As the career of American actor and activist Scarlett Johansson enters in fourth decade now seems as good a time as any to examine the full body of work of Hollywood’s favourite leading lady. A successful child actor, Johansson came into her own in the early 2000s starring in independent films, collaborating with Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, Robert Redford, and Sofia Coppola, among others. In recent years her ascent has been marked by moments of true blockbuster stardom, staring as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and even as the title character in the highest-grossing French film of all time.

As no less an authority than Tom Cruise declared earlier this year, Johansson feels like a classic movie star. Traditionally beautiful, in ways that many filmmakers have sought to enhance and subvert, and adept at drama, comedy, action, or whatever genre she puts her mind to. She has also proved herself a powerful player in the film industry lately through her high-profile lawsuit against Marvel, illustrating how the indelible talent involved in film production should always take priority over the corporate moneymen.

So what better time to embark on a comprehensive countdown of her 10 career highlights? This list will aim to include many facets of Johansson’s talents as a performer, evaluating both her roles and the films themselves.

14. The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma, 2006)

scarlett johansson movie performances 10 The Black Dahlia

Sometimes in cinema there can be a good, even great performance, concealed within an otherwise shoddy final product and the first entry on this list is certainly a prevalent example of such an outlier. Though you’d struggle to find many die-hard fans of Brian De Palma’s ambitious true-crime neo-noir The Black Dahlia, there’s no denying Johansson’s charm in the role of Kay Lake.

Using her old-school sense of Hollywood glamour to her advantage, you get the sense that Scarlett is the only actor on De Palma’s wavelength, knowingly playing within the stereotypes of the classic femme fatale trope whilst adding a high dose of camp in the process, subverting and modernising the role in a manner she had also done the year before in the far superior Match Point. By all means a fun performance, if you’re willing to sit through this prolonged failure of a film to witness it.

13. The Horse Whisperer (Robert Redford, 1998)

scarlett johansson movie performances 9 The Horse Whisperer

Much like the aforementioned Black Dahlia, Robert Redford’s 1998 hit drama The Horse Whisperer is far from a perfect film, but is truly elevated yet again by Johansson’s potent performance as Grace MacLean, a young girls whose life is forever changed by a life-threatening injury sustained whilst riding a horse.

Similar List: 10 Alternate Dog Movies That You Should Watch

To say the actress was only 13 when shooting commenced on the film, Scarlett does a lot of heavy lifting, and manages to outshine Hollywood icons Robert Redford and Dianne Wiest in the process, as well as a host of other stars in the ensemble cast. Utilising both her precocious wit and wisdom to create an engaging screen presence, as well as effectively portraying the trauma of her ailments, and, of course, a classical sense of whimsical wonder at the titular horse whisperer’s abilities. A challenging role in a decidedly unchallenging film.

12. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

scarlett johansson movie performances 7 Her

If this were a ranking purely based off of the quality of the film itself, then Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning hypermodern sci-fi romance of a man falling in love with his operating system would be much higher. However, this is primarily a ranking of performance and the range of Johansson’s acting abilities are somewhat hindered by her purely sonic contributions here. That being said, she does an excellent job as the sweet, sultry voice of robot Samantha.

Related: The Feminine Side of Theodore in Her

It’s remarkable to think that her vocals were an afterthought (brought in during post-production after Samantha Morton’s resignation) as it’s impossible to imagine the film without her, with Scarlett delicately and creatively playing upon her beauty to create a memorable and loveable character; without her the high-concept premise of the movie might now have stuck the landing. One of her most difficult and potent roles – even if you can’t see her in it.

11. Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)

The 2000s were an extremely patchy period for writer-director Woody Allen but he briefly returned to form in 2005 with Match Point, a gripping psychological thriller buoyed in no small part by one of Scarlett’s most memorable performances. Utilising her skills to create a more developed and interesting brand of femme fatale (also seen in The Black Dahlia), in its finest moments Scarlett’s portrayal of Chloe is one that transcends the occasional histrionics of Allen’s script, her guile as an actress seeing through the facade of tropes and cliches of the murder-mystery genre to deliver a fresh new interpretation on a character that in other hands could have become a sloppy caricature.

Also by Woody Allen: Cafe Society (2016)

Hardly an understated role, but an effective one nonetheless as she shows herself as the vital cog of the Match Point machine, providing the irreplaceable star power needed to turn this tale of chance, fate and morality into an Oscar-nominated gem.

