This article was originally published in 2021 and has been updated to include the director’s latest work.
When Guillermo del Toro won two Academy Awards, for Best Director and Best Picture, at the 90th Oscars, the optics were different than when most filmmakers take home the big prize. Presumably anyone on that stage loves movies, but for del Toro, that devotion runs a bit deeper. He often carries himself as a fan first — a big happy kid who just seems so jazzed that he even gets to work in Hollywood — but that cheerful smile was particularly wide when he accepted his Best Picture Oscar. But he was also reverent, using part of his separate Best Director speech to talk humbly about his acknowledgment of now being part of a grand tradition of Oscar-winning filmmakers. Other people love movies — del Toro lives them.
A child who grew up fascinated by monsters and fantasy films, he puts decades of his encyclopedic cinematic knowledge into his movies. This can be a double-edged sword: Sometimes, his films can be little more than a carousel of sharply rendered references, but without the soul and inspiration of his influences. But when he’s dialed in, del Toro is a master at mixing high art and pulp pleasures. Ultimately, that may be his greatest gift to an art form he worships: He’s been a worthy advocate for all the “disreputable” genres (horror movies, fantasy flicks, comic-book films) that were long considered unworthy of serious consideration by critics or Academy voters.
This creates an interesting challenge when ranking his films. You’re not just picking his best movies — basically, you’re outing yourself as to what type of del Toro fan you are. Do you dig his arty, foreign-language offerings (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone)? Are you partial to his gonzo action films (Pacific Rim, the Hellboy movies)? And where, exactly, do you place Nightmare Alley? As you’ll soon see, there are types of del Toro films that resonate with us a lot more than others do. You may feel the exact opposite. With someone like Guillermo del Toro, that’s another of his great strengths: His passion has room for multiple entry points.
Del Toro was famously unhappy with his first big studio production — for Dimension Films, back when that was the disreputable (and profitable) arm of Miramax — mostly because he didn’t get final cut; the Weinsteins battled him to the point that del Toro admitted that his father’s kidnapping in Mexico the year after the film came out wasn’t as bad an experience as making Mimic. The movie isn’t terrible, necessarily. It has del Toro’s haunting visual sense, and there’s some grossness that transcends what you’d expect from your typical bugs-eating-people movie. But it feels just like any other horror movie, only a little bit better. And there’s nothing “just like any other movie” about del Toro, ever. For what it’s worth: Del Toro’s director’s cut, released in 2011, is only a marginal improvement.
Del Toro would seem like an unconventional choice for a sequel to the Wesley Snipes vampire franchise; it’s not like Blade is a particularly iconic or fascinating superhero. But del Toro was eager to show he could deliver a hit after the failure of Mimic, and the self-professed comic-book geek went to work on delivering a fun comic-book hit — back when those were rare — that still carried his unique sensibility. Thus, there are some truly ghastly monsters in this, more than you’d ever expect in a silly sequel, which gave a clue to what del Toro would be able to make even more mainstream in later films. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of Wesley Snipes kicking and posing. Too much, all told.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Del Toro’s biggest hit — especially overseas — is an unapologetic salute to the primal pleasures of watching big robots punch big monsters. Pacific Rim takes place in a future in which Kaijus have invaded Earth, requiring humanity to counterattack with Jaegers, massive machines operated by two pilots. The filmmaker’s best and worst qualities are brightly adorned in this homage to Japanese genre entertainment: Del Toro’s geek-love and eye for spectacle are apparent in every frame, but the characters and storytelling are so indifferently developed that you’re constantly reminded, y’know, big robots and big monsters punching one another is fun … but that’s not enough for a whole movie.
It’s funny to consider how out-of-nowhere rebellious and even dangerous Hellboy seemed in 2004, considering, watching it today, it’s basically just your straightforward superhero origin story. Sure, Ron Perlman’s Hellboy is rude and a little crass, but he’s still the good guy, and this is how the good guy became the good guy. He’s ugly, but no uglier than half of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Del Toro’s heart is clearly with him, though, and he shows off an impressive ability to choreograph basic action sequences in a way that’s logical and still exciting. For as strange as it seemed at the time, this might be the most conventional movie del Toro has ever made.
Nightmare Alley (2021)
Del Toro loves playing around in genres, and his remake of the 1947 film (itself based on the William Lindsay Gresham novel) represents what’s best (and also what’s limiting) about his reverent enthusiasm. This tale of a grifter (Bradley Cooper) who learns a complicated trick formula for being a world-class mentalist is shot by del Toro with plenty of nods to classic noir; his direction invites the audience to luxuriate in the period décor and generally malicious tone, complete with tough-talking dames and shady individuals. It’s such a sumptuous recreation of an era and a cinematic style that it might take a while to realize the story isn’t on the same level, though, with the characters often little more than well-dressed stereotypes. A fascinating follow-up after The Shape of Water — it very much feels like he’s entering his “mature auteur” period with this bleak study of greed and evil — Nightmare Alley ultimately lacks some of the kick of his earlier work.
