Iconic Roles: The Best Robert De Niro Movies

Robert DeNiro is one of our greatest actors of all time. From his iconic performance as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II to his manic turn in Cape Fear to comedic roles in movies like Meet the Parents, there seems to be nothing the man can’t do.

Robert DeNiro is one of our greatest actors of all time. From his iconic performance as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II to his manic turn in Cape Fear to comedic roles in movies like Meet the Parents, there seems to be nothing the man can’t do.

Which of his films is the best you ask? Fortunately, I’ve looked through the actor’s work and compiled a list of my favorite De Niro films for your reading pleasure. Let us do this!


The Deer Hunter (1978)

Michael Cimino’s powerful Vietnam War epic follows a group of friends during their time at war. Starring De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken (who won an Oscar for his efforts), John Cazale and John Savage, this heartbreaking, violent drama doesn’t shy away from the horrors of conflict, complete with harrowing battle sequences and some of the most intense POW sequences (yes, oh not) ever portrayed on film. However, most of the film takes place after the war and depicts the post-traumatic stress disorder of our main characters and their difficulties in reintegrating into everyday life. Brilliantly cast and directed, The Deer Hunter is one of the greatest war movies of all time.


Raging Bull (1980)

If The Deer Hunter ranks among the best war movies, then Raging Bull easily ranks among the best sports dramas. The fact that De Niro stars in both films is enough to solidify his legacy right there. His performance as boxer Jake LaMotta is a remarkable performance, showing a stunning physical transformation from a fit young star to an overweight, seedy character. Directed by Martin Scorsese, who brings a minimalist flair to the process, and with outstanding performances from Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty in key supporting roles, Raging Bull is a tough film to watch. However, for those who can bear to witness a superstar slowly destroying his career through a series of mistakes, abusive relationships and bad life choices, you will find yourself in a gripping and brutal character study. It is often considered one of the greatest films of all time.


Heat (1995)

My initial reaction to Michael Mann’s heat was anything but enthusiastic. I expected an action-only film and was initially put off by the slow character beats and Mann’s stylistic handling of the material. However, after watching the film again, my opinion radically changed and I now consider Heat to be one of my favorite films.

Starring DeNiro and Al Pacino (not to mention a great role by Val Kilmer), Heat is a gripping cat-and-mouse thriller that centers on a police lieutenant’s pursuit of a master criminal. Man takes his time here and dives into the private life of Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (DeNiro), experts in their respective fields who seemingly operate on opposite sides of the same coin. They are both exceptional at what they do and are so absorbed in their pursuits that they elude meaningful relationships or personal happiness.

Heat presents an intriguing exercise that gradually builds into a handful of exciting action sets, including a breathtaking gunfight during an impressively staged bank robbery. It’s an incredible achievement that more than lives up to its reputation as a classic crime drama.


Goodfellas (1990)

After only three films, I’m running out of ways to describe De Niro’s amazing career. Too bad some people only know him as the guy from Meet the Parents or Dirty Grandpa. From the early ’70s through the late ’90s, De Niro seemed unable to take a wrong step. In 1990 he teamed up again with Scorsese and together they created another timeless masterpiece, the crime drama Goodfellas.

Goodfellas is a violent, brutal, and undeniably entertaining film about Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) and his rise and fall within a criminal organization from the mid ’50s to the late ’80s. Scorsese fearlessly portrays both the allure and darkness of mafia life and reveals the tragic consequences that befall those who give in to his seductive temptations. In this film, De Niro gives a remarkable performance as Jimmy Conway, a menacing character who can convey volumes with just a glance. However, it’s Joe Pesci who really steals the show, delivering a powerful portrayal of the unpredictable and erratic Tommy DeVito.

If you have not yet experienced the gripping story of Goodfellas, I urge you to stop whatever you are doing and make it right right away. Prepare for an exhilarating ride that will leave a lasting impression.


The Godfather Part II (1974)

There’s simply no way to compile a list of De Niro’s achievements without placing The Godfather Part II at the top. Though he’s performed better in other films, none quite match the greatness of Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling gangster epic. It’s a stunning production that not only builds on the original Godfather, but surpasses it in many ways.

De Niro’s presence in the film as a young Vito Corleone, portrayed by Marlon Brando in the first part, is a prominent element. The majority of his performance is spoken in Italian, which adds to the authenticity and depth of the character. Vito’s rise to power is juxtaposed with his son Michael’s descent into darkness, offering a complex look at the criminal underworld where survival often requires crossing moral boundaries.

The Godfather II is a cinematic masterpiece filled with incredible performances from its star cast. It leaves an indelible mark and offers a profound cinematic experience that stays in the viewer’s memory.