Of all our A-list stars, Denzel Washington’s career may be the most enviable. Although he has a recognizable onscreen persona, it’s mutable enough to allow him to move from R-rated action films (The Equalizer) to serious dramas (Philadelphia) to passion projects with frequent collaborators (like Spike Lee). Tied to no franchise — seriously, until The Equalizer 2, which comes out next year, he’d never made a sequel — he puts asses in seats, but not in such huge amounts that there’s any need to worry that fatigue will set in and his popularity will somehow drop off. (Consider: He’s been in only five movies that have grossed more than $100 million, his biggest hit the relatively modest $130 million of American Gangster.) Almost alone among consistent box-office draws, Washington himself is the selling point: Even when he does a remake (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, The Magnificent Seven), you’re going because of him.
Many well-respected actors have worked their way up the Hollywood food chain, trading their Oscar cachet for big paydays, embarrassing themselves in the process. Washington’s career has not worked that way. Unlike a Nicolas Cage, he has kept from becoming a self-parody, focusing on gritty genre pictures for a few years before throwing us a curveball and doing something deeply moving like a Flight or this December’s Fences, his third directorial effort and a sight-unseen Oscar contender.
Washington’s filmography, which includes two Oscar wins (for Glory and Training Day), can be divided into nine categories. Depending on the mood you’re in, there’s certainly at least one perfect Denzel movie for you. To make things a little easier, we’ve ranked the films within those categories — and noted where you can stream them.
We’ve also indicated in parentheses where each title falls in our overall rank of Denzel Washington performances, in case you’re simply looking for the best of the best. Disagree with the ranking? Show us your preferred order using the Interactive Reader Rank at the bottom of the post.
DENZEL IS THE NOIRISH ANTIHERO
There’s a specific kind of nuanced protagonist that, when Washington chooses to go there, he can deliver with silky panache. You don’t necessarily root for these characters, but you feel like you understand them.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) (Rank: 4)
A box-office disappointment, this adaptation of the Walter Mosley novel actually got more attention for then-newcomer Don Cheadle’s scene-stealing turn as a lunatic associate of the main character, the cool, calculating private eye Easy Rawlins (Washington). But it’s Washington who provides Devil in a Blue Dresswith its swaggering stride, the actor delivering a deft, edgy character portrait that resonates with the racism of the postwar L.A. setting. Available with subscription on Starz; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Flight (2012) (Rank: 8)
When Flighthit theaters, Washington had mostly put aside challenging roles for punch-the-clock thrillers. But this Robert Zemeckis drama reminded viewers that Washington could still deliver layered performances. He’s exceptional as a hero-pilot who’s trying to stay one step ahead of the addiction problems that threaten to destroy him. The Oscar winner often plays badasses or righteous heroes, but here he portrays a pathetic, small man, and the change of pace makes it all the more gripping. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Out of Time (2003) (Rank: 23)
If you didn’t know any better, this would look like just another junky early '00s Washington thriller; I mean, freaking Dean Cain is in this movie. But give it another glance. Directed by Carl Franklin, this is a dark, funny, sexy offering from Washington’s Devil in a Blue Dress director about an alcoholic Florida cop who stumbles into a series of messes and has to maneuver himself out. The movie is overplotted, over-the-top, and overheated, but it’s still a blast, and Washington seems to get the movie’s odd-angle vibe: Take a step back, and it’s almost a more conventional test run for Inherent Vice, except in Florida and with rum rather than weed. Available with subscription on: Amazon, Hulu; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
DENZEL IS SPIKE LEE’S TRUE MUSE
One of the greatest star-director pairings since Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese? Please allow us to present four terrific films in order to make our case.
