Ridley Scott is eagerly awaited Napoleon is now playing in the cinema. If that wasn’t enough to lure you off your couch this Thanksgiving, Napoleon features a talented cast led by the brilliant Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix has been entertaining audiences since the ’80s (remember SpaceCamp?) and continues to flex his acting muscles in unique ways.
In case you need more Joaquin in your life – and who doesn’t? — here are five stellar performances to discover before (or after) Napoleon.
You Were Never Really There (2018)
You Were Never Really Here is a psychological thriller directed by Lynne Ramsay about a traumatized and violent veteran with a troubled past. Fierce, relentless and dark, this 2018 feature leaves Phoenix off its leash. It goes all out (with minimal dialogue), presenting Joe as both a brutal enforcer and a deeply troubled individual. This approach allows the audience to understand Joe’s internal struggles and the psychological toll of his past experiences.
Phoenix appeared in various TV shows and films starting in 1982, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he turned heads as the dastardly Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Here, the actor shows his talent for creating despicable but ultimately fragile – even identifiable – characters. Commodus spends the entire film wanting to kill Russell Crowe’s heroic Maximus and goes to great lengths to make him suffer.
Yet at the climax, when Maximus’ knife pierces his throat, we still feel a little pain for the guy: he just wanted his father (and sister!) to love him, after all. He was already a bit unhinged and power-hungry, but Commodus’ anger comes from pain, making him more pathetic than vile.
Her, directed by Spike Jonze, takes the viewer on a captivating journey to unique locations. Joaquin Phoenix’s acting is exceptional, conveying a range of emotions from quiet introspection to intense, intimate experiences. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Phoenix delivers a quietly powerful and heartbreaking turn as a loner named Theodore, who develops a romance with an artificial intelligence program called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). He effectively conveys a range of emotions, from loneliness and vulnerability to joy and connection, as his character navigates the complexities of love in the digital age.
Many actors have played the role of the Joker over the years, and each of them brings a unique flavor to the iconic villain. Heath Ledger proved a cruel and monstrous maniac willing to risk everything to prove his point, Jack Nicholson became a murderous clown, and Jared Leto, well… he was just Jared Leto with paint for the face. (I can’t win them all!)
To Phoenix’s credit, his iteration of Joker seems entirely original. He is a broken man who turns to crime out of desperation and finds that murder and mayhem suit him perfectly. Of course, the actor has more to do with the character than any of his counterparts – who were more or less supporting characters in a Batman film – but Phoenix makes us sympathize with his Joker. He offers a more nuanced and empathetic portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime than we’ve ever seen. Arthur Fleck is a man driven mad by a society that hates/fears him, and Phoenix makes sure we get all the dirty details. We feel his pain, his triumphs and his despair.
Pay attention to his acting in the famous Murray Franklin scene and you’ll have a hard time not feeling disturbed. He plays a character who is emotionally unstable, angry and full of insecurity. This version of the Joker is scarier than any of his predecessors because he resonates with us on a deeper level.
Walk the Line (2005)
If Joker demonstrates Phoenix’s wilder side, Walk the Line shows the actor taking a more subtle approach. His performance as Johnny Cash is intense, raw and utterly showy, although juxtaposed with quieter, more introspective moments that showcase Phoenix’s impeccable talent. It’s Johnny Cash. He sings and even plays guitar, notably in the sequence where he finds his voice while playing for Sam Phillips.
I love, love, love Walk the Line and consider it one of the best biopics ever produced. Reese Witherspoon has rightfully walked away with a treasure trove of awards, but Phoenix deserves just as many accolades for literally transforming herself into a pop culture icon. His performance in Walk the Line is a testament to his acting talent, demonstrating his ability to fully embody a real person and deliver a compelling, authentic and memorable portrait of a music legend.
I’m sure we still have plenty of performances to look forward to in Phoenix. For now, Walk the Line represents the crowning achievement of a career filled with astonishing performances. I can’t wait to see what he does for an encore.