Though by no means an unknown actor, Joaquin Phoenix probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you say, who’s the best actor of the 2000s? A lot of that is likely due to roles he’s had mostly coming in the form of strong supporting characters or villains. Even his leading roles have mostly come in niche genre flicks or independent films without much of a release or marketing campaign though.
Part leading man, part character actor Phoenix has managed to rack up a number of incredible performances over the last two decades. And now, with Joker set to launch his star higher than ever before, Def Pen is taking a look back at the best ten performances in his career. Check out the (unranked) list below:
By the time Her rolled around, Joaquin Phoenix had cemented himself as one of the Hollywood’s most eccentric, and incredible, talents. It was by no means his first performance as a leading man. However, he did show-off a completely different side of himself than we’d seen on screen before. A meek, lonely man looking for love, Phoenix’s Theodore was a contemplative, almost brooding performance that highlighted the human need for connection as much as it did Phoenix’s power to control the screen. Quiet and reserved, Phoenix showed off his range in Her and delivered a heartfelt, somewhat tragic performance.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Alright, so Inherent Vice is by no means a great film. It’s plodding, meandering, and borderline incoherent at times. BUT, Phoenix’s performance as ‘Doc’ Sportello is as incredible as the rest on this list and that’s due in no small part to his undying commitment to the role. He seems to float through this one like Jeff Bridges’ ‘Dude’ but there’s a depth that Phoenix brings to Doc and more importantly a believability that elevates the entire film. It’s a strange, confusing movie with quirky happenings all over the place but, thanks to Phoenix’s equally quirky and off-the-wall antics, nothing ever comes off as fake. Inherent Vice feels like the closest the actor has ever gotten to playing himself in a film, and it shows.
Roll with me here and put yourself in 2002. M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t made The Happening, the goofy plot holes in this haven’t been exposed yet. All you know is Mel Gibson and the bad guy from Gladiator are starring in Shyamalan’s next movie, which is about aliens coming to Earth. While Gibson is the dominating force in this one, none of the film’s more emotional moments work his on-screen brother, played by Phoenix. Phoenix serves as the emotional backbone AND audience stand-in for this one simultaneously. He doesn’t do anything too wild with the role but he’s able to juggle both of those jobs with ease.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (2018)
Ok, this is another one that probably flew under the radar for a lot of viewers but tells the real-life story of John Callahan, an alcoholic who finds sobriety and a new lease on life after a tragic accident leaves him in a wheelchair. As Callahan, Phoenix displays another level of vulnerability similar to his performance in Her. However, where he was tapped into the loneliness of a man longing for connection in a tech-dominated world there; here he’s found a way to embody the underlying sense of tragic anger at the core of Callahan’s all too real struggle. It’s another role that elevates the entire film and reinforces Phoenix’s uncanny ability to fully transform into a character.
Phoenix’s first introduction to the mainstream audience came in this 2000 Ridley Scott classic. As Commodus, Phoenix chews scenery with the best of the best and is just about as evil as movie villains get without becoming ridiculous. Not only is he more than enough to make a compelling foil to Russel Crowe’s Maximus, but most audiences still cheer at his death in the end to this day. I don’t know about y’all but that’s about as perfect a gage as they come for the greatness of a movie villain performance.
The Master (2012)
Next up is maybe Phoenix’s best performance pre-Joker. His commitment and physicality have been running themes on this list so far and they’re going to pop up here again. Though Freddie Quell is a fictional character, Phoenix’s performance feels like you’re watching a film about a real person. He fully inhabits the character through mannerisms, speech patterns, and even just the way he moves and carries himself in each scene. Phoenix obviously had a very defined idea of the character in his mind and that comes through while watching. And for my money, that’s the mark of a great performance.
I’m Still Here (2010)
In 2010, Phoenix had experienced a healthy amount of success as an actor and decided to jump ship to become a hip-hop artist. Or at least that’s what he wanted us to believe with I’m Still Here, a mockumentary directed by Casey Affleck. The film blended reality and fiction as Phoenix played a fictional version of himself on the quest to find musical stardom. With this one, the greatness of his performance really just boils down to his sheer commitment. He continuously upheld the film as real all throughout filming, he grew the hair, the beard, and adopted a new public persona as part of the film. His commitment ran so deep for this one that he carried the performance into a now-infamous interview on David Letterman. Just this clip alone is a performance for the ages:
Walk the Line (2005)
This one is a no-brainer, though Joker is now his biggest box office success, Walk the Line was his first real moment in the spotlight. And he soared in this one. As Johnny Cash he embodied the punk-country southern boy from Kingsland, Arkansas with an air of confidence and swag that perfectly encapsulates the Man in Black. He adopted many of Cash’s mannerisms and nearly perfected his accent across decades of the singer’s life, scoring an Oscar nomination for his trouble. Oh, and he did all his own singing, somehow finding a way to sound like Cash even while doing that. Need I say more?
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
You Were Never Really Here isn’t the biggest release of the last few years. There was a big marketing push online just as the movie hit theaters but that was about it. And it makes sense, this film truly lives up to the phrase “modern-day Taxi Driver.” It’s much slower and more contemplative than the DeNiro/Scorsese classic but attacks many of the same themes. And Phoenix is equally terrifying and heart-breaking as Joe. Tasked with hunting down a missing girl, Joe is an unstoppable force as nears his mark. But, as he does so he also nears a moment of self-realization. Nearly the entire film rests on Phoenix’s shoulders and performance and he delivers in spades. It’s brutally violent and heart-numbingly dark but, Phoenix’s performance grounds the film in an all-too-real depiction of trauma and loss.
I mean, even if you haven’t seen it the reviews alone should be enough to garner a spot on her for Joker. If you have though, you know that Phoenix’s performance lives up to the hype and then some. Less menacing than past Jokers, Phoenix is unhinged and disconnected, with disturbing clarity as Arthur Fleck. It seems like a simple performance and character at first glance but, Phoenix’s insane commitment and equally insane physicality as an actor are on full display here, in what may be his best role yet.
You can catch Joaquin Phoenix on the big screen right now in Joker.
Check out the latest episode of Movie Night with Def Pen below: