8. The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
One of the best films of the year, “The Piano” is a romantic drama about a mute woman Ada (Holly Hunter) who came to New Zealand along with her daughter (Anna Paquin) for an arranged marriage with a wealthy landowner (Sam Neill).
She brought her prized piano as well and develops a romantic relationship with the local worker after a series of piano lessons. When her husband finds out about her infidelity, he puts her through mental and physical torture.
The cast is phenomenal, especially the young Anna Paquin, who received an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role after beating 5,000 other girls for the role. It was her debut on the big screen, and was quite amazing.
Holly Hunter won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA for Best Actress in a Leading Role, while Jane Campion got the prestigious Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. The movie received another five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three BAFTAs.
Keitel’s role as George is rather despicable at first, as he offers Ada to play the piano and eventually buy it out, but she has to sleep with him in return. As the film goes on, Keitel’s character proves to be passionate and lovable, and the viewers root for him instead of Ada’s husband.
As one of the best method artists of our time, Keitel wanted to look similar to the locals, so he marked his body in the native style for the role. His terrific sensibility and undeniable chemistry with Hunter made it easy for the pair to act. It’s a genuinely touching part from Keitel.
7. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
An enduring masterpiece from one of the hottest directors in the last 25 years is a magnetic four-tale film about Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), and their assignment to find Marsellus’ (Ving Rhames) stolen suitcase.
The task is anything but simple, and their story interferes with the boss’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) and an aging boxer named Butch Coolidge, among others.
At first, it seems that the characters are unrelated, but as the plot goes on, they’re more familiar with each other in funny and bizarre situations. Quentin Tarantino won all three major awards (Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA) for Best Writing while the movie received another six Oscar nominations, five Golden Globe nominations, and six BAFTA nominations.
Keitel, who previously starred in Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”, had a much smaller part here, but his character Mr. Wolf is essential to the plot. Mr. Wolf is a well-organized and intelligent “cleaner” who helps Jules and Vega clean a car after a murder.
He is a highly respected member of Marsellus’ organization, and his authority is evident. Keitel played with pure simplicity and complete control, as if the role was written primarily for him. And as a matter of fact, Tarantino did write it specifically for Keitel.
6. Smoke (Wayne Wang, 1995)
Auggie Wren (Keitel) runs the smoke shop in Brooklyn, which is the central place of the neighborhood’s stories. One of them is a disheartened and broken writer named Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), whose life collides with Auggie’s, and they share an adventure together.
The young and cunning Rashid (Harold Perrineau) is also necessary for the plot, while searching for his father Cyrus (Forest Whitaker).
The story is fascinating and original, the dialogue is excellent, and the script is impeccable, with the grand conclusion in the shape of a Christmas story. Director Wang received a Special Jury Prize at Berlin International Film Festival.
Keitel’s character Auggie is complex and properly created; he faces personal issues while helping his neighbor solve another problem. He has an unusual hobby every morning at the same time; he takes snapshots from the same spot outside his shop, for the past 14 years.
Keitel’s sweetness and tenderness make the viewer believe that nobody else could perform the role better than him. He shows his gentle side and impresses without overacting in any moment.
It can be quite difficult for the people who’ve only seen him as a villain to comprehend his character, but Keitel proved he can be a “real human” on screen. Keitel got a Silver Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for this part.
5. From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996)
Robert Rodriguez, with the help of his longtime colleague Quentin Tarantino (who also stars in the movie), created an action-packed horror film about two criminals and their hostages that chose a wrong place and moment to be in after dark.
Seth (George Clooney) and Richard Gecko (Tarantino) are seeking refuge and abduct former priest Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), and his daughter (Juliette Lewis) her and son. The biker bar “Titty Twister” seems like a good place to stay overnight, but the situation will drastically change after dark.
This movie launched Clooney into the stratosphere while Salma Hayek impressed with her memorable dance scene. Cheech Marin plays three characters, and Danny Trejo had notable appearances as well. The film and Clooney won the Saturn Award while Keitel was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Keitel is Jacob Fuller, a minister who lost his faith after his wife died in a car crash, and his character has the pivotal role in a bloodbath clash with the vampires. Apparently the most complex character in the movie, Jacob is a loving father and is willing to sacrifice anything for his children.
Keitel is faultless in his role as a hostage and a father figure who is ready to do anything to save his kids. He plays Jacob very well with a reasonable amount of boldness and restraint. He’s a charismatic actor who is a joy to watch in the scenes when he’s fighting Clooney as the bigotry mounts. Although Clooney steals the show in this one, as always, Keitel delivers.
4. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)
Charlie (Keitel), a small-time hood from New York’s Little Italy, is facing a moral crisis regarding his faith, friends, romance, family, and business. He is torn between his loyalty to his uncle and his love for the epileptic girl from the neighborhood.
At the same time, his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is having a lot of problems with debts, and Charlie is doing everything to help him and buy him more time with the local mobster/loan shark Tony (David Proval). It is one of the many Scorsese gangster-related movies, and it helped De Niro in his rise to the Hollywood A-list.
The scene where De Niro enters the room, and Keitel’s face is zoomed in on with music behind him, is similar to the famous scene in “Goodfellas” with De Niro and Cream’s “Sunshine of your Love”.
It was Keitel’s second collaboration with Scorsese, who offered the role of Charlie to De Niro, but when Keitel came on board, he persuaded De Niro to take the part of Johnny Boy.
Keitel is magnificent as the thoughtful, intelligent, and realistic Charlie. His character is something of a big brother to the wild and rather stupid Johnny Boy, and Keitel did a great job playing a complicated personality. It’s Scorsese’s life story, as he grew up in Little Italy, so Keitel was selected to portray the director’s early life, and did it magnificently.
3. Fingers (James Toback, 1978)
James Toback’s directorial debut is the story about a dysfunctional and obviously deranged young man who is stuck between his job as a money collector and his dream of becoming a pianist.
His father (Michael V. Gazzo) is an Italian loan shark and often relies on Jimmy (Keitel) to collect his money, and although looking reluctant at first, Jimmy “Fingers” is doing the dirty work without thinking about the means. He meets Carol (Tisa Farrow), a prostitute who is under Dreems’ (Jim Brown) protection. The conflicting sides of Fingers’ personality will explode by the end of the movie, as he decides to make his final collection.
Keitel is at his very best in this one; his performance is incredible, and pretty much shaped the psychopathic roles he got in the future. His character isn’t one-dimensional, though, and Keitel presented Jimmy’s self-destructive neurosis on the highest level.
Keitel’s powerful acting is so realistic that Jimmy’s struggle is painful to watch at times, including his social ineptness with women. Although Keitel’s interpretation of such a character is astonishing, and although this is easily one of his best roles ever, it was non-understandably underrated.
2. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
A six-man gang is hired to rob a jewelry store, chasing diamonds. The robbers were given fake names as they didn’t know each other from before. The heist went wrong, and two of them died, so the remaining members started to think that one of them might be an undercover cop.
The movie defined Tarantino as a director, and he became one of the leading faces in Hollywood in coming years. His trademarks continued to live on after this film, but “Reservoir Dogs” will always be remembered as the one that brought him glory. The cast is fantastic; Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi and Chris Penn are brilliant, and will often appear in Tarantino’s films in the future.
Keitel is Mr. White, an apparent leader and the most experienced criminal in the group, a calm and reasonable man who would like to solve a problem with talk rather than the “shoot first ask questions later” style. Keitel managed to balance the character’s cool and wild side with grace, and exceptionally portrayed the cold-as-ice veteran mobster.
Keitel’s career was revived after this movie, and Tarantino brought him back from the dead after Keitel called him to offer his services as both an actor and a producer. Due to the small budget, the actors had to wear their own clothes; Keitel wears a suit especially made from French designer Agnes B.
1. Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992)
A corrupt and heavily drug and gambling addicted New York City lieutenant (Keitel) is investigating the rape of a young nun, but his personal troubles haunt him as he tries to change his fortunes in a search for forgiveness. He is running a drug business on the streets; the gambling debts are mounting over his head while he is regularly spending time with prostitutes.
It seems that this man is addicted to any possible vice known to humanity. At the same time, he has a family, and his turbulent lifestyle has the potential to be fatal for him.
The role of the notorious lieutenant is arguably the best in Keitel’s career. It wasn’t easy to get into that kind of character, and the actor had only three weeks to prepare for the part, after Christopher Walken pulled out saying that he wasn’t the right man for the role. Keitel threw the script after reading the first 15 pages, calling it “a piece of junk.”
However, after he read it again, the scene with the nun’s rape captivated him and he decided to accept the role. Keitel stayed in the character the entire time on set during production. He won the Fantasporto Award for Best Actor, and also the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead.
This list couldn’t be shorter, but could be a bit longer, though. Keitel’s performances in the following movies deserve to be honorably mentioned: “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” (1967), “The Duellists” (1977), “Blue Collar” (1978), “The Two Jakes” (1990), “Thelma & Louise” (1991), “Clockers” (1995), and “Cop Land” (1997).