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Every Paul Dano Movie Ranked Worst To Best

Paul Dano is a difficult guy to predict. While many actors tend to find a particular archetype and then stick with it (either by choice or because they are typecast), Dano isn't afraid to switch things up. In his younger years, he played geeks and goody-two-shoes and rebellious teenagers alike. His wide spectrum of roles includes a sadistic slave driver, a gun-slinging rascal, and a founder of the Beach Boys. He's even lent his voice to a goat-headed monster. In 2022, he played the Riddler in "The Batman," a role that is awfully fitting for an actor who, at a glance, seems like an enigma.

Allow us to un-riddle Paul Dano by touching on all of his films, from his daring debut to his most recent roles. There is no common theme between them all, other than the fact that these characters intrigued Dano so much that he had to play them. As he told Indiewire, "You read something that either makes you excited or it doesn't." You can't say fairer than that.

34. Weapons

"Weapons" begins on a promising (if disturbing) note: A teenager is fatally shot while eating a hamburger. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't deliver. It backs up in time to show what lead to the shooting: Reggie (Nick Cannon) decides to kill Jason (Riley Smith) because he raped Reggie's sister (Regine Nehy), and Jason's friends retaliate with more violence. But knowing exactly how the story is going to end dilutes the movie's impact, and the film lingers way too long on most shots.

In the film's defense, Jen Yamato of Rotten Tomatoes appreciated the film's realism and moral ambiguity. She also loved Dano's portrayal of Chris, "a troubled and lonely introvert in desperate need of acceptance." Yet despite its interesting choice to show the same situation from the perspective of multiple characters, the movie is ultimately just a meaningless cycle of violence that doesn't even bother "to explain what has made these kids this way," says Eric D. Snyder.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

33. Taking Lives

Angelina Jolie stars in "Taking Lives," a crime drama in which her character tracks down a serial killer who steals the identity of every person he kills.

According to Reeling Reviews, "Taking Lives" requires a lot of suspension of disbelief — especially when the cool-headed female detective (who previously had a single-minded devotion to her mission) suddenly decides to have sex with a key witness. Overall, the movie is "too eager to conform" to the rules of the genre, says Slant Magazine.

Paul Dano doesn't have a lot of screen time in "Taking Lives" — he appears in the beginning as a shy teenager who throws a stranger into the path of a car so he can steal his identity — but he certainly demonstrates his range. He can play a dorky kid as easily as a sociopath, showing just how talented Dano was from a young age.

32. Light and the Sufferer

In "Light and the Sufferer," college dropout Paul (Michael Esper) attempts to help his brother Don (Paul Dano) recover from drug addiction, only to find that his brother is being followed by a Sufferer, a mysterious creature that looks like a cross between a sphinx and a gargoyle, almost functioning as an omen of death. But the film never confirms what exactly the Sufferer is supposed to symbolize.

"This movie has the worst production value I have ever seen," says Rambling Film, referring to the cheap effects and editing. However, the reviewer concedes that this is only because the budget was next-to-nothing. "More budget would've done it [wonders,] and it's a shame it didn't get that."

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

31. Gigantic

This bizarre independent rom-com is about a mattress salesman (Paul Dano) who falls in love with a girl named Harriet (Zoey Deschanel) while she is shopping for a new bed. And if that was the main focus of the movie, it might have been a perfectly fine romantic comedy. But "Gigantic" also throws in some hallucinogenic mushrooms and a homeless guy (Zach Galifianakis) who keeps randomly attacking the protagonist, which muddies things. 

ReelViews points out that the homeless man is just distracting, especially since he isn't even real — he's meant to be a metaphor, but a metaphor for what, the movie never reveals. However, ReelViews adds there's still plenty to love about the movie: Paul Dano's "nicely modulated, low-key performance," and the way John Goodman steals every scene. Roger Ebert concludes that the film may be disorganized and a bit too quirky, but he still considers it a fairly decent directorial debut.

