Total Recall

Definitive Robert De Niro Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we take a look at the films that helped define the Dirty Grandpa star's career.

by | January 20, 2016 | Comments

This weekend at a theater near you, Robert De Niro torments his soon-to-be-wed grandson (Zac Efron) in the new comedy Dirty Grandpa — and while we’d imagine odds are against it joining the ranks of De Niro’s many critically acclaimed classics, this still seems like a great excuse to take a fond look back at some of his proudest movie moments. With so many distinguished entries in his lengthy filmography, it was hard to narrow things down, but even if it presented us with some tough choices, this is one list of definitive films that truly lives up to its name.


The Godfather, Part II (1974) 96%

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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.”

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Taxi Driver (1976) 96%

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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.”

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The Deer Hunter (1978) 89%

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De Niro picked up a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his work in The Deer Hunter — one of nine nominations the film received against five wins, including Best Picture — continuing a critically acclaimed run that included his Oscar-winning appearances in The Godfather Part II and Raging Bull. Like those films, The Deer Hunter is a challenging, confrontational drama that poses uncomfortable questions in occasionally quite uncomfortable ways, using its main characters (played by De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) to grapple with the ghosts of the Vietnam War and the uncertain economic climate in late ’70s America. “It has no more moral intelligence than the Clint Eastwood action pictures,” argued Pauline Kael for the New Yorker, “yet it’s an astonishing piece of work, an uneasy mixture of violent pulp and grandiosity, with an enraptured view of common life — poetry of the commonplace.”

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Raging Bull (1980) 94%

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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.”

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Once Upon a Time in America (1984) 87%

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Director Sergio Leone pursued Once Upon a Time in America through over a decade of development after falling in love with the source material, Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods, and at one point envisioned completing it as a pair of three-hour films — a fittingly expansive running time for the epic saga of a group of Jewish kids who rise from penny-ante hoods in 1920s Manhattan and later grow up to become key figures among the city’s organized crime element. Portraying main character David “Noodles” Aaronson, De Niro anchored a solid ensemble cast that also included James Woods and Elizabeth McGovern, but none of them were enough to overcome the array of edits faced by the film after Leone turned it in to the studio — including the American edit, which rearranged the storyline into chronological order and trimmed the whole thing down under two hours and 20 minutes. In more recent years, a restored 251-minute version has seen release, finally allowing audiences to experience a closer approximation of its director’s vision. As John Hartl wrote for Film.com, “Seeing what Leone always intended is like getting your dirty glasses washed.”

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Midnight Run (1988) 94%

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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.”

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Goodfellas (1990) 96%

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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 ‘80s. 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.”

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A Bronx Tale (1993) 97%

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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.”

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Heat (1995) 88%

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The ensemble heist thriller that most ensemble heist thrillers wish they were, Michael Mann’s Heat would have been noteworthy even if all it did was bring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together for a few scenes. Happily, the movie’s much more than that: Mann juggles his incredible cast (which also included Val Kilmer, Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, and Jon Voight) as deftly as he manages the many moving parts in a storyline pitting a dogged cop who’s sacrificed his family for his career (Pacino) against a notorious criminal (De Niro), topping the whole thing off with stellar cinematography that makes Los Angeles look positively incredible. “Just when it seemed that the only hope for crime movies lay in the postmodernist artifice of films like Pulp Fiction, Mann reinvests the genre with brooding, modernist conviction,” applauded Newsweek’s David Ansen. “This one sticks to your gut.”

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Silver Linings Playbook (2012) 92%

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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.”

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