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Top 10 Joaquin Phoenix Performances

7 March 18 words: Ashley Carter

Ahead of the release of the highly anticipated You Were Never Really Here, we take a look at some of the best performances from the career of three-times Oscar nominated Joaquin Phoenix

Having navigated his way through the troubles of young fame, the loss of his brother River to a drug overdose and his own struggles with addiction, Joaquin Phoenix has emerged as one of the most interesting and enigmatic stars in Hollywood.  The three-times Oscar nominated actor has garnered a reputation for consistently choosing challenging and diverse roles, from a nefarious Roman Emperor, to a troubled country music legend, a 1920's New York pimp, or a shell-shocked WWII veteran, Phoenix never fails to impress.  Here's ten of his greatest performances to date:

10. Gladiator (2000)

What am I going to do with you? You simply won't... die.

Character: Emperor Commodus

I know.  This performance is every bit as ridiculous as it is good, as Phoenix flickers between childishly maniacal to ridiculously cartoonish.  But when Phoenix is good in Gladiator, he's really very good indeed.  Presenting the power-hungry, incestuous Commodus as infantile and psychotic, Phoenix creates a character that no-one is ever truly comfortable being near, adding a palpable sense of unease in every scene in which he appears.  Phoenix also instills an implicit vulnerability in the character that almost makes you feel pity once Maximus eventually batters him. 

Did you know: Johnny Cash claimed that it was seeing this performance, particularly the scene in which Commodus describes having Maximus' wife and son killed, that convinced him Phoenix was the right actor to play him in Walk the Line


9. To Die For (1995)

Any time it rains, or when there's thunder and lightning, or when it snows, I have to jack off.

Character: Jimmy Emmett

Phoenix's performance as the young fool in love is the best thing about Gus Van Sant's quirky, if uneven, dark comedy.  Seduced by local weather girl Nicole Kidman, and tasked with killing her husband, the grungy, mulleted Phoenix is every inch the sympathetic moron, too dumb to know that he's being played like a cheap fiddle.  The power of his performance can be seen in the fact that, ultimately, we feel far more sympathy for him as a murderer than we do for his victim.  

Did you know: To Die For marked the first acting credit where he is credited as Joaquin Phoenix.  All his previous credits he used the name Leaf Phoenix.

8. I’m Still Here (2010)

Did someone just human shit on me?

Character: Joaquin Phoenix. Kind of. 

It's a pity I'm Still Here came out at a time where the world was far too cynical, as no-one every really believed Phoenix had retired from acting to focus on his burgeoning hip-hop career.  You get the feeling he and director Casey Affleck were trying to create a modern-day F for Fake, but from very early on in production the world seemed to see straight through the pair's antics.  That doesn't matter too much, however, as the film remains an interesting take on modern-day celebrity culture, and Phoenix's performance is incredibly impressive.  

Did you know: The idea for the film came from Phoenix's amazement at the way people believed that reality television shows were unscripted.

7. We Own The Night (2007)

Yeah, you keep thinking about my girlfriend while you're fucking your fat fucking wife!

Character: Bobby Green

Phoenix plays a club-owner in late 80s New York, desperately trying to remain neutral in the war between the law and the gangsters that frequently visit his establishment.  His position is made all the more difficult by the fact that both his brother (Mark Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall) are cops, a situation only further exacerbated by an assassination attempt on the former, which shakes Phoenix from his previous apathy.  Joining forces with his brother, the pair launch an all-out assault on the mob.  We Own The Night brilliantly portrayed Phoenix's ability to play a multifaceted character, at once narcissistic and fun-loving, before turning vengeful, stone-cold and hell-bent on revenge.  

Did you know: According to Mark Wahlberg, Phoenix would get into character by hurling insults at Robert Duvall between takes. This upset Duvall greatly, and Wahlberg had to restrain him.

6. Inherent Vice (2014)

Did I hit you?

Character: Larry "Doc" Sportello

Whilst some critics argued that this was the first real miss of Paul Thomas Anderson's career, and others claimed that his adaption of Thomas Pynchon's postmodernist novel was another masterpiece in the director's impressive canon, few doubted how masterful Phoenix's performance as Larry "Doc" Sportello was in Inherent Vice. As a hippie-detective stuck in 1970, painfully aware that the 60s have come and gone, Phoenix mastered the lost, glazed expression of a man perpetually lost in some previously unexplored plain of reality.  It's hard to imagine the film working as well as it did with anyone else in the role.  

