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.
“Signs” is the first collaboration between Phoenix and M. Night Shyamalan. The story follows Mel Gibson’s character along with his younger brother, played by Phoenix, and his two children while they confront an imminent alien invasion. Gibson plays a former priest who has abandoned his faith after his wife’s tragic death.
The film can be described as narratively clumsy, as Shyamalan’s movies often are, but is capable of striking a few moments of real emotion and others of true fear. Phoenix makes the most out of his more emotional scenes, like when he confronts his brother for his lack of faith or when he shows regret over his lost baseball career. For a large part of the film, he simply follows the lead of Gibson, but with “Signs,” Phoenix proved how much a good actor can create out of an uneven script.
19. Hotel Rwanda
In 2004, “Hotel Rwanda” told the story of one of the most infamous moments of the 20th century: the Rwandan genocide, an event known to many but always at the risk of being forgotten. The story follows the real events regarding Paul Rusesabagina, the owner of a Rwandan hotel in which he gave shelter to hundreds of refugees and successfully saved them. The story resonated with the audience and was lauded for tackling such a strong theme.
From a strictly cinematic point of view, the film is more than lacking, but it benefits from some strong performances. Phoenix plays a secondary but meaningful character, a cameraman who records the terrible mass killings that are happening. He represents the side of the Western world that wants to both see, and witness the truth.
18. The Village
M. Night Shyamalan’s career has had a considerable amount of ups and downs, both in their critical reception and box office success of his films. “The Village” (2004) has all the characteristics of the earlier Shyamalan movies: a mixture of horror, mystery and thriller elements, and a twist ending.
“The Village” is certainly enjoyable as a peculiar genre film that plays with aspects of the historical drama together with more usual horror themes. Phoenix plays Lucius Hunt, a restless young man who is determined to get out of the borders of the titular village, even if this is strictly prohibited by the Elders.
He also develops a romantic rapport with Bryce Dallas Howard’s Ivy, a beautiful blind girl of the village. The film may be lacking, but Phoenix still manages to fully exploit his personality into making Lucius a compelling character, certainly one we can root for as he tries to do the right thing.
“Parenthood” is a 1989 film by Ron Howard that explores different families and their struggle with the relationship between parents and children. The movie walks a line between dramatic, comedic and sentimental cinema, and tries to give a convincing insight into the way American families, including the more fractured ones, can work.
Phoenix plays a young teenager in angst. His Garry is introverted, and his anguish comes from the insecurities he feels about the new sexual desires he feels. He is not used to them, and craves a male figure to help him through this phase, although he is the son of a single mother.
Phoenix gathered praise for his portrayal, and after “Parenthood” some started to predict a shining career for his future. Unexpectedly, after this film he withdrew from acting and took his first hiatus.
16. Return to Paradise
Released in 1998, “Return to Paradise” is a moral drama that poses an excruciating dilemma. A man is imprisoned in Malaysia for a crime he committed with two friends while there on vacation. He risks a death sentence, unless his friends confess to the crime as well. The catch? If they both confess, they will get a three year sentence each, if only one of them does it, that person will get six years and the other one nothing. The temptation of betrayal is strong for the two friends, both toward the man already imprisoned, and toward one another.
Phoenix plays the man who is taken by Malaysian police, meaning that his role is not focused on moral dilemmas as the ones of Vince Vaughn and David Conrad (the two friends), but has the task of showing the unbearable anguish of a man on the verge of death by a foreign government. A good performance from a young Phoenix who was still finding his place again in Hollywood, a few years after his return from his first hiatus.
15. Reservation Road
“Reservation Road” is a 2007 dramatic thriller directed by Terry George and based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz. Mark Ruffalo plays a father who accidentally runs over a boy, but willingly avoids helping him. Phoenix is the boy’s father, who becomes obsessed with the idea of finding the man responsible for his son’s death.
