One of indie cinema’s most versatile, enigmatic, and beloved performers, Willem Dafoe’s illustrious career spans decades and hundreds of films. He has also collaborated with many of the world’s finest filmmakers. His eccentricity has marked his road to stardom in his performances and choice of project: He only approaches the mainstream on his terms and has cultivated a fanbase that bridges the gap between the accessible and the avant-garde. His uncanny ability to embody such a complex array of characters has led him to succeed as the villain, tormented artist, and loveable hero. In this list, we count down the top 10 films from the revered thespian, unraveling the secrets behind his success as we go.

10. Light Sleeper, 1992

Top 10 Willem Dafoe Films -Light Sleeper, 1992

A hallmark of Willem Dafoe’s career is the distinct artistic synergy he has struck with several of America’s finest filmmakers. The first of four collaborations with Paul Schrader, Light Sleeper is among the most stylish and austere of the writer-director’s hard-boiled, moralistic crime dramas. Dafoe stars as the protagonist John who battles the dueling forces of the New York drug scene and his grieving conscience. Schrader emphasizes the gaunt physicality of the performer, at once menacing in his unsavory profession and clearly a fragile, haunted, lumbering force in his personal affairs.

John’s relationships with his ex-wife Marianne (Dana Delany) and his boss Ann (Susan Sarandon) are keen illustrations of this dichotomy, though strangely, perhaps the latter provides him with more emotional respite and forgiveness. In recent years, Schrader’s attempts to refine his core themes have rendered his work repetitive and predictable. Still, Light Sleeper remains a thrilling example of what he was capable of at his best and boasts one of Dafoe’s most haunted performances to date.

9. Shadow of the Vampire, 2000

Top 10 Willem Dafoe Films - Shadow of the Vampire, 2000

Dafoe earned the second of his four Oscar nominations for his layered performance in this inventive biopic. He plays Max Schreck, the German character actor given the break of a lifetime as the lead role in the horror classic Nosferatu. In his dedication to the craft of acting, Schreck’s actions become increasingly erratic, affording Dafoe the opportunity to flex his acting muscles as a genuinely unsettling performer.

The film is a thrill for cinephile: apart from its fascinating history, it punctuates its storyline through inter-titles, evoking the ominous feel of 1920s cinema. Propping up Dafoe’s scene-stealing performance is a stellar supporting cast, including John Malkovich in equally mischievous form channeling the master director F.W. Murnau. Operating as both an earnest love letter to a horror classic and a compelling portrayal of artistic obsession in its own right, Shadow of the Vampire remains one of the most enduring films of Dafoe’s long, storied career.

8. Antichrist, 2009

Top 10 Willem Dafoe Films - Antichrist, 2009

Despite what some would have you believe, there’s far more to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist than shock value. Indeed, it’s hard to deny the vulgarity of the film’s most famous scene, in which Dafoe’s character is violently castrated by his wife, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Both characters remain nameless in their journey to the retreat of ‘Eden,’ a heavy-handed implication that the story unfolding symbolizes deeper truths that the Danish director believes underpins the human condition.

The film’s explicit nature asks a lot from its actors, and Dafoe rises to the challenge providing perhaps the most daring performance in a career marked by eccentricity and risk. The character is defined by his lack of control over his emotions, evident in his endless grief for his late son and sadomasochistic desires, which come to the fore in Antichrist’s most infamous moments. The performance helps to dispel von Trier’s popular image as a simple provocateur or enfant terrible; the film may contain madness, yet there is a method to it, and the emotional power drawn from the film’s repulsive set pieces cannot be denied. Antichrist remains an enduring testament to Dafoe’s ample skill and versatility as a performer.

7. The Lighthouse, 2019

Top 10 Willem Dafoe Films - The Lighthouse, 2019

Similarly to Antichrist, the strength of Robert Eggers’The Lighthouse relies on its two central performers. For 109 minutes, the rugged visages of Dafoe and co-star Robert Pattinson are all that populate the black-and-white gothic landscape. Yet, the film remains a compelling and genuinely unsettling modern horror classic. Eggers’ most remarkable achievement is how he and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke convey the sense of claustrophobia that permeates this story of deserted lighthouse keepers in the 19th century. The film takes its title from an Edgar Allen Poe story, and indeed Eggers is unafraid to lean into his influences; both the film’s characterizations and lysergic recurring symbols (chief among them a seagull) are heavily indebted to the American writer.