Malcolm X (1992) (Rank: 1)
This wasn’t the first time Denzel Washington played the slain civil-rights leader — in the early 1980s, the actor portrayed him on the stage in When the Chickens Came Home to Roost. So he was prepared when he signed up for Spike Lee’s most ambitious film, although he took a year off from other work to immerse himself into the man’s mind-set. Washington nails Malcolm’s steely militancy and gift of gab, but the performance goes far deeper, examining the early failings and eventual righteous fury that transformed him into a once-in-a-lifetime political figure. Malcolm X is Washington at his most powerful and searching, his funniest and most inspiring. And believe us, you don’t want to go back and see who beat him for Best Actor that year. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
He Got Game (1998) (Rank: 3)
Washington was never more heartbreaking than in He Got Game, which concerns a convicted murderer (Washington) who’s let out of prison for a week by the governor in exchange for convincing his talented basketball-playing son (Ray Allen) to sign with the governor’s alma mater. This is a story about redemption, but Washington’s uneducated, wary character makes that personal transformation seem unlikely — which only makes it more moving. It’s a performance full of thwarted male pride, and the actor brings poignancy to this strained father-son bond, playing a bad man who has to finally learn how to be the good guy. Available to rent on: Amazon , iTunes, Vudu
Mo’ Better Blues (1990) (Rank: 6)
Mo’ Better Bluesopened just a few months after Washington won his first Oscar, beginning a fruitful partnership with Lee. As the trumpeter Bleek, Washington plays a flashy, jazz-loving young man whose talent is always running neck and neck with his penchant for self-sabotage. On paper, that’s a cliché, but the actor puts real feeling into the role, making Bleek a guy you want to love even when you’re constantly frustrated by how he fouls up his life. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Inside Man (2006) (Rank: 10)
After working together on three films that dealt with race and class, Washington and Lee made a straightforward crime thriller that, naturally, was the biggest hit of the bunch. But that shouldn’t diminish how terrific Inside Manis — and how great Washington’s suave hostage negotiator is as he squares off against Clive Owen’s equally unflappable bank thief. Washington always brings a little extra crackle when he’s in Lee’s films, and his street-savvy character has a jazzlike improvisational flair that’s both compelling and exciting. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
DENZEL IS A FORCE OF MORAL RECTITUDE
You know how Washington clenches his face when it’s hero time? In these movies, his unwavering decency is on full display, his no-nonsense moral compass guiding everything that happens.
Crimson Tide (1995) (Rank: 5)
Crimson Tide is from a time when Washington was the brash up-and-comer and Gene Hackman was the warhorse veteran. (How the baton gets passed: In recent films like Safe House and Unstoppable, Washington has taken up the mantle of revered elder statesmen to younger stars.) But he’s not intimidated at all by Hackman’s superior officer, making this one of the 1990s’ best mano-a-mano character-driven thrillers: never hammy, consistently tense, and a perfect platform for two ace actors. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
The Siege (1998) (Rank: 20)
The profile of this drama, by Glory director Edward Zwick, increased after 9/11, when its story of a New York City under martial law after a series of Islamist terrorist attacks became newly urgent and relevant. The movie’s politics are still in the right place – it ends with a passionate Washington speech about ideals in the face of terrorism – but it remains a clunky narrative, with Zwick’s usual ham-fisted earnestness and an oddly off performance from Bruce Willis. Still, Denzel’s speech resonates almost two decades later. Available with subscription on Starz; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Courage Under Fire (1996) (Rank: 24)
Washington reunited with Zwick for the first time after Glory to make this Gulf War drama, in which a lieutenant colonel (Washington) haunted by a mistake he made in the field must investigate whether a female soldier (Meg Ryan) should receive the Medal of Honor for her heroism. Courage Under Fire’s Rashomon-like investigation and gender politics aren’t particularly riveting, but Washington’s steady righteousness is nicely undercut by the character’s inability to forgive himself for his own sins. Few actors make self-torture feel like a kind of heroism. Available with subscription on Starz; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
The Pelican Brief (1993) (Rank: 25)
A movie that’s probably best known in the culture for that great 30 Rock episode that parodied it, The Pelican Briefis an important pivot for Washington, who was transitioning from acclaimed actor to mainstream star. In John Grisham’s original novel the dogged journalist character Gray Grantham was white, but, reportedly, co-star Julia Roberts insisted that Washington be cast in the role. Charismatic and coolly intelligent, Gray was a perfect early platform for Washington’s leading-man chops. Soon, he’d be anchoring every film in which he appeared. Available to rent on: Amazon, Vudu
