Top 10 Robert De Niro Films
Choosing a top 10 list of the very best De Niro films is like picking the ten best films of the 1960s or 1970s. There’s so many great films and fantastic performances that it’s an almost impossible task. I say “almost”. When it comes to De Niro I always think – method. When he is at his best he fully encompasses the role he is playing – it lives and breathes through him on and off camera. This is not something we’ve seen much of recently as the actor, called by many the greatest of his generation, has preferred to parody his own persona (Stardust) or play recurring comedy roles (Analyze That, Meet The Fockers) in films not up to the standard of his early work. So that makes the impossible task a little easier – there’s no film made after 1993 that appears on this list despite Meet The Parents, Wag The Dog, Copland and Jackie Brown having their very respectable merits.
But still there’s a host of films made by the actor since he appeared in an uncredited role in 1965’s Three Rooms In Manhattan that vie for a place on this top 10. The acclaimed performances of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, the brilliant ensemble pieces like The Godfather: Part II and Once Upon A Time In America, the genre defining (Mean Streets) and the genre celebration (Goodfellas). So many much-loved movies that stand the test of time thanks to De Niro’s passionate performances, the genius of their directors (Scorsese, Coppola, Leone), and the daring of their producers.
What is your favourite Robert De Niro film?
10. This Boy’s Life (Caton-Jones, 1993)
This Boy’s Life stars a young Leonardo DiCaprio alongside De Niro in a story based on the true-life tale of writer Tobias Wolff. It follows Toby (DiCaprio) and his mother as she begins a relationship with De Niro’s Dwight Hansen. The seemingly respectable family man appears to welcome the pair into his home, but Toby soon learns of his abusive ways when his mother is not around. Unable to prevent the marriage from taking place, Toby’s mother soon comes to realise Dwight is not the man she believed him to be.
The film features a powerful performance from De Niro in a domineering role that perfectly counter balances the determined yet innocent youth of DiCaprio. The young actor is as much a reason why this film appears on the list as the Taxi Driver star, as he shows early signs of a burgeoning acting talent under the keen eye of veteran De Niro.
9. Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973)
The film that announced to the world the talents of both De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets features a feisty, angry young man role for the aforementioned actor. Here he plays Johnny Boy, an Italian-American living in New York, who delights in causing problems for his friend Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a local criminal trying to move up the mafia food chain. De Niro is at his manic best, tilting on the edge of insanity with an air of joviality and an odd sense of humour.
8. Once Upon A Time In America (Leone, 1984)
Sergio Leone’s epic gangster film had to star the man who had personified the criminal underworld with such success in The Godfather: Part II and Taxi Driver. De Niro is a perfect fit, playing opposite an equally good James Woods. The nearly four hour epic features a story that takes in fifty years of the life of Noodles (De Niro), a lifelong criminal whose gang, in trying to get richer, find themselves in trouble with the law and the mafia elite. As with Leone’s western epic Once Upon A Time In The West, he explores the human condition under the guise of the criminal underworld.
7. Midnight Run (Martin Brest, 1988)
De Niro does comedy without resorting to parodying his bad-boy image. That’s partly why Martin Brest’s Midnight Run is so good. De Niro is super-cool as bounty hunter Jack Walsh who takes on the task of tracking down Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin), an accountant who embezzled $15 million from Las Vegas gangster Jimmy Serano (Dennis Farina). Grodin is also excellent as the nerdy moneyman playing against De Niro’s macho hero. De Niro finds himself up against not only rival Marvin Dofler (John Ashton) and the FBI, but Serrano’s gang who are out to kill Mardukas before Walsh can bring him in. Midnight Run is a fun crime caper that sees De Niro playing for laughs.
6. Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990)
Martin Scorsese’s much-loved film Goodfellas sees De Niro share screen time with Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta. Pesci has the scene-stealing moments but De Niro is no less than brilliant as the suave gangster Jimmy “The Gent” Conway. Charting the lives of three gangsters across three decades, Goodfellas begins with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a young hoodlum in New York who wants to become a member of the local mafia. He begins running errands for the Lucchese crime family and eventually begins working for crime boss Paulie (Paul Sorvino). There he meets De Niro’s Jimmy Conway, an experienced con artist, and Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, an angry live-wire with a short temper. Scorsese looks at the three men’s rise and ultimate fall. De Niro once again proves he saves his best performances for the aforementioned director.
