With a series of missteps, including “Mortdecai” and “Transcendence,” it’s easy to forget how good of an actor Johnny Depp really is.

“Black Mass” helps to remind audiences of Depp’s talents, a dynamic performance as Whitey Bulger that is his best work in more than a decade. 

“Black Mass” follows Bulger’s rise as one of the most notorious mobsters in history, starting with an alliance with the FBI orchestrated by childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).

Connolly sees this as an opportunity to not only make good in the ranks of the FBI, but as a chance to make a little money on the side with Bulger and his crew. 

Bulger exploits this deal to the fullest extent, using it to eliminate his criminal enemies and build his territory, all the while thumbing his nose at the FBI.

“Black Mass” could have easily painted Bulger as a monster (which he clearly was) and left it at that, but Depp helps to fill in the complexities. This is a man scarred by personal tragedy and used his power to heal those wounds.

Depp, buried under the makeup and contacts and false teeth, brings out those complexities. It’s a surprisingly restrained performance, one that reminded me of his work in “Blow” and “Donnie Brasco.”

Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay is as much an indictment on the FBI – specifically Connolly – for its part in allowing Bulger’s crime syndicate to grow as it is an indictment of Bulger – a morality tale with Connolly at the center.

Edgerton plays that struggle well, part of a solid supporting cast that also includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Peter Sarsgaard.

But the main attraction is Depp, who is likely headed to an Oscar nomination, perhaps even a win.

It’s definitely one of the most interesting performances in one of 2015’s more interesting films.

Also in theaters

Another new release this week also features a comeback of sorts, with Lily Tomlin’s strong performance anchoring “Grandma” (B+) – a solid showcase that proves to have a little more substance than the trailer suggests.

Tomlin plays Elle, a recluse writer still getting over the loss of her longtime girlfriend. 

Elle has tried to restart her life, getting into a relationship with a much younger woman (Judy Greer), but is on the verge of ending that.

Things get further complicated when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up needing $600 dollars before sundown. Since Elle is broke, and has cut up her credit cards, the pair set out to get the money back from old friends and acquaintances without Sage’s mom Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) finding out.

At first, “Grandma” feels like it will play out as an amiable little comedy, with Tomlin’s Elle nothing more than a fast-talking, full of sass, grandmother caricature.

Things take a surprising turn for the good in the second half, when writer/director Paul Weitz’s script takes a more serious turn.

We learn of old wounds and lifelong regrets from Elle, particularly in an extended scene with Sam Elliott. It’s a payoff that packs as tough of an emotional punch as any film in 2015. Watching these two actors in this scene is an absolute joy and takes “Grandma” to another level.

It’s just one of the reasons audiences should seek out this hidden gem.

“Grandma” is rated R for language and some drug use and is now playing at the Regal Bowling Green Stadium 12.

— To read Micheal Compton’s thoughts on all films, visit his blog at bgdailynews.com/blogs/straight_outta_compton or on Twitter at twitter.com/mcompton428. Email him at mcompton@bgdailynews.com.

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