Pop-Ed: Top 10 Denzel Performances

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Denzel Washington deserves to be looped in with names like Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson. When you break down this guy’s career, a flood of memorable performance after memorable performance will engulf you. Denzel is always captivating, and is one of those rare actors who can turn bad movies into not only good ones, but sometimes great ones. With his latest film 2 Guns coming in #1 at the box office this past weekend, at age 58, Denzel isn’t slowing down, because as we all know, ‘King Kong ain’t got shit on him.’

It wasn’t easy, but I’m here to break down not necessarily Denzel’s best movies, but what I feel are his most memorable performances. Let’s give this two time Oscar winner his due…it’s My Top 10 Best Denzel Washington Performances:

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10. Cry Freedom (1987):

This is probably a forgotten performance, but let’s start the list off with Denzel’s first of six Oscar nominations. Based on true events, Denzel plays Steve Biko, a South African black activist in the late 1970’s. What I love about Denzel is when he’s given these big monologues, and goes off into acting heaven for about 3-5 minutes. You can see the genesis of that in Cry Freedom. While more subtle and quiet then in future roles, Denzel shows why this character had a legion of followers. The reason this performance is #10 though is because it’s actually not that big of a role as the story is more focused on Kevin Kline’s character, the journalist. If you haven’t seen Cry Freedom, check it out. Aside from Denzel, it’s actually a really great movie.

9. Man On Fire (2004):

Pure and simple, Denzel plays the classic tortured bad ass who gets his soul back by being the bodyguard of the nine year old daughter of wealthy parents. When she’s taken, all bets are off…Denzel goes ape shit, killing everything in his path.

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8. John Q (2002):

You’re probably surprised to see this on the list, and maybe don’t even know what it is. John Q is one of those examples of a movie that should have been absolute shit, but Denzel actually makes it quite compelling. The directing is a mess, the writing is lazy, and it’s corny when it really shouldn’t be. Eddie Griffin has an absolute atrocious cameo…ugh. But I’m not here to review John Q, I’m here to talk about Denzel as the lead. He plays John Quincy Archibald, a regular blue collar guy who can’t afford his nine year old son’s heart transplant. So what does he do? Obviously hold the hospital hostage till his son gets put on a donor list. I feel like Denzel was in a different movie, because he was so much better then every other element of this film. There’s a moment where he thinks it’s the last time he’s ever going to talk to his son, and it’s just crushing. This movie isn’t anywhere near the realm of being good without Denzel.

7. Philadelphia (1993):

There’s no doubt this is Tom Hank’s movie. It’s one of the best performances of the ’90s, but let’s not forget about Denzel. While not as memorable, it’s still a great performance. While so much of the film is focused on Hanks, Denzel gets one of his signature monologues as he breaks down what this case is really about, putting homosexuality right at the forefront. It is delivered with charisma, and the utmost seriousness. I love how at the end of the monologue Denzel sits back down and Hanks just says ‘very good,’ as if he almost breaks character to tell him, ‘Alright, you won that scene.’

6. American Gangster (2007):

Ridley Scott’s American Gangster has it’s problems, but it was great to see Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington giving vintage performances. Denzel is sort of a more refined Alonzo Harris from Training Day. He’s a scary dude, but more calm about it…except when he loses his temper and starts bashing people in the middle of cocktail parties, and shooting adversaries in front of diners, but other than that, he’s a level headed guy. But much like Man On Fire, it’s great to see Denzel just run shit from the very first scene.

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5. Flight (2012):

Now we’re getting into the real elite Denzel performances. While not to the extent of John Q, Flight is another movie that has a lot of problems, but it’s Denzel who elevates the movie significantly. He is just a destructive force as the alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker, and it’s those scenes in particular where Denzel has to tap into the alcohol fueled moments that really grab you. At times they are sad, scary, intense, and when John Goodman is around, even a little funny, but Denzel embodies all of it to perfection. In any other year he may have won an Oscar for this role, but the 2012 Best Actor race was just too crowded.

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4. Malcolm X (1992):

It’s pretty clear that no one else could have played this role. Period. Spike Lee makes a pretty ambitious film, but the movie as a whole is a bit overrated, except for Denzel’s performance. Had it not been for Al Pacino who was getting this Oscar no matter what, Denzel probably would have won this award. This role plays to all of Denzel’s strengths – it’s riveting speech after riveting speech. The only reason this didn’t make the top 3 for me is that as great as he is throughout this entire three hour plus marathon, I can’t think of the definitive Malcolm X scene that really stuck with me, whereas in these next three movies I can. Nevertheless, regardless of its problems, Malcolm X is a movie that needs to be seen. So if you got a long flight planned, get the DVD ready.

3. Glory (1989):

Glory is probably my favorite movie with Denzel in it. I love this film, and Denzel is a big reason why. He plays the character of Trip, a young angry soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War. Trip doesn’t take well to authority as shown by the massive scars on his back. Honestly, had Trip played a bigger role in the film, this performance could have been #1 on the list, but it’s more centered on a group of characters then any one individual. But the scene to remember for Denzel, and what could arguably be his single best acting moment is when he’s being whipped for punishment, and…well, I’ll just let the clip speak for itself.

2. Training Day (2001):

When Denzel won the Oscar for Training Day over Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, I thought it was complete bull shit. Many people subscribe to the theory that this was the make-up call beyond all other Oscar make-up calls, in that Denzel should have won for The Hurricane in 1999. But now that I’m a little older and a little wiser, while I still think Crowe’s performance in A Beautiful Mind was more deserving, the two really aren’t that far apart, and I don’t have any problem whatsoever with Denzel winning that award. He is AWESOME in Training Day. This is one crazy, scary son of a bitch. What makes Detective Alonzo Harris so damn reprehensible is that no matter how corrupt he is, the more evil he does, the more he justifies his actions. And what’s so perfect about Denzel’s performance is that he makes the character charismatic and likable, despite what an absolute evil bastard he is. The definitive scene in this movie though is no doubt towards the end when everybody basically says ‘Enough,’ but Denzel is still threatening all of them and yells out the immortal line, “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” Beautiful.

1. The Hurricane (1999):

I have this memory of Denzel being interviewed on the red carpet before the 2000 Oscars and just remember him being really intense about winning this award, making no bones about it. Certainly my memory could be hazy, but years later many believed he should have won this award over Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. Others have also criticized this film for being inaccurate on the Rubin Carter case, which this movie is based on. Whenever a movie says ‘based on a true story,’ I don’t take much stock in it. I always look at a movie as a movie. Maybe certain things are true, maybe false, I don’t know, but all I can do is judge it as a film. And in judging Denzel’s performance as this character, this is without a doubt for me his best role. This is an intense performance. Whether it’s watching Carter lose his mind while being in the prison hole, or just completely breaking down as he pleads with his lawyers to get him out, you cannot take your eyes of Denzel in this movie. While Denzel puts his heart and soul into every role he does, none is more apparent then in The Hurricane.

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great list, I would have put Malcolm X first, that’s the role of his life, one of the finest performances ever put on screen. I agree with what you say about movies like John Q and Flight, he really elevates them with his performances. Another one of his performances I love is He Got Game, he is amazing in that movie.

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