10. Lucy

An ambitious, if flawed, auteur project from Luc Besson, Lucy pits Johansson atop an international constellation of stars, joined on screen by such diverse talent as Morgan Freeman, Pilot Asbæk, and Choi Min-sik. The result was the highest-grossing film domestically in France of all time. As well as proving Johansson’s credentials as a transatlantic A-lister, Lucy should act as a lesson to Kevin Feige and co. in how to effectively utilise her in an action setting. The title character is steely-eyed and determined, eerily intimidating whilst maintaining audience sympathy; because we witness her transformation from vulnerable young woman to mythically evolved warrior, the payoffs are ever more satisfying.

Away from Johansson’s performance Lucy still stands out as one of the more dynamic and absorbing action films of recent years. Compared especially to Besson’s underwhelming later work – 2019’s Anna in particular – this seems particularly sharp in its framing and editing. Besson was, after all, synonymous with ‘Cinema du Look’ in the 1980s and is successful here in transitioning his style from more oddball independent films to something thoroughly mainstream. In an age where the mid-budget, non-IP pet project appears to be a dying art form, films such as Lucy are ripe for revisit and a reappraisal as genuinely original pieces of work which, in their visual invention, toyed with the medium and genre expectations. It would also help if more of these action movies had Johansson in them, of course.

9. Asteroid City

Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

After a successful collaboration with Wes Anderson’s disciple Taika Waititi in 2019 (more on that later) and a brief vocal appearance in the animated Isle of Dogs (2018) it seems only natural that Johansson would collaborate with the master of symmetry and deadpan himself in live action. Indeed she excels in the distinctive world of Wes, contributing in no small part to an extremely satisfactory return to form for the director. Starring opposite Jason Schwartzman in a romance filled with palpable chemistry, Johansson demonstrates that profile of performer is of no importance to Anderson – in the make-believe worlds of his imagination all performers are judged by their ability to deliver his witty dialogue with the necessary bland of passion and pathos. Johansson, of course, passes this test with flying colours.

There is certainly a metatextual aspect to Johansson’s casting. A star who with her range and beauty often evokes the movie stars of the 1950s is cast as an actress from exactly that time period, and her bond with photographer Angie Steenbeck (Schwartzman) is forged by both a mutual artistic appreciation and their shared emotional struggles as single parents navigating the raising of brilliant, stargazing children amid an international crisis. Within Asteroid City (the desert town itself, rather than the movie) Johansson is the beating heart around which everything revolves and the screen is truly lit up by her charisma and natural screen presence. Here’s hoping for more Johansson-Anderson collaborations in the future.

8. Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019)

2019 was the best year of Scarlett Johansson’s career: as well as starring in the year’s highest grossing film (Avengers: Endgame), she earned two Oscar nominations which illustrated succinctly the range of her talents. Whilst Marriage Story’s dramatic heft will earn it placement slightly higher on this list, Jojo Rabbit allowed a vessel for her comedic chops in this ink black yet whimsical film by Taika Waititi. Waititi himself plays Hitler of all people, joining a rich tradition linking The Great Dictator to The Producers of Hollywood directors using satire to spoof the absurdity of fascist iconography and ideology. Implanted into the worldview of Jojo, a child, the hypocrisies and illogical nature of Nazism are crystal clear, exposed especially by the presence of a young Jewish girl Johansson’s mother character is hiding in their attic (played by Thomasin McKenzie) who doesn’t seem all that evil after all.

Johansson caught a fair bit of flack for her conflation of accents (German? Australian? Nigerian) in this movie, but in Waititi’s world of heightened absurdist realism it somehow sticks the landing. Otherwise her performance is solid as a rock, tying the movie to an emotional core of a mother-son relationship that takes tragic twists and turns. The connection the audience witnesses between Jojo (a precociously talented Roman Griffin Davis) and Johansson is pivotal to Jojo Rabbit’s success, and what a success it was, with Johansson’s Oscar nod being one of six nominations, with Waititi winning for Best Adapted Screenplay ahead of Little Women and The Irishman.

