Denzel Washington’s Movies Ranked, From Worst to Best – Rolling Stone
Home Movies Movie Lists

Denzel Washington’s Movies Ranked, From Worst to Best

From ‘Magnificent Seven’ to ‘Malcolm X,’ we break down every one of the ‘Fences’ star’s greatest (and most WTF) performances

One of the craziest things about Denzel Washington's career is that, even though he may well be on his way to a third Oscar – with his powerful, acclaimed lead role in this month's Fences, which he also directed – he still feels like he was robbed of statuettes several times over. Ever since his theatrical debut in the early 1980s, the actor has given some of the most incredible performances of our time across more than three decades: Who can deny his compelling work in films like Cry Freedom, The Mighty Quinn or Mo’ Better Blues? Or such Nineties classics as Malcolm X, Mississippi Masala or Crimson Tide? Or his brilliant later turns in movies like Inside Man and Flight?

Washington is the rare talent who can transcend – and usually improve – his material. He's become perhaps one of the more reliably bankable movie star in Hollywood's firmament, despite the fact that he generally avoids sequels and superhero movies. Watching and re-watching Denzel's films – 44 of them, since 1981, and all of them big parts – you're seized with a newfound respect for the man's craft, talent, and passion in his performances. That doesn't mean we're not gonna rank them, however! We took a look at the full arc of his career, and judged his work in these movies. Here are all of Denzel Washington's performances, from worst to best. What an impressive body of work.

denzel washington, fences denzel washington, oscars 2017, best denzel washington movies, denzel washington malcolm x
2

‘Training Day’ (2001)

The film that won Washington his second Oscar is still perhaps his best-known part. As the remorselessly corrupt LAPD detective Alonzo Harris, putting rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) through what at first seems like the world's worst hazing ritual, Washington keeps us constantly uncertain as to his true intentions: Is he simply teaching Jake how to survive on the streets? Does he have something more nefarious in mind? That sense of never knowing where we stand with this character makes this a riveting, high-wire act of a performance. And when Harris finally does go totally over-the-top, it's a turn worthy of Jimmy Cagney. In the modern era, one can't imagine anybody but Denzel pulling it off. "King Kong ain't got shit on me!"

denzel washington, fences denzel washington, oscars 2017, best denzel washington movies, denzel washington malcolm x
1

‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

This monumental performance as the slain civil rights leader in Spike Lee's masterful biopic remains the greatest thing he's done to date – a journey that takes in the man from small-time hustler to prisoner, preacher, leader and finally, martyr. But this Malcolm is a cumulative effort: At every stage, you see glimmers of the man he once was, so that he's always in a dialogue with his past selves. (This isn't just solid character work, but an actual theme in the film.) Lee and Washington are arguing that what made Malcolm so magnetic and powerful was his distillation of these many experiences – that he truly understood what it meant to be poor, dispossessed, and angry in the first half of the 20th century. The actor so thoroughly inhabits the part at every stage of these changes that, at the time, it was hard to think of him ever doing another movie after this. Amazingly, he was just getting started.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.