30. The Extra Man

In "The Extra Man," aspiring writer Louis (Paul Dano) shares an apartment with the eccentric Henry (Kevin Kline). Henry works as an "extra man," escorting wealthy old widows to the opera so they can have a male companion (and so he can enjoy an extravagant lifestyle).

Marshall Fine of HuffPost enjoyed Kline's comedic performance but felt that Dano was forgettable in comparison, even though he was supposed to be the main character — he argues that "Dano simply isn't a leading man." The whimsy of the movie is refreshing at first, but it quickly grows tiresome, says Roger Ebert. In particular, Henry's nonstop quirkiness makes it hard to get a read on his character. As Ebert puts it, "Every time you peel back a layer of the onion, all it reveals is yet more onion."

29. Cowboys & Aliens

After Jake (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the Old West with no memory, he makes an enemy of the tyrannical Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). But before things devolve into a shootout, a fleet of spaceships arrive, which gives the two gunslingers a common enemy.

The Hollywood Reporter loved the film's choice to (mostly) maintain the plot and feel of a Western, even after the aliens show up. Still, they had to admit that the aliens were so one-dimensional that it would be a stretch to call them "characters." The Independent Critic insists that it was a mistake to cast Paul Dano as the colonel's son. Instead, he would have made much more sense in the role of "dweebish saloon owner." All in all, says The Independent Critic, "Cowboys & Aliens isn't an awful film ... not by any means. It's simply a disappointing film that fails to capitalize on its incredibly unique premise."

28. Knight and Day

"Knight and Day" stars Tom Cruise as Roy Miller, a rogue secret agent, and Cameron Diaz as a flighty civilian who gets dragged into his chaotic mission: trying to keep a perpetual energy battery out of the wrong hands. The pair definitely have some chemistry, says Cinemablographer, but otherwise the film is "a fairly mindless action-comedy." There's a running gag where Roy drugs June whenever they're in a tight spot so she won't panic; then she wakes up hours later and has Cruise explain to her how they escaped. It's a cute bit, but it's also hard not to feel let down by the narrative trickery.

TV Guide says that Paul Dano "does manage to make an impression as the socially awkward inventor." However, Tom Cruise's performance in "Knight and Day" is a far cry from his most famous thriller movie roles, because here he insists on showing not even a hint of vulnerability. And, as AV Club points out, "It's profoundly boring to watch a hero without weaknesses."

27. The Good Heart

In "The Good Heart," curmudgeonly bartender Jacques (Brian Cox), who has just suffered his fifth heart attack, befriends a meek homeless guy named Lucas (Paul Dano) at the hospital and decides to train Lucas to be his successor.

There is plenty of praise for the always excellent Brian Cox, with Rob Hunter of Film School Rejects saying that he saves an otherwise disappointing movie by transforming "what could have been a cranky caricature into a flesh and blood character."

Critics were, however, divided on Dano's performance. Hunter goes on to argue that Dano "seems confused by his own character," while NPR praises the way he "defines the character with every stilted step and unsure gesture." Despite a few good performances, the movie is still terribly predictable and surprisingly treacly, says Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter.

26. Fast Food Nation

What exactly goes into your hamburger? "Fast Food Nation" (based on the bestselling nonfiction book by Eric Schlosser) answers that question in unflinching detail, even showing real footage from slaughterhouses.

Without a doubt, "Fast Food Nation" provides clever social commentary, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good movie. According to Dana Stevens from Slate, "Fast Food Nation" jumps between a bunch of different characters and subplots, never giving any of them enough attention. (Paul Dano appears as a fast food server who spits in customers' burgers, which Stevens says is basically just a more simplistic variation of "the sullen rebel he played in 'Little Miss Sunshine.'")

Eye For Film describes the movie as a "missed opportunity," because aside from the marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) who is disillusioned after his visit to the slaughterhouse, all the characters are one-dimensional. It warrants comparisons to "Okja," another Paul Dano film that explores the meatpacking industry with more finesse.

25. Taking Woodstock

"Taking Woodstock" depicts the famous 1960s music festival from the perspective of Elliot (Demetri Martin), a quiet small-town boy who offers to let the festival happen in his backyard, in hopes of boosting his family's dying motel business.

