Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
First Official Image: Jesse Eisenberg As Lex Luthor In 'Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice' First Official Image: Jesse Eisenberg As Lex Luthor In 'Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice' Watch: First Trailer For Arnold Schwarzenegger's Zombie Pic 'Maggie' With Abigail Breslin Watch: First Trailer For Arnold Schwarzenegger's Zombie Pic 'Maggie' With Abigail Breslin Idris Elba Replaces Jamie Foxx In Harmony Korine's 'The Trap,' Al Pacino, Robert Pattinson, James Franco Also Join Idris Elba Replaces Jamie Foxx In Harmony Korine's 'The Trap,' Al Pacino, Robert Pattinson, James Franco Also Join 10 Terrible Films Starring Great Actors 10 Terrible Films Starring Great Actors Watch: Tom Hanks Acts Out His Filmography In 7-Minutes On 'The Late Late Show' Watch: Tom Hanks Acts Out His Filmography In 7-Minutes On 'The Late Late Show' Watch: Trailer For 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Unrated Blu-Ray Edition, Will Also Feature An Alternate Ending Watch: Trailer For 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Unrated Blu-Ray Edition, Will Also Feature An Alternate Ending New Directors/New Films Review: Jia Zhang-ke Produced 'K' Is A New Take On Franz Kafka's 'The Castle' New Directors/New Films Review: Jia Zhang-ke Produced 'K' Is A New Take On Franz Kafka's 'The Castle' Viggo Mortensen Reveals He Turned Down Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight,' Auditioned For 'Reservoir Dogs' Viggo Mortensen Reveals He Turned Down Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight,' Auditioned For 'Reservoir Dogs' Watch: First Teaser Trailer For 'Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation' With Tom Cruise Arrives, If You Choose To Accept It Watch: First Teaser Trailer For 'Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation' With Tom Cruise Arrives, If You Choose To Accept It Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey & Jason Momoa Join Ana Lily Amirpour’s Cannibal Love Story ‘The Bad Batch’ Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey & Jason Momoa Join Ana Lily Amirpour’s Cannibal Love Story ‘The Bad Batch’ Jonathan Nolan Says His Original Ending To 'Interstellar' Was “Much More Straightforward” Jonathan Nolan Says His Original Ending To 'Interstellar' Was “Much More Straightforward” The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far 13 Cult Films About Cults 13 Cult Films About Cults The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More

The Essentials: The 5 Best Denzel Washington Performances

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 10, 2012 at 12:58PM

Sometimes, winning an Oscar seems to change things for an actor. Look at Al Pacino, who's barely taken anything worth his time since he won for "Scent of a Woman" in 1992, or Kevin Spacey, who starred in a string of dull would-be-heartwarmers after picking up his gold for "American Beauty." And you could argue the same for Denzel Washington. He's irrefutably one of the most charismatic screen presences around, with even more gravitas than ever before as he closes on his 60s. But since he won Best Actor from the Academy for "Training Day," his film roles seem to have been a variation on a theme; thrillers that sometimes work, sometimes don't, but rarely leave you reeling the way his best work does, with his real energy seemingly reserved for directing work or stage performances like "Julius Caesar" and "Fences" (the latter of which won him a Tony).
17
Denzel Washington The Essentials

Sometimes, winning an Oscar seems to change things for an actor. Look at Al Pacino, who's barely taken anything worth his time since he won for "Scent of a Woman" in 1992, or Kevin Spacey, who starred in a string of dull would-be-heartwarmers after picking up his gold for "American Beauty." And you could argue the same for Denzel Washington. He's irrefutably one of the most charismatic screen presences around, with even more gravitas than ever before as he closes on his 60s. But since he won Best Actor from the Academy for "Training Day," his film roles seem to have been a variation on a theme; thrillers that sometimes work, sometimes don't, but rarely leave you reeling the way his best work does, with his real energy seemingly reserved for directing work or stage performances like "Julius Caesar" and "Fences" (the latter of which won him a Tony).

"Safe House," which opens today, is another one of those. He's entertaining to watch, to be sure, but it's a meld of most of what he's done in the last decade. Nevertheless, he's still the best thing in it, and if nothing else, it served as a reminder of the truly electric turns he's given over the years. Below, we've picked out five of our favorite Denzel performances from across his 25-year big-screen career. Let us know your favorites in the comments section. And hopefully, we'll see something a little out of the ordinary later in the year when Washington stars as a substance-abusing airline pilot in Robert Zemeckis'  drama "Flight."

Cry Freedom
"Cry Freedom" (1987)
Let's be honest, "Cry Freedom" is no great shakes. It's well-meaning enough that it's hard to dislike, but it's the model of the black-person's-struggle-told-through-white-eyes sub-genre, the birth of everything Ed Zwick's ever made, and the film suffers for placing so much emphasis on Kevin Kline's journalist (although Kline is strong), and the second half suffers for the absence of Steve Biko. But that's a testament to the fire of Denzel Washington's performance in the film. Plucked from hospital drama "St. Elsewhere," on which he'd been a regular for nearly five years, to play the youthful South African civil rights activist, Washington won his first Best Supporting Actor nomination. There's a quiet, calm control to him, a passionate decency, and Washington somehow infuses a sense of internal life, even if director Richard Attenborough never lets us see Biko except through the eyes of Donald Woods (Kline). It was the first real demonstration of his pure, natural charisma, the kind that could make a man like Biko a leader, and a man like Washington a star, and that the second half of the film feels so flat is down to his absence (so much so that Attenborough cuts in flashbacks of Biko throughout).

Glory
"Glory" (1989)
Washington lost his "Cry Freedom" Oscar to Sean Connery in "The Untouchables," but he didn't have to wait long to pick one up -- two years later, he beat out Marlon Brando, Martin Landau, Danny Aiello and Dan Aykroyd for his performance in Ed Zwick's "Glory." Like "Cry Freedom," it's a white man's black history movie, with a miscast liberal hero (Matthew Broderick), and black characters that aren't much more than archetypes. But there's no denying that Zwick makes his tale of the 54th Massachussets regiment, one of the first all-black units in the Union army in the Civil War, work like gangbusters, and Washington, whose big-screen career was still on the rise, was the stand-out in a strong cast. As freed slave Trip, he's as prickly and vengeful as Biko was calm and saintly, and is a much needed stand-in for the contemporary black voice in the film. But when the time comes, he's just as heroic as any of his comrades. Were there better performances in his career, more deserving of an Oscar? Sure (see the next entry). But this was the part that put him on the path from ridiculously handsome character actor to bona-fide A-lister, so we don't begrudge him that win, especially as he is so strong in the film.

This article is related to: Denzel Washington, Features, The Essentials, Safe House, Best Of


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


Check out Indiewire on LockerDome on LockerDome

E-Mail Updates