11 Best Movies to Watch by Willem Dafoe

Staff & contributors

Wise, superbly acted, and gorgeously put together, all of these apply to Nightmare Alley. In a world where remakes are more in vogue than needed, Guillermo del Toro shows us how it's done. A sumptuous tale of a man's rise and fall guarantees some spectatorial pleasure, but having both Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett in the same film (plus unsung genius Toni Collette and all-round-favorite Willem Dafoe) pushes us into talent overload, in the best possible way. In addition to its thrilling plot and studded cast, Nightmare Alley is also psychologically literate enough to make a carnival out of the human soul. It's no surprise that in 2022, it got four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture where it certainly would have had my vote.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Bill MacDonald, Bradley Cooper, Caleb Ellsworth-Clark, Calvin Desautels, Cate Blanchett, Catherine McGregor, Charles Langille, Clifton Collins Jr., Clyde Whitham, Dan Lett, Dani Klupsch, Daniel Falk, Danny Waugh, David Hewlett, David Strathairn, Dian Bachar, Holt McCallany, James Collins, Jesse Buck, Jim Beaver, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Lili Connor, Linden Porco, Mark Povinelli, Martin Julien, Mary Steenburgen, Matthew MacCallum, Natalie Brown, Paul Anderson, Perry Mucci, Peter MacNeill, Richard Jenkins, Romina Power, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, Sarah Mennell, Stephen McHattie, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Post, Toni Collette, Troy James, Vikki Ring, Walter Rinaldi, Will Conlon, Willem Dafoe

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rating: R

Every once in a while there are movies that expand the definition of quality film-making. This is one of those movies.

Here is an incredible, yet delicate film that follows three children from poor families who are stuck living in subpar motels. Their lives and friendships are portrayed with honesty and precise aesthetics. It’s a story that at first seems as plot-free as life itself.

It succeeds in capturing an innocence that is usually reserved to a child’s imagination: a precarious living condition full of adventures and fun. It’s hard to describe it beyond that; it’s the kind of film that must be seen to be fully understood.

And it ends on a very high note.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aiden Malik, Andrew Romano, Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Caleb Landry Jones, Cecilia Quinan, Christopher Rivera, Edward Pagan, Gary B. Gross, Giovanni Rodriguez, Hannah Peterson, Jim R. Coleman, Josie Olivo, Karren Karagulian, Lauren O'Quinn, Macon Blair, Marisol Rivera, Mela Murder, Sabina Friedman-Seitz, Shih-Ching Tsou, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe

Director: Sean Baker

Rating: R

Danish writer-director Lars von Trier concludes his so-called Depression trilogy with the two parts of Nymphomaniac, an elaborate retelling of the life of a young woman (played by Stacy Martin and then, by Charlotte Gainsbourg) lived from one libidinous pleasure to another. The film's elaborate subplots have a life of their own and flashbacks often take center stage in Joe's auto-narration. Nymphomaniac I introduces the audience to adolescence and early adulthood, through disappointments, adultery, death drive, and extreme ambivalence. Joe's process of self-actualization seems contested and inspiring at the same time, and Gainsbourg is really given the screen time to shine; even more so than in Trier's previous psycho-social drama, Antichrist. Typically for the rich treasury of cultural references, Bach, Edgar Allan Poe, and Fibonacci play crucial parts in reconstructing the symbolic planes in Joe's story. Oh, and Part One opens with Rammstein's "Führe mich", which in itself is an perfectly valid reason to give it a go.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ananya Berg, Anders Hove, Andreas Grötzinger, Charlie Hawkins, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Christian Slater, Christoph Jöde, Christoph Schechinger, Clayton Nemrow, Connie Nielsen, Cyron Melville, David Halina, George Dawson, Hugo Speer, James Northcote, Jamie Bell, Jeff Burrell, Jens Albinus, Jesper Christensen, Jesse Inman, Johannes Kienast, Jonas Baeck, Maja Arsovic, Markus Tomczyk, Mia Goth, Michael Pas, Nicolas Bro, Peter Gilbert Cotton, Saskia Reeves, Shia LaBeouf, Simon Böer, Sofie Kasten, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, Tomas Spencer, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe

Director: Lars von Trier

Rating: Not Rated, NR

After experimenting with multiple storylines in The French Dispatch, the inimitable Wes Anderson goes one step further with the mind-bendingly meta Asteroid City. Framed as a TV documentary about the making of a play, Asteroid City’s Russian doll setup reflects the neurosis of its period (the Cold War-struck ‘50s), art-making, and the intimidating vastness of outer space.

