One look over Paul Dano’s filmography and one will quickly realize that the man has undeniable talent. Despite his lack of big starring roles, Dano nevertheless stands out in each and every film he appears in.
This list is a combination of both Dano’s performances and the films themselves. In other words this list is not exclusively dedicated to the quality of Paul Dano’s performance nor is it dedicated to the quality of the film itself. Rather, it’s looking at both of those things in conjunction with one another.
10. Ruby Sparks (2012)
The directors of Little Miss Sunshine upgraded Dano from supporting actor to leading man and the results are pretty great. Paul Dano’s performance is charming and likeable. Proving that he can play a character that the audience is supposed to hate and a character that they’re supposed to love, Dano’s portrayal of Calvin Weir-Fields will have you smiling and cheering all the way to the finish line.
Though the movie isn’t as magical as Little Miss Sunshine, mostly due to the fact that it’s honestly pretty generic, it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do – charming the viewers. Ruby Sparks is a simple film about love and the male ego. It’s easy to appreciate even if it’s hard to fall in love with. Though this isn’t Dano’s most powerful performance, it’s one of his most charming.
9. Looper (2012)
Looper is a fantastic sci-fi movie that proves that Hollywood isn’t out of original ideas. In all honesty, it’s likely what got Rian Johnson the job directing the 8th installment in that little-known franchise known as Star Wars. The modestly budgeted sci-fi time bender was a hit with critics and audiences.
Once again playing a supporting role, Paul Dano plays Seth, a fellow looper who gets himself into a bit of trouble. Unfortunately, like a majority of the movies on this list, Dano’s screentime is limited. However, also like a majority of the list, he makes up for it by bringing everything he’s got.
Dano isn’t well-known for action movies. He typically sticks with indie dramas, and that’s because he excels at playing the characters found in those films. If Looper is anything to go by though, one can assume that Dano is just as solid at playing a time-traveling telekinetic as he as at playing an aspiring pilot gone mute.
Once again playing a character you want to punch in the face, Dano is crazy good as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s movie best friend. Even though he’s not a key player in the movie, he’s still a ton of fun to watch.
8. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Despite being a critical success, Meek’s Cutoff polarizer the average filmgoer due to its experimental nature, ambiguous ending, and incredibly slow pacing. At times, it really comes across as an arthouse Western film. Considering the fact that western fans and arthouse fans don’t often cross paths, it makes sense that the film confused viewers.
There are plenty of viewers that find the film to a slog, but there are a few lights at the end of the tunnel even for people that don’t like the movie. Michelle Williams is probably the highlight of the film, but Paul Dano and Bruce Greenwood definitely shine as well.
Dano’s character is much simpler than what we’ve come to expect from him. Instead of playing a dastardly villain, Dano plays someone who’s very human. He’s a simple man trying to survive, and we’re rooting for him to make it through.
It’s interesting to see Paul Dano in these roles because it’s out of the ordinary for him. Known for playing very hateable characters, it’s a nice change of pace seeing Dano tackle this kind of role. He does a great job strengthening the movie even if he’s not the strongest part.
7. L.I.E. (2001)
Dano almost exclusively plays supporting roles, but that certainly doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of playing the lead. Sure, Gigantic was kind of a mess, but movies like L.I.E. prove that Dano can take on larger roles and succeed. L.I.E. was the role that put Paul Dano on the map. At the young age of 15, nobody even knew who Paul Dano was. And while he still didn’t earn big-name recognition from the flick, L.I.E. was still a hit with the indie crowd.
The movie is a deeply unsettling look into pedophilia and sexuality in general. The controversial film originally earned an NC-17 for its graphic sexual content. It’s disturbing and hard to watch, but it’s also undeniably gripping thanks largely to Dano’s breakthrough performance. The intricacy of his performance is what keeps viewers hypnotized. The movie itself is also captivating, even if it can be tough to sit through.
6. Prisoners (2013)
In Prisoners, Paul Dano plays Alex Jones, a young man with the IQ of a ten-year-old. Jones is the prime suspect of kidnapping when the daughter of Keller Dover, played by Hugh Jackman, goes missing after approaching a van that happens to belong to Jones. Despite the presumed naivety of Alex Jones, the audience remains suspicious of the character throughout the entire film thanks in large part to Dano’s layered performance.
Jackman gives a powerhouse performance as the unstable father of the missing girl, but Dano’s subtlety as the accused kidnapper is equally applaud-worthy. Paul Dano has a knack for playing characters that are easy to hate but equally easy to feel sorry for. In Prisoners, his character is a prime example.
Despite getting constantly abused by Jackman’s character, the audience can’t help but feel like there’s something Alex Jones isn’t telling them. Dano’s ability to play numerous characters like this to perfection is why so many people believe him to be one of the most talented young actors working today.
The film itself is also a blast. Some might complain about the ending, but the joyous thrill ride up until that point makes it hard to complain. When that’s combined with solid performances throughout, especially from Dano, you’re left feeling more than satisfied by the time the movie concludes.