The 12 Best Joaquin Phoenix Movies: ‘Joker,’ ‘Signs,’ ‘Napoleon’
In 2023, the Academy Award-winning actor is set to play Napoleon Bonaparte for Ridley Scott’s historical biopic, “Napoleon,” as well as the title character in Ari Aster’s third horror feature, “Beau Is Afraid.”
It’s another big year for Joaquin Phoenix. After winning Best Actor in 2020 for his sick spin on a supervillain in Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” the Academy Award winner appeared as a journalist taking care of his young nephew in Mike Mills’ A24 family drama “C’mon, C’mon.” Now, Phoenix is back at the indie studio with another project: Ari Aster’s third feature, “Beau Is Afraid.” The surreal horror comedy expands on an Aster short from 2011, and stars Phoenix as Beau: “a paranoid man on an epic odyssey to get home to his mother.” The film also stars Nathan Lane, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, and Parker Posey. It’s expected to open in theaters on April 21.
Phoenix will take on another title character this year in Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” playing the infamous French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte opposite Vanessa Kirby as his beloved Joséphine. The dark two-hander will focus on the fraught passion of the ruthless emperor and his powerful queen, charting the pair’s ambitious rise and cataclysmic fall amid the French Revolution. Not to be confused with Steven Spielberg’s seven-part series for HBO — presently also titled “Napoleon” — Scott’s epic film is expected this summer or fall.
The historical biopic is something of a return to his roots for Phoenix, who earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor with Scott’s 2000 Best Picture winner “Gladiator” as Commodus, the vile son of Marcus Aurelius. The role marked a critical turning point for Phoenix, who appeared in movies and TV throughout his childhood and teen years but earned more serious acclaim in the aughts and 2010s. Phoenix got his first Best Actor nod in 2006 for his performance as Johnny Cash in James Mangold’s “Walk the Line.”
Famously committed to the craft, Phoenix bifurcated his career with the notorious meta-mockumentary “I’m Still Here,” portraying himself on the brink of psychological disaster both on-screen and in interviews. He’d follow that unforgettable confusion up with a second Best Actor nomination in 2012 for his starring role as a World War II veteran swept into a cult in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” With more than 40 credits to his name, Joaquin Phoenix has built his career on slippery performances perpetually pulled toward darkness. Here are the actor’s 12 best movies to date.
12. “Joker” (2019)
With enough nervous energy to set the Electrocutioner’s teeth an edge, Phoenix doesn’t exactly spring front of mind as the lead for a major superhero movie. That’s what made Todd Phillips’ love-it-or-hate-it “Joker” a singular casting challenge. Audiences needed to relate to Arthur Fleck just enough to follow him on his underdog descent into anarchic madness, but not so much that they’d rejoice when he shot a late-night talk show host between the eyes. Few actors could create the kaleidoscopic sadness Phoenix ultimately delivered, imbuing the tortured wannabe comedian with an otherness that turns from sweet to sour like fast-acting poison. He’ll return as the Joker next year opposite Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn in “Joker: Folie à Deux.” —AF
11. “Hotel Rwanda” (2004)
There haven’t been nearly enough films made about the Rwandan Genocide, considering how historically significant it was, but Terry George’s “Hotel Rwanda” stands out as a highlight of the existing canon. Don Cheadle stars as a Rwandan hotel manager who turns his business into a makeshift refugee shelter that saves over 1,000 people from the brutal Interahamwe militias. The film is often compared to “Schindler’s List,” a fitting parallel given its willingness to portray brutality while still maintaining faith in the human spirit. Phoenix shines in a relatively small role as peacekeeper Jack Daglish — although playing second fiddle to such a great Cheadle performance is nothing to be ashamed of — and the film stands out as a calm before the storm in the actor’s career. —CZ
10. “Inherent Vice” (2014)
Nobody absorbs information quite like Doc Sportello. For a conspiracy-tinged murder plot as convoluted as this Thomas Pynchon adaptation has, there’s a bizarre kind of clarity in how Phoenix plays all of Doc’s reactions to each new subculture he finds himself thrust into. When we talk about an actor’s commitment, it’s often about extreme physical changes or escaping down a psychological rabbit hole. Here, Phoenix is so fully committed to the vibes of ’70s southern California that it holds the movie together even when it’s at its most esoteric. The mutton chops and the plaid shirts certainly help, but Phoenix has an unpreciousness about being a detective that lets “Inherent Vice” be as shaggy as it needs to be. Doc is the perfect audience surrogate for this story not because he has all the answers, but because he’s along for the ride too. —SG