John Q (2002) (Rank: 42)
Washington plays a loving father whose son needs a heart transplant and, because his insurance won’t pay for it, takes a hospital hostage. The movie is a message movie about Our Health-Care Crisis, and it’s as subtle as a defibrillator. Washington makes some speeches, we learn Something Has to Be Done, and the movie has the narrative propulsion of a morgue. This is one of those movies in which every character is an idiot — and Denzel does not play “idiot” well. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
DENZEL IS FUNNY
Because he’s best known for his tight-jawed dramatic portrayals, it’s easy to forget that the guy can be damn enjoyable in lighter fare. Comedy may not be his forte, but he’s given it a shot over the years — with mixed results.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993) (Rank: 21)
“I’ve never acted as silly in a movie as I am in this one.” That’s how Washington described his portrayal of Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s sunny adaptation, and the big smile on his face in the interview suggests how much he enjoyed the change of pace. Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t suggest the actor missed his calling as an interpreter of Shakespeare — he’s not entirely comfortable in the role — but he is enormously appealing, flashing the sex appeal and good humor he usually puts aside for dark gravitas. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Carbon Copy (1981) (Rank: 43)
In Washington’s debut film, he plays the long-lost son of George Segal, a lawyer so concerned about appearances that he hides that he’s Jewish from his anti-Semetic boss; Segal has to decide whether he’ll accept his sudden son or side with the racist jerks at his law firm. Take a guess. Washington is fun and cocksure, but seriously, the tag line to the poster — which features a befuddled Segal looking terrified that he is standing next to a black person — is actually “Any resemblance between Father and Son is purely hysterical.” Not available to stream or download; DVD available on Amazon
Heart Condition (1990) (Rank: 44)
From the Department of Very Bad Ideas, this theoretical “comedy” stars Bob Hoskins as a racist cop — the movie is so open about his racism that he regularly uses the word “spook” — who receives a heart transplant from a black lawyer (Washington) he despised in life but whose murder he now has to solve. This is as groaning a comedy as it sounds, as even though Washington is as graceful as always, and funnier than usual, you occasionally can catch a peek of him glancing offscreen, knowing better things are coming and eager to get out of this. (He’d make two Spike Lee movies in the next years.) Available to rent on: iTunes
DENZEL IS THE CHARMING LEADING MAN
Because sometimes even a two-time Oscar winner just wants to play the heartthrob.
Mississippi Masala (1991) (Rank: 7)
Mira Nair now makes big Disney movies (Queen of Katwe) and even ambitious biopics (Amelia), but she was never better than here, her follow-up to Salaam Bombay! She tells the story of an Indian-American woman (Sarita Choudhury) who falls in love with a carpet cleaner (Washington) in Mississippi, and how much trouble each of their families have with the coupling. The movie doesn’t shy away from darker issues and has an underlying sadness, but to focus on that would deny just how sexy this movie is, and how the chemistry between Washington and Choudhury is sometimes overwhelming. The movie is unfairly forgotten now, but deserves another look. Not available to stream or download; DVD available on Amazon
The Mighty Quinn (1988) (Rank: 11)
Roger Ebert said this was “one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight,” and wow, was he ever right. This isn’t the best movie Washington has ever been in, and it might not be his best performance, but it could be his most purely charismatic: Every move he makes wafts off the screen. He plays a Caribbean cop trying to save a childhood friend (Robert Townsend) from doing time for a crime he didn’t commit, but this is really just about Denzel being the most charming man on the planet. Seriously, watch him play the piano below. It’s almost unfair. Available to rent on: Vudu
The Preacher’s Wife (1996) (Rank: 37)
This earnest, sweetly dumb family comedy is a remake of The Bishop’s Wife, and stars Washington as an angel from heaven sent to help a preacher (Courtney B. Vance, two decades before he played Johnny Cochran) and his good-hearted wife (Whitney Houston). The movie sets up a love triangle but never really follows through on it: It mostly just wants to give Houston opportunities to sing. She does so, singing like only Whitney Houston could, and viewers end up unchallenged and completely unable to recollect anything that happened in the movie. Available to rent on: Amazon, Vudu
DENZEL IS THE SUPPORTING CHARACTER TO WHITE PEOPLE
The sort of roles Washington played early in his career — to much acclaim — but that would be beneath him once he soon became a bona fide star.