Crimson Peak (2015)
An excuse for del Toro to indulge his fondness for Gothic horror, Crimson Peak is a sumptuous and immersive slice of haunted-house cinema. It also features one of Jessica Chastain’s most underrated performances: She plays Lucille, the intensely unsettling sister of a handsome, ineffectual young man (Tom Hiddleston) who’s just married an impressionable author named Edith (Mia Wasikowska). Del Toro’s film concerns Edith’s growing realization that her husband’s home might be infested with a few ghosts, but Crimson Peak’s story places a distant second to del Toro and his production team’s marvelous weaving of turn-of-the-century dread. There’s a sense of play to the film’s creeping horror, and it’s accentuated by Chastain’s droll turn. Spoiler alert: Lucille is up to no good, and the Oscar-nominated actress savors her character’s every sinister look and diabolical deed. Like the film itself, Chastain pulls out all the stops for a wonderfully, ludicrously over-the-top finale.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
The first film wasn’t a massive hit, but it was beloved enough by fanboys to allow del Toro, after his critical breakthrough with Pan’s Labyrinth, to make a sequel exactly the way he wanted to, and boy, did he ever do exactly that. Most of the dull plotting business of the first film is thrown away, and we’re fully into fantastical crazy-pants land. The result is a glorious entry that surpasses the original to the point that you probably don’t even need to see it at all. The scene in the troll market is a masterpiece of invention, and the movie is lithe and silly enough to give us some Barry Manilow for good measure. Del Toro let his silly freak flag fly here, and it’s a blast.
“I wanted Cronos to be ‘counter’ to every vampire film I had ever seen … you’re feeling pity for the vampire.” With del Toro’s debut, he established two basic tenets that defined his career: a desire to reinvent fantasy genres and a sympathy for his fantastic beasts. He also proved to be an excellent world-builder, creating a mythology around a beetle-like artifact that imbues its owner with eternal life. The lucky (or is it unlucky?) recipient is an aged antiques dealer (frequent del Toro actor Federico Luppi), who quickly discovers that living forever may not be so great. Del Toro was 28 when Cronos premiered at Cannes, and it has the boyish ingenuity of a filmmaker who has been thinking seriously about vampires since he was a kid — there’s an awe and fear around what vampirism represents that cuts much deeper than just carting out some pasty dude with fake fangs. This haunting film was also his first collaboration with Hellboy’s Ron Perlman, who plays a thug out to get the beetle for his rich uncle.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)
It was no surprise that del Toro would transform Carlo Collodi’s oft-adapted story into a personal, imaginative tale, one that views Pinocchio as the ultimate outsider. This beautiful stop-motion spectacle is a darker rendition than is typical of Pinocchio stories, putting the beloved puppet in a dangerous Italy with fascism on the rise and the very real terrors of the adult world all around him. Del Toro’s enthusiasm for the project, one he has been working on for more than a decade, sometimes leads to self-indulgence, but the man deserves his name in the title because no one else could have crafted something so emotional, eerie, and mournful. His Pinocchio touches on grief, fatherhood, family, and forgiveness, leading to an ending that’s among the most moving of his career. If you see only one 2022 Collodi adaptation, well, let’s just say you can skip Robert Zemeckis’s.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Five years before earning international acclaim with Pan’s Labyrinth’s mixture of history and fantasy, del Toro did the same with this Spanish Civil War drama that also just so happens to be a ghost story. The Spanish-language Devil’s Backbone is set at an orphanage populated by children who have lost their families in the fighting, focusing on Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a new arrival who first deals with bullies and then the spectral presence of a missing boy (Junio Valverde) who once stayed at the orphanage. It doesn’t have the romantic flourishes of later del Toro films, but the somber exploration of childhood trauma and the sting of war have a grown-up-fairytale resonance.
The Shape of Water (2017)
A love story, a monster movie, an oddball musical, a Cold War thriller: The Shape of Water is its own unique beast while also being a quintessential Guillermo del Toro concoction. The Best Picture winner features Sally Hawkins as Elise, a mute custodian who works in a secret government facility that’s currently housing a strange fish creature (Doug Jones) who’s being studied by scientists and the military. Elise’s growing infatuation with the creature — they’re both soulful outcasts — sets in motion an action-romance flecked with moments of both dark humor and touching beauty. We suspect that, for diehard del Toro fans, The Shape of Water is probably not among your favorites from his filmography. (It’s a little too polished and accessible — after all, isn’t part of del Toro’s charm that he, like his characters, operate on the margins?) And yet, the damn thing just plain works, serving as a paean to misfits everywhere and offering a reminder of what classic studio filmmaking used to feel like.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Del Toro is the sort of filmmaker who escapes into his fantasy lands so thoroughly that, sometimes, he has been accused of losing any tether to reality, both for better and for worse. The brilliance of Pan’s Labyrinth is that he makes the daring decision to tie his inventions and monsters to real-life horrors, with a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in a wondrous performance) with an evil stepfather who is also a Francoist officer in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. Del Toro is able to bond her fantasy world with the even scarier real one in a way that can feel magical at times, a high-wire balancing act in which he never falters. Some of his creatures will haunt our popular culture forever — the Pale Man remains terrifying more than a decade later — but you never forget the perils, and ultimate fate, awaiting Ofelia. Del Toro creates a new world, but one that, somehow, remains grounded in the scary real one.