Did you know: Robert Downey Jr. was originally attached to play the role of "Doc" Sportello, before director Paul Thomas Anderson opted to cast Phoenix.  

5. Two Lovers (2008)

A kid's got to start thinking about his future sometime.

Character: Leonard Creditor

In perhaps his most nuanced performance to date, Phoenix plays Leonard, a man who, having survived a suicide attempt and being dumped by his fiancée, finds himself living back in his parents' Brooklyn apartment.  Despite his parents' attempts to match him up with a nice Jewish girl, he can't help falling for the mysterious blonde (Gwyneth Paltrow) living in the building. His performance is sublimely human and heartbreaking, exploring the balance between man's innate optimism and pessimism, without ever veering into melodramatic territory.    

Did you know: The final acting role Phoenix took before 'retiring' from acting, which later proved to be a hoax.  

4. Her (2013)

Well, it's hard, for sure. But there's something that feels so good about sharing your life with somebody.

Character: Theodore Twimbley

In Spike Jonze's insightful tale of the loneliness and desperation of the human condition set in the near future, Phoenix is perfectly cast as the hapless Theodore.  Working as a greeting card writer, he's a man yearning for love, which he unexpectedly finds in the voice of his intelligent computer operation system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  Phoenix's subtlety in portraying the introverted, vulnerable Theodore is heartbreaking and effective, invoking a sense of isolation and deep-rooted unease with his surroundings that is visible in every scene.  

Did you know: Director Spike Jonze would lock Phoenix and co-star Amy Adams in a room together for two hours every day during filming, forcing them to get to know each other more intimately.  

3. The Immigrant (2013)

I used to dance on the street as a kid for money. We fastened tin onto our shoes. Things you do to survive...

Character: Bruno Weiss

Whilst as a film, The Immigrant missed the mark somewhat, Phoenix is remarkably malevolent as Weiss, a Jewish pimp preying on vulnerable women arriving in Ellis Island-era New York.  Commanding every frame in which he appears, Phoenix masters the essence of what makes a pimp so powerful and dangerous.  He isn't just evil and opportunistic, he's also sympathetic, passionate and capable of great acts of tenderness.  Comfortably one of the definitive performances in his career to date.    

Did you know: The Immigrant marked the fourth collaboration between Phoenix and director James Gray, who wrote the role of Bruno specifically for the actor.  

2. Walk the Line (2005)

Don't give me no rules. All I got are rules.

Character: Johnny Cash

In his most iconic role, Phoenix was the perfect choice to play Johnny Cash, a man who gained an almost mythological status whilst he was still alive.  Never relying on a simple impression, he brilliantly captures the contrast between the inherent self-destructive darkness within Cash's character, as well the humour, boundless love and need to please that drove him to the point of madness and the edge of death so many times during his turbulent life.  At one moment he appears in complete control, dressed in his trademark black suit, unwilling to take shit from anyone.  The next, he's like a confused child, desperate for someone to take his hand and tell him what to do next in life.  It's a performance that deconstructs the myth behind the man in black, presenting an entirely human, hopelessly flawed and altogether more relatable Cash.    

Did you know: Phoenix's commitment to living Johnny Cash's lifestyle during filming led to his hospitalisation after production had ended.  

1. The Master (2012)

Well, it was my mother and my father and me back home. And we're sitting around a table... and drinks... laughing. And it just sort of ended there.

Character: Freddie Quell

In a film as astonishing as Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which boasts stunning performances from the likes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern, Phoenix emerges as the stand-out performance.  As the shell-shocked Navy veteran Freddie Quell, Phoenix emits an awkward, enigmatic inward stillness that plays perfectly against Hoffman's charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd.  It's a performance of intense, concealed emotional turmoil that bubbles to the surface in bouts of sexual obsession and alcohol abuse.  The Master showed that Phoenix acted how Ernest Hemingway wrote: a beguiling outward simplicity that covered up a wealth of deeper emotion.  He was desperately unlucky not to win his first Oscar for the role, losing out to Daniel Day-Lewis for his performance in Lincoln.  

Did you know: Phoenix's parents escaped from the infamous 'Children of God' cult in the 1970's. 


You Were Never Really Here is screening at Broadway Cinema from Friday 9th March

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