Glory (1989) (Rank: 9)
It’s very possible Washington won his first Oscar solely on the strength of Glory’s whipping scene (below), which highlighted the actor’s ability to meld defiance and vulnerability. Because Glory is yet another white-savior drama, it’s tempting to underrate the movie or his performance, but Washington’s Trip is a vibrant, cocky character that’s lost none of his spark almost 30 years later. Here’s where the actor demonstrated that he was among the most commanding presences onscreen — a star in the making. Available with subscription on Hulu; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Cry Freedom (1987) (Rank: 14)
One of Washington’s big breakthrough roles was as slain activist Stephen Biko, who was killed trying to end apartheid in South Africa. Here, as was the case in so many movies like this in the '80s, we’re given a white character (a journalist played by Kevin Kline) to interpret all the black character’s ideas, but at least Kline and Washington play strongly off each other, and otherwise Kline stays out of his way. The movie’s failings aside, Washington kills the accent and hits his big courtroom speech out of the park. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Power (1986) (Rank: 26)
This mostly forgotten Sidney Lumet film attempts to be a Big Statement about the Way We Live Now, but mostly it gets caught up in plot mechanics and actorly indulgence. Richard Gere plays a media consultant who gets in over his head, but, as usual, it’s Washington who shines as a PR expert who is onto Gere’s nefariousness and begins to mess with his mind. The movie’s eyes are bigger than its stomach: By the end, it falls apart, but Washington remains the lone takeaway. Available to rent on: iTunes, Vudu
Philadelphia (1993) (Rank: 28)
This is a daunting role — that of an uptight lawyer confronting his own homophobia while defending a gay man (Tom Hanks) — but Washington does a fine job transforming the character from a life-lesson surrogate for the audience into a person with actual dimensions. Philadelphiadidn’t net him an Oscar nomination, but it was among the last times he’d play a supporting role in a movie. Available with subscription on Starz; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
DENZEL IS TEACHING YOU AN IMPORTANT HISTORY LESSON
Gather around, everybody: It’s time to learn a little something from these movies. But because they star Washington, they rarely feel like saccharine Oscar bait.
The Hurricane (1999) (Rank: 12)
Among his most impressive achievements is the way Washington can take potentially awards-bait roles and transcend them. His performance as Rubin Carter, the boxer jailed for murders he didn’t commit, couldn’t be more suited to courting Oscar voters — and indeed he received a Best Actor nod — but he’s consistently convincing as a man who had his life taken away from him. It’s an emotional turn that Washington elevates with his decency, allowing you to feel Carter’s outage and helplessness. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Antwone Fisher (2002) (Rank: 19)
Washington made his directorial debut — his third film as director, Fences, comes out this fall — with this story of a young man (Derek Luke) who struggles with his feelings of rage and fear and attempts to discover their source with his therapist (Washington). Inspired by the true story of a security guard on the Sony Pictures lot, this is Good Will Huntingbut a lot better and more lived-in. It’s also a lot more raw at points, thanks largely to Luke’s powerful performance and Washington’s unflinching direction. This is a much stronger film than you remember. Available with subscription on HBO; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Remember the Titans (2000) (Rank: 22)
Here’s Denzel in crowd-pleaser mode. Yeah, Remember the Titansis hokey, but when you have somebody so damn compelling in the lead role, who cares? Based on a true story of a football coach who tries to unite a racially integrated team in 1971, the film is anchored by Washington’s unfussy decency and his belief that he can make any inspirational speech feel like resonant truth. If you were on his team, you’d be willing to run through a brick wall for the guy. Available with subscription on HBO; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
The Great Debaters (2007) (Rank: 27)
Washington’s second film as director is less successful but still occasionally stirring. Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the debate coach at Wiley College who puts together a team — including The Birth of a Nation filmmaker and star Nate Parker, in an early role — that eventually takes on Harvard. It’s essentially a sports movie, and it’s produced by Oprah, which adds to its This Movie Is Good For You vibe. It sill has its moments, but can’t hold up to Fisher’s power. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
For Queen and Country (1988) (Rank: 30)
Denzel takes on an English accent as Reuben, a former British soldier who returns after fighting for the U.K. for several years to discover his country sees him less as a war hero and more as a black man during Thatcherism. After a series of setbacks and confrontations with a system stacked against him, Reuben strikes back at the police and government that forgot him. Washington’s ability to get you to instantly root for him helps out a ton here, and his performance is the perfect mix of rage and vulnerability. And yes: He nails the accent. Not available to stream or download; DVD available on Amazon
DENZEL IS TAKING ON ALL THE BAD GUYS
Here you’ll find the kind of movie that’s been his bread and butter over the last two decades: sturdy B-movies that he elevates with his cool, calm command.
