14 Best Paul Dano Movies That Defined Him As A Modern Acting Giant

Superhero movies have been making movie stars rich since 2008. Chris Evans was Chris Evans before he put on an armour and a shield in “Captain America: The First Avenger.” He has roles in “Not Another Teen Movie,” Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine,” and “Fantastic Four.” Twitter users were outraged at Robert Pattinson’s choice to play Batman, mostly because many people still associated him with the role of a menacing, shiny vampire. Before donning the cloak and cowl, Pattinson worked with Robert Eggers and the electrifying Safdie Brothers. He’s back to being a superstar.

All of this is significant because Paul Dano also experienced his superhero moment in 2022. Dano expertly reintroduces himself to general audiences in Matt Reeves’ smash noir “The Batman,” where he plays The Riddler. The irony in this is the excellent track record Dano has amassed in between big-budget movies. The filmography of Dano is a curator’s dream. It moves between different genres and features both commercial successes and hidden gems. He consistently aligns his work with filmmakers he admires and has exquisite taste in. Paul Dano is already a movie star in another planet, with or without “The Batman,” so we’ll still honour him here.

12 Years A Slave

Untold numbers of bold, heartbreaking storytelling choices are made in “12 Years of Slave.” Slavery and its cruel practises are captured in single-take photos. A hanging moment, a cruel yet necessary lengthy look into the core of American history, is both a horror movie in miniature and a suspense masterclass all at once. Most fundamentally, there is also room for Black intimacy and joy. Before the spectator witnesses even one act of violence committed against Black bodies, they watch Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Anna (Ashley Dyke) being kind to one another despite having experienced brutal treatment themselves. It’s stunning, unexpected, and ultimately upsetting.

These are the grace notes that elevate “12 Years a Slave” above all other accounts of slavery; they also make it more cathartic and therapeutic, despite its unrelenting gloom. Dano, who portrays the abhorrent slaver and main carpenter Tibeats, is mostly responsible for this evil. Tibeats is high on his inhumanity and relishes every cruel thing he says. Tibeats embodies white power and privilege in one person, whether he is using spirituals as hate speech, enjoying his work, or, yes, killing people. Tibeats is made to appear human by Dano, but more importantly, he renders him unworthy of sympathy. Although the actor has portrayed sinister characters both before and after Tibeats, this is the one time he has truly embodied absolute evil, and it is captivating.


A challenging watch is an understatement when describing “L.I.E.” Despite dealing with topics like paedophilia and suicide, Michael Cuesta’s drama “Long Island Expressway” isn’t particularly difficult to watch. The majority of the 2001 movie is unsettling — and crucial — in how profoundly it digs the nuances of grey that emerge between its characters.

The characters in “L.I.E.” are a young offender named Howie (Paul Dano) and a sexual predator dubbed Big John (Brian Cox), although it’s unclear what their relationship is or who they are. What is very evident is a longing for connection that, even as it veers toward the nauseating, becomes morally challenging and painful.

“L.I.E.” looks for and finds humanity where a void should be until its third act (which feels like a cop-out). One of Dano’s earliest movies is “L.I.E,” and he makes a very bold start. Dano, who is cast opposite Brian Cox and alongside him in the role, discovers all of Howie’s exposed nerves before burying them beneath adolescent confidence and acquired dissociation. Although he has directed better films than “L.I.E.,” few performers have made more noteworthy or memorable acting debuts.

Little Miss Sunshine

Paul Dano is one of the performers that excels at using silence or screams. The actor transitions from one modality to the next in “Little Miss Sunshine” in one breathtaking cinematic scene.

Dwayne Hoover from Dano has vowed to keep quiet until he fulfils his dream of becoming a jet pilot. He stays silent for the majority of the Hoover family’s journey from New Mexico to California, which was made to support Dwayne’s younger sister Olive (Abigail Breslin). After a string of incidents, including a broken horn and the passing of Dwayne’s grandfather, tensions are at an all-time high (yes, this film is a comedy). Dwayne learns he is colour blind at the very end of their journey. His dreams are virtually over because of this, which disqualifies him from attending flying school. Dwayne utters a piercing yell as he flees the family’s VW Microbus.

Words can’t adequately capture this moment, so we’re doing it in great detail. Finding the exact moment an actor becomes a movie star is uncommon. It’s even more uncommon when that moment has meaning beyond the context of the film it’s in. Despite how excellent “Little Miss Sunshine” is (and it is), it works best as a movie that establishes the acting careers of its ensemble. A dynamic talent, Abigail Breslin is still today. Dramatic powerhouses Steve Carrell and Toni Collette are well known. And Dano has had a career that is both exceptional and diverse, deserving of a “best films” list. A performer can be created in a single instant.

