Top 10 Robert De Niro Films

The great Robert De Niro has given us some groundbreaking, engrossing, powerful and passionate performances over the years but what are his ten best? Top 10 Films finds out…

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, de niro, dicaprio, top 10 films,

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)

mean streets, scorsese, top 10 robert de niro,

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)

once upon a time in america, de niro,

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)

midnight run, de niro, top 10,

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)

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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)

deer hunter, robert de niro, vietnam war film,

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)

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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)

king of comedy, de niro, film,

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)

godfather part 2, de niro,

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)

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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

See more great actor lists on Top 10 Films: Caine | De Niro | DiCaprio | Downey Jr. | Hanks | Hoffman | Streep | Roberts | Schwarzenegger | Oldman | Gandolfini | Freeman | Ford | Eastwood | Dreyfuss | Keitel | Woods

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Castor Reply

    Can’t argue with the top of your list Dan. You know one thing that I was disappointed about with The Godfather II? I wanted more Robert De Niro and young Vito Corleone. One big omission though, Heat!!!

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    Anna Reply

    Yes love for The King Of Comedy. Watching it again today.

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    Luke Reply

    Bold move putting King of Comedy of Raging Bull, but I’m glad to see Godfather Part II make it to No. 2. I mean, you’ve got to just give it to Taxi Driver no questions asked, so that’s the best you could ask for. But wait… no Little Fockers? I’m kind of surprised that he wasn’t nominated for a Golden Globe for it this year… 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    What? No Meet The Fockers? How dare you!!!

    Seriously though, great list Dan, although I’d never even heard of King of Comedy, so i guess that’s one I’ll have to make note of and give a shot later on.

    I also second Castors remark on the lack of Heat in this list. Dude: Pacino and De Niro in the same film! Man!

  5. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    Firstly – Heat…yes, I knew I’d get some flack for that omission but personally speaking these ten movies rank above Heat. I’m not the biggest Michael Mann fan. My favourite film of his is Manhunter, which I think is the only one that I really love.

    @Castor: Yeah, more of De Niro would have been great but would that have meant less of Pacino? 🙂

    @Anna: Great film isn’t it, so underrated. Much like Scorsese’s After Hours.

    @Luke: I have to say I’ve hated De Niro in his comedy roles. Maybe it worked in Meet The Parents the first time but everything else, including Analyze This/That/And The Other, he just caricatures his Scorsese personas – he’s better than that.

    @Rodney: Put The King Of Comedy on your to-see list Rodney. I didn’t see it until maybe 2000 but I’m so glad I found it. One of my favourite Scorsese films alongside his other underrated gem After Hours.

  6. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    I might be in the minority but I haven’t seen a lot of these, or DeNiro films in general. I do agree with Castor, Heat is fantastic. I also enjoyed Falling in Love, a poignant love story he did with Meryl Streep (wow, what a combo!). He was great in The Untouchables too, but given his limited screen time, I can see why it’s not on this list.

  7. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Ruth: I can understand you need to be looking for a certain type of movie to watch De Niro’s great performances in Scorsese films. They’re not exactly happy movies. And I’ve purposefully picked De Niro’s darker works here. I would recommend The King of Comedy (even though it is still very dark) of the Scorsese/de Niro movies for a little more fun. Other than that, check out Midnight Run, a brilliant 80s chase movie that’s very funny.

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    Ross McG Reply

    no Backdraft? denied. de niro gets a bad rap these days, but when you see those films listed together it makes you think how great hes been. Midnight Run would be my number one though.

  9. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Ross: Can’t argue with your top choice Ross. Midnight Run is one of the best films of the 1980s. It’s definitely the De Niro film to go to if you need cheering up.

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    James Blake Ewing Reply

    Not enough Scorsese.

    It’s hard to justify anything other than Taxi Driver. He’s just that good. And he’s a large part of why I like Part II of The Godfather over the original.

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    Alex Reply

    I’m lacking in a lot of the big De Niro movies, mainly because I have little interest in Mean Streets, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas (which I’ve seen part of and hated). But I’m so glad to see Midnight Run and The King of Comedy on here, two completely excellent movies with fun but sinister roles for De Niro. And I support Taxi Driver at #1!

  12. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @James: I think the pairing, albeit not together on screen, of De Niro and Pacino in Godfather II swings many in favour of the sequel over the original. I’m still a fan of the original but I do love De Niro in the film.

    @Alex: I can understand your disliking to some of those films based on their story content but its curious that you like Taxi Driver despite it being more violent. If you haven’t seen Mean Streets do give it a go – Keitel is brilliant.

  13. Avatar
    Rick Tran Reply

    This was such a fun read Dan. Thanks!

