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16 Best Joaquin Phoenix Movies Ranked

Joaquin Phoenix got his start working in TV as a young actor, landing his first feature film role in the 1986 sci-fi movie "SpaceCamp." Jump forward all the way to 2020, and the man is picking up an Oscar for Best Actor, all thanks to his terrifying performance in Tod Phillips' "Joker." In other words, Phoenix as come a long way in Hollywood.

However, while he's most famous for playing the Clown Prince of Crime, Phoenix has given us so many other incredible performances. Over the years, he's starred as assassins, musicians, and drugged-out detectives. He's visited the American West, the Roman Empire, and the corn fields of Pennsylvania. He's no stranger to genres like horror, drama, or comedy, and his ability to play almost anyone has made for a truly fascinating career. So to celebrate Joaquin Phoenix and his impressive filmography, we've gone and ranked his very best films.

16. Inherent Vice

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, "Inherent Vice" finds Joaquin Phoenix as Larry "Doc" Sportello, a Los Angeles detective who's good at solving mysteries and getting high. And this incredibly twisty film follows Doc as he investigates three puzzling cases connected by the strange disappearance of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, a wealthy real estate developer.

Doc's attempts to crack the interrelated cases drag him into the criminal underworld of LA, where he interacts with all sorts of bizarre and unsavory characters, from Josh Brolin's hard-nosed police detective to Martin Short's coke-snorting dentist. But while "Inherent Vice" received mixed reviews, some critics felt it had the makings of a modern cult classic.

"Really it isn't one film but many, an anthology of expertly recreated genre tropes, from fog-shrouded noir to sunlit paranoia," critic Jake Wilson explained in a review for the Sydney Morning Herald. It's certainly not a straightforward narrative, and yeah, you're probably going to get lost in this labyrinthine mystery, but for neo-noir fans, it's a challenging yet rewarding film.

15. Buffalo Soldiers

Based on Robert O'Connor's 1993 novel, "Buffalo Soldiers" is a satirical black comedy that tells the story of a rogue group of soldiers stationed in West Germany. It's 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall is on the horizon, and U.S. Army Supply Specialist Ray Elwood (Phoenix) has little real responsibility and too much time on his hands. So, Elwood turns to the black market to earn cash on the side and sells heroin to the military police. And his friendly superior, Col. Berman (Ed Harris), never suspects that Elwood is having an affair with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern).

But Elwood's behind-the-scenes maneuvering spirals out of control when a tank crew under the influence (thanks to his supply) crashes through a gas station, killing two soldiers. And now, his strict new sergeant, Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn), is on to him. So what better way to get back at your sergeant than by dating his daughter (Anna Paquin)? And yeah, things only get crazier — and more violent — from there. The result is a movie that Felix Vasquez of Cinema Crazed says is "in the chaotic tradition of 'Dr. Strangelove,'" with performances from the lead actors that Roger Ebert describes as "spot-on."

14. Signs

Director M. Night Shyamalan's twist endings don't always land with critics or audiences, but his 2002 sci-fi film, "Signs," was a crowd-pleaser. Here, Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, a former Episcopal priest who renounced his faith after his wife was tragically killed in a car accident, with Phoenix playing his younger brother Merrill, a failed minor-league baseball player.

Still suffering from some serious grief, Graham, Merrill, and Graham's two kids live on an isolated farm in rural Pennsylvania, and when crop circles appear in their fields one night, they initially chalk it up to vandals. But strange phenomena begin occurring worldwide, warning of a global alien invasion. And after spotting aliens on their farm, the family must band together to survive.

As Graham and Merrill gradually realizes that their family is in danger, the tension builds, making for terrifying jump scares and moments that will leave viewers holding their breath. "Signs" is a suspenseful film that will have you watching the shadows well after the credits roll.

13. Quills

"Quills," an arthouse period drama adapted from the 1995 play of the same name, is based on the life and work of the French philosopher Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush). The Marquis was known for his provocative writings and his beliefs in unrestrained freedom, which naturally earned the attention of authorities who sentenced him to incarceration in prisons and asylums for decades.

The film tells the story of the final year of the Marquis' life, during which he was held at the insane asylum Charenton. As for Phoenix, he appears as Abbe de Coulmier, a French Catholic priest who oversees the asylum. Abbe falls in love with Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a laundress who works at the asylum. While he teaches her to read and write, she resists his advances ... and little does he know that she is smuggling the Marquis' works to the outside world.

Although the film was criticized for its historical inaccuracies, "Quills" was is notable for its bold explorations of taboo creativity and the limits of truly free expression.

12. Gladiator

"Gladiator" is a classic revenge tale and an unforgettable film that whisks viewers back thousands of years to a bloody power struggle in ancient Rome. When emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is murdered by his son, his former military officer, Maximus (Russell Crowe), is forced into slavery and becomes a gladiator ... but he will stop at nothing to avenge his losses. And while Crowe is the undisputed star of the film as Maximus, Phoenix gives a stunning performance as Commodus, the power-hungry son of Marcus Aurelius who kills Maximus' family and his own father in an attempt to stop Maximus from gaining power.

