Top 10 Brian De Palma Films

Neal Damiano takes a look at the genius of Brian De Palma, counting down his greatest films including twisty thriller Dressed To Kill, underrated Raising Cain and stylised, compelling crime drama Scarface.

Top 10 Brian De Palma Films

We’ve lavished praise upon Brian De Palma before. In fact, he’s a filmmaker who has featured many times on Top 10 Films. He’s not immune to criticism as Mark Fraser detailed in his look at Mission: Impossible as part of 10 Modern Hollywood Films That Showed Plenty Of Promise But Ultimately Failed To Deliver but De Palma has most often found favour (even being praised by Dressed To Kill actor – and now director – Keith Gordon in his exclusive interview with us).

Indeed, we’ve praised his greatest work and reconsidered his underrated films like the often maligned Raising Cain. We’ve discussed his work as a great cinematographer alongside Stephen H. Burum and Vilmos Zsigmond, his approach to tough female characters, his ability to bring novels to the screen, his skill within different genres and even how he allowed Kevin Costner’s co-stars to outshine him in The Untouchables.

In this article, inspired in part by Quentin Tarantino’s adoration of Brian De Palma, Neal Damiano takes a look at the films that represent the finest work of this acclaimed filmmaker. Spanning multiple decades from 1976’s Obsession and Carrie to 2012’s Passion, this list represents a diverse and divisive selection of films that continue to enjoy a love-hate relationship with fans and critics.

10. Casualties Of War (1989)

Top 10 Brian De Palma Films - Casualties of War

An underrated Vietnam film possibly because it came after Platoon. It deserved much better. It’s a very demanding war film with a unique tone and pace. It stars Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, both giving phenomenal performances. Penn plays a real bastard of a Sergeant, who orders his men to viciously rape a Vietnamese girl nearly to death. Fox plays Erickson, a soldier who decides to take the moral high ground and refuses to take such orders making him the black sheep of the platoon. The whole film is a flashback of Erickson’s time in the army. The battle of will between Penn and Fox is fascinating to watch unfold. It’s also one of the first modern war films to deal with PTSD so vividly.

9. The Untouchables (1987)

10 times Kevin Costner was outshone by a co-star

Although it was a big budget story with little to no accuracy somehow Brian De Palma managed to pull it off. Along with being a commercial success, the film was a hit with critics as well. The Untouchables had very tasteful direction and memorable action scenes especially the shootout where Ness ends up in an all out battle with Capone’s cronies at the Chicago train station. However, the film tended to tone down the bloody violence found in most of De Palma’s films. Equipped with an all star cast including Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia, and Sean Connery it doesn’t fail to hold one’s attention. It also has many mememorable quotes including Connery’s famous line: “Just like a wop to bring a knife to a gun fight”. The Untouchables served up an entertaining gangster film and it remains one of De Palma’s biggest box office hits.

8. Passion (2012)

Passion - Top 10 Brian De Palma Films

Passion sees De Palma celebrate the erotic thriller genre. Two successful businesswomen with the same lover scheme and plot to sabotage the other. It’s a very stylised film and I found it very intriguing. The women engage in distorted warfare in and out of the office. De Palma dives into his usual themes here as perception, obsession, and revenge converge. But there is something so intriguing in Passion: maybe it’s De Palma’s visual style or the gritty personalities of the characters. Suffice to say, it had me fascinated from beginning to end.

7. Obsession (1976)

Top 10 Brian De Palma Films

This is the film that dubbed De Palma the American Alfred Hitchcock as it shares similarities to Vertigo. Obsession is a triumph of moody atmosphere. De Palma’s technical savvy really shines through the camera angles he utilises, especially in the famous 360-degree graveyard scene. The story touches on themes of incest which actually forced De Palma to do several rewrites to balance its melodramatic severity. Released a year after completion, Obsession would land significant box office numbers but mixed reviews from critics. Some have been calling it the first real De Palma film. Does it compare to the source influence? Absolutely not. Vertigo triumphs, but there’s a certain joy in watching a filmmaker shoot for the stars without giving a damn what the outcome will be. This may be De Palma’s best twist.

