Robert De Niro's Best Movies
In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Family star.
Witness protection movies are nothing new, but this weekend's The Family has a better pedigree than most, with behind-the-scenes talent that includes executive producer Martin Scorsese and a terrific cast headed up by Tommy Lee Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, and the one and only Robert De Niro. De Niro's suffered through some rough recent years at the box office, what with stuff like Killing Season and The Big Wedding, but he's still one of the most respected actors of his (or any) generation, with a filmography so incredible that not even the Best Picture-winning The Deer Hunter can break our Tomatometer-ranked top 10. Now that's what we call a Total Recall!
On the whole, De Niro had a fairly grim 2012 at the box office, appearing in a string of duds that spanned the genre spectrum from dark thriller (Red Lights) to light comedy (New Year's Eve). But there was a gem in this rough patch: David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, the Oscar-winning dramedy about a troubled teacher (Bradley Cooper) who develops an unexpected friendship with a young neighborhood widow (Jennifer Lawrence) after he's institutionalized following the collapse of his marriage. De Niro's appearance as Cooper's Philadelphia Eagles-loving dad was unquestionably a supporting role, but one that required a surprising amount of dramatic heavy lifting -- which the old master proved ready and willing to provide. "I suppose the phrase 'serious romantic comedy' sounds like a paradox," admitted Linda Cook of the Quad City Times, "but that's exactly what Silver Linings Playbook is: an intelligent, edgy dark comedy with romance at its core."
After Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro made Raging Bull together, Scorsese wanted to reunite for the project that eventually became The Last Temptation of Christ, but De Niro wanted to make a comedy instead. Fortunately, De Niro's sense of humor in the early 1980s was a little more subversive than, say, Meet the Fockers; instead of seeking out easy laughs, he took a shine to a pitch-black screenplay titled The King of Comedy. In it, De Niro played Rupert Pupkin, an emotionally disturbed aspiring standup comic who rests his dreams of fame and fortune on scoring a guest slot on a hit talk show -- bad news for the host, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who has no intention of booking Rupert and no idea how much trouble he's getting himself into. Today's it's regarded as something of a classic, but in 1983, audiences stayed away from The King of Comedy in droves -- and even the critics who liked it weren't quite sure what they were seeing. As Roger Ebert wrote, "It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective."
8. Midnight Run
Robert De Niro has always been a magnet for tough-guy roles, but he's also very funny -- and although he had an early opportunity to prove it with The King of Comedy, he flashed his comic chops in earnest with 1988's Midnight Run, which found him playing a tightly wound bounty hunter who tracks down a mobster-swindling accountant (Charles Grodin), only to watch in exasperation as his supposedly easy gig unravels into a miserable odyssey of bickering, property destruction, and close calls with the wrong side of the law. But at the box office, things only went right for Run, where it earned more than $80 million -- and it performed just as well with critics like Luke Y. Thompson of the New Times, who wrote, "When it comes to odd-couple action comedies, this is pretty much the epitome of how to do it."
7. A Bronx Tale
De Niro made his directorial debut with this mob-themed coming-of-age drama, adapted by Chazz Palminteri (who also starred) from his one-man Broadway show. As Lorenzo Anello, the upstanding, no-nonsense father of a boy who continually finds himself drawn into the orbit of a local gangster (Palminteri), De Niro was able to play another side of a story he'd helped tell on numerous occasions before -- and while it wasn't a major commercial success during its theatrical run, it earned praise from most critics, including Clint Morris of Film Threat, who called it "a superb debut and "a gripping movie" and arguing, "De Niro proves to be just as much a force behind the camera as he does in front of it."
De Niro reunited with Martin Scorsese -- as well as his Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America costar, Joe Pesci -- for this masterfully frenetic look at life in the Mafia through the eyes of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a onetime mobster who rose through the ranks as a young man before famously turning informant in the early 1980s. Scorsese employed a stellar ensemble cast for Goodfellas, including a number of future stars (among them Samuel L. Jackson) -- but the movie's real draw came from the terrible true story at its center, and how convincingly the seductive pull of the criminal lifestyle was portrayed. "You walk away," wrote Richard Schickel for TIME Magazine, "tantalized by a view into the darkest part of yourself, glad that that part is still behind bars."