best film:  It is The Master (2012) here by a landslide. This is both a compliment to Paul Thomas Anderson’s film (one of the best of the 2010s decade) and sort of a nitpick at Joaquin Phoenix’s filmography. The number two film here is probably James Gray’s Two Lovers (2008) but that is a few steps down from The Master. Joaquin has a cluster back-end of the top ten quality of the year films (maybe as many as seven (7) – including all of the work with James Gray) but is lacking that second masterpiece or that film that seriously contends with The Master.


best performance:  Joaquin Phoenix gives the best male acting performance of the 2010s in The Master so there is a decent sized gap in this category again between the top spot and everything else. Same here though – the overall depth is strong – there are performances like his turn as Johnny Cash (Walk the Line – 2005), his second time with Paul Thomas Anderson in Inherent Vice, and his project with Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here) – this is high quality work spilling out of his top five (5). It seems doubtful Phoenix will ever touch the highs of The Master and his work as Freddie Quell again – and that is totally fine. Freddie Quell is one of cinema’s great characters. Phoenix nails the ticks, the posture – his face a brilliant craggily façade. The processing sequence is screen acting at its finest.


The Master – this is Paul Thomas Anderson’s companion to There Will Be Blood – and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance belongs in the discussion with Daniel Day-Lewis’ work. The film is end to end highlights – some subtle – some bold – like the scene in jail where Phoenix is unhinged like an early Marlon Brando Stanley Kowalski. 


stylistic innovations/traits:   Performances like Joaquin Phoenix’s in The Master do not come along often and still, he has enough here to make him anything but a one hit wonder sort of Peter Lorre or Malcolm McDowell-type resume (those two were not total one hit wonders like Bjork or Falconetti but still lean to that type of top heavy resume). One more big achievement would be crucial to help Phoenix climb up this list – and he has plenty of time. He was born in 1974 – the same year as peers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale. He is as talented as either of them.  And, like both DiCaprio and Bale, Joaquin was a successful child actor.  He followed in the footsteps of his older brother River Phoenix of course – who sadly passed away in 1993 at the age of 23. Joaquin had a few credits (including working with Gus Van Sant like his brother) in the 1990s – but 2000 was his breakthrough year – he stunned film fans in the immensely popular Gladiator, impressed in Quills and started his four (4) time connection with James Gray (The Yards). In one year, he showed he could act at the same level as Russell Crowe (white hot in 2000) and Kate Winslet (same). His work has been more than stellar since then with mentions as one of the best actors of the year in 2008, 2012, and 2019 (and close again in his strong 2013 with bot Her and The Immigrant).  Joaquin is a four-time Oscar nominee (winning for Joker in 2019) with nineteen (19) total archiveable films and counting.


Joker – Joaquin Phoenix does the unthinkable and makes the Heath Ledger as Joker debate a real thing. First off, Phoenix’s physical transformation (he shed 50+ pounds and shapes his body to accent his disorientation he is like a one man canted angle) pays off.  Joker’s manic laugh (he laughs when others do not, and when they do, he does not), the sympathy he earns, the timing (he is off a beat in every interaction – on purpose of course ) — this is a very special performance.  His face is a canvas – large, long features – Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” painting in real life. Phoenix dusts Robert De Niro off the screen in their scenes together. De Niro is past his prime and Joaquin in the middle of his here in 2019.


directors worked with: James Gray (4), Paul Thomas Anderson (2), Gus Van Sant (1), Oliver Stone (1), Ridley Scott (1), Spike Jonze (1), Lynne Ramsay (1), Ari Aster (1). The James Gray collaborations seem to be over (nothing in the ten years from 2014-2023) and that is a shame because that was such an artistically fruitful partnership – but Phoenix seems to have no lack of promising auteur collaborations to choose to work with.


Phoenix in 2008’s Two Lovers – the third of four collaborations to day with the great James Gray. Outside of The Master, the work with Gray is the strongest part of Phoenix’s resume to date.


top five performances:

  1. The Master
  2. Two Lovers
  3. Joker
  4. We Own the Night
  5. Her


from We Own the Night (2007) – the film’s narrative is really like a reverse version of The Godfather (Gray is a Francis Ford Coppola acolyte for sure) – instead of Michael Corleone, who is a part of the straight world, getting pulled into the family business of crime (this is Gray so Brighton Beach again) – Phoenix plays the sketchy nightclub guy who gets pulled into the family business – being a policeman.  This is a film of alternative patriarchs – certainly Shakespearian   Amazing achievement in the film from Phoenix – his bloated face from drug use and bloodshot eyes.


archiveable films

1989- Parenthood
1995- To Die For
1997- U-Turn
2000- Gladiator
2000- Quills
2000- The Yards
2002- Signs
2005- Walk the Line
2007- We Own the Night
2008- Two Lovers
2012- The Master
2013- Her
2013- The Immigrant
2014- Inherent Vice
2017- You Were Never Really Here
2018- The Sister Brothers
2019- Joker
2021- C’mon C’mon
2023- Beau is Afraid