6. Dressed To Kill (1980)

Keith Gordon, Dressed To Kill, Brian De Palma

Voyeurism, murder, deception, Michael Caine in a dress; Dressed To Kill is the one where you really get to explore what makes De Palma tick as a filmmaker. Highly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma draws from the master director’s ability to mould suspense around a compelling narrative. This is his unapologetic erotic thriller. In my opinion, it’s a very refined and well produced film, that is, arguably, in the great tradition of grindhouse. Again, people mention Hitchcock but there is a distinct influence of Dario Argento here tapping at the vein. You can see it in the visuals and it plays out like a dirty soap opera mixed with gritty crime. It is quite an entertaining and graphic film especially when poor Angie Dickinson famously getting sliced with a straight razor.
Discover More: Read our exclusive interview with actor Keith Gordon who talks about his work on Dressed To Kill

5. Scarface (1983)

Scarface, Brian De Palma, Top 10 Films,

In my opinion Scarface is De Palma’s most iconic film. It is definitely the most quotable with so many lines that stick in your mind along with indelible images that further highlight De Palma’s visual prowess. And Al Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana is brutally raw and unforgiving. The constant thing that remains in this movie is the superb acting. It goes to show a further dimension to De Palma’s skill: casting. Upon release it did not fare well with critics but to me the film remains big, dynamic, and memorable.

4. Raising Cain (1992)

De Palma's "Raising Cain" Is A Curiously Twisted Treat

Raising Cain presents a fantastic exercise in style, underlining De Palma’s strengths as a visual storyteller. What an intense film; in my opinion this is De Palma’s greatest psycho thriller. Heavily influenced by Michael Powell’s masterpiece Peeping Tom and Hitchcock’s Psycho. The film stars John Lithgow who is obsessed with protecting his daughter. The film lays heavy on dream sequences, flashbacks, and voice-overs which can be irritable to some. If you can remain aboard it is one crazy and magnificent ride in psychological damage. In my opinion, it’s Lithgow’s greatest performance to; he’s beyond scary.

3. Carrie (1976)

We all know the story of Carrie. A telekinetic girl plots her revenge on the popular clique in high school. It’s De Palma’s first major hit and still remains one of his greatest efforts to date and a turning point in horror. Based on the best selling Stephen King novel and designed to target the teenage market, Carrie is a great example of De Palma’s talent for intense visual storytelling. This is the film that shows his daring camera moves and slow motion techniques. Brilliantly scary, it manages to deal with the inner madness of every teenager through high school without resorting to cliche. Carrie remains one of the most frightening films ever made.

2. Carlito’s Way (1993)

Carlito's Way, Top 10 Films, Brian De Palma,

What a unique gangster film! A character centred film about redemption. Carlito’s Way has its slow moments, especially the sappy relationship scenes with Penelope Ann Miller but the film compels through Carlito’s story – where he was and where he is now. Wanting so desperately to change from a life of crime, he’s constantly tempted with the belly of the underground. Absolutely brilliant performances from Al Pacino and Sean Penn (who plays his sleazy train wreck of a lawyer), De Palma’s greatest trick here is his ability to make the character so darn likable. You root for him through the whole film. You really want him to win, he deserves this. It’s a very poetic ending. A fantastic crime thriller with substance.

1. Blow Out (1981)

Brian-De-Palma, blow-out, top10films

The greatest thing about Blow Out is John Travolta’s flawless and extraordinary performance. Travolta plays Jack Terry, a low-end sound effects guy who specialises in sounds for trashy slasher films.  While recording he hears a tire blow out and sees a car go off a bridge. He thinks it’s an accident but is compelled to dig. He discovers something far more sinister. Now he hears a gunshot on the recording and begins investigate leading to a deadly game to find a killer. De Palma’s take on politics and the lengths the process will go too is a fascinating look at investigation and cover up. Blow Out is a masterpiece in storytelling and filmmaking, loaded with quotable lines and inside jokes. And it’s Travolta’s best work.

Written and compiled by Neal Damiano

Your turn: what are your fave Brian De Palma films?

About the Author
Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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  1. Callum Reply

    I really enjoyed Passion. I know some who hate it. Glad you included it.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Thank you

  2. Kelly Reply

    Definitely divisive. I can’t stand Raising Cain but fair enough you like it. Passion was rubbish too. Carrie is his best. The Fury and Sisters should have been on this list.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      I did like Raising Cain. Thanks for the read!

  3. Roger That Reply

    Sisters instead of Obsession. The Fury instead of Raising Cain. Phantom of the Paradise instead of Passion. Mission Impossible instead of…hmm… not sure but I’d need it in my list.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Roger That, thanks for reading and including your list (instead of ) in the comments!

