Let’s start with the obvious. It’s impossible to narrow down Denzel Washington’s filmography to the 10 best roles. Every time he’s on screen, he’s giving an award worthy performance. Even in something like The Little Things, the reviews all say Denzel was great, the movie was not. However, I woke up this morning and chose violence, so here are the top 10 Denzel Washington roles, ranked. I look forward to all the comments telling me which movies I forgot about. I forgot nothing, Denzel is just the GOAT.
Man on Fire
The downside of ranking Denzel Washington’s best roles is that some truly amazing performances end up at the bottom of the list. The “loved one in danger, assassin/soldier goes on a rampage to save them” trope isn’t new to Hollywood. However, long before Taken and John Wick made it the action movie go to, Denzel brought real heart and character to the genre in Man on Fire. As his relationship with Pita grows, we become deeper invested in his redemption, even though we know this isn’t that kind of a story. As usual, Denzel set a standard that no one else in the genre has been able to reach.
The studio really wanted this to be a Russell Crowe movie, but you can’t have Denzel star as a real life drug kingpin who outsmarts all the white cops and politicians around him and not have him be the focus of the story. The thing about Denzel as Frank Lucas is he’s just so captivating. When he’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him, and when he’s off screen, you’re wondering what he’s doing. He’s not trying to steal every scene, it’s just happening because he’s that good.
Glory is a fascinating watch, because as one of his earliest movie roles it provides a look into all that’s set to come. The way he’s able to say so much with one look or gesture or eye movement is endlessly brilliant. How he slowly reveals each layer of Trip, right up until that final moment is a study in character development. Obviously, these are all things we expect from every Denzel performance now, but Glory is where we learned just how amazing of an actor he was going to be.
Yes, Philadelphia is Tom Hanks’ movie. He deserves all the praise he receives for it. However, Denzel makes many of those scenes possible. His slow evolution from homophobic rival to trusted friend is the supportive base for Hanks’ gripping portayal of Andy. When Andy falls ill, it’s left to Joe to be his voice in the courtroom, and Denzel is like a chess master moving all the pieces into place on the board. We think we know where he’s going, but then he does something geniusly unexpected, and we’re left to marvel that he once again made a great movie even better.
This was the first time we really got to see Denzel as a full blown bad guy and it was awesome. He completely committed to Alonzo’s ruthlessness and self preservation. It was a showy, over the top performance that left no time to breathe, but it was in no way one note. Despite being at 100 from the minute he’s on screen, Denzel still offers a roller coaster of emotion and character building.
Equalizer 1 & 2
There’s a tenderness to Denzel in The Equalizer films that makes them so much more than just another action movie. His Robert McCall is an expert killer to be sure, but there’s a purpose to him another actor wouldn’t be able to provide. Without big emotional moments or silent crying or sad reflection, he never lets us forget the weight of loss and guilt McCall carries with him. Even when he’s tearing through evil Russian traffickers, there’s a depth that’s vintage Denzel.
The Book of Eli
The Book of Eli is severely underrated. As he travels the post-apocalyptic landscape, Denzel is the lone gunslinger moving from town to town protecting the last copy of the bible. Every move he makes is so purposeful that it’s clear he was leaving us breadcrumbs about the big reveal all along. It’s not a surprise that Denzel is so good as an action hero, he is Denzel after all. However, the way he makes us care about everything happening between explosions and fights is masterful. We’re left anticipating the quiet moments as much as we are the action. That only works in Denzel movies.
There are times in The Hurricane when it feels like we’re watching different actors play the same role, because that’s how good Denzel’s range is. His Rubin “Hurricane” Carter is actually three or four different characters, all of which the actor beautifully inhabits. It’s the kind of performance that stuns viewers with how good it is. Every superlative you can think of for spectacular acting is on display in The Hurricane. Here’s the thing, Denzel is so good there are two movies ahead of this. That’s insane. No one else has a resume that badass.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
The only word that comes to mind for Denzel in The Tragedy of Macbeth is perfection. The pairing of some of the greatest words ever written with one of the greatest actors of all time is just pure perfection. There are no wasted moments in this performance. He gets every second of every emotion out of these words. As hard as he goes full Shakespeare, he never goes too hard. His performance goes right up to the edge of over the top, then he pulls back just enough. He’s basically a symphony conductor who never lets the music get away from him, leading the orchestra exactly where it needs to go.
As if anything else could be number one. Look, we get it, the Academy had never given Al Pacino an Oscar, so Scent of a Woman was its chance to finally fix that mistake. That being said, there is no way Denzel doesn’t give the best performance of the year. The movie came out in 1992, and we’re still discovering new things to love about his acting choices. It’s a masterclass in how to bring a historical figure to life, but also make it feel like an individual choice. In a world where no one agrees on anything, we can all agree Malcolm X is Denzel’s best work.