Robert De Niro is one of the most well-known and well-respected actors of this era. After nearly 60 years in the business, even in films that weren’t quite as good, he’s always pulled out a stellar performance. Not all films are created equal, and that goes for De Niro’s body of work as well. Here are the greatest Robert De Niro films of all time.
25. Angel Heart (1987)
De Niro plays the antagonist in this mix between detective noir and occult horror. In Angel Heart Mickey Rourke plays protagonist Harry Angel, a private investigator operating in New York. He’s then hired by Louis Cyphre (played by De Niro) to locate a missing singer. This takes Angel to New Orleans, where he finds himself ensnared in the local witchcraft and voodoo. De Niro gives a sinister and haunting portrayal of Cyphre, and his physical appearance in the film certainly adds to the macabre feel.
24. Wag The Dog (1997)
It was strange how closely art imitated life the year this film came out. In Wag the Dog Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro play a Hollywood producer and spin doctor respectively, trying to distract the American public with a phony war when a presidential sex scandal breaks during an election cycle. Hoffman was the one that gained more acclaim at the Oscars, but De Niro proved to be on equal footing on him throughout the course of the film.
23. Analyze This (1999)
While gangster media was incredibly popular during this decade, Analyze This takes a more comedic take on the genre. Paul Vitti (De Niro) plays a mob boss that attempts to get therapy. The film was a hit and got De Niro a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy/Musical Actor. It was so good that a follow-up, Analyze That was made. A film, much more mediocre in comparison.
22. Midnight Run (1988)
Midnight Run focuses on a tough-as-nails bounty hunter (De Niro) and the accountant he was hired to track down (Charles Grodin). Hijinks ensues as they attempt to evade arrest by the F.B.I. and murder by the mafia. De Niro competed for a Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical Actor for this role as well.
21. Bang The Drum Slowly (1973)
Nothing’s more depressing than a film about a young man doomed to die in their prime. In Bang the Drum Slowly, De Niro portrays Bruce Pearson, a good-natured, but mediocre, catcher for the fictional New York Mammoths baseball team. He then finds out he has Hodgkin’s Disease. Only having a short time left, Pearson decides to live his life to the fullest.
20. A Bronx Tale (1993)
De Niro didn’t just star in A Bronx Tale, but he directed it as well. It’s a coming of age tale about Calogero Anello (played by Francis Capra as a child and Lillo Brancato Jr. as a teen). In the film, the young man finds himself pulled in two different directions. One direction is the path of of an honest living, the path of his father (De Niro). The other is the path of organized crime, the path of a charismatic mob boss (Chazz Palminteri). While his performance in the film was exquisite, his skill as a director makes one wonder why De Niro never directed more movies.
19. New York, New York (1977)
This film bombed at the box office when it originally debuted, but has since had much greater critical acclaim. This is larger due to the performances of the film’s two leads. The film focuses on New York City in World War II, where a jazz saxophonist (De Niro) falls in love with an aspiring singer (Liza Minnelli). Directed by Martin Scorsese, he represents an uneasy collision between the extravagance of Old Hollywood film and the improvisational realist of John Cassavetes-style filmmaking.
18. Meet The Parents (2000)
De Niro is always at his funniest when he’s playing the straight man in a comedy. De Niro plays Jack Byrnes, a retired CIA operative who looks down on the idea of his daughter’s (Teri Polo) boyfriend (Ben Stiller) proposing to her. He’s the biggest nightmare of a father-in-law one can have. While he can be over the top, there’s still a feeling of paternal love that stops him from becoming a caricature. This was another film De Niro was nominated for a Golden Globe for, managing to actually win the award. He later returned to the sequels, Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers.
17. Awakenings (1990)
In Awakenings, the late, great Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcom Sayer, a neurologist that manages to cure catatonic patients from the “sleeping epidemic” of the 1920s. De Niro portrays Leonard Lowe, someone that has been suffering from catatonia since childhood, and finally finds himself reawakened due to Sayer’s treatments. This role got De Niro an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
16. Joker (2019)
One of De Niro’s most recent films, Joker, based on the DC Comics character, takes inspiration from a lot of De Niroe’s earlier works. So of course, casting De Niro in the film was a no-brainer. While Joaquin Phoenix plays the titular character, De Niro steals the show in every scene he’s in as Murray Franklin. What they did clearly worked, as the film made $1,000,000,000 at the box office and received 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
15. The Untouchables (1987)
In The Untouchables, De Niro portrays none other than infamous crime boss Al Capone. With a cast including Sean Connery and Kevin Cosner, De Niro still manages to give a chilling and intimidating performance as one of the worst American criminals.
14. Jackie Brown (1997)
It’s easy to forget De Niro in this more subdued role, especially with such a dense, ensemble cast. His role was rather subdued as well. In Jackie Brown, he plays ex-con Louis Gara, living with his friend Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), who is also an arms dealer. Louis is so passive he’s practically unconscious, only briefly perking up to smoke pot and sleep with the house bunny, Melanie (Bridget Fonda). And when he finally gains more agency in the main plot, his plans fail spectacularly, making you understand why his life of crime had previously led him to prison.
13. Casino (1995)
Casino is a bit of a mess, but it’s an amazingly entertaining one. De Niro plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a Jewish American gangster put in charge of the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. In the film, Ace attempts to stay above everything, but is soon devoured by the city, as is his closest companions. Even when scaling back from his larger than life roles, De Niro still manages to give a menacing performance, with a violent rage just underneath the surface.
12. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Quite a few of De Niro’s more recent films have been duds, but when he’s got a good script he always knocks it out of the park. And that’s the case with Silver Linings Playbook. In this romantic comedy, which makes you laugh and cry in equal measures, De Niro plays Pat Solatino Sr, an OCD man taking care of his bipolar son (Bradley Cooper). The scene where he tearfully reaches out to his son was such a powerful performance, it was likely what led to his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the film.
11. Cape Fear (1991)
It would be hard to compete with Robert Mitchum’s performance in the original Cape Fear, so De Niro doesn’t even try. In Martin Scorsese’s remake he makes his own bone-chilling villain. He become an almost Biblical psychopath, complete with tattoos and an extreme wrath. He also has an eerie charisma, making our skin crawl as he seduces a teenage girl (played by Juliette Lewis). The role got De Niro an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
10. Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
While the theatrical cut made the film almost incomprehensible, Once Upon a Time in America, found mew life on home video. The director’s cut restored the film to its original glory. It’s a four hour epic that covers five decades as we see the lives of childhood friends who grow into gangsters. De Niro plays David “Noodles” Aaronson, a Jewish mobster who rises to prominence during Prohibition, with his pal Max (James Woods).
9. The Deer Hunter (1978)
In a film made during an era where the United States was still reeling from the effects of the Vietnam War, this film proved to be almost like a three-hour long therapy session. The Deer Hunter focuses on three returning war veterans (De Niro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken), finding their lives shattered. The film won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and De Niro received a nomination for Best Actor.
8. Heat (1995)
This is the film where De Niro and Al Pacino first faced off against one another onscreen. In Heat, De Niro plays career criminal Neil McCauley, who leads a group of professional bank robbers. At the same time, the LAPD detective played by Al Pacino is attempting to hunt them down. And the entire time, both men struggle to balance their professional and personal lives.
7. Mean Streets (1973)
There are a lot of collaborations between De Niro and Martin Scorsese on this list and Mean Streets just so happens to be the first. And what an excellent way to start things off. As Johnny Boy, a hood boy that behaves like a jester, De Niro gave the performance that made him a star. Throughout the film he perfectly walks the line between joviality and violence that defined Scorsese’s best work.
6. The King Of Comedy (1983)
This is one of the two films that Joker was inspired by. The King of Comedy serves as a cautionary tale for anyone that’s considered chasing the spotlight at the cost of everything. De Niro play Rupert Pupkin, a delusional comic who practices mediocre routines in his basement. De Niro does an excellent job portraying Rupert’s growing insanity, until it reaches a fever pitch in the film’s final act.
5. The Irishman (2019)
One of De Niro’s latest films and a return to form for both him and director Martin Scorsese. While he may have been snubbed at the Oscars, De Niro brings forth one of his best performances in The Irishman. He plays Frank Sheeran, a low-level truck driver who becomes a hitman after crossing paths with a few big wigs in the organized crime market. And because of digital effects and makeup, De Niro gets to play the character over a period of several decades.
4. Goodfellas (1990)
At this point, all of the following movies are not only excellent, but films that everyone has heard about, if not already seen themselves. In Goodfellas, not just the danger of the gangsters in the film is felt, but the familial bonds between them as well. De Niro plays Jimmy Conway, a fatherly figure to protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). It’s certainly one of the most entertaining mobster movies ever made.
3. The Godfather Part II (1974)
While the original film was superb, The Godfather Part II was an equally well-made film, if not superior to its predecessor. The primary focus rests on Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, an equal amount of time is spent with his father. Half the movie is told through a background story on how Don Corleone, played by De Niro in this film, rose to prominence. And how their actions and motivations compare and contrast one another is shown throughout the film.
2. Taxi Driver (1980)
Everyone knows the scene from Taxi Driver where De Niro, playing Travis Bickle, looks into the mirror and asks “Are you talking to me?” While the unhinged Travis stalks the streets at night, he still seeks genuine connection, despite the fact that each of his attempts fail. This role got De Niro an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and still remains one of his most well-known roles to date.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull is truly superb. He portrays boxer Jake LaMotta, burrowing into the soul of a man who’s lost everything for the profession he’s chosen. De Niro’s dedication to the role also cannot be overlooked. Production needed to be shut down for four months so De Niro could gain 70 pounds in order to play the former heavyweight as a middle-aged man. He was awarded an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in this film.