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In the excellent movie “Looper,” an assassin named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) must decide whether to murder his elder self (Bruce Willis). After a number of unexpected turns in the story, both Joes are sitting in a café talking about their past and present lives. Older Joe asks, “How’s your French coming?” Joe sneers back, “Good. You going to tell me I oughta be learning Mandarin?” When Older Joe says, “I never regret studying French,” his entire life is both behind and in front of him at the same time. He is present, but he is gazing back. Willis hook, line, and sinker sells the intricacies of this bizarre but powerful beat.

You might be like Old Joe in that you can see where we’re going with this. In April 2022, Willis disclosed that he had aphasia, a degenerative illness that impairs memory and mental cognition. Movies have given us the strength and beauty of a moment the actor will never experience; it’s probable that Bruce Willis will never be able to look back on the entirety of his life the way Old Joe does in “Looper.” It’s terribly sad. It has poetry. It combines the worst and best aspects of art.

In a story about Paul Dano, Bruce Willis is mentioned frequently. But since Dano’s finest contribution to “Looper” has been to give room and take the stage when necessary, we decided he could hold the backseat for one entry. Of course, see “Looper” for Dano. But do not forget to keep an eye out for Bruce Willis as well.

Love & Mercy

When Sam (Tim Meadows) says, “Dewey Cox has to think about his whole life before he plays,” in the song “Walk Hard,” the movie goes back and effectively kills the music biography. There is really little exaggeration here. An attempt to condense an artist’s life, work, and legacy into one two-hour movie is a complete fool’s errand, “Walk Hard” suggested in gloriously mocking tones. Many have made an effort. Many have failed.

Director Bill Pohlad’s examination of Brian Wilson’s life in “Love and Mercy” finds a fascinating solution: portray the tale as a diptych. Paul Dano and John Cusack are cast as the mercurial singer at various points in his life in the engaging film (co-written by the excellent director Oren Moverman), which examines the highs and lows of The Beach Boys frontman’s life by focusing on both the late ’60s and ’80s/early ’90s. What’s most intriguing is that the movie doesn’t demand that Dano and Cusack’s performances mirror one another. Instead, the film develops creatively around each actor as they share their perspective. Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks both give broad but likeable performances that contrast with John Cusack’s dry and consciously austere performance. Informed by Dano’s soul-exposed performance and the aural enchantment of the “Pet Sounds” recording sessions, the 1960s segment is more technicolour and nuanced.

These are the points where “Love & Mercy” makes its objectives obvious, together with the flawless score by Atticus Ross. To depict the life of a famous musician is mundane. Showing us how they heard the world and the cost of that is more important.

Meek’s Cutoff

Every component of the environment is carefully orchestrated by the minimalist, Florida-born director like the instruments in a concerto. But in 2011’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” Reichardt does more than just successfully evoke the infamous Oregon Trail; she challenges our conception of what going west meant and what it felt like. In 2020’s “First Cow,” she renders 1820s Oregon intimate and dangerous; in 2013’s “Night Moves,” the modern-day wilderness of Oregon becomes both ally and foe to two environmentalists; and in 2011’s “Meek’s Cutoff.” The terrain here is exhausting for travellers. When we first encounter Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), he is shepherding the passengers over the landscape, including Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan, and Paul Dano. By the end of the movie, the travellers are bewildered and stumbling around. Romanticism is not present. Only the need to survive remains.

By challenging and subverting the iconography to which we as viewers have become accustomed, Reichardt photographs this degradation in the aspect ratio of traditional westerns. Dano does a great job of establishing himself as a traveller who senses his American dream slipping out of his fingers and into the wilderness beyond, even though “Meek’s Cutoff” is unquestionably Michelle Williams’ movie.

The West is appropriately harsh, as is Reichardt’s movie.


The master of monster movies is Bong Joon Ho. To be clear, the Academy Award-winning director only makes monster movies. Class warfare is the monster in the films “Parasite” and “Snowpiercer.” Both a serial killer and the civilization that gave rise to him are boogeymen in “Memories of Murder.” The Host and Okja are, in our opinion, Joon Ho’s two best creature feature films, and they represent his most effective and creative blending of horror and sentimentality. It gives Joon Ho the opportunity to arrange incredible set pieces that amp up his societal satire. That is never more evident than in the depressing third act of “The Host” or, more specifically, “Okja,” a film in which a mutant pig careens through a packed South Korean mall and, in doing so, solidifies the film’s perspective regarding permissible levels of animal cruelty. Nothing else comes close to that.