Scott Tobias from NPR appreciated that director Ang Lee chose to show Woodstock from the perspective of a family of Jewish motel owners (a fresh angle on a hackneyed topic), but says that there are several other characters who might have made a more interesting protagonist than Elliot: Tobias loved Jonathan Groff's portrayal of Lang, a surprisingly mercenary hippie. Although Paul Dano isn't a major player in "Taking Woodstock," Lauren Barbato of The Daily Trojan described his performance of the hippie known only as "VW Guy" as a "hilariously authentic cameo." All in all, says Andre Dellamorte of Collider, the movie "feels a bit timid, but it's not without pleasures."

24. Too Young to Be a Dad

By the age of 18, Paul Dano had already completed his first major film role in "L.I.E.," a critically-acclaimed movie that would set him up as a young indie star on the rise. By comparison, "Too Young To Be a Dad" feels a bit underwhelming. In this TV movie, teenager Matt (Paul Dano) is totally unprepared when his girlfriend Francesca (Katie Stuart) announces she is pregnant. He is unsure of whether he should let Francesca's parents put the baby up for adoption, or raise the child himself.

Patrick Serrano of Lifetime Uncorked observed that the film "glorifies teen pregnancy for teen dads," although Paul Dano's performance is undoubtedly mature, showing talent beyond the scope of the small TV melodrama.

23. The Girl Next Door

In "The Girl Next Door," awkward teenager Matthew (Emile Hirsch) has a crush on his neighbor Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert), who also happens to be a semi-retired porn star. Dano costars as Matthew's nerdy friend Klitz.

The film can easily be considered a play on "Risky Business," although Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine points out that in some ways it's "more retrograde than its predecessor." Still, Joel Copling from Spectrum Culture defends the film, pointing out that it subverts expectations by showing that Danielle "enjoys her work, though she does not enjoy the environment of it."

In an interview with Backstage, Paul Dano admitted that the film almost caused him to quit acting, saying, "I consider myself a dork, and [in that film] I was playing somebody who was so dorky.... I was so scared because I knew I wasn't going to be an actor at that point if I wasn't going to get to play different types of roles."

22. Being Flynn

In the beginning of "Being Flynn," Robert De Niro's character announces he is one of America's greatest writers, though we soon discover that his so-called "masterpiece" has never been published. This pompous writer isn't even the hero of the story — he's just trying to steal the spotlight from Nick Flynn (Paul Dano), a young writer who is afraid he'll end up just like his deadbeat writer dad (De Niro), homeless and friendless.

According to Mary Pols for Time, "Dano brings just the right edge of dazed uncertainty to the part." Paul Mazursky of Vanity Fair enjoyed De Niro's portrayal of a self-proclaimed writer's downward spiral, though he added that the happy ending seemed shoehorned in. Meanwhile, Kate Erbland of Film School Rejects loved the "well-placed gallows humor," but felt that De Niro's performance was exaggerated in the second half of the movie. "Being Flynn" wisely avoids melodrama, says Phil Brown of That Shelf, but the film can't seem to make up its mind whether it wants "to be cynical or sincere."

21. The Emperor's Club

Kevin Kline plays a professor named William Hundert at a prestigious private school in "The Emperor's Club," where he tries to bring out the best in his students, including the disruptive and rebellious Sedgewick (Emile Hirsch). Paul Dano and the rest of the supporting cast of schoolboys give good performances, even if they're given significantly less screen time in which to develop their characters.

Roger Ebert praised the moral complexity of the film in its portrayal of a caring but flawed teacher. (When Sedgewick seems to be improving, Hundert cheats on the boy's behalf because he hopes to reward the boy for his hard work, but he soon regrets giving Sedgewick a second chance.) "The Emperor's Club" can be a bit too sentimental, but the inclusion of the somewhat cynical cheating concept offers a fresh angle that redeems the film.

20. Explicit Ills

One scene in "Explicit Ills" lingers on the image of a tree sprouting in the middle of a derelict building, and that perfectly captures the feel of this film: gritty yet hopeful. The movie follows a bunch of characters with interconnected stories in inner-city Philadelphia, including a bright kid named Babo (Francisco Burgos) and his mother (Rosario Dawson), who can't afford to treat her son's asthma. "Explicit Ills" uses a mixture of well-known actors (like Paul Dano, who plays a washed-up actor earning money as a birthday party ninja) and newcomers (including debut actor Burgos, whom BET describes as "the steady ship in what could've been a messy film.")

For the most part, "Explicit Ills" focuses less on sociopolitical issues and more on the personal stories of each character, says The Hollywood Reporter, which insists that the movie is "never preachy even when its characters go marching through the streets."

19. The Ballad of Jack and Rose

In "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives with his daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) in an abandoned commune, but when Jack knows he doesn't have much longer to live, he asks his girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) to look after Rose. Paul Dano plays Kathleen's son Thaddius.

Even when Rose's jealousy of the newcomers leads to a somewhat incestuous relationship with her father, the film handles it "with sensitivity and subtlety," says Vidal D'costa of The Movie Buff. The film's themes of a young girl discovering her sexuality are a bit clumsy, but the movie really shines when it explores the blind idealism of Jack, whose environmentalist goals are noble but at odds with his daughter's needs. Lexi Feinberg of CinemaBlend was awed by the mesmerizing performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as a father forced to confront his mistakes in raising his daughter, even if they felt a little "cheated" by the movie's ending.

18. For Ellen

"For Ellen" is a "surprisingly tender" movie, according to The Guardian. In fact, IndieWire even insisted at the time of its release that the film was Dano's "best performance yet." Washed-up rock star Joby (Paul Dano) is about to sign the divorce papers with his wife (Jena Malone) when he wonders if he is really willing to give up custody of the daughter (Shaylena Mandigo) he has never met.

Still, it's not a perfect movie. Joby is physically isolated and emotionally distant for the first half of the movie, so the movie lacks the warmth of the previous films directed by So Yong Kim. The scenes where Joby is alone and brooding sometimes disappoint, but the moments between him and his daughter are filled with emotional resonance. It's heart-wrenching to hear Ellen tell her estranged father, "You seem like a nice person."

17. The King

After finishing his Navy service, the first order of business for Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) is to get revenge on his father, a Texan pastor (William Hurt) who denies any responsibility for Elvis (his illegitimate son).

According to The Austin Chronicle, Bernal's talent is wasted on an overly simple character, but William Hurt impresses with a surprisingly complex portrayal of the pastor. Meanwhile, Paul Dano's character seems, at a glance, to be just the naive and straight-laced son of the pastor, but there's much more to him than meets the eye. "Paul's doe-eyed sappiness appears to hide a certain cleverness," says Craig Bloomfield for The Film Experience.

The film can be shocking and uncomfortable at times. (For instance, Elvis seduces his half-sister simply because he knows it will gall his father.) Still, The Independent Critic gives credit to "The King" for being daring and uncompromising.

16. The Guilty

Police officer Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) attempts to help a kidnapped woman after he has been demoted and assigned to an emergency call center. "The Guilty," a remake of a 2018 Danish film, happens almost entirely in a single room. Although remakes generally tend to be inferior to the original, Brian Tallerico of Roger Ebert argues that this film is pretty impressive in its own right, saying "if you're willing to recognize that the remake industry isn't that black and white ... there's a lot to like here."

Although many of the actors in this movie (including Paul Dano as a random 911 caller) give excellent voice-over performances, Gyllenhaal is the real star. The dialogue is occasionally stilted, perhaps because something was lost in translation from the original Danish version, but Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is so amazing that he can carry the entire film on his shoulders.

15. Youth

In "Youth," a retired composer (Michael Caine) and a washed-up director (Harvey Keitel) lament their lost youth at a spa in the Swiss Alps. Dano plays a young actor at the spa who is annoyed that everybody only knows him as the guy who played the robot "Mr. Q." Reeling Reviews loves that Dano is "unafraid to look the clown and does so several times on his way to enlightenment."

