5. Everybody’s Fine (2009)
The remake of Guiseppe Tornatore’s film of the same name doesn’t have the same grace, but De Niro single-handedly makes this a worth-watching, beautiful experience. Yes, it’s a bit sentimental and goes to some predicted places, but it somehow works. The supporting cast consisting of Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell are all great, but it’s literally an one-man show from Bobby. Those who associate him with his louder, angry types of roles may especially be surprised by his calm, silent presence that speaks volumes, even if his character doesn’t say a word and just observes around.
In a sense, even though it’s not as strong a film, it serves as some kind of “About Schmidt” for De Niro. His underplaying of the character is so beautiful and refreshingly open. You don’t always get to see him playing a character this subtle. For an actor whose late career had some questionable choices, “Everybody’s Fine” was a great remainder of what a great actor he is and always will be. Even though all of these make it sound like the film is worth watching only for the central lead performance (and let’s admit it, sometimes it’s enough of a reason, it’s Robert De Niro after all), the film is more than that. It’s a sweet film with some lovely comedic moments, and if the sentimentality doesn’t turn you off easily, then chances are you’ll enjoy “Everybody’s Fine”.
4. Falling in Love (1984)
De Niro and Meryl Streep have collaborated three times in total; the first was for the masterpiece called “The Deer Hunter,” which earned them both Oscar nominations. Their second collaboration, however, didn’t make much of a splash. It was probably too simple for audiences, but sometimes the simplicity is where the beauty lies. No, it’s obviously not “Brief Encounter,” but it’s still a better film than the reception it got.
De Niro and Streep were personally involved in the development of the script and they improvised some parts of it. They were looking for a project to work on and when they found this, they obviously wanted it to be as great as possible and it actually is. Both characters are married and yet they fall in love, and for a film that’s supposed to be a sweet love story, it can be slightly alienating for some. But that’s almost the point of the film – that you may find the love of your life later than you expect. So you have to overcome the obstacles of the situation.
The New York setting feels quite good in the movie, but as one can expect from a film that has these two actors in the lead roles (and also Harvey Keitel in a supporting part), the great acting is another reason to watch and enjoy this beautiful film. Even in silent moments, De Niro and Streep both have got a chance to make us understand what their characters are going through with their remarkable expressions.
In the end, “Falling in Love” will not make you feel like you’re watching “Brief Encounter,” but if you like such stories and seeing these two mega legends share the same screen, then it’s a great opportunity. They never got to be a co-lead in any other film since then, even though they both appeared in the very lovely, also slightly underrated 1996 drama “Marvin’s Room” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Diane Keaton. If you like De Niro’s romantic side, “Stanley and Iris” could be another suggestion, especially for those who like “Frankie and Johnny.”
3. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
If you love “Field of Dreams” and haven’t seen this movie, then it’s a definite recommendation. It was the breakthrough year for De Niro, but while many do remember and talk about his work in “Mean Streets,” unfortunately his tender turn in “Bang the Drum Slowly” doesn’t get enough mention. It’s a beautiful, melancholic film that tries to explore the inner workings of a baseball team, the morale of the team in general, and its players members’ personalities. De Niro plays a mediocre, slow-witted catcher of the team. At the beginning of the film, he gets diagnosed with incurable Hodgkin’s disease. The film then centers on his relationship with his friend who keeps his secret.
From its plot, it sounds like it has every element to be overly sentimental, but the movie has the right kind of balance that doesn’t go to manipulative places but still remains a heartbreaking film. Its emotional moments feel very earned thanks to sensitive direction, a beautifully melancholic tone in narration, and well-written characters. There are some moments where it feels like the movie loses its focus, but in the end when the title song starts to play, you may find yourself in tears.
One of the main strengths of the film is definitely De Niro. He plays his character with such honesty and brings so many layers to it that it never turns into some kind of one-dimensional role. Back in 1973, The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “De Niro proves himself to be one of the best and most likeable young character actors in movies with this performance,” and indeed, it was just the beginning of what he would become. Vincent Gardenia, who is also strong in the film, was recognized with an Academy Award nomination for his performance. Even if you don’t care for sports (or baseball) movies, this may still be worth a try.
2. New York, New York (1977)
The third collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese is probably their most underrated one. Usually you hear “The King of Comedy” as such, but that film had a strong critical reception and is now well known among cinephile circles. Meanwhile, there aren’t many people who seem to want to remember “New York, New York,” which is actually great entertainment. It’s likely that “Mean Streets,” “Alice” and “Taxi Driver” were all so extraordinarily unique that critics felt disappointed to see Scorsese making a movie that seems almost too similar to many postwar MGM films.
But while you may find some faults here and there, like it being overlong, it’s still a movie with great music, amazing costumes, and two excellent central performances. It’s also a beautiful tribute to New York as expected from Scorsese. The story is definitely borrowed a lot from noir-like musicals from the ‘40s and ‘50s, to which Scorsese pays homage, but he puts his own spin to the story as well. And that’s probably why it was too off-putting for audiences and critics at the time.
Scorsese seemed to aim for the mix of fantasy and reality in the movie, and they tried to make De Niro’s character’s abusive side a little too real, which didn’t make it appealing for the fans of such films. So seemingly there’s more than one reason to be found in what made this movie an alienating experience for its time; but now in our time, the movie deserves to be re-visited and get the recognition it deserves. The HFPA appreciated the movie and it was nominated for four Golden Globes, including “Best Picture – Musical/Comedy.” The De Niro-Scorsese collaboration is without a doubt one of the best actor-director collaborations ever, so there’s no reason to skip it if you haven’t seen it.
1. Jacknife (1989)
This film features perhaps the most underrated performances of both De Niro and Ed Harris. Kathy Baker is also incredible. When you think about the year in which it was released, it’s almost surprising how such well-known, big stars have starred in a film this small, yet one that is so humane, soulful, and beautiful. De Niro is back to the films that focus on that trauma caused by war and how veterans keep living with those wounds.
De Niro plays a Vietnam veteran named Megs, the “Jacknife” as they call him. He comes to visit his old buddy in Connecticut. That old friend is Dave, an alcoholic man who lives with his sister Martha. Megs finds himself attracted to Martha and this attraction leads to a love affair, much to Dave’s disapproval.
But this isn’t much of a love story; it’s a story about how you cope with pain and old wounds. There’s not even much of a central plot; you could say it’s more of a character study and a very strong one. Even though the script is a winner as well, what makes this film so moving is the great performances delivered by this trio of acting powerhouses.
De Niro is everything in this movie – smart, sensitive, funny, a bit mysterious, unpredictable, sometimes eccentric, heartbreaking, and the acting is so lived in and so natural that there’s no way it doesn’t stay with you. Since it’s not a film with any scenes that could be considered iconic (yet it has effective “big” moments), it’s maybe too easy to overlook. But it’s a shame, because there’s such a strong script, sensitive direction, and striking performances that are worth watching.