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The best Joaquin Phoenix movies, ranked

Joker
Warner Bros

Joaquin Phoenix straddles the line between Hollywood headliner and obscure superstar. Hailing from a show business family littered with talented performers (such as the late River Phoenix), Joaquin loves to throw himself into the depths of morally gray characters who make grave decisions without the ability to react in a morally clear manner. His versatility allows him to play the sidekick or the lead, and his dedication to the craft of filmmaking always makes a Phoenix movie feel unique and on-brand.

Joaquin Phoenix will be back at the front of box office tickets later this year with the release of Joker 2. Before that sequel, fans should brush up on their favorite movies with him in the spotlight to truly appreciate his acting style. These are the best Joaquin Phoenix movies, from daring biopics to superhero adaptations with a wicked flair.

9. Parenthood (1989)

9. Parenthood
124m
Genre
Comedy, Drama
Stars
Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest
Directed by
Ron Howard
Watch on Netflix

Still known as Leaf Phoenix at the time, Joaquin was relatable and fascinating as a teen actor in Steve Martin’s Parenthood. This comedy/drama film analyzes the contemporary issues within American households during the late 1980s, but Martin’s sense of humor and Phoenix’s intensity make it a rewatchable affair almost four decades after its original release.

8. You Were Never Really Here (2017)

8. You Were Never Really Here
89m
Genre
Crime, Drama, Thriller
Stars
Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov
Directed by
Lynne Ramsay
Watch on Amazon

You Were Never Really Here dabbles in heavy themes such as sex trafficking and kidnapping, but it never exploits the victims of such cases for the sake of entertainment. Instead, Phoenix gets to dole out justice to those who commit such atrocities as a character with a checkered past and a thirst for redemption. The movie works as a thriller and John Wick-like flick with some indie trappings to boot.

7. Walk the Line (2005)

7. Walk the Line
136m
Genre
Drama, Music, Romance
Stars
Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin
Directed by
James Mangold
Watch on max

Biographies of musicians always get the Academy’s attention and the critics’. Walk the Line creates an unforgettable chemistry between Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in an otherwise by-the-book retelling of the country music superstar’s life and personal roller coaster. Phoenix got an Oscar nomination for this performance but still had to wait over a decade more for the trophy.

6. Quills (2000)

6. Quills
124m
Genre
Drama
Stars
Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix
Directed by
Philip Kaufman
Watch on Amazon

While Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet get their names on the front of the movie poster, Quills needed Joaquin Phoenix’s depth of personality to complete the film. Set in France, the picture shows the checkered background and growing relationships between Rush’s Marquis de Sade and those in a looney bin with him, such as doctors and priests. de Sade was infamous for infusing his writings in the 1600s with too much sexual content and it led many to believe he was perverted.

5. Her (2013)

5. Her
126m
Genre
Romance, Science Fiction, Drama
Stars
Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
Directed by
Spike Jonze
Watch on max

Not many movies were able to predict future technology quite like Her. Phoenix plays a man who develops a deep and intimate relationship with an A.I. similar to Siri on iPhone or Alexa on Amazon Prime. While it may have sounded kind of crazy in 2013, the concept of human and robotic love doesn’t seem too far-fetched over a decade later.

The film examines what it takes to form bonds with another living entity and whether caring extends beyond the flesh. Scarlett Johansson is underrated as the female artificial intelligence, Samantha. Considering that Phoenix is interacting with an unseen character for large swathes of the story, Her may be his most underrated performance.

4. Gladiator (2000)

4. Gladiator
155m
Genre
Action, Drama, Adventure
Stars
Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
Directed by
Ridley Scott
Watch on Paramount+

Gladiator has garnered an incredible reputation as one of the most entertaining depictions of the ancient Roman Empire. Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix battle for the right to throne in a film full of bloody battles and historical recollections from the mind of Ridley Scott. This was perhaps Phoenix’s first major role that brought him deserved recognition from fans worldwide. 

3. Joker (2019)

3. Joker
122m
Genre
Crime, Thriller, Drama
Stars
Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Directed by
Todd Phillips
Watch on Netflix

Joker is the movie that elevated Phoenix into a blockbuster A-lister heading into the 2020s. While it uses a fair amount of source material and influence from past comics and Batman movies, Joker differentiates itself by diving into the personal turmoil of its antihero instead of only showing his struggle concurrently with Bruce Wayne. Phoenix had a heavy burden following the iconic performance of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, but his originality and adherence to his own standards made the film a resounding success. 

2. C'mon C'mon (2021)

2. C'mon C'mon
109m
Genre
Drama
Stars
Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann
Directed by
Mike Mills
Watch on Amazon

Phoenix went back to smaller productions in the wake of Joker’s success. C’mon C’mon was the crowning achievement of his early 2020s films. A basic story of an uncle and nephew who grow very close despite family drama hanging over the relationship, Phoenix is able to pry himself away from screwed-up, demented historical characters to form a down-to-earth persona here.  

1. Hotel Rwanda (2004)

1. Hotel Rwanda
121m
Genre
Drama, History, War
Stars
Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte
Directed by
Terry George
Watch on Amazon

Hotel Rwanda does what all historical fiction should on the big screen. Depicting the heroes who tried their best to reverse the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, this Terry George directorial effort leverages the talents of Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte, and Joaquin Phoenix to educate and move the audience to tears. Phoenix plays Jack Daglish, one of the men who gave his everything to save those under duress in the African country.

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from:
Shawn Laib
Shawn Laib is a freelance writer with publications such as Den of Geek, Quote.com, Edge Media Network, diaTribe, SUPERJUMP…
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