The twist is that the father ends up hiring Mark Ruffalo’s character, asking him to help him find the killer. The coincidence serves as the base for the film’s dramatic core, and heightens the tension between the characters, which also include the wife and the ex-wife of both men.
The film is not really successful as an exploration of grief, guilt and revenge, and Phoenix’s performance suffers from this fact; nevertheless, he succeeds in making this individual portrayal of constrained anguish a strong and believable part of the story.
14. Irrational Man
It could be said that every great actor or actress should have at least one Woody Allen film in his or her filmography. A role in an Allen film usually manages to bring out something new about an actor, perhaps thanks to the peculiar way he works with his stars, leaving them free to explore the character and bring something on the table, while keeping them anchored to tight scripts and well-defined stories. Of course, the quality of the movies can vary, especially considering his “one film a year” policy.
Phoenix’s turn came with “Irrational Man,” where he plays a troubled philosophy professor who crosses paths with a student, played by Emma Stone. The film comes off as a bit of a cliché, since its themes of guilt and murder have already been explored by Allen in many other movies, but the performances of the two main characters give Phoenix and Stone a chance to show their talent, and fascinate the viewer, full as they are of a special charisma.
13. The Yards
“The Yards” began a series of collaborations between Phoenix and James Gray. In their first drama together, Gray already supplies Phoenix with a gritty, realistic role he can successfully portray. Willie works in the corruption heavy “yards,” which are the battlefield for rival Railway companies constantly trying to damage one another with the purpose of getting contracts from the Transit authorities.
Willie navigates with Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) in a sea of fraudulent acts that should give them more work opportunities, but he eventually falls victim to his own actions. Willie is an archetypal James Gray character: he is ruthless but humane in his actions, and has a substantial ambiguity. He is more of a victim of the world he has to live in, than a simply criminal individual. With “The Yards,” Phoenix set the tone for many of his roles to come.
“Quills” is one of the only period film Phoenix has made. He plays a supporting character, the Abbé du Coulmier. The story follows the final years of the Marquis de Sade’s life while he was incarcerated. Phoenix’s character is a priest who, while loyal to the laws of God, still manages to run the asylum where Sade is incarcerated with an enlightened sensibility. He deeply cares for the inmates and tries as hard as possible to let them express themselves freely and healthily through art.
The dichotomy between his strict beliefs and his appreciation for free thought becomes a kind of torture for him, especially when he starts to develop feelings for Maddy LeClerc (Kate Winslet), the woman who manages Sade’s works to get out of the asylum and to the public. The Abbé is quite an interesting and multi-faceted character, leading Phoenix to give one of his lesser-known but most tridimensional interpretations.
11. To Die For
In 1995, Gus Van Sant gave Phoenix, who had only recently came back to acting, an important role in “To Die For,” an experimental part-mockumentary, part-comedy, part-drama film about the obsession with fame from a female point of view. Nicole Kidman wants to become a media personality, and in order to do that has to get rid of her husband.
Phoenix is a naive high schooler and rebel who gets seduced into committing the murder. Kidman takes the main stage in this funny, unpredictable picture, but Phoenix commits wholly to the part and once again makes his character particularly sympathetic. The role of Jimmy began to show the world the variety of his acting range, and confirmed his talent, even at a relatively young age.
10. We Own the Night
“We Own the Night” was the second collaboration between Phoenix and James Gray. Released in 2007, the film is set in the late 1980s and follows the NYPD Street Crimes Unit through the story of two brothers. One of them (Joseph, played by Mark Wahlberg) is a cop, the other (Bobby, played by Phoenix) a nightclub manager.
Bobby has ties with the Russian mafia, and that creates a clear conflict with his brother’s profession, and ethics. Soon, this conflict becomes extremely serious: after the police raid Bobby’s club, a war escalates between the Russians and the policemen, and Bobby finds himself forced to choose on which side to stand.
