A child of the Hollywood industry and brother to the late-great River Phoenix, Joaquin had a troubled shadow to start under. But, since debuting in the 1980s, crashing onto the scene in his breakout, Ron Howard’s Parenthood, Joaquin has carved out a space for himself in Hollywood similar to Christian Bale.
His versatility knows no bounds, often transforming his body and face to match the role he takes on. The depth of humanity he brings to his roles results in harrowing portrayals of desperation, loneliness, and a search for redemption. He takes his turn at villainy quite often but also leans into his sexy, charismatic side when he has to. Phoenix has become a reliable leading man whilst also always keeping the audience on their toes.
Here are his top 10 performances.
While not the lead of U-Turn and only in a few scenes, Joaquin makes a memorable entrance in this crazy hallucination of a crime film from renegade auteur Oliver Stone. Phoenix’s performance as the dim-witted southerner “TNT” is the perfect prerequisite to what would become of his hot-blooded portrayal of the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. A perfect combination of cool and hot charisma.
Starring alongside Mel Gibson in Signs and part of another genius concept from M. Night Shyamalan, it could’ve been easy for Joaquin’s brother character “Merrill” to get lost in the shuffle. Living at the farm with his preacher brother and his kids, Phoenix shines as a reluctant hero but also adds in tidbits of humor and levity when needed. He has to either choose to believe in the miracles of God or to act against the forces of extraterrestrials closing in on them. Phoenix carves out another memorable supporting turn as the faded athlete of a small town.
8Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Phoenix’s first collaboration with Gus Van Sant since 1995’s To Die For, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot sees Joaquin as famous cartoonist “John Callahan” and his long battle with alcoholism. Joaquin dons a fringy orange wig and is confined to a wheelchair because of a horrible drunk accident. Breathing life and humanity into desperate characters may be one of Joaquins greatest gifts as he saves a film that could’ve been too dark from folding in on itself as his portrayal of Callahan shows that no one is too far from being saved.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s psychedelic and hazy mystery adapted from the near unattainable Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice works as a film because its lead is up to the task. Phoenix as the druggy private eye “Doc Sportello” in all of his mutton chop madness matches the story’s weird and off-beat temperament from scene to scene. Navigating the narcotic smog of 1970s SoCal, Phoenix delivers one of the funniest performances in his long career.
6You Were Never Really Here
Lynn Ramsay doesn’t make films for the squeamish. Her sparse, minimal but harrowing tale of pulp starring Joaquin Phoenix as the brutal hitman “Joe” was an unflinching look at violence and its effect on the viewer. Phoenix fills the frames in You Were Never Really Here by barely saying a word but instead imposes his will in a dark transformation – and possibly his greatest portrayal of brutality to date while still escaping the film a hero.
In his second collaboration with PTA, Joaquin transforms himself into the navy seamen runaway “Freddie Quell” who crosses paths with the megalomaniac “Lancaster Dodd”, played by the late-great Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The Master itself is less concerned with narrative conventions and instead rests its laurels on the shoulders of Phoenix as he takes us through the psyche of a troubled and haunted man. Joaquin crafts a character in many different colors, from violently psychotic, desperate, lonely, and romantic with a sense of discovery just on the horizon. His performance earned him his third Oscar nominee.
On the precipice of stardom, the young Joaquin decided to take his turn as the antagonist “Commodus” in Ridley Scott’s Roman epic Gladiator. Pitting himself opposite Russell Crowe’s iconic turn as the tragic hero “Maximus”, Phoenix injects the film with slimy villainy, sniveling and weaseling his way to the throne. Phoenix earned his first Oscar nominee in the Supporting category, proving he could be wholly watchable even when playing scum.
In Joaquin’s sweetest role to date and one of the best films he’s had the chance to star, comes Spike Jonze’s weirdly heartfelt tale of love in the digital age Her. Heartbroken as a lonely writer “Theodore Twombly”, Phoenix falls for an artificial intelligence device voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Part comedy, part heartbreaking tragedy, Phoenix sells what shouldn’t work and imbues the performance with enough humanity that you can’t help but empathize with his ill-fated romance.
2Walk The Line
Earning Joaquin his second Oscar nomination and his first as a lead actor, Phoenix manifests Johnny Cash before our eyes in Walk the Line, transforming into the legendary bad boy of country music. Not only did he get the slick charismatic energy of the singular Cash but Phoenix also did all of his singing and learned to play guitar just like Cash did. Joaquin proved he could be the star of a mainstream biopic but not lose his artistry, placing him atop the Hollywood food chain.
In the wake of Heath Ledger’s final performance as Joker, it was hard to believe anyone could follow him with any integrity. But, Joaquin Phoenix did just that with “Arthur Fleck” and created another seminal portrait of the famed Batman villain that stands on its own next to Ledger and Jack Nicholson’s performances. Phoenix crafted a character in Joker that became instantly recognizable. From the ear-piercing cackle to the distorted shape of his body and his transformation from failed comedian to the villain savior of the dirty Gotham streets, Phoenix took home the Oscar gold that night. He became the second actor to do so after Heath Ledger tragically passed.