The 5 essential Scarlett Johansson roles

(Searchlight Pictures)

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

I always find that the best movie stars were good actors first. Daniel Craig was a thug in “Layer Cake” before James Bond. Brie Larson was trapped in a room before she became an Avenger. Scarlett Johansson fits that bill as well. Long before she ever played Natasha Romanoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Johansson attracted our attention in smaller films and roles. Carrying a set of eyes that can melt your senses rather quickly and a voice that can evolve depending on the role, the Jewish two-time Oscar nominee can play on the indie and mainstream playground.

That greatness was confirmed worldwide two years ago, when Johansson found herself nominated for a pair of Academy Awards in two completely different films: Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” and Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” Both much-deserved and exceptional in their own way. But what 2003 film notified me that she was someone to watch? Keep reading for my five essential Johansson movies.

Natasha Romanoff in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Hang with me before you roll the eyes twice. While this 2015 sequel isn’t the most beloved Marvel movie (there are flaws in this joy ride), it did combine her movie star swagger and cinematic range in nimble fashion. For instance, Romanoff’s conversation with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) about the permanent damage afflicted upon her at the Red Room hits hard due to Johansson’s understated compassion for the dialogue and story. She doesn’t jump into the waterworks, instead going the long ride in pulling you closer to her heroic yet tortured character. This was her doing and not the script. She made it special. And then you see her taming Banner’s Hulk after battle, kicking and punching, saving Cap’s shield, and share witty household banter with Clint (Jeremy Renner) while driving around a war-torn and collapsing Sokovia. She makes it all work.

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Side note: Johansson’s work in “Captain America: Civil War” is also exceptional.

Charlotte in “Lost in Translation”

This is where Johansson made so much with so less. It’s not a fault to Sofia Coppola’s script, which relies more on nuance and intuitiveness instead of endless dialogue. This is the first time I saw something special in the actress. She held her own with Bill Murray at his best, and made you care and need more info about her Charlotte, who was trapped in a hotel room while her photographer husband worked and partied. She finds solace in Murray’s burnt out movie star, and the two of them build a relationship that doesn’t show its cards too early. The final scene where they kiss only matters because of the sadness and mystery given to Charlotte by the actress. Watch that one tonight. It’s a real escape.

Barbara in “Don Jon”

Released 10 years after Coppola’s film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s family drama, one he wrote and directed, gave us the first true impressions of Johansson’s hypnotic sexual energy that she can bring to a role. A New Jersey woman trying to ground Jon (Gordon-Levitt), her charismatic yet emotionally-raw boyfriend, the actress got to rock a sweet action Jersey accent and own the screen in an indie establishment once again. Ninety minutes and funny, check this one out on Amazon Prime Video for a small charge.

Nicole in “Marriage Story”

Going head to head with Adam Driver in a sharply-written script with powerhouse emotional levels represents the best work in Johansson’s career. She gives Nicole, someone who has been at war with herself over the course of a troubling marriage, real heart and backbone in uncomfortably numb conversations. The highlight happens in a scene with her divorce lawyer (Laura Dern), where Nicole basically gives her the longform breakdown on her union with Charlie (Driver), someone she still adores yet needs to get away from at the same time. It’s slow-building, messy, involves talking and movement inside two rooms, and kills every time I watch it unfold. Dern carries the early going, but then Johansson starts recounting how they met and how they broke, and it’s terrific. Available on Netflix.

Rosie in “Jojo Rabbit”

Easily the most heartbreaking work of her career, Johansson’s heroic mother, who was hiding a young Jewish girl during World War II, will always come off as a sweet-natured yet haunting breeze. Nominated for her supporting work here-she gave Rosie, a woman mothering a troubled young boy and basically harboring a fugitive from war at the same time, every ounce of compassion possible. Her advice about love to Jojo midway through the film resonates powerfully, and she pulls it off without much effort. Waititi’s film wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of subject matters-a young boy going on adventures with his imaginary friend, who happens to look and sound very much like Adolf Hitler-but the heart and keen humor gave it Oscar status. Johansson offered the film grace under pressure.

She was 34 when that film was released. She’s still got a long way, and perhaps a couple awards acceptance speeches, to go.

“Black Widow” is scheduled for release via both theaters and Disney+ streaming on July 9.