The 10 Best Bruce Willis Movies

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The 10 Best Bruce Willis Movies

Yes, Bruce Willis will live on forever as the man who changed blockbuster leads with Die Hard. But before Bruce Willis was a tank-topped action machine, constantly sweating on movie posters with a pistol in hand, he was a quippy and sexy detective in Moonlighting. As that potent tension, easy swagger and everyman snark influenced movie stars for the next few decades, Willis tried a little bit of everything on the big screen. As an ambitious A-lister, he hopped from genre to genre, doing some of his best work in films where his relatable cynicism had something nutty to bounce off. Even his heyday’s flops—like Hudson Hawk or The Bonfire of the Vanities—were at least compelling and fascinating failures. Heck, some of his least-respected movies, like Last Man Standing, are better that some actors’ best. Working with filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis, Quentin Tarantino, M. Night Shyamalan, Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson, Willis’ long and storied career touched so many artistic sensibilities that you get a decent cross-section of American cinema just through his filmography. Now that the performer has retired, it’s worth looking back at the best movies he helped bring to the big screen.

Here are the 10 best Bruce Willis movies:

10. Death Becomes Her

death-becomes-her-poster.jpg Year: 1992
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 104 minutes

I adored Death Becomes Her when I first saw it as a child, but I only came to appreciate (what surely resonated for me then as) the film’s gay sensibility as an adult. I wanted to live like Isabella Rosselini, dripping in jewels (and nothing else), eternally beautiful and young, attended by a beefcake houseboy in her LA mansion. Fashion, location and taste may change, but the outlines of our desires are a constant, no? I still delight at the razor sharp barbs that fly between aging movie star Madeline (Meryl Streep) and her novelist friend Helen (Goldie Hawn), sterling examples of the acerbic queer humor in which the side-splitting takedown is also an act of love. It’s no surprise that the film has been much adored by the drag community, who find in Streep and Hawn rich possibilities for diva camp. Death Becomes Her also featured ambitious special effects that lent the movie a wonderful surrealism, only enhancing its comedy. I’d rather watch Hawn emerge out of that bloody Greystone fountain, the gaping hole in her stomach framing Streep and Willis like a family portrait, than Robert Patrick oozing into shape as the T-1000 in Terminator 2, which came out a year earlier and set a new standard. If you haven’t seen it, you should. But first, a warning—“NOW a warning?!”—you’ll be quoting it for weeks to come.—Eric Newman

9. Unbreakable

unbreakable.jpg Year: 2000
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 107 minutes

Unbreakable is probably Shyamalan’s best overall script, and I can’t help but think that’s linked to the fact that for once, the story isn’t completely tied to his typical themes of faith or his own personal experience. Rather, it’s more like a genre meditation, and the thing he’s considering is “the superhero film.” This is interesting, because it’s not exactly how the film was marketed—rather, upon release, it appeared to be more of a supernatural thriller once again teaming Shyamalan with Bruce Willis, as in The Sixth Sense. The actual film, however, is ultimately more of a drama, and a good one, if somewhat morose. It never gets the chance to fully explore the ideas of what Willis’ character is capable of, but the way it handles the slow realization of his “powers” is both unsettling and mesmerizing, as is the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as the physically frail villain. It’s a type of pseudo-superhero film that no one had ever made before, which earned Shyamalan points for having originality on his side—what would you do if you’d essentially drifted through your whole life, unaware of the depths of your potential? That’s the question Unbreakable asked, and it’s probably the only other “objectively good” film in the director’s filmography.

8. 12 Monkeys

12-monkeys.jpg Year: 1995
Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse
Rating: R
Runtime: 129 minutes

Inspired by the classic 1962 French short film La Jetée, 12 Monkeys went on to become the rare financial success in the notoriously disaster-prone career of former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. Bruce Willis plays a mentally unstable convict from an apocalyptic future who is sent back in time to halt the release of a deadly virus that will kill billions. Featuring great performances from Willis and a decidedly un-glamorized Brad Pitt, 12 Monkeys bears that rare distinction of containing all the creative visuals and quirks that make Gilliam films great without the incoherent, scatter-brained plotting that often proves to be their downfall.—Mark Rozeman

7. Beavis and Butt-Head Do America

beavis_butt-head_do_america_poster_netflix.jpg Year: 1996
Director: Mike Judge
Stars: Mike Judge, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Robert Stack, Cloris Leachman
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 80 minutes

Mike Judge was at the top of his powers in the mid to late ‘90s, when he was juggling Beavis and Butt-Head with King of the Hill and also developing Office Space. Although it lacks the music video commentary that was often the funniest part of the MTV series, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is the rare feature-length adaptation of a TV show that’s actually better than the source material. A higher budget resulted in the best animation ever associated with Beavis and Butt-Head, while the extra length of a movie let Judge and his co-writer Joe Stillman take the cultural satire the show was known for in deeper and wider ranging directions. It also features Robert Stack’s best animated performance since that time he got to cuss in the Transformers movie.—Garrett Martin

6. The Sixth Sense

the sixth sense poster (Custom).png Year: 1999
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams
Rating: R
Runtime: 107 minutes

Featuring great performances by Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, along with a legitimately chilling atmosphere, The Sixth Sense was nothing short of a phenomenon when it hit multiplexes in 1999. Critical examination aside, it truly is a frightening film, from the scene where Cole is locked in a box with an abusive ghost to the little moments (I always found the scene where all the kitchen cabinets and drawers open at once while off-screen to be particularly effective). For better or worse, though, this is the defining film of M. Night Shyamalan’s career, and its success was a double-edged sword: It bestowed the “brilliant young director” label on him, but also pigeonholed his personal style as a writer to the extent that his next five features at least were all reshaped by the aftershocks of The Sixth Sense. Rarely has the danger of success been so clearly illustrated for an artist—Shyamalan crafted a scary film that still holds up today, and then spent most of the next decade chasing that same accomplishment with rapidly diminishing returns that have only recently been rehabilitated with the likes of Split. —Jim Vorel

