Denzel Washington is one of the most dependable stars in Hollywood. If he’s starring in a movie, then there’s a good chance that it’ll be worth watching, if only for his compelling performance. And ever since he started directing his own starring vehicles, like the August Wilson adaptation Fences, he’s become even more reliable.
He’s played all kinds of roles, from the civil rights activist Malcolm X to the drug kingpin Frank Lucas, for all kinds of directors, including Ridley Scott, Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, and Sidney Lumet. Many of his movies have been spectacular, so here are Denzel Washington’s 10 best movies, according to Rotten Tomatoes.
10 TIE: Inside Man (86%)
Spike Lee directed this intriguing cat-and-mouse thriller about a detective, played by Denzel Washington, investigating a convoluted bank heist pulled off on Wall Street by a criminal mastermind, played by Clive Owen. This movie has an unconventional structure that helps differentiate it from other entries in the formulaic, well-worn heist movie genre.
Spike Lee doesn’t usually make movies with this much mainstream appeal, but the work of an auteur can be seen underneath the typical Hollywood flash. The final gut-punch plot twist might not 100% make sense, but that’s a minor gripe when a thriller is this genuinely thrilling.
9 TIE: Unstoppable (86%)
This action-thriller about a runaway freight train stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine as the two guys struggling to stop it. The premise, drawn from the real-life Crazy Eights incident from Ohio in 2001, might sound ridiculous, but in the hands of director Tony Scott, it’s an impeccably crafted thrill-ride.
Mark Bomback’s by-the-numbers script would’ve translated into a by-the-numbers film with a less inspired filmmaker at the helm or less talented actors in the lead roles. However, Scott turns it into something more exciting than its predictable plot and Washington and Pine find the nuances in their underdeveloped characters.
8 TIE: Crimson Tide (88%)
A classic example of a submarine thriller, Crimson Tide is about a standoff on a U.S. nuclear sub. Denzel Washington plays a hotshot new executive officer aboard the sub, while Gene Hackman plays his older commanding officer. The pair’s ideologies clash during the movie’s central skirmish, making it an interesting story about the relationship between its two lead characters, who have to learn to respect one another.
The brilliant Tony Scott directed the movie and Quentin Tarantino did some uncredited contributions to the script, mostly just adding pop culture references to the dialogue (which actually went a long way towards making it more interesting and digestible).
7 TIE: The Mighty Quinn (88%)
This thriller is a two-hander based on the book Finding Maubee. It stars Denzel Washington as a police chief whose childhood friend, played by Robert Townsend, becomes a suspect in a murder case. According to Roger Ebert’s overwhelmingly positive review of The Mighty Quinn, he attributed the whole success of the movie to Washington’s performance, calling it the kind of performance that turns a jobbing actor into a bankable movie star overnight – and that’s exactly what happened.
This is the movie that made Denzel Washington’s career, so it’s no surprise that it is also still considered to be one of his all-time best works.
6 TIE: Devil in a Blue Dress (88%)
This film noir set in 1940s Los Angeles is a fascinating detective story anchored by an incredible performance from Denzel in the role of Easy Rawlins, an everyman investigator who appears in a number of novels written by Walter Mosley. Writer-director Carl Franklin clearly has a lot of respect for Mosley’s work, as he adapts not only the mystery element, but also the historical context of racial tensions from the source material.
Critic James Berardinelli identified this movie as a “Whydunit,” one of the key Hollywood genres identified by screenwriting guru Blake Snyder. Who did the crime isn’t important; it’s why they did it.
5 TIE: Malcolm X (88%)
This biopic of the iconic civil rights activist of the same name is a powerful showcase for Denzel Washington’s talents as an actor. Producer Marvin Worth had to work for 25 years to get the biopic made, having met Malcolm X as a teenager in New York, and the final product is superb enough to make it worth the wait.
While there were initial concerns over director Spike Lee’s use of an artistic license in his depiction of Malcolm X and Denzel Washington’s lack of physical resemblance to X, the movie ultimately does its subject justice, mostly thanks to Washington’s impeccable performance.
4 TIE: A Soldier’s Story (90%)
Since it was only his sophomore screen outing and he wasn’t particularly well-known yet, Denzel Washington only has a minor role in this drama helmed by Norman Jewison, the guy who was originally slated to direct Malcolm X and cast Washington in the lead role in the first place, proving he made a big impression on him when they first worked together.
A Soldier’s Story is a powerful story about racial segregation in the military during World War II as a black U.S. Army officer is sent to investigate the murder of a black sergeant in Louisiana. The movie was showered with praise and awards when it was first released in 1984.
3 TIE: Much Ado About Nothing (90%)
Kenneth Branagh is Hollywood’s go-to guy for Shakespearean film adaptations. This big-screen take on the Bard’s classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing features an all-star cast including Branagh himself, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, and of course, Denzel Washington.
Washington plays Don Pedro, who is noteworthy for being one of the very few single male characters who doesn’t get married by the end (the original meaning of a comedy from Shakespearean times was literally a story that ends with a wedding scene). The great thing about Branagh’s Shakespearean movies is that they make Shakespeare’s plays accessible to mainstream audiences.
2 Fences (92%)
Denzel Washington directed himself in this acclaimed film adaptation of the even more acclaimed August Wilson play of the same name. The movie’s greatest success is Washington’s respect for the source material. He hardly changed the play at all in translating it to the screen, which retained the powerful rawness of Wilson’s words.
Fences is a poignant look at working-class life told from the perspective of a bitter family man with a drinking problem struggling to make end’s meet and earn an honest living. Washington and Viola Davis are mesmerizing in the lead roles, reprising them from the play’s 2010 revival on Broadway.
1 Glory (93%)
Edward Zwick’s historical epic Glory might be the best movie ever made about the American Civil War. It focuses on the second African-American regiment to fight for the Union in the conflict, with Denzel Washington starring alongside Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick.
Washington won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film, so it’s no wonder that it is ranked as his best work by his Rotten Tomatoes scores. In addition to being praised as a great movie, Glory was recognized for its social impact by the Political Film Society and the NAACP Image Awards.