As Joaquin Phoenix’s latest movie, Beau is Afraid, hits theaters, we thought we’d celebrate his top fifteen movie performances—from the 2019 smash Joker to film buff classic Gladiator. The academy-award-winning actor has been in the business for years, starring alongside his brother River Phoenix from a pretty young age. In fact, Joaquin even named his son River in an ode to his brother’s memory—star of Stand by Me (dir. Rob Reiner, 1986) and My Own Private Idaho (dir. Gus Van Sant, 1992).

At the tender age of eight, Joaquin made his debut in the 1982 television show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, as did River. The two were famously born into a religious cult called the Children of God, traveling across South America and the Caribbean. By the time Joaquin was three, the family left the Children of God to move back to the U.S., changing their surname to Phoenix (previously Bottom) as a symbol of new beginnings. This “new beginning” was less than easy, however, and Joaquin attended various children’s talent shows to provide money for his family. Soon, Joaquin and River were to become budding child stars, never having to worry about finances again.

15. Two Lovers (2008)

A sweeping romance tinged with melancholy; Two Lovers follows Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix), a wannabe photographer who moves back in with his parents. Caught between jobs and between lovers, Leonard becomes the object of manipulation—the beautiful but damaged Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) teasing him with the hope of everlasting romance. What Joaquin excels at in this film (and many of his others) is transferring the deep struggle of loneliness from soul to screen.

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Joaquin’s characters are often unstable and self-destructive; drinking, popping pills, and living with his mum are recurrent qualities throughout his filmography. Two Lovers is no exception to the pattern, but perhaps a more nuanced one; Leonard is depressed—even suicidal—but not a raving lunatic. James Gray’s understated drama is what makes this film…taught with despair and forever lingering on a ‘what if?’

14. I’m Still Here (2010)

Joaquin Phoenix 9 I'm still here

Although I’m Still Here had a mixed reception in 2010—too self-indulgent and unmotivated for some tastes—what can’t be denied is Joaquin’s comical, self-mocking performance as…well, himself. A mockumentary spoof directed by Casey Affleck, I’m Still Here, begs the question of what would happen if a Hollywood star suddenly retired and became a hip-hop artist? Joaquin didn’t just act in this role—he became it, even appearing on David Letterman in character.

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A full scraggly beard and dark sunglasses distinguish the real Phoenix from the parody one, though rumors spread that such strange incoherency was not an act—Joaquin was having a breakdown. The line between what is speculated, what is true, and what was done on purpose is blurry, to say the least. But one thing is true: Phoenix put his entire self into this movie, daring to call out Hollywood’s damaging celebrity culture.

13. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)

Despite the long title, this one is a little less known among Phoenix’s canon. Gus Van Sant—who directed River Phoenix in his iconic role in My Own Private Idaho—is often found representing minorities in his films, mostly sexual minorities. However, in the case of real-life cartoonist John Callahan, Van Sant explores a physical disability, as Callahan is rendered a quadriplegic after a car crash. The title might seem a little insensitive, but it’s simply a reflection of Callahan himself, who learns to cope with his disability through humor, art, and sobriety.

Phoenix pulls off an incredible performance, forced to face his alcoholism and attend AA with Jonah Hill in one of his more serious (and underrated) roles. Rooney Mara—now Phoenix’s wife—also stars as Callahan’s physical therapist. Van Sant takes us through all the steps of recovery: denial, anger, sorrow, and acceptance. Phoenix’s performance was no doubt elevated by his own experiences with rehab and alcoholism, as are many of his troubled characters.

12. The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Joaquin Phoenix Performances - The Sister's Brothers

Phoenix steps back to the American Frontier for Jacques Audiard’s Western drama. What feels like it is headed for a familiar, trope-ridden story ends up taking some unexpected turns, with meditative, almost spiritual qualities woven between the action. Phoenix is once again found drowning at the bottom of a bottle to play the drunken assassin Charlie Sisters, who often falls off his horse, barely hanging by a thread.

Riding with him is Charlie’s level-headed brother Eli, portrayed by John C. Reilly. The two are notorious gunfighters hired to track down Jake Gyllenhaal’s character during the historic Gold Rush. The Sisters brothers are not as agile as they once were—tired and aging, with all that whiskey catching up with them, not to mention a traumatic childhood. All they really dream of is returning home to their mother…a home-cooked meal…curtains billowing in the gentle breeze…

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11. Mary Magdalene (2018)

Joaquin Phoenix 8 Mary Magdalene

There have been various attempts at nailing that career-changing role of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. From Jim Caviezel in The Passion of The Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004) to Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988), this holiest of roles has its work cut out. Though he may not be the protagonist of Garth Davis’s biblical drama, Phoenix plays an integral role as the guiding figure of Mary Magdalen’s (Rooney Mara) journey.

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The slow-paced, cinematic artwork follows Mary Magdalene through sweeping desert landscapes, joined by her shaggy-haired savior in AD 30. As an internationally recognizable figure of faith, there’s a lot of pressure on inaccurately (and respectfully) portraying the messiah. What’s key is striking that acute balance between being kind and steadfast; a strong leader and a friend; raging at the blasphemous trade-sellers in the Temple of God, yet exuding that peaceful, spirit-like serenity Jesus supposedly had. Joaquin does a marvelous job of executing this balance, speaking with a constant air of gentleness.