Simon Abrams of Roger Ebert praises the movie for finding the poetic in the mundane, saying that "each scene has a life of its own." Screen Daily says the film is making a constant effort to be profound, and while it mostly succeeds (thanks to its astounding music, cinematography, and cast), there are occasional moments that fall short. The Guardian concludes the movie is "elegant," but never gets as deep as "The Great Beauty" (another one of Paolo Sorrentino's films).

14. Where the Wild Things Are

"Where the Wild Things Are" may have almost nothing in common with the original picture book by Maurice Sendak, but it's a fascinating work in its own right. Spike Jonze's adaptation captures the melancholy moments of childhood that we all have experienced at some point. Who doesn't know what it feels like to build a snow fort, only to watch it cave in on you?

Feeling like his family isn't paying him enough attention, 9-year-old Max (Max Records) runs away to a magical island with no rules and no parents, only to find that he is still just as lonely as ever. Although Max and his mother (Catherine Keener) are the real highlights of this film, it's worth noting that Paul Dano voices the goat-headed Alexander with just the right amount of whiny loneliness. "Where the Wild Things Are" is largely underrated, probably because audiences went into theaters expecting a kids' movie. Don't be fooled by the giant furry monsters, though — it's actually just as much a movie for adults.

13. Meek's Cutoff

Perhaps more than almost any other Western, "Meek's Cutoff" captures what the "pioneer experience" would actually be like: grueling and merciless. In a similar vein to "The Power of the Dog," this film takes a more subtle and realistic approach to the genre. The titular Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is a guide leading a wagon caravan across the frontier, but Emily (Michelle Williams) and her family become increasingly convinced that Meek has no idea where he's going.

According to The Chicago Tribune, a bit of patience may be required when watching this slow-paced and gritty film. It isn't a fun watch by any means, but it's carefully crafted and emotionally intense. "Never does a shot feel wasteful," says Film Carnage. We might have placed this film even higher on this list, if it weren't for the fact that, as Screen Daily says, "Paul Dano is given little to do as a fresh-faced young pioneer."

12. Swiss Army Man

If you can't stand to watch yet another movie about a man stranded on a deserted island, you should give "Swiss Army Man" a chance. The movie is definitely a fresh take on the genre, says Empire, managing to be side-splittingly hilarious and "deeply profound" at the same time.

Castaway Hank (Paul Dano) is about to commit suicide when a body suddenly washes up on the beach. As it turns out, the newcomer is a talking corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), and he is exactly what Hank needs to survive. Dano gives a "stirring" performance, says Collider, though the real star is Radcliffe, who wholeheartedly embraces the challenge of playing a character who is (more or less) dead. /Film describes it as "a unique, oddly gorgeous adventure" that's extremely rewarding, so long as viewers are willing to go along with the film's absurd vision and occasionally immature humor.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

11. L.I.E.

Not counting the direct-to-video movie "The Newcomers," "L.I.E." was Paul Dano's film debut. Despite being only 17 at the time of release, he gave a killer performance. Impressed by Dano's portrayal, Awards Watch predicted, "I think we'll be seeing a lot more of him in the future."

After his mother's death, Howie (Paul Dano) gets mixed up with pedophilic neighbor Big John (Brian Cox). Rather than portraying a "satirical caricature of the neighborhood predator," Brian Cox gives a largely nuanced performance, says The Austin Chronicle. Likewise, Roger Ebert loved the movie's moral ambiguity, saying, "We do not approve of what [Big John] does, but he is just subtle enough so that we are sometimes not sure exactly what he's doing."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

10. Ruby Sparks

If you want to create a subversive rom-com, it helps when your girlfriend is an actress and screenwriter. Paul Dano stars alongside his real-life partner Zoe Kazan in "Ruby Sparks," a film about a novelist named Calvin (played by Dano) who writes his dream woman into existence. This no-longer-fictional girl is named Ruby (Kazan), and Calvin soon discovers that he can influence everything she does from behind the typewriter. 

