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List Inconsequential: Best and Worst of Robert De Niro

List Inconsequential: Best and Worst of Robert De Niro

Mean Streets (1973)

As Johnny Boy, the ne’er do-well friend of Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, De Niro ripped into a role that required a sociopathic performance. Before his mugging became comical later in his career, De Niro played Johnny Boy with a savage grace that belied and instilled sympathy for the character and his shitheaded tendencies whether it be blowing up a mailbox or borrowing another $10 that he knows he cannot pay back. Although a nasty torrent of blood may be his character’s defining moment, nothing beats De Niro, standing on a pool table, cue in hand, fending off a handful of mooks by kicking away at them, “Please Mr. Postman” blaring in the background. – David Harris

The Godfather Part II (1974)

When Marlon Brando portrayed iconic mob boss Vito Corleone in the first installment of the Godfather saga, he played him as an elder statesman, an aging lion in winter. But two years later Robert De Niro showed an entirely different, yet complementary side of the man. Lean, nearly silent and living in poverty, this Corleone pulls himself out of squalor by his wits and sudden acts of violence, planting the seeds of what will someday be an immensely powerful, nation-spanning crime syndicate. But what makes him remarkable is how subtly De Niro plays the man; it’s the definition of a quiet performance, with De Niro rarely showing outward emotion or motivation. Instead, he allows viewers to slowly grasp the ambition and charisma of a man growing in power through his increasing dominance of everything around him. And yet, it’s not simply a portrayal of a man gaining power, like Scarface. He’s also a warm, caring family man and good to his friends, rewarding loyalty and obedience. It’s one of De Niro’s finest roles in a career full of stellar performances, a high water mark for both the actor and for cinema. – Nathan Kamal

Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro probably has no more indelible moment in film that the scene in which Travis Bickle stands in front on a mirror and tries on bravado for size, asking, “You talkin’ to me?” until it becomes abstract poetry of quiet derangement. It may be the actor’s most famous moment, and it’s certainly the most imitated. It’s also just one small part of a monumental performance that captures the danger of warped personal reinvention with harrowing urgency. Bickle is called a “walking contradiction,” but he’s more like an empty soul trying to fill his void with something that can refute the ugliness he sees on the dirty streets that need a good, hard rain. His mounting attempts to fabricate a different self escalate drastically until bloody mayhem is the only outcome the broken logic of his brain can reach. De Niro plays it with a casual, internalized intensity that increases the potency of drama, instilling a disturbing universality to the calamity of the character. This was only the second time De Niro worked with Martin Scorsese, and, on the basis of the acting here, it’s not a wonder the director grabbed a hold of him and barely let go for the next two decades. – Dan Seeger

New York, New York (1977)

Probably Martin Scorsese’s most underrated film, De Niro’s performance in this dazzling, distended kitchen sink musical is a work of neurotic, naturalistic beauty. Less flashy than the similar everyman role in The Deer Hunter or any of his gangland heavies, the actor fully sinks into the Hawaiian shirt clad Jimmy Doyle from the film’s opening nightclub scene, anchoring this 150 minute epic nearly all by himself. – Jesse Cataldo

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