- Heat (1995)
In Michael Mann’s clash of the titans, Pacino has the hoo-hah bluster but De Niro delivers the most consistently impressive work as cold-as-ice career criminal Neil McCauley. The cat-and-mouse antics are terrific, but the actor shines in his tentative relationship with Eady (Amy Brenneman), brilliantly conveying mixed feelings of regret for a way of life he forfeited years ago. One of De Niro’s quietest creations and, in the gloop of his ’90s performances, one of the best.
Most memorable moment: The coffee shop scene.
- Greetings (1968)
An indication of the breadth of talent De Niro has worked with, this early, freewheeling effort saw the actor hook up with Brian De Palma, assaying aspiring filmmaker-cum- pervert Jon Rubin, desperate to skip the ‘Nam draft. His approach and energy are as fresh as his face and, taken with its sequel, Hi, Mom! – in which he does a terrific improv as a violent cop – this is vintage De Niro before there was vintage De Niro.
Most memorable moment: Rubin creates a new form of porn – peep art.
- GoodFellas (1990)
The sixth film with Scorsese and still no sign of an impasse. De Niro assays wise guy Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Conway as a man as comfortable garroting a wig salesman as he is playing avuncular mentor. Watch him play Conway as an older man, holding in the emotion after learning of Tommy’s death or allowing his reading glasses to magnify his eyes to ridiculous proportions. Egoless and virtuoso.
Most memorable moment: Jimmy’s murderous machinations play on his face as Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love kicks in. A film acting master class.
- Midnight Run (1988)
A more subtle riff on his hard man persona than Analyze This, this is proof that De Niro’s magic shines even in that most mainstream of Hollywood genres, the buddy comedy. As bounty hunter Jack Walsh, looking to collect the moolah on embezzling accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), his arsenal of double takes, sly smiles and expressions of mock surprise are delivered with the intensity of an Al Capone or Travis Bickle.
Most memorable moment: Walsh on the phone, threatening to kill Mardukas yet throwing him a little grimace to connote he’s lying. Comedic gold.
- The Deer Hunter (1978)
The standout in a cast of standouts (Walken, Cazale, Streep), De Niro is a calm centre in the eye of Michael Cimino’s hurricane. There are big unforgettable moments like the game of Russian roulette, but equally affecting are some of his smaller moments: the scenes with Meryl Streep after he has come home from ‘Nam – getting his medal caught In his sweater – see precision work worthy of Swiss watchmakers.
Most memorable moment: “This is this.” De Niro’s characters are often at their best expressing complex truths in limited language.
- Taxi Driver (1976)
Travis Bickle might be the poster boy of De Niro’s career but there is so much more to him than just Mohawk cool. While any old ham can inhabit rich, full characters, it takes a particular kind of genius to embody blankness. Also, from his complete lack of cultural awareness to his joshing with a Secret Service agent. De Niro creates a comic edge to the psychopath that probably wasn’t on the page.
Most memorable moment: We’ll take “Are you talkin’ to me?” as given, and plump for his porn theatre date with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd).
- The King Of Comedy (1983)
Deluded, disturbed and with a similarly bad dress sense. Rupert Pupkin is Bickle in a blazer, a vivid rendering of a warped worldview. While the creepiness and the obsessiveness are nailed beautifully. Pupkin isn’t an obvious nutter. De Niro has the sense to play him smart, and delivers throwaway moments – “Is that cork?” he asks about a reception ceiling – that describe a whole world of disengagement.
Most memorable moment: Rupert’s final stand-up – De Niro delivers a perfect rendition of mediocrity.
- The Godfather Part II (1974)
The year after Mean Streets. De Niro delivered the polar opposite to his live-wire Johnny Boy Quiet, softly-spoken and unsmiling, his Vito Corleone nods to Brando’s without ever imitating him (even if he did get his prop teeth made at the same dentist), etching a gentle family man an immigrant finding his feet in turn-of-the-century New York and an emerging criminal mastermind in a portrait of slow-burn intensity and self-containment.
Most memorable moment: As Vito shoots bigwig Don Fanucci, the towel acting as a silencer catches fire.
- Mean Streets (1973)
If you’ve only seen post-GoodFellas-era De Niro, watch this now, His Johnny Boy, an unhinged petty hood who torments wannabe neighborhood player Charlie (Harvey Keitel), is crazed but not crazy and gleefully self-destructive, the embodiment of NY Italian-American cool. His expression of inarticulate energy is astonishing, his bluster and bravura completely charismatic, the character created frame by frame.
Most memorable moment: Too many to mention: the Jumpin’ Jack Flash intro, the backroom improv with Keitel, the dance scene, the pool room fistfight……
- Raging Bull (1980)
The genius of De Niro’s Jake La Motta isn’t the mind-blowing weight fluctuation or the pugilistic brilliance, but the way he never lets either dominate his performance. For all the commitment, he invested into the character’s exterior, this is a performance built from the Inside (De Niro also retooled Paul Schrader’s script with Scorsese), inhabiting and exposing a cockroach soul but never soft-peddling or judging La Motta’s ugliness. Like Taxi Driver, it’s also easy to forget how funny De Niro is in this, his wordplay Joe Pesci reminiscent of the best of Abbott & Costello. Possibly the greatest performance ever committed to celluloid.
Most memorable moment: La Motta in a police cell, bashing his hands against the wall, facing himself for the first time.
And the worst…
STANLEY & IRIS (1990)
De Niro plays an illiterate cook who falls for new widow Jane Fonda. It’s not that he’s particularly awful – indeed, the research that he has undertaken is obvious – just that he’s completely unmemorable.
It is debatably the blandest performance of his career.
Kenneth Branagh s attempt to get to the roots of Mary Shelley’s horror classic centres on a misquided turn by De Niro as The Creature.
The scenes between him and the blind man are eerily reminiscent of Young Frankenstein.
De Niro is Walt, a security guard who suffers a stroke and is looked after by drag queen Philip Seymour Hoffman. Full of tics and twitches and with an overly mannered slowness, it is that cinematic rarity: a De Niro performance that doesn’t ring true.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY & BULLWINKLE (2000)
The role that has come to represent the nadir of De Niro’s recent decline, his loopy dictator Fearless Leader is the worst kind of cartoon hammery. It even has the temerity to send up the “Are you talkin’ to me?” speech.
If Midnight Run is one of the highest points in recent buddy comedy history, welcome to the lowest. When you yearn for more William Shatner over De Niro, something is seriously wrong.