Willem Dafoe was one of the founders of the Wooster Theater Company before he got deep into film, impressing audiences and critics with his villain in Streets of Fire (1984). In the days since his vulpine features have startled audiences, his intense performances have been critically acclaimed and he moves easily between Hollywood blockbusters and important independent films. Oscar winning director William Friedkin cast him as Rick Masters, the counterfeiter in ‘To Live and Die in LA’ (1985) to great acclaim.
It was, however, as Elias, the decent American soldier in Platoon (1986) that he first earned great acclaim and his first Academy Award nomination. As the messiah like warrior, critics sang his praises, the Academy awarded him a nomination for supporting actor and, taking notice, Martin Scorsese cast him as Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) one of his finest and most important performances. Audiences had not ever seen a Christ like this one, so human, so real, and critics heaped praise on him for his work in the demanding and difficult movie. Through the nineties, the actor gave us an array of heroes and villains, fearless to make himself look horrible for any role. He continues to do that to this day, comfortable in studio fare such as Spider-Man (2002) and more so in indies that challenge him as an actor. Here is the list of top 9 movies of Williem Dafoe.
1. The Florida Project (2017)
Bobby is a gruff manager of a run-down hotel, one of those loud garish ones you see on the way to Disney World, but that is the closest anyone who stays there will ever come. Run down, many people live there paying by the week, Bobby tends to them and the hotel daily. Often he is fixing something seven year old Moonee and Her friends have damaged. Though he is tough on the kids, he is a fierce protector of them. Dafoe is brilliant in the film, do the finest work of his career, displaying a huge heart, a kindness in a place where one would not believe it exists.
2. Platoon (1986)
His major breakthrough earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Portraying the decent soldier, Elias, who inherently understands America will lose Viet Nam, and why, believing in his cause, yet disillusioned with what he sees everyday. He is at odds with Barnes, a warrior who kills anyone and everyone in his path. Understanding that the Americans are invading a country they have no business being in, and that they are going to lose the war. Elias sees the danger in Barnes, more than anyone, but never imagines what will happen to him. One of the great death scenes in movies, the film ended the comic book mentality about Viet Nam that had conquered American cinema.
3. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The most human portrayal of Jesus Christ we had ever seen, Dafoe was superb in this daring film. Afraid of the voices he hears, terrified of what they tell him, he makes crosses for the Romans to crucify the Jews. Yet he finds his voice and slowly builds a following, a loyal one, who gather to listen to him speak. Before our eyes, he becomes Christ. The scenes on the cross are extraordinary, with Dafoe going where no actor had ever gone before as Jesus. One of Scorsese’s greatest films, and among the most controversial films of the decade, along with being a profoundly moving experience.
4. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
An interesting film about the making of the classic German horror film Nosferatu (1920) that poses the question, what if Max Schreck, the actor portraying the vampire was himself a vampire? Dafoe is wonderful in the film but frightening and funny, earning his second Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Oddly, with hideous make up, turning him into a monster, he is the most human of all the characters.
5. Wild at Heart (1990)
I love this movie. Two lonely outsiders connect, and everywhere they go they encounter horrific people. None is more horrific than Bobby Peru, the greasy rotted teeth villain, who bullies and manipulates all those around him. As always Dafoe was fearless in the role, not afraid to look repellant, not afraid to be a monster. It is a small part, but electrifying, and we do not soon forget Peru. This is a guy who looks like he is rotting from the inside out.
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6. To Live and Die in LA (1985)
The opening scenes in the film are a text book study in how to counterfeit cash. We watch as Rick Masters, portrayed with slimy, reptilian charm by Dafoe, makes money. Literally. We discover very quickly he is a very bad guy, dangerous, unpredictable, willing to do whatever it takes to survive. One of his first major roles, he was intense, unique, a badass, sinewy and the camera loved him.
7. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
This biography of Viet Nam veteran Ron Kovic, turned activist was a showcase for Tom Cruise, but in the middle of it, Dafoe is extraordinary as a fellow vet, living like many vets in Mexico where Kovic goes to find peace. There he meets Charlie, a raging vet ashamed at what he did over there, killing men, women and children, ashamed he came home forever in a wheelchair. They have a stunning scene together, abandoned in the desert, where they argue, fight, spit on each other, but are finally bonded by their deep despair. Dafoe is astonishing in the role.
8. Antichrist (2009)
In Lars Von Trier’s powerful film, Dafoe is a husband and father who, while making love to his wife, loses his young son when the child falls through a window onto the street far belong. Clinical as a psychotherapist, he processes his grief, whilevshe breaks from reality. They move to their cabin in the woods where her behaviour becomes more and more irrational. The film is often haunting, with stark and powerful images. Dafoe is outstanding in the film, matched every step of the way by Charlotte Gainsborough.
9. Triumph of the Spirit (1990)
Based on a true story, Dafoe excels as a Jewish boxer sent to the death camp, Auschwitz during the Second World War. When the Nazis discover his skill in the ring, they use him as a fighter and means of entertainment, gambling on him. If he wins he and his family receive extra rations, but should he lose, he will die in the gas chambers. Dafoe strikes a chord of a man in constant turmoil, literally fighting for his life not just with each bout, but each day.
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