Although his recent slew of crass comedies would convince you otherwise, Robert De Niro is one of the most revered and talented and dedicated actors working today. His acting credentials will be put to the test this year in Martin Scorsese’s latest crime epic, The Irishman, as digital de-aging techniques will be used to allow him to play mob hitman Frank Sheeran all throughout his life. But even if that one doesn’t work out, he’s still got an impressive body of work spanning the past few decades. So, here are Robert De Niro’s 10 Best Movies, According To Rotten Tomatoes.
10 TIE: Silver Linings Playbook (92%)
The true stars of Silver Linings Playbook are Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, whose love story is the focal point of the movie, but Robert De Niro provides strong support as Cooper’s dad who is superstitious about sports. We all know the kind of guy who thinks that his traditions have some kind of tangible impact on the outcome of a football game, and De Niro plays that role perfectly. When De Niro’s character opens up to his son, played by Cooper, and he breaks into tears, you’d have to be made of stone not to break into tears with him.
9 TIE: Bang the Drum Slowly (92%)
This was the second film adaptation of the baseball novel of the same name, but the first to take the source material’s title (the previous version, starring Paul Newman, was released under the title U.S. Steel Hour). Bang the Drum Slowly tells the story of the relationship shared by a baseball star with a terminal illness and his younger, smarter teammate. It was released in 1973 when no one other than serious film buffs and Hollywood insiders had heard of Robert De Niro. This, paired with Mean Streets, made De Niro’s career. This is reportedly Al Pacino’s favorite movie of all time.
8 The Deer Hunter (94%)
Michael Cinimo’s The Deer Hunter is about the Vietnam War, but it’s more about three soldiers than it is about the war as a whole. The movie is a three-hour epic, yet it only ever spends about 20 minutes in battle. We get to know these guys as steel workers in a middle American town before they get drafted, and then we see how the war has affected them in startling ways. One of them stays behind to play Russian roulette; one is stuck in a wheelchair in a veteran’s hospital. And those 20 minutes are so gruesome and visceral that we won’t be forgetting them any time soon.
7 TIE: Raging Bull (96%)
When Martin Scorsese makes a biopic, he finds the fatal flaw in his subject and builds the movie from there, using it as their downfall in a poignant character study. This is on prime display in Raging Bull, Scorsese’s cinematic retelling of the life of boxing legend Jake LaMotta. The black-and-white masterpiece focuses on LaMotta’s jealousy.
If someone so much as looks at his wife, he flies off the handle, and ironically, that’s what drives her away. The boxing isn’t just used for the aesthetic here – although it is beautifully shot by cinematographer Michael Chapman – it’s used thematically to show LaMotta taking out his rage; why he goes into the ring in the first place.
6 TIE: Mean Streets (96%)
Mean Streets was Robert De Niro’s first of many collaborations with director Martin Scorsese. It wasn’t Scorsese’s directorial debut, as he’d already helmed a couple of forgettable films for producer Roger Corman, but it does feel like the first true Scorsese movie. With its story about organized crime, rhythmic tracking shots, and artists like the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack, Mean Streets has got Scorsese’s signature style all over it. At its core, it’s an interesting two-hander starring Harvey Keitel as a gangster conflicted over his religious beliefs and Robert De Niro as the unpredictable friend that he feels responsible for.
5 TIE: Midnight Run (96%)
A rare action comedy that has plenty of both exciting action and hysterical comedy, Midnight Run stars Robert De Niro as a bounty hunter and Charles Grodin as the mob accountant he’s assigned to bring in. The plot thickens as Grodin pleads his innocence and the mob, the feds, and fellow bounty hunters are all on their tail. Midnight Run is like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles with machine guns and explosions. Underneath all the spectacle of the action set pieces, the focus of Midnight Run is on the characters’ relationship. De Niro and Grodin’s on-screen chemistry goes a long way.
4 TIE: Goodfellas (96%)
Martin Scorsese set out to make the quintessential mafia movie when he directed Goodfellas. It was the true story of Henry Hill, a New York kid who grew up with aspirations of the gangster lifestyle and ended up ratting out all his friends to the feds.
Scorsese dives right into the story with a corpse in the trunk and then bounces around the timeline in a riveting, fast-paced cinematic ride. This wasn’t a romantic portrait of mob life like The Godfather; this was a more realistic portrayal, focusing on the ground-level guys who do all the dirty work and only see a fraction of the rewards.
3 The Godfather Part II (97%)
Although Robert De Niro and Al Pacino wouldn’t share the screen until Michael Mann’s Heat, they did star in the sequel to The Godfather together. In one of the rare cases where the sequel is actually better than the original – and bear in mind that, in this instance, the original is considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made, so that’s some feat – The Godfather Part II follows the parallel storylines of Michael Corleone taking over the family business following his father’s death and his father’s days as a starving immigrant, starting the business in the first place. It earns “Part II” in its title by being the natural progression of the story set up in the first one.
2 TIE: Brazil (98%)
While it may have bombed at the box office on its original release, Terry Gilliam’s satirical sci-fi comedy Brazil has since gone on to be praised as the underrated masterpiece that it is. It’s far too weird and confusing for mainstream audiences, but it’s a masterclass in surreal imagery, with every single frame bursting with imagination. Robert De Niro only has a small role as Harry Tuttle, but he accepted it because he was desperate to be in the movie. He wanted to play Jack Lint, but Gilliam had already promised the role to fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin. De Niro loved the script so much that he accepted a minor part just to be in it.
1 TIE: Taxi Driver (98%)
Martin Scorsese never made a movie about the Vietnam War when all of his contemporaries were in the ‘70s. Instead, he made a movie about the effects of the Vietnam War. Taxi Driver is a dark, disturbing character study about a veteran who returns from the conflict with PTSD and insomnia, and fills his time driving a cab around New York. Along the way, he plots a political assassination and befriends a child prostitute, culminating in one of the most controversially violent climaxes in film history. Taxi Driver acts as a showcase for Robert De Niro’s talents. If Dirty Grandpa made you lose faith in him, go back and rewatch his performance as Travis Bickle to have that faith restored.