5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a straight-laced, take-no-chances type of gal. She goes on vacation for a summer in Spain with her friend Cristina almost out of feeling sorry for her. Cristina is a wanderer, lost and hoping to be found by some handsome Spaniard. They bump into a painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Both fall for him, though Vicky fights her lust while Cristina wills it on.
Woody Allen’s spiteful Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a wonderful romantic comedy drenched in the director’s dark disposition. He enjoys tormenting his characters, forcing Vicky to realize her bleak future married to an asshole named Doug. He, too, likes throwing cold water on the hot Spanish painter and his artistic lifestyle. The artist is not to be romanticized, says Allen, but it’s still better than the average life.
And then there’s Cristina, who, at first, is the goofy girl on the road to nowhere. For some reason, Allen takes, not pity, but a liking to her. He allows Cristina to be right in her way of life. This is not because she has the answers to anything, but because she is wise enough to understand all the things in life that she doesn’t want. This is as close to optimism as Woody Allen will get.
Scarlett Johansson plays one of her finest roles as Cristina. She displays a wide range of character types, going from slapstick to hopeless romantic, and finally ending as the great Holy woman on the mountaintop. Cristina is a brilliant character, because her progressions are as natural as rainfall on a cloudy day.
There is nothing forced in Cristina’s character, or in Johansson’s performance. Some might say it is perfection, but it’d be hyperbole in Woody Allen’s view of this imperfect existence.
4. The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan made magic cool again in The Prestige. Michael Caine plays a character whose sole purpose is to remind us that the fun isn’t in how the trick works, but that it works. Essentially this means to ignore the idea of a trick altogether—magic exists only if we believe in it. Doesn’t leave much room for a movie about magic, but we’ll resist this digression.
The Prestige is about a petty war being fought by two horrible men. The Great Danton (Hugh Jackman), the proper props man of the 19th Century London magic scene battles Alfred Bordon (Christian Bale), a gross street rat with a top hat. They ruin each other’s acts, injure each other’s assistants, and steal each other’s secrets.
This is where Olivia comes in. She is Danton’s assistant, until he sends her to Borden to gather information on his most famous act and she ends up falling in love with him. Olivia is played by Scarlett Johansson. Johansson, like innumerable women, has to suffer as Olivia through a battle of male egos.
Bale and Jackman—Borden and Danton, respectively—seem to be taking the act too seriously, at times hamming it up, though at least doing so entertainingly. Johansson, on the other hand, grows tired of the theatrics as Olivia grows tired of coming second to the act.
The Prestige, as is type A behavior from Christopher Nolan, goes so far to take our attention away from what it doesn’t want to focus on, it becomes sloppy and stop making sense. The battle between the two nemeses, however, is perfectly brutal. Watching their hatred evolve is a joyful experience.
3. Match Point (2005)
Match Point is part of Woody Allen’s late career renaissance as a beacon of nihilism. In Match Point, he basks in the cruel nature of luck. Who gets it and who needs it are irrelevant. Woody wants us to know is that luck is all that matters to our success.
Nola Rice, played by Scarlet Johansson, is given the cruelest of cinematic existences. She’s a failing actress lucky enough to have fallen in love with a very rich young man from a well-to-do family of Londoners. Her luck runs out when a diabolical, possibly psychopathic tennis player begins dating the sister of her boyfriend.
Suddenly, he is with all the luck, and decides he wants to push it and go after Nola. They have an affair, because what actor can betray the romantic air of adultery? Soon Nola falls in love, but her new lover, having gulped down a taste of the good life, realizes he isn’t willing to lose it all for his struggling mistress.
Johansson must’ve seen the other side of the coin, what her life could have been if she hadn’t been successful, in Nola. She makes a passionate turn as the hapless actress, lost in a sea of passion and desperate for life to toss her a bone. What she receives is anything but luck, and Allen seems to take pleasure in rubbing our noses in it. Of course, Nola, in all her hopeless suffering, is a treasure of filmic pain.
2. Under the Skin (2013)
Under the Skin is like two ideas crammed together in one movie. The first half is about an alien traveling to Earth to dupe unsuspecting Scots into following her to their demise. We’re never sure of the mission at hand, but the viciousness of it is supposed to make her mean. The alien—played by Scarlett Johansson—takes the form of a beautiful woman.
This comes into play later when the alien, sick over her killing ways, tries to escape and lead a life inhabiting the human costume it is wearing. The alien learns a valuable lesson—life as a woman sucks and is dangerous. It’s not a subtle lesson, and it doesn’t expound much we didn’t already know about being a woman, but it’s certainly aided by some striking visuals.
Under the Skin is successful for all the abstract reasons a film can succeed. Its imagery is, at times, hypnotic. The location shooting allows for some beautiful shots of the Scottish hills and some local color from the amateur actors employed. And then there is Scarlett Johansson, who plays the alien.
Under the Skin is her vehicle, and though there’s less to the role than might appear, she does a wonderful job being uncomfortable in her own skin.
Perhaps, too, this is a chance for Johansson to act the incidental feminist, unafraid of the public scorn many receive these days for having unpopular opinions. She gets to blast misogyny within the confines of science fiction. She’s an alien, and so she roars in a language that is anything but human, in a medium that speaks clearly to everyone.
1. Lost in Translation (2003)
Bill Murray reinvented himself in Lost in Translation. His witty jerk shtick took on a layer of sadness, surprising many and launching him into the stratosphere of cult performance. Lost in Translation hinges more on Scarlett Johansson. The two play characters—Murray a middle-aged actor, Johansson a young newlywed—stuck in Tokyo together. They forge a strong bond, decidedly vague.
The film is slightly meandering and even uneventful, but its success hinges on its final scene, when the two characters say goodbye to one another and return to their regular lives. In this final goodbye, we are kept at a distance and unable to hear what they say to each other. It is a tender moment and it undoubtedly works. Without this moment of ultimate privacy, Lost in Translation would be a failed experiment.
Murray is able to rest on his mean-spirited humor to get through the picture. He is loved by virtue of his public persona merging with his cinematic one. What Johansson has to do is tougher. Not only is she playing the straight man, she needs to be in awe of Murray’s character, and therefore has the harder sell of making it all feel real.
When we say “real,” it’s still a movie, but if we are meant to buy into their relationship, which is essential to Lost in Translation, then someone has to make it feel real. Johansson, playing the admirer, the sad sack, the lost one looking to be found, could have become a servant to Murray’s performance.
Instead she’s the stone thrown through the glass house, breaking through Murray’s stoic dark humor, making us believe she is the one who has gotten to his heart. She is not his wife, or a floozy, a fling, a last ditch romantic effort by an aging man trying to grab life. She gets to his core, something deep inside him. It binds them forever, whether they ever see each other again or not.
Johansson is in rare form. It is hard to even call it a performance. She is so naturally in tune with the production, with her co-star, as though she isn’t in front of a camera. It defines her as an actress. She is always so natural, no matter what film. It’s a wonder she isn’t in everything. This may not be the best movie she’s been in, but it’s her best performance to date. With an actress as good as she is, you can’t go wrong.
Author Bio: Jules is a former fiction writer turned cinephile, working towards a career in film criticism. He has a podcast (with a cohost), entitled “Gooble Gobble,” dedicated to the weird, unknown and forgotten films hiding in the catalogues of streaming services like Netflix (coming out on iTunes and www.gobblepod.com Spring/Summer of 2015).