There is no other actor on the planet quite like Joaquin Phoenix. Immensely talented, it is clear that Phoenix sees his craft as an art and he is not interested in the fame and fortune. This could be due to the strained relationship that he has had with the press, all of which stemmed from the tragic death of his brother, the hugely talented River Phoenix, as Joaquin’s 911 call was repeatedly played in the media. He has turned in some stunning performances and garnered plenty of critical acclaim, for both larger pictures as well as independent films.
10. I’m Still Here
The end product may not have been incredible, but you cannot talk about Joaquin Phoenix without mentioning I’m Still Here. In what could be described as performance art, Phoenix made a stunning announcement to the world where he stated that he was retiring from acting to pursue a rap career. This, along with an incredibly odd interview on Late Show with David Letterman and growing a huge beard, made it seem that he had gone off the deep end and his reputation was tarnished for the following year. As it turned out, this was all an act and his strange behavior that year was for a mockumentary that he and Casey Affleck were filming—I’m Still Here. He stayed in character throughout the entire process even though he was ridiculed, but ultimately Phoenix was making a powerful statement about celebrity culture and his dedication to his craft must be applauded.
His first major film, Phoenix surely learnt a lot from this movie with an all-star cast including the likes of Steve Martin, Tom Hulce, Keanu Reeves, Dianne West, Martha Plimpton and Rick Moranis. The 1989 comedy-drama was also directed by Ron Howard, and Phoenix’s talent is clear and provided an early look of what was to come from him. In the film, he plays the role of Garry—a quiet and withdrawn boy who has just entered puberty and likes to be alone in his room with a mysterious paper bag (revealed to contain Playboy magazines). The film itself is held in very high regard and considered a thoughtful and funny examination of the best and worst moments of family life. For his performance, Phoenix (credited as Leaf Phoenix) was nominated for the Young Artist Award for Best Leading Young Actor in a Feature Film.
8. To Die For
After taking a break from acting and staying out the public eye following the tragic death of his brother River, Joaquin returned with Gus Van Sant’s 1995 crime comedy-drama To Die For, which is made in a mockumentary format. Based on the novel of the same name, it also features Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Casey Affleck and Alison Folland amongst a few others. The film follows Suzanne Stone (Kidman), a woman who dreams of being a TV star but believes that her husband (Dillon) is holding her back. She crosses the path of three students (Phoenix, Affleck and Folland), and manipulates them into killing her husband. Both very funny and dark, Kidman is the star of the show and we see a different side to her, but Phoenix also shines brightly as a disturbed character that becomes seduced and manipulated by an older woman.
7. The Immigrant
In his fourth collaboration with director James Gray, Phoenix stars alongside Marion Cotillard as a pimp who ends up falling for one of his Polish prostitutes. Set in the 1920s, two Polish sisters, Ewa (Cotillard) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan) arrive at Ellis Island looking for a better life but they are soon separated. Ewa is nearly deported, but Bruno (Phoenix) rescues her after noticing her and her fluency in English. He uses her as an attraction in his burlesque show which acts as a front for a prostitution ring, but he also develops feelings for her. Ewa is trapped and desperate to be reunited with her sister, and finds hope in a magician who happens to be Bruno’s brother (Jeremy Renner). Cotillard is brilliant in the role, and as is Phoenix who masters the role of a creepy and loathsome character who is also revealed to have an emotional core.
Another early role and just before he emerged as a star, Phoenix excelled in the supporting role of the Abbe du Coulmier in the 2000 period drama Quills. Directed by Philip Kaufman and adapted from the play by Doug Wright, the film re-imagines the last years of the Marquise de Sade’s (Geoffrey Rush) incarceration in the insane asylum at Charenton. The film also features Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard and Kate Winslet as laundress Madeleine LeClerc, which makes for a compelling watch for which Geoffrey Rush would earn an Oscar nomination. For those unfamiliar, the Marquise de Sade was a French politician and philosopher who was imprisoned for his controversial writings. The Abbe du Coulmier was the director of the Charenton insane asylum, and he gave Marquise the freedom to continue to write and produce a play. It is a powerful film that explores themes including censorship, mental illness, sexuality and religion.
