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When Joaquin Phoenix first began acting (back when he was credited as Leaf Phoenix), he already had a lot to live up to. His older brother, the late River Phoenix, was a blossoming young star of the 1980s and his death in 1993 is considered one of the most tragic losses of a young talent ever. Star of Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho, the Oscar-nominated older Phoenix (Best Supporting Actor, Running on Empty) had paved a road that Joaquin immediately pursued and despite the huge expectations that came with beginning an acting career, Joaquin Phoenix exceeded all expectations. In most recent years, Joaquin Phoenix continues to startle, move, engross, and wow audiences and critics alike with his bold film choices and captivating on screen performances. For an actor that had a very large void to fill, Joaquin Phoenix has definitely done his older brother proud and I am sure I am not alone when I say that the world is forever robbed by the fact that there will never be a film that stars both River and Joaquin Phoenix.
This weekend marks the limited release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master which stars Joaquin Phoenix (his first feature film in four years) as Freddie Quell, a disturbed and troubled World War II veteran who, in the wake of the most frightening and mentally crippling time of his life, turns to a man he does not fully understand but believes can save him, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). While believing he has found a form of salvation, it is not long before Dodd’s cultish new religion takes an even deeper psychological toll on Quell.
To celebrate Joaquin Phoenix’s return to the big screen, here are ten of the actor’s finest turns on screen.
10. Parenthood (1989)
In his final role credited as Leaf Phoenix and in the height of River’s career, Joaquin Phoenix dipped into a film genre that he has never returned to again: Comedy. With Ron Howard’s Parenthood, Joaquin could not have chosen a better project to begin his film career as he performed along with heavy hitters like Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce, and Keanu Reeves. At just 15 years old, Joaquin was already making a name for himself and possessed a memorable presence that has since seeped into the rest of his roles. His place in the ensemble of Parenthood may now equal other contemporary stars like Natalie Portman’s adolescent turn in Leon or Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam, but, like those actresses, everyone does start somewhere. Plus, Parenthood eventually became a television show that at a time starred Leonardo DiCaprio and David Arquette while featuring The Avengers director Joss Whedon as a writer. It appears that Parenthood did a great deal for numerous rising stars, including Joaquin Phoenix.
9. 8MM (1999)
Though having appeared in close to seven films by the end of the 1990s, Joaquin Phoenix had not yet proven his equivalence to his late brother, River. As the new millennium loomed, Joaquin finally emerged in a supporting, but memorable, performance in an otherwise unmemorable, and very unpleasant, Joel Schumacher film, 8MM. The film deals with a private investigator looking for the truth behind an unnerving "snuff film" and while lots of perverse sex and violence ensues from then on out, Phoenix proved that he could do wonders with whatever was given to him. It also helped that he was second billed behind Nicolas Cage who, in the late 1990s, was as big as any Hollywood star could get. Though 8MM should disappear from DVD shelves (the film is absolutely horrible), the only reason why it may remain is because of the role it played in propelling Joaquin Phoenix’s career forward.
8. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Though this is undoubtedly Don Cheadle’s show, Hotel Rwanda is much more than just a showcase for Cheadle’s acting abilities. This politically strong and well-directed film details the true story of how a hotel manager housed thousands of Tutsi refugees during a military uprising in Rwanda. Caught in the mix is the opinionated and logical English journalist, Jack Daglish, wonderfully played by Joaquin Phoenix. It’s a relatively small role and though not as nearly as central as Cheadle’s, who played hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, Phoenix again proves that he can make what should be very little become a whole lot. Completely aware of the vile atrocities that are occurring in this part of the world, Daglish tries to help Paul through this highly violent time, but is quickly waved out of the country as tensions between the citizens and the militia escalate. Phoenix gives an emotional and politically resonant performance in the little screen time he is granted; Daglish is one of those fine small roles that ends up greatly attributing to the film as a whole.
7. Reservation Road (2007)
Not to be confused with the Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet drama Revolutionary Road, Reservation Road displays the harrowing story of a husband and wife who witness their son’s tragic death when he is hit by an oncoming SUV in the middle of the night. The frightened driver, played by Mark Ruffalo, speeds off down the road and leaves the little boy to die in his parents’ arms. The film chronicles both Ruffalo’s character’s mental disintegration, as he fears that his reaction to his unforgivable actions will come back around to bite him, and the mourning couple’s attempt to continue their lives while imagining what they would do to the man who snatched their son’s life. Phoenix plays the grieving father and fills every moment with immense heartache, you would think that the actor had experienced something like this first hand. His interactions with his wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, are romantically void and soaked with sadness, but it’s the final encounter during the climax between Phoenix and Ruffalo that is when the film peaks. The sequence is grippingly intense and shockingly real as these two men, one so bent on revenge and the other feeling far guiltier than any living person should, discuss the consequences of their actions. This little seen film features a trio of knockout performances, especially Phoenix, and ensures that no parental viewer will ever let their child wander freely into the streets again.
6. Quills (2000)
“The Abbe du Coulmier”
Massive historical inaccuracies aside, Quills plays a bigger part in the careers of Joaquin Phoenix and leading star Geoffrey Rush than it does within the pantheon of historical period pieces. The costume drama stars Geoffrey Rush as an irrepressible inmate in a Napoleonic era insane asylum named Marquis De Sade who faces off against a torturous doctor (Michael Caine). Phoenix plays administer Abbe du Coulmier who Marquis befriends early on in his containment, but their relationship begins to fall apart when the Abbe learns that Marquis is writing books from within the prison and finding a way to have them secretly published. Praised for holding his own beside Rush, Caine, and Kate Winslet, Phoenix was slowly but surely breaking into major stardom. Following the breakout roles of the late '90s, 2000 proved to be the big year for the younger Phoenix actor. There was another period epic besides Quills from 2000 that would prove to be the actor’s most memorable performance yet.