With a premise like that, it would have been so easy to fall into the trap of writing a shallow or problematic movie, but instead "Ruby Sparks" is playful and nuanced as it explores the ethics of having complete control over another person, as well as the entire concept of the manic pixie dream girl trope. According to Arts Fuse, this is Dano's most outstanding role "since his turn as preacher Eli Sunday in 'There Will Be Blood'."

9. Wildlife

Paul Dano is more than just an actor; he also worked behind the camera on "Wildlife." In Dano's directorial debut, 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould) watches his parents drift apart as his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) signs up for a risky firefighting job and his mom (Carey Mulligan) takes matters into her own hands in her husband's absence.

"Wildlife" is a very personal film for Dano, whose parents separated when he was about the same age as Joe, as he explained in an interview with NPR. Slate Magazine says that Mulligan steals the show, bringing a fascinating unpredictability to Jeanette. In comparison, her silently-observing son is inscrutable, says The Guardian, almost to the point of feeling underdeveloped. Nevertheless, The Independent still believes "Wildlife" is an excellent debut, insisting that Dano "never makes the obvious decision, instead trying to get under the skin of his characters."

8. Okja

In "Okja," a Korean farmgirl named Mija (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) raises a genetically modified super-pig named Okja, but when it comes time for him to be slaughtered, Mija loves her companion too much to let him go. What makes this film stand out from others with a similar premise is that "the heroes aren't entirely heroic and the villains aren't entirely villainous," writer Jo Ronson told Heat Vision (via The Hollywood Reporter). CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) genuinely wants to provide a sustainable and eco-friendly source of meat (even if her methods aren't humane), while some members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are willing to use Mija and Okja as pawns in their mission to expose Mirando's cruelty.

Paul Dano perfectly embodies ALF member Jay. He plays the role with equal parts sincerity (when he shows anguish at the shard of plastic embedded in Okja's foot) and silliness (as he gleefully tosses marbles in the path of the pursuing police). The film isn't perfect — the tone swings wildly between heartfelt and satirical before finally finding the perfect balance in the last 45 minutes. But it's by far the freshest and funniest take on the "Animal-Lover vs. the System" story.

7. Looper

"Looper" begins with a hitman staked out in a cane field, practicing his French while he waits for his target to appear. That's how you know this won't be your average time-travel thriller. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, hired to assassinate people that his bosses send him from 30 years in the future. But things get complicated when Joe discovers that his next target is actually his future self (Bruce Willis).

The leads do an astounding job, especially Willis as the jaded time traveler who is exasperated by the stupidity of his younger self. Meanwhile, Pierce Gagnon plays Cid, the little boy who will grow up to become the villain, delivering a performance that would be impressive from someone twice his age.

"Looper" is a smart and mature thriller – the only reason we're not placing it higher is because Dano has a small role that doesn't give his acting a chance to shine. With that being said, Dano is still convincing as Seth, the looper who is tortured after he refuses to kill his future self.

6. The Batman

Who knew that a single "the" could make such a huge difference? According to Variety, the initial article in "The Batman" establishes the entire movie's tone. "That tiny extra word casts an air of existential mystery around its masked and anonymous hero."

This reimagining follows a young Batman (Pattinson) as he tracks down the serial-killing Riddler (Dano), who is intent on exposing the corruption that runs deep through Gotham City and Wayne's family. Christy Lemire at Roger Ebert describes his character as "the story's spine," saying that "his derangement is so intense, you may find yourself unexpectedly laughing just to break the tension he creates."

Funnily enough, director Matt Reeves told IndieWire that he was inspired by Paul Dano's performance as Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson. He wanted to take some of Wilson's emotional isolation and then transplant it onto the Riddler to give the character a hint of humanity. So "The Batman" is probably the closest we will ever get to seeing a Beach Boys/Batman crossover.

5. Love & Mercy

As far as rock biopics go, "Love & Mercy" (which follows the Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson) is considered one of the best. According to Collider, the film does a brilliant job of weaving together two complementary narratives: young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) developing the album "Pet Sounds" in the '60s and a much older version of the same character (John Cusack) trying to find love despite his mental illness.

