The 15 greatest Robert De Niro film performances of all time
(Credit: United Artists)

From Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino: The 15 greatest Robert De Niro film performances of all time

“I don’t like to watch my own movies – I fall asleep in my own movies.”—Robert De Niro

The name of Italian-American actor Robert De Niro has become synonymous with the highest tiers of acting talents for the last fifty years or so.

Famous for his lifelong collaboration with Martin Scorsese in iconic films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and many others, De Niro is one of the most celebrated and successful actors of his generation. He is the recipient of multiple awards, including two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. He even received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016.

Born in New York, De Niro was fascinated by cinema since he was a child because he found it an escape from his shy nature. At the age of 16, he dropped out of school to pursue acting. He later said, “When I was around 18, I was looking at a TV show and I said, ‘If these actors are making a living at it, and they’re not really that good, I can’t do any worse than them’.”

On his 77th birthday, we reflect on the greatest performances of the actor’s long and successful career as a tribute to one of the most talented actors of his time.

The 15 Greatest Robert De Niro Films:

15. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell – 2012)

Russell’s screwball romantic comedy is about a troubled young woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who suffers from psychological disorders. She strikes up a beautiful and bizarre relationship with Pat (played by Bradley Cooper), a man who has his fair share of mental problems as well. De Niro is brilliant as Pat Solitano, Sr., an obsessive-compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan caring for his bipolar son. This performance rightly earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The director recalled how De Niro had started crying after reading the script, “I thought he was having hay fever, then I realized he was having an emotional reaction and I sat there and watched Robert De Niro cry for 10 minutes and I said, ‘Wow he’s really connecting with this material and this would be beautiful thing if it could work out, because I think his heart would be there’ and it is there.”

14. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino – 1997)

Based on the 1992 novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, Tarantino’s film boasts a star-studded cast including illustrious actors like Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda and Michael Keaton. De Niro plays a subdued role as ex-con Louis Gara who lives with his arms dealer pal Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson).

De Niro’s character is extremely passive. He is unconscious for the most part, only waking up to smoke pot. However, when he is compelled to be a part of the main events of the film, he fails miserably.

Even though it is a relatively minor role, De Niro is surprisingly charming as Gara.

13. The Untouchables (Brian De Palma – 1987)

De Niro receded plays Prohibition-era gang leader Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime drama. He even receded his hairline and wore some extra padding in order to look the part.

Capone is hunted by Federal Agent Elliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) and his group of vigilantes (including Sean Connery as an Irish-American police officer who advocates questionable methods). De Niro perfectly captures the volatility and psychological nuances of one of the most famous mobsters in history.

“I had trouble with some of the scenes with [De Niro], because my character was very straight-arrow, and Robert was able to jump off the page,” Costner remembered. “I was trying to survive with my straight-arrow language against someone who was throwing a level of street language at me that had a level of improv to it.”

12. Once Upon A Time In America (Sergio Leone – 1984)

Leone’s 1984 film is a four-hour epic that chronicles five decades of the lives of childhood friends who grow up to be gangsters. De Niro stars as David “Noodles” Aaronson, a Jewish mobster who gains notoriety during the Prohibition era with his friend Max (James Woods). The director employs a non-linear narrative to subvert the conventional way of depicting gangster stories, choosing to focus on the theme of regret instead.

Sergio Leone earned Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for Best Director. He had turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather to work on this masterpiece. After nine months of shooting, he had almost ten hours of material but had to trim it down because of the distributors.

11. Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese – 1991)

This 1991 thriller is a remake of J. Lee Thompson’s eponymous original which starred Robert Mitchum. De Niro doesn’t try mimicking what Mitchum had already achieved in the same role. He makes the character of Max Cady his own, a convicted rapist who channels a rage of Biblical proportions and only has vengeance in his mind. The role brought De Niro an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Speaking about the dreamlike quality of Cape Fear, Scorsese said, “Movies to me are a real dream state, they’re much more real to me than people on the stage. The people on stage I know are really there.

“There’s only a few people I’ve seen over the years in a theatre that make you forget that they’re real up there. Dreams are more real to me.”

10. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese – 2019)

De Niro’s latest film is also one in which he gives one of the best performances of his extensive career. Yet another collaboration with Scorsese, the three-and-a-half-hour epic is a culmination of many of the ideas that the duo have explored over the years. He plays Frank Sheeran, a low-level truck driver who becomes a hitman after crossing paths with Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Mafia bigwig Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).

The actor explained, “It’s different. The only thing I would put it in the style of, maybe, is Roma. I saw Roma, which is a wonderful movie. That idea of sort of a grand work. Netflix came along and just really gave us what we needed and did not bother anybody. They were great about it. So you couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”

9. Casino (Martin Scorsese – 1995)

Martin Scorsese’s entertaining, ambitious project stars De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a Jewish American gangster placed in charge of the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. His character is based on real-life mafioso Frank Rosenthal.

Although Ace tries to resist the temptations of Sin City, the city destroys him and reveals his terrifying inner rage.

Scorsese reflected on the film, saying, “I guess for me it’s the sense of something grand that’s been lost. Whether we agree with the morality of it is another matter – I’m not asking you to agree with the morality – but there was the sense of an empire that had been lost, and it needed music worthy of that. The destruction of that city has to have the grandeur of Lucifer being expelled from heaven for being too proud.

“Those are all pretty obvious biblical references. But the viewer of the film should be moved by the music. Even though you may not like the people and what they did, they’re still human beings and it’s a tragedy as far as I’m concerned.”

8. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese – 1973)

This was the first collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese, the beginning of what would turn out to be a lifelong partnership. The actor put up a performance of obvious quality as Johnny Boy, a petty criminal who plays the joker. This role helped establish him as one of the leading stars of his generation.

The director said, “It took me years to realise Mean Streets was more about my father and him than myself and my old friends because my father was constantly making sure he wasn’t going to get killed or beat up.”

He added, “I wondered how you balance that, how you live a life like that. I don’t know…My father didn’t go to church or any of that. He didn’t have to. This was what it was all about.”

7. Heat (Michael Mann – 1995)

Michael Mann’s epic crime thriller features De Niro and Al Pacino as antithetical forces, the former is a career criminal who leads a team of bank robbers and the latter is an LAPD detective who is asked to track them. Even though they are in opposing professions, the film beautifully shows how similar they are, struggling to find a balance between their professional and personal lives.

Mann praised De Niro’s attention to detail, saying, “And Bobby (De Niro) is terribly smart — brilliantly analytical. ‘Why does this guy do that?’ and the specifics are all very important. You know, what he’s wearing — all that detail is very expressive of character and feeds something to him.”

6. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino – 1978)

The impact of the 1978 film cannot be quantified.

The people of USA were still recovering from the disappointment of the Vietnam War and this elegiac epic about a group of returning veterans (played by De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken) came at the perfect time. Although the film has been rightly criticised for its prejudiced portrayal of the Vietnamese, De Niro is compelling as Mike, who goes to battle with his best friends and comes home to find all of their lives have been destroyed. His performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor.

De Niro said, “I liked the story and the dialogue. I just thought it was a terrific script. It was so simple and it seemed so real to me. The characters spoke to me. I liked that they didn’t say much, that there wasn’t anything that was condescending or patronising toward them.”

5. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese – 1990)

One of the most celebrated films by one of the greatest directors of his generation, Goodfellas is almost unparalleled in its ability to create a sense of family and fraternity between criminals and low-lives. It features De Niro as a pragmatic and fatherly Jimmy Conway. De Niro’s on-screen chemistry with Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci is a rare phenomenon.

The actor recalled, “One of the hard scenes for me was when I heard that Joe’s character was killed—to be crying and emotionally really upset. I tried my best. I might have wanted to get even further than I did in it—not expressing just the anger but the emotional distraughtness, if you will. For my character, for him, because they were close.”

He added, “It takes a lot out of you emotionally, the things that you’re trying to…it takes so much effort and energy. Either you’re there or you’re trying to get there, but both of those processes take a lot out of you.”

4. The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese – 1982)

The King of Comedy is a fascinating cautionary tale about the pursuit of fame. De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a seriously delusional comedian who practises his mediocre routines in his basement, surrounded by cardboard cut-outs of celebrities. Scorsese brilliantly satirises the fetishisation of celebrity culture.

The filmmaker explained, “Over the years, I began to realise how genuine and how serious my involvement in The King of Comedy was. De Niro noticed that connection in Paul Zimmerman’s script first. De Niro was also more aware of autograph people and the idolization for the sake of idolization of celebrities. I understand that now, but I stumbled my way through it each day back then. Being around Jerry Lewis helped.

He was an idol of mine, and represented all aspects of American show business, which meant a lot to me. [King of Comedy] is about a certain aspect of our culture, and also about not taking yourself too seriously, even though I do. All of that came out during the making of the film.”

3. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola – 1974)

Coppola’s original was a masterpiece of such quality that it was hard to imagine a sequel which would live up to those expectations. However, the director pulled it off by following the Best Picture-winning film with another.

Set in 1920s New York, De Niro is outstanding as Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando in the original). Instead of following in his footsteps, De Niro carves out his own path and makes the legendary character his own. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Godfather was the first that I remember, movie, that was like a big blockbuster,” De Niro said. “Then came other movies. I might have this wrong, like some of the Spielberg films and so on, but when [The Godfather: Part II] came, I said this might be a good chance that it’ll be a success.”

2. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese – 1976)

The character of Travis Bickle is arguably De Niro’s most iconic role.

The actor is terrifying and engaging in Scorsese’s searing investigation of masculinity and disillusioned aggression, a rebellion against the emptiness of the universe. His iconic performance also had one of the most iconic scenes in cinema, the one where he stares into the mirror and asks, “Are you talking to me?”

Scorsese praised De Niro, saying, “Bob (De Niro) was very instrumental because he pointed out to me that the first line of dialogue was ‘Turn off the meter.’ And I did one take, and he said to me, ‘When you say – Turn off the meter – make me turn it off. Just make me turn it off.

“I’m not going to turn it off until you convince me that you want me to turn off that meter.’ So, I learned a lot. He sort of acted with the back of his head, but he encouraged me by not responding to me. And using that tension of the inherent violence, I was able to able to take off and riff some dialogue.”

1. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese – 1980)

De Niro’s mesmerizing performance as boxer Jake LaMotta is undoubtedly the most powerful one of his career.

The actor brilliantly manages to internalise the allegorical tale and focuses on the psychological conflicts even when he is being battered in the boxing ring. De Niro received the Academy Award for Best Actor due to his outstanding work in Raging Bull.

The director elaborated, “The ring is a kind of madness, and it seems to me that the man had to go back through his mother’s womb again in order to achieve some kind of sanity.

“My picture’s really about that process, not boxing. The idea was a kind of rebirth, the possibility of redemption. It’s about guilt, sin and trying to find some sort of salvation so that you can be at peace with yourself, so that you don’t either kill yourself or other people.”

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