This week Johnny Depp returns to our screens with what might be his best performance to date. In Black Mass he plays James “Whitey” Bulger, one of America’s most notorious criminals, a man who ruled the Southeast of Boston because of his partnership with the FBI who basically let him get away with his crimes in exchange for information about rival gangsters invading his turf.
The film itself is disappointingly generic, pulling from and subsequently standing in the shadow of a million other gangster movies from Goodfellas to The Departed and beyond. It’s not bad, in fact it’s perfectly entertaining particularly if you’re a fan of the genre. But it’s nothing we haven’t seen done better before and that’s most disappointing to me because it’s directed by Scott Cooper, who made Crazy Heart and the extremely underrated Out of the Furnace.
The film might be lacking but the same can’t be said for Depp himself who gives a towering, magnetic and mesmerizing performance in the lead role. His interpretation of Whitey Bulger is at once terrifying and utterly compelling, making him a real life monster of whom you want to see and hear more. It might just nab the actor yet another Oscar nomination.
Depp hasn’t been this great in a long time but over the years he has starred in some pretty fantastic films. Here’s my top 5. Note: I purposefully didn’t include A Nightmare on Elm Street as, for the purposes of this article, I didn’t count as “a Johnny Depp movie.”
5. Finding Neverland
This year’s Pan may have painted the beloved children’s story in a messy light but this could easily be considered the true origin story on film. Depp plays Scottish Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in early 20th century who befriends a father-less family (the mother of which played by Kate Winslet) and whose experiences with them inspired him to write the original magical story. It’s a deeply moving (if you don’t well up at little Freddy Highmore in the final scene, you’re a robot!) and enchanting film, one which celebrates the potential for imagination within stories – for children and grown-ups alike – and gives us a real sense of a storytelling genius. It’s one of Depp’s less showier performances and all the better for it; his flawless Scottish accent and sensitive portrayal is one of the reasons the film is so effective.
4. Edward Scissorhands
It’s the film that put him on the worldwide map and made him a star. And even when you go back and watch it now it’s easy to see why it captured the hearts of so many, with its charming story of a gentle “near-complete” man with scissors for hands created by an eccentric inventor who is brought into an unfamiliar suburban community after living in isolation where he befriends a teenage girl (Winona Ryder). It’s a Gothic fairytale that Tim Burton has rarely, if ever, been able to top and a wonderfully endearing performance by Depp filled with a believable sense of childlike innocence.
3. Donnie Brasco
It’s one of the films that Black Mass seems to be drawing from, starring Depp as real life undercover FBI agent Donnie Brasco who infiltrates the mob and finds himself identifying with their life, particularly when he befriends his “mark” Lefty (Al Pacino). It’s an example of a film that can exist very much within that familiar Goodfellas-seque gangster world – one of the highlights is Depp explaining the various different meanings of “fogedaboudit” – while still mark itself out as a compelling, unpredictable and surprisingly thoughtful entry into the genre. Depp manages that difficult job of making us car about a character that often makes foolish or at least rash decisions that compromise the goal of his character.
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
“We can’t stop here, this is bat country!” Not five minutes into this adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson novel and it’s abundantly clear that it’s directed by Terry Gilliam. Depp plays a version of the author as he goes on a drug-fuelled trip to Las Vegas with his unstable lawyer (Benicio del Toro). What follows is a journey of utter hell-raising craziness that, whether you like it or not, is hard to shake from your mind. It’s certainly not for everybody – I know of just as many people who hate it as love it – but the psychedelic visuals, dark humour and general unhinged vibe make it one of Depp’s most ludicrously enjoyable films in my eyes.
1. Ed Wood
This might tie with Black Mass for Depp’s best performance, playing the notoriously terrible film director Ed Wood as he tries to get his films made despite lack of support in Hollywood, namely the famously awful Plan 9 from Outer Space. It’s one of his many collaborations with Tim Burton but lacks the sort of generic eccentricities that have become so dull with their projects as of late (we’re looking at you, Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland). It’s presented in beautiful black and white, with Depp giving a complex and heartening performance at the head of an amazing cast that also includes Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, Vincent D’Onofrio as Orson Welles and Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge. Easily the best Burton/Depp collaboration and my favourite of film of the actors repertoire.
Honourable mentions: Rango, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Which is your favourite Johnny Depp movie? Let us know in the comments below! Black Mass is in cinemas now.