    My personal favorite has got to be “Midnight Run”. I’ve seen that one more than any other De Niro film and it consistently gives me the most joy and entertainment.

    If I’m flipping through channels and I see De Niro escorting Charles Grodin, I inevitably stop to watch it through to the end. Ha!

  14. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Rick: Cheers Rick. I’m the same when it comes to Midnight Run. I caught it on TV recently and couldn’t turn it off. Such a fun and entertaining film and it’s nice to see De Niro in something more light hearted before the self-parody that is Meet The Parents/Fockers/Analyze This/Stardust.

  15. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    I would have tried to slip his performance in Heat on the list. Great list Dan! Did you catch him on 30 Rock last night?

  16. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Fitz: If that’s series 5 I don’t think it starts here in the UK until February. Although I can probably find the clip online somewhere I’m sure.

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    JasonW Reply

    Great to see The King of Comedy so high up!

  18. Avatar
    Marc Reply

    I really really really love King of Comedy. Kind of dark but still a great satire and DeNiro was perfect in the role…not to mention his stand up at the end makes me laugh every time I see it:)

    But the one thing on this list is Godfather II. I think for a Vito origin story I always thought the move needed way more of him than there was.

    Haven’t seen Once Upon a Time or Mean Streets but Goodfellas was just awesome!! Sweet list Dan

  19. Avatar
    paul Reply

    cant believe that CAPE FEAR is not in this list, IT should be no.1 and TAXI DRIVER no.2 as that was his best performance by far…

    tut tut tut!

  20. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Jason: Cheers, yeah, it’s an underrated film.

    @Marc: Check out Once Upon a Time… Marc, well worth your time.

    @Paul: I’m a fan of Cape Fear. Scorsese has no problems racking up the suspense but out of all his great movies it’s not as good as the ten films above. What are your thoughts on The King of Comedy, Midnight Run, Once Upon A Time In America, and This Boy’s Life, Paul?

  21. Avatar
    Bill Reply

    Good list, although your forgetting one movie… Casino!!

  22. Avatar
    ghost of 82 Reply

    Hmm, my fave 3 would have to be OUATIA, TAXI DRIVER, HEAT… but sadly few careers have nosedived in quality quite as far as De Niro’s has. He’s been phoning in performances for years and just doing it for the money, far as I can tell, whereas in the beginning it was about the art, creating a performance. In some ways De Niro has been the saddest thing about movies for the last twenty years (well, besides 3D and Lucas directing again). Or maybe the trajectory of De Niro’s career has mirrored the quality of films since the 1970s.

  23. Avatar
    Faun Reply

    He is without a doubt one of the great actors of our time. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull stand alone and his other tough guy roles were well done and seem to come easy to him,they fit him like a glove. But his best, and for him I would suspect he would say his most challenging part was when he played a man stricken with ” Sleeping Sickness” or as it’s known now ” Encephalitis”. As leonard Lowe De Niro plays a man who has spent most of his life in a “Catatonic” state, institutionalized and helpless. But now a new drug offer the prospect of reviving him……A great film,a true story and Robert De Niro’s masterpiece.

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    Jeffrey Young Reply

    one movie thats a classic left off here is an obvious one. that movie is “Awakenings”. That is truely one of his best. What a tough portrayal of a man coming out of a coma. He and Robin were great. Also, “The Mission” was another movie nominated for best picture losing to “Platoon”. It was great though. The mission was the most “different” of the De Niro roles. “Bang the Drum Slowly” was another gem. De niro is a leading man and supporting man. But whatever movie he touches, he is the one on screen with the definant flash and charisma. Raging Bull is my favorite of his though.

  25. Avatar
    jeannie Santabene Reply

    Robert De Niro, when “he wants to be” is bar none, the greatest screen actor of all time!
    Thank you for your list Dan, but without Heat it is incomplete!
    Another underrated performance is New York, New York, and The Fan.
    No Casino?! DAN! come on……..

  26. Avatar
    DJ Reply

    I would have Heat in there. But Midnight Run yes yes yes. Deniro has been good in comedy. I would not put this on the list but he was great in We’re No Angels with Sean Penn.

  27. Avatar
    Randy Jablonski Reply

    Best list I’ve ever seen of De Niro’s Best with one exception. Midnight Run is good but Casino should be somewhere in the top ten. Really glad to see Mean Streets and This Boy’s Life in the list. If it were top 15 I’d also add Flawless, Bang the Drum Slowly, True Confessions and Cape Fear. I just checked IMDB. I’ve seen 54 of his films. I own 31 on DVD. Big Fan. Boy, I need to get a life.

  28. Avatar
    Hou Daffah Reply

    Bang The Drum Slowly
    The Score
    Analyze This

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