Once again, physicality is central to Dafoe’s work here in a performance that maintains his eccentricities but fully embodies the unhealthy lifestyle and tortured psyche of somebody conditioned to isolation. Opposite the pretty boy Pattinson, Dafoe’s crackling smile and weathered face highlight the contrast between the two men, which emphasizes this dual character study. One of the actor’s best, most unique skills is the ability to both engage an audience in a narrative and allude to the film’s more incredible themes, which in turn why so many arthouse filmmakers have turned to him to access a more mainstream audience, something Eggers accomplished to masterful effect.

6. At Eternity’s Gate, 2018

Top 10 Willem Dafoe Films - At Eternity’s Gate, 2018

In Julian Schnabel’s overlooked 2018 biopic, Willem Dafoe joins the ranks of Kirk Douglas and Martin Scorsese in taking on the portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh. At Eternity’s Gate is a more impressionistic work than previous attempts to chronicle the fabled life of the Dutch genius, and it’s also perhaps the most effective. As a visual artist in his own right, Schnabel can bring to the frame the nuance and energy of Van Gogh’s work to life, gathering inspiration from life’s simplest subjects. Dafoe’s performance transcends simple impersonation. The relative lack of information about the artist’s personal life leaves the director and performer alike to summon the spirit of the man from his work.

Dafoe’s mood swings evoke the contrast between light and dark, which illuminates Van Gogh’s masterpieces. Of course, much of this feeling resulted from well-documented struggles with mental illness, and Schnabel deftly avoids cliche in this regard. Dafoe’s performance rejects a simple retelling of mental instability and artistic genius; rather than there being cause and effect, Van Gogh, in fact, drew inspiration from the temporary solace provided to him by the church and his loved ones. Dafoe and Schnabel’s attention to detail, burning sense of empathy, and artistic verve make At Eternity’s Gate perhaps the finest Van Gogh biopic to date, and the film deservedly earned Dafoe his fourth Oscar nod.

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5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004

Top 10 Willem Dafoe Films - The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004

This wouldn’t be a list fit for publication if it omitted one of Dafoe’s many fruitful collaborations with Wes Anderson. The indie extraordinaire has used Dafoe consistently for almost twenty years, and while he shines as a hard-nosed thug in The Grand Budapest Hotel and a shady accountant in The French Dispatch, it’s their first film that still shines brightest. Amidst an enormous ensemble cast, spearheaded by the best performance of Bill Murray’s career, Dafoe more than holds his own.

Dafoe plays Kraus, a German crewmate who, despite his experience and grizzled persona, displays a heartfelt dedication to Zissou, becoming his most committed ally in the film’s central quest for revenge. This manifests in a vulnerability that provides an emotional core to Anderson’s work that is vital to grounding the film in some sort of reality. For better or worse, recent Anderson films have been purely aesthetic exercises; no matter how much you loved Asteroid City, it does not tug on the heartstrings as much as The Life Aquatic’s climax. The performances of Dafoe and Murray especially are pivotal to this emotional potency and contribute towards its status as a cult classic that has endured years beyond its initial lukewarm reception.

4. The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988

Top 10 Willem Dafoe Films - The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988

Now that the dust has settled, 35 years after the protests that swarmed its release, The Last Temptation of Christ occupies a curious position in pop culture. Few consider it a masterpiece, yet subsequent failures to convincingly depict the gospel stories have emphasized the startling clarity of Scorsese’s vision. One thing nobody ever questioned was the prowess shown by Willem Dafoe in tackling the role of Jesus Christ himself with sensitivity, poignancy, and courage. His performance has the same purpose as Scorsese’s infamous depictions of violence and promiscuity in the film: To ground this religious figure steeped in mythos and differing interpretations into a material history from which viewers can be inspired.

Dafoe’s emotional intensity is heightened by the score from synth pioneer Peter Gabriel, a cacophony of polyrhythm surrounding Jesus’ grapples with temptation. Perhaps what Dafoe captures best in this biblical portrayal is that in the gospels, Jesus is god made *flesh*, and, therefore, will be imbued with human flaws. Indeed, in this portrayal, burden and responsibility weigh heavily on his mind. Scorsese’s controversial and challenging take on perhaps the most famous story in human history remains something to be admired, not least because of the vitality and strength of Dafoe’s central performance.

