Denzel Washington, who turns 60 on Dec. 28, has built a career that makes him worthy of being included in any discussion of the greatest actors of all time, alongside Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Sidney Poitier. With more than 40 films to his credit, he is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. He’s also one of the most bankable: Over the course of his 37-year career, his movies have grossed more than $3.8 billion worldwide (that Sony exec who doesn’t think Washington can carry a movie overseas can just take a seat).
Honestly, if Washington wanted to sit in a chair eating Cheetos all day, we’d pay to watch. Luckily, we have a long list of stellar films that feature his amazing performances. It wan’t easy whittling down his career to just 10 films (see the video of our staff debate at the bottom of the page). But in the end, the writer has the final say. So in no particular order, here are our 10 favorites.
1. Malcolm X (1992)
This is the career-defining role that hinted at Washington’s potential to become one of the best actors of his generation (and it was criminal that he lost the best actor Oscar to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman). His brilliant, nuanced performance humanized the civil rights icon for a new generation who knew Malcolm X only as the one-dimensional, “by any means necessary” leader of the Nation of Islam.
Washington so completely embodied the role of Malcolm that shortly after I saw the film, as I was watching a TV documentary about the civil rights movement, an image of the real Malcolm X flashed on the screen, and for a brief moment I was thrown off because it didn’t look like Washington.
2. Glory (1989)
Honestly, the only reason this movie even made the list is Washington’s Oscar-winning performance as the defiant escaped slave Trip. I get that Hollywood felt that the only way to make a successful movie was to tell the story of an all-black Civil War regiment through the eyes of a white commanding officer. But can you image how much better the movie would have been if it had been told through the eyes of Trip? At least we have “Denzel’s Glory tear” to help us through the rough times. Considering how often that tear shows up on Twitter, I’m surprised it doesn’t have its own account.
3. Remember the Titans (2000)
In another film based on a true story, Washington plays Herman Boone, the no-nonsense coach hired to integrate a Virginia high school football team in 1971. Though the film can be a little too earnest and predictable, watching Washington work his magic with up-and-coming stars likes Wood Harris (the future Avon Barksdale of The Wire) and Ryan Hurst (the future Opie of Sons of Anarchy) makes you forget some of the film’s shortcomings.
4. American Gangster (2007)
In this biopic about Frank Lucas—the Harlem gangster with the street smarts and business savvy to become a heroin kingpin in the 1970s—Washington was so cool in the role that he seduces you into forgetting that you’re actually rooting for a drug dealer who was destroying a community.
5. Man on Fire (2004)
This will probably be the most divisive film on the list, and you know what? I don’t care. Washington plays a suicidal, alcoholic CIA agent-turned-bodyguard named John Creasy who’s hired to protect Pita, played by a super-adorable 10-year-old Dakota Fanning. The bond that forms between Creasy and Pita is the heart of the movie: We see Creasy go from this brooding hot mess of a man to a sensitive, playful father figure. So it’s completely understandable when he goes into full revenge mode to hunt down Pita’s kidnappers. Yes, he does some pretty repugnant crap—that thing with the car cigarette lighter? Damn—but if someone snatched your child, this is the guy you’d want to go after that person.
6. Crimson Tide (1995)
Even though it was still relatively early in his career, Washington was able to go toe-to-toe with screen legend Gene Hackman in this military thriller, proving that he could run with Hollywood’s big dogs. In the mutiny scene, Washington and Hackman go at it like two dogs fighting over a bone, with both delivering blistering performances that leave goose bumps.
7. Training Day (2001)
Here we get badass Washington playing the bad guy, a corrupt Los Angeles police detective named Alonzo Harris—an anti-hero before anti-heroes really became all the rage. This is another movie that gets elevated because Washington’s Oscar-winning performance is so dynamic and powerful that you really can’t wait to see what he does next, plot or storyline be damned.
8. The Great Debaters (2007)
In his second directorial effort, Washington plays inspirational professor Melvin Tolson, the debate coach at historically black Wiley College, whose debate team included James Farmer, the future co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality. Much as in the first film he directed, Antwone Fisher (also based on a true story), Washington does his thing while also giving some shine to younger actors Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker, all of whom give top-notch performances.
9. Philadelphia (1993)
Ostensibly a vehicle for Tom Hanks—who would win an Oscar for his role—Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream films to deal with homophobia and the devastating effects of AIDS. Here, Washington serves as the stand-in for those with an irrational fear of gay people and HIV/AIDS. Even though the movie may feel a little dated, it’s still amazing to watch two of Hollywood’s biggest stars do such incredible work.
10. The Hurricane (1999)
Here is Washington in another Oscar-nominated role playing another real-life character, this time middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly convicted of a triple homicide in 1967 and spent 20 years behind bars before he was freed. Washington brings that same sharply honed intensity seen in Malcolm X that’s become a trademark in most of his films.