9. “The Immigrant” (2013)
There are familiar ripples throughout Phoenix’s collaborations with director James Gray: particularly how the actor’s physicality feels out of place at first in each new setting. Early-1920s New York ends up being an interesting fit for Phoenix in this tale of newcomers to America. There’s a desperation in Bruno that leads to some disastrous consequences, but there’s also a persistence that meshes with a character trying to make something of himself in inhospitable territory. Phoenix is an actor of Choices, which could easily stick out in a period piece that’s as lovingly stylized as this one. But as the film careens toward the final shot that’s become a huge part of its reputation, that desperation morphs into the kind of heightened emotion that makes “The Immigrant” feel both modern and like a story of the era it’s depicting. —SG
8. “The Master” (2012)
No one plays a lone wolf better than Phoenix. The resultant typecasting has allowed the actor to explore how society treated lonely men throughout history. In the same way that “Her” looked towards a future where technocrats never had a reason to leave the house, “The Master” looked back at an era where directionless men were essentially left to spend their lives wandering aimlessly. Prior to its release, “The Master” was hyped up by many as “Paul Thomas Anderson making a movie about Scientology”: an utterly useless description, despite the obvious parallels between L. Ron Hubbard and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. The film is ultimately less interested in cults than it is in the kind of people who end up drawn to them, and Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is exactly the kind of drifter that such an organization would prey on. Phoenix embodies the character with a sweet emptiness that allows the film to ebb and flow at a leisurely pace, never offering the kinds of conclusive answers that viewers crave. The ambiguous ending (and, if we’re being honest, the ambiguous beginning and middle) force everyone to form their own interpretations. Much like Freddie’s life, “The Master” isn’t neatly defined, but it’s a film that gets richer every time you revisit it. —CZ
7. “Two Lovers” (2008)
For a while, this seemed like one of the film world’s oddest swan songs. Before his career’s second act, Phoenix appeared in a James Gray drama about flustered romances. It takes a specific kind of performance to pull a movie back from the brink of a suicide attempt opening, but Phoenix embraces the thorniness of Leonard, making him more than a mopey sad sack unlucky in love. There are glimpses of charm and confidence (the freestyle! the club dancing!) but it’s tamped down under layers and layers of frustration. That adds up to another in a long line of Phoenix characters driven by the one thing they can’t have. Yet when the movie needs you to believe that Leonard could convince someone to share in his own unconventional idea of happiness, there’s enough coming from the man behind him that you can almost buy into it too. —SG
6. “The Sisters Brothers” (2018)
One of the more unique westerns released this century, “The Sisters Brothers” subverts genre tropes at every turn to tell a gentle story about two hitmen who aren’t particularly suited to their line of work. Phoenix and John C. Reilly star as the eponymous brothers, whose attempts to track down a target is derailed by grizzly bears, bad luck, and their own human decency. “Bring him back dead or alive” is a standard set of instructions for western heroes, but “The Sisters Brothers” proves that there’s always a third option: meet the guy you’re supposed to kill and just hang out with him for a while and eventually everything turns out fine. The film succeeds because Phoenix and Reilly both give sublimely sensitive performances that steer clear of the cheesy machismo so often found in cowboy movies. The result is a moving, meandering piece of human storytelling that just happens to take place in the American West. —CZ
5. “To Die For” (1995)
Four years after the success of “My Own Private Idaho,” Gus Van Sant cast the other Phoenix brother in this darkly comedic satire about the lengths people will go for fame. Nicole Kidman plays an aspiring news anchor: the kind of hyper-ambitious individual that even Machiavelli would encourage to develop a work-life balance. When she starts working on a documentary about the lives of high school students, she turns her subjects — including Phoenix’s Jimmy Emmet — into unwitting pawns in her ascent to fame and fortune. The film was viewed as astute commentary on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity when it came out in 1995, so you can imagine how hard it hits in the age of social media. —CZ
