The 14 Best Joaquin Phoenix Movie Performances

7. We Own the Night (2007)

We Own the Night (2007)

We Own the Night is an ode to those wearing the blue shield, the officers of the law who fight against the bad guys lurking, killing, selling drugs, and corrupting society. This is a byproduct, a necessary consequence of the exploration of the complicated relationships of family on which James Gray often liked to ruminate.

In We Own the Night, Bobby, a sleazy nightclub manager, enjoys the nightlife highlife with his crooked buddies and his gorgeous girlfriend. Russian gangsters hang out in his place, and the owner, an old, Russian man who is like a father to Bobby, is clearly more evil than he cares to realize. His brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), is a decorated officer and his father, Burt (Robert Duvall), is the chief of police.

Bobby, considering his relationship to his family purely biological, must look deeper within himself after one of his Russian buddies orders a hit attempt on Joseph after a raid of Bobby’s club.

We Own the Night is a suspenseful action thriller (with one amazing car chase sequence). It’s also a coolly righteous movie. Aside from the inadvertently propagandistic view of the now disbanded NYPD Street Crimes Unit, We Own the Night is obsessed with how far we will go for family, to protect them, to be accepted by them, and to what lengths we’ll go to reject them.

This idea is personified in Eva Mendes’s character. She plays Bobby’s girlfriend, happily draped in furs and jewelry, soundly rejected by Bobby’s family of Polish police officers. She is a well-rounded, softer, thoughtful version of the played-out idea of the gangster’s gold digging girlfriend. She abandons Bobby, eventually, not because he isn’t rich anymore, but because he goes into protective custody, and she won’t leave her own family for his.

Phoenix, on the other hand, is tasked with playing two characters rolled into one. He is great as the narcissistic, nightlife-loving Bobby, dressed like someone out of Saturday Night Fever, but Phoenix is also equally convincing when he becomes the stone cold, vengeful special deputy searching for the Russians threatening his family. Bobby gives up one family to save his real one, and Phoenix, ever capable, makes believe in nightlife Bobby and then forgets about him, lost in Bobby’s transformed stare focused on justice and revenge.


6. Her (2013)

her 2013

Theodore Twimbley, a lonely man unable to recover from a recent divorce, is the main character of Spike Jonze’s Her. His job as a personalized greeting card writer (writing other people’s touching notes to their loved ones) is part of the commodification of human emotion; this theme is the heartbeat of Her.

Theodore buys an operating system, fitting comfortably inside his shirt pocket like an iPhone. It offers companionship by way of a computer program creating its own consciousness through its own highly advanced intuitive capability. Theodore chooses a female voice, and the system names itself Samantha. Theodore and Samantha develop a relationship and fall in love.

However, like any love affair, Theodore discovers Samantha has feelings, too, real ones. They fight and cry and have sex…well, phone sex. When Theodore accepts the love as true, he’s dismayed to realize she may be cheating on him—and unlike the capabilities of even the most energized adulterer, her infidelities number in the thousands.

Her is halfway between being a bastion the importance of human connection and a grim projection of what the reliance of technology to sooth the ills of the human condition will get us. Her is also a sappy romance spliced with goofy comedy, inches away from being a rom-com, but too whiny to elicit comparisons to Ernst Lubistch or Preston Sturges. In other words, it fits perfectly in line with Spike Jonze’s other totalitarian efforts.

It isn’t witty or wild enough to shed its woe-is-me blanket, miles away from his previous efforts like Adaptation or Being John Malkovich (Charlie Kaufmann penned both of those films, whereas Jonze wrote Her).

Regardless, Her is remarkable for its impressive feat of making real the love Theodore and Samantha share. Samantha is just a voice. Yes, it’s Scarlett Johansson’s voice, a very fine voice, but it’s still just sound.

Phoenix playing Theodore, deserves ample kudos. He sells every mushy moment, every goofy sexual encounter, every misunderstanding, every tear shed as though Samantha were right next to him. Theodore is believably lovesick and emotionally distraught, because Phoenix doesn’t once act over the top to the detriment of the scene. He has to be that much better, because he’s essentially acting with his eyes closed, feeling feelings instead of reacting to them.


5. Signs (2002)


Shyamalan’s Signs is about the Hess family, survived by a widower, Graham (Mel Gibson), his two young children, and his younger brother, Merill. Graham was a reverend, but after a tragic accident, he loses his faith.. Focusing on his small Pennsylvania farm and the well-being of his children, Graham gets by while suppressing a hurt from which the whole family refuses to heal.

