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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.