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Denzel Washington's Best Movies, Ranked by Metacritic

From 'Fences' to 'Glory,' discover Denzel Washington's highest-rated movies, ranked by Metascore.
by Danielle Turchiano — 
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Denzel Washington

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

Denzel Washington just picked up a career 10th Oscar nomination with his performance as Lord Macbeth in The Tragedy of Macbeth

The celebrated film performer is the most-nominated Black actor in the history of the Academy Awards — although admittedly one of his nominations is as a producer on the 2016 film Fences. Out of those nominations, he has two prior wins: for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Glory in 1990 and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Training Day in 2002. 

As a working actor since the late 1970s, that acclaim is really just a drop in the bucket for Washington, who has graced stages and screens alike, working both in front of and behind the camera in key roles.

After getting his start in summer stock, Washington moved between theater and television at the top of his career, making his screen debut in the original made-for-TV movie Wilma in 1977 and appearing Off-Broadway in A Soldier's Play in the early 1980s. He starred on medical drama St. Elsewhere for all six of its seasons in the 1980s, which got him wider notice within the industry.

Turning his attention to the big screen, he snatched up acclaim for performances in Glory, Malcolm X, The Hurricane, Flight, and more, earning a (thus far) career total of two Emmy nominations, 11 Golden Globe nominations (three wins, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award), eight SAG Award noms (one win), five Critics Choice Award noms (one win), three PGA Award noms (one win), and a BAFTA LA Film Excellence Award.

Some of his most memorable performances come when he plays in historical periods, especially war films or other based on true tales, and crime dramas.

He pulled triple duty on dramas Antwone Fisher and Fences: acting, producing, and directing. As a director, he also helmed The Great Debaters, A Journal for Jordan, and an episode of Grey's Anatomy in Season 12. As a producer he has worked on everything from Safe House, to The Equalizer film franchise, to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and A Journal for Jordan.

Here, Metacritic highlights the top 10 films Washington has acted in, ranked by Metascore.


The Tragedy of Macbeth

Metascore: 87
Best for: Fans of Shakespeare, period pieces, and thrillers
Where to watch: Apple TV+
Runtime: 105 minutes

The latest adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth comes from writer and director Joel Coen and stars Washington and Frances McDormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth, respectively. This version digs into the paranoia that Macbeth experiences as he stops at nothing to rule and becomes a tyrant in the process. The film picked up three Oscar nominations, including Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Washington, as well as a BAFTA Award nomination, and a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination (also for Washington).

"An immaculate vision: coldly efficient, aesthetically faultless, splendidly acted." — Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times


Much Ado About Nothing

Metascore: 80
Best for: Fans of Shakespeare and romantic comedies
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 111 minutes

Kenneth Branagh adapted Shakespeare's play of the same title for a feature film that stars Washington as Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon and a matchmaker. He and his noblemen arrive in the town of Messina, where the romantic pairings of Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale) take center stage. The film earned a Golden Globe nomination and a BAFTA Award nomination in 1994.

"A movie that is triumphantly romantic, comic and, most surprising of all, emotionally alive." — Vincent Canby, The New York Times


Fences

Metascore: 79
Best for: Fans of period pieces, family dramas, and complex father-son relationships
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 139 minutes

Washington stars in and also produced and directed this adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same title that is set in 1950s Pennsylvania and explores the life of Washington's character, Troy Maxson, as he juggles life with his wife (Viola Davis) and son (Jovan Adepo) with other relationships, including an affair and other children. It also explores his professional strides in the world of garbage collection when his dream had been to play Major League baseball. His talent but barrier to entry affects the way he treats his son's own future in sports. The film was nominated for four Oscars (Davis ended up winning Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role).

"A feast of brilliant acting, in a story that's sometimes as difficult as it is powerful." — Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic


Devil in a Blue Dress

Metascore: 78
Best for: Fans of noir thrillers, period pieces, racial and social commentary, and mysteries
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Tubi, Vudu
Runtime: 102 minutes

Carl Franklin wrote and directed this feature film adaptation of Walter Mosley's novel of the same title centered on war veteran Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, who takes a job tracking down a missing woman, Daphne (Jennifer Beals). Her disappearance leads to a shift in the Los Angeles mayoral race, which has a lot of people invested in what happened and puts her and Easy in danger. Set in the late 1940s, Easy experiences a lot of racial harassment, including being wrongly accused of crimes himself, as he sets about his task.

