Remember the Titans, American Gangster and the best Denzel Washington movies

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Denzel Washington has been going strong for the better part of 30 years, with over fifty movies and two Academy Awards to his name. He’s one of a select group of actors guaranteed to put butts in seats thanks to a natural charisma and intensity that few can match. His latest movie, the buddy-cop action-comedy 2 Guns co-starring Mark Wahlberg, comes out this week, and to commemorate the occasion, here’s a rundown of Washington’s top twenty movies, loosely organized from bottom to top. I’ve taken into account a handy combination of my own opinion, reputation, and Rotten Tomatoes reviews/scores.

Unstoppable

OK, so somehow a movie about a runaway train has an 86% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I never saw Unstoppable, but I’ve heard from trusted sources that it’s just big and dumb and a train wreck in and of itself. There’s only so far you can take the “out of control [insert vehicle]” concept, and all of those beats have been done to death. And I have to take away points from Denzel for this one because it’s was his second train-centric movie in two years (the other being the much worse reviewed and terribly titled The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 the year before).

Man on Fire

According to Rotten Tomatoes, I seem to be among the minority of people who enjoyed Man on Fire. It harkens back to the revenge fantasies of the ‘70s with Denzel as the Charles Bronson-style vengeance-taking “hero” after the young girl he is protecting for a wealthy family in Mexico City is kidnapped. This is easily one of, if not the most outright violent movies Washington has ever made, and it’s not for the faint of heart. But there is some visceral satisfaction to be gained when his ex-CIA operative character lets loose on his rampage.

Déjà Vu

I’m sure the physics the writers use to explain the high concept of Déjà Vu is completely misapplied, but I still enjoyed what turned out to be a fun mystery with a sci-fi twist. The idea behind the movie is that scientists have figured out a way to use the Einstein-Rosen Bridge to fold space-time, bringing a time exactly four days into the past into the same space as our own time (or something like that). The FBI uses this technology to try to find out who blew up a ferry in New Orleans and eventually send Denzel back in time to try to prevent the whole thing from happening. Despite an unnecessary love story and some serious predictability, Déjà Vu is still an entertaining flick.

Crimson Tide

I always confuse Crimson Tide with The Hunt for Red October, and is that really all that surprising? I know there are five years between the two, but seriously ‘90s? Two submarine movies with grizzled captains (Gene Hackman and Sean Connery, respectively) being challenged by young upstarts (Denzel and Alec Baldwin), both with shades of the color red in the title? I actually really enjoy both movies, and Washington and Hackman butt heads wonderfully throughout.

The Pelican Brief

Remember when every other movie that came out was based on a John Grisham novel? In my opinion, The Pelican Brief is one of the better Grisham adaptations, though quite frankly I have trouble distinguishing its conspiracy plot from those of The Firm and The Client, all three of which came out in a two-year period in the early ‘90s. Without a doubt this is paint-by-numbers Grisham when you break it down, but there is legit chemistry between Denzel and Julia Roberts. If you’re looking for a movie to put on in the background that you can glance at and still be entertained, this is a good place to start.

The Manchurian Candidate

I saw the original Manchurian Candidate with Frank Sinatra when I was in high school and loved all the conspiratorial aspects of the movie. Because of that, I never gave the 2004 remake a chance, but the reviews are overall pretty good. Both films share the basic plot of brainwashed soldiers, though the addition of a company called Manuchrian Global brings in more of a Big Brother, evil corporation aspect that could be totally cheesy if not done well. If the critics are to be trusted, this remake isn’t bad.

The Great Debaters

Everything I’ve ever seen about this movie tells me that, much like Remember the Titans, it works hard to pull on the heartstrings. Like Titans, The Great Debaters is based on an inspirational true story about a coach working against the odds to bring together a group of kids. This time around, the pursuit is intellectual rather than on the gridiron, as a professor at a small college in Texas creates the school’s first debate team, which goes on to national fame by challenging the vaunted Harvard club. The reviews are generally good, with a common thread being praise for both Washington’s acting and directing.

Remember the Titans

Even taking into account the swelling score and feel-good emotional manipulation, but Remember the Titans is the kind of inspirational sports movie you look for in the middle of the football offseason. It’s everything you would expect from a movie produced by Disney – a light touch on a significant issue, copious chances for redemption, people of all creeds and colors becoming united together. It’s not going to do much to surprise you, but Titans is a sports movie worth watching.

Courage Under Fire

Not your typical war movie, Courage Under Fire adds layers of mystery that slowly unfold to reveal a compelling drama. Washington plays an Army officer tasked with investigating the death of a helicopter pilot (played by Meg Ryan, cast significantly against type) in order to determine if her actions and character deserve the Medal of Honor. It didn’t win any awards, but the two leads give complex performances that make for an entertaining and moving film.

Flight

I felt like the entire plot of Flight was shown in the trailers. It seemed like a pretty basic movie about an addict’s secret finally being revealed despite all his best efforts, and never really made me want to see it. The reviews tend to agree with that assessment, with the overall consensus being that Flight doesn’t do a whole lot that is unexpected, but is brought to a higher level by a layered performance from Washington. Denzel has a tendency to do that: take ordinary movies and make them more enjoyable than they have a right to be.

He Got Game

Spike Lee’s third movie with Washington has a bit of a bizarre premise, but it’s still a solid film overall. Denzel plays Jake Shuttlesworth, a man serving time in prison for killing the mother of his son, Jesus, now a rising high school basketball star, played by Ray Allen of NBA fame. Jake is paroled for one week and promised a shortened sentence by the prison’s warden if Jake can get his son to commit to play ball at the warden’s alma mater. Like I said, a little odd. He Got Game serves as both an indictment of college recruiting and a moving father-son drama.

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  • Elliot Rosenzweig

    There is an error in this article. In Philadelphia, Tom Hanks’s character Andrew Beckett was fired for having AIDS, not because he was gay. In the start of the movie, a partner in his law firm noticed an AIDS lesion on Beckett’s forehead, and asked about it. Beckett claimed he was hit by a racketball, but he was fired shortly after because the partners concluded he had AIDS and fired him for that, while claiming he was fired because he put an important complaint in the wrong place and almost cost the firm that lawsuit.