10. The Untouchables (Brian DePalma, 1987)Robert DeNiro can be a remarkably subtle actor, capable of delivering emotionally devastating performances – but like all actors, there is a ham inside him that he occasionally lets loose. His performance as Al Capone in The Untouchables is one of those performances. The entire performance is built around exaggerated mannerisms, from his infamous meeting scene where he beats a man to death with a baseball bat, to his final courtroom scene screaming at the judge. It may not be a performance that ranks among his very best, but I know I sure had fun watching him chew the scenery.
9. Machete (Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis, 2010)
No, I’m not going to argue that Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis’ Machete, a violent, bloody, sex drenched comedy and would be political satire is some sort of misunderstood masterpiece. It is precisely what all of Rodriguez’s films – even his best ones – a B movie that is a hell of a lot of fun, but never rises to greatness. But I cannot deny that I had a blast seeing DeNiro, a well-known “Hollywood Liberal” playing a Texas State Senator, with the most racist, hate filled campaign ads imaginable (comparing Mexicans to cockroaches is about the nicest thing he has to say about them). His extremely exaggerated (and extremely fake) Texas accent is downright hilarious and for once in a recent movie, DeNiro seems to be having a blast – and as a result, I had a blast watching him. The performance is in no ways realistic, which is why it’s just about perfect for Machete.
8. A Bronx Tale (Robert DeNiro, 1993)DeNiro has only directed two movies in his career – and they are both great. His second film, The Good Shepherd, is a near masterpiece, but DeNiro didn’t give himself much a role in that one. He does in A Bronx Tale – and not the one we think he’d give himself. The film is about a 17 year Italian kid in the Bronx in 1968, who is stuck between the world of a neighborhood gangster he admires, and his working class father, who he also somewhat admires. It would have been obvious for DeNiro to play the gangster, but instead he plays the father. He doesn’t like the neighborhood gangster, play by Chazz Palmetieri, who also wrote the movie, but knows he really cannot stop his son for working for him if he wants to. He just tries to teach him the right thing. “You want a see a hero? Look at a guy who gets up every morning and goes off to work to support his family. That’s heroism”, he advises his son. A Bronx Tale is an interesting movie – it doesn’t fall into the conventional scenarios we expect from a movie about a gangster – Palmetieri is very good, and a little more philosophical than we expect. DeNiro made a great directorial debut with A Bronx Tale – and part of the reason is his subtle, sympathetic performance.
7. Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock, 1973)Bang the Drum Slowly opens when Robert DeNiro’s Bruce, a mediocre Major League catcher, finds out he’s dying of an incurable disease and has only a few months to live. He tells no one about this except his friend Henry (Michael Moriarty), an all-star pitcher on the team. They decide to keep the secret and let Bruce play out his final season, until he’s too sick to go on anyway, with dignity and respect. This may make Bang the Drum Slowly sound like a somber movie, but it is far from that. The movie is, at times, downright hilarious – especially in the scenes involving Vincent Gardenia, as the manager, who tries desperately to figure out what the hell Henry and Bruce are hiding. Yes, the movie is about death, but it’s also about baseball and male bonding. DeNiro has the showcase supporting role, of course (although it was Gardenia who got nominated for an Oscar for the movie), because he is dying. But the young, nearly unknown DeNiro delivers a smart, touching, honest performance. Bang the Drum Slowly has mostly been forgotten – but it shouldn’t be. It’s one of the best baseball movies ever – and contains a great performance by a young DeNiro.
6. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)What is one to make of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil? It is a bizarre film that Gilliam said was inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, even though he admits he never actually read the book. It is a science fiction film, with strange flights of fancy, dream sequences and absurd humor. It is the type of film you either love or hate. Apparently, DeNiro fell in love with the screenplay, and wanted to play a larger role that Gilliam had already promised to Michael Palin – so he offered DeNiro what turned out to be little more than a cameo. And yet DeNiro’s Archibald Tuttle, the real terrorist the insane government bureaucracy was looking for when they interrogated an innocent man to death, becomes one of the most memorable in the movie. You may think that in a movie populated by British actors – especially comedic ones – that DeNiro would stick out like a sore thumb – and he does, but in a brilliant way, because Tuttle is unlike anyone else in the film. DeNiro’s role in Brazil in one of his smallest – but he leaves a huge impact.
5. Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987)Alan Parker’s Angel Heart is a weird, over the top horror movie/erotic thriller. The multiple, graphic, blood drenched sex scenes involving Lisa Bonet may well have gotten her booted off the Cosby Show (temporarily) at the time. It is utterly ridiculous, and yet a superb exercise in style by Parker, and shows why Mickey Rourke was considered to one of the great up and coming actors at the time. DeNiro’s role in the film is relatively small. But his Louis Cyphre (if you don’t know who he’s playing, say that same out loud and you’ll figure it out) is my favorite part of the movie. Why the hell DeNiro decided to make himself look and sound like his good friend Martin Scorsese for this role, I’ll never know. But it was a stroke of genius. It is a wonderful tribute to Scorsese, and perhaps the reason DeNiro did was simply to amuse himself – but it works wonderfully. The movie is an exercise in seeing how far Parker can push everything – and on that level it succeeds, kind of anyway, but the reason I remember it is DeNiro.
4. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)DeNiro may have been top billed in GoodFellas, but we all know that Ray Liotta was the lead. Personally, I think DeNiro’s work in GoodFellas has been underrated over the years – everyone, justly, raves about Joe Pesci’s Oscar winning psychopath, but DeNiro’s performance – a little older, a little wiser, but just as ruthless doesn’t get as much attention, but the movie is unthinkable without Jimmy “The Gent” Conway. His role here is one of controlled fury – unlike Pesci, who you know when he’s about to snap, DeNiro never quite plays his cards the same way – he knows when he’s about to kill someone, but he doesn’t let anyone else know. This is a great performance in one of the best movies ever made.
3. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)Mean Streets was DeNiro’s breakout screen role – and started the best actor-director collaboration in cinema history. In the film, Harvey Keitel plays the Scorsese surrogate – guilt riddled, low level gangster who doesn’t quite feel right about what he does – both in working for his uncle, and in seeing his best friends epileptic sister. DeNiro is that best friend – Johnny Boy – and he is as wild as Keitel is restrained. He sometimes does stupid, destructive things just for the sake of doing stupid, destructive things. And he’s got in over his head in debt to the wrong people – and he is to blind to see Keitel trying to help him. There is a scene early in Mean Streets, where DeNiro tries to explain himself to Keitel where he’s lying through his teeth – we know it, Keitel knows it, and DeNiro knows Keitel knows it, and yet he just keeps going. In this scene alone, DeNiro shows how brilliant he would become. And the rest of the performance is nearly as good.
2. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is perhaps the least celebrated of his features, and that’s a shame, because it is pitch perfect crime drama and perhaps the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard we will ever see. Tarantino takes his time here – the film is two and half hours long – and while it’s as intricately plotted as any Leonard adaptation, Tarantino also lets his characters breath – to be more than just figures in the plot, and that is what Leonard does so well. DeNiro is brilliant as Louis, the dull, dim-witted ex-convict, just out of jail and not sure what to do. His best scenes are the various two handers he has with Bridget Fonda (giving the best performance of her career), as Samuel L. Jackson’s mistress, who sleeps with Louis, and then becomes an annoying nag. The two have an effortless chemistry together, and their scenes are so well written, and performed, that you almost wish the entire movie was about them – or you would if everything around them wasn’t just as great. If you haven’t seen Jackie Brown in while, check it – DeNiro is just one of many pleasures the movie has to offer.
1. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)Think about this for a second. In 1974, Robert DeNiro had just had a breakthrough role in Mean Streets –a movie popular with critics and other directors, but barely seen by the viewing public, so he’s still fairly unknown to them. And then DeNiro gets cast to play the younger version of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone – one of, if not the most, iconic screen role in movie history. Not only that, but almost the entire performance will require DeNiro to speak in Sicilian accented Italian – and the man doesn’t speak the language at all. The balls it took to even attempt to pull this performance off is almost unthinkable – and then to deliver one of the best performances of the 1970s – and win an Oscar for the role – is all the more impressive. DeNiro’s Vito Corleone is undeniably going to grow up to be Brando’s, and yet DeNiro gives him his own flavor as well. When we meet him, he is just a humble immigrant, who slowly, methodically works his way up to become someone important. There are two murder scenes in the movie that are masterful – and although Coppola deservedly gets most of the credit for the brilliant sequence of DeNiro tracking his prey on the rooftops, DeNiro plays it just as brilliantly. This performance is legendary for a reason.