Man on Fire (2004) (Rank: 13)
The title does a lot of the work here: Denzel gets to play a man of righteous and furious vengeance. He’s a former CIA operative who finds redemption in a 9-year-old girl (Dakota Fanning) he’s sworn to protect … until she’s kidnapped and he has to go save her. This is a terrific template for those Liam Neeson action-thrillers that were coming, and Washington basically comes across as the last guy in the world you’d want coming after you. Plus he gets a killer of a final scene (below). Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Unstoppable (2010) (Rank: 17)
His final collaboration with director Tony Scott, who took his life two years later, Unstoppableis an old-fashioned, man-versus-train thriller, and as such provides a latter-day example of just how fantastic Washington can be playing smart, no-nonsense men. While he’s clearly the star, Washington’s also an excellent duet partner, working seamlessly with then-newcomer Chris Pine as they battle to stay alive while corraling a runaway locomotive. What a simple premise — and look how Washington makes it sing. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
The Equalizer (2014) (Rank: 18)
A violent, nasty movie based on a forgotten '80s TV show — and yet, Washington makes it work through sheer force of stardom. His black-ops vigilante is among his most pitiless characters, and although he never quite asks you to like the guy, The Equalizer is an underrated marvel of kicking ass with ruthless, amoral efficiency. Washington was about to turn 60 when this thriller came out, but there’s no sign of slowdown in the guy: If anything, age has only solidified his imposing air. Truth is, this is a far better Western than the one he and Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua would make a few years later. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Safe House (2012) (Rank: 29)
The one Washington movie you’re most likely to (wrongly) assume was directed by frequent collaborator Tony Scott, Safe Housefinds the actor playing a brilliant, lethal CIA operative who went rogue, with Ryan Reynolds’s wet-behind-the-ears agent escorting him back to the U.S. to face punishment. The film has that Scott-ian sleekness even though it’s directed by Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa in his Hollywood debut, and Washington rules the movie with his super-chill cockiness. It’s nobody’s favorite Denzel movie, and you’re forgiven for forgetting its very existence. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Ricochet (1991) (Rank: 31)
Washington’s earliest junk thriller, and a sort of fun one: He’s a former cop turned district attorney who has to team with childhood friend turned drug dealer Ice-T to stop a crazed serial killer (John Lithgow). If anything, this movie is a showcase for Lithgow, who chews everything in sight, but Washington’s hero is a little more down and dirty than he would be in later films. Available with subscription on HBO
The Manchurian Candidate (2004) (Rank: 32)
A perfectly fine remake that features a perfectly fine performance from Washington as a former soldier who starts to think that he and his buddies (including Liev Schreiber) were brainwashed for nefarious purposes. It’s fun to see the Oscar winner in paranoid-thriller mode — as always, he’s the consummate badass you underestimate at your peril — but this Manchurian Candidatedoesn’t require any real stretching on his part. Available with subscription on Showtime; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Fallen (1998) (Rank: 33)
One of the many, many Se7en knockoffs to come out in the years afterward, this is one of the sillier ones, with a serial-killer mystery that ends up involving Hell itself. Washington does his best to keep this film grounded, but you can’t help but wonder if the insanity of this movie should be let loose to fly free. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
The Book of Eli (2010) (Rank: 34)
Here’s Denzel’s postapocalyptic thriller, and it’s not a particularly inspired one. Denzel can still be the tough guy, but he’s not unhinged enough to make a world like this one ever quite feel alive and real. The upside: There’s a conversation between Denzel Washington and Tom Waits in this movie, and we’re just glad to live on a planet where that could happen. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) (Rank: 35)
A remake of the 1974 subway-hijack thriller is inferior in just about every way, particularly with its villain, played by a way-too-jacked-up John Travolta. Washington’s a little too, well, Denzel Washington to be believable as a nerdy subway dispatcher pushed into an impossible situation; you know he’s going to end up saving the day because, jeez, he’s Denzel Washington. You can’t nerd up Denzel Washington just by giving him glasses. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
The Magnificent Seven (2016) (Rank: 36)
