Total Recall

Scarlett Johansson’s 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Chef star.

by | May 8, 2014 | Comments

Scarlett Johansson
With four movies opening during 2014, Scarlett Johansson is going to be difficult to avoid at the cineplex this year — but when the films in question are as diverse and intriguingly assembled as Under the Skin, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Lucy, and Chef, why would you want to avoid her? In fact, with the Jon Favreau-directed Chef opening this weekend, we decided now would be a terrific time to reassess Scarlett’s filmography by revisiting some of its brightest critical highlights, Total Recall style. Without further ado…

Grae Drake breaks down this week’s list.


10. The Man Who Wasn’t There

The Coen brothers went neo-noir for 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, drafting a stellar batch of character actors (including Billy Bob Thornton, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shalhoub, and Frances McDormand) to tell the story of a barber (Thornton) whose placid-seeming suburban post-WWII existence unravels into a crazy tangle of blackmail, murder, and one very precocious teenage girl (Johansson). The black-and-white Man failed to make much of an impression at the box office, but it enthralled critics like ReelViews’ James Berardinelli, who praised it as “An unconventional, unpredictable thriller that Hitchcock probably would have enjoyed.”


9. Don Jon

He’s a preening lunkhead and she’s obsessed with romantic comedies, but as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Barbara Sugarman and Jon Martello are far from the empty cinematic stereotypes they might seem like on paper — and their story (written and helmed by Gordon-Levitt in his feature-length directing debut) has much more on its mind than your average boy-meets-girl picture. In fact, as many critics saw it, Don Jon managed to impart some thought-provoking messages about addiction, technology, and the difficulties of modern relationships while also providing an effortlessly entertaining showcase for its appealing young stars; the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr, for one, believed it accomplished the former so well that “R-rating aside, it should be required viewing for every 15-year-old boy on the planet.”


8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Take a fairly sharp late-period script from Woody Allen and a beautiful cast that makes a love quadrangle out of Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and Rebecca Hall, and the awards pretty much hand out themselves. Example: Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which might have been able to generate its $96 million worldwide gross simply on the strength of all that sex appeal even if it hadn’t earned a stack of glowing reviews from critics like Roger Ebert, who enthused: “He is a little like Eric Rohmer here. The actors are attractive, the city is magnificent, the love scenes don’t get all sweaty, and everybody finishes the summer a little wiser and with a lifetime of memories. What more could you ask?”


7. In Good Company

With a beautiful family, a nice house in the suburbs, and a healthy career, Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is feeling pretty good about his life. And then it all goes topsy-turvy: his wife (Marg Helgenberger) announces she’s pregnant, the company he works for is bought out, and his much younger new boss (Topher Grace) starts dating his 18-year-old daughter (Johansson) behind his back. Clearly, In Good Company‘s premise is fraught with soapy domestic melodrama, and according to some critics, that’s all it had to offer — but for most, the solid cast and sensitive work of director Paul Weitz made the film more than the sum of its parts. In fact, according to the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris, it was “not only the best American picture of 2004, but also the most grown-up movie to come from Hollywood in recent years.”


6. Under the Skin

If hostile aliens came to Earth and wanted to lure our planet’s men to their doom, they could do a lot worse than sending a specimen that looks like Scarlett Johansson to drive around in a van and go cruising for fresh meat. Case in point: Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, starring Johansson as an alien skulking around Scotland and gobbling up single dudes’ souls — a premise that could have tumbled to Species-level depths in the wrong hands, but in this case, holds together as a hypnotically creepy exercise in existential dread. “Johansson is phenomenal in every sense of the word,” enthused Peter Travers for Rolling Stone. “She joins Glazer in creating a brave experiment in cinema that richly rewards the demands it makes. The result is an amazement, a film of beauty and shocking gravity.”