10. Signs (2002)

M. Night Shyamalan is a famously hit-or-miss director who gave aliens the same creepy paranormal feel as ghosts in his sci-fi horror Signs. Shyamalan also wrote the script for his suspenseful alien movie, led by Mel Gibson as a widowed priest in rural Pennsylvania. Living with Graham and his two grieving children is his younger brother Merrill, a former minor league baseball player played by Phoenix.

Graham could have still been happily married, and Merrill could have hit that life-changing home run, but instead, they live quiet, sad lives together, haunted by the shadow of aliens. The fact we rarely see the creatures makes Signs that much more unnerving, and Merrill grows obsessed with hiding in the closet, watching the news, and wearing tinfoil hats.

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9. Inherent Vice (2014)

Joaquin Phoenix 7 inherent vice

One of two Paul Thomas Anderson collaborations on this list, Inherent Vice is a groovy 70s crime thriller with elements of neo-noir. Set along with the sun-dusted beaches of LA, Phoenix goes full-blown hippie mode as Doc—the permanently stoned private investigator. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is a neon-lit, intentionally chaotic anthology of genres. When Larry “Doc” Sportello is asked to investigate a real-estate tycoon, things soon jump out of hand—landing in a smoky haze of criminals and corruption.

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Doc is a man out of time; no shoes and chunky sideburns mark him a decade behind the rest of the world. This role landed Joaquin a nomination for Best Actor during the 87th Academy Awards, incarnating that same stoner vibe “The Dude” Lebowski is so loved for (The Big Lebowski, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998). An episodic journey styled with the aesthetic of a vintage postcard; Inherent Vice is a filmmaking masterpiece that isn’t afraid to have a bit of fun. Joaquin, no doubt, is having the most—a free-living hippie cracking down on crime isn’t the most common type of protagonist. But it sure is groovy, man.

8. Walk the Line (2005)

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

In James Mangold’s 2005 biopic Walk the Line, Phoenix taps into his inner musician as the late Johnny Cash—the rockabilly singer-songwriter who took America by storm. Walk the Line documents Cash’s early life and traumatic childhood that (although inspired by his beautifully sorrowful music) led Cash down the path of addiction and alcoholism. Alongside him is Reece Witherspoon as June Carter, who witnesses his rise to fame and spiral into degradation. Struggling with these issues himself at the time—checking into rehab shortly after the film’s release—Joaquin delivers a performance from the gut, embodying that troubled-artist magic that captivated fans throughout the 60s.

Mangold is generous with his musical performances, placing Joaquin right in the spotlight for an authentic reimagining of the country-bumpkin blues. Cash swings from high to low, forever at war with himself to the point he physically collapses on stage. Joaquin perfectly encapsulates this fall into drunken fervor without losing any of Cash’s shine. Though he will forever be remembered as a legend of country music, under the surface is an unrelenting tug-of-war with his inner demons—and with his past.

7. C’mon C’mon (2021)

Anything from A24 is almost guaranteed to be good. The independent company offers us a one-of-a-kind blend of arthouse and mainstream, bringing nuanced, often bizarre tales to wider audiences. C’mon C’mon is one of these hushed dramas that, devoid of Hollywood bombs and car chases, seems to just wander along. Still shots of New York City and meandering bedroom conversations make up the bulk of C’mon C’mon. Sandwiched between these slice-of-life moments are the odd (emotionally) explosive scenes to keep the narrative taut and engaging.

Johnny is an itinerant radio journalist who puts his project on hold to care for his nephew Jesse (played by newcomer Woody Norman). Although they have a special bond, Johnny finds the questions, tantrums, chases, and demands increasingly difficult to manage. Mike Mills shows us the bittersweet reality of looking after a child—hard yet rewarding work. In a change of pace, Phoenix shows us his paternal side as Johnny, all captured in an eloquent black-and-white palette.

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6. Beau is Afraid (2023)

Joaquin Phoenix Movies - Beau is Afraid

A24 produced Phoenix’s most recent film and—though not to everybody’s taste—is guaranteed to impress the cinephiles among us. A comedy-horror that spans a mind-bending three hours Beau is Afraid plays out like a paranoid, drug-confused fever dream. Beau is a passive, apologetic, and petrified protagonist who never understands what’s going on…and neither do we. It’s not entirely clear whether he’s hallucinating from mental illness, tripping on drugs, or simply in a horrifying story world that doesn’t follow the laws of our reality.

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Ari Aster’s metanarrative begins with Beau being born (from his POV) and then receiving strange letters under his door in a rough neighborhood where corpses litter the sidewalk. Visiting his mother turns into a gruesome, confusing journey of deranged side characters, traveling theaters, dreams, and decapitation (in the spirit of Aster’s 2018 horror Hereditary). There are also some creative, semi-animated sequences in the build-up to a finale you won’t ever guess, so don’t bother trying.

