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The 15 Best Leonardo DiCaprio Movie Performances

31 March 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Justin Gunterman

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant

Alright guys, it’s time to find a new person to complain to the Oscars about. DiCaprio has finally won his Academy Award for his stunning portrayal of Hugh Glass. Leonardo has proven time after time that he can tackle any role that’s thrown his way.

Even when the movie itself ends up being mediocre (as is the case with a couple entries on this list), DiCaprio defies all odds and manages to draw the audience to him. He’s received plenty of backlash in recent years, but given his star status that’s an inevitability.

This list seeks to rank the fifteen best Leonardo DiCaprio performances. Not everyone is going to agree with the choices on this list and that makes sense. DiCaprio has such a huge career, that there’s no definitive answer to what his greatest performance happens to be. Know, however, that there has been a lot of time put into the final list, so respect the author and feel free to share your own opinion!

 

15. Marvin’s Room

MARVIN'S ROOM

Early in Leonardo’s career, some people believed that he was typecast as “the troubled teenager.” Looking through his filmography, one might realize that he did have a tendency to play this role, but he always did it well. One of the best versions of this kind of character archetype can be found in the underseen gem Marvin’s Room.

What’s really impressive about DiCaprio’s performance is that he’s able to steal scenes even when he’s up against an all-star cast and an occasionally overly melodramatic script. Leonardo is performing alongside some of the most well-known acting greats in cinema. Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and Robert Deniro all have important roles in this movie.

Luckily DiCaprio is able to hold his own throughout. Whether he’s better than Keaton is up for debate, but if he’s not the movie’s greatest aspect, he’s definitely one of them. His moody, effective portrayal of Hank Lacker, the son of carefree bohemian Lee Lacker (played by Meryl Streep) frequently shines even when it feels like it shouldn’t. This is far from Leonardo’s best known performance, but don’t let that fool you – it’s still impressive.

 

14. Basketball Diaries

The Basketball Diaries

As far as movies about drug addictions go, Basketball Diaries sits somewhere in the middle. It’s not nearly as compelling or effective as Requiem for a Dream, Trainspotting, or Drugstore Cowboy, but it (mostly) gets the job done.

The script can feel a little familiar, especially if you watch it now. In addition, certain sections have a tendency to drag on for too long. However, Leonardo DiCaprio proves throughout the entire film that he’s more than capable of taking on a character like Jim Carroll. In all honesty, he’s one of the biggest reasons the movie works at all.

With it’s decent but unexceptional script, the film desperately needed someone who’s capable of drawing the audience’s attention. Because if the screenplay wasn’t good enough, Basketball Diaries at least needed a strong enough lead. Leonardo DiCaprio more or less delivered.

DiCaprio was easily able to depict an emotionally unstable teenager caught in the midst of a horrible addiction. Though he certainly wasn’t the most captivating drug addict to ever grace the screen, he still proved that he can compete with bigger names, even if he doesn’t outperform them entirely.

 

13. Inception

Inception ending

Inception wasn’t necessarily made to be an acting showcase. Like all movies, the performances still mattered, but this was a movie about pure sci-fi spectacle above all else. If we were ranking movies instead of performances, there’s a good chance Inception would be higher on the list.

Judged solely on performances, it’s still rather impressive that DiCaprio’s performance managed to rank this highly considering the manner of the film. Inception is the second biggest film of DiCaprio’s career. It is for all intents and purposes, a summer blockbuster. Historically speaking, standout performances aren’t what audiences look for in summer blockbusters.

Regardless, DiCaprio still managed to bring enough sophistication and nuance to a character that didn’t necessarily need it. DiCaprio’s portrayal of Dominick Cobb was more tragic than one could imagine. There are a ton of blockbusters where audiences simply don’t care about any sort of tragedy. In Inception, we feel for him regarding the loss of his life. We are aware of the suffering that the event causes him and as a result, we get attached to the character.

While the script definitely helps things, DiCaprio’s acting also happens to be a major factor when it comes to our attachment to the character. If the performance didn’t end up working, the audience may not care about the fate of this man. Luckily, DiCaprio subtly allows us to care about a character that, in the wrong hands, would appear to be one dimensional.

 

12. Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond (2006)

Despite being released the same year as Best Picture winner The Departed, Leo’s performance in Blood Diamond was actually the one that earned him an Oscar nomination. While the film itself is nowhere near as magnificent as Scorsese’s recent masterpiece, Leonardo’s performance is masterful in both movies.

The nomination for this film instead of The Departed was likely a result of the fact that DiCaprio’s performance as gunrunner Danny Archer is significantly flashier compared to his more reserved role in The Departed. We all know the Academy loves flashy, so if they have the opportunity to pick the more showy role, they usually take it.

Don’t assume that showy and flashy are bad things, however. After all, the performance is high on this list for a reason. He consistently avoids being theatrically flashy. His take on the performance easily could have been unnecessarily over-the-top and cheesy, but luckily DiCaprio gracefully avoids shooting himself in the foot.

This is a strong performance through and through despite the fact that the movie doesn’t always live up to expectations due in large part to its lack of originality. Even if the movie has a few hiccups, there’s luckily enough solid material for DiCaprio to work with.

 

11. Titanic

titanic ending

The second highest grossing movie worldwide is also the movie that brought Leonardo DiCaprio to stardom. Yes, he garnered praise for his earlier performances like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Basketball Diaries, but this was the film that helped make DiCaprio a box-office draw. It wasn’t until Titanic’s release that DiCaprio truly became a household name.

