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Ridley Scott‘s highly anticipated Napoleon is now playing in theaters. If that weren’t enough to lure you off your couches this Thanksgiving, Napoleon features a talented cast led by the brilliant Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix has entertained 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 for you to check out before (or after) Napoleon.
You Were Never Really Here (2018)
You Were Never Really Here is a psychological thriller directed by Lynne Ramsay about a traumatized and violent war veteran with a troubled past. Fierce, unrelenting, and bleak, this 2018 feature lets Phoenix off the leash. He goes for broke (with minimal use of dialogue), presenting Joe as both a brutal enforcer and a deeply troubled individual. This approach enables the audience to empathize with Joe’s internal struggles and the psychological toll of his past experiences.
Phoenix appeared in a variety of TV shows and movies starting in 1982, but it wasn’t until 2000 that it turned heads as the vile Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Here, the actor displays his knack for crafting despicable but ultimately fragile — even relatable — characters. Commodus spends the entire film wanting to kill Russell Crowe’s heroic Maximus and goes to great lengths to make the man suffer.
Yet, at the climax, when Maximus’ knife pierces his throat, we still feel a morsel of pain for the guy—he just wanted his dad (and sister!) to love him, after all. He was already a little unhinged and power-hungry, but Commodus’ anger stems from pain, making him more pathetic than vile.
Her, directed by Spike Jonze, takes the viewer on a captivating journey to unique places. Joaquin Phoenix’s acting is exceptional, conveying a range of emotions from quiet introspection to intense and intimate experiences. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Phoenix delivers a quietly powerful, heartbreaking turn as a loner named Theodore, who develops a romance with an artificial intelligence program called Samantha (voice 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 a digital age.
Many actors have played Joker over the years, and each of them brings a unique flavor to the iconic villain. Heath Ledger displayed a cruel, monstrous maniac willing to risk everything to prove a point, Jack Nicholson went full homicidal clown, and Jared Leto, well… he was just Jared Leto with some face paint. (Can’t win ’em all!)
To Phoenix’s credit, his iteration of Joker feels wholly original. He is a broken man who turns to crime out of desperation and finds that murder and mayhem suit him splendidly. Sure, the actor gets 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 empathize with his Joker. It provides 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 ensures we get all the dirty details. We feel his pain, triumphs, and despair.
Pay attention to his acting in the famous Murray Franklin scene, and you’ll find it difficult not to feel disturbed. He portrays a character who is emotionally unstable, angry, and full of insecurities. This version of the Joker is more frightening than any of his predecessors because it 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 appropriately showy, albeit juxtaposed with quieter, more introspective moments that showcase Phoenix’s impeccable skill. He is Johnny Cash. He even sings and plays the guitar, notably in the sequence where he finds his voice while performing for Sam Phillips.
I love, love, love Walk the Line and consider it amongst the best biopics ever produced. Reese Witherspoon rightfully ran away with a treasure trove of awards, but Phoenix deserves just as many accolades for literally transforming into a pop culture icon. His performance in Walk the Line is a testament to his skill as an actor, showcasing his ability to fully inhabit a real person and deliver a compelling, authentic, and memorable portrayal of a music legend.
I’m sure we have plenty more Phoenix performances to look forward to. For now, Walk the Line stands as his crowning achievement in a career jam-packed with astonishing performances. I can’t wait to see what he does for an encore.