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Best Robert De Niro Movies, Ranked

MovieWeb 9/2/2022 Dara Drapkin-Grossi

Robert De Niro is often considered one of the greatest actors of all time. He quickly became a household name, and arguably America's favorite gangster. De Niro is most recognizably known for his collaboration films with Martin Scorsese, but has also made a name for himself in family-style comedies. He gained notice for his role in a baseball film called Bang the Drum Slowly, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Scorsese, who focused on showing De Niro’s versatile acting abilities, that his career really took off. His acting range knows no bounds as he can go from lovable grandpa to jaw-breaking mafia member effortlessly. Astonishingly, De Niro holds only two Academy Awards to his name, but his legacy reaches far beyond what any award ever could. These are Robert De Niro’s best films, ranked.

Updated, August 2022: To keep the article fresh and relevant by adding more information and entries, this article has been updated by Rafa Boladeras.

The Untouchables

Brian De Palma couldn’t ask for a better Al Capone for his The Untouchables: Robert De Niro. He plays the legendary mobster as someone who feels like he’s the smarter man in every room he enters, and has disdain for everyone else. He’s pure evil; someone for whom the end justifies the means, every time. He’s ruthless, corrupt, dangerous, and frightening. The perfect villain for Elliot Ness and his men to fight in one of the best mobster movies ever made. De Palma uses De Niro as the shark in Jaws; he doesn’t appear much in the movie, but every time he does, he’s memorable, like when he beats one of his own men. Because of De Niro, we’re never going to see a baseball bat the same way.

The King of Comedy

“Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.”, that’s the mantra of De Niro’s character, Rupert Pupkin, in The King of Comedy. A movie where De Niro plays a pathetic, fringe lunatic who thinks he deserves to be a star for a day. That’s why he kidnaps his idol, late night’s best Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), and will not let him go until he gets his time in the spotlight.

Although he’s full of insecurities; a creepy, delusional character with dreams of grandeur, De Niro still makes you feel for him, creating an anti-hero before those were a thing. The King of Comedy shows the darker side of the American dream and celebrity, something that has increased since, making this movie still relevant, four decades later.

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter is the best film of Michael Cimino’s career, with an incredible script and heartbreaking performances. The cast is stacked: De Niro, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, and Christopher Walken. But it’s De Niro’s character, Mike, who holds the movie with his portrayal of grief and how the horrors of war have changed him forever. Although Mike is an internal character, De Niro gives an overwhelmingly emotional and rich performance. In every look, every silence, and every half word, you see the actor conveying how broken and hurt the character still is, for everything he's seen, lived, and felt during the war.

Meet The Parents

Robert De Niro stars alongside Ben Stiller in 2000's hilarious take on a man's visit to meet his girlfriend's parents for the very first time. In Meet the Parents, De Niro plays Jack Byrnes, who is a former CIA agent that will stop at nothing to halt his daughter's engagement to her boyfriend Greg Focker. Jack goes to all kinds of extremes to find out whatever he can on Greg and even goes as far as giving him a lie detector test.

Related: Best Ben Stiller Movies, Ranked

Silver Linings Playbook

​​​David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook served up a big cast list in the film adaptation of Matthew Quick's best-selling novel. Robert De Niro takes on the role of Pat Sr. and although it may be one of his most toned-down roles to date, his delivery is impeccable. In the novel, Pat Sr. serves as an explanation for Pat's mental illness and doesn't have much life. However, De Niro transforms the character into a family man struggling with the loss of his pension while trying to welcome his son home after a nervous breakdown. Russell mobilizes De Niro's ability to be tough but lovable through his quick comedic deliveries. At the heart of Silver Linings Playbook is a story about family and adapting to life as it never was. De Niro encompasses this theme by making Pat Sr. a distant father, but also the heart of the movie at the very same time — someone who is relatable to so many, but also cares deeply for his son.

Mean Streets

Mean Streets, one of Scorsese's lighter mafia films, features De Niro in a different light. His character, Charlie, is constantly conflicted between his mafia and living an honorable lifestyle. He struggles with the opposing actions of committing acts of violence and then committing to Catholicism. De Niro delivers a character who is both undeniably charming, but somewhat of an anti-hero. Unlike his other gangster-like roles, De Niro's Charlie reads more like a kid trying to do the right thing and in a constant struggle between the differences between right and wrong.

The Irishman

In 2019, three of the greatest Italian-American actors met on screen for yet another Scorsese masterpiece. Robert De Niro, took on Frank Sheeran, a mob hit man and retired truck driver. However, The Irishman was far from fiction. Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and De Niro all had to prepare to portray real-life characters onscreen. Taking a fictional character and successfully transforming them from the page to the screen is a triumph on its own. With the right supporting actors to rift off and a director with vision, bringing fiction to life can allow you to put a little of yourself into the character.

