Total Recall

Total Recall: Leonardo DiCaprio's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Shutter Island star.

by | February 17, 2010 | Comments

Leonardo DiCaprio

Busting out of the cheapie horror sequel and/or TV sitcom ghetto can be done — just ask George Clooney, who has a Killer Tomatoes sequel and a pile of Facts of Life episodes on his resume — but it isn’t easy; when Leonardo DiCaprio surfaced in Critters 3 and the rapidly aging Growing Pains in 1991, it seemed safe to assume he was destined for a brief, direct-to-video career. Nineteen years, multiple Academy Award nominations, and over a billion dollars in box office grosses later, he’s one of the biggest names in the business. In honor of his achievements — and his fourth collaboration with Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island, arriving in theaters this week — we decided now would be the perfect time to take a look back at Mr. DiCaprio’s best-reviewed films.


10. Revolutionary Road

Almost from the moment it was published in 1961, Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road attracted Hollywood; a succession of filmmakers, from John Frankenheimer to Samuel Goldwyn Jr. to actor Patrick O’Neal, tried to bring it to the screen, only to find their hopes dashed against the book’s grim, unsettling themes. It took the combined mojo of Titanic co-stars DiCaprio and Kate Winslet — not to mention director Sam Mendes — to get things moving, and it’s a testament to Yates’ book that even though Revolutionary Road didn’t reach theaters until late 2008, its themes still transcended its 1950s suburban setting. Of course, by the 21st century, indictments of suburban conformity weren’t exactly rare, and although Road was promoted as Winslet and DiCaprio’s long-awaited reunion, it wasn’t exactly the sweeping romance Titanic fans were may have been looking for. Dismissed by some critics as didactic Oscar bait, Road still impressed most scribes; in the words of Oscar Guy’s Wesley Lovell, “Suburban malaise has seldom been better looking or better acted.”


9. William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet

Taking Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and turning their classic tale into a loud, brightly colored gang battle featuring guns and iambic pentameter is the kind of move that takes chutzpah. Enter Baz Luhrmann, the spectacle-hungry director and co-adapter of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet — the movie that turned a pair of 16th-century teens into MTV-friendly heartthrobs. $147 million later, DiCaprio was a matinee idol with a solid stack of critical winners under his belt, and this unlikely hit was one of them. Referring to DiCaprio and Clare Danes, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “Luhrmann and his two bright angels have shaken up a 400-year-old play without losing its touching, poetic innocence.”


8. Gangs of New York

For a few years after Titanic, DiCaprio seemed slightly adrift. In 1998, he starred in the disappointing The Man in the Iron Mask and made a supporting appearance in Woody Allen’s Celebrity; after that, he didn’t resurface until 2000’s widely panned The Beach. From the outside, it wasn’t hard to imagine that DiCaprio simply didn’t know what to do with his career — but as it turned out, he was simply waiting for the right projects. Gangs of New York, the massive historical epic that kicked off DiCaprio’s enduring relationship with Martin Scorsese, was actually supposed to come out in 2001, but studio nervousness over how the film might be received in the wake of the September 11 attacks kept it on the shelf until late 2002. It was ultimately regarded as something of a disappointment, but mainly because of the heightened expectations attached — Gangs told a huge story that Scorsese had been trying to film for decades, and the cast included major names like Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, and Cameron Diaz. Though certainly flawed, Gangs gave audiences a glimpse at an often forgotten period in New York City’s history, scored ten Academy Award nominations, and impressed many critics with what Rob Nelson of the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages called “Scorsese’s impassioned, elegiac portrait of a time when blows were delivered with fists, bats, and blades rather than airplanes, anthrax, or keyboard strokes; it’s his look back at a lost world, his urban western.”


7. This Boy’s Life

Just two years after making his film debut in Critters 3 — and joining the cast of ABC’s Growing Pains — DiCaprio scored the plum role of Toby Wolff in This Boy’s Life. An adaptation of Tobias Wolff’s harrowing memoir, Life gave DiCaprio his first chance to really flex his dramatic muscle on screen — and do it in the company of Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin, to boot. It wasn’t a big hit, grossing only a little over $4 million during its limited theatrical run, but it proved DiCaprio’s talent was too formidable to keep locked in the sitcom ghetto. Blake Davis of KFOR Channel 4 News was just one of the many critics who applauded the film, writing, “Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first major role, stole this movie right out from under Robert DeNiro’s feet. A great coming-of-age tale based on a very good book.”


6. Marvin’s Room

Only 22 when Marvin’s Room was released, DiCaprio had already shared the screen with an impressive collection of silver screen pros that included Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, and Johnny Depp. He added to the list — and reunited with De Niro — for this drama about a pair of sisters (Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton) whose bad blood is stirred anew when Keaton’s character, who has been caring for their bed-ridden father (Hume Cronyn), learns she has leukemia. Of course, Streep’s character has problems of her own — including her institutionalized firebug of a son (DiCaprio). Boasting the kind of dysfunctional family dynamics that would shortly become synonymous with the indie films of the decade, this adaptation of the Scott McPherson play rises above the pack partly because of its impeccable cast; as Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Any movie with Meryl Streep is an occasion, but when you add Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hume Cronyn and Gwen Verdon, you’ve got an embarrassment of riches.”


