Top 10: Robert De Niro Performances

 For those who knew of Robert De Niro only from the late 90s on, you know him as the funny old guy from Analyze This, or the father-in-law from Meet the Parents. During the 70s and 80s, De Niro was considered one of the greatest and best actors of his peers. He used the Method for many of his roles, physically and emotionally transforming himself to become some of the greatest characters in film history. From his start in early Brian DePalma comedies to becoming Scorsese’s first protege before Leo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro has a long career spanning the decades, starring in some of the greatest films in movie history. It’s really impossible to choose just 10 great performances, many of them are going to be unmentioned, but here’s what I consider to be his Top 10 performances.

1. Jake LaMotta – Raging Bull

Robert De Niro won the Oscar for his emotionally intense performance as the brutal boxer Jake LaMotta. There is so much that I could say about this performance. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest film performances of all time. This scene below (which I analyzed here) reveals the tenderness inside of LaMotta, revealing his broken humanity for all the outside chaos and destruction he causes.

2. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver

The isolated and delusional psychopath is one of De Niro’s most famous and memorable roles. . His infamous “You talkin’ to me” scene was completely ad-libbed, which proves just how much De Niro absorbed himself into this role of rage-fueled loner.

3. Leonard Lowe – Awakenings

It’s often looked upon as a cliche that when an actor plays a character with a disability they are baiting for an Oscar. But what many people don’t understand is just how difficult it is for an actor to effectively pull off a physical or vocal disability. When I first saw Awakenings, De Niro’s performance blew me away. Leonard Lowe has a disability, almost a “locked in” syndrome, losing all movement and speech patterns. A drug is developed that nearly cures him, but it slowly starts losing it’s power and Leonard regresses back. De Niro received a well-deserved Oscar nomination (and should’ve won, in my opinion) for his heartbreaking and inspiring performance. It takes a lot of talent to pull something like that off.

4. Michael Vronsky – The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter is an intesnse portrayal of the Vietnam War. The famous Russian Roulette scene shown below shows just what high stakes and tensions De Niro had to portray. (As well as the amazing Christopher Walken) The rest of the performance is a quiet but devestation study of trauma. De Niro described it as the most draining film he ever performed in. Watching it, you can easily see why. De Niro effectively portrays the uneasy act of assimilation after returning back home from seeing such horrors of war.

5. Rupert Pupkin – The King of Comedy

De Niro and Scorsese teamed up in a change of pace from dark gangster pictures with The King of Comedy, a social satire on the obsession with fame and celebrity. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabee comic who goes so far to kidnap and hold his idol hostage to be on his show. De Niro gives Pupkin over the top mannerisms and speech, a performance that perfectly balances the desperation and tenacity of the character. This role can be seen a sister role to Travis Bickle, for Pupkin is just as delusional and unhinged.

6. David “Noodles” Aaronson Once Upon a Time in America

Noodles is a complicated role in Sergio Leone’s near four-hour epic. It is a mostly somber and quiet performance, Noodles spends most of the film as a sad and heartbroken wanderer, or an introspective outsider of his gang. But Noodles is not entirely likeable. There are two, one especially shocking, rape scenes in the film. Noodles can be equally savage as he is subdued. De Niro manages to brilliantly pull it off. (You can see more of my thoughts on his performance here)

7. Max Cady – Cape Fear

This is a deliciously over-the-top but equally terrifying performance. De Niro is a released convict that terrorizes the family of the lawyer who ineptly defended him. De Niro dons a thick Southern drawl, body builds for tight muscles which are decorated with religious tattoos. His eerily accurate portrayal of a sexual predator is in the scene below. (I analyzed that scene and his performance here)

8. Vito Corleone – The Godfather Part II

De Niro had a difficult job to do when being cast as the young Vito Corleone. Not only did he have to learn and perfect Sicilian dialogue (his lines were mostly in that language, with only sprinkles of English) but he had to fill the shoes of the great Marlon Brando. Brando made his role of Don Vito Corleone infamous in film history. De Niro had to evoke his performance while making it his own. De Niro achieves this and more. He tactfully echos familiar gestures and expressions that Brando used as Vito. He won Best Supporting Actor for this performance.

9. Father Bobby – Sleepers

Sleepers is rather underrated, but De Niro gives a great performance. He plays a priest who is a mentor to a group of boys in the city. The boys end up in prison where they are terrorized and raped by one of the guards. There’s a scene that is just a slow close-up on De Niro, a reaction shot to him hearing what happened to his young friends. De Niro encompasses a huge array of emotions with just one look.

10 Jack Walsh – Midnight Run

De Niro is well-known nowadays for making fun of his tough guy image with Analyze This, Meet the Parents, and the shameful The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. But one of his lighter roles in the hilarious Midnight Run is a great performance. De Niro has a clear flair for comedy as the fast-talking curmudgeon Jack Walsh. If you want to see more of his better comedic roles, watch We’re No Angels and Jackie Brown.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faU71nh6EdE
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Top 10: Favorite Movies

It’s really hard to narrow down my exact favorite movies, there are so many I love that it’s hard to choose from. Sometimes these picks change throughout the years, but most of these have remained constant.

