The 10 Best Paul Verhoeven Films, Ranked

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The 10 Best Paul Verhoeven Films, Ranked

A cinema hero for cynical degenerates across the globe, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has had one of the most illustrious and provocative careers of any major filmmaker over the past 50 years. From the Netherlands to Hollywood and back again, Verhoeven has skewered and satirized every issue under the sun; whether it’s sex, war or religion, Verhoeven uniquely knows how to expose the hypocritical cracks in our society—and he has an absolute blast while doing it. The first director to have ever accepted a Golden Raspberry award for Worst Director in person (Showgirls), Verhoeven has only been nominated for an Academy Award once, for his 1973 film Turkish Delight. Perhaps his lack of recognition from major awards ceremonies is a testament to his talent rather than a detriment. Each of his films are rare treasures, each more bloody, sexy and shocking than the last, all with something to say.

Although audiences don’t currently have many details, Verhoeven will follow up his most recent film, Benedetta, with the French miniseries Bel Ami, exploring corruption in journalism, as well as a film called Young Sinner, about a Washington D.C. staffer drawn into a dark world of international intrigue. Cinema would not be nearly as fun without the voice of Verhoeven, and we are extremely lucky that he is still working today.

Here are the 10 best Paul Verhoeven films, ranked:


10. Black Book (2006)

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Leave it to Paul Verhoeven to puncture standard good-versus-evil sanctimonies during wartime, and to do it in as vulgar and trashy a manner as possible. Not that his 2006 epic Black Book is another Showgirls. This film—his first Dutch production since 1983’s The Fourth Man—is “classy” compared to much of his U.S. work: A sweeping, handsomely mounted period adventure yarn full of violent shoot-outs, sexy seductions and last-minute betrayals. With its irreverent tone and populist idiom, this would have fit quite nicely in mainstream U.S. multiplexes. Underneath its unabashedly crowd-pleasing surface, however, is a dark vision of the moral complexities World War II brought out on both sides. Here, not all of the Nazis are purely evil; one of them—Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch)—is, in fact, Black Book’s romantic lead, a kind-hearted Nazi with whom vengeful Dutch resistance spy Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) falls in love. And some of Rachel’s fellow resistance fighters are anti-Semitic themselves. There’s a keening moral intelligence in Black Book that makes it as troubling as it is mightily entertaining. In other words, it’s Paul Verhoeven at his provocative best.—Kenji Fujishima


9. Hollow Man (2000)

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Paul Verhoeven’s violent and psychosexual take on The Invisible Man responds to the question of “What would a man do if he had the power to be totally invisible?” with the darkest, most cynical answer possible: Rape and murder. The sci-fi horror film tells the story of Sebastian Caine, an arrogant scientist who plays God by inventing a serum that makes the subject invisible and then volunteering to be the first human subject to undergo the procedure—all while lying to the Pentagon about the whole thing. Once invisible, Kevin Bacon’s sneering, chauvinist Sebastian no longer has to account for his actions, beginning with unbuttoning his female colleague’s top while she’s asleep and devolving into much nastier acts of treachery against his fellow humans. Notably, the title isn’t Invisible Man but Hollow Man, implying that there was never any substance to Sebastian at all, his invisibility revealing his true self; beyond a statement on toxic masculinity, perhaps Verhoeven meant to comment on the brutish impulses that torture all of us. We’d all like to think we would use the power of invisibility for good rather than evil, but after the threat of consequence is removed, what stops us from unleashing the worst, most debased monsters inside of us onto the world? Like much of Verhoeven’s work, Hollow Man wasn’t too well received upon release by critics (perhaps they misread the misogynist undertones), despite solid performances from great character actors and truly impressive feats in visual effects. At the box office, it became his biggest hit since Basic Instinct, but in 2022, it still remains Verhoeven’s last movie ever produced by an American company. —Katarina Docalovich