3. Platoon, 1986

Platoon, 1986

Oliver Stone’s immersive war epic introduced many viewers to Willem Dafoe. He delivers an iconic performance as the determined and charismatic Sergeant Elias. In Vietnam, internal divisions are rife in a dispirited and unorganized US camp. In Platoon’s most famous scene, Elias becomes the victim, stranded on his knees, stoically embracing the Vietcong’s gunfire while Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” echoes around him. Dafoe’s face at this moment tells a million words, foreshadowing both the sadomasochism of the Antichrist and the time-stopping vulnerability of The Last Temptation.

Of course, Dafoe’s performance is one of just many areas in which Stone’s movie shines. Platoon swept the 54th Academy Awards, winning Best Picture and Best Director and earning Dafoe his first Oscar nomination. Also nominated was Tom Berenger, the stereotyped action man forced into the most challenging and moving role of his career. Stone’s direction and storytelling are lean in its consistent forward momentum but find just the right moments to embed the emotional weight, not least in a truly harrowing sequence illustrating Vietnamese ‘seek and destroy’ tactics. In his more recent work, Stone’s attempts to put forth his progressive political agenda have been overbearing. Still, in his most celebrated movie, he shows that showing, not telling, can be the key to reorienting public perception of war—a truly vital work of cinema featuring one of the meatiest roles of Dafoe’s career.

2. The Florida Project, 2017

The Florida Project, 2017

After a career spent playing eccentrics of varying degrees, it was a refreshing delight to see Dafoe’s turn in The Florida Project. Sean Baker specializes in portraying the lives of those on the fringes of American society, whether it be the transgender prostitutes of Tangerine, the Chinese immigrant of Take Out, or here the impoverished families living near Disneyland, Florida, their own squalid conditions starkly contrasting that cartoon version of the American dream. Amid a collection of child actors (Brooklynn Prince as the precocious Moonee) and debutants (her single mother Halley), Dafoe is the only recognized name, in a way reflecting the role of his character Bobby, who runs the budget motel where the characters reside. His gentle demeanor, sense of humor, and empathy for those less fortunate who have ended up under his de facto care render Bobby one of the most affable characters Dafoe has ever played.

Unlike the grand set-pieces of Platoon or Antichrist, Dafoe excels in the smallest moments here, and the quiet interactions outline the themes of class and family that Baker is so interested in exploring. He is the vessel for the quiet compassion of the everyman that juxtaposes the domineering, careless forces of the state services and the corporate hegemony they are in cahoots with. Without the delicate balancing act of Dafoe’s performance, The Florida Project could have so easily devolved into “poverty porn.” But Baker’s passion and vision behind the camera and Dafoe’s expertise in front of it guarantee this is one of modern American cinema’s most sensitive and moving portrayals of those ‘left behind’ by capitalism.

1. Pasolini, 2014

Pasolini, 2014

In this writer’s opinion, the most daring and compelling performances of Dafoe’s career have stemmed from his long-standing artistic union with Abel Ferrara. The pair first worked together on the cult classic New Rose Hotel, a daring cyber-noir, in 1998, but have indeed hit their stride since Ferrara decamped to his motherland Italy. Pasolini chronicles the final days of the legendary filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was mysteriously killed in 1975. Clearly, Ferrara sees a kindred spirit in a fellow renegade, unafraid to upset the apple cart and challenge social norms in their art. In the title role, Dafoe shows admirable restraint with a measured performance that attempts to locate the intellectual essence of the man.

However, Ferrara does not resort to fanboy fawning over his hero, instead delivering a frank and explicit tale of Pasolini’s final hours; little is done to mask how this great artist likely died perusing the streets of Rome for sex and substances. There appears to be an acknowledgment that hero worship is not conducive to deconstructing the essence of a man’s life and work. While Pasolini’s art may transcend in its ability to inspire generations and affect cultural norms, the flawed humanity of the man himself is pivotal to understanding this, including the circumstances of his tragic passing. Dafoe as Pasolini offers such a brilliantly realized performance, so nuanced and rewarding on repeated viewings, that it represents the pinnacle of his career to date. However, such an excellent performer is bound to outdo himself in the near future.

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