When you bring up the name Johnny Depp, a number of things spring to mind. There’s his personality, of course, but more so, there’s his acting. Over the course of over three decades, he has been a consistent presence on the big screen. With this week’s release of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” serving as the inspiration, we’re going to be looking at the man’s finest cinematic turns. Perhaps more than with any other performer so far, this list may look different than how you’d envision it in your head.
Depp fans tend to either prefer his earlier, more grounded work, or his latter, more gonzo gigs. There’s room for love of both, however, and you’ll see that here in this article. The list curated for today cuts through almost all aspects of his career. He used to defy expectations a lot more than he does now, but he’s still a supremely talented actor.
Below you will see Depp’s best performances to date. Just missing the cut are his turns in “Finding Neverland” and “The Rum Diary,” though there’s a case to be made for nearly a half dozen other roles that the actor has essayed over the years. As tends to be the case, your mileage may vary here. That being said, it could vary a bit more than usual. Read on to see.
Here are Depp’s ten best performances so far:
Depp doing animation just made perfect sense. Playing the title character, he’s having an absolute blast. Teaming again with director Gore Verbinski, there’s a sense of play here. Some voice jobs feel like just that…jobs. This never feels like that. He’s fully committed and turns the animated character into someone truly three dimensional.
“Rango” is a strange beast. One of the more unusual Best Animated Feature winners at The Academy Awards, it probably shouldn’t work. It’s only due to Depp and Verbinski’s take on the part that it’s able to really work. It’s an odd point on their resumes, but a quality one for sure.
Hear me out. Usually, when Depp is as bonkers as he is here in Kevin Smith‘s horror film, it can be tiresome. In fact, once this became his go to style, it got old fast. However, here in “Tusk” he manages to showcase a sense of fun that’s largely missing otherwise from these types of turns for him. Depp is relishing the opportunity to play. It’s very much a thing of its own, in all the most interesting ways. Watching him and (the now late) Michael Parks size each other up is a real pleasure.
Depp would revisit this character to lesser effect in “Yoga Hosers” last year, but Guy LaPointe is one of his more interesting original creations. Though he’s likely to do it again in “Moose Jaws” soon, this part was a great little one off. It seemed to recharge his batteries, at least for short time.
8. Secret Window
There’s something that fits very well with Depp playing a struggling writer. Plus, Stephen King‘s characters just also pair solidly with this particular actor. He has a particular look on his face during much of this flick that helps tell you a lot about the man. It’s a quieter turn for much of the running time, but that can be when Depp is really at his best.
“Secret Window” is hardly perfect. It does fall apart at the end. Still, our honoree this week does his best to hold it together. Playing Mort Rainey was somewhat of a return to realistic form for him after playing a certain pirate. No one will call this his best turn, but it does slide in easily to a top ten and function as one of his somewhat underrated performances.
7. Donnie Brasco
A bit low on the list for some, granted. Still, Depp’s turn in “Donnie Brasco” is easily one of his best early roles. Thematically similar in some ways to “The Departed,” watching an undercover law enforcement agent try to do his job and stay sane is always compelling. This performance is incredibly intense. You buy all of the pressure that this man is under throughout.
This turn in the title role only looks better with time. It has been a while since Depp has committed to this type of work. If he were to return to it in the near future, he might be in line to finally win his Academy Award. “Black Mass” could have been that, for example, but it wasn’t to be.
6. Edward Scissorhands
Another perhaps overrated turn, Depp is still quite good in this fairy tale of sorts. This would also mark a union with Tim Burton that is still going strong today. Innocent and quirky, it would help to establish the actor’s seeming M.O. in the early days. Filmmakers would struggle to figure out just how to use him, partly because you can’t especially copy this type of work.
Burton made “Edward Scissorhands” not knowing that he was going to be doing it with a future superstar. Still, the casting is something to nevertheless applaud. As an aside, it’s again an instance of Depp in a title role. He’s always the star, but he just always seems to be a film’s namesake as well. Go figure.
5. Don Juan DeMarco
Here’s an underrated Depp performance. Romance may not be where his interests usually rest, but he is tremendous here. He’s able to make you swoon, and his four questions of value in life hold true for many a romantic. This is the sort of thing that many wish Depp would do more these days, or at least consider doing.
Holding court with Marlon Brando is no small task. “Don Juan DeMarco” only works because both men are up to the challenge. Brando has the lower key role, which is kind of a rare occurrence. The film is elevated by the cast, but it’s also just very charming.
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Despite not caring for the film itself, it’s impossible not to recognize how iconic Depp is as Captain Jack Sparrow. Sure, returns are diminishing now, and who knows if “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is worth its salt, but the original still stands tall. Even without loving it, it’s easily the best of the franchise. Why does it work? Well, of course, it’s Depp’s turn as Sparrow.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” was initially a risk. Now, it’s part of a behemoth, but no one knew Depp would be as iconic here as he would be. He sort of sleepwalks through the sequels, but in this maiden voyage, he’s a ton of fun. It’s schtick, but enjoyable schtick.
Drugs will show up again on this list, but Depp playing a self made kingpin is just utterly watchable. The evolution from small child to drug lord is handled well, with Depp’s section really hitting home the human element. “Scarface” or the like, this is decidedly not. The fact that this is a biopic certainly helps, but it’s the central performance that really shines brightest.
“Blow” falls short of being iconic, both for the film and the performance, but it’s exceptionally well made. Depp would get away from this sort of thing soon after, but it’s a testament to work like this that so many want him to get back to it and avoid just franchise sequels.
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Is everything about this movie a mess? Yes. Is Depp still captivating as a Hunter S. Thompson stand in? Of course he is. Even if your head spins while watching it, you have to appreciate what Depp is doing. This is a cult film and cult performance, but still one of his very best.
Depp channeled his hero Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” with incredible dedication. Going off the deep end is pretty much the bare minimum in this sort of project. When he’s being weird in this sort of indie range, there are few better at it than Depp.
1. Ed Wood
The best work of Depp’s career so far is also his most lovable. Playing the title character in this biopic of Ed Wood, the worst filmmaker in history, this should have been what had in closest to winning an Academy Award. He’s worthy, and this is the rare occasion when frequent collaborator Burton is as well. They’re Oscar caliber, plain and simple.
“Ed Wood” is not only Johnny’s best work, it’s arguably Burton’s as well. Their pairing has had successes and misfires, but never has it worked better than this one. It’s damn near a masterpiece.