Joaquin Phoenix has one of the most peculiar filmographies among contemporary actors. He often experiments with unexpected roles, and he usually divides himself between independent, more artistic films and mainstream releases (although these are rarely the usual blockbuster).
Phoenix’s career has gone through various stages, from the child actor phase to the ongoing more mature one. Phoenix has taken more than one hiatus from acting, and he has always shown an independent spirit in his career choices. He has worked only with a few directors on a recurring basis, as this list will show, and has tackled characters that cover an impressing rage of personalities, from the timid introvert to the arrogant villain.
His life outside of movies is certainly of interest in order to understand his modus operandi, from his free thinking family in Puerto Rico to the tragedy of his brother River’s death. However, as he has always tried to underscore, the personal life of an actor should be irrelevant when it comes to evaluating his movies.
This list does not consider neither voiceover roles nor the TV movie “Kids Don’t Tell” (1985). It covers Phoenix’s filmography from “SpaceCamp” (1986) to “Mary Magdalene” (2018).
This was the first proper film in which Phoenix starred. His acting pseudonym was Leaf Phoenix. This 1986 space adventure followed the improbable premise of a group of young boys and girls at a NASA camp that finds themselves on a real journey to space.
The film had to go through a long series of scathing reviews, but also the unfortunate coincidence of a release date set a few months after the Challenger disaster of 1986. Phoenix does his part as eager Max, but this ordinary part in an ordinary kids movie is not, of course, one of his most relevant works.
29. U Turn
Phoenix can count Oliver Stone among the famous directors he has worked with. In 1997, he had a supporting role in “U Turn,” a crime drama starring Sean Penn.
The film is one of Stone’s less convincing works. The story barely holds together and is a confused mixture of genres. Phoenix’s role is secondary and forgettable, and adds little to his filmography.
28. Ladder 49
“Ladder” 49 tells the story of Baltimore firemen. Phoenix is Jack, a firemen who gets stuck in a building on fire during a rescue operation. The film intersects the attempted rescue of Jack by his fellow firemen, guided by the deputy chief, played by John Travolta, and flashbacks of Jack’s life, showing his personal journey into becoming a fireman.
“Ladder 49” is one of the most conventional roles of Phoenix’s, from a period of his career where he had gained more mainstream attention, and did not yet venture into particularly challenging work.
“8mm” is a thriller directed by Joel Schumacher starring Nicolas Cage as Detective Tom Welles. He has the task of finding out if a snuff film depicting a gruesome rape and murder is real or staged. Of course, things quickly become bloody and Cage has the chance to show off his notorious over-the top acting method.
Phoenix acts as the main ally of Welles; he plays Max California, who works in an adult film store, and who helps Welles navigate into the underworld of pornography. Phoenix, along Max Gandolfini, makes the most out of his secondary role and gives a convincing portrayal of his character, adding a bit more nuance than the rest of the film offers.
26. Clay Pigeons
In 1998, Joaquin Phoenix, 24 years old at the time, starred in a bizarre dark comedy titled “Clay Pigeons” alongside Vince Vaughn and comedienne Janeane Garofalo. He plays Clay Bidwell, a young man who is having an affair with a married woman, whose husband kills himself because of his wife’s betrayal. He then finds himself in a series of increasingly risky situations which also involve a strange man played by Vaughn, and several murder victims.
The film, made by future “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin, is a fun ride, even if it has not aged that well, and Phoenix does his homework as the helpless Clay.
25. It’s All About Love
Thomas Vinterberg is one of the co-founders of Dogme 95. “It’s All About Love” is the follow-up to his very successful film “Festen,” and his first work that features mainly English speaking actors.
The film was developed over five years, and put the director into great difficulty, bringing him to the point of seeking help from Ingmar Bergman himself, who swiftly refused. The setting is futuristic and post-apocalyptic, and the story dwells on the themes of love and nature, while conspiracies and global events intersect with the personal relationship of Elena (Claire Danes) and John (Joaquin Phoenix).
The film sounds as confusing as it is, and does not stand as one of the best conceived oeuvres spurred from the Dogme 95 movement. Consequently, Phoenix’s performance suffers from this, and clearly shows how his acting career had not stirred into its clearest direction yet.
24. Mary Magdalene
“Mary Magdalene” is a retelling of Jesus’ last days, mainly told from the perspective of his follower Mary. Director Garth Davis tells the story through a feminist point of view, trying to explore an original side of the passion of the Christ. Always up for a challenge, Phoenix tackled one of the most arduous roles an actor could engage, that of Jesus Christ.
In one of his not-so-frequent interviews, Phoenix explained that his method for approaching the character was to concentrate on his human side, stating that his strictly religious aspect was too overwhelming to provide a convincing performance. His interest in giving his own spin to such an iconic part is obvious, and he manages to give his characteristically nuanced deepness to the Messiah. Still, the film suffers from a general lack of originality; consequently, “Mary Magdalene” works as a showcase of Phoenix’s talent, but not as his most memorable work.
Joaquin is still credited as Leaf Phoenix, his self-imposed name, in this fun adventure film from 1987. “Ruskies” is a moniker for the terrible Russians of the Soviet Union, inhuman child eaters. At least this is how they are depicted in the comic books that the young protagonists read.
When by chance they encounter a real “russkie,” of course, good intentions prevail and they manage to befriend him. Joaquin/Leaf Phoenix is the leader of this group of youngsters, taking center stage in this entertaining and ultimately innocuous film.
22. Inventing the Abbotts
“Inventing the Abbotts,” directed by Pat O’Connor, is the story of two brothers and their obsession with the wealthiest family of their little town, the Abbotts. More specifically, one of the brothers (Billy Crudup) is a confident go-getter, and he seduces each of the three daughters of the Abbott family. The other one, who is also the narrator of the film, is played by Phoenix and shows much insecurity in his actions, even if he is attracted by two of the Abbott daughters as well.
This is a familiar drama with a classical feel, to the point that when it came out Roger Ebert wrote “If the same movie had been made 40 years ago […] it could have used more or less the same screenplay (minus the four-letter words).”
The film follows an interesting story that unfortunately is not served at best by the director. Phoenix plays another one of his conflicted and insecure characters, and manages to make him the more sympathetic one in the picture.
21. Buffalo Soldiers
“Buffalo Soldiers” is a dark comedy directed by Gregor Jordan and is based on the satirical novel by Robert O’Connor. Its target is the U.S. military, and the film gives a scathing portrayal of the American forces. It is set in one of the many U.S. bases in German territory near the end of the Cold War, and Phoenix plays Ray Elwood, a smart and devious (yet likeable) soldier who keeps himself occupied with dealing in the black market and supplying drugs for the other soldiers.
The satire follows Elwood’s own war with a strict sergeant who intends to end his affairs. The film had to wait two years before being finally released in 2003 because its portrayal of the American armed forces was not apt for the post-9/11 world.