Does the actor make the movie, or does the movie make the actor (neither is true, but let’s pretend one is)? To build a case for the actor as the supreme cinematic being, the straw allows us to drink from the cinematic fountain, you need not look any further than the work of Joaquin Phoenix.
Beginning acting at a young age, Joaquin teamed up with his brother, River, (and sister, Summer), though a fatal drug overdose would take River’s life too soon. Joaquin disappeared from the public eye, only to return after a year of personal rehabilitation from the tragedy. We’re lucky he returned to acting, giving us what has so far been a tremendous career.
Starring for filmmakers Ridley Scott, Gus Van Sant, James Gray and Paul Thomas Anderson, starring alongside a wide array of actors—nuts like Steve Martin and Matt Dillon, old dogs like Robert Duvall and James Caan, manly men like Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, contemporaries like Mark Wahlberg and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman— and actresses —old guardians like Diane Wiest, Sigourney Weaver, and Nicole Kidman, today’s powerhouses like Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, he’s shared the spotlight with them all, himself always shining a little brighter.
Here’s a list of fourteen of the best films (and performances) of Joaquin Phoenix—one of the finest actors working today.
14. Parenthood (1989)
Parenthood, Ron Howard’s 1989 ensemble cast comedy, touches on all different stages of being a parent (Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Rick Moranis, Diane Wiest, Martha Plimpton, Tom Hulce, Jason Robards, Keanu Reeves and a young Joaquin Phoenix star). Set in the suburbs of St. Louis, four middle-aged siblings maneuver through family life, specifically the struggle, and joy, of raising children. In each of their families, there’s a different challenge. One has a prepubescent boy suffering from severe anxiety. Another tries to force the genius out of their young daughter while planning every step of their future.
A single mother battles with her teenage daughter and son. A couple in their golden years has to come to terms with their flaky screw up of a boy who is an adult, only by age. Parenthood, too, explores the effect children can have on a marriage. Some are trying to spice things up while others spare the sex to spoil the child.
Parenthood is a sentimental movie, but Howard’s film, veiled in comedy, isn’t afraid to highlight the lowlights of parenthood, while affirming that a loving family is still a good thing.
Phoenix, who at the time went by “Leaf,” plays Garry, the teen with the single mother. Garry is introverted and angry, desperate for a male presence (Garry’s father wants little to do with him). Parenthood, made in 1989, isn’t the most progressive look at parenthood. Garry’s unhappiness is cured by having a man around the house. The idiot boyfriend of his sister is enough to coax Garry out his funk (insulting single moms everywhere). Garry’s growth, though manufactured by a change of scenery, is natural. He seems to be genuinely happy by the film’s end.
Phoenix embodies Garry’s angst. It could be said that Phoenix, who was around the age of Garry’s character at the time of filming, wasn’t doing much more than being himself. However, Joaquin Phoenix isn’t Garry. While all teenagers stash some porno, it isn’t that simple.
13. To Die For (1995)
It’s about a small-time weathergirl ( Nicole Kidman) who will stop at nothing to become a big-time weathergirl. However, road to becoming a famous television personality isn’t without its roadblocks. Her husband, at one-time a bad boy with a motorcycle, has turned into a domesticated old dog hoping for her to squirt out some kiddies. She seduces and manipulates an outcast metal head from the local high school, Jimmy, to do the deed for her.
Gus Van Sant’s dark comedy, To Die For, is funny and quirky. Its satirical aim, on the other hand, falls short. To Die For unwittingly mocks the career-oriented woman, an unstoppable quest to succeed coinciding with the acts of a murderous psychopath. The message suffocates good taste and good sense, but it’s still a devilish little movie.
Jimmy is the one character Van Sant (and screenwriter Buck Henry) gets wholly right. He’s the scrawny, grungy example of a fool in love, barely able to understand what he’s agreeing to do, let alone what will happen after the job is done.
Phoenix plays Jimmy. He sports a mullet, which alone should prove Phoenix’s dedication to the part, while he wears the look of a total moron. It’s part of what makes Jimmy so sympathetic—he’s too stupid to be anything else. To convince us the end for a murderer is more tragic than for the victim he murdered takes a big pair of puppy dog eyes. Looking into Joaquin Phoenix’s, you wouldn’t guess his could get so wide.
12. The Yards (2000)
The Yards focuses on the business of repairing New York City commuter rails—a business rife with corruption and crime. Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) is released from jail, free to return to the family business. When a routine bribe goes wrong, the house of cards comes tumbling down, and Leo is left to choose between what’s right for the family versus what’s morally wrong.
The Yards is a very personal work in filmmaker James Gray’s catalogue. His father was at the center of a corruption scandal in the1980s, and one can imagine the inner turmoil of someone watching their father go down for a crime. The Yards, like many of Gray’s films, toys with the importance and influence of family.
Phoenix’s character, Willie Gutierrez, is a tragic counterpart to Leo. Despite being loosely related to Leo (through a relationship with Leo’s cousin), Willie’s different last name (of Hispanic descent) puts him on the outside looking in, no matter how many bribes or murders he commits for the family business. Leo may be closer to director Gray’s real-life experiences, but Willie is like Gray’s id. Willie’s fall from graceful criminal to hapless fugitive suffers cosmic retribution unlike any of the other characters. Gray’s moralizing is cathartic, but cruel and unforgiving.
Phoenix captures Willie’s arrogance. Willie feels like he’s lost, stumbling out of a Scorsese movie into the moralizing rail yards of Gray’s moralizing gangster movie. Phoenix has the challenge to make Willie as ugly as possible, while still maintaining a level of empathy for Willie. He is not to be hated, but certainly to be judged.
