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The 10 Best Scarlett Johansson Movies You Need To Watch

08 April 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Jules Neuman

Lost in Translation

Her probably should be mentioned in a discussion of Scarlett Johansson’s best films. However only her voice is in the movie. Too often, actresses are broken down by how beautiful they are. In the two Woody Allen films Scarlett Johansson has starred in, her lips are described as “sensual.”

In both films is the same description. And yet it feels weird to not see Scarlett Johansson in Her. It fits the quirky, childlike energy of a Spike Jonze film to have Johansson make a voice over appearance like she’s working a Disney movie.

However when talking about her best movies, let’s stick to the ones where she’s physically involved, so we’re able to appreciate both her beauty and her beautiful ability to act. Here are eleven Scarlett Johansson flicks that define her wide range of talents.

 

10. Don Jon (2013)

don-jon-addiction-movie

Scarlett Johansson plays Barbara. Barbara is the villain in Don Jon—and yes, she is portrayed as a villain. She’s close-minded, spoiled and mean. She’s got a horrible accent and absolutely no sense of humor. There’s no shortage of bad qualities in Barbara, and yet we’d be lying if we didn’t dream about dropping on all fours in her presence to lick her boots clean.

Barbara is irresistible. She’s an aphrodisiac for the sex slave in us. She’s a narrowly conceived character created by a man, but still, what a woman.

Don Jon, written, directed and starred in by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is about a young man struggling with an addiction to porno. Desperate to be thoughtful and energetic, it struggles from a narrow perspective. Barbara is the essence of such male centric thinking. We’re supposed to think, “bitch,” every time she’s on screen.

Though such nastiness far surpasses Barbara’s close-minded ignorance. She’s a character of circumstance, and Don Jon is a premeditated attack against anyone judging those with porn addictions.

It isn’t the first time porn addiction has been broken down as a problem for the man watching it, but not so much for the people making it (and what about the female addict, if there is one out there?). What makes Don Jon a gem is how lucky we are to have been introduced to Barbara and to bask in Scarlett Johansson being as mean as she wants to be.

 

9. Lucy (2014)

Lucy

It’s an urban myth that we use only ten percent of our brains at any given time. It’s just another lie we tell ourselves in the hope that there is more to being human.

Yet Luc Besson did great things with this dumb urban myth. He used it to make Lucy, a sci-fi gangster film starring Scarlett Johansson.

Lucy is a doe-eyed moron who ends up running drugs for a group of Korean mobsters. She ingests a bag full of an experimental drug and it causes her brain to operate well beyond its normal means.

Besson has a blast with all the new things he makes the brain do. Lucy can jump through time, stop it, reverse it, fast-forward it. She can touch cellular waves. And she becomes completely self-confident. Lucy has super strength, too, so she uses it to dispose of the Korean gangsters.

Why bring science into a sci-fi movie? What’s the fun in that? It’s better when science-fiction goes science-fantasy, allowing us to revel in the possibilities of the impossible.

Johansson looks like she’s having a lot of fun. In fact, Lucy is a lot of fun. It’s like it made every decision, down to the smallest detail, correctly. Lucy comes together so well, it’s impossible to critique it. It doesn’t mean it’s an amazing movie.

It’s just very well put together, and how often can you say that about a movie with such seemingly low aspirations? Besson touches on all things – crime thriller, sci-fi, visual mastery – and comes away with an indefinable movie. It is like Lucy is an urban myth—a perfect movie that doesn’t give a shit about being good.

 

8. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

the man who wasn't there film

After viewing The Man Who Wasn’t There upon its release at Cannes, French film critic Michael Cimente summed it up as a ninety-minute film that plays for two hours. Roger Ebert, in his own review of the film, used this quote by Cimente to make the same point in a positive light.

Whether you side with Ebert or Cimente, it is fair to say that The Man Who Wasn’t There is a stylistic effort from the Coen brothers.

Flowing down its lazy river pacing is a draconian sense of fate. The Man Who Wasn’t There is an interesting thriller because you cannot tell if it is embracing itself as a neo-noirist thriller or if it is slightly mocking the tropes of the genre. Set in Santa Rosa, California, in 1948, it is harder still to identify the movie’s relationship to Hitchcock.

