The Best Performances from Joaquin Phoenix

The Best Performances from Joaquin Phoenix

With the release of You Were Never Really Here, we've decided to go back and pick some of our favorite roles from actor Joaquin Phoenix, spanning nearly two decades of work. Take a look at our picks below:


 gladiator joaquin phoenix performance

Gladiator (2000)

The first film that garnered Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar nomination is perhaps the most well known of his filmography. Ridley Scott's Roman Empire epic sees Phoenix as the villainous Commodus, the obnoxious heir to the throne who murders his own father and kills the family of general Maximus (Russell Crowe), thrusting him into a life of slavery. While over the top at times in his cadence and behaivor, it's hard to deny a sense of disgust for Commodus, especially in his more depraved moments. It was the performance that helped Phoenix finally break out of his stature as a child actor and be taken seriously for adult roles, and really paved the way for his work throughout the 2000s. (Rob Trench)

 quills joaquin phoenix performance

Quills (2000)

In Quills, Joaquin Phoenix has a distinct challenge placed in front of him. For most of the film, he is directly in the line of fire before Geoffrey Rush’s howling, 'look-at-me' performance.  Phoenix must not only hold his own with this force of nature, but also struggle to maintain a sense of calm and become the heart of the film. Phoenix does all of this and more.  As is expected from an actor of his caliber now, he never takes a scene off, never gets caught watching Rush chew the scenery, and most importantly, he balances his portrayal of empathy and friendship with a burgeoning love story. Throughout the film, although we are charmed by Rush, the audience is brought closer in a real human manner, by Phoenix, who is never afraid of letting us in through a pregnant pause or a simple look that transcends what any dialogue could offer. In a film full of big performances, it is about the Marquis de Sade, after all, Phoenix stands out because of his subtlety and willingness to take in the madness around him without fully succumbing to it. (David Hart)

 walk the line joaquin phoenix performance

Walk the Line (2005)

Taking on the persona of the late Johnny Cash, Phoenix goes full method in terms of emulating the legendary country singer's voice and physicality. The film follows Cash from his boyhood up to the moment he wins the heart of his beloved June Carter (Reese Witherspooon), and Phoenix carries the role well by disappearing into Cash with pure dedication. This was Phoenix's first time being nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, and although he lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman (who he would later share the screen with in The Master), he still gives a memorable and full force encapsulation of the 'Ring of Fire' singer. (Rob Trench)

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Two Lovers (2008)

Joaquin Phoenix had collaborated with director James Gray in many films, including The Yards, We Own the Night, and The Immigrant, but it's in Two Lovers that their strongest sense of collaboration is present. Phoenix plays Leonard, a man trying to put himself back together after a breakup that resulted in a suicide attempt and brief institutionalization. Two very different women enter Leonard's life in a matter of days: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) the daughter of his father's potential business partner who has been set up for him, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) a rambunctious neighbor that is dealing with a drug usage problem and carrying on an affair with a married man. Leonard is caught between the desire for a passionate romance or settling with what others around him would be best, an arrangement entirely too relatable yet compelling. The way Gray sets it up makes for a dramatic narrative, that, while predictable in some respects, results in a resounding emotional conclusion. It would also be Phoenix's last performance for a few years, during his brief retirement period in which he chose to become a rapper, as documented in I'm Still Here. (Rob Trench)

 the master joaquin phoenix performance

The Master (2012)

It’s hard to hold your own as an actor when you’re paired with someone as incredible as Philip Seymour Hoffman, but that’s exactly what Joaquin Phoenix manages to do in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is the brash, vulgar, physically violent foil to the intellectual menace of Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the leader of the Cause. Quell, the newest member of the cult, serves as the muscle that impulsively backs up Dodd’s ideas and conjectures without question. That is, until those ideas invade with his own animal urges, which he cannot ever manage to resist. The lumbering physicality of Phoenix’s performance at any given moment contrasts perfectly with Dodd’s nearly perfect veneer of confidence.  They’re two wonderful, complementary performances that never overcome each other, playing off each other seamlessly without ever stealing the spotlight entirely. Finding that balance is a much trickier feat as an actor than portraying the huge, over-the-top lead, and Phoenix makes a perfect half of a leading duo with Hoffman in The Master. (Callie Smith)

 her joaquin phoenix performance

Her (2013)

As a premise goes, Her sounded like something that would not appeal to many, or a lot of people would think ‘this is stupid’. However, many fell in love with the final project. You have a personal letter writer named Theodore Twombly, effortlessly played by Joaquin Phoenix, who falls in love with an operating system, named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), that has more life and personality than anyone he knows of in person. She is exactly what he needs after his marriage crumbles. Their relationship hits all the high notes until feelings change - even for a computer. Joaquin Phoenix was the perfect casting choice for something of this stature. We see Joaquin out in public or in interviews and he is very subdued and held back. There is not too much known about his life. Like Twombly, he is reserved and sometimes shy. Phoenix perfectly emulates the loneliness feeling that you get from Twombly. Not only that, but his chemistry between the other actors only aides to the beauty of this film. Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, and Chris Pratt are wonderful supporting actors, but it is Joaquin that fully shines in this Spike Jonze directed romantic sci-fi. (Rachael Hauschild)

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Inherent Vice (2014)

Joaquin excels as a strung-out private investigator (or is he a doctor? Both?) called “Doc” in Inherent Vice. The 1970’s hippie-noir isn’t everyone's favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, but you can’t deny Phoenix’s commitment to the role. His comedic timing is excellent, playing the perfect foil to Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, and the perfect punching bag to nearly every situation he finds himself in. Doc throws himself into violence in search of the truth. He presents himself as just another hippie, surrounded by pot-smoking acquaintances and a District Attorney girlfriend. As Sortilège’s dreamy, metaphysical narration follows Doc on his search for his missing femme fatale, Doc stumbles through each scene, convincing his antagonist and the viewer that he isn’t quite supposed to be there...yet he is the most cunning man in the room. Inherent Vice utilizes classic noir tropes: fog-covered sets, political corruption, and more; all punctured by slapstick comedy and chocolate-covered banana fellatio. Often overlooked as one of Joaquin Phoenix’s best performances, Inherent Vice is a long, twisted, and at times confusing-as-hell film, but Phoenix carries every scene with ease and a sense of humor you would have never seen in his more dramatic roles. (Sara Sorrentino)


What are some of your favorite Joaquin Phoenix performances? Be sure to leave us a comment below or at @TalkFilmSoc, and check out our review of You Were Never Really Here.

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