8. 1900 (1977)
Going epic again, as he did in “The Godfather, Part II”, this is Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci taking a long, languorous look at the history of the early part of his birth nation.
A penetrating look at Italian life and politics from the perspective of two diametrically and politically opposed men, this is an epic and grandiose look at the changing face of history made personal. At times an absolute slog of a film, particularly in its uncut 317 minute version, but a compelling one nonetheless.
7. Heat (1995)
In Michael Mann’s mercurial, utterly precise and magisterial crime thriller, De Niro plays master criminal Neil Macauley. Dedicated to his craft at the expense of all else in his life, he is the mirror image of dedicated policeman Vincent Hannah (Al Pacino), given the task of taking him and hs crew down.
Where “Heat”, and De Niro, excel is the way that you experience what could be described as ‘grace notes’, little gestures or physical looks the characters give that tell you a million things about them while saying nothing at all.
This was the first time that De Niro and Pacino had screen time together. While both starring in “The Godfather, Part II”, the story structure never allowed them to be in the same scene together. “Heat” is most famous for the coffee shop scene where Macauley and Hannah finally meet. It is, without a doubt, one of the finest examples of acting in the history of cinema.
However, it is merely one brilliant moment in an entire film constructed of them. “Heat” is a classic slow burn of a movie that totally gets under your skin. It is one of the finest films of the Nineties as far as I’m concerned.
6. The Deer Hunter (1978)
One of the first American films to directly address the Vietnam War, this is a haunting, heartfelt and at times devastating look at war and what it does to the individual. De Niro shines as Michael, one of three friends shipped off to fight in Vietnam and forever changed as a result. Michael is a normal man trying to comprehend and deal with what can only be described as abnormal life situations.
While at times flabby and overblown (half an hour on a wedding sequence? Really), “The Deer Hunter” does have some serious emotional power to it. Check out the scene towards the end where Michael faces off against his once best friend Nick (Oscar winner Christopher Walken). For all its deep flaws, the acting on “The Deer Hunter” isn’t one of them.
5. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Having been turned down for the role of Michael Corleone in the original “Godfather”, the sequel, with its parallel narrative, sees De Niro, in his Oscar winning performance, the young Vito Corleone and his arrival in America in the early part of the century.
With some big shoes left by Marlon Brando to fill from the original, De Niro puts in a highly affecting performance of a man who doesn’t choose a life of crime, but it chooses him. This was a further consolidation of the promise that De Niro had shown in earlier performances.
4. Goodfellas (1990)
In both the respective careers of De Niro and director Martin Scorsese, this is about as borderline flawless as it gets. A film that grabs you by the throat from the opening minutes, “Goodfellas” charts the rise and fall of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a medium level gangster in the Gambino crew. The film spans roughly fifteen years in this man’s life. De Niro plays Jimmy Conway, an older gangster who takes Hill under his wing and shows him the ropes. Charming and malevolent at the same time, De Niro is utterly at the top of his game here. He can say so much with one look that a million words would be unable to convey the same power.
“Goodfellas” really is as good as cinema gets. Angry, corrosive and blackly funny, this truly is a film that is borderline flawless.
3. Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Sergio Leone’s swansong defines the word ‘masterpiece’. Every single element of film making combines and compliments each other to a perfect degree across the space of nearly four hours.
Central to this is the character of David “Noodles” Araonson. Beautifully underplayed by De Niro, he is a walking contradiction of a man, capable of both incredible kindness and incredible brutality, torn between the two and caught in the life of a gangster.
This is a deeply affecting portrayal of a man that, for one reason or another, lets life break him. De Niro’s performance in “Once Upon A Time In America” is a jewel of a performance at the heart of an utterly extraordinary film.
2. Taxi Driver (1976)
Teaming up once again with director Martin Scorsese and working from a ballistic script by Paul Schrader, this is a singular, intense, scummy, depressing and utterly brilliant work.
More character driven than story, De Niro’s fearless performance really gets you under the skin of Travis Bickle, Vietnam veteran, taxi driver and deeply troubled soul. The way in which De Niro shows remarkable restraint in playing this victim of urban alienation and loneliness is truly a sight to behold. “Taxi Driver” is a truly benchmark work for all involved, especially De Niro.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
An utterly uncompromising biopic on boxer Jake La Motta by director Martin Scorsese, this film is also famous for ‘Method’ acting being taken to a whole different level. After filming his scenes where La Motta was at his physical peak, production shut down for three months so De Niro could, in his words, ‘eat his way across Italy’.
The resulting 60 pounds that De Niro stacked on to play La Motta in decline is nothing less than astounding on screen. However, the actor goes far beyond physical stunt casting and imbues the role with an anger and toxicity that has rarely been matched by any other actor on screen.
In 1990, Time Magazine voted “Raging Bull” the best film of the previous decade. Really can’t argue with that choice, can you?
Author Bio: Neil is a journalist, labourer, forklift and truck driver. In a previous life, he was a projectionist for ten years. He is a lifelong student of cinema.