  4. CineGirl Reply

    Good list Neal. So glad you included Blow Out at number one. It’s my favourite. Nice to see Dressed to Kill high up while my other big fave is Carrie. I do like The Fury too. You’re so right about De Palma’s style and why that makes his work so fascinating.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Thank you, it’s always nice to see your feedback. 🎬

  5. Robin Smalls Reply

    I have a definite love-hate thing going on with De Palma. He can be brilliant (The Untouchables, Scarface, Phantom of the Paradise, Blow Out) but he can also be self-indulgent and a bit muddled (Femme Fatale, Snake Eyes, Raising Cain, The Black Dahlia). And I’m not sure what Mission to Mars is. I’m a bit surprised Passion made the top 10 as it’s a misfire for me but the rest of your list stacks up nicely alongside my favourites (apart from Sisters, which is one of his best films in my humble opinion).

  6. Vic De Leon ‏ Reply

    blow out
    carrie
    dresssed to kill
    body double
    the fury
    carlito’s way
    m. i.
    the untouchables
    scarface
    snake eyes

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Nice list!
      Thanks for the read Vic

  7. Jonny Richards Reply

    finally found someone who agrees Blow Out is Travolta’s best performance.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Thank you Jonny
      Blow Out is a fascinating film. I’m glad it recently got the Criterion treatment.

  8. Paula Jennings Reply

    I’m a bit boring with my favorites: it’s Carlito’s Way, Scarface and The Untouchables – top 3 – for me.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Not boring in the least, three great films you’ve mentioned. Thanks for the read.

  9. Rory Reply

    Terrific filmmaker, terrific list Neal.

    Blow Out and Dressed to Kill are probably both top 5 for me with Carrie, Scarface and Carlito’s Way.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Thanks Rory!

  10. Smokkee G Singleton Reply

    🤔…

    Scarface
    Carlito’s Way
    Carrie
    The Fury
    Blow Out
    Dressed To Kill
    Sisters
    Untouchables
    Mission Impossible
    Obsession

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      👍🏻…..
      Thanks for the read

  11. Andrew Davies Reply

    Blow-Out
    Carrie
    Mission: Impossible
    Snake Eyes
    Casualties of War

  12. Matthew Gordon Reply

    Can’t believe De Palma gets criticised some times for being derivative of others. He’s clearly inspired by Argento and Hitchcock but he always puts his own spin on things, namely, his preoccupation with dream statuses and a fascinating with death. Ultimately he filters his own sensibilities through a love of Hitchcock’s techniques. He’s completely his own entity as a filmmaker. Blow Out, Dressed to Kill and Sisters are my top three.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      De Palma has always been the underdog!

      Thanks for the read Matthew

  13. Rachel Reply

    Scarface, Carrie and The Untouchables for me.

  14. Mark Fraser Reply

    I think one of the most fascinating aspects of Mr De Palma’s career is that after starting as a kind of New York-based political/social commentator indie in the late 60s (Greetings, Hi Mom) – where the closest he came to POV virtuosity was through a hand held cinema verite aesthetic (he also relied heavily on static long takes, suggesting he was emulating a lot of the documentary film makers of the day) – he more or less returned to this format some 40 years later with Redacted, the mockumentary about a group of US soldiers who slaughter an Iraqi family after the 2003 American invasion of the Middle East country. It’s an important film, and one that would be in my top 10 of the director’s work. Having said that, why bother writing another when we got this? A well written and argued piece, although I would have changed the order (Carlito’s Way as number one) and replaced a couple. I recently bought a copy of Passion, but – like Dressed to Kill and Femme Fatale – it didn’t resonate with me. Having said that, I do plan to watch it again at some point.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Thanks Mark Fraser.
      Give Passion another viewing it’s quite the stylized film. It’s signature De Palma.

  15. Amilia Totten
    Amilia Totten Reply

    Carrie tops my list. Such a brilliant film that boasts the combined quality of being a better high school coming-of-age movie and a better horror movie than most films trying to just be one of those things.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Very true Amilia
      Thank you for the insight.

      • Amilia Totten
        Amilia Totten Reply

        Of course Stephen King has a lot to do with the film’s qualities but De Palma captured those qualities so well. One of the best King adaptations as a result along with Kubrick’s The Shining and Reiner’s Misery.

        • Neal Damiano Reply

          Don’t forget Carpenter’s Christine!

  16. Dan Grant Reply

    Sorry it took me so long to get here, Neal. I’m pretty surprised to see so many films listed here that I have not seen. I must check out Blowout and Passion.

    As for the list, it’s a terrific one. I’d personally place Casualties of War much higher, perhaps number two behind Carlito’s Way. But we all have our opinions. The only thing that stops Casualties from getting a perfect score from me is the stuff filmed in modern day. But everything done in Vietnam is brilliant.

    Carrie is just awesome of course.

    Great job, great list. And now I must find those two films.

  17. Neal Damiano Reply

    Thanks for reading, Dan.
    Casualties Of War is a fantastic film. It’s is my third favorite war piece.

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