10 Good Johnny Depp Movies

Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Johnny Depp is a rarity in Hollywood. Since his film career started in 1984, he’s had the good fortune and willpower to select interesting projects instead of easy paydays. That’s not to say he’s suffered, though, as Depp has made over 40 features during that time (not to mention the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise sending him into a whole different tax bracket).

While most moviegoers have thrilled to the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow, there are plenty of good Johnny Depp movies that have flown under the radar. This list includes some of those hidden gems, as well as commercial hits and works that have earned the actor critical acclaim. For those looking for unconventional entertainment, try any of the films listed below.


Blow (2001) – In the ’70s and ’80s, George Jung turned drug smuggling into an art form. In the process, he made millions of dollars before his inevitable downfall. This is his story.

Depp plays Jung as a likable nonconformist who doesn’t think twice about breaking the law in order to make an easy score. His initial forays into running marijuana from Mexico are wildly successful–except for a stint in prison–and he soon graduates to a relationship with the Medellin Cartel of Columbia. Besides the money and mansions, George is also able to bed and wed the feisty Mirtha (Penelope Cruz).

But family life, continued run-ins with the law, and health problems all begin to take their toll on our coked-up protagonist. As you might expect from any movie about drugs, George’s rise is followed by his fall, but Depp’s portrayal manages to make this true-life story engaging from start to finish. Co-starring Ray Liotta, Franka Potente, Paul Reubens, and Ethan Suplee.

Donnie Brasco (1997) – Depp once again plays a real-life individual, this time slipping into the leather jacket of Joseph D. Pistone, an FBI agent who infiltrates the mob using the alias of “Donnie Brasco.” His belief in law and order are enough to get him to go along with the assignment, but he soon finds himself growing fond of the mob lifestyle and mentor “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), an aging assassin with a laundry list of personal problems. The merging of his two lives causes considerable friction with his wife (Anne Heche), and Donnie must also deal with guilt over his eventual betrayal of Ruggiero, an act that will surely lead to the hitman’s death.

Depp once again demonstrates his acting prowess, imbuing Pistone with a likable charm that allows the audience to give him a pass when committing acts of violence and treachery. And while Ruggiero is a miserable crook who’s killed more than 25 men for the mob, Pacino’s weary portrayal forces viewers to focus on his disappointing life instead of his various misdeeds. A must-see for fans of mob movies.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) – Director Robert Rodriguez wraps up his “Mariachi Trilogy” with this tale of vengeful musician/folk hero El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), who’s recruited by a CIA operative (Depp) to stop a Mexican general from overthrowing the government. While the overall plot may sound simple enough, Rodriguez wanted to mimic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by throwing in a multitude of characters and sub-plots. That’s why we get manipulative Mexican drug lords (Willem Dafoe), world-weary American expatriates (Mickey Rourke), retired FBI agents with a score to settle (Ruben Blades), cruel-yet-sultry special operatives (Eva Mendes), and Rodriguez favorites like Salma Hayek and Danny Trejo. Some fans of El Mariachi might be disappointed with the amount of screen time he’s forced to share with the supporting cast, but the payoff is well worth it thanks to quirky characters, endless amount of gunplay, and enough explosions to make Michael Bay blush.

Depp creates another memorable character with CIA agent Sheldon Sands, especially while he demonstrates his murderous obsession with a Mexican dish known as Puerco Pibil. When he’s not searching for the perfect version of the dish, he’s wearing outrageous disguises, gunning down the opposition, and generally maneuvering characters like pieces on a chessboard. Even a major setback later in the film fails to diminish his spirit, and it gives Depp yet another bullet in his already robust acting arsenal.

Benny & Joon (1993) – While Johnny Depp has starred in all manner of films, it’s the romantic roles that have elevated him to the status of international sex symbol. Benny & Joon, the tale of two eccentric characters falling in love, is one of the best examples.

Mary Stuart Masterson stars as Juniper “Joon” Pearl, a young woman who suffers from severe anxiety and sudden emotional outbursts. Her brother Benny (Aidan Quinn) cares for her as best he can, but the constant demands have kept him from having a life of his own. As Benny begins to seriously consider putting Joon in a special home, a solution arrives in the form of Sam (Depp), a unique fellow obsessed with the works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Joon and Ben become fast friends, but this new dynamic is threatened once they take their relationship to the next logical level.

Since Depp has always excelled as misfit or outsider, he dons the role of Sam like an old, familiar shirt. His scenes with Joon combine a myriad of emotions, but it’s the lighthearted moments that make the film such a winner. Highlights include Ben’s take on Chaplin’s dancing potatoes from The Gold Rush, as well as his public display of comedy using only a hat as a prop (a la Keaton). Romantics of all ages are encouraged to give this one a try.

Finding Neverland (2004) – Depp donned a Scottish accent and earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as playwright J.M. Barrie, the man responsible for the timeless children’s classic Peter Pan. We learn that Barrie’s primary inspiration for his play came from the four young sons of widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), and the film covers their relationship from a chance meeting in a London park to a finale that’s sure to leave many viewers in tears. What happens in between perfectly suits Depp’s talents as an actor, as he gets to be charming yet still a dreamy outsider. Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace) handles the directing chores, while the supporting cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, and Toby Jones.

Edward Scissorhands (1990) – While Tim Burton may not be synonymous with love stories, this bizarre and touching fantasy shows that he’s more than up to the task. This would be the first of many collaborations between the director and Johnny Depp, although actors like Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks were once in the running for the lead role.