8. Elle (2016)

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Considering its touchy subject matter—a woman’s unconventional, to say the least, response to her rape—it’s a bit surprising that Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 provocation didn’t really cause the same kind of firestorm of controversy that, say, Showgirls did. This could be explained by Verhoeven’s arthouse-friendly aesthetic this time around—but it most likely has more to do with just how much imagination and empathy Isabelle Huppert puts into connecting the dots of her character’s difficult-to-pin-down psyche. As always, Huppert has no interest in begging you to like her, which seems appropriate for a character like Michèle Leblanc, hellbent on refusing to be seen as a victim after her brutal rape by a masked stranger in the film’s opening scene. But Huppert, working from David Birke’s screenplay (adapted from a novel by Philippe Djinn), digs deeper and comes up with some even more astonishing psychological links. Her occasionally manipulative way with people, her alternating attraction/repulsion toward violence and domination—all can be glimpsed in Huppert’s brilliantly dense and utterly fearless characterization, offering yet another remarkable example of why she’s celebrated as one of the finest actresses in the world.—Kenji Fujishima


7. Total Recall (1990)

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Very loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (and aren’t all PKD adaptations “very loose?”), Total Recall functions as a construct for Paul Verhoeven to take a high-concept premise about memory implants and lost identity and motivational uncertainty and turn it into an Arnold Schwarzenegger schlock-fest. It should be bad, but it’s not; it should be, at best, cheesy fun—but it’s even more than that. Unlike many of its sci-fi action peers, Total Recall never runs out of steam or ideas. It starts with the memory implant stuff, but on the back-end gives us a vividly imagined Mars society with an oppressed mutant population (which is, like, the best special make-up effects portfolio ever) and a secret alien reactor that’s a MacGuffin but also a deus ex machina. The plot’s a mess but so is Arnold. It all works. Total Recall’s $60 million production budget was absolutely huge for its time, but unlike similar Hollywood ventures that put money towards glitz (like the 2012 remake, so slick it slips right out of one’s head), Verhoeven uses the loot to give us more dust, more grit, more decrepit sets, more twisted prosthetics and maximum Arnold. Verhoeven, in fact, uses Arnold as much as he uses anything else in the budget to tell this darkly exuberant story, from the contorted confusion of the set-up right on through to the eye-popping finale. It results in a sci-fi screed written in the form of a hundred Ahh-nuld faces, absurd and unforgettable. For as many times as Dick has been adapted, this is perhaps the one time the go-for-broke energy and imagination of his work has made it into the cinema (Blade Runner is something else entirely). Total Recall may have little in common with the actual content of the story it blows up, but it knows the vibe. And PKD vibes are the best kind.—Chad Betz


6. Spetters (1980)

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Spetters is Verhoeven’s underseen (as it’s difficult to track down) and pessimistic spin on Saturday Night Fever. Verhoeven was in the running to direct Return of the Jedi until George Lucas was turned off by the graphic content in Verhoeven’s story of three young, dumb and full of cum motocross-riding best friends whose idealistic dreams are dashed like roadkill guts squashed by the side of the road. The trio’s troubles begin when they meet Fientje, a cute girl who cynically and openly uses her feminine charms to financially claw her way out of working in a fast food truck with her brother. All three of the boys want to make Fientje theirs, or at least think that they do, and in a hilarious moment that perfectly satirizes their youthful masculinity, they literally hold a dick measuring contest to see who is the best equipped to take her out. Their naïve machismo is tested against the harsh realities of a world that is indifferent to their suffering, and they are all proven to be real softies on the inside. This coming-of-age drama is riddled with failure and disappointments, leading Spetters to be panned by both American and European critics for being too depressing as well as too sexually vulgar. However, Spetters’ failure turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it led to Verhoeven leaving the Netherlands for Hollywood, which delivered many treasures to us.—Katarina Docalovich


