement to get a little payback after his pet dog (a gift from his dead wife) was viciously killed.
Wick encounters multiple characters along the way, but Marcus (Willem Dafoe) is one of the most interesting. Dafoe is able to portray the character in a manner that leaves the audience questioning his allegiances throughout, which makes Marcus all the more interesting to watch.
The Lighthouse (2019)
Directed by Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse tells the tale of two lighthouse keepers on an isolated island off the New England coast. The younger of the two, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) slowly begins to lose his mind (and spill his beans) as his month-long contract drags on. The older and more experienced, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) bounces between being cordial and overly demanding with his subordinate, further escalating his deteriorating mental state.
Willem Dafoe is absolutely perfect throughout The Lighthouse and his emotional range helps turn Thomas Wake into a character more fascinating than he has any right being.
Shadow Of The Vampire (2000)
E. Elias Merhige’s 2000 offbeat horror film, Shadow of the Vampire, provides a fictionalized recount of the making of Nosferatu, the 1921 unauthorized version of Dracula. In this cult classic, Willem Dafoe takes on the role of Max Schreck, the man hired by F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) to play Count Orlok. Shadow of the Vampire depicts Schreck as an actual vampire, whose insistence on staying in character and working only at night begins to not only impress the cast and crew but frighten them.
Willem Dafoe is embodiment of madness throughout Shadow of the Vampire and really makes the movie a must-watch, even if it's sometimes hard to find. And though a lot of the cast is great here, Dafoe's Max Schreck is an undeniable force of nature.
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)
One of the most controversial on-screen depictions of Jesus, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 drama, The Last Temptation of Christ, depicts the religious figure in a more human light. Portrayed by Willem Dafoe, Jesus spends the majority of the movie burdened by his role in humanity’s salvation, and conflicted about his life choices, even as he is forced to carry the cross to his own crucifixion.
Willem Dafoe was an odd pick to take on the role of Jesus Christ, but after watching the movie it's hard to imagine anyone else in his place, especially in this manner. Dafoe's performance humanizes the religious figure in more ways than one.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Set in the American South in the early 1960s, Mississippi Burning follows FBI agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) as they travel the “Magnolia State” to investigate the disappearances of three civil rights activists who were last seen in a small town ruled by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The late Alan Parker’s emotionally tense and thrilling drama largely focuses on diverging personalities and tactics of the two FBI agents, a partnership that feels both tight and strained thanks the powerhouse performances of Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Willem Dafoe has been in a few Wes Anderson movies over the years including The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which was their first collaboration. Released in 2004, the quirky comedy tells the story of oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) as he prepares his next documentary about the elusive jaguar shark.
Steve Zissou's first mate, Klaus Daimler (Dafoe), is at the center of some of the movie's best moments, including during the climatic rescue operation when he opens up to his idol about always being on the "B Squad." Although a funny moment, Dafoe adds a level of sincerity and pain to his lines that add a real emotional punch to the gut.
Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)
And then there is Born of the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone’s 1989 emotionally and politically-charged biographical drama about Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), an idealistic and patriotic Vietnam War veteran who was left paralyzed from the waist down following a firefight.
Near the end of Ron Kovic's post-war soul-searching journey, he finds himself in some strange places with even stranger people. This is when we meet Charlie (Willem Dafoe), another paraplegic Vietnam vet living in Mexico. No surprise here, but Dafoe brilliantly captures the fear, pain, anger, and madness of a man abandoned by his country.
This is just a small portion of all the great performances Willem Dafoe has given over the years, but this is a great place to start for anyone wanting to see some of his best movies.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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