Total Recall: Denzel Washington's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Book of Eli star.
5. Inside Man
Washington teamed up with Spike Lee for the fourth time in this heist flick, which pitted New York police detective Keith Frazier (Washington) against a bank robber (Clive Owen) who may not be everything he seems. A familiar premise? Absolutely, and there were more than a few people who raised an eyebrow at the knowledge that Spike Lee would direct what Newsweek's David Ansen called an "unapologetic genre movie." As far as genre movies go, however, Inside Man is pretty smart stuff -- and with a top-shelf cast that surrounded Washington and Owen with Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Plummer, well...it isn't hard to see why this represented Lee's biggest commercial success, or why a sequel is in the planning stages. In the words of CHUD's Devin Faraci, "Inside Man is the Spike Lee film for people who don't go to see Spike Lee films, and it's also a fun treat for people who see everything the man does."
After putting together a mostly unbroken string of high quality, financially successful projects between 1987 and 1995, Denzel Washington was overdue for what economists like to call a "correction" -- and he experienced one after Crimson Tide, entering a lull that found him starring in misguided efforts such as Virtuosity, The Preacher's Wife, Fallen, and The Siege. It wasn't all bad, though; despite its failure to find a typically Denzel-sized audience, 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress offered filmgoers a cool little morsel of neo-noir during a time when new entries in the genre were few and far between. Adapted from Walter Mosley's novel, Devil starred Washington as factory worker-turned-private eye "Easy" Rawlins, whose initial foray into sleuthing for hire is filled with all the hangovers, dames, and threatening goons one could hope for. Despite a sequel-ready ending (and ten more books in Mosley's Rawlins series), Devil has yet to spawn further installments -- a shame for critics like Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid, who observed, "In the aftermath of the Oscars, it now seems clear that Devil in a Blue Dress was one of the best films of 1995."
Following his Academy Award-nominated performance in 1992's Malcolm X, Washington opted for a decidedly less serious role -- that of the matchmaking prince Don Pedro of Aragon in Much Ado About Nothing. Kenneth Branagh's second Shakespeare adaptation, Much Ado united a colorful cast (including Washington, Keanu Reeves, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Keaton, and Branagh himself) to tell the tale of warring half-brothers (Washington and Reeves) whose squabbling serves as the backdrop for all manner of machinations and misunderstandings surrounding the wedding of Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Beckinsale). As with most Shakespeare adaptations, Much Ado didn't make many waves outside the traditional arthouse crowd, but for the folks who saw it, it proved a deft, smartly rearranged version of one of the Bard's lighter plays. Though some scribes took issue with the film's eclectic cast, for most critics, its flaws were minor; in the words of the Washington Post's Desson Thomson, "Director Branagh, who altered the play imaginatively for the screen, gives wonderful import to this silliness from long ago."
2. Malcolm X
A lightning rod in life and death, Malcolm X was a natural fit for the biopic treatment -- but it isn't hard to understand why producer Marvin Worth had to labor through 25 years of turnarounds, screenplay revisions, changing leading men (including Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy), and multiple directors before Malcolm X finally made its way to theaters in November of 1992. And even with Washington signed on to play the slain activist, and Spike Lee in the director's chair, Malcolm didn't see release without multiple controversies, a creative tug of war between Lee and Warner Bros., and a last-minute influx of cash from a group of donors that included Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan. Somewhat predictably, given Malcolm X's thorny reputation -- not to mention the movie's three-and-a-half-hour length -- this wasn't a biopic for everyone, but most of those who did see it (including 90 percent of Tomatometer critics) agreed that, for all its struggle in getting to the screen, Malcolm X was a tribute worthy of its subject. It is, wrote Vincent Canby of the New York Times, "An ambitious, tough, seriously considered biographical film that, with honor, eludes easy characterization."
The first of three films to unite Denzel Washington with director Edward Zwick (the other two were Courage Under Fire and The Siege), Glory arrived in theaters five days before 1989's other big war drama, Born on the 4th of July. And although July's grosses quickly dwarfed Glory's, critics were quick to point out that Glory, which dramatized the struggles faced by the Union Army's first all-black Civil War regiment, was every bit as compelling. Washington starred here as an escaped slave-turned-soldier known as Trip -- and although the cast was heavy with talent, including Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Matthew Broderick, it was Washington who walked away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In a recent Entertainment Weekly retrospective of his career, Washington looked back on Glory, revealing that before he filmed a crucial scene in which his character is flogged, he walked around "calling on the spirits of all the slaves" -- and that "that whip actually hurt." That quote is enough to explain the level of commitment to craft that has helped make Denzel Washington one of Hollywood's most respected actors, and Glory's 122 minutes are enough to tell you why it inspired ReelViews' James Berardinelli to call it "without question, one of the best movies ever made about the American Civil War."
In case you were wondering, here are Washington's top ten movies according RT users' scores:
1. Glory -- 95%
2. Philadelphia -- 92%
3. American Gangster -- 91%
4. Inside Man -- 90%
5. Training Day -- 89%
6. Remember the Titans -- 89%
7. Malcolm X -- 89%
8. Crimson Tide -- 88%
9. Much Ado About Nothing -- 87%
10. The Hurricane -- 86%
Finally, here's the opening for St. Elsewhere, the show that brought Washington to prominence: