I'll admit that this is not the most original choice for a Top 5 List, but it felt right after catching Once Upon a Time in America earlier this week. Robert De Niro's career has included a wide array of performances, but his collaborations with Martin Scorsese can't help but dominate this list. In fact, memorable characters like Max Cady in Cape Fear and Sam Rothstein in Casino didn't even make the cut. This could easily be a top 10 list, but that would make it too easy. It's also interesting that none of my choices (including the honorable mentions) are newer than the mid-'90s. De Niro's recent work has been solid, but it lacks the stunning performances that were common during his younger days. I'll add the caveat that I haven't seen The Deer Hunter or The King of Comedy, which might be contenders for this list. Let's get to my picks!
Honorable Mention: Louis Gara in Jackie Brown
Quentin Tarantino's 1997 adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch is subtle, an adjective that usually doesn't apply to the often-manic director. De Niro's supporting role as Louis Gara is so underplayed that it's easy miss his clever work. He spends much of the movie smoking pot with Bridget Fonda while remaining on the story's edge. During the third act, however, Gara plays a major role and goes out in stunning fashion. De Niro has nice chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson and allows his louder character to dominate their scenes. His solid presence helps to make Jackie Brown my favorite Tarantino film.
5. Neil McCauley in Heat
On the Filmspotting podcast, they place movies that tend to appear on many lists into the Pantheon, exempting them from future use. If I used a similar device, Heat would definitely end up in this group. While De Niro's role as Neil McCauley isn't his flashiest performance, he makes the professional criminal utterly believable. Although he's a thief and will kill anyone who gets in his way, our sympathies generally fall with him over Al Pacino's homicide detective. The main reason for our connection to Neil is De Niro's strong performance, which fits perfectly in Director Michael Mann's gripping L.A. environment.
4. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver
I expect that many would place this 1976 performance at the top of this list, and I can't really argue with that choice. De Niro makes Bickle's unstable Vietnam veteran intriguing, but I wasn't as drawn into the story as with the upcoming picks. There are several classic moments that have crossed into the pop-culture mainstream, and Scorsese's cynical take on the urban setting is rarely matched. De Niro's off-putting performance is the standout from an intriguing, yet flawed look at a depressing modern landscape.
3. Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas
Although he plays a supporting role to Ray Liotta's Henry Hill, De Niro makes Jimmy Conway a central part of the story. One of the movie's best scenes shows De Niro delivering a cheery, yet creepy smile as he looks upon the irritating Morrie (Chuck Low). While Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" plays in the background, we see Conway clearly decide to kill Morrie while the smile remains. Although Joe Pesci gets the flashier supporting performance, it's De Niro's surprising role that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.
2. Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II
Filling Marlon Brando's shoes is no easy task, especially when you're portraying a classic movie character like Vito Corleone from the first Godfather film. Watching De Niro as the young Vito is a revelation, especially because it differs so much from his more over-the-top performances. We quickly stop comparing him to Brando and truly believe that this ambitious guy could grow up to become the adult Vito. De Niro dials back the intensity and gives one of his most nuanced portrayals in this tricky role.
1. Jake La Motta in Raging Bull
I know this is sacrilege to admit, but I'm not a huge fan of Raging Bull. It's a striking achievement and showcases Scorsese's directing talents, but the story didn't grab me completely. That said, De Niro's work as Jake LaMotta is remarkable and deserves a spot at the top of this list. He completely sells the dark, brutal elements of the boxer's personality, especially as he goes downhill near the end. It shows once again why De Niro's intensity matches perfectly with Scorsese's in-your-face style. This performance goes well beyond the weight gain and exemplifies why De Niro remains such a renowned actor.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list below in the comments section. You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them. There's a new one every Friday that relates to that week's posts.
Next week, I'll join some talented break dancers as they try to make it big in Breakin'.