Total Recall

Joaquin Phoenix's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Inherent Vice star.

by | January 8, 2015 | Comments

It’s hard enough making a longterm career out of a few roles as a child actor. But going Hollywood as an adult when your big brother is already famous? Forget about it — unless you’re Joaquin Phoenix, that is. Formerly a screen tyke following in the footsteps of his sibling River Phoenix, young Joaquin has grown into one of the more entertainingly inscrutable leading men in the movie business, and the owner of a filmography that includes everything from mainstream fare like 8mm and Brother Bear to arthouse favorites like The Master. This weekend, Phoenix goes wide with Inherent Vice, and we decided to celebrate by turning our attention to some of his brightest critical highlights. It’s time for Total Recall!

10. Signs (2002) 75%

M. Night Shyamalan was on a roll after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and the third entry in his blockbuster twist-ending trilogy — 2002’s Signs — was one of the more highly anticipated films of the year. While it didn’t quite live up to the expectations generated by its predecessors, this supernatural thriller about aliens touching down and wreaking havoc in a small Pennsylvania town continued the writer-director’s run of critical goodwill and box office gold, thanks in part to a marquee-blazing cast that included Mel Gibson as the priest-farmer whose crops are disturbed by extraterrestrial forces and Joaquin Phoenix as his brother. As far as Shyamalan’s star has fallen in recent years, Signs also stands as proof of his ability to ratchet up suspense; as Susan Stark argued for the Detroit News, it’s “a complex story told with assurance and performed with quiet conviction” that “smoothly and stylishly blends scares and substance.”

9. Quills (2000) 75%

It would be hard to put together a worthwhile biopic about the Marquis de Sade without indulging in a certain amount of lurid cinema, and 2000’s Quills — starring Geoffrey Rush in a tour de force performance as the institutionalized author — definitely makes room for matters of the (supple) flesh. But director Philip Kaufman, working from a script by Doug Wright (adapted from Wright’s Obie-winning play), had more on his mind than titillation; in fact, the movie’s really more of a statement about how society deals with sexuality and mental illness. Of course, it helps that he had a fine cast to work with; aside from Rush, who netted an Oscar nomination, Quills boasts the talents of Kate Winslet, Michael Caine, and Joaquin Phoenix, whose turn as the Marquis’ asylum warden, Abbé du Coulmier, adds a particularly tortured note of repression to the proceedings. “It breathes, it twirls, it prances right up into your face,” wrote Eric Harrison for the Houston Chronicle. “It swirls over the top sometimes, but there never is any doubt you’re watching a movie about something.”

8. Gladiator (2000) 80%

Putting together a solidly entertaining swords ‘n’ sandals epic is easier said than done, even in today’s era of impressive CG effects, so when Ridley Scott announced his plans to film a sweeping Roman Empire drama, some skepticism may have been warranted. The results, however, sharply reflected Scott’s ambition, and were solidly entertaining to boot: Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe as a noble Roman general and Phoenix as the scurrilous young emperor who tries — and fails — to end him, walked away with more than $450 million in grosses and no fewer than five Oscars (including Best Picture). “Gladiator, well cast and impressively staged, is every inch the summer blockbuster it intends to be,” wrote Gary Thompson for the Philadelphia Daily News. “It’s also something more. Amid the action and intrigue, director Scott makes a few points about blockbuster-style entertainment.”

7. Two Lovers (2008) 82%

Released amidst the hubbub of Phoenix’s supposed retirement from acting, Two Lovers stood up to the hype, planting its leading man in the midst of a rather melodramatic tale about a quasi-suicidal layabout who finds himself vacillating between an arranged relationship with the daughter (Vinessa Shaw) of a business associate of his parents and an obviously ill-advised affair with a local drug addict (Gwyneth Paltrow) who’s carrying on with a married man (Elias Koteas). There’s smooching, pensive looks, and a half-hearted suicide attempt — what more could a love story ask for? Not a heck of a lot according to Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times, who mused, “Themes of loneliness, alienation and unrequited love are not new, but there is always that sense of the unexpected in Phoenix that keeps you curious.”

6. Walk the Line (2005) 82%

Nothing rouses Academy voters quite like a well-made musical biopic — or at least it seemed that way in 2005, when director James Mangold’s Walk the Line, inspired by the early career of country legend Johnny Cash and his love affair with June Carter, netted five Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Phoenix (who played Cash) and Best Actress for Reese Witherspoon (who portrayed Carter, and won). Coming the year after Jamie Foxx won for his work in the title role of Ray, Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles biopic, Walk the Line might have seemed like part of a formula, but it’s really its own picture — and one that featured a stack of compelling musical performances from its stars, who flashed plenty of chutzpah by trying to fill some awfully big boots. “Walk the Line is less music history than love story,” argued Moira MacDonald for the Seattle Times, concluding that the picture’s success “comes down to the performances of the two people at its center, both of which are splendid.”

