On March 30, Bruce Willis’s family revealed that the Hollywood actor was “stepping away” from his career due to a diagnosis of aphasia, a condition that affects the ability to communicate. Willis’s retirement comes after decades of iconic roles across virtually every genre. Few actors can boast filmographies as rewarding as Willis, and many of us grew up obsessed with his films. But what are Bruce Willis’s best movies?
See also: The best action movies on Hulu
Below, we’ve compiled a list of 12 movies that illustrate his range, talent, and just sheer star power. Since bursting onto the scene in the ABC series Moonlighting in the 80s, Willis has headlined major studio outings, from Die Hard to Pulp Fiction to Armageddon and more. Willis may well be the most high-profile actor to never even be nominated for an Oscar — a poor reflection on the Academy more than Willis himself.
So, read on for the best Bruce Willis movies and where to watch them.
Bruce Willis’s best movies
Rian Johnson’s Looper is among the best science-fiction films of the 21st century, and it’s one of the best Bruce Willis movies from the actor’s later career. In the near future, a mob enforcer is part of a team with a peculiar job. He carries out hits on people from the future, sent back in time to help cover up evidence. He hits a snag with his latest mark: his future self. With Willis playing the older version of the character, Looper is a heady actioner that tackles the concept of fate and free will without getting too bogged down in its own mythology, and Willis shines as a cynical old killer with no time to lose.
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Michael Bay’s Armageddon is certainly one of the sillier blockbusters of the 1990s. When an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, NASA has to rely on a team of blue-collar deep-core drillers to head into space and take care of it. Willis shines in a role that taps into his rough-and-tumble action star appeal. He’s a drilling company owner who knows that the best way to ensure a job is done right is to do it himself. While the role could have easily been reduced to caricature, Willis brought depth and heart to it, helping to elevate the film beyond some of its more absurd plot points.
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The Sixth Sense (1999)
With one of the most famous twist endings in film history, The Sixth Sense became a sleeper hit in 1999. It’s one of Bruce Willis’s best movies and features one of his finest performances as a child psychologist taking on a new patient. Nine-year-old Cole Sear can see dead people. As Willis’s Doctor Malcolm Crowe tries to help Cole process his disturbing fantasies, he comes to realize that the barrier between the living and the dead may be much more permeable than he ever believed.
Just one year after blowing audiences away with The Sixth Sense, Willis reteamed with Shyamalan for an equally impressive thriller. In Unbreakable, Willis plays a meek security guard who comes to realize he’s nearly invulnerable. Drawing on comic book lore and leaning on Willis’s ability to subtly play on his action star bravado when needed, Unbreakable is a powerful fable about good and evil. Almost two decades later, Shyamalan returned to the film with two sequels, Split and Glass. Willis appears in both.
One of Bruce Willis’s best movies and the one he’s best known for, Die Hard is every bit as good as its reputation suggests. And Willis’s performance is a big part of that. Displaying far more vulnerability than the action stars of the day, Willis’s John McClane sweats, bleeds, and cries as he tries to save his estranged wife when her workplace is invaded by terrorists on Christmas Eve. The only person who can intervene, McClane has to think fast in this stripped-down action classic. Willis offers a very human portrayal of heroism, and it’s one that influenced the genre for decades after.
Death Becomes Her (1992)
Some of Bruce Willis’s best roles are comedic ones. In the black comedy Death Becomes Her, he plays hapless plastic surgeon Ernest Menville, who leaves his aspiring writer fiancée Helen for her longtime rival, Broadway star Madeline Ashton. After a bout of depression, Helen comes back into their lives, looking as young and beautiful as ever and driving Madeline to seek a new rejuvenating treatment, which eventually leads her to a magic potion of immortality. Things escalate quickly, as Helen has a secret of her own, and the two women find themselves in deadly combat over Ernest, who is in way over his head.
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Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Bruce Willis turns in one of the best performances of his career in Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson’s whimsical coming-of-age comedy tells the story of a 12-year-old orphan who escapes from a scouting camp to be with the girl he’s fallen in love with on a small island in New England. Willis plays the island’s police chief who mounts a search for the boy. He brings the role a degree of tenderness that is quite touching, as we watch him express genuine affection for the missing child, breaking somewhat from the film’s comical sense of stylized detachment.
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The Fifth Element (1997)
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The Fifth Element is one of Bruce Willis’s best films and one of the best science-fiction films of all time. Playing on his action-star cred, Willis plays Korben Dallas, a caricature of yesteryear’s heroes living in a future where he just doesn’t fit. Dallas is a former special forces major who drives a flying taxicab in 23rd-century New York. When a mysterious young woman, Leeloo, lands in his cab, he suddenly has a mission worthy of a hero. Leeloo is the embodiment of a fifth element, and she needs to be reunited with the other four to save the world from an invading race of aliens.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Bruce Willis was among the biggest names in the ensemble cast of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The film would go on to dramatically change American indie cinema and launch (or revive) a few careers, but Willis’s role as aging boxer Butch Coolidge remains one of the most moving in the film. Butch is on the run from mobster Marcellus. He’s playing with fire and hoping to escape with his girlfriend as he ages out of his profession and looks ahead to a depressing future. It’s a tragic role, and Willis proved he was a far more interesting actor than he’d gotten credit for with it.
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12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s dark, smart reimagining of the French experimental film La Jetée is truly one of Bruce Willis’s best movies and even inspired a series on Syfy. Willis plays a man living underground in a dystopian future until he’s given the chance to go back in time to help prevent the terrorist attack that led to humanity’s downfall. Once in the present day, he comes to realize that cause and effect aren’t so easy to determine, and he may have closer ties to the end of the world than he realized.
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Hudson Hawk (1991)
Probably Willis’s least celebrated film, Hudson Hawk is nevertheless a fun, campy, and underappreciated romp. Hudson Hawk is a master cat burglar who’s just been released from prison. Looking for a quiet life — and a celebratory cappuccino — Hawk gets roped into a series of ambitious art heists. With surreal comedy, impromptu musical numbers, and cartoonish effects, Hudson Hawk is a bizarre outing, showcasing Willis’s lighter, fun side.
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Sin City (2005)
Bruce Willis heads up one of four neo-noir stories in this stylish crime thriller from director Robert Rodriguez, based on the comic by Frank Miller. In his segments, Willis plays grizzled cop John Hartigan. Hartigan is on the trail of a child killer. He hopes to close the notorious case before his heart finally gives out. Willis brings the role a kind of old Hollywood charisma that fits the film’s themes and aesthetic perfectly.
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Those are our picks of some of the best Bruce Willis movies from a truly remarkable career. What are your favorite Willis roles?