Crop circles pop up in their cornfields and then all over the world. What is first thought to be hooey turns out to be true: Aliens are invading Earth. When a few plop down right near the family farm, the Hess clan must fight back, but may have to face their demons in order to appreciate that for which they are fighting.

Signs is one of Shyamalan’s best movies. The ending is a bit screwy, the twist indeed a little too on the nose. There are big blinking hints strewn about the entire movie, making it as obvious as an alien in the pantry what will end up saving humanity. However, Signs is one of the quietest sci-fi alien movies ever. The remote farm and tiny town locations make us feel trapped, unlike many “end of the world” sci-fi adventures much larger in scale (think War of the Worlds).

It shares Ridley Scott’s Alien claustrophobic horror, but Signs, like many Shyamalan films, investigates the effects of trauma and death. Underneath the movie’s popcorn plot hides an unlikely suggestion that one tragedy may help heal another—therapy in the form of an alien invasion. Fighting aliens isn’t the road to emotional health, but facing our own mortality may provide clarity to the traumas that have halted our lives.

In the middle of this is Merill, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Merill is a former minor leaguer known best for hitting the longest home run and striking out the most, too. He’s a lunkhead, but a sweet one. He’s also the bravest of the family, an important protector against aliens and their own defeatism. Phoenix plays up Merill’s physical strength, while downplaying his insightfulness. He makes Merill like the perfect little brother, protective, scared, brave with his big bro by his side. Phoenix, in a deceptively challenging role, has to play a big kid, is at his best when swinging a baseball bat squarely at the noggin of alien intruders.


4. Inherent Vice (2014)

Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson adapts Thomas Pynchon to the screen. It’s the first time any director has tried to tackle the monolithic postmodernist. If you think you need to read the book to “get” the movie, you’re wrong. A movie of the same name, with the same plot and characters, can only serve as a hint to how crazy Pynchon’s novels are.

Inherent Vice is a stoner-detective story-comedy with a twisty plot harkening back to the days of noir and Raymond Chandler. Doc Sportello—a perpetually stoned private investigator—is visited by an ex-girlfriend. She convinces Doc to help her out with a case. Her boyfriend—a rich land developer—is missing. She needs Doc’s help to get him back—and like in The Big Lebowski, the dude must abide, and so begins a plot involving a far reaching crime syndicate, neo Nazis, missing persons, informants, a lot of joints, a few roach clips, and an odd couple pairing of Doc and an angry flattop agent named Bigfoot.

Inherent Vice is a lot like The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers hit which also took its cues from stoner culture and hardboiled pulp. Doc is obviously comparable to the Dude, but inherently different. Doc, unlike the Dude, is an actual detective. He’s smart, even if he seems too high to entertain a coherent thought. He seeks danger and is ready for it, unlike the Dude’s fate-fucked existence.

Part of the difference, too, is that, with all due respect to Jeff Bridges, Joaquin Phoenix is playing a completely different kind of stoner. Doc is a hippie, stuck in 1970 as the 60s have finally withered away. He’ll suck gas in a dentist’s office as fast as he’ll light a roach. Phoenix masters the long gazes of someone lost in an indefinable high. It’s a subtle change from the munchies and classic rock stoner from which the Dude is based. Doc is a neo stoner. Phoenix had to reinvent the wheel, ignoring his history with smoking joints (see: I’m Still Here) to capture the kind of paranoid hippie stoner from the warped world of Thomas Pynchon.


3. Two Lovers (2008)

two lovers

Two Lovers is a great movie precisely because of how its sad-sack protagonist, Leonard, is not wholly sympathetic. He’s a complicated character at the heart of an honest, but strikingly human melodrama. After surviving a suicide attempt and being dumped by his fiancée in the aftermath, Leonard finds himself back in his parents’ Brooklyn apartment, living at home. His parents hook him up with a nice Jewish girl, but when Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a mysterious blonde beauty staying in his building, he can’t resist falling for her, throwing all the safe comforts in his life aside to grasp at the ungraspable.

Two Lovers is about the battle against fate—refusing the hand we’re dealt. Leonard sees the line between resignation and contentment as too blurry to trust which side he stands on. Two Lovers is not about hopelessness, though. It’s about optimism versus pessimism. Leonard’s life is filled with love, with promise and happiness. So what really is at the heart of his unhappiness?

