An Appreciation of…Joaquin Phoenix (1974 – present)

This one is a record-breaker folks. In the past, I have honored such luminaries in cinema as Mike Nichols, Kevin Spacey and Roger Ebert. All people at the top of their craft, who have been working for decades, changing the art of cinema in their own way. The latest honor goes to Joaquin Phoenix, who is the youngest honoree of this particular citation ever. At the age of only 40, it is dubious to say that Phoenix is perhaps the finest living actor today (let’s be honest, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are not doing the great work they used to, and Jack Nicholson has just plain stopped acting unfortunately) – but when you consider Phoenix’s resume, it isn’t hard to back up this claim.

“Child actor” – a term that probably conjures up images of either a cute little kid grew up to be a drug addict or recluse or any kind of hot mess. To be perfectly honest, there aren’t too many examples of child actors who go on to have great careers – they exist, but just not as much as the cute little kids’ performances all those years ago would imply. Joaquin Phoenix stands as being one of the best examples of a child actor sustaining his career until adulthood. Sure, Phoenix doesn’t do the same kind of work that he used to as a kid, yet no one would ever consider him any less than a brilliant actor nowadays, right? We could attribute that to Phoenix coming from an acting family – his brother was the late River Phoenix, after all. You can say it is because Phoenix got lucky. Both would be wrong – Phoenix is a brilliant actor today because he truly worked hard at it, and was very selective with his projects.

If you think about it, Joaquin Phoenix has been around for quite a while – Gladiator and Walk the Line being his major accomplishments. Yet, there was never a time when Phoenix was more appreciated than right now – before now, Phoenix had always been known as the talented actor who was just ignored a bit too long. People liked him, sure. Yet there was hardly anyone calling him the finest actor of his generation. What changed to make him the adored cinematic figure he is today? A strange little pseudo-documentary called I’m Still Here. In the film, Phoenix plays himself as he pursues a rap career. The film itself was hardly seen, and in itself was unremarkable. What made the film so notable wasn’t the film itself, but the environment the film was in. To promote the film, Phoenix grew a bushy beard, wore dark glasses and a suit everywhere, and generally acted crazy and reclusive, and was adamant that he was quitting acting. This reached its peak with one of the most controversial episodes of Late Show with David Letterman, where Phoenix managed to creep out Letterman, the man who has interviewed some incredible weirdos over the years. We truly, genuinely believed Phoenix was quitting acting, and when he revealed it was an elaborate prank, made to promote the film, we all collectively sighed in relief. This bit of genius promotion may not have given the film a boost, but it sure as hell have Phoenix the necessary boost to become the hottest entity in cinema today.

Everyone wants to work with Joaquin Phoenix, and it seems Joaquin Phoenix wants to work with everyone as well. He has managed to stay one of the most popular actors today, yet steered away from massively mainstream films. He has worked with Ridley Scott, Spike Jonze, M. Night Shymalan (relax, it was before Shymalan became a parody of himself) and many others. However, two collaborators have brought out the best in Phoenix. The first is of course James Gray, who never fails to surprise me to the extent of how he can mold Phoenix and show completely different sides to him, such as in films like Two Lovers and We Own the Night. The other is perhaps the greatest film collaboration of the past decade, and one I hope continues for a long time – that of Paul Thomas Anderson, who has directed Phoenix in two films, both of which are massive high points on both filmographies. I’ll get to those films a little later…

I now have to do what I always do, and select seven essential Phoenix performances that those unversed in the brilliance of Ol’ Joaquin can seek if you truly want to see the work of a great actor. Choosing seven films only is a notoriously difficult task, yet I will endure. Just know that you can throw a dart at any of Phoenix’s films and be shown a transcendent and brilliant performance by the finest actor of his generation. Here goes nothing:

  • The Master (2012). Not only is it by far Phoenix’s finest performance yet, it is one of the greatest film performances in history. Phoenix is cold, clinical, sinister and absolutely brilliant as the conflicted and brilliantly mad Freddie Quell, who navigates the ups and downs of a religious cult. Phoenix gives a masterwork in acting here, and his performance here is no fluke – he truly is that brilliant, and he continues to surprise me, in every film he made before this, and every subsequent film. This was the film that made me realize I was a massive Phoenix fan, and one that may not be the easiest to digest, but the most thought-provoking and brilliant, and all because of Phoenix and his wonderful co-star, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  • Her (2013). I will probably have to say this for every entry on this list, so I’ll get it over and done with here so I don’t have to repeat it – we have never seen Phoenix like this. The year before, Phoenix played a sinister and terrifying character in The Master. The following year, he played Theodore, a man so detached from life, he only finds love and friendship in someone who doesn’t really exist. Her is basically the Joaquin Phoenix One-Man Show, and under many other actors, we would just be put off by it, but under Phoenix’s brilliant performance, and Spike Jonze’s fantastic direction, Her brings out some of the best in Phoenix we’ve ever seen.
  • We Own the Night (2007). One not too many have seen, but I truly believe to be Phoenix’s finest hour before his Renaissance of sorts. Playing Bobby, a honest nightclub manager (apparently they exist) who gets dragged into the world of crime, where he tries to help his family (who are cops) to bring down a drug lord. It isn’t only fascinating viewing, it is also an emotional roller-coaster, and while Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall are wonderful, Phoenix unknowingly steals the show. It is Phoenix’s second collaboration with James Gray, and Phoenix brings out his classic 1970s charm and intensity to play the lead role in this very underrated crime thriller.
  • Inherent Vice (2014). Okay, so I won’t deny that I am a massive fan of both Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon, and basically live off everything they produce. That doesn’t distract from the fact that Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely brilliant as Doc Sportello, a detective in 1970s California. Phoenix doesn’t get much time to show off his lighter side, and here, playing Doc, he is able to partake in some hilarious physical comedy and just plain bonkers storytelling. The film itself is very divisive (I loved it, obviously) – but one this is absolutely clear from everyone who has seen it – Phoenix is fantastic in it.
  • Walk the Line (2005). Joaquin Phoenix playing Johnny Cash, one of the greatest poets and musicians to ever live. Phoenix may not have looked the part, but boy did he act the part. He became Cash, and he truly helped revolutionize the musical biopic, which are becoming increasingly popular thanks to films such as Walk the Line and Ray, both featuring brilliant performances by their lead actors. Phoenix is such a unique actor, so to see him able to get lost in the character of a real-life public figure was truly fascinating.
  • Two Lovers (2008). James Gray once again – a pulpy, simple romantic drama. No frills, no cliches and absolutely wonderful. It is simplistic and naturalistic, and Phoenix is amazing as Leonard. He acts accordingly opposite Gwyneth Paltrow (perhaps her last good role) and while the film itself is also radically underseen, I do think it was the first flicker of the insanity spark that is Joaquin Phoenix’s current career.
  • I’m Still Here (2010). Oh come on, how can I not include this one? The film itself may not be brilliant, but it sure is responsible for this entire blog entry, because without it, there would be no reason to justify Phoenix’s position as the greatest actor of his generation.

So essentially, I really am a huge fan of Phoenix. I think he’s a marvelous actor, the best at what he does, and a man who has gained so much popularity, but never dared to venture to the world of mainstream cinema, choosing to keep to his roots of choosing disturbed, damaged (and sometimes zany) characters, and we need that. We need our weirdos in cinema, because without them, how boring would the movies be?

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