So here is a list of Depp's 10 best performances.
Now these are not necessarily an assessment of the quality of the movie itself. You can have a great performance in a bad to mediocre movie (as is the case of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone).
These are examples of Depp's mastery of his craft.
10. Mort Rainey in Secret Window
Secret Window is a simply horror story, so we think. Depp plays the put-upon author who has a deranged stalker. It seems like one of the least nuanced performances. But as the movie begins to unfold and the truth begins to unravel, you realize that Depp has pulled the wool over your eyes. If you go back and re-watch, there are so many different clues he gives you in his performance.
9. Gilbert Grape in What's Eating Gilbert Grape
Depp usually layers his characters with all kinds of mannerisms, voices, and other acting accoutrements. But this performance as a young man with too much responsibility and not enough maturity is very simple and direct in the best possible way. He is not transformed into someone else. He is simply Depp being the most emotional Depp there is.
8. Sam in Benny and Joon.
For the physicality alone, Depp deserves amazing praise. He captures the pure genius of the old silent masters like Keaton and Chaplin. But on top of that, he used those skills to convey his character less with words but with inscrutable looks and gestures. And he is really funny in this.
7. James "Whitey" Bulger in Black Mass
Depp is completely believable and terrifying as Bulger, a man who would kill you without hesitation if you crossed him. The makeup helps, but there is a coldness to his look that is almost monstrous. And he carries himself with such calculated evil and it is unnerving.
6. James Barry in Finding Neverland
This is Depp's most understated emotional performances. As someone who is known for going big or going home, Depp holds back so much in this movie so that every tiny expression of heart is powerful and cathartic. It is like there is a volcano of child-like wonder and passion bubbling under a cast--iron facade. Great acting. (clip below is from the end of the movie. DO NOT WATCH if you haven't seen it)
5. Donnie Brasco in Donnie Brasco
What a great performance of conflicting loyalty and emotions. It is fascinating to watch Depp as his character gets lost in identity and cannot find his way out. Each choice he makes is another turn in an invisible labyrinth and you are on the edge of your seat to see if he can find his way out or be destroyed. And the challenge he has is staggering to play a person who is playing a liar but playing it convincingly.
4. Don Juan DeMarco in Don Juan Demarco
The pure charm and spectacular charisma is hard to match in this film. In the opening scene, a woman looks at him and laughs, but by the end of the scene she is completely seduced. And that is the exerpeince Depp has on the audience. His supreme confidence in every word he says, despite being delusional, pulls you in and convinces you.
3. Ed Wood in Ed Wood
I think many people remember the goofy look of excitement that Depp gave Ed Wood in this movie. But that is simply the result of the unbridled enthusiasm he infused in the character. You can understand why Wood kept making movies: it wasn't because he was good at it, but because he loved it. And behind that smile there was an innocent emotional core that was wounded and broken. But it is, to my mind, his funniest performance.
2. Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean series
This performance, like Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump, is so often imitated that I think we forget how absolutely innovative it is. Like Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker, Depp makes an amazing amount of acting choices that no other actor would. His walk, his talk, his cadence… there are so many things that are unique only to someone like Depp. And throughout all of that, he still brings the most basic swashbuckling heroics to life. This was his first Oscar nomination and well deserved. This performances shouldn't work, but it does because he pops from the screen like nothing we've seen.
1. Edward Scissorhands in Edward Scissorhands.
I just rewatched this movie and I was lost in Depp's performance. In some ways he is the most human and emotional of all the characters and yet he gives him the physicality of a machine that is trying to imitate humans. Watch how he walks and carries himself. You can often feel the clockwork gears grinding away inside. Every look is potent with feeling and meaning. You can watch as he seethes with rage or burns with love or agonizes in pain like no other. And every utterance of his voice, in that simple high and soft cadence, carries with it an emotional punch. Is there a sadder response in film history to the request "hold me" than his despairing words, "I can't." This movie would not have worked at all without Depp making something strange into something heart-warming and beautiful.