The play takes place in a tiny desert town where atom bomb tests routinely rattle the doorframes and where a convention for young geniuses is being held, attended by a host of typically idiosyncratic characters (played by Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hanks, and many, many more). Still, it retains a central focus: the grief of new widower Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and his kids, and the connections he and his son (Jake Ryan) forge with a visiting actress (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter (Dinah Campbell). Asteroid City draws much of its poignancy from this story (and its behind-the-scenes goings-on), as these people stare into the cosmic wilderness and a future without their loved one. Shot in gorgeous bleached postcard tones and full of the imaginative flourishes we’ve come to expect from Anderson, this is a profound rumination on existential angst that miraculously finds hope amidst all its characters’ nihilism.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Adrien Brody, Aimee Mullins, Ara Hollyday, Bob Balaban, Bryan Cranston, Damien Bonnard, Deanna Dunagan, Dominique Fouassier, Edward Norton, Elena Uriz, Ella Faris, Erika Godwin, Ethan Josh Lee, Fisher Stevens, Francisco Javier Gomez, Grace Edwards, Gracie Faris, Hong Chau, Hope Davis, Jack Eyman, Jake Ryan, Jarvis Cocker, Jason Schwartzman, Jay Lau, Jeff Goldblum, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Margot Robbie, Matt Dillon, Maya Hawke, Palmira Ferrer, Patricia Colin, Paul Kynman, Randall Poster, Rita Wilson, Rodolphe Pauly, Rupert Friend, Sam Marra, Sandy Hamilton, Scarlett Johansson, Seu Jorge, Sonia Gascón, Sophia Lillis, Stéphane Bak, Stephen Park, Steve Carell, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hanks, Tom Hudson, Tony Revolori, Truman Hanks, Wendy Nottingham, Willa Skye, Willem Dafoe

Director: Wes Anderson

This movie narrated by Nicolas Cage is the incredible story of actor Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Like Crazy): from being born to a Jewish Russian family in Leningrad to moving to the U.S. and ending with his sudden death at age 27. Anton, or Antosha as his loved ones called him, was a gifted kid: he was making his own movies at seven years old, taking highly sophisticated notes on Fellini movies, and picking up playing guitar in a short time. He took photographs that still show in exhibitions around the world. He led an extraordinary life, portrayed here, one that was cut way too short.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ben Foster, Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pine, Drake Doremus, Frank Langella, Guillermo del Toro, J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, Joe Dante, John Cho, Jon Poll, Jon Voight, Kristen Stewart, Martin Landau, Nicolas Cage, Simon Pegg, Sofia Boutella, Willem Dafoe, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana

Director: Garret Price

Rating: R

Based on the book by John Le Carre, this slow-burning thriller tells the story of a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant suspected of terrorism, who is suddenly spotted in a big German city trying to get his hands on money that was left to him. Gunter (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the head of an international counter-terrorism unit created after 9/11 to spot threats like these early on. Whether this man is a terrorist or not, what he is doing in Germany, how he fits in the grand scheme of things, and whether Gunter will succeed in his efforts - all of these are questions you will be begging to find answers for. Witty, supremely acted, and with a very provocative story line, A Most Wanted Man is perfect if you're in the mood for a sharp thriller.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Bernhard Schütz, Corinna Kropiunig, Daniel Brühl, Derya Alabora, Franz Hartwig, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Herbert Gronemeyer, Homayoun Ershadi, Imke Büchel, Kostja Ullmann, Martin Wuttke, Max Volkert Martens, Mehdi Dehbi, Neil Malik Abdullah, Nina Hoss, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Rainer Bock, René Lay, Robin Wright, Tamer Yiğit, Ursina Lardi, Uwe Dag Berlin, Vedat Erincin, Vicky Krieps, Willem Dafoe

Director: Anton Corbijn

Rating: R

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are the only two actors starring in this eccentric movie, and they deliver such grand performances that it feels like another actor would have been one too many.