Shadow of a Doubt – a classic in Hitchcock’s oeuvre – was set in the same location and was made in 1948. Are the Coen’s poking fun at Hitchcock, or have they created an homage to him? It can be both, and an experienced viewer of Coen brothers’ films would likely settle at arm’s distance from any definitive claim.

Birdie, the high school girl in The Man Who Wasn’t There, neighbor to Ed Crane, the blackmailing barber at the heart of the plot, is the most interesting detail in the case of the Coen’s versus Hitchcock, The Man Who Wasn’t There versus Shadow of a Doubt.

Anyone who knows Shadow will know Young Charlie, the high school heroine of that film’s plot. Birdie, while not the driving force Charlie is in Shadow, is clearly an antithetical character to Charlie. She is not the average teenager from 1948. She’s cool, calm, wise, and sexual in an unapologetic, nearly amoral way. She is everything Charlie doesn’t want to be, and in this respect, flaunts everything Hitchcock only winked at.

Johansson plays Birdie with tongue in cheek. Her sexual energy is tied into a braid of Birdie’s hair. The Man Who Wasn’t There plays with the gender norms of the thrillers of old, and though it comes across more like a noir (in the same way Hitchcock hinted at noir themes in Shadow of a Doubt), it holds the truer essence of ambiguity of the great thrillers of the studio days of Hollywood.

 

7. Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

When looking at “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” the 17th Century painting by the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, it is fun to embrace its mysterious quality. Who is this girl staring at us so longingly, and what is the deal with her earring?

It’s obvious to assume some romantic connection between her and Vermeer. Of course, if it were named “The Girl,” instead of simply “Girl,” that connection might be more enticing. Words are powerful, and titles to paintings speak louder than maybe is prudent.

Peter Webber consulted the book (also titled “Girl with a Pearl Earring”) to illustrate the potential circumstance behind the creation of Vermeer’s famous painting. Romance, jealousy, passion and obsession are at the heart of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, the maid hired by the Vermeer household who ends up the subject of the painting. Griet is a hard worker and decidedly unromantic. She makes for a funny addition to a household full of tension. Vermeer is the moody painter, his wife the desperate muse, his mother-in-law a greedy old lady and his children a trio of brats.

Girl with a Pearl Earring trudges along, the tension building, but the mystery being chipped away. Johansson, in an understated performance, has to play Griet without any poetic monologues or expositional dialogue. She is a maid, and she is to speak only when spoken to. The performance is mostly facial expressions, and in them we get some of the mystery of the painting back, the subject’s circumstances uncovered, but what makes her tick forever unknown.

 

6. Ghost World (2001)

Ghost World

It sucks when a friendship ends, right? We’re not talking about a big fight, or unforgivable wrong that ends it. The ones where it just happens are the strangest. It’s a natural part of life, yet it stings a little deeper. Unlike family, we choose our friends. And we choose them with more thoughtfulness than how the heart chooses a lover.

Maybe it hurts a little more, because it’s often a welcomed ending. At the very least we’re comfortable with it. We grow older, mature, change and drift apart. It’s like finishing a really big book—you wish it would continue, but your relieved to close it.

In Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Enid and Rachel are best friends in high school. They are flag waving outcasts. They love being different, crave the negative attention. Together they play pranks and make fun of people.

However, when one of their pranks sends Enid on a wild goose chase down a rabbit hole of her own bizarre behavior, Rachel learns of her taste for the normal things the two once rebelled against. She likes boys and wants a career, while Enid wants to drift further away from these benchmarks of average life.

Scarlett Johansson, playing Rachel, is the “Robin” to Enid’s “Batman,” but all that changes seamlessly. She carries the unspoken hurt of a friendship souring, while perfecting the flippancy of a high schooler graduating, realizing her high school days, and friends, are over.

Ghost World is based off of the Daniel Clowes comic of the same title. Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation is nowhere near what the comic is, and yet this is not meant as a criticism. Zwigoff created his own mood for Ghost World that succeeded on its on two feet and as a nice companion to the comic’s eerily visceral vibe.

 

 

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  • SinJaiVak

    her?

    • Brian Lussier

      If you read the intro, the author states why he’s not putting that film on the list.

  • Brian Lussier

    She made three Woody Allen films, not two, and Lucy is a horrible film, despite it having cool action sequences, and Don Jon is even worse! She’s made a few films that are better than some of these. And also, you put The Prestige, which is fair because it’s a great film, but her performance in it was absolutely horrible! She was the ONE thing in that film that prevents it from the status of masterpiece.

