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The 10 Best Robert De Niro Movies Every Fan Should Watch

For the past almost 50 years, Robert De Niro has been one of the best actor working in movies. He’s delivered classic performance after classic performance, and in some of the best movies ever made. De Niro isn’t just one of the best actors working in Hollywood, he’s also one of the most versatile. He’s played athletes, comedians, and people who are deeply isolated in the worlds that they’ve built for themselves.

What unites all of De Niro’s greatest roles, though, is that they reckon with what it means to be a man, and not in the way someone like Kevin Costner does. Some of De Niro’s most famous characters are awful people, and he’s perhaps best known for playing criminals. Regardless of the professions of his characters, though, all of De Niro’s best characters are somewhat withdrawn, somewhat angry, and totally symptomatic of what masculinity has been in the 20th and 21st century.

Raging Bull

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.
United Artists

Any list of the best Robert De Niro is going to feature plenty of his collaborations with Martin Scorsese. His best performance may come in Raging Bull, where he plays boxer Jake La Motta. In the film, which De Niro got in great shape for, De Niro plays La Motta as a wounded, prideful man who has plenty of talent in the ring, but proves to be hugely self-destructive outside of it. Raging Bull is a movie about failure as much as success, and it’s one that features some of the best direction of Scorsese’s hugely acclaimed career.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Main Cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty
Runtime: 129 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.2

Goodfellas

Robert De Niro in Goodfellas.
Warner Bros.

De Niro doesn’t have the showiest role in Goodfellas, but his performance is key to the story the movie is trying to tell. The film follows Henry Hill, a mid-level Mafia man who is close with Jimmy Conway, De Niro’s character in the film. Although De Niro has partnered with Scorsese to play plenty of protagonists, here, his role is to be charming and insidious. Like all good mobsters, De Niro’s Conway is kind and dangerous. He’s not reckless, and that’s part of what makes him such a terrifying presence in a movie filled with men who just can’t seem to control themselves.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Main Cast: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
Runtime: 146 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.7

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The Irishman

The cast of The Irishman.
Netflix

Robert De Niro’s latest collaboration with Scorsese is one of his best. The movie, which follows its lead character, a half-Irish gangster who becomes ensconced in the mafia and one of Jimmy Hoffa’s best friends, over the course of decades. Where many of Scorsese’s earlier gangster movies are designed to be fun, at least on some level, The Irishman is all about living a life in which you alienate everyone. The Irishman doesn’t end with a blaze of gunfire. It ends with an old man alone, having alienated everyone he ever knew or loved because of the life he chose to lead.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Main Cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino
Runtime: 209 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.9

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Silver Linings Playbook

Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook.
The Weinstein Company

In the later phase of his career, De Niro has worked a lot. Not all of those projects have been a tremendous success, but he’s occasionally proved that he’s still one of the best actors to ever step in front of a camera. One of his best performances in the past decade came in Silver Linings Playbook, where he has a supporting role. De Niro plays the father of a bipolar man who was recently released from a mental hospital. De Niro is one part of a great ensemble cast, but he has several scenes where he plays a wounded, older man who is desperate to bond with his son.

Director: David O. Russell
Main Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro
Runtime: 122 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.7

The Godfather: Part II

Robert De Niro in The Godfather: Part II.
Paramount Pictures

The Godfather: Part II was not De Niro’s first role, but it was the one that proved he was an acting powerhouse who would be around for decades. After the success of the first film, The Godfather: Part II told two stories at once. The first was a continuation of Michael Corleone’s rise to power as the head of a powerful criminal empire. The second was Vito Corleone’s rise to power decades earlier, after he immigrated from Italy as a child. It’s that second story that won De Niro his first Oscar, and proved that he could live up to the titanic performance that Marlon Brando had already won an Oscar for.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Main Cast: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall
Runtime: 202 minutes
IMDb Rating: 9.0

Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.
Columbia Pictures

Director: Martin Scorsese
Main Cast: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd
Runtime: 114 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.2

In spite of all the movies they made together later, Taxi Driver may still be the most iconic Scorsese/De Niro collaboration. In the film, De Niro totally inhabits the role of Travis Bickle, a lonely taxi driver who becomes convinced that he alone is capable of cleaning up the crime he sees as he drives every night in New York City. The movie is really about Travis’ deteriorating mental health as he becomes obsessed with a woman and a young girl, and you ultimately realize how unwell he truly is. De Niro is mesmerizing in the role, and proved here that he could carry a movie and make you feel sympathy for a very complicated person.

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Heat

Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer in Heat.
Warner Bros.

Director: Michael Mann
Main Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer
Runtime: 170 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.2

The premise of Heat is remarkably simple, but that’s part of what makes it great. De Niro plays a master criminal, and Al Pacino plays a veteran cop, and they play an elaborate game of cat and mouse for almost three hours of screen time. The movie works because both De Niro and Pacino are thoroughly committed, and because the mechanics of the plot are so compelling. Heat is ultimately about how the cop and the criminal are not so different, and it’s about how the “action is the juice,” as Tom Sizemore’s character so memorably articulates in the film.

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The Deer Hunter

Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter.
Universal Pictures

Director: Michael Cimino
Main Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
Runtime: 183 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.1

The Deer Hunter is a war epic that spends plenty of time on war’s aftermath. De Niro plays one of three friends who work at a steel mill in rural Pennsylvania. All three men are eventually drafted to fight in Vietnam, and the war has devastating effects on each of them. Christopher Walken gets the showier role in this film as a veteran who traps himself in Vietnam, but De Niro does excellent work after returning from the war. His trauma is subtler, but no less real, and it feels of a piece with many of the wounded men the actor has played throughout his long career.

Once Upon a Time in America

Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America.
Warner Bros.

Director: Sergio Leone
Main Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern
Runtime: 229 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.4

De Niro has made his fair share of gangster films, but Once Upon a Time in America may be the most epic. Clocking in at almost four hours long, the film tells the story of De Niro’s Noodles as he rises from a kid on the streets of New York and eventually becomes a mafia boss. The film was the final work from director Sergio Leone, and the Italian director certainly left everything on the table. Once Upon a Time in America is about the brutality of our system, where anything is possible, as long as you’re willing to do just about anything.

The King of Comedy

Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy.
20th Century Fox

Director: Martin Scorsese
Main Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott
Runtime: 109 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.8

Scorsese often tasked De Niro with playing pretty disturbing people, and Rupert Pupkin may be one of the actor’s most disturbing creations. In The King of Comedy, which Joker took as a major source of inspiration, De Niro plays Pupkin as a delusional man who is a celebrity in his own mind. He eventually meets and becomes obsessed with a late night talk show host, and begins to stalk him. When Pupkin isn’t granted a spot on the show, he ultimately kidnaps the late night host in exchange for a guest spot. The movie is uncomfortable from the word go, and that’s exactly how De Niro and Scorsese wanted it to be.

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