You could make a strong case that Robert DeNiro is the greatest living actor around and he ranked first on my top ten working actor list which you can view here. My definition of a great actor is one who disappears in the role they are playing and is unrecognizable from one movie to the next. A category that one of my favorite actors, Gary Oldmam (“sid and nancy“, “state of grace” and “true romance” to name a few), would fit into also. While actors like Kevin Costner and Denzel Washington are charismatic and fun to watch, I do feel like they are being themselves at all times and you will find them to be similar from one role to the next. This to me is the making of a good but not all-time great actor.
Let’s take a look at this outstanding top ten list I’ve put together of Robert DeNiro’s films. They can easily stand up against any fellow actors resume, from now or in the past.
10. heat – Heat is a pulsating romp through the crime underworld of LA seen through the brilliant eyes of director Michael Mann. This movie carries an all-star cast of Val Kilmer, Al Pacino and many more but in every scene we see DeNiro (including DeNiros first ever scene with Al Pacino) he steals the show.
9. his comedies – Rarely can you find a dramatic genius such as DeNiro who at the same time has been immensely successful in the comedy genre. From the overly sarcastic cop he played in “midnight run“, to the ex CIA father in law of Ben Stiller in “meet the parents“, to a mobster in need of a therapist in “analyze this“, DeNiro has show an ability to make fun of himself and his very unique facial expressions. He was also great as the star crazed fan in “the king of comedy” and a CIA agent in need of a war in “wag the dog“.
8. the untouchables – This wonderful movie by Brian DePalma stars Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and DeNiro among others. It is set in 1920’s Chicago and DeNiro plays Al Capone. As usual, every scene he is in is an event to look forward to.
7. the mission – A gorgeous but tragic tail of redemption and greed set in the 18th century. Spanish Jesuits (including Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson and a converted DeNiro) try to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal. DeNiro’s character is interesting in that he starts the movie as a mercenary who hunts the Indian Tribe but is born again through the Jesuits and winds up living with and eventually fighting along their side in the end.
6. taxi driver – While I grew up on independent films it was martin Scorcese’s “taxi driver” that showed me the technical brilliance possible in film. Every shot, every piece of dialogue has a specific purpose in this movie and of course you have to love DeNiro in a mohawk. Some of his lines in the film are still quoted in pop culture to this day.
4. raging bull – DeNiro plays Jake LaMotta in this true life adaptation. LaMotta was a wonderful fighter with a very difficult personal life. He would fall from grace hard and DeNiro went the extra mile (as he always does) to portray LaMotta’s demise. They took a break in the middle of shooting this movie to allow DeNiro to go to Europe and gain 50+ pounds to play Lamotta in his later years. Some people criticized this approach, saying it was not acting but DeNiro’s performance is nothing short of brutal and brillant.
3. goodfellas – Goodfellas is one of the greatest gangster movies of all time and has one of the best opening 15-20 minutes of any film ever made. Goodfellas was critically acclaimed and exposed you to the daily “street level” dealings of the mafia. It became a box office success (when you include rentals and dvd sales) and has also reached cult status with many of the lines and scenes from the movie being imitated by everyone from pop icons to those talking at the water cooler. In the midst of an all-star cast DeNiro still dominates the screen in every scene.
2. godfather 2 – In one of the best films of all time DeNiro stands out as the young Vito Corleone. His concentration and intensity is so strong throughout the movie that when he rests for a moment to hold hands with his wife before dinner, the simplicity of it alone makes for a memorable scene.
1. the deer hunter – In my mind this is the greatest american movie ever made (yes I think it’s better than citizen kane). There are scenes that are hard to watch but well worth it to witness a cast (DeNiro, Christopher Walken (won the academy award), Meryl Streep, Jon Cazale) and director Michael Cimino who are all in top form. DeNiro’s performance is nothing short of brilliant.
honorable mention – angel heart – DeNiro was so creepy in this twisted tale that I actually looked behind my couch to make sure I was alone. Mickey Rourke endures a torturous travel through the underworld of New Orleans only to meet DeNiro in the end for a mind blowing climax to the film.