Though his most popular and lucrative fare involves him dispensing with a variety of agents and operatives, Denzel Washington is at his best when he’s allowed to route out splinters of humanity in otherwise troubled or closed-off characters. In quiet moments with directors who fully understand his talent, he communicates the troubles of his characters in deafening quiet far better than dialogue penned by Steve Zaillian or even Carl Franklin. In fact, his ability to hold the screen while doing nothing more than staring someone down silently has come to become the most popular tool in his repertoire.
It’s to the point where you can be forgiven for forgetting how enthralling and moving he is when he really engages with his character, the material, and . The bombastic humor of Detective Frazier in Inside Man, the complex, prejudiced soul of a hustling lawyer in Philadelphia, and the overwhelming verbal force of Malcolm X showcase a mercurial, insightful performer and the fact that those things are near-impossible to replicate is what makes them so unique in the history of American cinema. In between these peaks and the valleys of his most recent work, there’s a loamy hash of characters that touch on crucial political ideas and complex questions of identity.
In honor of his latest film, Roman J. Israel Esq., I decided to highlight and rank all of his movies from the soulful For Queen and Country to Antoine Fuqua’s bloated remake of The Magnificent Seven. Enjoy!