Depp stars as Edward, an artificial man created by an inventor (Vincent Price in his last role) who lives in a creepy mansion on a hill overlooking an idyllic American town. Unfortunately, his creator dies before he can make the final adjustments, so Edward is left with hands made of scissors. Years later, he’s discovered by compassionate Avon saleswoman Pegg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) and taken back to suburbia. But before you can say “doomed romance,” Edward becomes smitten with Peg’s teenage daughter, Kim (Wynona Ryder), a development that causes considerable problems for the naive automaton.

While his lines are minimal, Depp manages to emote like nobody’s business. From shock and dismay to sheer joy, Edward serves as a blank slate for Burton to skillfully draws his conclusions about love, loss, and life in the burbs. Punctuated by the director’s dark, quirky sense of humor, Edward Scissorhands presents a romantic comedy that’s truly original.

Ed Wood (1994) – Four years after Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp teamed up again for the somewhat true tale of Ed Wood, the man considered by many to be the worst filmmaker who ever lived. Depp’s gleeful performance transforms Wood into the patron saint of the hopelessly untalented, but his enthusiasm rarely wanes despite financial woes, the drug-induced decline of his idol (Martin Landau, excellent as Bela Lugosi), and relationship issues stemming from his love of crossdressing. The supporting cast includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, George “The Animal” Steele and Bill Murray, and it remains an enduring monument to those can-do individuals who keep making “art” despite being given the cold shoulder by mainstream Hollywood.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – The horror genre has long provided a springboard for up-and-coming performers, and Johnny Depp was no exception. His first major movie role was as Glen Lantz, the ill-fated boyfriend of heroine Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) in this classic from Wes Craven. If you’re only familiar with the lackluster 2010 remake, make sure to give the original a chance.

The film revolves around suburban teens being hunted down and killed in their dreams by a horribly burned madman known as Freddy Krueger (the iconic Robert Englund). Only our heroine seems to realize the truth, but to stop him she’ll have to weather a series of attacks that increasingly blur the line between fantasy and reality.

Experienced horror fans will know that Glen is toast the moment they see him, but watching a future superstar at work is still a treat. Englund is the real standout in this film, however, giving Freddy a twisted menace that would be replaced in later films with a more comedic tone. Craven, for his part, shows a mastery of the genre and the ability to play with the expectations of his audience at every turn.

Dead Man

Dead Man (1995) – Those looking for a traditional Western should stay far away from this black-and-white film directed by Jim Jarmusch. If, however, you’re interested in trying something different, this postmodern Western may just do the trick.

Depp stars as William Blake, a mild-mannered accountant from Cleveland who accepts a job in the oddly-named frontier town of Machine. After finding the position already filled–and being chased from the premises by gun-toting owner John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his final role)–Blake falls into bed with a former prostitute (Mili Avital) who now makes a living selling paper flowers. Their romantic interlude is interrupted by her ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne), and a sudden exchange of gunfire leaves Blake as the only survivor, albeit with a bullet lodged in his chest. Turns out the recently deceased boyfriend was the son of Dickinson, and the wealthy businessman hires three notorious killers (Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, and Eugene Byrd) to bring our protagonist back dead or alive.

But that’s just the first act. The movie takes on an even more spiritual tone from there, introducing an American Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who believes Blake is the reincarnation of the English poet of the same name. With his new companion by his side, Blake undertakes vision quests, defends himself against psychotic denizens of the Old West, and generally looks for a quiet place to lie down and die.

Neil Young provides the sparse and somewhat repetitive score with an electric guitar, while Jarmusch depicts the brutality of both nature and civilization with a matter-of-fact attitude. Depp bestows a naive quality on Blake that holds up even under fire, and the intriguing supporting cast includes names such as John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alfred Molina.

The Ninth Gate (1999) – Depp stars as Dean Corso, a rare books dealer who has no problem with lying and stealing to turn a profit. When he’s hired by the creepy and uber-wealthy Boris Balkan (Frank Langella at his most menacing), Corso sets off across the globe to authenticate a copy of The Nine Gate of the Kingdom of Shadows, a book that may have been penned by the Devil himself. Along the way, he stumbles across numerous dead bodies, encounters a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) with supernatural abilities, and slowly unravels the infernal secrets of the book.

As the disheveled and self-serving Corso, Depp gives his character many of the foibles of a film noir anti-hero. He bluffs, begs, and outright lies in his pursuit of the almighty dollar, all while clad in a sharp overcoat. Certain elements of the plot teeter on the verge of predictability, but his performance ensures that viewers won’t be able to take their eyes off the screen. While this isn’t director Roman Polanski’s finest effort in the supernatural genre–that honor goes to Rosemary’s Baby–it still manages to be worth the price of a rental.

Whether you’re a longtime fan of the actor or just becoming familiar with his body of work, these good Johnny Depp movies should provide you with hours of quality entertainment. But before you run off to order a Jack Sparrow costume, I suggest hanging around a while longer and exploring some of the other articles here at Only Good Movies:

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 1st, 2012 at 6:18 pm and is filed under Good Movies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “10 Good Johnny Depp Movies”

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May 8, 2012

Buck Munson

Is it safe to say Ed Wood is the best movie ever made about bad movies? I’m sure I’m forgetting something obvious, but I wonder what Ed Wood would have thought if he had lived to see this film: insulted, impressed, or just happy to be remembered?

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