"Entertaining on its own terms, and Washington's warmth at the center of it is like our own bemusement." — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


Glory

Metascore: 78
Best for: Fans of underrepresented men of history, Black history, period pieces, and war stories
Where to watch:

, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Paramount+, Vudu
Runtime: 122 minutes

Based on the real-life 54th Massachusetts Infantry, this American Civil War-set film from director Edward Zwick explores what life was like for soldiers fighting in the Union Army's first Black regiment. Washington stars as one such soldier, Silas Trip, while Matthew Broderick plays Col. Robert Gould Shaw, and Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher portray other notable characters. This performance in this film garnered Washington his first Oscar win (in the Supporting Role category), while the film overall went on to win two more trophies from the Academy.

"An eloquent, heart-tugging Civil War epic about the first black infantry regiment to march off to battle for the Union." — Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times.


Courage Under Fire

Metascore: 77
Best for: Fans of war films and thrillers
Where to watch:

, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 117 minutes

In their second collaboration together, Washington and Zwick returned to the war film genre. This time Washington plays a lieutenant who is transferred to a desk job after he destroys one of his own tanks during the Gulf War. Now his work includes determining if Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) should become the first woman to receive a Medal of Honor. She died in a rescue mission, and the survivors' stories don't all match up, putting the lieutenant in a moral predicament.

"A Hollywood movie actually daring to bare its teeth at silly American flag-waving." — Ian Nathan, Empire


American Gangster

Metascore: 76
Best for: Fans of crime dramas and biopics 
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 157 minutes

Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian teamed up to dramatize the story of real-life drug smuggler Frank Lucas for this 2007 film. Washington plays Frank opposite Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, a lawyer tasked with trying to bring down drug suppliers. Set in the late 1960s, Frank takes over the drug trade from Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III) and uses returning Vietnam War soldiers to smuggle heroin into the States. As his monopoly on the business grows, so does his stature in the community, political power, and threats against him — including, but not limited to, the law breathing down his neck.

"Washington [is] charming, intense, and charismatic as ever." — Tasha Robinson, The A.V. Club


Flight

Metascore: 76
Best for: Fans of controversial male protagonists and addiction dramas
Where to watch:

, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Paramount+, Vudu
Runtime: 138 minutes

Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington) is an addict who is still working as an airline pilot. As one of his flights experiences mechanical failure, he manages to crash-land the plane with minimal loss. However, he is drug tested and it is discovered he was under the influence while working. As many want to call him a hero for saving the majority of souls on board, his life spirals further, with him asking his crew to lie about his sobriety, feeling the guilt of those he lost, and as his addiction continuing to rear its ugly head. Washington was nominated for an Oscar, Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Golden Globe for this performance.

"No actor is as brilliant, or as cunning, as Denzel Washington at portraying superhuman cockiness and the scary prospect of its loss." — David Edelstein, Vulture


Inside Man

Metascore: 76
Best for: Fans of heist thrillers and stories with a surprise war connection
Where to watch:

, Google Play, HBO Max, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 129 minutes

Spike Lee and Washington have collaborated on four films thus far, with this heist thriller being the most recent and a standout because of its intensity. Set during a 24-hour period in which Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) masterminds an elaborate Wall Street robbery, it is full of action, misdirection, and shady business. Washington plays Det. Keith Frazier, a hostage negotiator called in to deal with the robbers, while Jodie Foster plays fixer Madeleine White, and Christopher Plummer is Arthur Case, the bank founder who is concerned about the public learning about what he has stored in the bank. Without giving too much away, we will just say: Nazi memorabilia comes into play.

"It's got style and charisma to spare, with all the characters acting from fiery reserves of self-interest." — Jami Bernard, Daily News


The Manchurian Candidate

Metascore: 76
Best for: Fans of political thrillers, conspiracy noir, and adaptations
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
Runtime: 129 minutes

In 2004, director Jonathan Demme reimagined The Manchurian Candidate, which was first a 1959 novel by Richard Condon and then a 1962 film adaptation from George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer. In Demme's version, Washington stars as Major Bennett Marco opposite Meryl Streep as Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw. While the senator uses her influence to ensure her son (Raymond, played by Liev Schreiber), who served with Bennett, receives a vice-presidential candidate nomination, Bennett is plagued by stories and memories of a war-time raid that included capture, brainwashing, and friendly fire. His subsequent investigation into what really went on reveals a deep conspiracy.

"A hugely entertaining thriller shot through with dark shards of agony and paranoia." — David Ansen, Newsweek