Has any actor done more for crime cinema than Al Pacino? Throughout his 50-plus year acting career, Pacino has used his commitment to method acting to bring compelling stories of criminals struggling or thriving on the fringes of American society into the forefront of popular culture.
Though today he may be best known for snorting a mountain of coke and shouting, “Say hello to my little friend!” in Brian De Palma’s Scarface remake, Pacino’s greatest gift to the craft of acting has been in the quiet intensity he brought to his best roles.
For the record, while we’d argue these films are Pacino’s best, we’re ranking them in descending order, so stick around to see what his No. 1 best film is.
25. Dick Tracy
Warren Beatty brings the comic strip character to life and goes up against Boy Caprice’s (Pacino) mob. The movie might not be remembered or praised as much as Pacino’s other projects, but he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Dick Tracy.
The movie is vibrant and is great technically.
24. The Devil’s Advocate
Keanu Reeves plays a Florida lawyer who starts working in NYC for Pacino. A lot of critics actually tore this movie apart, but audiences enjoyed it. The story is pretty outrageous, but your film taste will determine whether you hate it or love it.
23. Any Given Sunday
The actor plays a football coach who is struggling to keep his team together. The movie is full of stars like Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, Jamie Foxx, and LL Cool J. Any Given Sunday will certainly strike a cord with those who love the sport of football, but the story could perhaps dig a little deeper.
Max, an ex-drifter (Gene Hackman) comes across a homeless ex-sailor named Lion (Al Pacino). The two decide to head east together so Max can pursue his dream of opening a car wash in Pittsburgh. The movie shows the two forming a friendship, and the two actors make their roles look easy and natural.
21. …And Justice for All
Al Pacino plays a lawyer who tries to reform the justice system after one of his former clients commits suicide in jail. He is also given a case where he has to defend a guilty judge.
The movie is a mix between drama and a comedy, which was criticized, but makes for an interesting story.
20. Sea of Love
The movie follows Detective Frank Keller (Pacino) as he investigates multiple murders with a woman who might be the culprit. The murderer finds her victims in personal ads and kills them while playing a song, “Sea of Love,” in the background.
The thriller will haunt you and Pacino has great chemistry with actress Ellen Barkin.
19. Frankie and Johnny
Pacino plays a man who has just been released from prison, while actress Michelle Pfeiffer plays a waitress. The two end up falling in love in the romantic comedy.
People who liked the pair in Scarface should give this film a try to see what the actors are like in a romance between two lonely characters.
18. You Don’t Know Jack
The movie tells the true story of Jack Kevorkian, who was an advocate for doctor-assisted suicide. He was nicknamed “Dr. Death” and created a machine for terminally-ill patients to end their lives.
The movie aired on HBO and was directed by Barry Levinson. A lot of people probably missed this one, but Pacino did win a Golden Globe for his performance.
17. The Insider
This biopic shows a chemist doing an interview on 60 Minutes to reveal the truth behind big tobacco. The movie got a whopping seven Oscar nominations. While the subject might seem like it would make for a boring movie, it pulls you in.
Russell Crowe got an Oscar nomination for the film, but Pacino is just as good.
Two detectives investigate the murder of a teen in a town where the sun doesn’t set. Pacino and Hilary Swank are the stars of this film, that is directed by Christopher Nolan.
The movie shows the characters suffering from insomnia, therefore are suffering psychologically while struggling to find the murderer. It’s definitely a lead up to Nolan’s future hit film, Inception.
15. The Merchant of Venice
In the film, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) tries to seduce a woman while hiding the fact that he has a lot of debt. Pacino plays Shylock, a Jewish money lender who lives in the ghetto. It’s a pretty powerful role for Pacino given that the story touches on the anti-Semitic environment in 16th century Venice.
14. Ocean’s Thirteen
Pacino joins the heist franchise as the new villain, Willy Bank. He double crosses the team and they decide to strike back. It’s of course, one of Pacino’s movies that is more about entertaining the audience than creating an Oscar-worthy film. However, the movie was successful and he’s definitely a great addition to the all-star cast.
13. Danny Collins
The star plays a rocker who reached his height of fame in the 1970s. The character finally decides to change his life once he comes across a letter from John Lennon.
Out of his more recent work, this movie is one of Pacino’s best. The story has a mix of drama, comedy, and music. Although Pacino isn’t known for being musically talented, the story is what will win you over.
12. Scent of a Woman
Pacino plays a blind man who is being watched by a prep school student. The two characters are very different and the story is pretty emotional.
This role was Pacino’s only Oscar win after he was nominated six times. It’s not actually his best performance, but it is one of his best.
11. The Godfather: Part III
The third installment in the series isn’t a fan-favorite, but it’s still better than a lot of movies out there. Pacino returns as Michael Corleone in the film. Corleone is finally close to making his family legitimate, when things take a turn.
The movie was nominated for seven Oscars, but the main criticism is some lackluster acting and pacing problems. However, Pacino is definitely the shining star of the film.
10. Donnie Brasco
It can be difficult for some actors to adjust their talents in an advanced age, but it seems to come effortlessly to Pacino. Donnie Brasco finds him using the wisdom and fatigue of age brilliantly to make us sympathize with aging hitman Lefty, who inadvertently leads Johnny Depp’s titular undercover detective right to the mafia bigwigs he seeks.
The film’s complex moral center wouldn’t be anywhere near as compelling without Pacino’s multi-faceted performance to drive it.
Two parallel icons of ’70s crime cinema (and costars in The Godfather: Part II, though they shared no scenes) finally meet in Michael Mann’s cat-and-mouse masterpiece. Pacino plays the cop in this cops-and-robbers equation, as the steely professional Lt. Vincent Hanna, while Robert De Niro plays criminal Neil McCauley.
Pacino expertly holds his own in the few electrifying scenes he shares with his costar, and gives Mann’s well-observed dialogue the weight it deserves without sacrificing realism.
8. Carlito’s Way
Pacino is a master at playing convincing criminals who toe the line between conventional notions of good and bad. Here, he plays a Puerto Rican ex-con determined to do good but trapped by specters of his troubled past. The weariness of Pacino’s age and his devotion to the role, which he researched by spending time on the streets of East Harlem, hold together an exciting thriller that sometimes threatens to go off the rails (the way many De Palma movies do).
7. Glengarry Glen Ross
In a film that follows sad salesmen who are desperately trying to eke together a living from their fickle careers in real estate, Pacino plays Ricky Roma. Unlike his fellow realtors, Roma has instincts so sharp he can make a sale no matter the circumstances.
That effortless slickness is tough to pull off, but with the help of David Mamet’s famously clever dialogue, Pacino is absolutely hypnotic as the smooth-talking Roma. In a film essentially made by great actors doing their career-best work, Pacino stood out enough to earn a supporting actor nod from the Academy on top of another nomination for best lead actor that same year.
Scarface is one of those films that’s been tainted by its reputation. Despite all the obnoxious posters hanging in frat boys’ dorm rooms, Brian De Palma’s movie is still one hell of a gangster film, trading in Pacino’s previous nuance for a film and a performance that’s driven by wild excesses. It may not be his most difficult role, but for the tale of coke-fueled Tony Montana’s epic rise and fall, Pacino’s unhinged performance works like gangbusters.
5. Dog Day Afternoon
Another gritty true tale of NYC and another fantastic performance from Pacino, working again under Lumet. This time, Pacino plays the unlikely antihero of Sonny Wortzik, a first-time crook and homosexual who becomes the subject of a media circus after he’s surrounded by cops mid-bank robbery.
Hilarious and heartwarming, Pacino’s performance is fantastically nuanced and, like his subject, defies easy characterization. He makes Sonny a weirdo just likable enough to get film audiences and a crowd of spectators rooting for him to outwit the cops.
4. The Godfather: Part II
Like everything else in The Godfather: Part II, Pacino’s performance is an improvement over the original, finding new developments for Michael Corleone in his journey into the black heart of life as a mob boss. Deservedly considered one of the best screen performances of all-time, the real marvel of Pacino’s work here is his ability to convey complex emotions of passion, betrayal, and doubt despite almost always maintaining an artificially calm exterior.
Pacino’s best early roles present a nice portrait of cinema in the early ’70s, when great directors were allowed to make sharp, socially aware films focused on stark realism rather than cheap escapism. Pacino’s first collaboration with director Sidney Lumet makes good use of his raw passion in the role of Frank Serpico, a real NYC cop who uncovered and took on a web of police corruption that made him an enemy to many of his fellow officers.
Pacino is perfect at conveying the unhinged idealism that might drive a man like Serpico to take on the system with such stubborn effectiveness.
2. The Godfather
Pacino’s performance in The Panic in Needle Park caught the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who cast the then-unknown actor as the star of his Italian mob epic. The character of Michael Corleone could easily have been a boring audience surrogate, but the intensity that characterized young Pacino sells every moment of the character’s dramatic arc from mob outsider to newly christened kingpin.
1. The Panic in Needle Park
Al Pacino got his first big role in this film, which brings romance to a tragic circle of NYC counterculture — a group of heroin addicts who hang around and shoot up at Manhattan’s so-called “Needle Park.”
Pacino gets early practice at making a prickly character charismatic, forcing us to sympathize with the doomed hustler, Bobby, even as his actions and inability to kick his habit lead him and his love interest, Helen, down a road of betrayal and heartbreak.
Additional reporting by Nicole Weaver.
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