Obviously because the movie was a giant hit, it has plenty of detractors. This kind of reception is an inevitability given the movie’s overwhelming popularity. While plenty of people have bashed the film, there are still plenty of people who embrace it. A good chunk of those supporters are likely a result of the two leads’ fantastic performances.

While many argue that Winslet is the star of the show, DiCaprio still obviously gives it his all. In one of his last great performances as a more boyish character instead of his more adult roles found now, Leo absolutely kills it. After all, this film is a tragedy. Without good performers, we’d be left feeling emotionally empty by the end of the story.

Judging by the fact that the movie has been making people weep for almost twenty years, one could conclude that DiCaprio (and obviously Winslet as well) helped garner an emotional response.

 

10. J. Edgar

j. edgar (2011)

Let’s get one thing out of the way – J. Edgar was a pretty disappointing movie all things considered. A biopic directed by Clint Eastwood, written by the screenwriter of Milk, and starring DiCaprio seemed destined for greatness in theory, but it never quite lived up to its potential. The narrative was messy, the script was generic, and the makeup was unconvincing. In most areas, J. Edgar was a somewhat weak movie.

In all honesty, DiCaprio’s performance is the one area that doesn’t (completely) disappoint. It’s clear that Leo put an awful lot of effort into his performance, but the effort doesn’t completely pay off because the movie doesn’t give him much of a chance to truly shine. No matter how hard DiCaprio tries, the fact of the matter is that he’s in a pretty inadequate movie.

In movies like J. Edgar, the actor can only do so much to heighten the material. So while DiCaprio is undeniably the highlight of the film, the rest of the material drags him down.

 

9. Catch Me if You Can

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Catch Me if You Can may be a biopic, but it’s far from the meaty, Oscar-baity biopics we’ve come to expect nowadays. Despite Spielberg’s recent delving into these types of films with movies like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, Catch Me if You Can more often feels like a much more light-hearted and breezy look into the life of its protagonist.

It’s lighter tone made it less of a serious contender at the Academy Awards resulting in little love for DiCaprio. Regardless, people view it as one of Spielberg’s strongest recent films and rightfully so.

DiCaprio may have been ignored at most of the major awards, but that just proves how much they know. His charming take on con-man Frank Abagnale was joyfully engrossing. After taking a break from the “troubled kid” character archetype he was slowly becoming associated with, he returned to it and bested all of his previous attempts at this kind of character.

Though this isn’t a character as complex or mature as someone like Hugh Glass or Howard Hughes, it’s still someone that, thanks to DiCaprio, always keeps our interest. It may not be a heavy role, but it’s one that Leonardo always makes fascinating.

 

 

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  • Sofia Seixo Garrucho

    I think u underrated the Basketball Diaries

  • I would put Gangs of New York instead of J. Edgar which he was good in but the script didn’t really do a lot of favors for him.

  • Juan David Cervantes

    Why do you changed it?!!!

  • Ariel E Arteta F

    Is absolutly brillant in Gatsby, but I’m so happy, my favorites are Arnie and Hughes

  • Patrick Hill

    The Aviator at #1 is a great call. It was a brilliant film, at least as much as HH could be.

  • wooshoo

    You nailed it with Aviator, totaly agree 😀

  • Milu Aman

    I think Danny Boyle’s THE BEACH is one of his best! He was brilliant on that…

  • Ahmed

    Aced it with The Aviator first. Awesome list.

  • zak1

    He has developed into a fine actor who chooses quality projects, but I think he still hasn’t matched his work in two childhood roles that had the mark of genius:

    Gilbert Grape is one, of course, and the other is This Boy’s Life, where he went head to head with De Niro.

    That was his Child Genius phase.

    The next was the beatific Byronic Waif phase – Romeo+Juliet, Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse, Titanic, The Beach, Catch Me If You Can

    His Romeo was strong because of the demands the play made on him, though Claire Danes was stronger.

    Catch Me If You Can played to his strengths – I think he should seek out roles that call for wild abandon and exuberance, like Geoffrey Rush in Shine, or Jaime Foxx in Solo.

    I don’t think he and Scorsese have been great for each other from an artistic standpoint, though their projects have been commercially successful. I feel each has diluted the other’s gifts. Scorsese keeps putting him in these clenched, grim roles that dampen his amazing spirit, and he’s drawn the director towards more conventional, star-driven fare.

    Scorsese ushered in a series of roles that seemed to play off the spectacle of Di Caprio Under Duress. Gangs of New York, Aviator, Departed (Wolf of Wall Street successfully parodied this)

    Then Di Caprio seemed to invent his own sub genre of the tragically deluded husband who’s torn with guilt over his wife’s self-destructive behavior. Inception, Shutter Island, Revolutionary Road – and Gatsby plays heavily on this dynamic.

    Wolf of Wall Street was a nice discovery of Di Caprio’s sense of physical comedy, and the insanity of it was good for him – I hope he goes further in this direction. Though I didn’t like the way the film then sentimentalized his character towards the end.

    The Revenant was a decent movie, but I think it would have played far better if it had been done as a crazy comedy, with the horror and comedy going hand in hand, like the Ash scenes in Evil Dead 2 – Di Caprio goes through such extremes that a sense of the ridiculous would have been a brilliant touch – and I think he would have been the best actor to pull this off.

    Still, it’s amazing that he’s been able to assemble such a successful career out of so many ambitious projects.

  • FWIW, LDC in Django>>>> LDC in WoWS and The Revenant.