Guillermo del Toro: 7 Films That 'Work'
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Learning on the job never had such high stakes! ''A very important film for my generation,'' says del Toro. A hapless angel (Buck Henry) bungles his first celestial assignment and brings an NFL quarterback (Warren Beatty) to the Pearly Gates before his destined time in this remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which earned nine Oscar nominations — including four for Beatty. Adds del Toro, ''My wife was like every girl I knew: In love with Warren Beatty. And I was in love with Julie Christie. It was a perfect fable and the gentle tone was a throwback to classic Hollywood movies, which wasn't in vogue in that era of hard-hitting American cinema. It played counter to all of that and it worked.''
Tim Burton's breakthrough film delivers a sly, working-stiff vision of the afterlife (think Dante's Inferno run by DMV). Worse than hell? The poor souls who commit suicide are damned to an eternity as civil servants. ''It's one of the early Tim Burton movies where he basically finds his voice the strongest,'' says del Toro, who adds that Burton's first film Pee Wee's Big Top Adventure ''is a great movie, but this is a far stranger and deeper journey into The Burton Dimension. It's one of my favorites of his movies.''
Defending Your Life (1991)
What if you get the afterlife and it's like small claims court? Or a master's thesis defense? That's the premise of this memorable exercise in existential judgment. Albert Brooks is the recently deceased guy who must defend his choices and character during a hearing in which highlights of his low life are shown on a screen. del Toro calls is ''The best of these movies...part of my personal [list of] spiritual movies. It really affected me and changed my life. It's my favorite Albert Brooks movie. I love everything he has done, but this is the one. It would be terrifying to have every moment of your life replayed in front of the people you love — every secret shame and secret glory? My idea of heaven or hell is exactly this. It stayed with me well beyond the theater.''
Men in Black (1997)
''The first Men in Black movie is a perfect movie,'' praises del Toro. ''The way it introduces you to that secret wall and the inner workings and the inner sanctum of that secret world is perfect from every aspect of it.'' All those aspects lead viewers into a New York eerily similar to the Star Wars cantina scene, with weird aliens lurking in every corner — but humans are too dumb or distracted to notice. Luckily, the mysterious MIB agent (including the pair played by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith) handle home-planet security with the dutiful deadpan of Joe Friday on a stale-coffee stakeout. Adds del Toro, ''Everybody on the movie was in a sort of in a state of grace: Rick Baker, Barry Sonnenfeld, the actors, Danny Elfman, everybody.''
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
del Toro deems this Pixar favorite ''a movie that can be seen over and over again'' for its ''perfect...rhythm and screenplay.'' In it, best friends Sully and Mike (John Goodman and Billy Crystal) are part of the lunch-pail crowd at Monster Inc., where the entire power grid relies on the bottled-up screams of terrorized tykes in our world. ''The characters are fully defined from the first scene to the last. They evolve, they are endearing and the plot is something that changes the way you look at a half-open closet or the space under your bed. It's a blend of modern animation as defined by the UPA studios and by 3-D — an amalgam of the best of 2-D design with the rendering and power of 3-D. And, by the way, my favorite Pixar film.''
When work and family just shouldn't mix. Oversized elf Buddy (Will Ferrell) literally doesn't fit in at Santa's North Pole workshop, so he heads down south to New York City and forges new working relationships with department store employees and with his biological dad, a publisher. ''Elf is a movie we watch at home every year. My daughters, my wife, and I watch it religiously every year and I think it's absolutely perfect because of the way it portrays innocence,'' says del Toro. ''My writing teacher told me of the great maxims in fiction that few people still use: There are two types of great characters — the characters that go through a big change and then the characters who go through a big adventure and don't change. The essence of Buddy is so strong in Elf that he can go through the antagonism of the real world and still remain unwavering in his faith.'
Hellboy (2004) and Pacific Rim (2013)
Taking a cue from his favorites, del Toro himself has joined the trend of portraying working stiff and supernatural job sites in his films. He directed two Hellboy films, with their secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, and the upcoming Pacific Rim, which introduces an agency uses giant robots and their pilots to defend coastal cities from giant monsters).