Phoenix plays the most interesting character of this crime thriller, and certainly the most conflicted. The story stresses how he has two father figures, one being his biological father (Robert Duvall), also a policemen, while the other is a notorious Russian mobster. The film takes Bobby through many difficult choices, many of which regard his lover (Eva Mendes), and Phoenix gives a good performance of a man who suddenly has to change his perspective on life and its responsibilities.
9. I’m Still Here
The appearance Phoenix made in character (as himself) on the Late Show with David Letterman should probably deserve a spot of its own on this list. It was an immediately iconic piece of entertainment, and in retrospect, the fact that many did not suspect it was all an act proves just how convincing Phoenix can be even when playing absurd characters.
In this case, the absurd character was himself: teaming with then brother-in-law Casey Affleck, Phoenix pretended to give up his acting career to pursue one in the rap scene, a ridiculous concept but somehow believable as one of the breakdowns many Hollywood stars have.
The film only partially works; it is a great experiment and enquiry into fame and its effects, but it does not hold up its documentary form and ultimately loses itself. Having said that, the acting feat by Phoenix is one to behold, and in the long run, his filmography will benefit from such a peculiar oeuvre.
Phoenix’s Commodus is perhaps one of his most mainstream roles, at least of the second part of his career, after the child actor phase. “Gladiator” is an epic blockbuster with a taste of classic Hollywood, a captivating story of pride and revenge. The film has entered into the mythology of contemporary cinema as an example of how Hollywood blockbusters should work: Ridley Scott hits all the right spots to create a solid, even if a bit predictable movie.
It is easy to see then how a classic kind of hero such as Russell Crowe’s Maximus needed a classic kind of villain, and that was Phoenix’s task in playing Commodus. With his natural talent, he was able to infuse Commodus with an engaging personality, and made him both detestable and interesting.
The character’s conflict with his father, his brotherly hate, and his obsession with power make him an almost Shakespearean figure, and Phoenix succeeded in giving him the necessary depth.
7. Two Lovers
“Two Lovers” is one of the four collaborations between Phoenix and James Gray. Gray is an auteur deeply interested in the depths of the human mind, and in this film he tried to tackle the meaning of love and romanticism through the point of view of an uneasy mind. The story is inspired by “The White Nights,” a short novel by Fëdor Dostojevskij, although it goes into a considerably different direction when compared to the many other adaptations.
Phoenix plays a lonely and suicidal man who unexpectedly finds himself in the midst of not one but two potential relationships. This is a peculiar role, and is far from the usual lead in a romantic drama. His melancholy rings true, and there is no attempt at embellishing his complex and fundamentally unsatisfied soul.
Once again, Gray puts Phoenix at the core of the story, making his character the most captivating aspect of it. The best performances from Phoenix often come when he works with more restrained material, and this is one of his most emotionally resounding performances yet.
6. Walk the Line
“Walk the Line,” directed by James Mangold, is one of the most iconic musical biopics of the 2000s, together with “Ray.” Similarly to “Ray,” “Walk the Line” brought a new wave of fame and respect for the actor playing the protagonist. Speaking of musical biopics, the film checks every box: the rise to fame, obsession with the art, a troubled love, and problems with addictions.
Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, playing Johnny Cash and June Carter, give life to a movie that could risk becoming too predictable. Phoenix in particular succeeds in the demanding task of convincingly imitating such an known singer.
He proved that he was able to embark on a more physical acting endeavor (a skill that he would have later employed again) by imitating Cash’s voice and appearance. Embodying an icon, if done well, can truly be the turning point in an already successful career, and that was the case with Phoenix as well.
5. You Were Never Really Here
As iconic as many Joaquin Phoenix performances are, he has not won an extraordinary amount of major awards: he’s still missing an Oscar, and has won only one Golden Globe. However, in the international circuit, he recently garnered the Best Actor award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, for the extremely gritty “You Were Never Really Here.”
The role certainly has many of the characteristics that can make an actor shine, and become a critical darling: a tortured soul, a suppressed humanity that pushes to be released, and a general sense of believable realism.
Phoenix plays a former military man who now works as an hired gun. He moves with existential anguish through a painful world of crime, which only enhances his difficulty in dealing with his past. A performance of extreme strength and a great showcase of Phoenix’s ability.
4. The Immigrant
“The Immigrant” continues James Gray’s series of collaborations with Phoenix. This 2013 melodrama about Polish immigration in 1920’s New York is an underrated work of recent cinema, maybe for its difficult subject, the exploitation of the women who came to America to look for work and opportunities, but also as a consequence of its release strategy, since the Weinstein Company kept the film unreleased for more than a year in the hopes of some changes to the ending.
“The Immigrant” ultimately made its debut at Cannes in 2013. It was appreciated by critics, as it showed a clear inspiration from classic cinema, and a personal touch brought by Gray’s own personal family history. It is hard to decide who has the best performance between Phoenix and Marion Cotillard.
Phoenix plays Bruno Weiss, a Jewish man in control of a prostitution ring in which Cotillard’s character, Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska, soon falls into. As a villainous role, Weiss proved multi-faceted. Far from being a straight up “bad guy,” he is at times sympathetic, at times inhumane. Gray wrote the role for Phoenix, and it shows: Bruno Weiss is perfectly tailored for an actor who is asked to be extremely engaging, and viscerally convincing, never one dimensional. This is one of Phoenix’s most complete performances.
3. Inherent Vice
In 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson embarked in a challenging task, adapting one of Thomas Pynchon’s most convoluted novels, “Inherent Vice.” The film required an ensemble cast of rare strength, led by a central character, Detective Larry Sportello, who finds himself in a storm of events he cannot even try to control.
Phoenix took the role, after Robert Downey Jr. was for a long period in talks for it. Sportello could easily top a ranking of cinema’s strangest detectives. Anderson likened the film to a Cheech and Chong adventure, and the protagonist certainly embodies that lethargic nature.
Phoenix captures the playful nature of the role, playing it as low key as needed, but also engaging in broader physical acting. Being that “Inherent Vice” is a film that is sure to become a cult classic, we can expect an increasingly bigger appreciation for the character of Larry Sportello in the years to come.
This is one of the most measured performances by Joaquin Phoenix. He plays Theodore Twombly, a timid man who falls in love with an A.I., voiced by Scarlett Johansson. “Her” is a gem of contemporary cinema: it has a smart and thought-provoking story by writer/director Spike Jonze, and despite having being conceived in the early 2000s, the core of the narrative is particularly resounding to the audience of today’s hyper-technologized world.
As in many other movies of his, Phoenix’s performance benefits of the dynamic with a co-protagonist, who in this case is only presented in voice form. The romantic dialogue between Twombly and the A.I. voiced by Johannson is extremely believable, and this happens thanks to the kindness and vulnerability that Phoenix’s face conveys. Adding to that, he shines by convincingly creating a substantial difference between his grey, unhappy everyday persona, and his happier state when he talks to his virtual lover.
1. The Master
“The Master” (2012) is the first collaboration between Phoenix and Paul Thomas Anderson, whose previous film had been “There Will Be Blood,” which resulted in a Best Actor Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis. Proving that Anderson is one of the best directors working when it comes to giving value to actors, Phoenix was also nominated for an Oscar, and also won the prestigious Coppa Volpi at the Venice Film Festival for “The Master.”
The film is a battle of acting performances between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Phoenix. Hoffman plays a cult leader (largely inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard) who meets a troubled veteran, played by Phoenix. The clash of their personality at first makes them friends, but the complex nature that characterizes them both creates a more ambiguous dynamic.
Phoenix shines as the restless Freddie Quell, and put particular attention on the physical aspect of his performance as well, employing a peculiar walk and gestures. “The Master” was Phoenix’s return after his acting hiatus, and the beginning of a new phase of Phoenix’s career, his most mature and confident yet, in which he could exploit his natural talent in some as yet unseen ways.