    • Jules Neuman

      my bad on messing up the woody allen thing. yes I agree Don Jon stinks, but her performance is awesome, which is why i included it (and it is certainly an energetic movie). We are in total disagreement about Lucy and Under the Skin. I loved Lucy…fun, crazy, visually cool, gangster shoot-outs…and I totally believe it fully well knows how stupid it is and doesn’t care. Under the Skin is pretentious and gimmicky….it pats itself on the back and still everyone slaps away with it.

      • Brian Lussier

        Sorry, you just confused me. Why did you put Under The Skin #2 on the list if you disliked it so much? Also, in 1968, people called 2001: A Space Odyssey a mess and pretentious. Look at its reputation now. But I didn’t say anything about the film itself, I just said I thought Scarlett had been snubbed by the Academy for this one. I was fascinated by her performance and by the film itself. And BTW, I enjoy a film that dares to do something different, a film that relies more on mood than character arcs, narrative or psychology, a film that dares to depict irrationality in all its glory, which us humans often are, and this film did that. Too often in Hollywood, filmmakers try to put things in neat little boxes that can all be categorized easily. Life isn’t like that, the world is more complex than that, and humans too. This film provides no answer, like life. You have to seek those for yourself…

        • Jules Neuman

          Under the Skin put everything in a neat little box. It actually didn’t commit to “irrationality,” as you put it, or mood. The visual coolness of the black abyss the men follow her in to is never again displayed. It does go for a more straight forward narrative in the end. She meets the deformed gentleman, realizes some kind of moral code, hits the rode to find out what this human thing is all about, and ends up realizing the horror of being female in this world. It’s pretty clear, I think, and all the other foggy details and the amateur actors and such are more gimmick and less purposeful. And without going into a whole thing about 2001, Kubrick committed himself to that film, and it is purposefully ambiguous and the bulk of it works quite well as its own thrilling narrative. Under the Skin, too, is actually critically heralded, so it doesn’t share that quality with 2001. But I think Under the Skin is not fully committed to anything but forcing an impactful ending on us. I don’t know why I put it #2…you got me there, but I didn’t really consider the rankings so much beyond Lost In Translation…..I guess I was thinking more about the size of the role coupled with the performance over the films.

          • Brian Lussier

            Well, we’ll have to disagree on this one, I guess, which is fine. However, 2001 has a thrilling narrative?! Really?! Don’t get me wrong, Kubrick is my favorite director and 2001 is perhaps, with a few select others, the most important film ever made in my opinion, but calling its narrative thrilling is a little strange considering the film sort of doesn’t have a narrative, at least not in any traditional sense of the word. It’s five blocks put together, but is there really a story being told here? No! It’s a FILM, not a story. It relies on images and music more than narrative or character, and like many, I don’t even consider it so much cinema as much as visual poetry. Anyway…

          • Jules Neuman

            The middle portion, the space station, isn’t too ambiguous. Yes the beginning and end are doing something different, but the middle, which is long, is about HAL turning on the crew mates and killing them. It isn’t a Tim Sutton film—so vague, a slice of live sort of. It is clear what is happening in the middle part, how the action is being driven forward. I wouldn’t say the middle portion is more image and music that is carrying it….that just isn’t true. Your assertion that it is “visual poetry” and such, which you said for Under the Skin, too, is really vague and just words you are taking on. I don’t disagree, in a sense, but many films fit this “visual poetry” thing you keep saying, and it doesn’t mean the films are operating without plots or action or suspense. You keep making it like it has to be one or the other, and that just isn’t the case. I know not the whole film fits into the “story” or “plot”…..which is what I meant when I said 2001 is committed to its vision, and Under the Skin is not at all–it has a point to make, not a vision to carry forth. But interesting conversation, and better than being called a “moron” by you…more fruitful.

          • Brian Lussier

            Sorry about that, I was in a bad mood and I guess I took it out in the wrong contextcamd wrong person. Just to be clear though, I didn’t call Under The Skin visual poetry. I suggested there are some similarities between it and 2001 in its insistence on being more a mood film than a narrative one. But I certainly don’t think it compares to 2001 in ANY way! Nothing does, to me. I agree that there’s sort of a story in the middle of 2001, but a lot of why I don’t have the feeling I’m being told a story in it is that the only engaging character in it is HAL, who’s simply a red lens. The other thing I meant and failed to express is that, in many ways, 2001 could have worked just as well if it had been the same thing but without the dialogue. You could just have the music and the images and nothing would be missing from it, in many ways. It would still make sense (or not, depending if you’re on the side of the argument that states the film makes no literal sense). That is what I meant by it being visual (and I should have added musical) poetry more than cinema in the usual sense of the word.

