Willem Dafoe is one of the most versatile, recognizable, risk-taking and talented actors of cinema for more than three decades already. Even making a list consisting of only 20 performances is hard enough considering how diverse his filmography and roles are. He has done all genres and worked with countless auteurs from all over the world.
His voice can be heard on a Lou Reed album and a James Bond video game, he’s done experimental theatre and his unique facial expressions gave a birth to countless internet memes. As Wim Wenders (“Faraway, So Close!”) describes him: “he’s the Christ and the Antichrist of cinema”.
Dafoe made his feature film debut in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Loveless”, and after all these years he’s still going strong – he still balances big Hollywood films (John Wick, Fault in Our Stars, Murder on the Orient Express, Aquaman) with small independent films.
20. The English Patient (1996)
Dafoe may have won countless awards from many major film festivals for his body of work but he didn’t have the same luck with the Oscars. He was snubbed for “Mississippi Burning”, maybe because his character was not showy enough, or maybe he was hurt by the controversy around “The Last Temptation of Christ” at that year.
“Tom & Viv” also earned two of its actresses a nomination while Dafoe was overlooked again. But none of them are surprising as much as his snub for this Anthony Minghella epic, hailed as “Casablanca of late 20th Century”, which won 9 Oscars out of 14 nominations. All the major members of the cast were nominated (Juliette Binoche even won) except for Dafoe who plays a Canadian spy.
Even though you could argue he’s not in it that much but his presence adds a lot to the strength of the film and the famous scene where he loses his thumb won’t work that well without his amazing acting.
19. Finding Nemo (2003)
Or “John Carter”? or “Fantastic Mr. Fox”? It doesn’t matter probably. Willem has a great, easily recognizable voice and he knows how to use it. He knows how to narrate a documentary (“Mountain”) well or how to read poems (you need to check out his reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”).
There’s a reason why he was called as the best part of Netflix live-action adaptation of “Death Note”. “Finding Nemo” is probably the second most widely seen movie of Dafoe’s career, after “Spider Man” except they can’t see him physically this time, only hear his voice. But that’s more than enough, his voice work as Gill, leader of Tank Gang is not only amusing but almost show-stealing.
18. Pasolini (2014)
Dafoe is a frequent collaborator of Abel Ferrara and has gave some great performances in his films (“Go Go Tales” is a particularly underrated one) and while Ferrara have made some beloved movies in the past like “King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant”, it’s safe to say some of his recent outputs were of acquired taste.
So is “Pasolini” which is far from a traditional biopic. The film shows the final days of iconic Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and is a very interesting effort, elevated by Dafoe’s haunting performance.
17. Triumph of the Spirit (1989)
When you show people Willem’s face, they will claim that he’s “best known for his villains” which is actually not true. We’re talking about a man who rose to prominence after starring in films like “Platoon”, “Mississippi Burning” and “Last Temptation of Christ” overall.
So when you hear that he was in a Holocaust film, you can easily assume he plays a Nazi character (and he actually did in slightly underrated “Adam Resurrected”, co-starring Jeff Goldblum) but here in this drama, he plays a Jewish Greek boxer Salamo Arouch who was forced to fight other internees to the death for the SS guards’ entertainment. The film is criticized for its sentimental tone but the critics were all agreed on one thing: Dafoe was terrific as usual.
16. Tom & Viv (1994)
“Body of Evidence” didn’t turn him into a sex symbol, he’s not to blame, the script was ridiculously bad but he gained a chance to show that he can pull of somewhat of a romantic lead in “Tom & Viv”, where he plays T.S. Eliot. On the paper, he may sound like a strange choice for the character but in the end the result was impressive.
That’s one of the great sides of Dafoe, you argue that he’s not the right choice for John Clark and then “Clear and Present Danger” gets released and you get surprised that how great he fits there. He sure knows how to transform himself and as he’d like to describe the process, he loves to “disappear”.
15. Animal Factory (2000)
Steve Buscemi’s prison drama, based on Edward Bunker’s novel. Dafoe just recently got a much showier part in another Edward Bunker adaptation “Dog Eat Dog” but the film didn’t live up to the expectations. “Animal Factory”, however is a more satisfying film except for the ending probably.
Even though Dafoe’s talent often overshadows Edward Furlong’s work in the film, they still make a good duo and Dafoe manages to bring some depth and intelligence to his character. The film also features a great turn from Mickey Rourke in an unexpected role, who previously collaborated with Dafoe in “White Sands” (where Dafoe showed he’s capable of being an action hero) and Robert Rodriguez’s underwhelming “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”.
14. Auto Focus (2002)
Just like Abel Ferrara, Dafoe also often collaborates with Paul Schrader. Even though sometimes Schrader can give him some thankless roles (“Affliction” is a great film for sure but Dafoe is criminally wasted), he has given him some meaty parts as well. “Auto Focus” is one of Dafoe’s impressive turns, portraying electronics expert John Henry Carpenter who befriends with actor Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear).
Carpenter is bit of an unpredictable character; we sometimes don’t know what his motivations are and what is he really thinking. Dafoe makes a surprisingly great duo with Kinnear who also shines in the lead role. Dafoe earned well-deserved Best Supporting Actor award nominations from both New York and Chicago film critics.
13. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
After seeing him playing the cool bike gang leader in Walter Hill’s “Streets of Fire”, William Friedkin casted Dafoe in another villain part playing counterfeit artist in this influential 80s action. He almost doesn’t smile in the film, creates a very cold but also intriguing character.
He also gets some memorable one-liners. Oh and that long scene where he makes counterfeit money? Pure cinema!
12. Antichrist (2009)
Chaos reigns! Dafoe is one of European auteurs’ favorite American actors. Wim Wenders, Theo Angeolopolous, Werner Herzog and of course, Lars Von Trier. Trier has worked with him three times already but the only one where Dafoe appeared in a leading role was in highly controversial “Antichrist” which is fine for him, as he never minded controversy, never avoided it.
Films like “Antichrist” probably prove why Dafoe is so popular among such wide range of directors. Because he’s not afraid of taking risks and he gives brave performances as he did in here. Very few actors would have the courage to allow von Trier to put them through what Dafoe (and Gainsbourg) experienced in the name of cinema here. No matter if you fell in love with the film or disgusted by it, it’s hard to find a flaw in Dafoe’s performance.
11. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Dafoe works non-stop. He appears in too many movies, sometimes they be small roles – Mary Harron’s “American Psycho”, Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat”, Scorsese’s “The Aviator” or Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” – his screentime is limited in all of those but it’s always nice to see him popping up all of a sudden.
“Born on the Fourth of July”, his second collaboration with Oliver Stone, is one of those but he gets more to do compared to some of his other small roles. That wheelchair fight scene alone between him and Tom Cruise is legendary.