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 ten Scarlett Johansson flicks that define her wide range of talents.
10. Don Jon (2013)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.