11. Gladiator (2000)
“Are you not entertained?” is the disgusted cry of Maximus (Russell Crowe), masquerading as the Spaniard, tearing up the gladiator circuit while finding his way back to Rome to exact revenge on the cowardly new Caesar, Commodus. Gladiator, the bloated first epic of the new millennium, is Ridley Scott’s gore fest soaked in vengeance. It’s hard to remember it for more than the gladiator battles and the inevitable revenge struck by the film’s end, but Commodus’ scorned rampage of abuse of power puts everything in motion.
Commodus is only superficially despicable, just as Maximus is mind-numbingly easy to root for. After all, how would one feel if their father, who happens to be the leader of Rome, picked another to inherit the throne, actively badmouthing his child because the handsome friend makes for the better warrior? What kind of peewee football father-son dynamic is that? Why couldn’t he have said, “That’s my boy,” instead of “That’s my boy””? Commodus’ spitefulness toward Maximus is understandable, even if he is an evil bastard who kills his own father and murders Maximus’ young boy and wife.
Phoenix is embraces the rage and revels in the spite. He makes Commodus the favorite in this classic film of warrior lust and ancient forms of entertainment. No matter how mighty Russell Crowe looks on the poster (he is the gladiator, of course), Phoenix should be hailed more so as the all important antagonist driving Gladiator into motion.
10. I’m Still Here (2010)
In I’m Still Here, Joaquin Phoenix abandons his acting career to chase a dream of making a rap album. His brother-in-law/ actor /filmmaker Casey Affleck documents the abrupt switch, which pisses people off not only because of the gall of the project, but because Phoenix is so annoying in the process.
All the way up its release, there was a debate over whether I’m Still Here was a hoax or not. Watching it doesn’t uncover much more than an answer to the debate. It is a hoax—and a spotty comedy, but what’s at its forefront is a dramatically bizarre shift, physically and figuratively, in Joaquin Phoenix’s career.
Normally muscular and shaven, Phoenix got fat and scruffy to play himself, showing his life to be in shambles in more ways than one. He smokes joints, snorts cocaine, dances with prostitutes and performs some terrible rap songs in a clunky quest to bastardize his own celebrity. I’m Still Here could be performance art. It’s certainly a mockumentary with the “mock” underlined and punctuated by many underlined exclamation points. It could also be the reality of fantasy, playing out what it’d look like to abandon everything to chase a dream.
What’s proven most fascinating about I’m Still Here is Phoenix’s performance, which is so annoying and off-putting, it’s hard to cheer him on. Rarely does an actor want to antagonize their audience so much they’ll participate in a film dedicated to doing so (as well as an infamous spot on Letterman). Nevertheless, Phoenix, whether pushing the boundaries of celebrity, indulging in a pet project, or both, is invested in I’m Still Here in a way most actors would never dare jeopardize their careers for a role.
9. The Village (2004)
None of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are stranger than The Village. It is set in a foggy era resembling colonial America, in a small village, surrounded by woods patrolled by monsters. The villagers are kept within the village limits, fearful of the monsters ready to attack anyone venturing into the woods, but when a chain of events uncovers the fishy truth behind the monsters, the village must protect against their quaint existence being shown by the harsh light of reality.
The Village is weird fun stifled by Shyamalan’s proclivity for symbolic imagery. If you spend too much time searching for the twist ending (inevitable in any Shyamalan film), you’d miss the finer points of the strangely motivated plot.
Lucius, played by Phoenix, is the catalyst. He wants to go through the woods and into “town” to get medical supplies. A young boy in the village has died of a common illness. However, the town elders dismiss Lucius’s plan. Lucius goes anyhow, setting in motion the potential demise of the village’s existence.
Lucius, a rebellious go-getter, is clearly in the dark about the purpose of his village. He challenges the authority of the elders, but still wears the ugly yellow capes. He’s a great character, because he is never vindicated. His blind girlfriend takes up his cause after the town idiot stabs him nearly to death. He’s our protagonist, and then he’s not. For the time Lucius is on screen, and part of the plot, he’s mixed up in all sorts of things.
Phoenix is challenged to act passionately in a love story, be the curious detective, weep as the sorrowful village troublemaker (the monsters visit after Lucius traipses through their woods),lay bedridden and dying, and he has to do it all in just forty-five minutes or so! Talk about speed acting. No seriously, talk about speed acting, because Phoenix may have invented the term with his role in The Village.
8. Walk the Line (2005)
Most actors undertake a biopic at some point in their careers. Joaquin Phoenix, portrayed the “Man in Black,” Johnny Cash, in James Mangold’s Walk the Line
We see Cash’s life from a rough childhood spent obsessed with music to a lonely, but determined, crawl to the top of the country music charts. We see his career derailed by a raging pill addiction, a crumbling marriage, and an obsessive attraction to fellow country star, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Their romance bubbles and boils like a feisty R-rated sitcom couple.
It’s not the aim of a biopic to reinvent the legend, to make him too recognizably human. Like remembering “Ring of Fire” as a commercial ditty, Walk the Line is probably remembered best not as an honest exploration into Cash’s troubled, mythic life, but as a chance for a couple of really good actors to get the recognition they deserve.
Phoenix got right the church bell boom to Cash’s voice—singing and strumming the guitar to truly become the country star. He sounds just like Cash, kinda, sort of. It’s close enough to carry Walk the Line. Reese Witherspoon’s spitfire take on June Carter mixes Phoenix’s wildfire portrayal of Cash like gasoline and a lit match. Their relationship on screen makes Walk the Line worth the couple of hours.