5. Basic Instinct (1992)

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Basic Instinct ruffled feathers when it premiered 30 years ago and it continues to cause controversial discussions today. Sharon Stone claimed in her recent memoir that she wasn’t aware her bare crotch would be shown when she famously uncrosses her legs during the film’s famous interrogation scene—which Verhoeven denies. Is Basic Instinct a sexist stain on cinema history, representative of a bygone era when women were treated as second class? Or is it a feminist text, misread in bad faith by its critics all these years? Its many controversies may precede it, but what makes Basic Instinct genuinely special is that it’s an erotic thriller that still works on the levels of both high and low art within a genre that tragically has all but disappeared in the last three decades. It might be a sweaty, writhing, dirty movie with flamboyant camerawork, over-the-top genre conventions and, quite frankly, a ludicrous screenplay, but it’s also engaging in a crucial conversation about unmanageable female sexuality and insanity within film history—specifically Hitchcock’s Vertigo—that goes beyond the femme fatale’s icy blonde hairstyle. At once elegant and dangerously obscene, Catherine inhabits both Madeline’s grace and Judy’s low class deception; going even further, Verhoeven brings the simmering sexuality of Vertigo to the surface and lets it explode. It’s time we bring back neo-noir, erotic thrillers that are contingent on the conviction that the troubled leading man would risk his life to sleep with the mysterious (but deadly) blonde woman.—Katarina Docalovich


4. Benedetta (2021)

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The power and body of Christ compel the characters of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which ruminates on the raunchy interiority of a lesbian relationship realized inside of the sacred confines of a convent in 17th century Italy. The carnal Catholicism which permeates the film is at this point to be expected from the 83-year-old Dutch filmmaker—but equally so is the film’s ability to utilize eroticism as a vehicle to examine pain, paranoia and power. Based on Judith Brown’s 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the same-sex relationship between Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) and fellow nun Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) is patently portrayed in the film, but it does not restrict them—or any of the other sisters at the Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia, Tuscany—to the singular roles of martyr or zealot. Instead, Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke refuse to vindicate or validate the intentions of historical figures by today’s secular standards, confronting hierarchies that exist outside of the neat categories of “good” and “evil.” Suggested to possess a mystic ability from a young age, Benedetta first arrives at the convent as an eager servant of the Virgin Mary at just nine years old—her only worldly possession a wooden statuette of the Mother of God. It’s clear that her bright-eyed devotion grates the rigid demeanor of the abbess who runs the nunnery, Sister Felicita (a spectacular Charlotte Rampling), yet an incident on Benedetta’s very first night at the abbey immediately evokes the possible presence of divine intervention (though Sister Felicita wryly insists that miracles are often “more trouble than they’re worth”). It’s not until nearly two decades later that the events which lead to Benedetta’s fall from grace unfold, marked by the arrival of a young woman named Bartolomea, fleeing her father’s abuse. It’s the tension between their two backgrounds—one of life-long devotion sheltered within the abbey’s holy walls, the other motivated by self-preservation in the face of unspeakable sin—that powers the pair’s magnetic pull. Greater than the boundary between blessed and blasphemous is the chasm that exists between the Church and the citizens who follow it. Yet there is a tangible twinge of hopefulness present in the film: Shackles that are either imposed by individuals or institutions can be broken, even if only by way of speculation and imaginative flourish for a nearly forgotten figure.—Natalia Keogan


