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The 15 Best Al Pacino Movies You Need To Watch

30 July 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Neil Evans

best al pacino movies

Born in 1940, Alfredo “Al” Pacino was, along with Robert De Niro, at the forefront of a radically different style and approach to acting at the vanguard of New American Cinema in the early part of the Seventies.

Namely, this style and approach was known as “the Method”, where an actor would go deep into the psyche and philosophy of the character they played on screen. This was markedly different to the ‘show up on time and know your lines’ approach of the generation before them.

This resulted in some unforgettable performances from Pacino over the past four decades of cinema. Here are some highlights from the incredible body of work with which Pacino has left an indelible mark on the world of cinema and acting.

 

15. The Panic In Needle Park (1971)

The Panic In Needle Park (1971)

This is the film that got the attention of the world in general and say to themselves “Al Pacino. Who’s this guy?”. A tough, unflinching and utterly unforgettable look at drug abuse in New York in the early Seventies, director Jerry Schatzberg had a completely unsentimental and almost documentary-like eye for what was going on in this world within a world.

Set during a time when heroin was at its most scarce and rare, Pacino nails the utter desperation of addicts looking for a fix. “The Panic In Needle Park” is a lost gem, and a film that neither preaches about or glamourizes its subject matter.

 

14. …And Justice For All (1979)

and justice for all (1979)

Most famous for its final “you’re all out of order” speech that features Pacino at his most verbally ballistic, this is an excellent team up with director Norman Jewison , a man known for his humanist and socially conscious cinema. Pacino plays Arthur Kirkland, an idealistic lawyer put in what can be only be described as a ‘devil’s advocate’ position, namely, to defend a judge on a rape charge that he despises or be disbarred if he refuses to take the case.

Pacino perfectly captures the manic, pushed to the edge quality and viewpoint that Kirkland finds himself in, it is one of the man’s most underrated performances.

 

13. Scent Of A Woman (1992)

Scent Of A Woman (1992)

Released in the same year as “Glengarry Glen Ross”, this is the film that finally nabbed Pacino a Best Actor Oscar. In the enjoyable but somewhat bloated and overlong “Scent Of A Woman”, Pacino plays Lt Frank Slade, a bitter, blind and retired former war veteran. In what becomes something of a ‘buddy picture’, he takes a road trip with a younger man in college, played by Chris O’Donnell.

Here, Pacino plays an angry man who finds peace due to those around him with an effortless elegance and grace. It’s also famous for a beautiful dance sequence involving the rather lovely Gabrielle Anwar. Not one of the man’s most spectacular efforts, but a solid film that finally gave Pacino the recognition he had long deserved.

 

12. Donnie Brasco (1997)

Donnie_Brasco

Getting away from his ‘king of romantic comedies’ persona, director Mike Newell made this punchy look at undercover cop Joe Pistone (played here by Johnny Depp) going deep into the Mob in New York. His ‘key’ into this world is his friendship with ‘Lefty” Ruggiero, a low level mobster.

Beautifully played by Pacino, Ruggiero is one that could be politely described as a ‘loser’. Namely, a gangster that serves a purpose and earns his keep, but has never risen up the ranks. Pacino brings a beautiful sense of shade and light to this role, and the moral weight that falls upon him once Pistone reveals his true colours.

A different, morally complex take on the world of the gangster and the concept of ‘what is right’ in a world where that is, at times, an incredibly difficult question to answer.

 

11. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Glengarry Glen Ross

Based on the scorching play by David Mamet, who adapted it for the screen, James Foley’s cinematic take on the material is nothing less than utterly riveting. Set in a real estate office, “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a lacerating look at both the world of men and the notion of survival in a world that will spiritually slit you throat if there’s a buck to be made out of it.

This film features quite possibly one of the finest ensemble casts you will ever have the pleasure to see together in one film: Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin. Read that lineup again!

Pacino personifies sleaze and the attitude of the ‘alpha male’ brilliantly, the personification of self-survival at the cost of everything and everyone around him. A brilliant cinematic take on an extraordinary play.

 

10. Carlito’s Way (1993)

Carlito’s Way (1993)

The more underrated of Pacino’s collaborations with director Brian De Palma, “Carlito’s Way” has a wonderful heart and groove to it, amongst all the violence and profanity.

Pacino, in a more understated performance, plays Carlito Brigante. Fresh out of jail and determined to get out of the life that has just about destroyed him, he finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the life that he is so determined to try and escape, due to various factors and influences.

A tough but, at times, quite touching look at a man trying to unlearn his past and establish a new life, “Carlito’s Way” is a gangster film, but one with a big heart to it.

 

9. Serpico (1973)

Serpico

Showing that he can play more than criminals, Pacino here teams up with one of the most criminally underrated directors of our time in the form of Sidney Lumet. He puts forward a powerhouse, first class performance as an idealistic policeman who dares to blow the whistle on his fellow dishonest and corrupt peers, and becomes a pariah in a world he believes in as a result.