5. Two Lovers
It was thought that 2008’s Two Lovers would be Phoenix’s final appearance after announcing his “retirement” later that year, and it would not have been a bad one to bow out with (although we are obviously glad that this was a hoax). The romantic drama, directed by James Gray, also stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw where he plays a suicidal character who becomes torn between two different women. We learn of his tragic backstory and a failed seven year engagement, but he soon has an internal conflict where he develops feelings for two women; one who is the daughter of a potential new business partner for his parents (Shaw), and one who has a drug problem and is dating a married man (Paltrow). It is a powerful, heartfelt and moving performance by Phoenix who so often masters playing troubled characters, helping to make this a standout romantic drama.
Joaquin Phoenix has been in sensational form since returning after his “retirement,” and one of his greatest performances in this time has been in 2013’s romantic science fiction comedy drama Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze. The films is set in futuristic Los Angeles and sees lonely introvert Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) develop a relationship with an intelligent computer operating system, Samantha, personified through a female voice (Scarlett Johansson). Quirky, sweet, funny and also very touching, the film explores modern relationships and love in an increasingly digital age. Although it is not too serious and is hilarious in parts, Phoenix ensures that it is a heartfelt film where the trials and tribulations of love are fully explored. Not your average love story and a film that can be enjoyed by all, Her earned five Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and won Best Original Screenplay.
3. The Master
The final three films should come as no surprise, as they are the movies for which Phoenix earned Academy Award nominations. First is 2012 drama The Master, which was a welcome sight as the first film following his “retirement.” At this time, Phoenix had to re-establish himself as a star, and he managed this straight off the bat in this engrossing film from Paul Thomas Anderson. It follows Freddy Quell (Phoenix), a WWII vet with PTSD who struggles to adjust to post-war society. He encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a leader of a religious movement (based on Scientology) who recruits Quell and they travel to spread the teachings. Dodd puts Freddie through a process where he asks him disturbing questions aimed at his past traumas, resulting in stunning and powerful acting from Phoenix which led to his nomination for Best Actor, which was ultimately won by Daniel-Day Lewis for Lincoln.
What most would consider his breakout role, Phoenix did an incredible job playing the despicable and cowardly Commodus in Ridley Scott’s epic historical drama Gladiator. It is hard to look past Russell Crowe’s magnificent (and Oscar-winning) performance as Maximus Decimus Meridius, but Phoenix is equally impressive as the antagonist. He plays the twisted and corrupt son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whom he murders to seize the throne after learning that Maximus would hold the emperor’s power. Maximus becomes a famed gladiator, and the interactions between the two are breathless before they fight in the Colosseum where Commodus shockingly stabs him moments before the duel. Abhorrent, powerful and equally pathetic, he is the antithesis of Maximus and both actors are fantastic in their roles. The film won five Oscars (including Best Picture), and Phoenix earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor but missed out to Benicio del Toro in Traffic.
1. Walk the Line
In an iconic performance that earned him his first Best Actor nomination, Phoenix took on the daunting role Johnny Cash in James Mangold’s biopic Walk the Line. The man himself approved of casting Phoenix, and astonishingly all of the vocal tracks in the film and soundtrack were sung by Phoenix, which fooled many. Whether you are a Johnny Cash fan or not, this is a brilliant story which covers Cash’s fascinating life with his humble beginnings, romance with June Carter (brilliantly portrayed by Reese Witherspoon who did win an Oscar), ascent to a rock legend and his notorious substance abuse problems. It is a spot-on performance from both Phoenix and Witherspoon and they share excellent screen chemistry, ensuring that this is a special film that does the music legend justice. In a year packed with great films, Phoenix missed out on the Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote.