5 Joaquin Phoenix Performances That Are More Oscar-Worthy Than 'Joker'

joaquin phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix clutches his 'Joker' bounty | Jennifer Graylock/PA Images/Getty
Joaquin Phoenix clutches his 'Joker' bounty | Jennifer Graylock/PA Images/Getty

Great actors almost never win Oscars for their best performances. As an institution, the Academy of Arts and Sciences has a tendency to reward many of Hollywood's biggest stars for specific roles that just happen to catch a wave of enthusiasm at the right time or arrive towards the end of a long career. Al Pacino winning Best Actor for 1992's Scent of A Woman instead of his far more iconic performances in The Godfather Part II, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon might be the most notable example of this phenomenon, but Oscar history is littered with examples of actors getting trophies for roles and movies that don't necessarily rank among their finest work. (Does anyone really think The Revenant is Leonardo DiCaprio's best showcase?) On Sunday night, Joaquin Phoenix joined that club

He's traveled a long road to likely Oscar winner. After earning a Supporting Actor nomination for his villainous turn as the cruel Roman Emperor in 2000's sword-and-sandal action epic Gladiator, Phoenix took on a mix of challenging and audience-pleasing roles that helped establish him as a leading man. He fought off aliens with a baseball bat in Signs; he did the voice of a cartoon bear in Disney's Brother Bear; he played a firefighter alongside John Travolta in Ladder 49. But since 2005's music biopic Walk the Line, which earned him his first Best Actor nomination, he's been on an often fascinating run of idiosyncratic, risk-taking performances. (And, yes, there's that bizarre Letterman appearance, his "retirement", and the exhausting mockumentary I'm Still Here.)

Now, with his win for the controversial comic-book blockbuster Joker, he's collected the Best Actor trophy. After picking up the lead actor award at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, and the BAFTA Awards, where he made headlines with a speech calling out "systemic racism" within the entertainment industry, the 45-year-old actor cemented his frontrunner status. Somber and tedious, Joker is not exactly his most gripping movie or the best example of his talents. But if you think of it as a make-up win for any of the five performances below, it's easier to get excited about Phoenix's victory.

walk the line movie
20th Century Fox

Walk the Line (2005)

Was he nominated? Yes
Who won Best Actor? Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote
Why he's great in it: Playing a figure from recent history can be an effective way of jumping into the larger Oscar conversation. Dutifully hitting many of the requisite biopic beats, James Mangold's proudly sturdy chronicle of Johnny Cash's life fails to ignite the same fiery passion and sense of danger as the deep-voiced singer's best songs. (It's also tough to watch without thinking about John C. Reilly in the parody Walk Hard at this point.) Still, Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who plays June Carter and did win an Oscar for her role, are magnetic together, infusing the film with romance and intensity. Looking out at the crowd as he sings his ballads of violence, heartbreak, and turmoil, Phoenix conjures pain and glory in equal measure. Plus, unlike Oscar-winner Rami Malek in the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, that's actually Phoenix you hear singing in the film, giving new life to songs like "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Cocaine Blues."

two lovers movie
Magnolia Pictures

Two Lovers (2008)

Was he nominated? No
Who won Best Actor? Sean Penn for Milk
Why he's great in it: How many other "serious" actors would be willing to break-dance on screen? It can feel a bit ridiculous to praise any performer for a "lack of ego," especially when so often toeing the line of embarrassment can lead to accolades, but Phoenix's performance as Leonard in James Gray's modern romance Two Lovers is a fine example of what actor-ly "risk-taking" looks like. He's often vulnerable and occasionally volatile, declaring he'll "do anything" for Gwyneth Paltrow's Michelle, but he also allows space for the other actors in the movie to play off his intensity. In his third collaboration with Gray, who also directed him in 2000's The Yards and 2007's We Own the Night, Phoenix crystallizes a style and demeanor he's returned to again and again, a type of heightened sensitivity to the pinpricks of daily life.

the master movie
The Weinstein Company

The Master (2012)

Was he nominated? Yes
Who won Best Actor? Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln
Why he's great in it: Whether he's choking a man with his own necktie at a shopping mall, mixing poisonous moonshine using paint thinner on a sea-ship, or speeding away into a speck on a motorcycle in the Arizona desert, Phoenix throws his entire body into his performance as Freddie Quell, the sailor turned informal advisor to cult leader and published author Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). On one level, Freddie is a simple man driven by simple urges: His main objective, which is thwarted at various points in the movie, is to have sex. That's it. (You can see why the Academy awarded Day-Lewis for his more straightforward performance as Honest Abe in Lincoln.) But this beguiling, mystifying movie gives Phoenix so many different opportunities to explore concepts of repression and rage, doubling back on itself and puzzling out new ambiguities. Along with his portrayal of Doc Sportello, the sideburn sporting hippie detective from Paul Thomas Anderson's dizzying Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice, it's Phoenix's funniest performance to date.

her movie
Warner Brothers Pictures

Her (2013)

Was he nominated? No
Who won Best Actor? Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club
Why he's great in it: Her, a movie about a man essentially falling in love with his chatty iPhone, is a science-fiction parable that often threatens to buckle under the weight of its own whimsy. Thankfully, filmmaker Spike Jonze made the wise decision of casting Phoenix in the lead role as professional letter-writer Theodore Twombly. The character's name might be unbearably twee, but Phoenix finds dark edges and melancholy notes to play in a role that would likely resemble an empty sad-boy archetype in another actor's less capable hands. (The costume design, the ukulele-playing, and the mustache can be a lot for some people to take!) Even when playing a fundamentally sweet and kind man, there's still an element of menace at work, an undercurrent of unease that adds layers of complexity to the character's isolation.

you were never really here
Amazon Studios

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

Was he nominated? No
Who won Best Actor? Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody
Why he's great in it: As the gruff, bearded hitman protagonist of Lynne Ramsey's fractured genre experiment You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix gives us his version of a vigilante action hero. Like Keanu Reeves, Charles Bronson, or Liam Neeson, his Joe uses his particular set of skills to distribute a violent, unsettling form of justice against the shadowy government figures behind a child sex ring. Unsurprisingly, Phoenix makes the archetype his own, imbuing the character's alienation with weariness and wit. More than his turn as Arthur Fleck in Joker, his performance as Joe is as gripping as screen acting gets. If the Academy didn't go for it, that's their loss.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.