- MEAN STREETS — The original! De Niro’s first movie with Martin Scorsese is certainly one of his best. Johnny Boy jumps off the screen with such vitality and menace that it seems almost “too real” to be simply called a performance. Both hysterical and frightening, De Niro created a character that set the precedent for gritty, urban performances. Some may argue he defined American acting from the 1970’s forward.
- TAXI DRIVER — De Niro’s iconic role is memorable for so many reasons. The delivery, the transformation, the impact on popular culture… The mohawk! Travis Bickle was immortalized as “God’s Lonely Man”. He frightens because he is so effortlessly real. Nothing about this character feels like a performance. De Niro famously drove a night-shift cab for months to prepare for this role. It shows. We don’t doubt him for a minute. Who can look at cabbies the same way again after watching this?
- RAGING BULL — Of course the famous weight gain is impressive. Everything else about this powerhouse performance, however, also shines. De Niro won his first Best Actor statute portraying the troubled pugilist Jake LaMotta, and he definitely deserved it. The fight scenes are some of the most realistic ever filmed. Most importantly, he humanizes a man with very few redeeming qualities. A classic in every way.
- THE GODFATHER 2 — De Niro had huge shoes to fill playing the young version of Vito Corleone, a role made famous by his hero Marlon Brando. He didn’t disappoint. Winning his first Academy Award, he spoke entirely in Sicilian which he learned for the role. De Niro portrays a young Don driven by his need for power and revenge. It’s a study in quiet strength and menace. Undoubtedly, this role solidified De Niro as an actor for the ages.
- GOODFELLAS — De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese once again. As the leader of career gangsters, he is chillingly and darkly hilarious. One of my all time favorite films, this film would’ve sunk without De Niro’s performance. Jimmy Conway is so vibrant and memorable that De Niro has parlayed his later career playing a version of this role in subsequent roles.