Counting down Robert De Niro's 10 best performances as he seeks a third Oscar

Posted by · 6:03 pm · February 5th, 2013

For an actor who hasn’t courted much publicity in recent years, Robert De Niro suddenly appears to be everywhere at once. Yesterday, in addition to attending the Academy’s official nominees luncheon, he showed up at Grauman’s Chinese Theater to have his hands and footprints cast in the ceremonial cement of many a Hollywood legend. That evening, meanwhile, the American Cinematheque kicked off a three-day restrospective of De Niro’s work with a screening of his current nomination vehicle, “Silver Linings Playbook” — followed by a Q&A with the actor, introduced by Harvey Weinstein himself.

If this sudden, uncharacteristic availability is evidently all part of a ramped-up campaign to snare De Niro his third Oscar — a possibility that, given the popularity of the film and the malleability of the field, remains strong — it’s a pleasure simply to see him up and at ’em. The 69-year-old screen legend has never stopped working — far from it, as he consistently pops up in at least one film a year — but he’s nonetheless felt like a spent force for far too long, granting his considerable presence to many less-than-considerable films, and looking none too enthused in the process.

“Silver Linings Playbook,” in which he’s alternately boisterous and affecting as the cantankerous, football-mad dad of Bradley Cooper’s bipolar misfit, may not rank among the most remarkable roles of De Niro’s remarkable career, but in it, he seems more emotionally engaged and attentive to detail than he has been in any number of “Righteous Kills” or “Hide and Seeks” over recent years. It offers a gentle reminder of the gifts still held by the fiercely committed, creative Method actor who enjoyed one of the hottest hot streaks of anyone in his craft in the 1970s and early 1980s, and it’s no surprise that his peers in the Academy have rewarded him with a nomination — his first in 21 years, and his seventh overall.

 Now, then, seemed the perfect time to celebrate De Niro’s career with a Top 10 list. A simple Best Performances countdown may seem obvious, but with a filmography so large and rich in pickings, it was irresistible — it’s hard to imagine too many people’s lists of favorite De Niro turns looking entirely alike, after all.

Of course, as much as one often uses lists like these to draw attention to outstanding but less celebrated work, a few classic titles feel mandatory in a De Niro Top 10. It eemed inevitable that my list would wind up being rather Scorsese-centric — among others, how do you not include “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver,” in which the actor’s technical expertise merged with a less tangible grasp of screen iconography? Both performances have entered the screen acting canon almost without dispute, but have scarcely beened rendered less thrilling by consensus.

As such inarguables filled the list, though, I found myself disappointed by what I was leaving out, from an early breakthrough like “Bang the Drum Slowly” to a later time-marker like “City by the Sea,” which isn’t quite the idle shrug of a performance most would have you believe. There are great films on the sidelines that nearly made the cut, including “1900” and “Once Upon a Time in America”; there are decidedly average ones too, like “Stanley and Iris” and “Falling in Love,” both of which put his underexplored skills as a romantic lead to work opposite actresses willing to work at his level.

Not all seven of his Oscar nominations are featured, either — the Academy has largely done well by De Niro, catching onto his talent reasonably early and recognizing much of his most vital work, but perhaps not everything he’s done has received its due. Check out the Top 10 gallery below — I’d call it his own silver linings playbook, if that meant anything at all — and be sure to share your own reflections on De Niro’s career in the comments.

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