Paul Dano gets a fantastic showcase. Although Dano can portray a naturalist, the actor performs best in roles that allow for aesthetic flexibility. Dano is required to play the well-intentioned but hysterically righteous activist Jay, and he must simultaneously be a genuine firebrand and a gentle parody of one. On both counts, he is successful. His work is masterful, in lockstep with his equally talented director.


In “Prisoners,” there is only the possibility of rescue; there is no way out. While some characters are freed from captors, others remain imprisoned. Additionally, nearly every character in Denis Villeneuve’s masterful thriller feels imprisoned by the way their minds have been constructed, from Detective Loki to the stoic Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), who is enraged and grieving (a great Jake Gyllenhaal). Throughout, Villeneuve uses intense close-ups to capture each persona. They are constricted in his frame, begging for release that never materialises. It is as exhausting as it sounds.

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It’s intentional if we’ve spent more time discussing “Prisoners'” tone than its story. We don’t want to give away the plot’s highly nihilistic turns, for starters. The tale of two girls who vanish in the middle of Pennsylvania serves primarily as a catalyst for the arousal of existential dread. Alex Jones, played by Paul Dano, is at the centre of this. Dano, a young man suspected of kidnapping the aforementioned women, straddles the horrifying and powerless spectrum. (Until they aren’t.) His face and relative silence are impenetrable. He already makes the audience’s hearts tense up just by being there. The talent and command Dano exhibits in this situation are difficult to overstate. The performance is a tightly wound fire even though it isn’t particularly spectacular. Better still.

Ruby Sparks

The most lovable and enduring Hollywood pair of the century is Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan. Their relationship is still the stuff of gossip columns, but it’s much more fascinating as a candid portrayal of a foundation for sustained devotion and cooperation. Three projects were created by Kazan and Dano together. The most recent, “Wildlife,” from 2018, is Dano’s directorial debut (co-written with Kazan), and it’s an incredible masterpiece. The other, no less moving, is “Ruby Sparks,” which, despite having a tone that is very different from “Wildlife,” poses the same fundamental questions in a completely different typeface.

“Wildlife” analyses the sacrifices we make for security and companionship while focusing on the breakdown of a marriage.

In contrast, both are willed into reality in the effervescent romantic comedy starring Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Calvin, an author in “Ruby Sparks,” has a love life that never takes off. He writes a narrative about a woman he names Ruby Sparks, who is inspired by his therapist (Kazan). She has jumped off the page and into real life when Calvin awakes the following morning. The problem? She remains obligated to carry out any orders Calvin gives her. Ruby’s manipulation by Calvin starts out innocently enough, but it gradually develops into a nightmare show of coercive control and manipulation. The subtext doesn’t change, but the tone does.

An act of jurisdiction is not love. It’s a joint effort. There are two possibilities when that deteriorates: breakdown or dominance. This has been exquisitely captured by Kazan and Dano in two completely distinct yet unrelated productions. That requires boldness and love.

Swiss Army Man

A non-stop masterclass in defying viewer expectations is “Swiss Army Man.” It begins with a man (Paul Dano) making an attempt on his life. Then, it makes its way inside a rotting corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe) that can be used as a Swiss Army knife and washes up on the coast just in time. From there, the film only becomes wilder and more subversive.

A digression: “Everything Everywhere All At Once” was a hot topic on Film Twitter in 2022, and for good cause. The Daniels, also known as Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan, are the creators of that film, and “Swiss Army Man” serves as the model for the joy they produce in their later work in its own fart-filled way. Daniels gives each component of their movies the utmost authenticity, whether it be gassy corpses or cooking raccoons. Even though it seems unlikely, if something appears in their films, it will speak up in the third act. This is the “Swiss Army Man” experience’s charm, and Dano leans into it. In what may be his oddest movie, the actor is arguably never simpler or more endearing than he is here. We are here for this kind of audience subversion, which is completely different.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you or someone you know is considering suicide.

The Batman

The Dark Knight personifies retribution; his signal serves as a warning as well as a notice. The moment the Batman symbol light reaches the sky, it turns into a sword of Damocles for those who would oppress the weak. But even at his most enraged, Batman never uses that sword to fatally harm his foes.

The opposite is true of Paul Dano’s Riddler. For him, warnings are insufficient. Men who didn’t think they’d be held accountable for their crimes constructed Gotham on rotten foundations. He adopts Batman’s persona and transforms into the city’s version of the metaphorical blade, leaving a trail of dead people and leads in his wake. He said that Batman served as his companion. You gave me that; you showed me what was possible. All it takes is dread and a little focused aggression, says the Riddler, swooning, “We’ve been doing this together. I’m not physical. My strength is [my head].