5. The Fifth Element

the-fifth-element-poster.jpg Year: 1997
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Milla Jovovich
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 113 minutes

In an early scene from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, there’s a subtle but very telling exchange between the film’s two protagonists. Cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has his daily routine interrupted when Leeloo (an early starring role for Milla Jovovich) crashes through his roof. She speaks an ancient language, so the two can’t communicate—until she says the word “boom,” that is. “I understand ‘boom’,” Korben replies. Right away, we’re cued to the limits of Korben’s worldview, mostly restricted to macho action. This is also the first hint we get that this is a self-reflexive role for Willis, breaking down his tough-guy star persona and digging deep into what exactly makes him such a reliable “guy-movie” centerpiece. For all his typical manly heroism, Korben is a misfit in the film’s flamboyant space operatic future. He’s an alpha-male, tailor-made for the ’80s or ’90s, but, after finishing his time in the military, he’s adrift. The 23rd century doesn’t quite have room for him: He lives alone following a failed marriage, has trouble holding onto his job (and his driver’s license), can’t quit smoking and doesn’t have any friends outside of his old platoon. When the mysterious Leeloo literally lands into Korben’s life, he automatically takes on the role of protector. Leeloo is, it turns out, is a supreme being, sent to Earth to protect humanity from an ancient force that threatens the planet every 5,000 years. There’s a contradiction at the heart of The Fifth Element, with Korben’s manly heroism at odds with his social ineptitude. The film doesn’t try to reconcile these, but rather lets Korben find his own path. He learns to work with others and embrace his more sensitive side, even as he’s cracking wise and kicking ass. In the end, it’s Leeloo who has the power to save Earth from an apocalyptic alien attack. She’s the supreme being sent to Earth for that purpose. But she still needs Korben, and at the last minute, he figures out his role. It’s hard to know how intentional any of this was, since Besson still gives us a stoic tough-guy who saves the day. But with , Besson doesn’t replace the male action hero, but rather makes him more complex. —Frederick Blichert

4. Looper

looper-2012-poster.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Rian Johnson
Stars: Bruce Willis, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

Joseph-Gordon Levitt channels his inner badass to act as the younger version of Bruce Willis, nailing (with the help of some CGI and prosthetics) Willis’s ubiquitous action presence. The best case made on film for “If time travel is outlawed, only outlaws will have time travel!”, writer/director Rian Johnson wisely treats the tech as a given, focusing instead on the dramatic scenarios humans’ use of it would create. The result is one of the more thrilling time-travel-infused flicks of the last few decades, ably merging its paradoxes with a story about whether human change is ever truly a real possibility. —Jim Vorel

3. Pulp Fiction

pulp-fiction.jpg Year: 1994
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames, Uma Thurman
Rating: R
Runtime: 168 minutes

Still Quentin Tarantino’s greatest accomplishment, Pulp Fiction rehashes a handful of great genre movies—from gangster to grindhouse with shades of everything in between—to form a modern masterpiece. In a full-circle plot of double-crossings and complications, this smart aleck of a movie takes us on an ultra-violent and ultra-funny ride with John Travolta at his best and Samuel L. Jackson using an f-bomb like an artist. —David Roark

2. Moonrise Kingdom

Thumbnail image for CoverMoonrise.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 94 minutes

Where much of Wes Anderson’s past work can come off as chilly and detached, Moonrise Kingdom exudes a warmth and innocence generated by the earnest adolescent romance at its core. The year is 1965, and the sleepy New England island of New Penzance is stirred to action when Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and local resident Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) run away together. Sam is gone by the time we arrive, so all the expository characterization we learn is from what others say about him: His fellow Scouts dislike him, and his foster parents don’t want him back. By the time we catch up with him, he certainly looks the part of an “emotionally disturbed” orphan: Slight of frame with heavy black glasses, a coonskin cap and a shadow on his upper lip; his uniform plastered with merit badges, both official and homemade. But Sam is full of surprises: He’s a quite skilled outdoorsman, and when he reunites with the mod girl with whom he’s been exchanging letters for a year, he matter-of-factly hands her a bouquet of wildflowers and begins imparting survival tips. Likewise, Suzy is an unexpected rebel with a volatile streak that upsets the balance among her lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three little brothers. Delightfully, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola avoid clichés at every opportunity. The forces that would typically work to tear Sam and Suzy apart instead rally behind them, perhaps infected by the conviction of their love, which never wavers, even in argument: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Moonrise Kingdom is whimsical and, yes, precious, but it is so in the very best sense of the word.—Annlee Ellingson

1. Die Hard

die-hard.jpg Year: 1988
Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, Bonnie Bedelia, Alexander Godunov
Rating: R
Runtime: 114 minutes

Die Hard may be the “stickiest” film of its decade—how many best-laid plans have been derailed by running across John McTiernan’s masterful actioner on cable? As Officer John McClane and Hans Gruber, Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, respectively, steal the show in career-defining roles, but even Henchman #10 (Asian man who eats candy bar, or Uli, to his friends) comes across more realized than most lead roles in today’s run-of-the-mill action flicks. Tightly plotted with cleverness to spare, Die Hard welcomes the scrutiny of multiple viewings without losing its humor or heart. Yippie ki-yay, indeed. —Michael Burgin