Denzel Washington's 25 Greatest Movie Roles

A celebration of the greatest living American actor

Is Denzel Washington the greatest American actor working today?

It's hard to think of many other contenders. He isn't known for disappearing into roles. You're always aware that you're watching him: the impossibly charming, handsome, smooth-talking black star who somehow single-handedly dismantled Hollywood's (still active) racial barriers and made Oscar history several times over. Yet Washington has more range from one performance to another than most actors will have over a lifetime. He's able to convey superhuman fury (Malcolm X) and pitiful defeat (Fences) in little more than a quick change of his facial expression.

And unlike some other maturing leading men, Washington has had no trouble transitioning out of his heartthrob days. At 62, he keeps turning in some of the finest performances of any given year in movies about deeply American problems, particularly race relations, except now the lines on his face convey the wisdom of someone who learned long ago that there are no easy answers.

Here are Denzel Washington's best movies ranked.

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25. Deja Vu

Deja Vu is one of those high-concept thrillers that seems a lot cooler on paper: Washington is a no-bullshit federal agent who joins a time-warping experiment to save Paula Patton from a terrorist. Still, if it comes on cable, you will almost definitely watch it to the end. Rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes.

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24. American Gangster

An effective throwback to classic gangster movies with Washington as a Harlem mob boss, American Gangster is shortchanged by the fact that it just can't live up to its predecessors. Rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes.

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23. Ricochet

It's by far the scuzziest piece of trash Washington has ever been part of, and also undeniably enjoyable. Starring the actor as a rising prosecutor who's being hunted by a man he put behind bars (a deliciously evil John Lithgow), the movie somehow manages to combine white supremacists, a little person dancing on a bar, and Ice-T as a gangster with a secret heart of gold. Case closed: You need to watch this movie, if only to believe it actually exists. 

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22. The Bone Collector

Washington and Angelina Jolie made a departure into the kind of grisly pulp that Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd used to specialize in, but this is still one of the better '90s serial-killer movies. Rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes.

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21. Remember the Titans

One of Washington's more treacly, sentimental movies (and he's not exactly afraid of treacly sentiment), the Disney-stamped Remember the Titans is saved by the depth its star brings to a man who integrates black and white high school football players, and teaches them invaluable life lessons along the way. If only we all had a Coach Boone. Rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes.

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20. The Mighty Quinn

While Washington's Caribbean accent isn't exactly his most convincing, he's game as the chief of police in this enjoyably light detour into island vibes and James Bond-level campy murder solving. 

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19. Man on Fire

The movie's herky-jerky, trigger-happy style isn't for everyone, but Washington is the ideal leading man as an alcoholic bodyguard who will gun down anyone in his way to save Dakota Fanning's adorable little rich girl from Mexican kidnappers. Don't think about the plot too hard (the movie sure doesn't)—just embrace the blissful action. Rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes.

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18. Cry Freedom

The overlong biopic puts too much focus on South African journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline), who investigates the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, but Washington brings the moral gravity as Biko. Rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes.

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17. Unstoppable

Washington stuck with Tony Scott even when the late director's movies faltered (see: Deja Vu), but this thriller about a full-speed train run amuck is one of their surprise highlights. It's much more suspenseful than a train-chase movie made in 2010 has any right to be. Rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes.

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16. Out of Time

Washington could have made a career just out of playing tortured detectives: He's a classic wronged man in Out of Time who has to think fast to save himself. The movie is as urgent as the title makes it out to be. Rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes.

From: Esquire