Total Recall

Total Recall: Willem Dafoe's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the John Carter star.

by | March 7, 2012 | Comments

Willem Dafoe

It’s Taylor Kitsch’s handsome mug that’s plastered all over the John Carter trailers and posters, but he isn’t going to Mars all by his lonesome this weekend — he’s surrounded by a great supporting cast that includes Ciarán Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, Dominic West, and… drum roll, please… two-time Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe, whose appearance as the brave Barsoomian warrior Tars Tarkas was just the excuse we needed to devote this week’s list to the critical highlights from one of the more admirably eclectic filmographies among today’s working actors. Action blockbusters, dramas, even animation — as we’re about to demonstrate. It’s time for Total Recall!


10. Inside Man

On paper, Inside Man didn’t look like it’d end up being a critical comeback for director Spike Lee — a cops ‘n’ robbers action thriller? Please, those are a dime a dozen — but thanks to a sharp Russell Gewirtz script and an impressive cast that included Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer, and (of course) Willem Dafoe, it ended up walking away with $88 million at the box office and a healthy 86 percent on the Tomatometer. “As unexpected as some of its plot twists is the fact that this unapologetic genre movie was directed by Spike Lee, who has never sold himself as Mr. Entertainment,” admired an appreciative David Ansen of Newsweek. “But here it is, a Spike Lee joint that’s downright fun.”


9. Affliction

Dafoe reunited with his Light Sleeper director Paul Schrader for this searing 1997 drama, which earned James Coburn an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Nick Nolte a Best Actor nomination, and gave Dafoe the rare opportunity to play a sane, stable, rather noble character — the brother of a small-town policeman (Nolte) whose investigation of a potential murder parallels his mother’s death and his re-involvement with his violent, alcoholic father (Coburn). “Schrader seems to understand these characters implicitly,” observed the San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward Guthmann, “and the result is probably the best film he has directed.”


8. The Loveless

After having his part cut from Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate the previous year, Dafoe had to wait until 1982 to make his big-screen debut — in The Loveless, an indie biker movie written and directed by first-time filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. A somewhat campy homage to the biker flicks of the 1950s, it didn’t achieve much in the way of commercial impact, but Dafoe’s role as the ringleader of a group of small-town hoods presaged some of his later work as a charismatic villain, and the movie impressed a number of critics, including Time Out, which admitted, “At times the perversely slow beat of each scene can irritate, but that’s a reasonable price for the film’s super-saturated atmosphere.”


7. Mississippi Burning

Loosely based on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning highlighted ongoing American racial tensions with an engrossing drama that, while it angered some viewers with the way it played fast and loose with certain facts of the incident, still proved a modest box office hit and a seven-time Oscar nominee. Dafoe starred alongside Gene Hackman, the duo portraying a mismatched pair of FBI agents leading the investigation in the backwater Mississippi town where the murders took place — and although their differing approach to solving a racial hate crime probably raised more questions than it answered, that was more than enough for critics like Rita Kempley of the Washington Post, who wrote, “Mississippi Burning surveys the geography of racism, sheds light on the dark night of the soul.”


6. Born on the Fourth of July

Three years after he plunged filmgoers into the hell of the Vietnam War with Platoon, Oliver Stone took a look at the war’s legacy from another perspective with Born on the Fourth of July. An adaptation of Ron Kovic’s book about his experiences as a soldier and a veteran, Fourth provided a showcase for Tom Cruise, who earned a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Kovic, and it reunited Stone with one of his Platoon stars in the bargain: Dafoe appears here as Charlie, a fellow vet who shares a strange, somewhat violent interlude with Kovic in a small Mexican town. “Whether or not you agree with its politics, and it’s sure to spark some debate, there’s no denying the film’s power,” argued Chris Hicks of the Deseret News.



5. Spider-Man

He was considered for the role of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, but Dafoe didn’t get to play a supervillain until he won the part of Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin, in Spider-Man. It was worth the wait: Even though he spent much of the film acting behind a cumbersome 580-piece suit, Dafoe effortlessly oozed menace as Osborn as well as the Goblin, lending the film a suitably heavy antagonist and helping raise the dramatic stakes for a movie that ended up taking FX-fueled superhero drama to the next level. It was, as Michael Dequina argued for Film Threat, “Just about the truest and most satisfying screen adaptation most anyone could have ever hoped for.”


4. Light Sleeper

A pained elegy for the survivors of the drug culture of the 1980s — albeit one told with writer/director Paul Schrader’s customary emotional distance — Light Sleeper sent Dafoe prowling through the New York City nightscape as John LeTour, a courier for an upscale dealer (Susan Sarandon) whose plans to leave the business, coupled with what he views as the growing bleakness of his clients’ lives, leave him searching for a way out. Dark and deliberate, the film alienated impatient viewers — as well as critics who felt Schrader was tilling old creative ground — but for most, it represented a high point for the filmmaker as well as his stars. Argued Roger Ebert, “In film after film, for year after year, Paul Schrader has been telling this story in one way or another, but never with more humanity than this time.”


3. To Live and Die in L.A.

After making a name for himself with The French Connection and The Exorcist, director William Friedkin suffered through some uneven outings in the late 1970s and early 1980s, enduring mixed reviews and lackluster box office for films like Cruising and Deal of the Century before rebounding with To Live and Die in L.A.. Cool and atmospheric, Die starred Dafoe as a ruthless counterfeiter being pursued by a pair of unscrupulous cops (William Petersen and John Pankow); while it wasn’t a smash hit, it easily earned back its $6 million budget, along with raves from critics like Wesley Morris of the San Francisco Examiner, who wrote, “The only problem is that Friedkin would never get any better than this.”


2. Fantastic Mr. Fox

These days, it’s a rare animated film that doesn’t boast a star-studded cast, but most of them don’t attract the sort of award-hoarding talent that Wes Anderson lined up for Fantastic Mr. Fox, his stop-motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl book about a rascally fox (George Clooney) whose devotion to his wife (Streep) is tested by his need to have the last laugh against a trio of bloodthirsty farmers. Rounded out by an eclectic list of co-stars that included Dafoe, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson, Fox thrilled critics like Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News, who called it “A visual treasure that successfully blends deadpan quirkiness with a wry realism rarely seen in any film, let alone one for children.”


1. Finding Nemo

Before he worked for him in John Carter, Dafoe teamed up with director Andrew Stanton for Finding Nemo, Pixar’s 2003 hit about a neurotic clownfish (Albert Brooks) and his panicked efforts to find his son, who has been tossed into a dentist’s office fish tank with a motley school of aquatic creatures — including Dafoe’s character, a grizzled aquarium vet named Gill who helps Nemo bust out of the joint. Though it was strictly a voice acting gig, it gave Dafoe a rare opportunity to play a hero — and it ended up becoming one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial successes. Calling it a “seamless blending of technical brilliance and storytelling verve,” Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “the Pixar team has made something as marvelously soulful and innately, fluidly American as jazz.”

In case you were wondering, here are Dafoe’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Boondock Saints — 93%
2. Platoon — 91%
3. Mississippi Burning — 87%
4. American Psycho — 83%
5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — 82%
6. The Last Temptation of Christ — 82%
7. Inside Man — 81%
8. The English Patient — 81%
9. Finding Nemo — 80%
10. Fantastic Mr. Fox — 80%

Take a look through Dafoe’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for John Carter.


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