5. Titanic

Overpowering success has a way of turning the things we once loved into parodies of themselves, and Titanic is no different: Despite more than $1.8 billion in worldwide grosses, 11 Academy Awards, and an astounding 10-month theatrical run, you wouldn’t have to go much further than the cubicle next to you to find someone who says Titanic is a goopy mess and they never liked it. But don’t believe the backlash — James Cameron’s watery epic, which smartly combined historical drama with the doomed love story of Jack (DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), was a cultural phenomenon for the simplest of reasons: People loved it. And they loved its stars, too; both Winslet and DiCaprio found themselves suddenly flush with the kind of fame that can (ahem) capsize a career if a star isn’t careful. Things turned out fine for both of them, obviously — but before Leo-Mania and “My Heart Will Go On,” they were just a couple of perfectly cast young lovebirds in the three-hour mashup of cutting-edge spectacle and good old-fashioned romance that the Boston Globe’s Jay Carr called “the best disaster movie money can buy.”


4. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

The same year he broke out with This Boy’s Life, DiCaprio scored a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his performance as a mentally handicapped small-town youth in Lasse Hallsrom’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Roles like Arnie Grape are tricky — in all but the most capable hands, it’s easy for them to descend into unintentional parody — but DiCaprio displayed surprising depth and sensitivity, lending added weight to what might have been just another 1990s drama about eccentric characters. Calling it “expertly handled, well-written material,” James Kendrick of the Q Network Film Desk applauded a film “that knows and understands its many different characters. There are moments in this film that cover the entire emotional spectrum, and not a second is wasted on insincere emotion, making it a real winner.”


3. The Aviator

It’s an oft-told joke that if an actor desires awards and critical acclaim, all he has to do is star in a movie about a person with some sort of mental illness; an overstatement, surely, but one with a grain of truth, as proven by actors from Cliff Robertson to Russell Crowe — and, on more than one occasion, Leonardo DiCaprio. Reuniting with Gangs of New York director Martin Scorsese, DiCaprio starred in The Aviator as the legendarily reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, recounting his journey from young CEO and film director to the starlet-hungry captain of industry who slowly vanished into seclusion and madness. The Aviator‘s $212 million gross, five Academy Awards against 11 nominations, and 88 percent Tomatometer may not have been enough for the insatiable Hughes, but the movie pleased critics like Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, who called it “Sumptuously exciting, glowing with expertise, seething with life, gorgeously designed and thrillingly articulated.”


2. The Departed

Line up a collection of talent as impressive as Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, and Vera Farmiga, and you can do pretty much whatever you want — even if it’s remaking a movie as successful as the 2002 Hong Kong blockbuster Infernal Affairs. Transplanting the action to Boston, The Departed retained the original film’s twisty premise: An undercover cop (DiCaprio) struggles to infiltrate a gang, while one of its members (Damon) works his way up the police ranks. Flooded with tension and loaded up with bullets, bodies, and double crosses, The Departed is vintage Scorsese, and finally earned him a Best Director Oscar after six nominations (because, he joked, “this is the first movie I’ve done with a plot”). Whether it meets or exceeds Infernal Affairs remains up for debate, but clearly, most critics enjoyed the movie; as the Houston Chronicle’s Amy Biancolli wrote, “For all its bloodletting, The Departed is an intoxicating film. It’s a film that’ll have your hands over your face with one eye peeking: The violence sickens, but the movie seduces.”


1. Catch Me If You Can

He was an Academy Award nominee before he turned 20, so Leonardo DiCaprio knows a thing or two about making things happen when you’re young. He was, in other words, uniquely suited to play real-life legendary con man Frank Abagnale, who led the FBI on a wild goose chase during the ’60s while posing as everything from an airline pilot to a doctor, and stealing millions of dollars along the way. Though it was criticized for its 141-minute length, Catch Me if You Can had a lot going for it right off the bat, including a fascinating, stranger-than-fiction storyline, directorial work from Steven Spielberg at his breeziest, and DiCaprio pitting his naturally rakish charm against Tom Hanks’ driven yet empathetic FBI agent. Yeah, it’s just a caper movie — and a curiously slight one, given its length — but it’s also, in the words of the Denver Rocky Mountain News’ Robert Denerstein, “Precisely what a mainstream movie should be: fleet, savvy and, like a good con, executed as if it were the easiest thing in the world.”

In case you were wondering, here are DiCaprio’s top ten movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Departed — 95%
2. Catch Me If You Can — 94%
3. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape — 92%
4. Blood Diamond — 91%
5. This Boy’s Life — 90%
6. The Aviator — 89%
7. Gangs of New York — 86%
8. Titanic — 82%
9. Revolutionary Road — 79%
10. Body of Lies — 79%

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

Finally, here’s a youthful DiCaprio demonstrating the bombastic properties of Bubble Yum: