Top 10: Best Joaquin Phoenix Performances


Known for playing dark, complex characters, Joaquin Phoenix has built a reputation as one of the best working actors today. From villains to music icons to lost souls, Phoenix has laid down an impressive body of work. Known as a curious figure off screen, it’s his transformative characters on screen that make him so unique. All of these elements are why “Joker” is so anticipated. When he commits to a role, it is can’t miss entertainment.

Earlier in the week, our own Matt St. Clair wrote a piece asking what were some of your favorite Joaquin Phoenix performances. Based on all the wonderful responses, we thought it would be a good idea to branch out that article with the list below.

10Charlie Sisters in “The Sisters Brothers” (2018)
dir. Jacques Audiard

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From the moment Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers” begins, you hear the crazy, hysterical voice of Phoenix’s Charlie Sisters. Charlie is one half of the brotherly duo sent to kill a man that has betrayed their boss. While Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) is the more even-keeled of the pair, Charlie is the unpredictable brother that wants to live the life of a bounty hunter till he dies. What makes Phoenix so good in this role is not just his chemistry with Reilly, but his comic timing. He thinks that just about everything is a joke, thus his judgments can become cloudy, leading to major consequences. Overall, Charlie is a selfish man-child that matures before our eyes.

9Merrill Hess in “Signs” (2002)
dir. M. Night Shyamalan

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During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, M. Night Shyamalan was one of biggest directors working in Hollywood. With “Signs,” he gave Phoenix the supporting role of Merrill Hess, a failed professional baseball player that must help his brother (Mel Gibson) and his kids fight off an alien invasion. While Gibson is the stoic lead, Phoenix is the one that provides the audience with the emotional core. He portrays the perfect amount of fear a person would experience when faced with these horrifying obstacles. While known as a leading man now, he fully embraced this supporting turn. Thus, he gave Merrill an emotional center that pays off beautifully with just a swing of a baseball bat.

8Jimmy Emmett in “To Die For” (1995)
dir. Gus Van Sant

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In this Gus Van Sant crime dramedy, Phoenix showcases all of the qualities he’d perfect later in his career. He plays Jimmy, an average high school kid seduced by television reporter Suzanne (Nicole Kidman). Manipulated by her charm and sex appeal, Jimmy is persuaded by Suzanne to kill her husband Larry (Matt Dillon). He’s willing to do whatever she says because he has truly fallen in love with her. His portrayal of Jimmy is downright soul crushing, considering he’s just a kid being told what to do but doesn’t really want to hurt anyone. From this performance you could see Phoenix had the potential to be something big. Usually this is a throw away role but he brings a raw performance that elevates Jimmy to the most memorable character in the movie.

6Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” (2008)
dir James Gray

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Phoenix has worked with director James Gray multiple times throughout his career. But it’s this performance, as Leonard in “Two Lovers,” that ranks above the other Gray collaborations. Leonard is a troubled young man who must choose between two women he is romantically involved with. Leonard is an introvert, with massive depression that he hides. The more he connects with each woman, the more he opens up as a man. Realizing who he wants to be comes hard for him, but his choice does lead to the happiness he deserves. Leonard is a turning-point role for Phoenix’s career. This is where he learned to play tragic yet relatable characters that audiences couldn’t help rooting for.

Commodus in “Gladiator” (2000)
dir. Ridley Scott

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Before playing the Joker, Phoenix created an iconic, villainous king in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.” Jealous of his father’s relationship with General Maximus Meridius (Russell Crowe), Commodus murders his father and takes control of the kingdom. He is responsible for the death of Maximus’ family and feels no guilt about it. As we watch Maximus fight for his life as a slave in the coliseum, we see Commodus try a variety of ways to kill him. Not only does it show how menacing he is, but it conveys his deliciously evil side through every monologue. With just one thumb, he could change the lives of everyone, thus showing how much he revels in the power he holds. Every hero needs a good villain and this is one villain we love to hate.

5Doc Sportello in “Inherent Vice” (2014)
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

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Working for his second time with director Paul Thomas Anderson, Phoenix gave this hypnotic performance as the marijuana-infused detective in “Inherent Vice.” Investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Doc Sportello gets caught in a tangled web of crime that continues to get more complicated the more he uncovers. Doc is considered a lazy detective due to his lifestyle. But, as the case unfolds, he is the one that can immerse himself into the criminal underground to find answers. He takes the physicality and mannerisms of his dramatic work and transforms them into a Chaplin-esque performance. As charming as he is hilarious, Phoenix is the shining beacon that makes “Inherent Vice” work.

4Joe in “You Were Never Really Here” (2017)
dir. Lynne Ramsay

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In a time where superhero movies run the world, Phoenix made a modern-day hero in Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here.” As Joe, he plays a traumatized gun-for-hire who uses violence to rescue young girls who have been sold into human trafficking. Marred by the events of his own childhood, Joe seeks to bring vengeance to the vile world he lives in. Phoenix beefed up for the role, making Joe a towering figure that can’t be matched physically. Sad but enraged, he gives Joe the right kind of humanity to make his actions feel like they will matter long after the credits roll.

3Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” (2005)
dir. James Mangold

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In his second Oscar-nominated performance, Phoenix transforms into country music legend Johnny Cash. Playing the ups and downs of Cash’s life with his family and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), he takes on the man in black with a swagger that feels authentic. His voice and demeanor are deep and cool while on stage but there’s more to a man than just the music he sings. Deep down, Johnny Cash is broken and turns to drugs to find answers. “Walk the Line” uses Phoenix as a vessel to display everything that needs fixing in Cash’s life. His turn as Cash elevates this standard biopic into something personal.

2Theodore in “Her” (2013)
dir. Spike Jonze

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There are a lot of things to love about “Her” from director Spike Jonze. The screenplay, world-building, and Scarlett Johansson’s vocal performance give us an embarrassment of riches. But the one thing tying everything together is Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely yet sweet work as Theodore. Recently divorced and heartbroken, Theodore develops a romantic relationship with Samantha, the voice operating system for his phone. As unconventional as the pair may seem, their connection is quite beautiful. On the surface, “Her” is about the romance but it’s really a commentary on humans and their consumption and dependence of technology. Phoenix uses Theodore to showcase how humans should appreciate the world we live in and how they can survive without the gadgets they are beholden to.

1Freddie Quell in “The Master” (2012)
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

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There are moments watching an actor’s performance when you realize are watching them at their absolute best. That’s the feeling you get when watching Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in “The Master.” Freddie is a World War II vet that physically returns home but is mentally lost. He is a frequent drinker and resorts to acts of violence when he loses control. One night, he stumbles onto the boat of cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and they form an unhealthy bond.

In his first outing with director Paul Thomas Anderson, Phoenix dominates every scene he is in. Freddie is a Molotov cocktail, setting everything in Dodd’s ideological world on fire with every action he commits. His body is lanky yet strong, fighting just about everyone he meets. His mind is moldable, yet he doesn’t want to listen to anyone and wants to play by his rules. Freddie and Dodd’s relationship is the definition of when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. While Dodd and his family try to convert him, Freddie is too set in his ways, crumbling their dynamic. This brutally raw performance was so good, it led to his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor, plus many critics prizes.

Which Joaquin Phoenix performance is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!