Joaquin Phoenix: Best actor of the 2010s.

Joaquin Phoenix extraordinary talent as an actor has never ever been in doubt. For over the last 20+ years, he has put together a film resume that other actors would die to have. While some of his early roles helped him establish his career, it notable took off after his villainous portrayal of emperor Commodus, playing opposite Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000); and not long after he starred in Walk The Line (2005), as Johnny Cash, which would prove to be a career-defining role. Since then, Phoenix has rarely taken a misstep in his career, even when we thought he had lost his mind, behaving strangely in public, having seemingly announcing his retirement from acting to become a hip hop artist. Of course, it was all an act for the wildly ambitious mockumentary I’m Still Here (2010) he cooked up with his pal Casey Affleck. While the mockumentary would prove to be forgettable, the rest of the 2010s would truly cement Phoenix’s reputation as one of the best actors of his generation. In truth, it’s possible to even argue that Phoenix was the decades best working actor.

Beginning with his next project The Master (2012), as Freddie Quell, a traumatised sociopath, who finds himself mixed up in a religious well-being cult, Phoenix earned his third Academy Award nomination, his second (at the time) for Best Actor. Interestingly, if you look back at his role as Quell, one of the fascinating things about it was that ominous sneer perfected by Phoenix, in which he asked his dentist to fasten metal brackets and rubber bands to his teeth on one side of his mouth to force his jaw shut. Measures like these went a long way to cemented his reputation as an intensely professional actor who deeply immersed himself into his craft. 


Next came the period drama The Immigrant (2013) about New York in the 1920s, in which Phoenix excels as Jewish wheeler-dealer, who promises to help two young women who arrive in the US by boat. At first while his intentions seem noble, by promising Ewa (Marion Cotillard) that he will help her reunite with her sister Magda who is in quarantine detention, he ends up stringing them along and forcing Ewa into a life of prostitution. With an affinity of playing complex characters, Phoenix excels in his role as the villainous Bruno Weiss. In short, Phoenix perfectly wavers between playing a savior one minute and a predator the next in this old-fashioned melodrama.  

It has been said that no other actor does inner turmoil better than Phoenix. In Spike Jonze romantic/sci-fi Her (2013) Phoenix played a lonely depressive who becomes infatuated with a female-voiced operating system. It goes without saying that Her is an eccentrically brilliant film. It’s a film that seemingly offers up plenty of conundrums for its audience and its actors. Playing the socially awkward Theodore Twombly is what some might consider a dream role for an actor of Phoenix’s calibre. It’s not often you see Phoenix enthusiastically gush or seriously get away with nerding out. 


It’s quite incredible how Phoenix has allowed himself the freedom to make an array of very interesting films. The only other actor that comes to mind who forged an unconventional path through Hollywood is Johnny Depp. While Depp might be the yardstick of the oddball actor-types of his generation, Phoenix did his best in an attempt to topple Depp in Paul Thomas Anderson’s neo-noir mystery crime film Inherent Vice (2014) as L.A. stoner private-eye “Doc” Sportello. Sporting the best bushy sideburns since Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Phoenix presence in this at times confusing film is a true delight. He’s funny, quirky, measured and holy crap he mumbles so much you have to wonder if Phoenix as a famed method character used something to help his laid-back performance. 

Midway through the 2010s it can be argued Phoenix took a wrong turn in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man (2015) playing Abe Lucas, a womanising jaded philosophy professor who finds himself trying to justify murdering a corrupt judge. For the record, let me just say how much I enjoyed the chemistry between Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in this film.  Anyway, critics were particularly harsh of Allens exploration of the existential nature of murder. Some might say Irrational Man was also an uncomfortable fit for Phoenix, but lone wolf Mark Olsen from the Los Angeles Times had other thoughts when in 2015 he wrote, “Phoenix manages the rare feat of playing the male lead in a Woody Allen film without aping the well-known manner of Woody Allen.” Olsen went on to add “Coming after Phoenix’s astonishing recent run of physically transformative, emotionally explosive performances, including “The Master,” “Her,” “The Immigrant” and “Inherent Vice,” it is likely this will be dismissed as a lesser turn. Yet no one conveys inner torment quite like he does, and today any role Phoenix takes on makes for necessary viewing, as he is the most exciting American actor working today.”


In 2017, Phoenix continued to surprise audiences and impress critics with his role as a damaged veteran with PTSD on a mission to save a missing girl in the arthouse film You Were Never Really Here. His performance is quite intense and nothing short of mesmerising as he dishes out vengeance with a wielding hammer against predators who harm children. Phoenix face especially his soul-piercing eyes often tells us more than enough about what we need to know about his self-loathing characters state of mind. It’s unnerving at times how he manages to live inside the roles he plays and quite frankly it’s no surprise he won an award as Best Actor at Cannes. 

For a man who doesn’t like to watch his own movies, Phoenix has no problem as a working actor. With three movies credited to him in 2018, the American actor delivered a wide range of performance as a paraplegic alcoholic in Don’t Worry, He Wont Get Far On Foot, a western outlaw in The Sisters Brothers and Jesus Christ in the wonderfully revisionist biblical drama Mary Magdalene. Interestingly it is said Phoenix starved himself to play Jesus in Mary Magdalene. He also didn’t take lightly the idea of playing such an important historical figure as Jesus. ”Lots of material. Lots of conflicting material,” Phoenix explained in an 2018 interview. “But, in the end, it’s a character. And, as with all characters, whether it’s Johnny Cash or whoever, you have to make it about a man; about his personal experience. And for Jesus, what makes his death such a sacrifice is that he didn’t want to die. This was a man who wanted to continue the experience of living, just as we all do. So it was important to me to find those human qualities.”


These human qualities Phoenix speaks of are littered in all of his movies. Maybe no more so than as Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips harrowing and divisive Joker (2019) . While the reception to Joker was mixed at best, including its depiction of the mentally ill, no-one could fault the calibre of Phoenix’s Oscar winning performance. For the film Phoenix found himself in one of the darkest places he has ever gone for a role. His wiry and emaciated frame only tell part of the story behind his preparation for the role. He also studied real-life mental patients to perfect Arthur’s pathological laugh. But arguably the most impressive aspect of Phoenix’s emotive performance was his preparedness to descend into hell with his character.

It is arguably quite fitting that Phoenix would win a multitude of awards at the end of the decade for Joker. The outspoken social activist and actor has without a doubt shown his desire to be taken seriously with the roles he has sort out. If anything his films say everything about his flexibility, adaptability and creative streak as an actor. That is why he is the best actor of the 2010s ahead of the likes of Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey.


Photo credits: The header image of Joaquin Phoenix is courtesy of Harald Krichel. It is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. The movie still of Joaquin Phoenix are used under the rationale of fair use to help make an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone.

Robert Horvat is a Melbourne based blogger. He believes that the world is round and that art is one of our most important treasures. He has seen far too many classic films and believes coffee runs through his veins. As a student of history, he favours ancient and medieval history. Music pretty much rules his life and inspires his moods. Favourite artists include The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Garbage and Lana Del Rey.

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