Guillermo del Toro is one of the most prolific contemporary filmmakers. Since he emerged in the early 1990s in his native Mexico, he has directed, produced, written, and even lent his voice to scores of films. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has taken notice, nominating del Toro for six Oscars over his career (two of which he’s won), with his most recent nomination coming as producer of Nightmare Alley, which was nominated for Best Picture.
Perhaps more impressively, del Toro has received great acclaim for films in typically disreputable genres – creature features, ghost stories, fairy tales, and B-list superhero flicks (Blade II, Hellboy). But no matter the genre or the approach – highbrow or lowbrow – his vision and style have been recognized as among the most distinctive in cinema. Here are the best feature films Guillermo del Toro has directed, according to Rotten Tomatoes.
Mimic was del Toro’s first English-language film after he gained notice on the arthouse circuit for his debut feature, Cronos (1993). The movie stars Mira Sorvino, whose work in light comedy (including Mighty Aphrodite, for which she won an Oscar) in no way foreshadowed her as an evolutionary biologist who is responsible for creating, then going to war against, human-sized bugs.
The critical consensus was that the movie was gross but not particularly scary or compelling. Though Mimic was not considered a success, it nevertheless shows del Toro working with visual and thematic preoccupations he would later evolve in more mature works.
A bloody, beautiful bore. Crimson Peaks stars Mia Wasikowska as a young American named Edith who marries a dashing Englishman (Tom Hiddleston) and returns to live with him and his sister (Jessica Chastain) at their ancestral family home in England. Once there, Edith uncovers a villainous plot and suspects that the house may be haunted.
Crimson Peak is lush and gorgeous and the actors, especially Chastain, are up for the Gothic histrionics, but it suffers from the one unforgivable sin of a haunted house picture: It’s not remotely frightening. The movie represented something of a creative nadir for del Toro, who must have thought so also, as he rebounded with the similarly visually dazzling – but far more emotionally involving – The Shape of Water two years later.
Del Toro’s foray into blockbuster science fiction pays homage to Japanese genres of kaiju, or giant monster movies (he is a lifelong fan of Godzilla), and mecha, or stories about giant human-controlled robots such as Robotech or Voltron. True to form, Pacific Rim features humans building and piloting giant robots to fight giant monsters that emerge from the deep.
Critics praised the IMAX-worthy scope and the visual imagination, but were less taken with the plot. (Let’s face it, one is either a fan of such material or not, and the sophistication of the storytelling is not often a consideration.) Not surprisingly, the movie was more popular worldwide than in the United States (especially in China), and did well enough globally to spawn Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), which del Toro did not direct, perhaps accounting for its subpar standing compared to the original.
Despite its 2022 Best Picture Oscar nomination, critics found the neo-noir remake of the 1947 Tyrone Power-starring original more visually striking then narratively compelling. The Academy agreed, nominating the film in the Cinematography, Production Design, and Costume categories, but not for screenwriting or directing. Del Toro’s version features Bradley Cooper as a carnival worker who partners with a fellow carney (Rooney Mara) to take their talents as “psychics” to the big city, only for him to discover that a shrink with connections to powerful people (Cate Blanchett in full-on femme fatale mode) is a better fit for his warped ambitions.
While the story may proceed in fits and starts, the performances are memorable, and del Toro reunites with cinematographer Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water, Crimson Peak) to create a visual world that is as sumptuous as it is unsettling. The last scene in particular is a standout, as the final toll of Cooper’s con man schemes are fully revealed to shattering effect.
The director returned to superhero filmmaking several years after Blade II, but with a vision that was more distinctively his own. Based on the popular Dark Horse Comics graphic novel by Mike Mignola, the movie is a typical origin story, dramatizing the birth of the hero and the formation of his team, which includes a psychic fishman creature (voiced by Frasier‘s David Hyde Pierce) and a firestarter (Selma Blair) for whom the adult Hellboy (Ron Perlman) kindles a, well, spark.
The movie finds Hellboy fighting Nazis as any good superhero should, as well as facing choices about whether he will use his powers for good or ill. Critics and audiences appreciated the film’s wit and visuals. as well as Ron Perlman’s charismatic, wisecracking presence as the titular hero.
The expensive follow up to the 2004 original, Hellboy II is little more than an excuse to parade as many del-Toro-esque creatures as possible across the screen, including a giant city-destroying plant monster that, once vanquished, sprouts into an enchanted garden that covers downtown. Critics and viewers appreciated these sorts of imaginative details, even if the plot — an ancient elf prince (Luke Goss) tries to take over the world by activating a long dormant army of mechanized soldiers — feels derivative.
In fact, the details of the story world are so reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings that it’s a little amazing the Tolkien estate didn’t get involved. (It’s easy to see from this movie why del Toro was originally hired to direct The Hobbit before he dropped out and Peter Jackson replaced him.) The movie is stuffed with so many characters that Hellboy (Ron Perlman returning in the title role) is all but reduced to a supporting part in his own sequel.
The director’s first feature after a decade of making short films and working as a makeup effects artist tells the story of an antiques dealer (Federico Luppi) living in Veracruz, Mexico, who finds an ancient artifact that transforms him into a vampire. This brings him into conflict with an evil dying businessman who has been searching for the device for years, hoping to regenerate his youth.
Though the film was not widely distributed in the United States, critics nonetheless praised the self-assured and stylish filmmaking and hailed del Toro as a fresh filmmaking voice. The movie also marked del Toro’s first collaboration with Ron Perlman, who would go on to appear in many of his films.
The Devil’s Backbone represents del Toro’s first exploration of the Spanish Civil War, the horrors of which had captured his imagination. The movie opens with 12-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arriving at an orphanage in the Spanish countryside. Negotiating bullies and avoiding the cruel caretaker (Eduardo Noriega) is the least of his problems, as he quickly discovers the ghost of a young boy (Junio Valverde) haunting the place. Meanwhile, the fighting spreads across the country to reach their remote mission. Del Toro combines the supernatural with the political to show the evils of war, especially as they affect children.
The Devil’s Backbone contains much of the raw material del Toro would reshape in Pan’s Labyrinth, though the texture of this film is much different, as are genre influences such as the Western. Tans and dusty browns predominate the color palette and men with guns stare out of windows onto the flat landscapes waiting to kill those who would threaten home and kin. It’s an unforgettable film worthy of being rediscovered.
A love story for the ages as only del Toro could tell it – between a woman and a fishman being held at a secret government lab. The seeds can be found in Hellboy 2, in which Abe Sapien falls for an elf princess (Doug Jones plays the fishman in both movies). The seeds were alleged to be found elsewhere too, as del Toro was accused of plagiarism on this one. This sort of misses the point, though, as a close overview of del Toro’s oeuvre shows him reworking the same materials again and again until he massages them into magic.
In this way, much of his work can feel familiar. But he alchemizes lead into gold in The Shape of Water and won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for his efforts. As usual, the photography and production design are stunning. But this movie achieves transcendence through its performances. Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, and Octavia Spencer bring this dark fantasy to vivid, emotional life.
The director had shown great flair in his early genre pictures, finding admirers even in critical failures such as Mimic and Blade II (2002). And his early Spanish-language productions were well-regarded. But Pan’s Labyrinth represented a quantum leap in artistic expression. Returning to the fertile material of the Spanish Civil War that had yielded The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro created a genre hybrid of fantasy, horror, and war, seen mostly through the eyes of a the 11-year-old Ofelia.
In the movie, Ofelia travels with her mother and her new stepfather, Captain Vidal, to an outpost where Vidal brutally represses the rebels fighting against the new Francoist regime. To escape her increasingly harrowing situation, Ofelia embraces a fantasy world populated with exotic creatures. The movie blends potentially discordant tones – the fantasy sequences alongside the realism of the violence — as well as any film ever has, leading to a truly heartbreaking climax. Pan’s Labyrinth stands as one of the great films of the early 21st century and should be seen by anyone who appreciates a terrific story told with intelligence and compassion.