It’s tough to avoid drawing comparisons to the Capitol uprising in January 2022 given that what comes after Riddler’s speech is a direct assault on the executive branch and civil freedoms. We appreciate the straight comparison. Point of view is only one of several factors that make Matt Reeves’ thrilling blockbuster one of the most popular superhero movies in recent memory. Reeves challenges us to think about how our voices effect others, especially those we aren’t consciously thinking about, in addition to what we stand for. Let’s hope it has a big impact.

The Girl Next Door

Some movies are instantly recognised as masterpieces. Some people like things quietly (see “The Night of the Hunter,” a film that Charles Laughton never filmed again because of how poorly it was received; it is now part of The Criterion Collection). Then there are other movies that appear to unpredictably become cultural touchstones, providing startlingly original responses to bar trivia questions and casual conversation starters. Another one of the movies is “The Girl Next Door.”

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There is no use in trying to remember if you have seen it. If you’re between the ages of 27 and 40, it’s a movie you once downloaded from Netflix after seeing it in theatres or in brief TV clips. Millennials have retained their interest in Luke Greenfield’s story of an overachieving high school student (Emile Hirsch) who falls for his neighbour, a former porn star (Elisha Cuthbert). There are several causes for this. The script was co-written by Stuart Blumburg, who also wrote “The Kids Are All Right,” and is far more elegant than one might expect. It focuses on how pop culture hinders children from remaining young, a topic that will only be more relevant in 2022.

The cast, though, is what really elevates “The Girl Next Door.” Timothy Olyphant, Olivia Wilde, and Paul Dano all have wonderful and unexpected early work. Particularly Dano underplays the geeky Kiltz to the extent that he springs character revelations like booby traps. It’s a level of depth absent from the other bawdy sex comedies of the time, and it’s a key reason why “The Girl Next Door” is so beloved by so many.


There Will Be Blood

It’s 1898 when “There Will Be Blood” takes place. The year in “There Will Be Blood” is 2022. Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece gives no quarter, and its beautiful terror never wavers on repeated viewings as long as the oil industry continues to eat deeper into the fabric of American existence and prosperity. It is crucial to contemporary film.

Not just because it’s the best movie ever made, but also because Paul Dano stars in it. Paul Sunday, the man who informs Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview of an oil find on his family’s California land, was the only part that Dano was originally cast for. Eli, Paul’s parish leader brother, was portrayed by Kel O’Neill for a number of weeks before he peacefully left the project. Dano assumed the crucial position after four days and what seemed to be little anxiety.

Unsurprisingly, Eli Sunday has evolved into the model for Dano’s most notable work. This performance is on par with Daniel Day-Lewis at his most purposefully ferocious beast mode. An operatic fusion of heart-stopping theatrics and subdued, smouldering heartbreak may be found in Dano’s Sunday. Even when he is still, he exudes emotion like a new oil well. After “There Will Be Blood,” you could argue that Dano had no more mountains to conquer. We’d counter that he made some. The triumph of iconic discontent is Dano’s Riddler. One of the 2010s efforts with the highest rate of appreciation is “Swiss Army Man.” Because he constantly finding methods to match “There Will Be Blood,” Dano never had to surpass it. Hopefully, he won’t stop for a while.

Where The Wild Things Are

Childhood in “Where The Wild Things Are” is horrible. The term “monstrous” has a horrifying connotation. Monsters are things that prowl the night, appear in recurring dreams, or take the guise of people. Understanding the monsters that reside inside of us, whether they originate during birth, childhood, or both, is a necessary part of growing up. If you’re fortunate, you develop a love for that monster (or at least offer them a seat at the table of your life). That is the subject of Spike Jonze’s film. Yes, “Where The Wild Things Are” is a joyful hymn to the arduous and terrifying path of adolescence, but it’s also a movie that admits that its central character, Max, is a monster. It never makes a judgement about that.

That covers a lot of ground for a family-friendly movie. Because of this, “Where The Wild Things Are” is a beautiful movie. Through piercing cinematography and realistic effects that are as imposing as they are stunning, it realises its complex premise. It has a sage mind and a savage heart. It loves its monsters, real or imagined, more than anything. Additionally, it makes us love them.

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Being a binge-watcher himself, finding Content to write about comes naturally to Divesh. From Anime to Trending Netflix Series and Celebrity News, he covers every detail and always find the right sources for his research.

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