5. To Die For (1995)
This mid-'90s Gus Van Sant feature marked Joaquin Phoenix's first venture into acting, well as far as being the Joaquin Phoenix that we know today. Six years after his feature film debut in Ron Howard’s Parenthood and only two years after River Phoenix’s passing, Joaquin jumped back into acting with a meaty role in Van Sant’s To Die For co-starring Matt Dillon, Nicole Kidman, and future brother-in-law Casey Affleck. The noirish tale centers on an aspiring TV personality who seduces three teenagers into killing her husband. While Affleck and Phoenix were relatively unknown, Kidman and Dillon were well-known and well-regarded actors at the time so the two newcomers were in very good company. From their performances in this film, one can easily tell that they were destined for stardom and that prophecy has since proved itself (though Affleck is still very underrated). Based on a true story, To Die For is one of Van Sant’s much darker features and provided an excellent launching pad for the careers of Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix.
4. Buffalo Soldiers (2001)
In his very first leading role, Joaquin Phoenix had the luck, and the misfortune, of starring in Gregor Jordan’s Buffalo Soldier, a hilariously outrageous and satirical film about a criminal subculture that exists within the U.S. military who are stationed in Germany just prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Everyone in the film walks around with their tongue planted in their cheek and Phoenix excels as the ambitionless specialist who formulates a network of black market dealings simply because he is bored. The jaw-dropping satire shows Phoenix at the top of his game encountering veteran actors Ed Harris and Scott Glenn, newcomer Michael Peña and Oscar winning, True Blood star Anna Paquin, with whom he possesses excellent chemistry. The underseen film was unfortunately pushed back a full two years upon its initial theatrical release not because of quality, but as a mark of respect in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In the decade since its completion and eventual release, it has sadly slipped under the radar and I urge viewers to seek it out not only to indulge in a phenomenal war satire, but to be impressed by an emerging Joaquin Phoenix.
3. Signs (2002)
The early 2000s really saw Joaquin Phoenix hitting his stride and his back-to-back performances in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and The Village can attest to his blooming popularity. Though the latter film was a massive disappointment and the start to a perpetual decent into Shyamalan’s hack-dom, Signs shows the director holding onto his last ounce of quality before becoming the punchline to every plot-twist related joke. Co-starring a not-yet-racist Mel Gibson, Signs is the perfect example of a how to excellently build tension throughout an entire film and then completely throw it all away for a cop-out ending that deserves nothing but a palm directly to the viewer’s forehead. While Shyamalan’s faults are not dismissible, the film is closer to the strength of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable as opposed to his later projects. What made the earlier films so prime, in addition to the well-written narrative and thoughtfully conceived twists that Shyamalan became so recognized for, were the noticeably compelling lead performances. Gibson and Phoenix do what Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, and Samuel L. Jackson did before them and elevate Shyamalan’s supernatural stories to a different level with their charismatic and human performances. While it was a major stepping stone for Phoenix, Signs also shows Mel Gibson at an undeniable best, it’s the kind of performance that made him famous in the '80s and that we have not seen from him since this film. Signs marked the end of an era for Gibson and Shyamalan, but thankfully kept Joaquin Phoenix on a ceaseless rise.
2. Walk The Line (2005)
This marvelous biopic presented Joaquin Phoenix at his peak. While turning in some favorable performances between 2005 and 2008 before his four year hiatus that is now just ending, Joaquin has been unable to reach this same level of excellence. As Johnny Cash, Phoenix nears method actor status by not only conducting thorough research into the life of the tragic country singer, but by singing and performing every single one of the artist’s songs during production of the film. His engrossing performance is on the same level of the best biopics like Man on the Moon, Ray, and Malcolm X and earned him a well-deserved Best Actor nomination. Though he lost to another biographical performance (The Master co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote), Walk the Line ensured that Joaquin Phoenix had finally caught up to where his late brother had been. Supported by a very surprising, and Oscar-winning, performance from Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, Walk the Line was a critical hit and banked a $100 million domestic profit. With The Master, I hope that Phoenix can mirror the caliber of mastery that he presented here in Walk the Line.
1. Gladiator (2000)
Joaquin Phoenix performed in two art direction-heavy, costumed period dramas in 2000. The first being the previously discussed Quills and the second being Ridley Scott’s outstanding swords and sandals epic, Gladiator. As the film’s incestuous and mentally unstable villain, Commodus, Joaquin Phoenix was given the opportunity to develop strange twitches and physical nuances that made Commodus not only vile and unsettlingly creepy, but also twistedly evil and very dislikeable. Though the historical nature of the film is to be taken rather lightly, Commodus’s inability to correctly rule a nation that he violently stole from his own father and his crippled emotional state is marvelously brought to life by Phoenix and he impressively holds his own against powerhouse performer, Russell Crowe. In one particular scene before the film’s riveting climactic showdown, Crowe, who won his only Oscar for his performance as Maximus, is listening helplessly as Commodus mocks him and ticks away at him with insults allowing Maximus to understand the sad truth that he will never have the Rome that he hoped for because Commodus will never allow his father’s dream to be carried out. It’s a tense scene and one that may have single handedly awarded the actor with the Best Supporting Actor nomination he was given. In the twelve years since Gladiator’s release, Russell Crowe has become one of the most sought after and recognizable actors in Hollywood and Joaquin Phoenix has proven himself time and time again as a competent and strong performer. Despite all the great performances he has turned in since, Gladiator will forever be this critic’s choice as Phoenix’s best film role.
Phoenix’s new film, The Master, is currently playing in limited release and will soon expand to other territories throughout the rest of September. Come back next week to see my review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film and see where Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master ranks with the ten listed here.