Phoenix plays Leonard in his most heartfelt performance. Given the complexity of the philosophical debate filmmaker James Gray presents, Phoenix’s performance has to be much more nuanced. He portrays Leonard as a human, as real as can be, warts and all. Ignore the melodrama and focus on Leonard’s tears. Forget what he “should” do and hear what the honesty in his voice when he tells his mother about what will make him happy. Phoenix makes us believe Leonard’s intentions are pure, the most important detail in such an achingly honest film.


2. The Immigrant (2013)

The Immigrant (2013)

The Immigrant is a nasty and scathing portrayal of Ellis Island-era New York immigrants. The plot revolves around Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant traveling to America with her sister. When immigration agents discover her sister is sick, she is quarantined and sentenced to deportation. Ewa, alone and desperate to free her sister, falls prey to Bruno, a Jewish pimp with an eye for fresh meat from off the boat.

He falls in love with Ewa, but also with her prospects as a prostitute, and Ewa falls in love with Bruno’s money and his promise to help save her sister. Trapped in a New York City that’s less than hospitable to the influx of tired, poor and huddled masses, Bruno and Ewa begin a union based on manipulation, using each other to get to the top—the American dream in action.

The Immigrant is a great melodrama. Its commentary on the underprivileged immigrants of the early twentieth century struggling to survive is blatant and flat, but its theatrical spirit makes it a whirling experience.

Phoenix, as Bruno, is on fire in The Immigrant. A great melodrama is really a success of the actors involved, and Phoenix’s work (along with Cotillard’s) is paramount in The Immigrant’s success. Every scene he’s in, every second in frame, he commands our attention. It is arguably his finest role—arguably. He’s equal parts despicable, sympathetic, and crazy, as Bruno fights between being a tender lover and an evil piece of shit. Don’t underestimate the challenge of making a Jewish pimp seem anything but a bad joke pregnant with stereotype, the type of character conceived for bad sketch comedy.

Phoenix makes Bruno into one of the greatest silver screen characters of all time, dedicating himself to every bombastic bout of self-righteousness, every moment of melodramatic explosion. The Immigrant is a great movie, which becomes James Gray’s best by virtue of Phoenix’s committed, radiant, defining performance.


1. The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)

The Master is a polarizing film. Paul Thomas Anderson caught a lot of flak from those who didn’t like it and received heaps of praise from those who did. The Master doesn’t have much of a plot. A deranged World War II veteran, Freddie Quell, wanders the country in search of something, though we don’t know what. When he stumbles onto a cruise ship, he meets a cult leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) offering a place in his flock, thus begins a long relationship between them, which goes nowhere and everywhere, exploring all the sides of a destined friendship while nothing else really happens.

Like some films can be championed as great visual experiences, The Master is a masterwork of characters. Never in cinema, have two characters, or the actors playing them, been able to captivate an audience to the extent that The Master does. Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd could not be more different. Freddie is wiry, explosive, unpredictable, a man without a thing to say; Lancaster is portly, reserved, determined, a man made up entirely of words. The one thing that unites them is their loneliness. Lancaster searches for someone to follow him blindly. Freddie searches blindly for something none of us can see.

The Master is funny, theatrical, and gripping without the thinnest string of narrative arc. We’re essentially watching just to watch, like staring into flames, or watching the rhythmic passing of waves.

The film’s lifeblood is its two main performances. Lancaster Dodd is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the great actor, now gone from this world, has never looked as giddy in a role. He takes on the part of Lancaster like some great Shakespearian actor, grabbing the spotlight and bellowing his lines for everyone to hear. He dances and prances and huffs and puffs like a fabled king or mythical giant out of a storybook. He’s simply godlike.

Nevertheless, the heartbeat of the film is Freddie Quell. Joaquin Phoenix, in his best, most dedicated performance, makes Freddie Quell seem like he actually existed once upon a time. Freddie’s idiosyncrasies, his ticks, his mumble, his dead eyes, everything little detail and every large feature made to breathe through Phoenix’s mastery of the character. It’s a testament to the craft of acting, of the art of performance.

Phoenix makes us believe Freddie exists, the proof right up on the screen until the movie ends. When the screen goes black, it’s not as if The Master has ended, but that the window has closed, leaving Freddie to keep on wandering, leaving us to keep wondering just where he’s headed next. This is the definition of the greatest performance.

Author Bio: Jules is a former fiction writer turned cinephile, working towards a career in film criticism. He has a podcast (with a cohost), entitled “Gooble Gobble,” dedicated to the weird, unknown and forgotten films hiding in the catalogues of streaming services like Netflix (coming out on iTunes and Spring/Summer of 2015).