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5. You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Joaquin Phoenix 5 You were never really here

Released with the title A Beautiful Day in France and Germany, You Were Never Really Here is a harrowing indie flick showcasing Joaquin at his finest. Playing the traumatized gunman Joe, Phoenix won the Cannes award for Best Actor when an unfinished version of the film was premiered. Another troubled soul, Joaquin, gives a gritty performance in a film that is at once gruesome and poetic. Hired to rescue trafficked girls, Joe is a muscle man of few words and bad habits. Enduring flashbacks of his abused past, Joe is tormented by suicidal thoughts—taking his anger out on evil men.

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Based on the 2013 book by Johnathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here is a carefully crafted piece of raw, cinematic art. Lynne Ramsay writes and directs a gritty story of love and revenge, constantly cutting away and jumbling scenes up for a tentative, thrill-ridden drama. Joaquin broods his way through the movie with haunting brutality, yet always keeping our sympathies intact for a man who is pushed through hell and makes it to the other side. You Were Never Really Here received critical acclaim for its whisps of avant-garde and unrelenting narrative, keeping us constantly on edge.

4. Gladiator (2000)

Adored by cinephiles and fervently analyzed by film students, Gladiator won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Directed by Ridley Scott, Gladiator is set in 180 AD and stars Russel Crowe as Maximus—the demoted general made to fight to the death as a gladiator. The antagonist of the movie is Emperor Commodus—a power-hungry murderer played by Phoenix. His savage actions and cowardly disposition make him a character that all will despise, still riling audiences up twenty years after release. Phillips’s timeless historical epic would be nothing without Joaquin’s infuriating performance in a classic battle of good vs. evil.

Sand-dusted and dripping in the blood and sweat of warriors, Gladiator is an action-packed snapshot into (Hollywoodized) history that doesn’t fall short on narrative. Breath-taking set designs and iconic lines that are still quoted today (Are you not entertained?) make Gladiator immune to age—a true legacy of historical fiction. The second-highest-grossing film of 2000, Gladiator, was inspired by Daniel P. Mannix’s book Those About to Die (1958), originally titled The Way of the Gladiator. Despite the odd photography slip-up (denim-wearing crew members sometimes visible in the background) and the death of actor Oliver Reed during production, Gladiator was—and remains —one of the biggest cinematic hits of the century.

3. Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix 3 her

Actors often express their difficulty working with CGI or off-camera characters, unable to make a physical connection or bounce off their co-star’s performances. However, Phoenix makes it seem a breeze when falling in love with his virtual A.I. assistant in Her, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Being director Spike Jonze’s solo writing debut, Her is a unique stylistic and sentimental drama following lonely soul Theodore Twombly in a near-future Los Angeles.

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Gorgeously soft cinematography coupled with a hushed pastel color palette makes for a wonderfully tender film that Joaquin carries with a heartbreakingly sympathetic performance. What’s even more impressive is his ability to connect us to the artificial; we feel his love and pain, even when it’s directed to nothing but empty space. Sensitive and full of wisdom, “Her” won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2014. Everything about this alternative rom-com is whimsically dreamy and futuristic; yet Joaquin pulls it back, grounding the narrative in a psychological exploration of the human condition.

2. The Master (2012)

joaquin phoenix 2 the master

Director Paul Thomas Anderson has been impressing film critics for years. He won the Cannes Best Director Award for Punch-Drunk Love (2003) and was hailed by Quentin Tarantino as the maker of “one of the best movies made in this last decade” for There Will Be Blood (2007). One of Anderson’s most accredited films is his 2012 project The Master, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, and, of course, Joaquin Phoenix.

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A man out of time, Joaquin plays an ex-navy photographer with a severe alcohol problem named Freddie. Anderson’s oddball drama calls from some eccentric method acting, which Phoenix pulls off with ease. Joining “The Master’s” religious movement, “The Cause,” Freddie is pushed through some bizarre methods of rehabilitation. One scene, in particular, stands out among film lovers, during which Freddie must answer a series of questions without blinking—easily becoming one of the best dialogue scenes in film history.

1. Joker (2019)

joaquin phoenix 1 joker

Arguably the biggest film of 2019, Joker received a controversial buzz for its Taxi Driver-esque depiction of the iconic Batman villain. The bar was set pretty high for Joaquin following the famous portrayal of The Joker by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008). After a disappointing appearance by Jared Lato as the tattoo-covered gangster in Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016), Phoenix was under a lot of pressure to make things right. Luckily, Todd Phillips’s origin story was a hit, acting as a psychological character study into the mind of a madman.

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Shedding almost four stones for the role, a skeletal Joaquin is eerily dark and brilliantly believable. What’s great about Joaquin’s Joker is the small shred of sympathy he keeps intact; we may disagree with his actions, but we understand why he did them. The cackling loner was accused of sparking real-world riots in response to the movie’s ending, which just goes to show how engaging Phoenix was as the biggest cinematic supervillain.

Joaquin Phoenix Links: IMDb, Wikipedia

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