The 21 Best Johnny Depp Performances

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In honor of this past weekend’s premiere of the film adaptation 21 Jump Street, we’re bringing The 21 Best Film Performances of Johnny Depp. After all, it was the original American police television drama of 1987 with the same name that sparked Depp’s lavish career.

From scissored hands to the cynical, eccentric hedonist Raoul Duke, Depp’s character canon is comprised of the daft, addicted, singing, drunk, animated and creative.

Here’s to you, Johnny, the chameleon of all chameleons. You’ve created characters who’ve become staples in American cinema.

Check out our 21 favorite Depp performances.

21. Once Upon a Time In Mexico
Robert Rodriguez’s final installment of the “Mariachi Trilogy” holds the box office record for being the most improved second sequel of all-time, grossing 122 percent more than Desperado. We can’t help but attribute much of that success to the riveting performance Depp created on-screen. In a 2003 interview with Rolling Stone Depp said of his role as Sands, “The idea behind him is there was this guy I used to know in Hollywood who on the outside was very charming—soft-spoken and almost hypnotic in the rhythm he used to speak. You knew this guy was aiming to fuck you over, but somehow you stuck around because he was just so fascinating to watch.”

20. The Rum Diary
When American journalist Paul Kemp takes a freelance job for a local newspaper in Puerto Rico during the 1950s, he realizes he must work to find the balance between island culture and the expatriates who live there. Based on an early novel by Hunter S. Thompson, Depp’s portrayal in the film adaptation engages all the treachery, rum and lush writing fans of the book can expect.

19. Benny And Joon
When eccentric individuals Sam and Juniper “June” find each other, their love blinds the illnesses that bind them. As the absurd fripperies come to screen one after the other, it is the magic of surrealism and domestic life that keep the two attached (that and their separation anxiety).

18. Donnie Brasco
Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1997 Academy Awards, the film’s true heroes were that of Pacino and Depp, as they took on the FBI/mafia relationship with an unforeseen level of dense, shady and relentless mayhem.

17. The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
After Heath Ledger’s passing during filming of Terry Gilliam’s 2009 fantasy film, Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell collectively took the place of Ledger’s character. On CBS news, Gilliam said in retrospect of the first transition from Ledger to Depp in the film (the scene above), “He’s extraordinary. That’s why I put Johnny in first postion of the three new Tonys, because number one, he was going to be the most difficult to get any time with, and number two, I just thought if it works with the transition to Johnny and if the audience goes for it, they’ll follow the next two. And that’s exactly how it works.”

16. Rango
Pirates director Gore Verbinski knows a good thing when he sees it. That’s why there’s no surprise he reteamed with Depp for his 2011 Academy Award-winning animated feature Rango. The $245 million Rango earned put the film as the 23rd highest-grossing film of 2011.

15. Cry Baby
Teen musical? Check! This 1990 American cult classic featured the likes of Iggy Pop, Amy Locane, Traci Lords, Ricki Lake, Kim McGuire, David Nelson, Susan Tyrrell and Patty Hearst.

14. A Nightmare On Elm Street
1984 brought Depp’s feature film debut. Fred Krueger wasn’t Freddy in those days. In fact, many considered it one of the best films of 1984. So put on your parachute pants and abandon any bias you have against those who outplayed Freddy’s innovative beginning.

13. Sleepy Hollow
The brainchild of Burton and Depp began on the set of Burton’s 1999 period horror film adaptation inspired by the 19th century short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In total, the two have partnered for six films. This May, Burton and Depp will drop Dark Shadows, rounding out the collaboration to a healthy seven films.

12. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a character that dates back to 1846 and has a lot of history behind it. Even the musical that the film is based on is over 30 years old. Basically, Depp had a lot to live up to, and he didn’t disappoint. The combination of horror and music is unique and allowed the actor to balance the dark aspects of a serial killer with the lightheartedness of a lead in a musical. His cold performance was exactly what the film needed and garnered him the Golden Globe for Best Actor, plus an Oscar nomination. -Adam Vitcavage

11. From Hell
Playing a sympathetic detective whose drug intake forces him to have nightmares of the horrifying murders he’s investigating allowed Depp to explore the darkness of the human psyche. A lot of the films he has done (mainly Tim Burton-helmed projects) have a Gothic overtone, but are usually lighthearted. In From Hell, Depp’s performance is truly hellish and gripping. – Adam Vitcavage

In honor of this past weekend’s premiere of the film adaptation 21 Jump Street, we’re bringing The 21 Best Film Performances of Johnny Depp. After all, it was the original American police television drama of 1987 with the same name that sparked Depp’s lavish career.

