“With the acting powerhouse “You Were Never Really Here,” coming to wide release soon, I figured it was time to take a look at the acclaimed actor’s greatest performances. Joaquin Phoenix is the most interesting actor working today now that Daniel Day-Lewis has retired. Consistently delivering unrivaled intensity and commitment to a role, Phoenix has disappeared into a slew of fascinating and complex characters.
There’s a reason why Spike Jonze’s science fiction love story captured the imaginations of an entire generation. More than many other sci-fi films, “Her” is shocking for how openly sincere it is. And standing at the center of it is Phoenix, giving a startlingly intimate and vulnerable performance. There doesn’t feel like there’s any wall between him and the audience. He isn’t putting on a front, neither is he retreating into a character. He’s opening a door and letting us in, allowing us to experience every single emotion he portrays. It’s a brave performance because it’s so selfless. There is no showing off here. Just a desire to make people feel something, and feel it fully.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Acting as a bumbling hippie in a stoner comedy doesn’t really give you a lot of room to show off your acting chops. However, Joaquin Phoenix’s turn in “Inherent Vice” really is stunning. It’s the kind of performance that can tell a story without a word, creating a persona from whole cloth that gives his comical character a layer of sadness and depth. That’s not to say that it’s all moping about. His comedic timing is perfect and the guy is able to elicit more laughs with a single facial expression than many comedians can with a punchline. If Josh Brolin fellating a chocolate banana is the second funniest thing happening in a shot, you know you’ve struck comedy gold.
Two Lovers (2008)
It’s strange to imagine a romantic drama made today. The subject usually revolves around postmodern comedies that seem to keep the material at an ironic distance. However, James Gray, ever the classicist, decided to buck trends and release “Two Lovers,” a powerful drama about infidelity and mental illness. I think it’s a little dumb to say that a movie relies on its performances, mostly because every movie relies on its performances, but the familiar premise of “Two Lovers” really did require an actor as honest as Phoenix to hold it all together. It’s never explained what affliction really is affecting his character, but we can tell that his scars run deep. It’s an incredibly soulful performance, one that doesn’t reach for sympathy, but merely for truth.
The Master (2012)
I tend to be a little prone to exaggeration. Sometimes, I get so caught up in what I love about a movie that I’m unable to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. However, as someone who’s seen “The Master” about 10 times, I think I can confidently say that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as a mentally tortured WWII veteran is one of the best performances to ever grace the medium. A full torrent barrage of snarls, grunts, moans, cries, screams, laughs, and farts, Phoenix takes any artifice revolving around performance and tears it to shreds, bringing full force a character that refuses to leave your mind. Freddy Quell isn’t just a haunted veteran. He isn’t just a mental patient. He isn’t just a lost soul. To narrow him down to a label would be to miss the point. He exists, just like anyone else does. And Phoenix lets him exist, moving through Paul Thomas Anderson’s mysterious evocation of 1950’s America with a sense of freedom that a medium as controlled as a film shouldn’t allow. It’s a screen-bursting howl, one that can’t be ignored.
I’m Still Here (2010)
What’s the best way to prove you’re a great actor? Sure, Oscars are nice, but all they really are are the aggregated opinions of a small group of peers. Fame is pretty fun too, but I think we all know that notoriety and talent don’t exactly have a symbiotic relationship. So what really is the ultimate test for an actor? For Joaquin Phoenix, it was to see if he could fool the whole world. “I’m Still Here,” says that it’s a documentation of a mental breakdown, but really it’s a meticulously controlled piece of performance art. Donning a large pair of sunglasses and growing out a Karl Marx beard, the then-famous and respected actor decided to throw said fame and respectability to the wind in order to pursue the bizarre career path of becoming a rapper. For anyone not in on the joke, this seemed to be the result of a troubled man acting out. But once one understands exactly what Phoenix is doing, one has to be at least a little impressed. In a desire to satirize our celebrity culture and our insistence on imposing societal norms, the actor transformed himself into a pariah. He does the impossible, putting out a performance that generates derision, rather than admiration, the more convincing it gets. It’s one thing to get an audience to believe you’re a character for two hours. It’s another to have them believe you’re a character for a few years.