Ranked! Denzel Washington’s Best Movies (Including ‘The Little Things’)
While accepting his Oscar for Training Day in 2002, Denzel Washington spoke how he once told his college classmates that he wanted to be the best actor in the world. In 2021, it’s not a stretch to say he is. King Kong ain’t got shit on him. Case and point: The Little Things is now the high-grossing R-rated movie of this pandemic. Denzel is easily one of the greatest actors to ever grace (and continue gracing) the screen. Hundreds of years from now people (or machines) will still be watching/examining his screen, stage, and directorial work. With a walk and a talk accompanying a distinct yet adaptable presence, Denzel has played everything from good cops and bad cops to outlaws and historical figures. After taking a comprehensive look at his filmography, we took on the difficult task of narrowing down this legend’s classics and ranking the very best.
Cover Photo: Warner Bros.
Denzel’s last collaboration with Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Crimson Tide) sees him play a veteran engineer, alongside Chris Pine’s young conductor, dealing with an out-of-control locomotive filled with toxic chemicals capable of causing an environmental disaster. Thrill ride? Yes.
12. 'Crimson Tide'
Speaking of Tony Scott, Crimson Tide sees Denzel as a second-in-command go head-to-head with his superior Gene Hackman. The latter wants war while the former wants peace. This incredible nuclear thriller that takes place within the claustrophobia confines of a submarine is the quintessential “guy” movie.
11. 'The Greater Debaters'
Denzel directed this period drama about an all-black debate team at Wiley College in 1935 Texas. He also stars as professor Melvin B. Tolson, the inspirational man who leads the team to challenge Harvard’s prestigious debate champions.
One of Denzel’s greatest performances is as Flight’s Whip Whitaker—the pilot who miraculously lands a defective plane, saving hundreds of lives, while drunk; the toxicology report revealing as much. Watching the film’s “hero” deal with the fallout of his addiction is as riveting as an inverted plane. Like when, under oath, Whip reveals he was drunk the day of the crash, shamefully adding, “I’m drunk right now.”
9. 'Inside Man'
Spike Lee’s Inside Man is an unusual venture into that which is commercial for the director. Post 9/11 the film is a love letter to New York that sees Denzel play NYPD detective Keith Richards as he tries to negotiate the release of hostages during a bank robbery. Following Richards during and after the robbery, Denzel exhibits his unbelievable range; from good cop to bad cop and always cool.
8. 'The Hurricane'
At one point or another, it seems every great actor undergoes some sort of physical transformation. Denzel’s came in the form of The Hurricane—where he lost 60 pounds and trained for the part of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer who spent decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. On top of the film’s convincing fight scenes, Denzel lends the necessary amount of emotion to a desperate man. It feels like Denzel was the only one who could’ve done this true story justice (in every sense of the word).
Jonathan Demme’s AIDS legal drama follows Tom Hank’s Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who is fired shortly after his HIV status is exposed. So, he decides to sue his former employer. Denzel plays his (initially) apprehensive lawyer whose homophobia could have easily been portrayed as deplorable. Somehow, Denzel conveys organic empathy and compassion throughout his character’s necessary transformation.
Denzel’s Oscar-winning role as Private Trip, a runaway volunteer in a Civil War troop, was the being of his tenure as a superstar. Although the story centers on Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the cynical Trip steals the spotlight; the powerful scene where Trip is whipped (Denzel staring down his inflictor) is arguably the reason supporting roles were a thing of the past for the actor following Glory.
5. 'Remember The Titans'
Remember the Titans is a feel-good movie that tackles the story of football coach Herman Boone (Denzel), who was hired to lead T.C. Woodson’s newly-integrated team. Traversing division between the players and coaches via hard-knocks, Denzel brings his signature fire and tenacity necessary of a leader.
4. 'Training Day'
The Joker. Hannibal Lecter. Alonzo Harris. Denzel plays one of the greatest villains of all-time in Training Day. Like Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) the audience is drawn to Denzel’s alluring persona, only to be shaken by the unhinged corrupt cop who's in on the crime he busts.
3. 'Malcolm X'
Denzel as Malcolm X; his performance (for which he was robbed at the Academy Awards) in Spike Lee’s longest film, is monumental. Despite being largely ignored in textbooks across the country in favor of the less-controversial Dr. Martin Luther King, X’s story is just as powerful if not more so. Malcolm X sees Denzel navigating the man’s mistakes, spiritualism, and complex ideology. Balancing the volatile and composed is no small feat, and the actor is at the top of his game here—which is mind-boggling considering Malcolm X was made relatively early in his career.
Directing and starring in an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Denzel delivers his strongest creative effort yet with Fences. As former ballplayer and father, Troy Maxson, Denzel is as charming as he’s ever been—which makes his layered performance of a conceited and angry man all the more impressive.
1. 'American Gangster'
Denzel was born to play Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas. This extrapolation of historical events provides the perfect outlet for Denzel’s swagger, determination, and menace. His mesmerizing performance (alongside Russell Crowe’s solid work) elevates a film that emulates better 1970s American crime dramas. It’s number one on this list because Denzel’s presence is one of the main reasons American Gangster is a classic.
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