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1. The Lord of the Rings

I was in 4th grade when the trilogy began, but I wanted nothing to do with them. I wasn’t a fan of Harry Potter (I know, blasphemy…) so I didn’t think anything fantasy would be up my alley. But one day I borrowed them from a neighbor’s house, and now nearly ten years later they still remain my absolute favorite films of all time. (I count them as one, because after all, that’s what Tolkien intended with the books!) As a whole, I really am not a big fan of the fantasy genre. But something about this good vs. evil story absolutely captivates me. I can’t put into words how much Frodo’s journey means to me.

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2. King Kong

A lot of people don’t like Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic monster movie. Perhaps I am a bit biased, with him being one of my favorite directors, but I absolutely love what he does with the story. Jackson creates a deeper relationship between Kong and Ann.The classic monster movie is turned into a beautiful love story. The CGI technology is absolutely breathtaking, Andy Serkis’ incredible motion capture work as Kong allows for an infinite range of emotions for the character. I can’t help but cry at the ending every single time.

Tom Hulce in Amadeus.

3. Amadeus

I first saw parts of this in high school, on a whim during a vocal class. When I rented it at home I was floored by the story of Salieri’s jealousy and Mozart’s incredible music. I had never really explored his music before, and it is quite a marvel to hear it in this film, along with Milos Forman’s exceptional directing.

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4. Raging Bull 

Something about Raging Bull really captivates me. Not only is the directing so artistic, nearly operatic at times , but Robert De Niro’s performance is nothing short of stunning. I’ve written about it before here, but that scene where Jake LaMotta is in jail touched me for so many reasons. Robert De Niro does an incredible job of portraying the lonely boxer that spirals into his own self-destruction.

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5. When Harry Met Sally

It’s one of the most charming and funniest romantic comedies of all-time, what’s not to love? And Billy Crystal is absolutely adorable as Harry Burns. I think everyone wants a relationship like theirs.

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6. Big Fish

I think this is one of Tim Burton’s best work, perhaps because it is so un-Tim Burton-y. I saw it when I was younger, but loved it upon rewatch. The scene where Billy Crudup tells a story to his dying father, after hating his dad’s stories for so long, will always touch me. Big Fish is fantastical fun but also an emotional story of family mortality.

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7. Jaws 

As I wrote in my childhood movies post, Jaws was one of the first movies that really got me into the movies. The perfect summer movie, I watch it every 4th of July. This classic never fails to thrill, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

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8. Paper Moon

Paper Moon is a mix of an old-fashioned caper, funny road-trip movie, and a heartwarming family drama. It is the perfect mix of all those different genres. Ryan O’Neal is a charming thief, and has such sweet chemistry with it’s daughter. It’s actually quite heartbreaking to watch if you know their real life relationship.

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9. The Godfather

I had put off watching The Godfather for a really long time, and I don’t know why. I obviously knew about it from the hundreds of pop culture references in other films or television shows. I knew it was highly regarded, (It was #1 on the IMDb Top 250 for years, has 100% on rottentomatoes.) But I just never got around to seeing it until I  was in college. I quickly grew a great appreciation for Al Pacino’s work and the film itself. With incredible filmmaking, and a powerful story on a captivating Mafia family, it’s a cinema classic for a reason.

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10. An American Werewolf in London 

For as many of the scary moments this film has, it has an equal amount of hilarious moments. Making this not just a horror film but a black comedy was a perfect choice, because the film does both so well. You can also appreciate Rick Baker’s incredible makeup work and practical effects. That ending nails the perfect genre mix – a tragic death cut to The Marcel’s bopping “Blue Moon”.

Scene Sound Off: Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese’s biopic of the rage-fueled self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta is simultaneously painful and poetic. One of the most harrowing moments of the film comes near the climax when he is thrown in jail. The film perfectly captures the fruition of LaMotta’s inner conflict in this one scene.

Jake LaMotta is at his lowest point, he has finally hit rock bottom. Alone and imprisioned he is able to question and confront his life choices and behaviors. After cursing off the guards, he paces in the jail cell and tries to catch his breath. He puts his hand on the wall, and as the camera slowly moves in he starts banging his head against the wall nearly 10 times. He moves on to punching the wall tearfully screaming the word “why” each time he hits the concrete. Steadily at first, then faster and faster over and over as his screaming gets louder and more frenzied.

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Then he sits, crying in pain from the punches. He admonishes himself for being so stupid, and heartbreakingly cries “They called me an animal, I’m not an animal. I’m not an animal.” Because at this moment he truly feels like an animal, trapped and confined in a cage where he is unable to be a danger to anyone else, as he has been all is life. He is the only one left he can fight. The raging bull is tamed and left with nothing else but to finally face himself.

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The cinematography in this scene is stunning. His entire face is hidden in darkness, we see very little of him and can only hear his voice. He is shrouded in the shadows as if it uncomfortable for the audience to see him clearly. Such a vulnerable and devastating moment is too painful to watch and better peering in on than viewing nakedly.

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Although many of us don’t quite lead the life of such violence and high tension as LaMotta did,  there’s been times where all of us have felt like we were hitting a brick wall, making the same mistakes when we’ve sworn not to, doing something wrong instead of what we know is right. Whether we’re angry with ourselves or with life, we’ve all felt like violently breaking free of the confines we’ve found ourselves in. This scene not only does service to portray Jake LaMotta’s struggles, but also speaks on a human level by showing a type of despair that we’ve all felt at one point in our lives.

This is one of Robert De Niro’s finest work, demonstrating his much deserved Oscar win for the role. It is what I believe to be the greatest acting scene in film history. Watch it for yourself below. And better yet, watch the whole film for yourself. It’s a masterpiece.