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Robert De Niro’s Best, Worst and Craziest Performances

From ‘Raging Bull’ to ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle’

Resolved: Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time.

Also resolved: For the past decade or so, Robert De Niro has been appearing in a lot of movies that don’t necessarily make the best use of his talents. Indeed, when one looks at the broad arc of his career, it’s hard not to notice the high concentration of masterpieces in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties — and the sheer drop-off that occurs once his career hits the aughts. That said, who can blame a guy for wanting to mix things up once in a while? If he tried to pull a Raging Bull every other movie, he’d probably die — literally.

Case in point: The Intern, a comedy in which the actor plays a 70-year-old retiree who becomes an intern for a hot new fashion e-commerce company run by Anne Hathaway? While we’re not in Vito Corleone territory, let’s not forget that De Niro has been known to triumph in mainstream comedies from time to time. In the meantime, we decided to look at De Niro’s filmography – that’s more than 95 movies, by the way – and suss out truly Good (the great performances that will forever define his career and stand as testaments to the power of acting), the genuinely Bad (the paycheck gigs, the flops, and the just plain awful decisions), and, well, the Ugly — those De Niro performances that are too strange, too out there to classify as either across-the-board Good or Bad.

And for the last time: Yes, we are, in fact, talkin’ to you.

[Editor’s Note: A version of this list was originally published in September 2015]

From Rolling Stone US

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Good: ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)

Michael Cimino’s Best Picture winner takes a lot of flak these days – it probably doesn’t help that the director himself famously crashed and burned with his subsequent efforts. But it still holds up remarkably well, and that’s largely thanks to De Niro. We knew he had range, but this is something else: As one of a group of friends who leave their Pennsylvania steel mill town for Vietnam, he starts off as a practical, no-nonsense good old boy. As the war changes him into, first, a sociopath, then a broken man struggling to heal, we realize that we’re watching more than a character: We’re watching an entire generation. BE

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Bad: ‘Little Fockers’ (2010)

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: De Niro’s performance in the first Meet the Parents film, playing Ben Stiller’s highly paranoid and judgmental father-in-law-to-be, is one of his best comedic performances, proving that he could get laughs and be part of comic ensemble without mugging it up. By the time the third film in the series came around, however, De Niro had settled for a lifeless, one-note shtick. In his defense, it’s not like anyone else in this film is trying that hard either. But still. BE

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Ugly: ‘Great Expectations’ (1998)

Alfonso Cuarón’s modernized adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel is a puzzling misfire, one of those movies in which a talented cast, a great director, and strong material can’t bring it all together. Still, don’t blame De Niro, who brings full-throated abandon to his portrayal to the convict who terrorizes a child into helping him escape then re-enters his life in a different capacity years later. There’s real menace in his performance in the film’s early scenes, in which he plays the character as a sort-of cross between his Cape Fear villain and a pirate. KP

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Good: ‘Goodfellas’ (1990)

Scorsese’s hilarious, terrifying epic about the rise and fall of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is a feast for every actor involved — and a chance for De Niro to play both cool and collected and violently unhinged. Yes, his Jimmy Conway, the responsible leader of our protagonist’s crew, does occasionally blow up, and it’s electrifying when he does. (Remember the scene where he destroys a phone after hearing that his friend has been whacked?) But it’s an incredibly controlled performance, and what makes the role work is De Niro’s ruthless calm: When his character eventually turns on Henry, he does so in such a calculating, chilling manner that you might have nightmares about it for weeks. BE

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Bad: ‘Analyze That’ (2002)

The one-joke premise of 1999’s Analyze This cashed in on De Niro’s gangster-movie glower by playing his threats and vulgarity against the bromides offered by Billy Crystal’s lily-livered psychiatrist. But that joke was barely enough to sustain one comedy, let alone two. Which means that the de facto sequel simply leaves his wisecracking wiseguy to curse his way through sitcom fish-out-of-water situations:  strolling through a wake with an open robe, taking customer-service jobs as part of a work-release program, etc. Analyze That even reunites him with his Raging Bull co-star Cathy Moriarty, a reference that only serves to underline how far the mighty have fallen. ST

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Ugly: ‘Greetings’/’Hi, Mom!’ (1968/1970)

Before he was a master of the post-Hitchcockian psycho-thriller, Brian De Palma made these two experimental, free-wheeling comedies about youth and counter-culture. And before he was a master of neurotic intensity, De Niro played a lovesick, nebbishy young man whose experiences took him through a cross-section of American society. The films demonstrate that De Niro’s comic abilities were always there, but it’s amazing to see him play an Everyman type — a sort of calm before the Method storm. And he’s surprisingly likable! BE

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Good: ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ (1973)

In what is widely acknowledged as his breakthrough performance, De Niro plays a not-too-bright baseball catcher with a terminal disease, and Michael Moriarty the pitcher who befriends him in his final season. This is the kind of drama that will leave you an utter emotional wreck – and that it does so with such restraint and dignity feels like a magic act. De Niro is the key: He would soon build a career for himself playing deadly loners, but here, he uses his natural reserve to build a character whose loneliness evokes sympathy and reflection, not fear. It’s an almost unbearably moving performance, in an almost unbearably moving film. BE

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Bad: ‘New Year’s Eve’ (2011)

In this legendarily wretched multi-character romcom, De Niro plays a dying man spending New Year’s Eve with nurse Halle Berry. That doesn’t actually give him much to do, except look terrible and weak and close to death – which could, frankly, be a metaphor for the entire movie. One wants to entertain the notion that his casting is ironic – that there’s a reason that one of the most intense actors of his generation is playing a bedridden, terminal patient. But that would require some evidence that the film has any idea what irony is. BE

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Ugly: ‘Backdraft’ (1991)

De Niro has a small but crucial role in Ron Howard’s drama about crime and firefighting, playing Donald “Shadow” Rimgale — a veteran arson inspector who takes his job seriously. By which, of course, we mean very, very seriously. He deftly underplays the part, as when he quietly shuts down a loony arsonist’s parole hearing with a few simple questions. But Shadow’s calmness belies the life he’s led, as confirmed by one shot of his grotesquely burned torso. De Niro plays the reveal as no big deal, wordlessly establishing Shadow as the sort of tough guy who doesn’t have to make that big a deal about it. Still, we wished he would have played the arsonist’s role, which went to Donald Sutherland; he’d have had a field day with it. KP