1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

IMDb rating: 9.3/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%

Storyline

In the 1940s, successful banker Andy Dufresne is wrongfully arrested for the murder of his wife and her lover. Sentenced to two life terms in Shawshank prison, he befriends Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Over the years, Andy retains hope of proving his innocence, using patience, intelligence, and his banking skills to transform the prison and its community.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Freeman’s portrayal of “Red,” the longtime inmate who ‘knows how to get things,’ is an iconic performance. He encapsulates the wisdom, cynicism, and hope that comes from being a long-term inmate with a subtlety and depth that pull the audience into Red’s world. His soothing narration throughout the film adds another layer to his character and sets the comforting yet sombre tone of the movie.

Further, Freeman’s on-screen chemistry with co-star Tim Robbins (who played Andy Dufresne) is effortless, giving rise to one of the most profound partnerships in celluloid history. Their camaraderie pulls viewers through the movie’s dark themes without compromising its hopeful essence. Freeman’s Oscar-nominated performance was so effective it remains associated with the actor even decades later.

2. Se7en (1995)

IMDb rating: 8.6/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 81%

Storyline

In Se7en, Freeman stars as Detective Lieutenant William Somerset, questioning the city’s morality. He is paired with Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), a brash and impulsive newcomer, and they are faced with a series of murders illustrating the seven deadly sins.

Why it’s a Major Performance

In the midst of grotesque crime scenes and a steadily tense plot, Freeman’s Somerset stands as a beacon of restraint and weary morality. His portrayal unfolds to reveal a layered, deeply philosophical man grappling with the evil in the world. His internal struggle between despair and hope forms the film’s emotional foundation.

His performance is marked by subtle gestures and a quiet authority that belies Somerset’s emotional turmoil. Freeman wonderfully translates the impact of his character’s experiences on his world view, giving viewers an immersive character study amidst a chilling crime thriller. His compelling portrayal resulted in one of the most memorable detective characters in cinema.

3. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

IMDb rating: 8.1/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%

Storyline

In Million Dollar Baby, Morgan Freeman plays Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, a former boxer who lost sight in one eye in his final fight. He serves as the caretaker of a gym owned by his friend, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), and becomes a mentor to wannabe boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank).

Why it’s a Major Performance

Freeman displays a character full of sensitivity and wisdom. As the narrator and moral guide of the story, his character mirrors the audience’s emotions, facilitating a deeper connection with the movie. His grounded performance offers a respite from the film’s tense atmosphere, making him an unforgettable part of this successful movie.

His influence as “Scrap-Iron” also extends to the gym’s characters and the movie’s audience, with his character compositions balancing the various emotions that arise from the movie’s sporty, gritty, and occasionally heartbreaking journey. Freeman won his first and only (so far) Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance, illustrating his critical recognition.

The rest of the list could include the following films:

4. Unforgiven (1992)

5. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

6. Invictus (2009)

7. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

8. Street Smart (1987)

9. The Bucket List (2007)

10. Glory (1989)