From Gus Van Sant to Paul Thomas Anderson: 10 best films starring Joaquin Phoenix
“Every movie soaks into you for a certain amount of time.” – Joaquin Phoenix
American actor Joaquin Phoenix has established himself as one of the biggest names in Hollywood with the impressive feat of having both commercial successes as well as critical acclaim. He recently won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his brilliant performance in Joker but his talent has been evident for a while now, starring in cult-classics like The Master and Her, Phoenix has gained a noteworthy name. He has multiple awards to his name too, including an Academy Award, a Grammy Award, and two Golden Globe Awards.
Phoenix followed his brother, River Phoenix, and his sister, Summer, into acting and began performing on street corners from a young age and got his first major film role in 1986 effort SpaceCamp. Apart from acting, Phoenix is an environmentalist and an animal rights activist (influenced by his late brother River). A vegan since he was three years old, the actor combines regular campaigns for PETA and In Defence of Animals alongside his hectic schedule.
While talking about his own acting experience, Phoenix said, “I like to have a lot of options available, then make a choice in the moment. I’m trying more and more just to really have all these possibilities available but not make any kind of decision until I’m in the experience.”
He added, “I try not to make rules about the character… I don’t like that idea of ‘my character would never do that!’ I don’t know what the fuck they’d do, I do things all the time that are out of character, what does that even mean in character?”
On his 46th birthday, we revisit some of Joaquin Phoenix’s best film performances as a celebration of one of the top talents of our time.
Joaquin Phoenix’s 10 best film performances:
10. To Die For (Gus Van Sant – 1995)
Gus Van Sant’s 1995 mockumentary stars Nicole Kidman as Suzanne Stone-Maretto, an aspiring weathercaster on a local TV station who is too ambitious for her own good. Out of frustration, she seduces a teenager called Jimmy (played by Phoenix) in order to make him kill her husband Larry (played by Matt Dillon). Jimmy gets arrested for following through with the murder but Suzanne finds herself in trouble as well.
Van Sant said of the picture, “We heard through the agent grapevine that Joaquin Phoenix wanted to audition. I’d met him when I visited the set of [director Nancy Savoca’s film] Dogfight in Seattle starring Phoenix’s late brother River, who passed away October 1993 and starred in Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho]. I thought, ‘That’s unbelievable.’ We were all still mourning River.”
His performance offered a keen piece of foreshadowing on Joaquin’s career.
9. The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard – 2018)
Set in 1851, Audiard’s 2018 western follows the story of two brothers Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli (played by John C. Reilly) who have grown up in a hostile world and have forgotten what it means to be human. Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick DeWitt, the two assassin brothers chase after two men (Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed) who intend to take advantage of the Gold Rush.
Phoenix explained, “That one element was the really interesting dynamic because so much of it is—there’s a love between, but much of it is fuelled by resentment and guilt. There’s this event: killing your father at such a young age and [my character] being the youngest. That changed the course of their lives.”
8. Parenthood (Ron Howard – 1989)
Ron Howard‘s ensemble comedy focused on the (mis)adventures of the Buckman. Against her mother’s (played by Dianne Wiest) wishes, Julie (played by Martha Plimpton) has married her boyfriend Tod (played by Reeves) and gotten pregnant. However, Tod convinces his mother-in-law that he is mature and capable with some hilarious and human moments. Phoenix, meanwhile, plays the younger son Garry who spends his time focusing his adolescent urges on pornography.
Howard said, “Parenthood is a project that I really cherish. It’s a great memory. It was a great creative experience. To this day, it’s probably the most personal film or story that I’ve ever really been involved with. And so, it’s something that I hold near and dear.”
He also added, “It’s about parenting. Ultimately, it’s about the unbelievable ups and downs of parenting, the absurdity of it, the pain of it and also, significantly to me, the nobility of it. But, it’s also just about being responsible and being in a family.”
7. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay – 2018)
Based on the 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as a Joe, a gun-for-hire who is contracted by a NY state senator to find his missing daughter Nina. Joe uncovers the corruption and politics behind the human traffic network that has kidnapped Nina. For his performance, Phoenix won the Best Actor prize at Cannes.
In an interview, Phoenix talked about how he got around to collaborating with Lynne Ramsay, “I was talking to Darius Khondji, a cinematographer who I’ve worked with a couple of times, trying to find what to do next. I said, ‘Who are the good directors that you like?’ He said ‘Lynne Ramsay’.
“Then, a couple of weeks later by chance, Jim Wilson, who’s the producer, who I’ve known for 20 years, he called me and said, ‘I’m doing this thing with Lynne, do you want to meet and talk to her about it?’” It’s a leftfield piece which speaks highly of Joaquin’s pursuit of artistic integrity.
6. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson – 2014)
The first-ever cinematic adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice is Anderson’s seventh feature and an admirable attempt to translate Pynchon’s trademark irreverence for conventional narrative structures to cinema. Anderson’s film demands to be watched again and again. We get a little closer to unravelling Pynchon’s genius each time we see it.
