Nobody could accuse Commodus of being the most likeable character in Gladiator. The petulant, power-hungry heir of Marcus Aurelius – who murdered his father, bumped off his enemies and was just a bit too attached to his sister – surely deserved the thumbs down from any discerning filmgoer. And yet… whenever he struts onto the screen, eyes glittering, brimful of his sense of entitlement, this viewer, at least, sits up and pays a little more attention. Just as fascinating to watch when he’s struggling to cope with his insecurities as when he’s confronting Maximus (Russell Crowe), this gift of a part garnered Phoenix his first Oscar nomination, for best actor in a supporting role.
Walk the Line
If you’re filming a Johnny Cash biopic, you need a star with a magnetic, brooding presence – and who better than Joaquin Phoenix? He nailed the single-mindedness inherent in Cash’s rise to fame and subsequent spiral into addiction, brought vulnerability to his relationship with his terrifying father (Robert Patrick) and introduced a touching sense of desperation to his slow-burn romance with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Singing lessons to train his voice to reach Cash’s trademark bass notes paid off and the film brought Phoenix his second Oscar nomination, this time for best performance by an actor in a leading role.
As gentle Coulmier, the idealistic priest in charge of the Charenton insane asylum, Phoenix was caught between a rock (the cruel Dr Royer-Collard, played by Michael Caine) and a hard case (Geoffrey Rush’s contrary patient, the Marquis de Sade). Royer-Collard was set on forcing the notorious writer to bend to his will and give up his quill; de Sade was equally determined not to break. Compounding the abbé’s problems were his decidedly non-platonic feelings for laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet). The struggle to keep his emotions as buttoned-up as his costume is writ large on Phoenix’s face throughout and in the end it’s a battle he’s fated to lose, as vengeance leads him on his own descent towards madness.
M Night Shyamalan’s thriller revolves around a closed, Amish-like community who shun the colour red and live in fear of “Those we don’t speak of” crossing their borders. Shy, halting Lucius Hunt (Phoenix), cursed with curiosity and an enquiring mind, senses secrets in the village and wants to leave for the town. But it’s his fiancée, blind tomboy Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who strikes out alone in search of medicines after Lucius is stabbed and left for dead. Some called the ending a cop-out, but for me it was the most horrific thing about the entire film. Lucius’s loved ones make a pact to continue to keep the truth of their circumstances from him – denying him knowledge and the right to determine his own future. Chilling.
It’s All about Love
In Thomas Vinterberg’s sci-fi romance, it’s 2021 and John (Phoenix) is travelling to New York to meet his wife, famous ice skater Elena (Claire Danes), to ask her to sign their divorce papers. When he arrives, things seem slightly “off” with her entourage and jittery brother Michael (Primeval’s Douglas Henshall). But then, weird things are happening everywhere – it’s snowing in New York in summer, gravity has gone haywire in Uganda and around the world people are, quite literally, dropping dead from loneliness. It’s an unsettling film – some might say downright weird – toying with themes of love and betrayal, and contains a shocking skating sequence that might make you rethink that visit to the local ice rink…
Do you agree with my choices or have I missed your favourite? Let me know in the comments below…