5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

She’s yet to be granted a standalone Marvel movie of her own, but by now, Scarlett Johansson has played the morally complex superspy Black Widow more times than many actors get to portray a costumed hero throughout the length of an entire franchise, which goes a fair way toward explaining why her reunion with Chris “Captain America” Evans in the first Captain America sequel, 2014’s The Winter Soldier, helped ground the plot’s post-9/11 politics and super-powered derring-do with real human chemistry — no mean feat in a movie that also boasts a memorable supporting appearance from Robert Redford and the first live-action appearance of Cap’s winged sidekick the Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie. Observed Tim Grierson for Deadspin, “The Winter Soldier goes down a slightly darker path than most Marvel movies, without sacrificing the studio’s big-grin vibe. It’s pop with a little soul underneath.”


4. Marvel’s The Avengers

It sports the kind of crowded, star-studded cast usually reserved for scattershot affairs such as Cannonball Run and a plot involving an alien invasion and a cosmic cube, so Marvel’s The Avengers easily could have been a garish, big-budget mess. Leave it to writer-director Joss Whedon to weave all those disparate plot strands and larger-than-life stars (including Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson) into one of the more purely enjoyable superhero epics in cinematic history. Audiences turned out in droves, sending Avengers to a whopping $1.5 billion international gross, and critics were just as entranced; as James Plath wrote for Movie Metropolis, “Marvel’s The Avengers is a visual comic book and it doesn’t aspire to be anything more than that. As a film version it succeeds — one is tempted to say — MIGHTILY.”


3. Ghost World

She’s taken on a fairly wide variety of roles, but for the most part, Johansson has stuck with mainstream film projects. Not so Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, a bleakly funny adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic book about a pair of teenage misfits (Johansson and Thora Birch) whose casually mean-spirited prank on a lonely middle-aged man (Steve Buscemi) has unforeseen consequences on their friendship. A cult and critical favorite, Ghost World is certainly a far cry from future big-budget Johansson films like The Island and The Spirit — and that’s just fine with Angie Errigo of Empire, who wrote, “This is ‘teen comedy’ of startling sophistication — with horribly funny bits as well. A true original, with sharp humour, subtle detail and painfully realistic characters.”


2. Her

It started from a premise that a number of people snarkily boiled down to “Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with Siri” and spawned a slew of jokes about high-waisted man jeans. All things considered, though, Spike Jonze’s Her — starring Phoenix as a lonely introvert on the brink of a divorce and Johansson as the bewitching voice of his computer’s thoroughly lifelike new operating system — came together surprisingly well, not only as the altogether unusual love story suggested by its summary, but also as a thoughtful bit of commentary on our relationships with modern technology and each other. “Witty, tender and arrestingly gorgeous, Her is a masterpiece,” wrote Hilary A. White for the Irish Independent. “Phoenix’s central performance is of the lofty levels we have come to expect of him, while Johansson disarms with only her voice.”


1. Lost in Translation

Thanks to her much-derided appearance in The Godfather III, Sofia Coppola was still the butt of many film fans’ jokes when she helmed Lost in Translation — but all that changed once the glowing reviews started pouring in, capped off with her Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. But Coppola wasn’t the only one who earned praise for this quiet little picture; Bill Murray received some of the best reviews of his career (not to mention a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award) for his softly melancholic portrayal of a movie star whose crushing ennui has set him adrift in a sea of unfulfilling relationships and paycheck projects. He’s oh-so-gently jolted from his reverie by a fellow unhappy traveler played by Scarlett Johansson — and who can blame him? — but that’s pretty much all that happens here, something pointed out by the handful of critics who gave Lost in Translation unfavorable ratings. For the 95 percent of critics who loved it, though, Translation was something special; Variety’s David Rooney spoke for many when he said its “balance of humor and poignancy makes it both a pleasurable and melancholy experience.”

In case you were wondering, here are Johansson’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier — 94%
2. The Prestige — 92%
3. Marvel’s The Avengers — 91%
4. Lost In Translation — 86%
5. Her — 85%
6. The Man Who Wasn’t There — 85%
7. Ghost World — 84%
8. Match Point — 81%
9. A Love Song for Bobby Long — 81%
10. Vicky Cristina Barcelona — 74%

Take a look through Johansson’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Chef.

Finally, here’s Ms. Johansson in a music video from an up-and-coming folksinger named Bob Dylan:

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