"Love & Mercy" strikes an excellent tonal balance. Director Bill Pohlad wisely never allows the film to become too dramatic, says Film School Rejects, "nor does he sugarcoat what's really happening inside Brian's brain."

Andrew Barker for Variety says that Dano captures Brian Wilson with uncanny accuracy, right down to the smallest mannerisms, while Cusack in comparison doesn't especially look like or act like a Beach Boy — but then, that might be the point, since Cusack's Wilson is meant to be a ghost of his former self.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

4. Prisoners

When Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) learns that his daughter has gone missing, he enlists the help of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to question the prime suspect, a guy named Alex (Paul Dano). But when they fail to convict Alex, Keller takes matters into his own hands, doing some seriously questionable things in order to find his daughter.

Even before this film, Hugh Jackman had an impressive array of acting credits, but JoBlo insists this film is one of Jackman's best, saying he "has never had a role that's pushed him to the brink like this one has." And Dano does a phenomenal job capturing the fragility of his character – "Prisoners" is so unsettling because it challenges viewers to consider how far they'd be willing to go if they were in Keller's shoes.

3. Little Miss Sunshine

Right from the opening scene, viewers know that "Little Miss Sunshine" is a comedy that is not afraid to tackle serious subjects. The movie touches on death, addiction, and body image, without losing its idiosyncratic sense of humor for even a moment. It follows the Hoover family (a poster child for "dysfunctional") on a road trip to California to take 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) to the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant.

Every cast member is a winner. Greg Kinnear gives a convincing performance as a controlling yet insecure father who gradually loosens up, while Toni Collette is excellent as the "pro-honesty" mom. The shameless grandfather is played by Alan Arkin, who won an Oscar for his performance. Paul Dano hits the sweet spot between cynicism and sincerity as Dwayne, the family's teenage son who has taken a vow of silence. Steve Carrell's Uncle Frank, who is still recovering after a suicide attempt, is ironically the most level-headed and stable member in the family. And the "Little Miss Sunshine" herself is played with stunning maturity by Abigail Breslin. It's no wonder the movie maintains high scores across the board on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

2. 12 Years A Slave

"12 Years a Slave" is easily the highest-rated Paul Dano movie, but we're bumping it down by one place because another movie (almost as universally loved as this one) showcases Dano's most iconic performance. Based on a true story, "12 Years a Slave" follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Black man who is captured and sold into slavery.

Dano gives "a seething performance" as a plantation overseer, says The LAist, which also praised the movie's score and its unflinching portrayal of cruelty to slaves. There's even a brief but compelling sequence with Alfre Woodard as Mrs. Shaw, a former slave who married a plantation owner and now owns slaves herself.

The Village Voice loved Ejiofor's subtle portrayal of Northup, saying, "he could probably shift a mountain just by arching an eyebrow." ReelViews agreed, arguing that nobody was more deserving of an Oscar for best actor that year.

1. There Will Be Blood

There's actually not a lot of blood in this Paul Thomas Anderson film, but the threat of it is always dangling ominously overhead, and for this reason, it's far more mature than the average Western. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) plans on making his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) the successor to his oil business. But Plainview's priorities change when he clashes with an ambitious young preacher (Paul Dano) as he attempts to claim a lucrative oil well. 

Plainview is a charismatic businessman who does some despicable things, vicious and cruel yet somehow fascinating. It's no wonder, then, that Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his multilayered performance. But let's not forget Paul Dano's character, who is an intriguing bundle of contradictions. At first, our hearts are with him when he learns that Plainview is scamming him, but gradually we discover an ugly and unholy side to Eli, who is power-hungry and uses Plainview's baptism as an opportunity to publicly humiliate him.  It's scary to think that Dano almost didn't get this role. Originally Dano was slotted to play just Eli's twin brother Paul, but at the last minute, they gave him the part of Eli as well. You wouldn't know it from his scene-stealing performance, but Dano had only four days to prepare, says Backstage.