The argument of this ranked list of Guillermo del Toro's films is that he excels as a pop artist and falters whenever he becomes self-consciously serious. Del Toro's work is linked by deep-geek genre immersion that makes him a skilled tinkerer with fantasy and horror tropes filtered through a color palette heavy on saturated blues and reds and loads of Catholic imagery attesting to a childhood living with an zealously pious grandmother. "She went in with a vial of holy water and tried to exorcise me for the shit I was drawing," he's said in a 2008 interview. "I started laughing and she got so scared that she threw more at me." Del Toro's best movies get the laughter-grotesque mixture right, while his worst court respect through more sober measures. Off we go:
8. "The Devil's Backbone" (2001)
"The Devil's Backbone" is the masculine A-side to "Pan's Labyrinth" B-side. As del Toro explained to Mark Kermode in 2006, "'Devil's Backbone' is the boy's movie. It's the brother movie. But 'Pan's Labyrinth' is the sister movie, the female energy to that other one. I wanted to make it because fascism is definitely a male concern and a boy's game, so I wanted to oppose that with an 11-year-old girl's universe." Commendable as that is in theory, "The Devil's Backbone" is far too schematically symbolic for me to accept. "The impotent school administrators and the unexploded fascist bomb do not need footnotes, nor does the grown child of the left (Jacinto), who seduces the younger generation while flattering the older for its gold," Roger Ebert noted in his review, but he thought the movie functioned emotionally as well. All I can see is easily decipherable symbols and a stultifying sense of self-conscious restraint when it comes to ramping up the atmospheric chills in the orphanage setting.
7. "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006)
Full of (per del Toro) "uterine imagery," and not in particularly subtle ways, "Pan's Labyrinth" also crunches in numbingly neat ways: there's a girl whose innocence is tragically lost, so her name is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and there's an evil fascist (Sergi Lopez) who doesn't believe in the power of fantasy, which we know because he keeps checking his watch. Ofelia retreats from political turmoil and the prospect of her pregnant mother's imminent delivery into a fantasy world full of menstrually dripping fluids. Again, I find this level of metaphoric neatness to be both annoyingly tidy, and the movie doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know: imagination is good, fascism is bad. There are, however, three undeniably cool pure fantasy pieces that come on like a more sinister Terry Gilliam, such as this sequence.
6. "Mimic" (1997)
For del Toro, "Frankenstein" is horror's foundational text; equally importantly, the first two Boris Karloff films are "the only movies I realize that I remember exactly as they are," rather than movies that change every time he watches them. "Mimic" is his most explicit riff on "Frankenstein," which is namechecked and riffed on in the plot: scientist Mira Sorvino crossbreeds insects to create a predator to kill off cockroaches killing the city's kids. The sterile bugs are genetically engineered to die off after their life cycle is over, but instead they evolve and mutate to become six-foot-tall killer threats lurking in the subway tunnels. Metaphorically, the bugs sort of stand in for the "mole people" (the homeless denizens of NYC's subway tunnels) — society's dispossessed and marginalized, preying upon their oppressors.
In its second half, "Mimic" morphs from a suitably eerie, genuinely freaky work to a competent but standard-issue monster/action film. The blame lies, as it so often does, with the Weinstein brothers, whose interference included hiring a second-unit director to insert some rote jump scares and insisting on an idiotic happy ending that doesn't make any sense. Still, del Toro's second feature is the first to pack in all of his trademarks: crucifixes, blue light, Catholic guilt, and a fixation on anatomy-table dissections of freaky creatures.
5. "Cronos" (1993)
Stephen King's claimed that even when good critics "go to see a horror movie, they don't know what they are seeing" because they can't appreciate the fine tweaks that distinguish two similarly identical genre films from another. I'm going to have to accept that in this case and admit that I don't viscerally understand what makes "Cronos" special. Abstractly, I understand "Cronos" (at that time the second-most expensive Mexican production in history) is interested in considering the vampire as an object of simultaneous pity and terror, a project that has to do with del Toro's distaste for the vampire as a sexualized creature.
It's also admirable and funny that it's a movie in part about a greedy American (Ron Perlman, in the first of four collaborations to date with del Toro) who literally doesn't understand the value of the Mexican antiques he's trying to collect. But can I dig it? Alas.
4. "Hellboy" (2004)
"Hellboy" suffers from the seemingly inevitable clunkiness attending an origin story: in order to love Ron Perlman's title monster-hero, we apparently have to spend a bit too much time contemplating the pathos of his plight (the man-geek too deformed to love, or so this larger Edward Scissorhands thinks), his potentially unrequitable love for Selma Blair, a "normal" FBI rookie character provided (presumably) for audience identification purposes who's so dull and colorless he wasn't invited back for the character. Expository scaffolding aside, "Hellboy" looks terrific and has a gleefully mix-and-match approach to its villains: contemplate the tasteless-but-hilarious idea of an undead Rasputin allying himself with unkillable Nazis (which really isn't stranger than anything in "Gravity's Rainbow"). When it's not moping, "Hellboy" gives Perlman's cigar-chomping monster an admirable array of beasties to crush, with H.P. Lovecraft tentacles descending from the sky at the climax.