5. The Master (2012) 85%

Strikingly filmed, powerfully acted, and occasionally more than a little inscrutable, The Master arrived in theaters as one of cineastes’ more highly anticipated films of 2012; after all, even if the end result had been a dud, the mere prospect of a post-There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson working with Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams on a sweeping period piece drama infused with alleged Scientology overtones promised cinema worth seeing. And in the end, The Master lived up or down to pretty much everything Anderson’s acolytes and detractors could have anticipated — a film that, in telling a story on its own terms and leaving it up to the viewer to interpret its aims, acts as a mirror for its beholder’s expectations. Calling it “Entrancing from first frame to last,” Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News mused, “The lights go down, they come up 137 minutes later, and you’re left to ask yourself: What on earth did I just see?”

4. The Immigrant (2014) 85%

A lavishly mounted period piece from director James Gray, 2014’s The Immigrant presents a horror-show picture of life in 1920s America for a pair of Polish sisters (Marion Cotillard and Angela Sarafyan) who are separated at Ellis Island when one is discovered to be carrying an illness. Alone and desperate to be reunited with her sister, Cotillard’s character crosses paths with a smooth-talking benefactor (Phoenix) who takes her in so he can use her as one of the attractions in his burlesque show, which functions as a front for a prostitution ring. Trapped and miserable, she finds herself in a grueling downward spiral whose only hope for reversal lies in a good-hearted magician (Jeremy Renner) who just happens to be Phoenix’s brother — and although Renner delivers a few magic tricks during the film, it’s Phoenix who pulls off what might be The Immigrant‘s most impressive feat, imbuing a fairly loathsome character with real emotion and soul. While conceding that the storyline was “the stuff of melodrama,” Tom Long of the Detroit News deemed the film “elevated by Gray’s sure hand and made more by Phoenix and Cotillard, lovers and haters and something beyond.”

3. To Die For (1995) 88%

Phoenix started his return from self-imposed acting exile in 1995’s To Die For, a dark look at the modern hunger for fame that showcased a different side of star Nicole Kidman while rescuing director Gus Van Sant from falling into career purgatory after Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Kidman plays Suzanne Stone, a New Hampshire woman whose dreams of TV stardom are thwarted by the fact that, in her mind, she’s been trapped far from the bright lights and big city by her dullard of a husband (Matt Dillon). Things start to change after she crosses paths with a trio of equally stardom-obsessed kids (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, and Alison Folland), inspiring her to solve her spousal problems once and for all. “If you’ve hitherto failed to respond to the laid-back oddball appeal of Van Sant’s movies, fear not,” decreed Geoff Andrew for Time Out. “This is a sharp, consistently funny blend of black comedy and satire on the deleterious effects of television.”

2. Parenthood (1989) 92%

It’s hard for any cast member to stand out in the type of crowded ensemble cast that director Ron Howard blended together for 1989’s Parenthood — excepting the picture’s star, Steve Martin, who tied together everyone’s efforts with his sensitive portrayal of a dad struggling to be a good father to his own growing brood while coming to terms with the troubled relationship he has with his own dad. But in one of his first film roles, Phoenix (credited as Leaf) earned a Young Artist Award nomination for his appearance as Martin’s withdrawn nephew; shortly after, in an early display of the uncompromising and occasionally inscrutable approach he’d later have to career management, he took a lengthy break from acting. “It’s hard to imagine a theme more universal and filled with human pitfalls than parenthood,” observed Dennis King for Tulsa World. “And it’s hard to imagine a movie treatment of that theme more humane and filled with gentle sympathy than director Ron Howard’s Parenthood.”

1. Her (2013) 95%

Her‘s poster advertises it as a “Spike Jonze love story,” and if you know anything about the director’s knack for quirky artifice in pursuit of nakedly emotional storytelling, you know this isn’t your average romance. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely, withdrawn writer and Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice as the audio expression of some newly installed AI software that wins his heart, Her finds Jonze using a laughably odd — yet not so terribly far-fetched — scenario to explore the evolving nature of love and relationships in the digital era. You need look no further than Phoenix’s mustache for proof that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet there’s a wistful, bittersweet melancholy coursing through Her — a quality that, along with the top-notch work of a stellar cast, won the heart of nearly every critic who screened it. Calling it “witty, tender and arrestingly gorgeous,” Hilary A. White of the Irish Independent wrote, “Her is a masterpiece. Phoenix’s central performance is of the lofty levels we have come to expect of him, while Johansson disarms with only her voice.”


Finally, here’s a young Joaquin Phoenix acting alongside his brother River in an afterschool special about dyslexia: