8. Revolutionary Road
This somber, melancholic drama based off the 1961 novel of the same name would be nothing without its consistently superb cast. Along with Winslet and Michael Shannon, Leonardo DiCaprio boosts the power of this melodrama. Although the movie can feel a little been-there-done-that, it’s hard to be bored when there’s so much talent on screen.
Everyone is absolutely stunning. Unlike other entries on this list, it would be unfair of me to claim that DiCaprio is the best of the bunch. Do know, however, that he easily keeps up with the rest of the cast and delivers a powerhouse performance as the miserable husband of April Wheeler.
The film can be at times hard to watch because of the depressing tone. It’s a movie that seeks to rip out your hard and bring you to tears. In many ways, it absolutely succeeds. This is in large part due to the stellar acting onscreen.
The broken, oftentimes maniacal Frank Wheeler is a role that DiCaprio absolutely owns. He breathes life into the complex character depicted in the book. When he’s onscreen, we don’t want to look away because we’re dying to know what he’ll do next. That’s the sign of a good performance.
7. Shutter Island
It’s hard to talk about Shutter Island without giving too much away. Just know, however, that DiCaprio handles the numerous twists and turns like a pro.
The first half of the film plays out like a straightforward thriller, leaving DiCaprio without too much to do. His presence is always welcome, but it’s not until the end of the movie where we see DiCaprio truly shine. When the movie shifts from a mainstream thriller to a thought-provoking character study, we also see Leo shift his performance in a completely different and enormously welcome direction.
The later scenes can be haunting and mesmerizing, and while the script and direction definitely help, it’s Leonardo that we’re drawn to. He gives the audience a taste of a vulnerable man and allows us explore what’s going on in his head. Though Shutter Island is probably the least acclaimed of DiCaprio’s Scorsese collaborations, it still brings with it a powerful performance.
6. Django Unchained
There was a lot of hype surrounding DiCaprio’s performance in Django Unchained. Unfortunately, there may have been a little too much hype. People had him pegged as an Oscar frontrunner before even seeing the movie. When it came out, DiCaprio’s performance received plenty of praise, but maybe not as much as people were expecting.
Ultimately, DiCaprio’s ham-handed performance was pretty great, but maybe not the film’s strongest aspect. Up against a more compelling character portrayed by Christoph Waltz, the early Oscar buzz eventually faded in favor of Waltz’s performance. Waltz eventually picked up his second Oscar for this performance while DiCaprio failed to even nab a nomination.
In all honesty, it could be argued that DiCaprio deserved that Oscar nomination. Unfortunately splitting votes at the Oscars often lead to some actors getting the shaft. For example, early pundits had both Ruffalo and Keaton as potential Best Supporting Actor nominations for their work in Spotlight. Unfortunately, only one of the two (Ruffalo) earned a nomination.
While DiCaprio wasn’t as memorable as many were hoping, he nonetheless managed to grab the audience’s attention from the moment he entered each scene. This is mostly due to the fact that every action taken by the dastardly Calvin Candie was genuinely unnerving. Anticipating this vile character’s future actions was always thrilling. While Tarantino’s script certainly played a part, DiCaprio’s embodiment of this atrocious slave owner elevated the character in significant ways.
5. The Departed
Possibly the most critically acclaimed movie of DiCaprio’s career, The Departed is considered by many to be a modern classic. This glamorized Hollywood remake of Infernal Affairs consistently impresses thanks to Scorsese’s expert direction along with a superb ensemble. Up against Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon, and Martin Sheen, DiCaprio still makes his character stand out.
After a number of more serious roles in comparison to his pretty-boy performances in the ‘90s, this is the performance that likely solidified DiCaprio’s status as a serious (and seriously talented) actor. While this isn’t the first movie featuring a more mature DiCaprio, it was certainly the first one to get him so much attention. The attention received for the film was completely warranted though considering how layered he made this character.
DiCaprio’s undercover cop was a seemingly simple character. Nicholson was the actor who, in theory, should have stolen scene after scene. Not that Nicholson was at all bad. On the contrary, it’s hard to argue that any of the cast members were disappointing. It’s more the fact that, given Nicholson’s more complex character, you’d think he would steal the show. DiCaprio simply doesn’t let that happen. He’s electric.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
Scorsese’s latest is one of his most polarizing in recent years. A big complaint, aside from the length, comes from the lack of likable characters. It’s hard to care for any character in The Wolf of Wall Street because they’re all absolutely horrible human beings.
