Robert De Niro is arguably the greatest screen actor of all time. You could say there are better actors, but there is no one actor that has the body of work that De Niro has. It's such a shame that he seems to be throwing it away with drivel like Grudge Match and The Family because his talent is incredible. With The Deer Hunter being re-released today, here are his best films:
A viscerally violent, ruthlessly gripping, adrenaline-soaked depiction of one man's self-destructive spiral, Raging Bull represents what can happen when a star believes in a project enough to fight for it -- and when a director believes he's down to his last chance at redemption, not only as a film-maker but as a human being. De Niro won a Best Actor Oscar for his mesmerizing turn as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, and it's easy to understand why -- even without the 70 pounds he packed on to play LaMotta's post-retirement years, his commitment to the role is impossible to miss. This is a movie that presents a protagonist who is essentially unlikeable and wholly relatable in equal measure, and dares the viewer to look away. And not to mention that De Niro pretty much saved Scorsese's career with this film.
This film is in the list because it proves that De Niro really can do anything. After Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro madeRaging Bull together, Scorsese wanted to reunite for the project that eventually became The Last Temptation of Christ, but De Niro wanted to make a comedy instead. Fortunately, De Niro's sense of humour in the early 1980s was a little more subversive than, say, Meet the Fockers; instead of seeking out easy laughs, he took a shine to a pitch-black screenplay titled The King of Comedy. In it, De Niro played Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comic who rests his dreams of fame and fortune on scoring a guest slot on a hit talk show -- bad news for the host, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who has no intention of booking Rupert and no idea how much trouble he's getting himself into. Today's it's regarded as something of a classic – and it's probably De Niro most underrated role.
De Niro reunited with Martin Scorsese -- as well as his Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America co-star, Joe Pesci -- for this masterfully frenetic look at life in the Mafia through the eyes of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a one-time mobster who rose through the ranks as a young man before famously turning informant in the early 1980s. Scorsese employed a stellar ensemble cast for Goodfellas, including a number of future stars (among them Samuel L. Jackson) -- but the film's real draw came from the terrible true story at its centre, and how convincingly the seductive pull of the criminal lifestyle was portrayed with De Niro the true star of an all -star cast.
A satire of bureaucracy gone wild that was itself nearly swallowed up by the bureaucracy at Universal Studios, where chairman Sid Sheinberg infamously insisted on tacking on a happy ending, Terry Gilliam's bleak dystopian feature Brazil ultimately ended up earning a spot among the most enduring cult classics of the 1980s. Mr. Sheinberg may not have understood Gilliam's vision, but Robert De Niro appreciated it enough to lobby for a part – and what a part he played.
1972's The Godfather was an instant classic, taking home three Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and earning universal critical acclaim -- so even if The Godfather Part II had been an absolute failure, Francis Ford Coppola would have deserved credit for extreme chutzpah. Happily for all of us, this turned out to be the rare case where there was another film's worth of story to tell. Coppola managed to add a prequel to the original (starring De Niro as a younger version of Vito Corleone) while continuing its story, and the result was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for De Niro -- and one of the very few must-see sequels in American film. For my money, it's the best sequel of all time.
And, saving the best until last, here's Taxi Driver. Deeply unsettling and unrelentingly bleak, Taxi Driver captivated critics and audiences -- and earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor -- by plunging viewers into the waking nightmare of alienation, obsession, and violence experienced by its central character, troubled loner Travis Bickle. Not exactly family fare, in other words, but a film that very much reflected the disillusionment and general unease of its time. Everyone knows the time and effort De Niro went to to portray the role. Are you talking to him?
Notable mentions: The Deer Hunter, A Bronx Tale, Casino, Midnight Run, Stardust, Silver Linings: