Robert De Niro’s Best Movie Roles

Robert De Niro attends the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival
Robert De Niro | Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is one of the most recognizable actors in the world. His impressive film career spans 40 years and nearly every genre imaginable. But despite hitting nearly every career milestone, this 72-year-old New York native has shown no signs of slowing down. His career proves what a versatile actor Robert De Niro is. He’s capable of playing comedic roles — in films like Analyze This and Meet the Parents — just as easily as he can pull off dramatic performances in classics like Heat and Awakenings. He’s won countless accolades and more than one lifetime achievement trophy for his contributions to Hollywood and the film community at large. Though it’s difficult to narrow them down, here are seven of Robert De Niro’s most memorable performances.

1. Vito Corleone — The Godfather Part II

'The Godfather Part II'
The Godfather Part II | Source: Coppola Company

Marlon Brando’s turn as mob patriarch Don Corleone in The Godfather reset the standard for legendary performances. So it almost goes without saying that relative unknown Robert De Niro had big shoes to fill when he took on the part in the sequel. Yet he rose to the occasion, crafting a stoic and electric performance in The Godfather Part II. De Niro portrays Vito Corleone from his time as a young immigrant to his rise in the New York mafia.

What is so fascinating and satisfying about his performance as Corleone is that he manages to match Brando’s gravitas without ever feeling like he’s mimicking him. He infuses the younger version of the iconic character with resilience and ambition that somehow informs Corleone’s later incarnation, even though Brando took on the role first. Robert De Niro was so convincing in The Godfather Part II that he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and established himself as a major talent in Hollywood.

2. Travis Bickle — Taxi Driver

'Taxi Driver'
Taxi Driver | Source: Columbia Pictures Corporation

This Martin Scorsese thriller has been hailed as one of the best films of all time, thanks in large part to De Niro’s stunning performance. As Travis Bickle, a New York city loner with a chip on his shoulder, he embodies one of the most emotionally disturbed characters ever to appear on screen. De Niro allows us glimpses into his psyche — including his obsessive tendencies and extreme paranoia. In the end, Travis’ actions are reprehensible, but we understand how he came to this result because De Niro so plainly showcased his emotional decline.

3. Michael Vronsky — The Deer Hunter

'The Deer Hunter'
The Deer Hunter | Source: EMI

The Vietnam War changed the course of life for a generation of young men in America. The Deer Hunter explores the psychological trauma that many veterans experienced through the perspective of a group of working class friends. Robert De Niro plays Michael, a steelworker and Army sergeant who becomes a prisoner of war and endures sadistic torture. The Deer Hunter features one of De Niro’s most restrained, but still powerful, performances. Michael swallows much of his pain following the war, but De Niro shows us his struggle through his physicality and the emotion on his face. And he takes Michael on a stunningly complex journey, from the film’s optimistic beginning to its tragic end.

4. Jake LaMotta — Raging Bull

'Raging Bull'
Raging Bull | Source: United Artists

Jake LaMotta is self-destructive, abusive, and animalistic in his pursuit to dominate his opponents, both in and out of the ring. He’s also one of Robert De Niro’s most memorable characters. In Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, we follow LaMotta through his career as a boxer, as well as his tumultuous personal life. There isn’t a second that he’s on screen that we don’t believe De Niro’s portrayal of him. Everything, from his imposing physical presence to the passionate, almost maniacal anger in his eyes, is unforgettable. And though he’s incredibly hard to like, he’s also magnetic and impossible to stop watching.

5. Jack Walsh — Midnight Run

'Midnight Run'
Midnight Run | Source: Universal Pictures

For many years, Robert De Niro was known primarily as a dramatic actor. In Midnight Run, he had a chance to lighten up a bit and show off his comedic timing. He stars as Jack Walsh, a bounty hunter tasked with bringing an embezzling accountant (Charles Grodin) in. They end up on the run from the FBI and the mob, and have to sort through the high-pressure, complicated mess. With Midnight Run, De Niro proved that he’s a whiz at dry humor. And while he clearly takes his performances seriously, he’s also able to have a little bit of fun.  

6. Max Cady — Cape Fear

'Cape Fear'
Cape Fear | Source: Amblin Entertainment

It’s a testament to Robert De Niro’s skills as an actor that he can make less-than-wonderful movies instantly memorable. That was certainly the case with Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 thriller. Though the film is flawed, De Niro’s performance as vigilante convict Max Cady is near-perfect. De Niro’s Max is smart, exacting, and charismatic. He’s also a psychopath, bent on getting back at the lawyer who he feels didn’t do enough to keep him out of prison. De Niro’s fearsome performance turns what would be an otherwise run-of-the-mill thriller into a film that you want to watch.

7. Pat Solitano, Sr. — Silver Linings Playbook

'Silver Linings Playbook'
Silver Linings Playbook | Source: Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen, Jonathan Gordon

Most of the attention for this 2013 drama went to its leads, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. But Robert De Niro’s performance in Silver Linings Playbook is also worth noting. In relatively few scenes, he created an expertly nuanced portrayal of an aging father dealing with his son’s mental illness. He showcases the wide range of emotions the patriarch feels as he tries to help keep his son grounded — from frustration to anger to affection. Scenes between Pat Jr. and Sr. where they attempt to communicate are some of the best in Silver Linings Playbook. And De Niro’s performance shows that he’s still one of the most compelling actors on screen today.