best film:  Jim Jarmusch is an underrated auteur (he currently sits outside the top 100 on the TSPDT list) so it may surprise some to see Dead Man (1995) as Johnny Depp’s best overall film. There is also much to admire in the artist accomplishments of Platoon (1986) from Oliver Stone, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) from Terry Gilliam and Sleepy Hollow (1999) from Tim Burton. Depp is on screen for maybe two scenes and is easy to miss in Platoon – he was just getting his start in the mid 1980s – but Depp is a major focal point of the other three films – of course being the centerpiece for Jarmusch’s finest film.


best performance:  Dead Man. Depp’s deadpan performance here is an all-timer. This is clearly a comedic genius at work here. Depp’s William Blake character feels like a nod to Buster Keaton. Depp underplays the character perfectly – he lets all the loudness come in all around him from the supporting cast (headed up by Gary Farmer as Nobody) to Neil Young’s iconic score.


Johnny Depp in Dead Man (1995) – the rare comedy, western masterpiece. This is made during that stretch in the 1990s where Depp was an indie film god — taking on challenging films and roles, shunning his good looks, and working with auteurs who shared his creative spirit. Johnny Depp and Jim Jarmusch both share that rock and roll mindset. This is essentially a fish out of water comedy when it gets boiled down. Depp’s William Blake character is an easterner who is in the West. The film features that fantastic short film train opening – very elliptical – he sleeps and wakes up seeing the passengers and window landscape scenery get more and more wild/western. Jarmusch cuts back and forth to the train itself (exterior) – this editing is Yasujirō Ozu  – the trains are pure Ozu – and the first word is six (6) minutes in spoken by Crispin Glover in support.


stylistic innovations/traits:  Johnny Depp is an underappreciated cinematic humorist at this point. His run in Hollywood and indie cinema in the 1990s starting with Edward Scissorhands and ending with Sleepy Hollow (both with Burton) is why he is on this list. All five (5) of his best performances come during the decade and this is all really before he became an international superstar with Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003. Peak Depp in the 1990s includes a wide range: a minimalist western comedy (Dead Man), a zany as hell Terry Gilliam/Hunter S. Thompson drug film (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and some straight crime drama excellence (Donnie Brasco). In fact, Brasco is just one of three (3) gangster films on Depp’s resume (add Michael Mann’s Public Enemies and 2015’s Black Mass here as well). These are vital to Depp’s career – gives him a harder edge to pair with the Tim Burton collaborations. Depp is strong as the titular character in Donnie Brasco and if it were not for Al Pacino being so brilliant, one would be walking away from Donnie Brasco singing Depp’s praises first.  Depp can be a chameleon of course – but when wondering if there was something missing in his 21st century film/role choices (his run in the 1990s is almost unassailable) – perhaps more straight man choices would have been advisable.  Depp is very fine in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) just to mention two (2) more outside of his top five (5) – so there is a lot of quality depth here. Depp was born in 1963, has twenty-one (21) films in the archives and three (3) Oscar nominations (all from 2003 to 2007 – all when he was at the height of his popularity – but after the era when he did his best work). Depp’s range could not only oscillate between comedy (he is bloody brilliant in Ed Wood) and drama (Gilbert Grape) – but he is known for playing characters using real life inspiration – like using Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones as a model for Jack Sparrow (and once you see the king of pop Michael Jackson in his Willy Wonka – it is hard to unsee it).


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – Hunter S. Thompson’s writing is is sublime and well adapted – “ So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” a great monologue from Depp (a really splendid voiceover performance) talking about San Francisco in the mid 1960s.  For the uninitiated, it may take a few minutes to even recognize Depp in the role – which you know he would adore.


directors worked with:  Tim Burton (5), Lasse Hallström (2), Terry Gilliam (2), Oliver Stone (1), Jim Jarmusch (1), Roman Polanski (1), Michael Mann (1)


Depp as the infamous Ed Wood – one of five archiveable film pairings between actor Depp and director Tim Burton


top five performances:

  1. Dead Man
  2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  3. Ed Wood
  4. Edward Scissorhands
  5. Donnie Brasco


archiveable films:

1984- Nightmare on Elm Street
1986- Platoon
1990- Edward Scissorhands
1993- Arizona Dream
1993- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
1994- Ed Wood
1995- Dead Man
1997- Donnie Brasco
1998- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
1999- Sleepy Hollow
1999- The Ninth Gate
2000- Before Night Falls
2000- Chocolat
2003- Pirates of the Caribbean
2004- Finding Neverland
2005- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
2007- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
2009- Public Enemies
2009- The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
2015- Black Mass
2017- Murder on the Orient Express