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Denzel Washington’s Top 10 Performances

on July 19, 2018, 1:00am
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05. The Hurricane (1999)

In the second Washington/Schreiber pairing to appear on this list, Washington was nominated for another Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. We’re with Carter throughout his time in prison, where he is a man with little hope and faith, accepting the unjust fate bestowed upon him. Washington rises above some of the overly sentimental story beats to deliver a performance that excels in his quietest moments. Anytime he reacts to a bit of good news, his expressions are reserved but impactful. However, Washington is at his best when Carter is at his lowest, particularly the farewell he gives his wife after his imprisonment. –Justin Gerber

Choice Denzel Line:

“I’m dead. Just bury me.”

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04. Crimson Tide (1995)

Das Boot. The Hunt for Red October. Down Periscope. These are three films where much of the action takes place aboard a submarine. The last solid sub actioner is Crimson Tide, thanks to the head-to-head roles (literally, they are in each other’s faces throughout) of Gene Hackman and particularly Washington. Lieutenant-Commander Hunter (Washington) has to put up with passive racism and aggressive control from Hackman’s Captain Ramsey, and he does so in a dignified, controlled manner. It’s a case of old dog vs. new dog, and Washington was more than prepared to bat down anything that was thrown at him. His character rarely loses his cool despite multiple mutinies, betrayal, a claustrophobic environment, and deep red lighting. Seriously, how does anyone keep it together in one of those things? –Justin Gerber

Choice Denzel Line:

Ramsey: “God help you if you’re wrong.”
Hunter: “If I’m wrong, then we’re at war. God help us all.”

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03. Glory (1989)

Although Washington’s breakout, Oscar-nominated portrayal of Stephen Biko in Cry Freedom was the first to put him on the map, it was his revelatory turn as the defiant, charismatic Private Trip in Glory that catapulted him to super-stardom and earned him his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. On the infamous whipping scene, during which the look in his eyes alone all but guaranteed him the acting profession’s highest honor, Washington has said, “I remember walking around before that scene, just praying and calling on the spirits of all the slaves, because I didn’t know how to play it. I was like, ‘Okay, fellas, just tell me what to do’. And I went out there with an arrogance. I spit on the ground. I had this attitude and this strength … It wasn’t calculated. It was organic. That whip actually hurt, but I was like, ‘Don’t let him win.'” –Leah Pickett

Choice Denzel Line:

Rawlins: “He’s just a boy.”
Trip: “He’s a weak white boy, and beatin’ on a nigger make him feel strong.”

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02. He Got Game (1998)

While the name “Jesus Shuttlesworth” is still thrown about as a nickname for NBA/He Got Game star Ray Allen, it is Washington’s Jake Shuttlesworth who carries the film. Working once more with Spike Lee, Washington faced his toughest challenge to date. After years of working with established actors from Morgan Freeman to Gene Hackman, he spends much of his screen time opposite a total novice in Allen. The soon-to-be-basketball-Hall-of-Famer does a fine job under the circumstances, but were it not for Washington’s strong performance as Jesus’ father, who is given parole to woo his son into playing ball at the governor’s alma matter, the film would have been A Spike Lee Failure. Instead, the film remains one of Lee’s most underrated Joints and one of Washington’s most underappreciated roles. –Justin Gerber

Choice Denzel Line:

Jesus: “Has God forgiven you for killing my mother?”
Jake: “I pray that he has, son. I believe he has. When will you?”

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01. Malcolm X (1992)

Collaborating once again with writer-director Spike Lee in a political magnum opus that both Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese have acclaimed as one of the 10 best films of the 1990s, Washington accomplishes a near-impossible feat: playing a larger-than-life, highly influential, and controversial figure with exhilarating range, complexity, and grace. Robbed of the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1993 (that honor went to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, an overdue gesture for the awards he should have won as Michael in The Godfather: Part II and Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon), Washington’s powerhouse performance as Malcolm X remains one of the most honest and richly layered portrayals of a historical figure ever captured onscreen. –Leah Pickett

Choice Denzel Line:

“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”

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