3. Showgirls (1995)

Showgirls: Serious satire worthy of critical re-evaluation, or one of the worst movies ever made? Perhaps this is the most black-and-white discourse surrounding one of Paul Verhoeven’s films, but look deeper beneath the glittering mirage (and the infamous NC-17 rating) and you’ll find so much more to be examined. Love it or hate it, it’s difficult to deny the impact that the Showgirls cult classic revival has had on “the culture.” (Move over Euphoria girls, Nomi did it all first!) Upon release, Showgirls was known as one of MGM’s biggest failures, but thanks to ironic, cool trendsetters (read: homosexuals), the film has become one of the highest-grossing MGM rentals. No one, not Showgirls haters or lovers or those in between, not even director Paul Verhoeven or screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, can quite agree on what Showgirls is, or What It Means. Verhoeven attempted to elaborate on the film with the (limited release) book Showgirls: Portrait of a Film, accepting the film’s status as “so bad it’s good,” but still maintains that wasn’t the original intention; Eszterhas asserts the humor was always an integral part of the plan. More than any other Verhoeven film, Showgirls’ glistening force shapeshifts into something wildly different after each watch. Anchored by Elizabeth Berkley’s show-stopping performance as the ruthless Nomi Malone, Showgirls is one-of-a-kind because it’s the only modern big-budget exploitation film that goes deep on the transactional bimbofication of women under capitalist institutions—and its violent repercussions.—Katarina Docalovich


2. Starship Troopers (1997)

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Glistening agitprop after-school special and gross-ass bacchanalia, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers delights in the ultraviolence it doles out in heavy spurts—but then chastises itself for having so much fun with something so wrong. Telling the story of a cadre of extremely attractive upper-middle-class white teens (played by shiny adults Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Nina Meyers, Jake Busey and Neil Patrick Harris) who get their cherries popped and then ground into hamburger inside the abattoir of interstellar war, Verhoeven cruises through the many tones of bellicose filmmaking: hawkish propaganda, gritty action setpieces and thrilling adventure sequences, all of it accompanied by plenty of gut-churning CGI, giant space bugs and human heads alike exploding without shame or recourse or respect for basic physics and human empathy. As much a bloodletting of Verhoeven’s childhood trauma, forged in the fascist mill of World War II Europe, as a critique of Hollywood’s cavalier attitude toward violence and uniformly heroic depictions of the military, the sci-fi spectacle can’t help but arrive at the same place no matter which angle one takes: Geeked out on some hardcore cinematic mayhem.—Dom Sinacola


1. Robocop (1987)

Throughout the late-’70s and indulgent 1980s, “industry” went pejorative and Corporate America bleached white all but the most functional of blue collars. Broadly speaking, of course: Manufacturing was booming, but the homegrown “Big Three” automobile companies in Detroit—facing astronomical gas prices via the growth of OPEC, as well as increasing foreign competition and the decentralization of their labor force—resorted to drastic cost-cutting measures, investing in automation (which of course put thousands of people out of work, closing a number of plants) and moving facilities to “low-wage” countries (further decimating all hope for a secure assembly line job in the area). The impact of such a massive tectonic shift in the very foundation of the auto industry pushed aftershocks felt, of course, throughout the Rust Belt and the Midwest—but for Detroit, whose essence seemed composed almost wholly of exhaust fumes, the change left the city in an ever-present state of decay. And so, though it was filmed in Pittsburgh and around Texas, Detroit is the only logical city for a Robocop to inhabit. A practically peerless, putrid, brash concoction of social consciousness, ultra-violence and existential curiosity, Paul Verhoeven’s first Hollywood feature made its tenor clear: A new industrial revolution must take place not within the ranks of the unions or inside board rooms, but within the self. By 1987, much of the city was already in complete disarray, the closing of Michigan Central Station—and the admission that Detroit was no longer a vital hub of commerce—barely a year away, but its role as poster child for the Downfall of Western Civilization had yet to gain any real traction. Verhoeven screamed this notion alive. He made Detroit’s decay tactile, visceral and immeasurably loud, limning it in ideas about the limits of human identity and the hilarity of consumer culture. As Verhoeven passed a Christ-like cyborg—a true melding of man and savior—through the crumbling post-apocalyptic fringes of a part of the world that once held so much prosperity and hope, he wasn’t pointing to the hellscape of future Detroit as the battlefield over which the working class will fight against the greedy 1%, but instead to the robot cop, to Murphy (Peter Weller), as the battlefield unto himself. How can any of us save a place like Detroit? In Robocop, it’s a deeply personal matter.—Dom Sinacola