Top 5 / Bottom 5: Denzel Washington

Posted Tue Jun 5, 2012 at 02:30 PM PDT by

by Aaron Peck

Denzel Washington's latest movie 'Safe House' hits store shelves this week and I got to thinking that until now we haven't taken the time to do a Top 5/Bottom 5 article for the accomplished actor. So I thought it was about time.

As I was listing out my top five movies of his a curious thing happened, the film he won an Academy Award for, 'Training Day,' didn't make the list. I always felt that movie was far too cartoony for its own good and it seemed like a make-up Oscar for all the times he didn't get the award, like when he should've won for 'Malcolm X' or could've easily won for his role in 'The Hurricane.' If you travel through Washington's filmography Alonzo Harris definitely isn't his strongest character, but the field during the 74th Academy Awards seemed especially thin in the actor department.

Denzel is a versatile actor who takes on as many dramatic roles as he does genre roles. In one movie he's a famous historical figure like Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and a few years later he's trying to stop a runaway train full of dangerous chemicals. However, I noticed that as I was listing my top five favorite movies of his I realized that they're all dramatic roles. Whereas I found that many of his genre roles like 'Man on Fire,' 'The Book of Eli' and 'Out of Time' ended up somewhere in the middle. Don't get me wrong I love a good Denzel Washington thriller, but it seems that every time he takes on a dramatic part he really nails it.

The Best


For my money this is the best, most poignant film Washington has ever made. Yes, much of that is due to the subject matter and the ensemble cast – not to mention Edward Zwick's masterful direction. Still Washington, who at the time was a relatively new feature-film actor, made us take notice of his skills as the memorable Trip. After 'Glory' Washington got bigger and bigger roles until he became the ultra-superstar we know today. By scanning his filmography it's pretty easy to spot 'Glory' as his real springboard into getting leading roles and becoming one of Hollywood's most bankable film stars. Winning his first Oscar for his role in 'Glory' might have had a tiny part to play in his eventual fame.

'The Hurricane'

I know a lot of people loved Kevin Spacey in 'American Beauty,' me included, but I always look back at the Oscars from 2000 and wonder if Denzel should've won that award. His job in 'The Hurricane' is a transcendent piece of acting. It really is. 'American Beauty' was the darling of those awards, but I can't help but think that this is the movie Washington really won the Oscar for when he won a couple years later for 'Training Day.' Almost like the Academy waited for a particularly weak field that included Denzel and said, "Sorry, our mistake. Here, take it."

I'm still sad that we have yet to see a Blu-ray for this movie even though the HD DVD has been out forever.

'He Got Game'

This is going to be the controversial pick, I know that. Most people may have filled this slot with 'Crimson Tide,' or 'American Gangster' and to that I say, more power to you. Believe me, it was hard to cut those other movies for this one, but one thing pushed Spike Lee's 'He Got Game' over the top for me. I'm a huge basketball fan. I mean, huge. When I heard there was going to be a movie starring Denzel Washington and Ray Allen (one of my favorite basketball players of all-time, even during his early NBA years) I was in.

I know what you're thinking right now, and the answer is no. I don't love 'He Got Game' just because Spike Lee inserted a threesome between Ray Allen and a couple college hussies just to show what fame can get a person. There's much more the movie than that small montage of flesh. Whenever I watch the movie I'm mesmerized by the commanding father figure played by Denzel. He's demanding and hard-nosed. It's definitely one of his best roles and one of his most overlooked I think. Plus, Ray Allen's character's name is Jesus Shuttlesworth. That's just a great name.

'Malcolm X'

It was 1992 and Denzel was cast as one of the most recognizable African American historical figures. It was a huge role and it was the second collaboration with director Spike Lee ('Mo' Better Blues' being the first). Denzel is absolutely captivating as the civil rights activist. He earned his first Academy Award nomination for in the Best Actor category. It was a tough field that year and he lost to Al Pacino in 'Scent of a Woman,' but I think that Denzel could've taken that award home for sure.


In 1993, Jonathan Demme's hard-hitting drama brought the discussion of AIDS to the forefront. Not only did it tackle the topic, but it also dealt with the issue of workplace discrimination, a war we're still fighting today. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his role in this movie, but I've always liked Denzel's role just a little bit more here. His is a much more subtle kind of drama. He doesn't have to act out the effects of having such a deadly, debilitating disease like Hanks did, but he does have to journey through a pathway of acceptance and tolerance, which is quite moving in its own right.

The Worst

'The Bone Collector'

I remember being excited to catch 'The Bone Collector' at the local movie theater. I was still in that phase of my life when I felt a little rush when I got into an R-rated movie. In my teenage years I liked almost any movie that was rated R simply because I had to sneak into it (the cashiers at my cinemas growing up were especially adamant about checking IDs). My friends and I had elaborate ways of sneaking from one theater to another without the ushers noticing us. Anyway, imagine my disappointment, when I found out that 'The Bone Collector' was one of the most mind-numbing crime thrillers I'd ever seen, and I was only 15 at the time it came out. I thought it sucked then, I can't imagine what I'd think about it now.

'Heart Condition'

Okay, if you haven't seen this movie I highly recommend you see it at least once since it's such an oddball movie that you'll be surprised it even exists. I think when I saw it, it was on TBS or TNT in the middle of the day years ago.

Here's a movie that stars Bob Hoskins as a racist moron with terrible eating habits and Denzel Washington as a lawyer. They share a hooker in common who ends up going with the good-looking lawyer in the end. Then, Washington's character is killed in a car crash. His heart is transplanted into Hoskins' character's body. But, the movie doesn't stop there. After the heart is transplanted Denzel's ghost haunts Hoskins throughout the movie. It's just as bad as it sounds. I mean, really, really bad.

'The Pelican Brief'

It was one of those Grisham thrillers that seemed tepid throughout the movie. It never really grabbed me, but then again, the only Grisham thriller that really sucked me in was 'The Firm' and even that has dead spots here and there. Looking back I just thought 'The Pelican Brief' was a ho-hum experience. I still do.

'The Siege'

I've always thought 'The Siege' was a pretty subpar movie even though whenever it's on cable I'll sit and watch it at least through a couple commercial breaks until I realize, "Hey, I'm watching 'The Siege.' I wonder if 'Storage Wars' is on right now." click. Now, I know you just linked over to my review of 'The Siege' and noticed that I didn't think it was half-bad when I reviewed it. Well, chalk that up to Denzel's filmography being that good. Still, I think I was in a particularly good mood when I wrote that review.


Yes, I know that there are a lot of fans of this movie, but when you look over Denzel's film history 'Virtuosity' stands out as a less-than-stellar film. Considering how dated the movie's technology has become it probably holds up even worse today. It's been years since I watched it, but I don't think I could ever sit down and intentionally take in another viewing of this clichéd action thriller especially when Washington has so many other good to great ones on his resume.

I must admit that making my top five list was especially tough. I really wanted to fit in movies like 'Crimson Tide,' 'American Gangster,' 'The Manchurian Candidate,' and 'Inside Man,' but I couldn't. There's definitely a Top Ten Denzel Washington Movies list waiting in the wings somewhere. I must say this was the hardest list to put together since the man has so many quality movies. It doesn't help that he's made a ton of movies. It just means there's that many more films I have to pick from.

Follow the link below to let me know you're Top 5 / Bottom 5 Denzel Washington films. I'm curious to see how everyone would rank them. It's definitely one of the hardest lists I've ever had to come up with. I'm sure your lists will be wildly different than mine.

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Tags: Fun Stuff, Aaron Peck, Denzel Washington, Top 5/Bottom 5 (all tags)