Phoenix plays 1970’s hippie P.I. Doc Sportello, whose services are sought by Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) for help in protecting her new boyfriend from being abducted and placed in a mental institution. It is true that some of the brilliance of Pynchon is lost in translation but Inherent Vice induces a hallucinogenic euphoria as we navigate the world of cults, hippie culture and conspiracy theories.
Phoenix reflected, “I wanted to stick to the script and the book. One of the things that’s difficult when you adapt a book that you like so much is there’s dialogue which you just love, you know. Pynchon’s words are great. I remember trying to get this dialogue into a scene and it wasn’t working. I just couldn’t do it. Sometimes it just doesn’t translate. And that was really difficult.”
5. Gladiator (Ridley Scott – 2000)
It cannot be denied that the star of Gladiator is Russell Crowe, a star who won the Academy Award for Best Actor but Ridley Scott’s 2000 historical drama also put Joaquin Phoenix on the map. He played the antagonist as Commodus, the ambitious son of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). For his performance as Commodus, Phoenix earned his first Academy Award nomination, his first Golden Globe nod and his second Screen Actors Guild nomination.
While speaking about Phoenix, co-star Russell Crowe recalled, “There were a lot of people in that strange journalistic habit who wanted to just poke that fire and kept asking Joaquin about his brother and then about his relationship with me because we have that in the film.
“At one point, we were doing some press conference and he just said something along the lines of, ‘Look, Russell treated me like a brother’ and it just hit me in a really heavy way.” It goes down as one of Phoneix’s greatest ever performances.
4. Walk the Line (James Mangold – 2005)
James Mangold’s 2005 biopic of Johnny Cash marked one of the highlights of Joaquin Phoenix’s acting career. Phoenix did not merely impersonate Cash, instead choosing to conduct his own interpretation of the legendary musician. For his performance as Cash, Phoenix won his first Golden Globe Award and was nominated for his second Academy Award and his fourth Screen Actors Guild Award.
Phoenix said, “I knew some of his music. I think a lot of people from our generation knew Johnny from the Folsom Prison album. It was interesting going back and listening to a lot of the early recordings and hearing the first version of Folsom prison that he released and how different it was.”
Adding, “To me Johnny Cash, what I first knew of Johnny Cash, it’s the Johnny Cash from the late 60s. Here I was kind of discovering Johnny Cash from the early 50s so I really didn’t know anything about him. I really didn’t know about the music or his personal life, so it was an interesting process. With any character, any time, you learn so much about them.”
3. Joker (Todd Phillips – 2019)
The role of Joker has probably brought Joaquin Phoenix the most media attention and critical acclaim. Phoenix perfectly captured the psychological torment of a man who is neglected by society and concludes that a violent revolution is the only way to gain subjectivity. Phoenix received prizes from the Academy, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, SAG and Critics Choice among others.
“There’s so many different ways of looking at it,” Phoenix said of the Arthur Fleck/Joker character. “You can either say here’s somebody who, like everybody, needed to be heard and understood and to have a voice.
“Or you can say this is somebody that disproportionately needs a large quantity of people to be fixated on him. His satisfaction comes as he stands in amongst the madness.”
2. Her (Spike Jonze – 2013)
This beautiful 2013 sci-fi romance marked Jonze’s solo screenwriting debut. It follows the story of Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a shy writer who falls in love with an AI-virtual helper called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The idea for the film came to Jonze in the early 2000s after he read an article about a website that allowed instant messaging with an artificial intelligence program. For his performance as Theodore, Phoenix was nominated for his fourth Golden Globe Award.
When asked about what appealed to him more, the film’s exploration of love or the problems with technology, the actor said: “It was both, and also just the idea of how subjective love is. I thought there were these really interesting ideas.”
He added, “When I saw the cut, I immediately had the instinct to talk to somebody else about it. It’s that kind of movie, it inspires these thoughts in you. It’s rare to have a movie where you wanna connect with somebody else and communicate some of the ideas.”
1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson – 2012)
Set in a post-WW II America, The Master is a challenging, psychologically complex drama, Anderson’s 2012 film follows the story of an alcoholic sailor (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who returns home from the war and finds comfort in the cult of a faith leader (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). For his performance as Freddie, Phoenix earned his third Academy Award nomination and his third Golden Globes nod.
Phoenix revealed, “When we were first started, I talked to Paul about Freddie’s motivations for doing certain things, and Paul never had an answer for the character. So, it was really frustrating in the beginning of the movie.” Yet Phoenix would overcome the issues with his usual deft touch.
“There was nothing solid or consistent about Freddie. But I’m also a slow learner-real slow. So, it takes me maybe halfway through the movie before I suddenly figure out one of the major plot points of the entire film.” The film has become, without doubt, Phoenix’s greatest ever work.