Yet, there is a completely different element to taking on a real-life figure and transforming into them. De Niro was supposedly involved in pushing to get The Irishman made for about twelve years. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he stated: "It's a terrific book […] I read it and I said, 'Marty [Scorsese], you should read this book because I think maybe this is what we should try. We started this whole process in 2007, so it's been a long time coming. I'm excited to see it and to share it after all this time working on it."

Heat

Take a break from organized mafia crime and check out these professional thieves. Similar to a lot of his other roles, De Niro plays a high-end criminal who steals large sums of money in big bank heists, while cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is following him. Although he still plays an alpha criminal in Heat, De Niro is able to elevate the role to the size of the crime. Sure, there are some remnants of past character traits that he pulls forth in Neil, but De Niro is always able to make it fresh.

Related: Heat 2: Michael Mann Reveals Work is Underway on Adapting Novel into a Movie

The Godfather: Part II

Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather easily will go down as one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all time. De Niro tested for the role of Sonny in the first film, but turned it down. Some thought it was a mistake to turn down a role in such a large production and said that he would lose so much exposure. Yet, De Niro would be cast two years later in one of the best sequels of all time, The Godfather: Part II, playing a young Vito Corleone.

Filling the shoes of Marlon Brando is no easy task, but De Niro does it so effortlessly. His mannerisms, his dialect, and even his facial expressions all paint a vivid picture and present a prequel to whom the audience meets in the first film. His role as Vito Corleone not only was a huge success for The Godfather franchise, but also put De Niro on the map for true Hollywood success.

Casino

Most notably remembered for its horrific scene where Joe Pesci gets beat in a corn field with a baseball bat, Casino packs a big punch on the violence. De Niro plays Ace Rothstein, a man hired by the mafia to run a casino on the Vegas strip. Ace and his lifelong friend Nicky build the casino into a success until pressures run high and the trouble begins. Based on a true story, Martin Scorsese's Casino doesn't ask much of its viewers in terms of character breakdown. Everyone is exactly as they claim to be. Except for Ginger, played by Sharon Stone. Stone and De Niro create the believable dynamic of a married couple which is purely for show. Ace longs to keep his wife and keep her happy. Ginger, on the other hand, appreciates him for his money, and that alone. Their marriage is one of the most interesting parts of the film because the audience gets to see De Niro interact in a relationship setting. The nature between De Niro and Stone is reminiscent of that of his relationship portrayed in Raging Bull.

Goodfellas

Jimmy Conway is hands down one of the most heartless characters ever written, and there is nobody better than De Niro to bring this kind of man to life. Another Scorsese film based on a true story, Goodfellas is tied with The Godfather when it comes to most notable mafia movies. Although the plot mainly revolves around Henry Hill, portrayed by Ray Liotta, De Niro is one of the most memorable parts of the film. Jimmy Conway doesn't like loose ends, and he doesn't like to be double-crossed. He keeps his friends close and his inner circle even closer. De Niro delivers believable vanity, anger, and a manipulative attitude, easily making Jimmy Conway one of his best performances to date.

Taxi Driver

1976's Taxi Driver is more than just a crime drama. It's a commentary on Vietnam War veterans and their mental health upon return. De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a recently returned war veteran whose urge to commit violence increases as the film goes on. Seemingly sweet at first, Travis struggles to make a life for himself in New York City as a taxi driver while his disposition becomes increasingly worse. Constantly exposed to the sleazy vampires that ride the cabs at night, Travis develops a savior complex and feels that he needs to clean the filthy streets.

There are a lot of actors who practice method acting to get into a role, but De Niro took it to a new level. He obtained a license as a taxi driver to prepare for the role of Travis. He even coined one of the most quotable lines of all time in the famously improvised, "You talkin' to me?" scene. In an interview with TODAY, Martin Scorsese commented on the scene: "He kept saying, ‘You talkin’ to me?’ He just kept repeating it, kept repeating it … and the (assistant director) was banging on the door saying, ‘Come on, we got to get out of here.’ And I said, ‘No, this is good, this is good. Give me another minute.’ It was like a jazz riff. Just like a solo.”

Raging Bull

Raging Bull came out in 1980, but was shot entirely in black and white. Scorsese made this choice because he thought that the film would have better chances at the awards, and he was completely right. De Niro raked in an Oscar for his role as Jake LaMotta, a middleweight boxer whose anger and inability to express his emotions eventually cost him everything that he ever worked for. De Niro transforms both mentally and physically to portray LaMotta. Physical beatdowns, domestic violence, and self-loathing are only a few of the themes that Raging Bull serves its viewers. Only a legend like Robert De Niro could channel an energy this strong to carry such a strong performance.

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