They star as lighthouse keepers in the 19th century, left on an island to interact only with each other and their rock. It's a fascinating premise of how these men, left on their own, deal with boredom, loneliness, and being annoyed with one another.

Incredible performances, an interesting aspect ratio, and perhaps excessive weirdness, make this movie unforgettable.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Jeff Cruts, Kyla Nicolle, Logan Hawkes, Pierre Richard, Preston Hudson, Robert Pattinson, Shaun Clarke, Valeriia Karamän, Valeriia Karamän, Valeriia Karaman, Willem Dafoe

Director: Robert Eggers

Rating: R

In 1994, Danish auteur Lars von Trier came up with a TV series called The Kingdom, an absurd supernatural comedy that takes place in a rundown hospital in Copenhagen. The show was well-received enough to warrant a second season, but just as von Trier was polishing up the third and final installment, the deaths of more than one lead actor pressed pause on the project, till now.

More than 10 years in the making, The Kingdom part III, also called Exodus, is still very much centered on the weird patients and staff members that populate the Riget hospital, as well as the possible evil buried beneath it. The comedy/horror has a robot dishwasher and a giant head. Danes and Swedes are perennially at war with each other. Willem Dafoe and Alexander Skarsgard make odd cameos.

I’m not sure it’s possible to write a coherent synopsis without sounding like I’ve fallen off the rails, but know that it is a unique headscratcher of a show, more interesting as an experience than anything else. Von Trier was also openly inspired by Twin Peaks, in making it, so David Lynch fans in particular will truly enjoy diving into this world.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Thriller, TV Movie

Actor: Annevig Schelde Ebbe, Baard Owe, Benny Hansen, Benny Poulsen, Birgitte Raaberg, Birte Tove, Claus Nissen, Claus Strandberg, Danica Curcic, Dick Kaysø, Else Petersen, Erik Wedersøe, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Finn Nielsen, Ghita Nørby, Gordon Kennedy, Helle Virkner, Henning Jensen, Henrik Koefoed, Holger Juul Hansen, Holger Perfort, Jens Okking, Julie Wieth, Kirsten Rolffes, Kurt Ravn, Lars Lunøe, Lars von Trier, Laura Christensen, Lene Vasegaard, Lise Schrøder, Mette Marckmann, Mette Munk Plum, Michael Moritzen, Morten Eisner, Nis Bank-Mikkelsen, Ole Boisen, Ole Dupont, Otto Brandenburg, Paul Hüttel, Peter Gilsfort, Peter Mygind, Solbjørg Højfeldt, Solveig Sundborg, Søren Elung Jensen, Søren Hauch-Fausbøll, Søren Pilmark, Søren Steen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Tove Maës, Udo Kier, Ulrik Cold, Vic Carmen Sonne, Vita Jensen, Willem Dafoe

Director: Lars von Trier, Morten Arnfred

Rating: TV-MA

This anthology of 18 short films — directed by the likes of the Coen brothers, Gurinder Chadha, Wes Craven, and Olivier Assayas — is a cinematic charcuterie board. Each director offers their own creative interpretation of one north star: love in Paris. Romantic love is heavily represented, naturally, but in diverse forms: love that’s run its course, dormant love in need of rekindling, electric chance encounters, and, apt given the location, honeymoon love. Segments like the one starring Juliette Binoche and Alfonso Cuarón’s five-minute-long continuous take opt to focus on parental love instead, with the former also exploring love through the frame of grief. 