3. "Pacific Rim" (2013)
My editor David Ehrlich believes this is del Toro's worst film (it was originally ranked 8th on this list); for various scheduling reasons, I haven't had the chance to catch this yet. David explains below, but watch this space Wednesday morning, when I'll come back to confirm or refute his assertions:
Ed. note: "Pacific Rim" is Guillermo Del Toro's worst film in part because, beyond the concept, it hardly seems like a Guillermo Del Toro film at all. How is it possible that a $200 million kaiju vs. mecha spectacle by a revered auteur became the most derivative movie of a summer season populated with needless sequels and asinine reboots? A joyless distillation of a thousand wonderful things, "Pacific Rim" completely fails to reconcile its cartoonish tone with the scale of its chaos. Travis Beacham's garish script is to be admired for its lack of cynicism and the multi-cultural solidarity enforced by the premise, but it makes it clear from the very beginning that the world of "Pacific Rim" is populated by laughably wooden ciphers rather than people, evincing a remarkable dedication to cliché that makes you less interested in investing in these characters than you are in their action figures. They're not hardened by circumstance, they're cretinous by design – Charlie Hunnam's brain-dead lead performance is so devoid of recognizably human emotion that you'd root for the kaiju if only you could tell them apart. The idea of these pilots sharing a meaningful psychic connection with one another is hard to believe when you're busy wondering how a guy named Raleigh Becket even manages to put on his pants in the morning.
Del Toro's facility for narratively expressive and spatially coherent action, so evident in his previous work, is completely absent here. Nearly every battle is shrouded in darkness and incomprehensibly cut (complete with a climax that's set on the darkness of the ocean floor, which isn't just a huge middle finger to anyone still eager to actually *see* a kaiju beat down, but also inexplicably deprives the audience a sense of the scale the movie ostensibly exists to make palpable), and the most satisfying moment of mecha action comes during a solo training sequence that's lifted directly from an episode of "Neon Genesis Evangelion." Say what you will about Michael Bay's Transformers films, but the clear narrative beats and lucid cosmopolitan carnage of the Chicago sequence in "Dark of the Moon" makes "Pacific Rim" look like amateur hour, and feel like several of them strung together. Ishiro Honda's "Godzilla" made a man in a rubber suit an emblem of humanity's struggle to harness our infinite potential, whereas "Pacific Rim", made from an incalculable mess of 1s and 0s, resolves itself as an ironic emblem of how little we can achieve with so much at our disposal.
VADIM'S REBUTTAL: Gotta disagree strongly here David, not least on the question of spatial coherence in the action sequences. It's logical enough, I suppose, that a movie about monsters rising from the sea should be primarily set in the port of Hong Kong, but that also seems like a hat-tip to HK martial arts classics. Call it an MMA (monster martial arts) film: in the big robots-vs.-monsters setpiece (you'll know it when you see it), the fighting is both clearly legible and prone to treating the entire city as a kind of construction site full of props to be picked up and used as weapons, only the tools of choice are super-sized (shipping crates rather than 2x4s or hammers). Martial arts cinema is often a quicker-than-the-eye kind of thing requiring total attention: having such big bodies in motion slows the pace (due to del Toro's usual respect for figuring out the physics and center-of-gravity logistics of mythical creatures), allowing you to follow the line of each super-sized move.
Anyway, I dug the fights a lot, and the rest of this movie is mostly all forward motion. I'll grant you that it doesn't really "feel" like a del Toro movie due to a lack of crucifixes and super-saturating blue lights, but frankly I can live with that (and that gallery of monsters is all his). The characters may be inhuman ciphers, but they're fun in a "Top Gun" way: the cocky pilot, his Iceman-ish nemesis, Idris Elba roaring like it's the Cold War all over again. I liked the pretty colors and I'm not inclined to sweat the utter lack of human relevance, subtext, intellectual rigor etc.: I came for a big bad bludgeoning spectacle executed with finesse, and I got it in spades. "Hellboy" goes down to #4, this rises to #3.
2. "Blade II" (2002)
Unapologetically goofy, "Blade II" climaxes with a scene in which vampire ("dhampir," technically) Blade (Wesley Snipes) regains his battered mojo at the climax when Kris Kristoffersen tosses him his trademark black shades from the upper balcony, at which point he resumes ass-kicking duties. The usual del Toro hallmarks are here (there's a particularly effective/novel scare during the requisite autopsy table bit), but the focus is on lots of CGI-enabled wirework — trendily overused and abused at the time, but well-deployed here. Constant chaos and no-nonsense action exhilarate; bonus points for not trying to pretend that the relatively cheap shooting city of Prague is a stand-in for an anonymous American metropolis.
1. "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (2008)
I don't think Guillermo del Toro is a Great Artist but certainly "Hellboy II" represents the apex of his abilities. Instead of backstory, we get lots of frivolous spectacle, a tribute to the joys of unrestrained/unthinking maximalism: the first "Hellboy" had five monsters, but this sequel had a whopping 32. Every iconic reference point of his misspent cinematic childhood is there (a tribute to "Jason and the Argonaut"'s golden skeleton army, a sense of serial-adventure derring-do as amplified and improved by "Raiders of the Lost Ark") but with more technical competence.
Think about del Toro's statement above concerning how "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" are the only two movies which he gets the same charge out of no matter how old he gets; "Hellboy II" is a technical upgrade of films in which Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation was sandwiched in-between the indifferently-directed interludes of Nathan Juran and other hacks, but the filler is better. It's a movie which makes maximal time for scenes like Hellboy getting drunk on Tecate and singing Barry Manilow, finally defeating the mild fascism of "motivation"; everything here is about momentary delight, be it based in spectacle or comedy.