Robert De Niro makes a lot of (pretty bad) movies these days, but there’s nothing one of the greatest actors of all time could do to diminish his remarkable legacy.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is honoring the icon with its Chaplin Award next month and celebrating his career with a retrospective from April 12 to 29. So, if you’re tired of the “Dirty Grandpas” and “Little Fockers” of the world and want to remember the good old days, watch our picks for the 10 best movies of his distinguished career.
Many of them are playing on the big screen at Lincoln Center, and they’re all readily available for streaming purposes.
10. ‘A Bronx Tale’ (1993)
This isn’t necessarily on this list because of De Niro’s performance as a bus driver fighting to keep his son from falling under the spell of a local mobster. It’s here because it marked the actor’s directorial debut and is a sensitive, powerful presentation of Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical show that juggles complicated tones with precision.
9. ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984)
In its correct form, the nearly four-hour director’s cut, Sergio Leone’s impressionistic masterpiece that spans decades in the lives of Jewish gangsters in New York stands as a definitive portrait of early-mid-20th century life on the Lower East Side. De Niro is the magnetic center of it all.
8. ‘Analyze This’ (1999)
De Niro’s mid-late career shift toward comedy is most prominently encapsulated in this film and “Meet the Parents.” While the latter is perfectly fine, this Harold Ramis comedy about a mob boss and his psychiatrist (Billy Crystal) is relentlessly hilarious from start to finish. That’s largely because of De Niro, who shows a proclivity for self-mocking that hadn’t been seen before.
7. ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)
Michael Cimino’s masterpiece is one of the great movies about the Vietnam War and its pervasive and destructive consequences, both in Southeast Asia (the famous Russian Roulette sequences) and at home. De Niro’s Mike is the most outwardly strong of the trio of friends damaged by their experiences, but his profound inner suffering is deeply felt.
6. ‘The King of Comedy’ (1982)
This might be De Niro’s most underappreciated movie. “The King of Comedy” is a darkly comic tale from 1983 that eerily presages the egotism of the social media age in its story of an aspiring comic dangerously obsessed with a TV legend. As Rupert Pupkin, De Niro essentially plays Travis Bickle at a 45-degree angle: weirder, sadder and somehow more relatable, while also being completely unsettling.
5. ‘Heat’ (1995)
Technically, De Niro and Al Pacino co-starred in the second “Godfather,” but they didn’t share a scene together until that one coffee shop encounter as a criminal and cop, respectively, in Michael Mann’s great heist movie. It’s a riveting spectacle.
4. ‘Raging Bull’ (1980)
De Niro won his second Oscar for his charismatic, brooding work as Jake LaMotta, a part for which he famously gained 60 pounds and into which he disappeared so comprehensively that it’s impossible to think of the real-life boxer without thinking of the actor who played him.
3. ‘Goodfellas’ (1990)
If this isn’t the greatest film ever made about the mob, it’s certainly the one that rings the truest. It gets the cadences, rhythms and highs and lows of everyday life at the low end of the operation and De Niro’s taciturn Jimmy Conway perfectly balances the hyperactive energy of Henry Hill and Tommy DeVito, played by Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci.
2. ‘The Godfather Part II’ (1974)
As the young Vito Corleone, the actor brilliantly expands upon Marlon Brando’s iconic performance, presenting a collective portrait of an archetypal American immigrant story. Like Brando before him, De Niro earned an Oscar for his work
1. ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976)
De Niro’s greatest film still represents the pinnacle of his expansive collaboration with Martin Scorsese, a dive into New York’s heart of darkness in the form of his intensely deranged Travis Bickle. This movie has done more to shape De Niro’s on-screen persona than any before, or since.