What makes “Serpico” such an affecting film is that this isn’t a world of black and white. The ‘shades of grey’ are potent and still pertinent over forty years since this film was made. The opening cross cut between Serpico now and when he was the proud, idealistic man who joined the force is some of the most powerful imagery ever committed to film, buoyed by Pacino’s total commitment to the role.

 

 

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  • Less

    No Merchant of Venice?

  • The_Art_of_Evolution

    Hi Neill, I really liked your article. It inspired me to rewatch some of these gems. I think Merchant of Venice and also Looking for Richard definitely need to be added.

    • Brian Lussier

      Looking For Richard? One of his weak nineties performances, especially when you factor in that Ian McKellen had just played a MUCH more impressive Richard III in Richard Loncraine’s film a few months earlier.

      • AnnCL

        Nothing weak about it. It’s a great film for teaching teens (and adults) about the play.

  • Charles Barnes

    I’ll argue Donnie Brasco isn’t ESSENTIAL as such.

    For the visuals alone, Nolan’s Insomnia is worth a look, and Pacino gives as solid a performance as ever.

  • Pingback: The 15 Best Robert De Niro Movies You Need To Watch « Taste Of Cinema – Movie Reviews and Classic Movie Lists()

  • Arjun Rao

    This list should have had You Don’t Know Jack as well. It’s most different from all the other movies that he has done..

  • Ron Geatz

    The despicable historical character ia Roy Cohn, not Cohen.

    • Linda Conley

      Thank you. So many of the TOC articles need major editing and proofreading. “Panic in Needle Park” is my favorite Pacino performance followed closely by “Glengarry Glen Ross”. I guess I like being depressed.

  • arpan sarkar

    am surprised there is no “recruit” or “Devils Advocate” in the list. Especially the latter where he was just masterclass.

    • Piotr Grabowski

      surprised too

  • Matthew Humphrey

    What? No Dog Day Afternoon..??? Criminal!!!

    • Brian Lussier

      Um, what are you talking about?! It’s #4 on the list! Did you not read the article?!

    • Rosana Battifora

      But Of course it is there. Watch carefully. You’ll find it here.

  • Rosana Battifora

    The best KISS ever: Frankie & Johnny in front of a flower store. Michelle Pfeiffer & Al Pacino.

    I will never forget Lieutenant Coronel (forgot first name) lying in the bed of the fancy hotel, completely depressed, ready to die.

    AL PACINO, master of actors: you have the gift. No matter what, you are not capable of being mediocre. I loved you in The Godfather, The Godfather II, Scarface, Cruising, Scent of a Woman. Oh! YOU’RE GREAT!

  • Brian Lussier

    Honestly, I think Scarface WAS over the top, and I don’t buy Pacino in that film most times. I know it’s a classic, but it’s an overrated one, though I do understand it has to be here. For your info, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Wall Street, Born On The Fourth Of July and JFK were all superior films to it, as were De Palma’s Obsession, Dressed To Kill, The Untouchables, Casualties Of War, Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, Femme Fatale, Redacted, Carrie and especially Blow Out (these last two are masterpieces). So please don’t call Scarface their best films respectively. It’s a classic, but far from being a masterpiece in any way.

  • Darren

    Pacino, being a theatre performer, was at his best and most comfortable in more theatrically influenced films.

    This is why Scarecrow, The Local Stigmatic and Chinese Coffee should be on this list.

  • Volker Lohr

    Jack & Jill anyone..?

    • Brian Lussier

      Hopefully, you’re being sarcastic…

  • Akshy

    Great Post:). Here’s my take on the top movies of Al Pacino. My list slightly varies from yours:).

    http://akshysmultiplex.blogspot.com/2011/09/celebrity-top-5.html

  • გიორგი ჯაფიაშვილი

    What about Chinese Coffee? It’s also directed by Al Pacino.

  • Iván Solorio (SanS)

    I’d add Insomnia in that list. Pacino’s depth to his character was amazing and his chemistry with the late Robin Williams was just pure gold.

  • Harris K Telemacher

    Scent of a Woman hasn’t aged well for me.

  • A shame that Pacino never took home Best Actor Oscar for ‘The Godfather Part 2’. That ‘s something the Academy ought to bury before ‘Cruising’.

    • Abhishek

      He had to wait until Scent of a woman came out. That’s really a shame.

  • Serpico

    Sea Of Love is a good movie too

  • Bo Nicholson

    I can’t for the life of me think that Part 2 is better than Part 1

  • Robin Aerts

    Devil’s advocate must be in there imho.

  • Rikum D4

    The powerfull boss

  • Paul Adrian

    No Insomnia with Robin Williams? Meh
    No ‘Heat’ with Robert De Niro?? Meh!!

    Talking out of your arse matey.

  • HailTheGeezer

    Good article, but i think that John Milton from Devil’s Advocate deserves a spot in this list, Pacino was far from supreme.