Hailed by critics as "one of the defining films of the 2000s," "a ferociously entertaining spectacle," and an example of "monumental movie-making," Ridley Scott's period piece was a hugely impact film. It grossed $460 million worldwide, and it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Plus, Phoenix was nominated for Best Supporting Actor thanks to his incredibly creepy performance as a twisted, cowardly emperor.

11. Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

In "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," Phoenix stars as John Callahan, an alcoholic whose life changes forever after he gets into a car with a drunk driver, resulting in a horrible car crash that leaves Callahan a quadriplegic.

Based on Callahan's real-life memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of his road to recovery. The narrative jumps around the timeline of Callahan's life, revealing his reckless, carefree days before the accident and his years of struggling through counseling and physical therapy after he becomes paralyzed from the chest down. And through Alcoholics Anonymous, Callahan forms a friendship with his sponsor, Donnie Green (Jonah Hill), who's going through a crisis of his own. 

The film is honest portrait of addiction, recovery, and Callahan himself — a creative and colorful character who became a cartoonist and shared his dark, witty sense of humor through his work.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

10. Walk the Line

In 2005, Phoenix took on one of the biggest roles in his career, playing the famous singer-songwriter Johnny Cash in the musical biopic "Walk the Line." When Phoenix accepted the role, he was nervous about the fact that he would have to sing Cash's songs, and he knew that some fans would be disappointed no matter how well he played the role. But ultimately, Phoenix received plenty of praise for his performance opposite Reese Witherspoon as his wife June Carter. And while he'd never sung before, he managed to pull it off with plenty of coaching, and the film was a success. 

"The generally handsome Phoenix impressively channels some of his subject's tuberous quality, and looks as if someone dug him right out of the Arkansas soil," Victoria Segal wrote in a review for The New Statesman. "He perfects Cash's death-or-glory guitar grip, and if his singing voice is not that of the Man in Black, it crackles with the right spirit." And in a first for Phoenix, his turn as Cash nabbed him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and while he didn't win, he definitely cemented himself as one of Hollywood's most talented leading men.

9. Two Lovers

Inspired by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky's short story "White Nights," "Two Lovers" stars Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow as neighbors with a complicated attraction towards each other.

Phoenix plays Leonard, a man who's attempted suicide several times as he's suffered a series of hardships in life. He and his wife separated, and now, his parents are trying to set him up with someone new. They introduce him to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father's potential business partner, in hopes that the two will feel a spark. But when Leonard meets his new neighbor, Michelle (Paltrow), a troubled woman with some big secrets, he can't help but fall in love with her.

Although this film wasn't as popular with audiences as some of Phoenix's other movies, some critics consider it his best work yet. In a review for The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody declared, "Joaquin Phoenix stars and delivers his most self-scourging performance in James Gray's taut and melancholy Brighton Beach romance."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

8. The Master

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, "The Master" finds Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran who's struggling to adapt to post-war society. He's suffering from PTSD, and he's prone to violent outbursts and unpredictable behavior. He can't seem to get himself out of trouble, and after he's accused of a poisoning a fellow farm worker, he ends up on the run.

Quell ends up in San Francisco, where he hides away on a stranger's yacht. The stranger turns out to be Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a growing philosophical movement called "The Cause." Vulnerable, lonely, and desperate, Quell is just the type of a person that someone like Dodd would recruit, and as he's drawn deeper into Dodd's inner circle and becomes entangled with this strange new movement, Quell's grip on reality continues to slip. 

Phoenix earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance, and "The Master" is widely considered to be one of the best films of the 21st century.

7. The Immigrant

Directed by James Gray, "The Immigrant" tells the story of Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), intending to build a new life in America. But when Magda is threatened with deportation due to her health, Ewa faces an uncertain future. But then, she's noticed by Bruno (Phoenix), a seemingly kind man who offers to help Ewa with her plight. Unfortunately, Bruno has ulterior motives, and in her desperation, Ewa is tricked into the life of a sex worker. But when she meets the illusionist Emil (Jeremy Renner), she wonders if she might be able to find a way out.

Sadly, this 2013 melodrama didn't fare particularly well at the box office, but critics were very impressed with the grand scope of the film and its gorgeous cinematography and rich atmosphere. And as for the stars, Tom Long of Detroit News pointed out the film is "elevated by Gray's sure hand and made more by Phoenix and Cotillard, lovers and haters and something beyond."

6. The Sisters Brothers

"The Sisters Brothers" isn't your typical Western, but it does feature a fantastic performance from Phoenix. Based on Patrick deWitt's acclaimed novel, the film follows brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Phoenix), assassins roving the American West. They're pursuing two men (Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal) who've teamed up to search for gold, and the dangerous chase quickly turns bloody.