          • I definitely thought of 2001 when watching UTS. I like UTS, LIT and Ghost World as the top three, but this is a pretty good list. I thought UTS was amazing, in many different ways, the music, the abstract imagey. I loved it. But it’s not for everyone. I WILL call UTS visual poetry. Loved the opening shot, much like 2001.

  • Dan Comfort

    Don’t forget two of her earlier films, Manny and Lo and The Horse Whisperer, where she acted with skill far exceeding her age.

  • Correction…. her name is Rebecca in Ghost World. Her has to be in that list as well as Manny & Lo & The Horse Whisperer

    Here’s my list of her best performances. I didn’t include Captain America: The Winter Soldier in the list because I hadn’t seen it at the time I posted the list.

    • Jules Neuman

      yikes…my mistake on that gaff. and nice list by you!

  • Martin

    So, the author is saying that half of Johansson’s talent is her beauty? and that’s the reason why he didn’t includes Her?.
    I’m sorry but i have to disagree here, i think she does a marvelous job in Her and to ignore her performance just for being a voice acting seems unfair.

    • Brian Lussier

      Yeah, and it’s funny because he also complains in the first paragraph about how actresses are often reduced to their beauty, and then he does the exact same thing, even going as far as saying he won’t put Her on the list so we can concentrate on her beauty (and acting)! Makes no sense whatsoever! What a moron, really!

      • Jules Neuman

        I didn’t “complain” about anything, I just said that I wanted to do the movies she was physically in, so we can enjoy her beauty and enjoy her acting (and because I had just written about Her in a different list, and didn’t want to regurgitate my own thoughts). I also said often actresses are only talked about for their beauty, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore it either. I think you are taking the intro a little too seriously, as I put the Her reference in to have it, but kept it out of the official list. But calling me a moron is a bit much, though you are entitled to say anything you want to in a comment thread.

    • Jules Neuman

      Her voice role was great, very well done, but I mean, she’s a good actress. Where do we draw the line on “great performances?” Should I just include everything, because she’s good? I’d say a voice performance is not anywhere close to as effective as a live one…..Phoenix has to sell that movie, he does the hardest work. So unfair? I don’t really think so….plus it’s my opinion. And nowhere in there did I say half her talent is her beauty. That’s a misreading on your part, though I will work to be clearer in the future.

      • Brian Lussier

        I don’t agree that Phoenix has the hardest job. He gets to use of all himself to sell his character to us; Johansson has nothing but her voice to sell us her character and make us believe she is a fully fleshed-out being. That’s a darn hard thing to do, and she managed it incredibly well!

        • Jules Neuman

          Well some might say that the expressions in acting, the physical part, is just as important, if not more so, than the voice. I mean, what were silent films? What is acting? It isn’t strictly voice acting, it is the total package. I agree that Johansson did a great job with the role, and it is a hard part in a live action, adult film, but I still thought Phoenix had to do a fair amount more to make the whole thing feel real. Difference of opinion, but I’m not sold on a voice being bigger than the whole.

          • Brian Lussier

            I’m not saying it’s bigger than the whole. But take out Scarlett’s “voice acting”, as you seem so intent on reducing it to, and watch what happens! Phoenix will look like an idiot or a paranoid schizophrenic and you won’t buy into the movie! Scarlett is the film’s soul, Phoenix is its heart. It takes both to make that story work.

          • Jules Neuman

            She’s voice acting. That’s what she’s doing. I don’t know what else you would call it. And yes, obviously that is true, but that’s a weak point, man. We’ll leave it here, though, because otherwise we’re arguing in circles. She was very important, of course, not saying otherwise.

  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    I can live with the fact that Her is out of the list, for once. 🙂

  • Arjun P

    Prestige sloppy? Really?

    • Jules Neuman

      in a narrative sense, yes, I’d say so, but the fun of this is to disagree

  • Rafael Rivera Rodriguez

    Sorry but she was sooooo miscast on Lucy, she is not an action film actress . She was terrible there.