10. Ed Wood
If you want to tell the story of the strangest and worst director in Hollywood’s history, you have to hire an actor who can completely transform into that man. Ed Wood was a low-budget film director in the 1950s and is legend in cinema as the worst director of all time thanks to his film Plan 9 from Outer Space. Depp completely transformed himself for the role, but more so than his other roles (especially important since Wood has two sides as well). From the ever positive demeanor and smile to the Mickey Mouse-like voice that leaves no trace of the actor inside, everything about Depp is gone and he is Ed Wood. – Clint Alwahab

9. Finding Neverland
Depp’s ability to tap into the mind of J.M. Barrie for this Oscar-nominated role was charming and heartbreaking. Adults that were fans of Peter Pan fought back tears of nostalgia, while youngsters watched in amazement as Barrie’s imagination came to life. The best part about Depp’s portrayal of the Scottish playwright was that there were no intricate costumes and make-up to transform him. His raw acting talent shined through and you felt as if he were really Barrie and not some caricature of him. – Adam Vitcavage

8. Chocolat
It’s rare that Depp is outshined in a film. It was the case in this one, but that’s actually a compliment to Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench, who were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. Depp’s talents as a supporting character (though he eventually becomes a central one) and ability to blend into a great cast are commendable. As Roux, the romantic gypsy, the actor’s sensuality was subtly a major driving force of the film that often gets overlooked. – Adam Vitcavage

7. Dead Man
Johnny took a sharp left turn with this film, but it fits perfectly into his resumé. Jim Jarmusch directs this post-modern examination of the western film genre as American pop culture finally began to veer away from the expected western films. Jarmusch introduced a complete retrospection of a genre plagued with so many social follies. Depp’s somber, quiet character, William Blake, is reflective of the heroes of the Wild West’s past, but it’s his journey that makes this character stand apart. If you are familiar with the western film genre and its history, Depp’s performance in Dead Man solidifies his standing as a versatile actor. – Clint Alwahab

6. Corpse Bride
The 2005 stop-motion animation fantasy musical set in a fictional Victorian-era village in Europe brought the first notable Depp/Burton/Helena Bonham Carter experience (the actual first being the reinvented Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Shot with a battery of Canon EOS-1D Mark II digital SLRs, the innovate film is based upon Jewish folklore with a similar plot.

5. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
Depp, the older brother of a mentally challenged boy, son of a father who committed suicide and mother whose depression has made her morbidly obese, gives a performance that commands the screen with innocent and honest spontaneity. Peter Hedges’ screenplay was adapted from his 1991 novel of the same name. Many times the film is difficult to digest, yet it manages to keep the audience remarkably glued to the lives of the Grapes.

4. Pirates of The Caribbean
All judgment aside, Johnny Depp made a character everyone loved. The first Pirates of the Caribbean film was a huge commercial success and pretty well-received by critics. Pirates became cool again because Johnny Depp created a bumbling, funny character based off of a real-life character (Keith Richards) that everyone could get along with. So despite any animosity you may still hold towards the now quadrilogy, admit it… He’s Captain Jack Sparrow. – Clint Alwahab

3. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas
Hunter S. Tompson created Raoul Duke. Johnny Depp brought him life. The book’s tales of the psychedelic escapades of Duke and Dr. Gonzo pioneered gonzo journalism and brought explosive social reactions. The 1998 film was a box-office failure but became an American cult classic. Depp almost didn’t get the opportunity to play the role he’s made iconic, as Jack Nicholson, Dan Aykroyd and John Cusack were all considered for the part.

2. Edward Scissorhands
It’s a story of an uncommonly gentle man. The unfinished Edward is taken in by a suburban family. He subsequently falls in love with their teenage daughter. The seemingly rudimentary plot drives a powerful perspective on civilization’s corruption of innocence along with themes of isolation and self-discovery. Gothic archetypes and German expressionism line the floor for the iconic way-before-its-time 1990 American romantic fantasy film.

1. Blow
We’re not talking about Blow the film. We’re talking about Blow Johnny Depp. Despite the overall mild reception of the 2001 biopic, Depp took “Boston George” Jacob Jung and rang him through our emotions and our minds. He’s the king of destruction, a desperate, egotistic, fatally flawed human being who never gets a leg up, always lets someone down and cannot surpass his greed. Depp’s riviting performance makes his portrayal of Jung our favorite of all.