5. The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978)
One of the most renowned Vietnam war movies, partly because it was the first major American film to look subjectively at the conflict, Michael Cimino’s film depicts elements of the war as well as its after effect on those that fought, and those whose loved ones went to fight. Looking at the lives of three American steel workers, the film depicts how governmental pressure on traditional patriotic values impinges and destroys the common values of ordinary American men. De Niro delivers another masterful performance with the infamous Russian Roulette scene being an obvious stand out scene.
4. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
Never has De Niro’s method acting being more obvious than in his role as Jake La Motta in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The actor’s weight and physique changes throughout the film as De Niro embodies the sports success of La Motta in the boxing ring and the damaging excess away from it. Based on the true-life story of middleweight boxer La Motta, the story tells of the anger and destructive ways that aided him in the ring but damaged his relationships away from it. This may well be De Niro’s finest performance simply because of how he is able to bring a real life man to life with such authenticity.
3. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)
The best of De Niro’s more light-hearted performances, The King of Comedy is still a dark work from director Martin Scorsese. De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe stand-up comedian who begins to hound talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) seeking a slot on his television show. In some ways Pupkin’s obsessive behaviour is similar to that portrayed by De Niro in Taxi Driver but here it is handled as an annoyance with sinister undertones rather than murderous psychosis.
The King of Comedy is particularly good because De Niro displays the light and dark shades of a complex character. Too few times has he been able to have, or display, a little jovial fun with a character who isn’t going to end an argument by killing someone. De Niro displays fragility in Pupkin while winning over the audience with a misguided belief in his own comedic abilities. He’s the poor sap with notions of grandeur. The fact he plays to a cardboard audience in his bedroom would beg sympathy for this sorry soul if it didn’t ring so true with just about everyone watching the film.
2. The Godfather: Part II (Coppola, 1974)
De Niro had big shoes to fill when taking on the role of Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II. Vito, portrayed with such iconic glory by Marlon Brando in The Godfather, returns in childhood and young adulthood, learning the tricks of the criminal underworld while living in the poor areas of New York. Whereas Brando was decrepit and aging, De Niro as the young Corleone, is energetic and strong. A testament to the writers is that De Niro’s Corleone represents the once physical prowess of Vito, he has the leadership qualities and the determination, but he does lack the guile and experience of his elder self. For audiences, the film was a brilliant prequel to the story of the quiet, understated Vito from the first film. What makes it stand out above all others is how Coppola also takes the story on to its next chapter, detailing the life of Vito’s son Michael (Al Pacino), as he ascends the family hierarchy. Although they don’t have a single scene together, it’s also great to see two of America’s best actors (De Niro and Pacino) feature in the same film.
1. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
Some will say that The Godfather: Part II features De Niro’s greatest performance, others will pick Raging Bull. For me, when you add the value of performance with the command of story, script and direction, there is no better De Niro film than Taxi Driver. De Niro takes that twisted psychosis and peculiar sense of the comic from Mean Streets and adds another level to it in Taxi Driver. This is De Niro at his raw, totally convincing and extraordinarily passionate best.
De Niro is Travis Bickle, a lonely New York City taxi driver, who becomes obsessed with New York political campaign volunteer Betsy (Cybil Shepard). His insular outlook on life is furthered when he convinces Betsy to go on a date with him on the pretence that he wants to volunteer as a representative of the senator she works for as well. He takes her to see a Swedish sex education film which Betsy storms out of. Bickle becomes angry at Betsy’s avoidance of him and channels his outrage at the street where, night after night, he witnesses petty crime and prostitution. Buying guns from a local dealer he becomes a vigilante when shooting a man trying to rob a shop. He then witnesses twelve year old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) fighting with her pimp and tries to help her. Sending her $100, he tells Iris that he will soon be dead. He then sets off, guns in hand, to assassinate both the senator and Iris’ pimp.
Taxi Driver is a pressure cooker of anger and frustration. It is brilliantly written by Paul Schrader, directed with precision by Scorsese (iconic sequences include the bloody shoot-out at the pimp den, and De Niro posing in front of a mirror with his guns), and features De Niro’s most shocking, powerful and affecting performance.
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens
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