If this all sounds a little syrupy and sentimental, fear not: there are dashes of bubble-bursting humor from the Coens, whose short stars a silent Steve Buscemi as a stereotypically Mona Lisa-obsessed American tourist who commits a grave faux pas in a metro station. Instead of sightseers, some directors offer more sober reflections on the experience of migrants in the city, which help ground the film so it doesn’t feel quite so indulgent. Still, the limited runtime of each vignette (sub-10 minutes) doesn’t let any one note linger too long, meaning the anthology feels like a series of light, short courses rather than a gorge of something sickly.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Aissa Maiga, Alexander Payne, Axel Kiener, Barbet Schroeder, Ben Gazzara, Bob Hoskins, Bruno Podalydès, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Cyril Descours, Elijah Wood, Emily Mortimer, Fanny Ardant, Florence Muller, Gaspard Ulliel, Gena Rowlands, Gérard Depardieu, Hervé Pierre, Hippolyte Girardot, Javier Cámara, Joana Preiss, Julie Bataille, Julien Béramis, Juliette Binoche, Leila Bekhti, Leonor Watling, Lionel Dray, Ludivine Sagnier, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Margo Martindale, Marianne Faithfull, Miranda Richardson, Natalie Portman, Nick Nolte, Olga Kurylenko, Paul Putner, Rufus Sewell, Sara Martins, Sergio Castellitto, Steve Buscemi, Thomas Dumerchez, Wes Craven, Willem Dafoe, Yolande Moreau

Director: Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuarón, Bruno Podalydès, Christopher Doyle, Daniela Thomas, Ethan Coen, Frédéric Auburtin, Gérard Depardieu, Gurinder Chadha, Gus Van Sant, Isabel Coixet, Joel Coen, Nobuhiro Suwa, Oliver Schmitz, Olivier Assayas, Richard LaGravenese, Sylvain Chomet, Tom Tykwer, Vincenzo Natali, Walter Salles, Wes Craven

Rating: R

, 2019

Togo may be set in a cold Alaskan town, but the story it tells is nothing short of heartwarming. It follows a pup who starts out as an unwanted underdog but who quickly becomes a beloved leader thanks to his tenacity, pluck, and undeniable charm. Watching Togo onscreen, whether as a puppy escaping his cage or as a senior leaping through sea ice, is a marvelous sight to behold, not least because of the sans-CGI direction.  

And like many a dog tale, Togo is a sure tearjerker, but unlike most of them, this specific story never feels exploitative. Togo is given a proper backstory and sufficient characterization, a refreshing focus that makes every emotional curveball well-earned. Watch this and you'll never take a day with your pet for granted again.

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Family

Actor: Adrien Dorval, Brandon Oakes, Catherine McGregor, Christopher Heyerdahl, Julianne Nicholson, Madeline Wickins, Michael Gaston, Michael Greyeyes, Michael McElhatton, Nikolai Nikolaeff, Nive Nielsen, Richard Dormer, Thorbjørn Harr, Willem Dafoe, Zahn McClarnon

Director: Ericson Core

Rating: PG

Inside is a technical wonder and a fascinating vehicle for Dafoe’s character Nemo, who holds the entire thing together with a singularly insane performance. It also poses interesting questions about art, namely, what value does it hold at the end of the day? When you’re seconds away from dying of hunger and thirst, what good is a painting, a sculpture, a sketch? Are they really only as good as what they’re materially made out of or can they contribute something more? Inside plays with these questions, but unfortunately, not in any engaging, thoughtful, or creative way. The movie stretches on and on, recycling the same ideas and leaning on the inevitably disgusting ways humans survive as a crutch. An argument could be made that that is the point, to reveal the emptiness and dullness of expensive art, but Inside tries so hard to capture that feeling that it becomes the thing it critiques in the end.  

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Andrew Blumenthal, Cornelia Buch, Eliza Stuyck, Gene Bervoets, Josia Krug, Vincent Eaton, Willem Dafoe

Director: Vasilis Katsoupis

Rating: R