Unfortunately, "The Sisters Brothers" was a complete box office bomb. Compared to its budget of $38 million, it only grossed about $14 million. But despite the fact that it didn't draw in big audiences, critics raved about the film. Although it's an unrelentingly dark film, the casting was spot on. "It's a measure of the four exceptional central performances (from Reilly, Phoenix, Gyllenhaal and Ahmed) that the film remains so engaging in spite of its narrative digressions and moments of very bleak violence," wrote critic Geoffrey Macnab in a review for The Independent.

5. To Die For

In 1990, Pamela Smart was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to murder her husband with the help of high school student she'd been having an affair with. Because this was one of the first trials where TV cameras were allowed into the courtroom, her case received lots of publicity. Author Joyce Maynard wrote a novel inspired by the case, titled "To Die For," and in 1995, director Gus Van Sant adapted her book into a film.

In "To Die For," Phoenix has a supporting role as Jimmy Emmett, a teenager who participates in a documentary project. The director, Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), desperately wants to be famous, and she believes that her husband is standing in her way. So, she decides to seduce Jimmy, hoping that she can get him to do her bidding and rid her of her husband.

"To Die For" toes the line between a black comedy and a disturbing drama. And even though it was one of his earlier roles, Phoenix was already proving his incredible talent, with critic Owen Gleiberman saying, "As Jimmy, the teen sap who falls hard for Suzanne, Joaquin Phoenix is dead-eyed yet touchingly vulnerable — a mush-mouthed angel."

4. You Were Never Really Here

Based on Jonathan Ames' novella, "You Were Never Really Here" stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hired gun who rescues girls trapped in human trafficking rings. He's known for using particularly violent methods, and he's often haunted by disturbing flashbacks from his past. But his life takes an even darker turn when he's hired to rescue the abducted daughter of a state senator. As Joe arms himself and sets out on a bloody rescue mission, he realizes there's a conspiracy afoot, one that involves higher levels of government and people who'll do anything to keep their sins a secret.

Directed by Lynne Ramsay, this psychological thriller is one of Phoenix's all-time best performances. Even though Phoenix is great in over-the-top roles, "You Were Never Really Here" finds him playing a much quieter character — watching, simmering, and waiting to explode. The result, as film critic Priscilla Page puts it, is a film that's "a reimagining of masculinity and the narratives that romanticize it," and if you want to really see the breadth of Phoenix's range, you should definitely check out this dark, disturbing film.

3. Parenthood

Featuring one of Joaquin Phoenix's earliest performances, "Parenthood" is an ensemble family comedy that pokes fun at the many trials and Kodak moments that every parent is familiar with. The cast is full of talented actors, including big names like Steve Martin, Keanu Reeves, and Rick Moranis. As for Phoenix, he plays Garry, a teenage boy trying to navigate this awkward phase of life without a father figure.

Overall, critics loved "Parenthood." It was praised for its relatability, even when the characters were involved in exaggerated situations, as well as for the strong performances from everyone involved. David Nusair of Reel Film Reviews described it as "an engaging and often engrossing picture that benefits substantially from the efforts of a uniformly superb cast." And while it isn't your typical Phoenix movie, it's still a great comedy, and it's a fun look at how the Oscar-winning A-lister got his start.

2. Hotel Rwanda

The 2004 drama "Hotel Rwanda" tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) and his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), who protected over 1,200 people at their hotel during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. It's a tale of remarkable courage in the face of brutality.

Phoenix is a supporting player here, showing up as Jack, an American journalist who's traveled to Rwanda to shoot footage on the scene. However, he doesn't feel optimistic about his ability to make an impact with his work. Instead, he worries that people will simply glance at the TV, comment on how horrible the situation is, and forget about what they saw.

"Hotel Rwanda" was nominated for three Oscars, and the movie received widespread praise. And as Bill Clark wrote for From the Balcony, "The film is an overwhelming, sad, and heartfelt achievement. 'Hotel Rwanda' is not a film you want to see, but one that should be required viewing." 

1. Her

Written and directed by Spike Jonze, "Her" is often regarded as Phoenix's best film. Although he's appeared in romantic movies before, "Her" is unlike any of his other projects. In this 2013 dramedy, Phoenix plays Theodore, a man who falls in love with someone new after separating from his wife. But this romance is complicated — Theodore's love interest, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is an artificial intelligence.

And since his love interest isn't a physical, on-screen presence, Phoenix is the one doing most of the romantic heavy lifting. (Although, props to Johansson for her amazing voice work.) It's not an easy task for an actor, but as Melissa Anderson wrote for ArtForum, "Phoenix's performance is imbued with such genuine heartsickness that Theodore's musings on why his marriage ... fell apart ring of piercing, real-life regret, not break-up bromides."

"Her" was nominated for five Oscars, ultimately winning for Best Original Screenplay. Playing Theodore was an ambitious move for Phoenix, and taking the creative risk certainly paid off.