Trying to pick the best from Morgan Freeman is like trying to decide which Hitchcock (or Kubrick or Pixar) films are the best. Just when you think you have things decided, you take another look and kick yourself for overlooking something special. We've been sort of spoiled by Morgan Freeman over the past several decades. From even his earliest screen ventures, there's been a remarkably cool consistency and instant likeability that's struck a chord with audiences everywhere. (For example, 'The Shawshank Redemption' would probably still be a damn fine film without Morgan Freeman in it, but it wouldn't be quite so special.)
So while it's easy to overlook the man's relatively few turkeys, that does leave a whole lot of quality to wander through. This is where personal preference comes into play, so feel free to toss your favorite Freeman moments into the mix once you're done with these ones.
(Note: some of the clips below may contain salty language. In fact, some definitely do.)
'Street Smart' (1987) -- Way back in the mid-'80s there was this solid but not astonishing crime thriller called 'Street Smart,' which starred Christopher Reeve, Mimi Rogers, and Kathy Baker. Oh, and Morgan Freeman as an angry pimp called "Fast Black." Sounds a little strange? Perhaps. But Mr. Freeman earned an Oscar nomination for it.
'Lean On Me' (1989) -- The film itself is a fairly broad and push-button tale of educational uplift, but it's also a heartwarming tale of an educator who truly gives a damn. As the movie version of real-life school principal Joe Clark, Freeman cuts through the canned speeches and obvious emotional cues like an astute surgeon. Also, this is when we knew the man was a star.
'Glory' (1989) -- Another example of Morgan Freeman slicing through some potentially treacly material. The young Denzel Washington got most of the attention of Ed Zwick's 'Glory' (and deservedly so), but without the straight-talking and sensible John Rawlins (Freeman), Denzel would have been left railing against ... Matthew Broderick. And that's sort of a mismatch. Especially in the film's quieter scenes Freeman conveys an effortless warmth and paternal touch -- even when he's freaking furious.
'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' (1991) -- No, Costner's accent is that bad, and yes, Alan Rickman really is that awesome as the villain, but it's Morgan Freeman who brings an integral sense of normalcy to this slightly generic blockbuster. Another actor would give you the "loyal moor sidekick" character; Freeman delivers a secondary hero who's infinitely more interesting than the title character.
'Unforgiven' (1992) -- In a film absolutely infested with fantastic performances, Morgan Freeman still stands out as if he were made of italics. Working amongst the likes of Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris, the man still (somehow) remains the most magnetic thing on the screen. He also stands for the small but insistent voice of reason in a world governed by ego and hatred -- and he's also a heck of a lot more than an action sidekick or a simple trigger for revenge.
'The Shawshank Redemption' (1994) -- It's easy to be casually dismissive of a film that pretty much everyone adores, but in the case of Frank Darabont's 'The Shawshank Redemption,' the haters are simply wrong: This is a great freaking film. So many things are the "star" of this movie -- Tim Robbins, the screenplay, the prison itself, the flawless ensemble -- but (again) it's Morgan Freeman's effortless humanity that prevents 'Shawshank' from ever becoming a rote, trite, or predictable prison flick. Also, Freeman's narration slides across the epic drama like syrup across hot pancakes.
'Seven' (1995) -- Almost as if the actor wanted to follow something uplifting with a film best described as heart-wrenching, Freeman teams up with David Fincher and Brad Pitt to present one of the darkest, cleverest, and most intriguing thrillers in years. Again, the screenplay is the hero of the day, but Fincher creates a fascinatingly grim world for Pitt (the hothead) and Freeman (the sage) to poke around in. Most folks remember 'Seven' for its vicious dispatches or its wild finale, but there's some real magic in the quieter scenes between Pitt and Freeman -- doubly so in a heartbreaking scene between Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow.
'Dreamcatcher' (2003) -- Kidding ... kidding.
'Batman Begins' (2005) and 'The Dark Knight' (2008) -- We all know that Christopher Nolan is an exceedingly smart filmmaker. So smart, in fact, that he knows the inestimable value of casting people like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in small but integral roles. Freeman brings a palpable sense of old-school class to the new-fangled bat-series, and he does it with a quietly heroic stance and a warm twinkle in the eye.
'Wanted' (2008) -- Mr. Freeman contributes his typically stately demeanor to a rather raucous action flick ... but then near the big finale he spits out a hilariously unexpected profanity that not only fits the scene perfectly, but also thumbs its nose at Mr. Freeman's typically stately demeanor. It's a fun moment.
Freeman fans should also take note of 'Clean and Sober' (1988), 'Johnny Handsome' (1989), 'Outbreak' (1995), 'Hard Rain' (1998), 'Nurse Betty' (2000), and of course 'Million Dollar Baby' (2004). Oh, and 'Driving Miss Daisy' (1989). Not surprisingly, Mr. Freeman is also amusing in the new action comedy 'Red' -- yet again stealing scenes from other big movie stars.
If you liked that "Morgan Freeman Chain of Command" poster that was sampled up top, click here for the full (and rather awesome) version, courtesy of someone clever at Maxim. And with that ... we leave you with three video clips that every Morgan Freeman fan should see ...