4. “Gladiator” (2000)
It’s a tricky balance to have to play someone with the pettiness of a child and enough authority to command an empire. Yet that’s what Phoenix does with Commodus: a role that requires chaos and control in equal measure. The early scene when Commodus kills Marcus Aurelius is a trademark moment in Phoenix’s ability to tread that fine line between rage and sadness. When many actors would approach someone capable of murdering his own father and massacreing the family of his rival with pure heartlessness, there’s a strange pathos in Commodus of a man far more conflicted. Basking in the glow of being an emperor and having that tiny annoying unresolved bit eating away at his grand plan is another example of playing both sides of a straightforward setup. Even as the movie takes some wild operatic swings in its final act, Phoenix sells his own steps along the way, all up until the character’s last gurgled breaths. —SG
3. “Signs” (2002)
Phoenix performances are often fueled by pent-up anxiety or a chip on a shoulder. Combining those two as little brother/uncle/minor league burnout Merrill Hess in M. Night Shyamalan’s underrated gem, Phoenix gets to play across the emotional spectrum. He’s the heart of the movie’s most memorable sequences, whether he’s reacting to that grainy Brazilian video footage or absorbing the best monologue of Mel Gibson’s career or telling off Michael Showalter in an army recruitment office or swinging away in the climactic showdown. In the years to come, he’d be no stranger to on-screen commitment, but this is in the immediate post-“Gladiator” zone where there’s a rawness to his performance energy that dovetails perfectly with the character he’s playing. A little bit of earnestness, a little bit of goofiness, and a steady dose of heartbreak all add up to a pretty good indication of where he was headed next. —SG
2. “Walk the Line” (2005)
Remember when music biopics were… good? Shameless jukebox musicals like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” have given the genre a well-deserved bad name in recent years, but “Walk the Line” is a reminder that it didn’t have to be this way. James Mangold’s masterful portrayal of Johnny Cash never devolves into an advertisement, adding texture to Cash’s tough guy persona while still finding time to play the hits. (It’s fair to say that “Walk the Line” created a lot of the cringeworthy tropes that fueled those lesser films, but they certainly weren’t cringeworthy when Mangold did them!) Given that he shares the screen with Reese Witherspoon — who won an Oscar for her career-best performance as June Carter — Phoenix was always doomed to be the second best actor in “Walk the Line.” But her excellence shouldn’t detract from his, as Phoenix’s ability to blend coolness and vulnerability made him the perfect choice to play such an irresistible trainwreck. Watching Cash push Carter away by spiraling out of control — then draw her back to him in every other scene — paints an intimate portrait of an endlessly toxic relationship that laid the foundation for some of the greatest music ever recorded. “Walk the Line” is great because Mangold seems to realize that that relationship is endlessly more interesting than just watching Cash record all of his hits. It’s not the Johnny Cash story, it’s a Johnny Cash story — and that’s precisely why it works. —CZ
1. “Her” (2013)
“Her” was billed as a far-fetched sci-fi story when it came out in 2013, but now its premise seems destined to come true in six months at the absolute latest. Telling the story of a lonely man who forms a romantic connection with AI software, Spike Jonze’s “Her” masterfully predicted how close technology would come to simulating genuine human connections — and how ephemeral those digital connections ultimately are. Phoenix is heartbreaking as Theodore: a professional love letter writer who makes his living by commodifying sincerity. Watching him try to exist as a man of letters in a world where human expression has been completely devalued only makes his process of falling in love with a computer more understandable. Much of the original discourse focused on Scarlett Johansson’s superb voice performance as Phoenix’s digital lover, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Theodore with so much humanity. The character isn’t angry or anti-social. He’s just a sensitive soul who fell through the cracks of a society that keeps making it harder to form human relationships. The performance stands out as some of Phoenix’s warmest work in a career spent playing loners and vagabonds, and the film’s eerily perceptive diagnosis of our social ills becomes more prescient with each passing day. —CZ
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