Total Recall

Robert De Niro’s Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Family star.

by | September 12, 2013 | Comments

Robert De Niro

Witness protection movies are nothing new, but this weekend’s The Family has a better pedigree than most, with behind-the-scenes talent that includes executive producer Martin Scorsese and a terrific cast headed up by Tommy Lee Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, and the one and only Robert De Niro. De Niro’s suffered through some rough recent years at the box office, what with stuff like Killing Season and The Big Wedding, but he’s still one of the most respected actors of his (or any) generation, with a filmography so incredible that not even the Best Picture-winning The Deer Hunter can break our Tomatometer-ranked top 10. Now that’s what we call a Total Recall!


10. Silver Linings Playbook

On the whole, De Niro had a fairly grim 2012 at the box office, appearing in a string of duds that spanned the genre spectrum from dark thriller (Red Lights) to light comedy (New Year’s Eve). But there was a gem in this rough patch: David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, the Oscar-winning dramedy about a troubled teacher (Bradley Cooper) who develops an unexpected friendship with a young neighborhood widow (Jennifer Lawrence) after he’s institutionalized following the collapse of his marriage. De Niro’s appearance as Cooper’s Philadelphia Eagles-loving dad was unquestionably a supporting role, but one that required a surprising amount of dramatic heavy lifting — which the old master proved ready and willing to provide. “I suppose the phrase ‘serious romantic comedy’ sounds like a paradox,” admitted Linda Cook of the Quad City Times, “but that’s exactly what Silver Linings Playbook is: an intelligent, edgy dark comedy with romance at its core.”


9. The King of Comedy

After Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro made Raging Bull together, Scorsese wanted to reunite for the project that eventually became The Last Temptation of Christ, but De Niro wanted to make a comedy instead. Fortunately, De Niro’s sense of humor in the early 1980s was a little more subversive than, say, Meet the Fockers; instead of seeking out easy laughs, he took a shine to a pitch-black screenplay titled The King of Comedy. In it, De Niro played Rupert Pupkin, an emotionally disturbed aspiring standup comic who rests his dreams of fame and fortune on scoring a guest slot on a hit talk show — bad news for the host, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who has no intention of booking Rupert and no idea how much trouble he’s getting himself into. Today’s it’s regarded as something of a classic, but in 1983, audiences stayed away from The King of Comedy in droves — and even the critics who liked it weren’t quite sure what they were seeing. As Roger Ebert wrote, “It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective.”


8. Midnight Run

Robert De Niro has always been a magnet for tough-guy roles, but he’s also very funny — and although he had an early opportunity to prove it with The King of Comedy, he flashed his comic chops in earnest with 1988’s Midnight Run, which found him playing a tightly wound bounty hunter who tracks down a mobster-swindling accountant (Charles Grodin), only to watch in exasperation as his supposedly easy gig unravels into a miserable odyssey of bickering, property destruction, and close calls with the wrong side of the law. But at the box office, things only went right for Run, where it earned more than $80 million — and it performed just as well with critics like Luke Y. Thompson of the New Times, who wrote, “When it comes to odd-couple action comedies, this is pretty much the epitome of how to do it.”


7. A Bronx Tale

De Niro made his directorial debut with this mob-themed coming-of-age drama, adapted by Chazz Palminteri (who also starred) from his one-man Broadway show. As Lorenzo Anello, the upstanding, no-nonsense father of a boy who continually finds himself drawn into the orbit of a local gangster (Palminteri), De Niro was able to play another side of a story he’d helped tell on numerous occasions before — and while it wasn’t a major commercial success during its theatrical run, it earned praise from most critics, including Clint Morris of Film Threat, who called it “a superb debut and “a gripping movie” and arguing, “De Niro proves to be just as much a force behind the camera as he does in front of it.”


6. Goodfellas

De Niro reunited with Martin Scorsese — as well as his Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America costar, Joe Pesci — for this masterfully frenetic look at life in the Mafia through the eyes of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a onetime mobster who rose through the ranks as a young man before famously turning informant in the early 1980s. Scorsese employed a stellar ensemble cast for Goodfellas, including a number of future stars (among them Samuel L. Jackson) — but the movie’s real draw came from the terrible true story at its center, and how convincingly the seductive pull of the criminal lifestyle was portrayed. “You walk away,” wrote Richard Schickel for TIME Magazine, “tantalized by a view into the darkest part of yourself, glad that that part is still behind bars.”


5. Brazil

A satire of bureaucracy gone wild that was itself nearly swallowed up by the bureaucracy at Universal Studios, where chairman Sid Sheinberg infamously insisted on tacking on a happy ending, Terry Gilliam’s bleak dystopian comedy Brazil ultimately ended up earning a spot among the most enduring cult classics of the 1980s. Mr. Sheinberg may not have understood Gilliam’s vision, but Robert De Niro appreciated it enough to lobby for a part — and the critics echoed his enthusiasm, like Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader, who wrote, “Terry Gilliam’s ferociously creative black comedy is filled with wild tonal contrasts, swarming details, and unfettered visual invention — every shot carries a charge of surprise and delight.”


4. Mean Streets

Martin Scorsese came into his own with this 1973 crime drama, based on his experiences growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood. Arriving the same year as De Niro’s attention-getting turn in Bang the Drum Slowly, Mean Streets followed the misadventures of a pair of low-level thugs (played by De Niro and Harvey Keitel), all of them leading to the film’s painfully, inexorably violent conclusion. But unlike a lot of similarly themed movies, all that violence served a purpose; as Vincent Canby pointed out for the New York Times, “No matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter.”


3. Raging Bull

A viscerally violent, ruthlessly gripping, adrenaline-soaked depiction of one man’s self-destructive spiral, Raging Bull represents what can happen when a star believes in a project enough to fight for it — and when a director believes he’s down to his last chance at redemption, not only as a filmmaker but as a human being. De Niro won a Best Actor Oscar for his mesmerizing turn as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, and it’s easy to understand why — even without the 70 pounds he packed on to play LaMotta’s post-retirement years, his commitment to the role is impossible to miss. Just as impressive is Scorsese’s work, which earned him a Best Director nomination (and the film a Best Picture nomination); this is a movie that presents a protagonist who is essentially unlikeable and wholly relatable in equal measure, and dares the viewer to look away. As Amy Taubin wrote for the Village Voice, “The most obvious basis for the film’s claim to greatness lies in Scorsese’s devastating critique of the very codes of masculinity that shaped him as a filmmaker, and in Robert De Niro’s performance, through which that critique is made flesh.”


2. The Godfather, Part II

1972’s The Godfather was an instant classic, taking home three Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and earning universal critical acclaim — so even if The Godfather Part II had been an absolute failure, Francis Ford Coppola would have deserved credit for extreme chutzpah. Happily for all of us, this turned out to be the rare case where there was another film’s worth of story to tell. Working with Godfather author Mario Puzo, Coppola managed to add a prequel to the original (starring De Niro as a younger version of Vito Corleone) while continuing its story, and the result was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for De Niro — and one of the very few must-see sequels in American film. “It has an even broader scope than the original,” observed Jeffrey M. Anderson for the San Francisco Examiner, “but does not fail in its depiction of small, intimate moments and surprising emotional reveals.”


1. Taxi Driver

Deeply unsettling and unrelentingly bleak, Taxi Driver captivated critics and audiences — and earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor — by plunging viewers into the waking nightmare of alienation, obsession, and violence experienced by its central character, troubled loner Travis Bickle. Not exactly family fare, in other words, but a film that very much reflected the disillusionment and general unease of its time — and that remains painfully relevant after several decades, as noted by the Apollo Guide’s Dan Jardine: “Its themes of urban decay, anomie and violence which infuse the impending sense of doom at the heart of this film still hang like black clouds over many cities today.”

In case you were wondering, here are De Niro’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Goodfellas — 96%
2. The Godfather, Part II — 96%
3. Taxi Driver — 92%
4. Casino — 91%
5. Heat — 91%
6. Raging Bull — 91%
7. Once Upon a Time in America — 91%
8. The Deer Hunter — 90%
9. Brazil — 88%
10. A Bronx Tale — 88%

Take a look through De Niro’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Family.

Finally, here’s a young De Niro plugging the 1970 AMC Ambassador:

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