7. The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber, 2003)

In this biopic Johansson is given the near impossible task of rendering Vermeer’s iconic ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ into a fully-fleshed character in this biopic. Despite being a teenager at the time Johansson manages this feat. Under the steady hand of director Peter Webber, Johansson leads an all-star cast in this absorbing period drama of romance and art. What could have simply been an idealised and simplified portrayal of the great artist’s maiden and muse becomes a performance of startling confidence, vulnerability and duality.

On the one hand, we have the stern yet obedient servant of the Vermeer house, partaking in a burgeoning romance with the local butcher (Cillian Murphy) and adapting to a new lifestyle. On the other, we see her character Griet as the enchanting and ethereal inspiration behind Vermeer’s (Colin Firth) masterwork. Thanks to Johansson’s ample abilities as an actress, both roles are navigated with elegance, grace and bite, failing to forgo her trademark no-nonsense wit and presenting Griet as a conduit for Vermeer’s genius, rather than the subservient muse whose image he exploited. By the time you see Griet in that iconic pose, head shifted rightwards, eyes glinting, the painting is rendered in a new light. In that sense, you feel, Johansson and Webber’s work has been done.

6. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008)

scarlett johansson movie performances 8 Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Johansson’s three collaborations with Woody Allen in the 2000s all have their charms. Match Point (2005) has moments of genuine sweat-inducing suspense, whereas Scoop (2006) is an entertainingly farcical take on a similar murder-mystery theme. However, their final team-up Vicky Cristina Barcelona is by far the best film, a sign of Allen returning to his old formula of philosophically seasoned romantic comedies defined by their sharp insights into the nature of human relationships.

Johansson stars alongside Rebecca Hall as friends holidaying at a relative’s home in rural Catalonia. They fall into the orbit of Juan Antonio, an enigmatic artist played by Javier Bardem, and his tempestuous wife, played by Bardem’s real-life spouse Penelope Cruz. Johansson enters an audacious relationship with the two of them, a surprisingly progressive and compassionate view from Allen of transgressive romance. The younger Johansson stands out among her Oscar-winning peers through her blend of youthful naivety and the agency of a modern woman certain of her path through life and love. Hall’s character, by contrast, is more of a typical Allen protagonist – neurotic and helplessly romantic – and the juxtaposition leads to dovetailing plots, each of which contains laughs along the way. And to top it all off, Allen and DP Javier Aguirresarobe capture the titular city in beautiful golden hourlight, making this one of the director’s most beautiful and fulfilling films of the new millennium.

5. Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013)

Photo credit: Daniel McFadden ©2013 Relativity Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The only feature film yet directed by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a bold exploration of the effects of pornography on relationships in the internet age. Rather than recycling the cliche arguments of the age-old crusade against pornography, Gordon-Levitt laser focuses in on the effect the content can have on the men who watch as well as the women who perform. The commodification and exploitation of sex is a losing game for both parties, as highlighted by Jon’s personal failings on the dating scene.

Johansson stars as Barbara, Jon’s girlfriend who helps to assuage his issues of objectification by making him wait for sex and encouraging him to further his career. Nevertheless Jon remains addicted to porn and the unrealistic expectations it instills renders sex with Barbara benign by comparison. Here Johansson’s beauty serves to emphasise the extent of Jon’s addiction, as the blonde-haired, slim Barbara embodies every aspect of the idealised, feminine woman, yet she still cannot compete with the world of fantasy. Whilst she and Gordon-Levitt have a certain chemistry, it is deliberately restrained – after all, despite moments of comic levity Don Jon is still a movie about the damaging effects of addiction and the tone can be suitably bleak at times. Gordon-Levitt’s ability to vacillate between the comic and tragic modes of storytelling is indicative of impressive skill for a first-time filmmaker, and it’s a shame he hasn’t stepped back into the director’s chair since.

4. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

scarlett johansson movie performances 6 Ghost World

Ghost World helped to establish Scarlett Johansson as an indie staple of the 2000s, shining brightly in her first truly great role. Terry Zwiggof’s cult classic dark comedy, based on Daniel Closes’ comic book, tells the story of two young women, Johansson’s Rebecca and her friend Enid (Thora Bird) who represent very different facets of burgeoning womanhood. Both characters share a precocious attitude and dry wit that defines the movie’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, but Johansson shows a more progressive and forward-thinking adolescent archetype. The contrast creates an utterly compelling little character study, particularly once the charming sad sack character Seymour (a career-best Steve Buscemi) enters the picture.

