I anticipate there will be considerable debate surrounding what we’ve deemed the 10 ‘best’ Denzel Washington movies of all time (or at the very least, the ordering of said list).
But that’s what happens when your filmography is this extensive. The competition is stiff. Beloved entries get edged out. And considering his status as the most consistent Hollywood star kicking around, there will probably come a day when we need to make room for the likes of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator 2.
Here’s what we think are Mr Washington‘s Top 10.
Ranked: The Best Denzel Washington Movies Of All Time
Granted, there are far more critically acclaimed selections from the Denzel Washington filmography that have been bumped for Remember The Titans (2000). But on the basis of the movie’s immortalisation within the sports drama pantheon, and the undeniable touching of our hearts, it finds itself in #10. Don’t @ me.
Denzel Washington is at his greatest when he takes on roles that require him to grapple with intrapersonal darkness. And as Whip Whitaker in Flight (2012), he’s got plenty to wrestle with. It’s difficult to dance between charming and downright despicable, and yet the man makes it look bloody easy.
In this delicious neo-noir homage to the hardboiled genre of fiction, Denzel Washington is an absolute delight to watch — as is the scene-stealing Don Cheadle as Mouse; the latter of whom put himself on Hollywood’s map with Devil in the Blue Dress (1995).
From Man on Fire (2004) to The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), Denzel Washington had quite a partnership with legendary director Tony Scott — and Tony’s older brother Ridley Scott — right up until the youngest of the Scott clan’s tragic suicide. Crimson Tide (1995) is where that acclaimed partnership began, and it certainly stands the test of time.
This was the one that signalled Denzel Washington was an acting icon in the making. As escaped slave turned Union Army private Silas Trip, the budding thespian cemented himself in history with a powerful, unflinching, and remarkably wordless whipping scene — along with his first Academy Award win (Best Supporting Actor).
If I had to encapsulate what a “typical” Denzel Washington role looked like, I’d immediately refer you to his portrayal of real-life Harlem drug dealer Frank Lucas in American Gangster (2007). Effortlessly cool, ruthlessly decisive, always leading from the front of the pack.
With Frank Lucas, Washington delivered the authority and gravitas that a kingpin of Lucas’ profile deserves; while convincing you to root for the bad guy the entire way. As earlier alluded to, Denzel Washington has since reunited with director Ridley Scott for the hotly-anticipated Gladiator 2.
From Remember The Titans (2000) to Man On Fire (2004), Denzel Washington has played several father figures throughout his career. The most compelling to watch, however, has to be the devastatingly all-too-human Troy Maxon in Fences (2016), for which Washington also wore the hat of director.
Anybody with any unresolved feelings about their own dads should brace for impact (speaking from personal experience).
It’s downright criminal we don’t talk about The Tragedy of Macbeth more. A classic tale from the Bard adapted for screens and directed by a goddamn Coen brother; brought to life by heavyweight talents like Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, and Corey Hawkins; with cinematography accomplished by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis, Darkest Hour).
It’s not easy to make straight-up Shakespeare entertaining/palatable enough for modern audiences, yet on this front, you can see Washington putting in the work.
While it hasn’t taken the top spot on our list, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) is perhaps the most important entry within Denzel Washington’s filmography. Powerhouse performance as the slain civil rights leader aside, the movie is in itself a lodestone of Black culture.
Over the course of its 25-year production process, the biopic was first penned by James Baldwin before being helmed by a handful of directors (eventually landing with Lee); and towards the end, required personal funding from Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Oprah when Warner Bros. refused to inject additional capital. Washington would sadly lose the Best Actor race to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman that year. Daylight robbery.
I mean, there’s no question that #1 has to belong to Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001). Denzel Washington’s most prolific turn-as-heel to date not only raised the bar for post-modern villains and morally bankrupt screen characters, but also earned him his second Academy Award (Best Actor). So. Damn. Quotable.
Man On Fire (2004)
Directed by: Tony Scott
Actors: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Radha Mitchell
In a Mexico City wracked by a recent wave of kidnappings, ex-CIA operative John Creasy (Denzel Washington) reluctantly accepts a job as a bodyguard for nine-year-old Lupita (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of wealthy businessman Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony). Just as Creasy begins to develop a fondness for the young girl, a bloodthirsty gunman (Jesús Ochoa) kidnaps her. Now, Creasy must pick off a succession of corrupt cops and criminals to reach his ultimate object of vengeance.
The Hurricane (1999)
Directed by: Normal Jewlson
Actors: Denzel Washington, John Hannah, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, Vicellous Reon Shannon
Denzel Washington is Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a man whose dreams of winning the middleweight boxing title were destroyed when he was arrested along with another man for the murders of three people in a New Jersey bar. Wrongfully accused, Carter and John Artis were sentenced to three life terms in prison. Based on a true story.
Inside Man (2006)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Actors: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
When a bank heist turns into a hostage situation, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is forced to work with Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a power broker, to ensure the safety of the captives and a lucrative safe deposit box.
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Actors: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Joanne Woodward
Fearing it would compromise his career, lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) hides his homosexuality and HIV status at a powerful Philadelphia law firm. But his secret is exposed when a colleague spots the illness’s telltale lesions. Fired shortly afterwards, Beckett resolves to sue for discrimination, teaming up with Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), the only lawyer willing to help. In court, they face one of his ex-employer’s top litigators, Belinda Conine (Mary Steenburgen).
He Got Game (1998)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Actors: Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich, John Turturro, Rosario Dawson, Jim Brown
Jake Shuttleworth (Denzel Washington) has spent the last six years in prison after accidentally killing his wife during a violent domestic dispute, leaving his son, star basketball prospect Jesus Shuttleworth (Ray Allen), to fend for himself. One day, the prison warden (Ned Beatty) approaches Jake with an unusual offer: He’ll be given a week of parole to convince Jesus to attend the governor’s alma mater, with the promise of a shortened sentence if he succeeds.
Safe House (2012)
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Actors: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades
For the past year, rookie CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) has been eager to prove himself while cooling his heels at an inactive South African post. He gets the chance when Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a turncoat operative, is brought to Weston’s safe house for debriefing. But soon after Frost’s arrival, mercenaries attack, and Weston and Frost barely escape with their lives. The two men must join forces and try to stay alive long enough to figure out who wants them dead.
If you agree/disagree with our picks for the best Denzel Washington movies of all time, sound off in the comments with what we may have missed or gotten wrong.
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Best Denzel Washington Movies — Frequently Asked Questions
What is Denzel Washington's highest-grossing movie?
To this day, Denzel Washington’s highest-grossing movie is still American Gangster (2007) directed by Ridley Scott — $266.5 million.
What movie did Denzel Washington get an Oscar for?
Denzel Washington has received a total of 10 Academy Award nominations and taken home the win twice: the first was the Best Support Actor award for Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), the second was the Best Actor award for Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001).
What is Denzel Washington's next movie?
Denzel Washington has reunited with American Gangster (2007) director, Ridley Scott, to star in the latter’s long-awaited historical epic sequel: Gladiator 2 (2024)