If you’re the type that’s looking for someone to root for, avoid The Wolf of Wall Street at all costs—it’s not the movie for you. If you don’t need morals in your movies, then step right up because The Wolf of Wall Street does everything it can to show you a great time.
Leonardo is completely unhinged in his depiction of the nastiest character to grace the movie. Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff may sleep with his cousin and Margot Robbie’s Lapaglia may be in it for the money, but it’s DiCaprio’s role as Jordan Belfort that really makes our stomach turn. He’s a nasty man with no morals, and DiCaprio plays him with skill.
Proving that the Scorsese/DiCaprio team-up is not even close to running out of steam, Leonardo delivers one of the strongest performances in his career as a despicable money-hungry mad-man. Plenty of people will leave the film disgusted or displeased, but there’s no denying Leonardo’s star-power.
3. The Revenant
How do you captivate an audience with a role featuring very little dialog? That was likely one of the biggest hurdles DiCaprio faced during the filmmaking of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. The good news is that apparently Leo knew what he was doing because after all these years, it finally won him the Oscar.
His portrayal of frontiersman Hugh Glass is unquestionably a career highlight for him. This fairly minimalistic performance needed an actor who can keep the audience enthralled despite the fact that there isn’t much speaking involved. DiCaprio tackles the challenge with ease by practically forcing viewers to never keep their eyes off of the screen.
The Revenant proves that DiCaprio is very capable of taking on a variety of roles. After two over-the-top and talkative performances in The Wolf of Wall Street and Django Unchained, DiCaprio shows his more reserved side with no noticeable challenges. This is a performance that can’t rely on the script to boost it because frankly, the script isn’t terribly complex.
It’s one hundred percent Leonardo’s commitment to the role that makes it worthwhile. While the supporting cast does their best to keep up, DiCaprio is constantly the focal point for obvious reasons. His acting chops are on full-display here, and that’s precisely why he finally earned his overdue Oscar.
2. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
Nowadays we associate actors who play mentally disabled characters as those begging for an Oscar. In some cases, this is absolutely true. Radio and I Am Sam feel like they’re going through the motions in order to eventually achieve Academy-glory.
There are, however, legitimately great films that tackle the subject. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is one of those films. It never feels like a movie that tries to manipulate its audience into feeling all the feels. DiCaprio’s Arnie isn’t some kind of cardboard cutout. He’s a complex, multilayered character that begs to be analyzed.
As a result, they needed the right man for the role, especially when the actor was tasked with performing alongside Johnny Depp, who at that point was one of the most famous actors in the world. DiCaprio ended up outperforming everyone onscreen when he was eventually earned the role. He absolutely had the meatiest, most complex role, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he gets a free-pass, as explained earlier.
He also doesn’t get a free pass just for being Leo because when this movie came back, he was far from the A-list star he is today. DiCaprio was given the challenge of transforming into a troubled, complicated character. He not only completed this challenge – he excelled at it.
1. The Aviator
Prior to his latest victory for The Revenant, if you were to ask fans what movie Leonardo DiCaprio was truly robbed for at the Oscars, the majority would probably agree on The Aviator. Jamie Foxx did very well in his portrayal of Ray Charles for the movie Ray, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s attention to detail for his role as Howard Hughes in The Aviator is astounding.
Rumor has it that he dedicated most of his waking hours trying to perfectly replicate Hughes’s special case of OCD during production, and it shows. In later interviews with DiCaprio about the movie, he would confess that he even ended up with a little case of OCD by the end of filmmaking. Now that’s dedication!
Out of the many DiCaprio/Scorsese collaborations, The Aviator might not be the best, but it’s the best at showcasing DiCaprio’s talents on-screen. Howard Hughes was fascinating man, and that worked to benefit DiCaprio. He took over this character and basically became him. Believability is often the key to making a successful biopic. The audience often feels a certain kind of detachment if they feel that the real-life person an actor is playing is not being done justice.
Luckily, DiCaprio’s quest to bring the infamous man to life was undeniably believable. The hours spent studying Howard Hughes are absolutely clear within minutes of watching the film. If you ever want to see DiCaprio disappear into a role, this is the best example. While it’s not his flashiest and it may not be his most difficult, it remains the performance that stuns this particular writer time after time.
Author Bio: Justin is a paraprofessional teaching assistant and full-time film enthusiast with a degree in English. When he’s not writing about films, he’s probably watching them in his spare time.