Speaking in perpetually dulcet tones, Rebecca’s sardonic one-liners and relentless cynicism exemplify the voice of a generation. Because they are ignored, they are ignorant in return, though like all teenagers they seem to think they’ve got it all worked out. When critics try to conjure up lists of the definitive Gen X movies, Ghost World should come into the dialogue far more often, and it’s probably this subtext which has made the film such an enduring cult favourite beyond its initially lukewarm commercial success.

3. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray are a cinematic odd couple – 34 years apart and with wildly incongruous personas – but for a few wistful days in Japan their chemistry is palpable and their connection endlessly heartfelt. Lost in Translation, which remains Sofia Coppola’s best work, is a fascinating portrayal of human connection in a modern world that is ephemeral by design. Though incredibly romantic, the movie remains gorgeously elusive all the way up to its famous final whisper.

Johansson plays Charlotte, an aimless post-grad whose enigmatic beauty chimes with the fading light of Murray, who plays Bob, a suitably aging movie star. She adapts her acting style perfectly to Coppola’s distinctive brand of lyrical loneliness, the sense of being caught within something bigger than you can comprehend. In this case the exploration of the human condition and connection between people, set in the metropolitan haze of modern day Tokyo, asks questions that extends far beyond the 72 hours Charlotte and Bob spend together. Coppola’s Oscar-winning screenplay may be asking us: Do we *need* to know the answers to these questions? After all, neither Charlotte nor Bob seem to have any idea yet for a few days they were genuinely happy in one another’s company. Upon release much attention was drawn to Bill Murray’s dramatic role as Bob, subverting his status as a comedy icon, but Johansson is just as impressive, and won a BAFTA for her work here.

2. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Leaving Hollywood in favour of Scotland, Under the Skin represents the most comprehensive upending of Johansson’s star persona to date, even if it relies on her talents as the crutch of a chilling sci-fi horror classic. Jonathan Glazer casts Johansson as a dead-eyed, predatory alien seductress who roams around in her car to the music of Mica Levi’s haunting industrial score, bathed in perfect light by Daniel Landin’s cinematography as she scours Edinburgh for prey. In her most paired-back role, lacking in much dialogue for one, she is at her most otherworldly.

Glazer’s use of hidden cameras and non-actors enhances the everyday earthiness of the story in a way which enhances, rather than diminishes, the bizarre nature of the storyline. Films such as Independence Day may have made aliens a part of Hollywood legend, but in a more stripped-back environment the idea of an alien, unknown ‘other’ is genuinely frightening once again. The tonal effect of this unorthodox filmmaking process is staggering, and helps us to view the being behind the black wig and British accent which Johansson sports throughout. This is a mostly mute portrayal of a distinctly feminine search for identity, presented in a deeply unsettling manner by one of the most unique and bold working directors. With Glazer’s new film The Zone of Interest on the way, what better time to revisit the strangest movie yet to have Johansson’s name scrawled on the poster.

1. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)

In many ways Marriage Story also sees Johansson playing against type. De-glamourised from Hollywood starlet to Off-Broadway performer with hair cut boyishly short, Johansson plays Nicole, a woman in the process of divorcing her theatre director husband Charlie (Adam Driver). As the pair go to and fro in the midsts of marital grief, Baumbach’s camera places the two actors front and centre: the direct, unmissable emphasis of every frame is acting. The result? Without a doubt the greatest performances of both Johansson’s and Driver’s careers.

Marriage Story is excellent, but without Johansson the entire enterprise would fall apart. The work is undoubtedly confessional from Baumbach, reflecting on his own infidelities and separation from his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh years prior. As a result the characterisations of Nicole are relatively weak, and far more pathos and empathy is afforded to Charlie’s point of view. However, Johansson delivers a touching performance both universal and intimate, pinpointing Nicole’s exact artistic and personal aspirations and acting as a mouthpiece for creative women everywhere who have had to exist within the orbit of celebrated white male artists. A true testament to her talents, this should have been the work that brought home long-awaited Oscar gold, but the wait continued after an undeserved loss to a conventional biopic performance (Renée Zellweger in Judy). Once the Academy is ready to begin celebrating as an art beyond impersonation, surely Johansson’s time will come.

Best Scarlett Johansson Movie Performances on Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic

Similar Posts