... In which director Antoine Fuqua does the seemingly impossible and makes Washington seem kinda boring onscreen. As the leader of a ragtag group of hombres out to defend a helpless community from a violent sociopath (Peter Sarsgaard), Denzel shoots for the strong, silent type but winds up somewhere between dull and bored. This is even more troubling in a sluggish remake that has a tough time justifying its existence in the first place. In theaters now
The Bone Collector (1999) (Rank: 38)
Here’s another Se7en knockoff, this one based on a series of novels about a quadriplegic cop, played by Washington, who teams with a rookie cop (Angelina Jolie) to take down a serial killer. Washington tries to give his detective some desperation — he’s devastated by no longer being able to walk — but the movie is too absurd and sloppy to dig much into it. It was supposed to set off a series of films about this detective team. It did not. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
2 Guns (2013) (Rank: 39)
Sure, it’s a hoot to watch Washington kick back and let his bulletproof swagger do most of the heavy lifting, but 2 Gunsisn’t nearly as cool as its star, who teams with Mark Wahlberg to play smartass undercover cops up against the cartel. Their odd-couple pairing has its pleasures, but this is the sort of so-so movie Washington does while he’s waiting around for some better material. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Déjà Vu (2006) (Rank: 40)
Another Tony Scott joint, but a vastly overstuffed one that tries to be a cop thriller, a time-travel science-fiction jaunt, and a commentary on New Orleans in the wake of Katrina … and flows about as smoothly as you’d expect trying to cram all those things into a Hollywood movie. There’s a non-terrible idea here, but it’s buried. Available with subscription on Starz; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Virtuosity (1995) (Rank: 41)
Denzel wasn’t making it through the '90s as a superstar without making at least one terrible “cyber” movie, so here’s his. He’s chasing yet another serial killer in this one, except this time he’s a computer-program killer who looks and talks a lot like Russell Crowe. These sort of movies never date well, but this one is particularly moldy: Crowe does get this delicious bit of robot dialogue: “Just because I'm carrying around the joy of killing your family inside me doesn't mean we can't be friends.” Not available to stream or download; DVD available on Amazon
DENZEL IS THE BAD GUY
Fans associate the actor with his many virtuous roles. But when he’s bad, he’s often even better.
Training Day (2001) (Rank: 2)
At first, this looks like just another mismatched cop thriller, with Denzel as the street-smart veteran teaching young pup Ethan Hawke a few tricks. (It’s funny that the two men are peers in The Magnificent Seven.) But slowly it's revealed that Detective Alonzo Harris is more corrupt, and more pathetic, and much more dangerous, than it first appeared. Washington won an Oscar for this performance, and boy, did he deserve it: He took a genre thriller and turned it into something scary and funny and sexy and at times terrifying. Washington had been playing a series of noble but dull heroes before Training Day, and you can see him relishing the chance to play a bit of a monster, albeit one he can’t help but make human. It’s a thunderous performance that’s impossible to turn off whenever it shows up on a random Saturday afternoon on cable. He should really play more bad guys. Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
A Soldier’s Story (1984) (Rank: 15)
After he became a star, Washington was featured in most of this film’s advertising, but he’s actually a supporting character in this adaptation of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play about a black officer (Howard Rollins) investigating the murder of a black sergeant in Louisiana toward the end of World War II. Denzel plays the earnest private with a secret with a smart, eager-to-please manner that disguises the cunning and danger underneath. It’s a terrific performance and even with all the other fine actors onscreen, you keep waiting for him to come back. Available with subscription on Starz; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
American Gangster (2007) (Rank: 16)
If we were ranking Washington’s performances based solely on their cold-bloodedness, American Gangster’s Frank Lucas would be near the top. This Harlem gangster operates by a strict moral code — don’t they all? — but the ferocity of Washington’s portrayal is enhanced by the character’s racial resentment. Admired and feared Lucas may be, but he’s also a black man living in White America, and he carries that chip on his shoulder with a perpetual anger that suggests that no amount of power will ever remove it. Available with subscription on HBO; to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site griersonleitch.com.
Additional research done by Nicholas Rees.
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