The best of 21st century De Niro
"The Godfather Part II." "Taxi Driver." "Raging Bull." "Goodfellas." And then a fifth selection taken from either "The Deer Hunter," "The Untouchables," "Casino," "Heat" or "Cape Fear." Picking out the best Robert De Niro movies is pretty predictable stuff. There's one thing, however, that all of De Niro's greatest hits have in common: They were all made last millennium.
This Friday's mob action/drama "The Family" marks the 30th film De Niro has made since 2000, and finding winners amongst that 30 is harder than you'd think. If we're being honest, De Niro's name seems to be doing most of the work these days while the actor himself picks our projects that barely seem to interest him, much less the audience.
That being said, there have been a few projects worthy of the two-time Oscar winner. Here are Robert De Niro's five finest films this side of Y2K.
"Silver Linings Playbook"
Ugh. I don't want to put "Silver Linings Playbook" on this list. I really don't. I normally try to avoid using the word overrated to describe things because it always comes off as "I can't believe you idiots like this movie" … but "Silver Linings Playbook" is horribly overrated. The third act is a betrayal of the rest of the movie, turning the relationship drama into a bunch of hokum centered on a ridiculous dance competition and an even more ridiculous bet. And in what universe was Jennifer Lawrence's performance better than Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty?"
Stay on target, Matt. We're here for De Niro, who's quite good in his supporting role as Bradley Cooper's sympathetic father with his own set of neuroses – an obsession with gambling and a borderline OCD that comes with it – to deal with. The veteran actor brings a lot of honest humor and heart to the role, making the most out of what could have been a throwaway part. If we're being truthful, though, it's just nice to see De Niro actually show up for a movie. I'm not sure that merits getting an Oscar nomination (stay on target!), but it's still a pleasure to see.
The plot of 2001's "The Score" is nothing special. An old master thief (De Niro) plans to retire comfortably when he's lured into the classic one last job by his old friend Max (Marlon Brando, in his final on-screen role) and a cocky new kid (Edward Norton). And, of course, being his one last job, there's plenty of complications, twists, turns and back-stabbings.
It's a storyline so tried-and-true that it's almost become a parody of itself, but "The Score" is fun and crafted well enough to make it work. For one, as you may have been able to tell, the cast is spectacular. Watching De Niro, Norton and Brando banter off of one another, even in something as light and ambition-free as this, is a treat, and director Frank Oz brings a surprising snap to the proceedings. "The Score" could've – and probably should've – ended up a routine, predictable heist flick, but thanks to two Vito Corleones and a Hulk, it's a slight delight.
"Meet the Parents"
"Meet the Parents" follows a fairly predictable story: A good-hearted, if awkward nice guy (Ben Stiller) wants to propose to his fiancé (Teri Polo), but first he must get past her stern, overbearing dad (De Niro). Comedic chaos ensues. A romantic rival – played in this film by Owen Wilson – shows up. The relationship almost falls apart until the dad realizes the error of his ways and helps bring the lovers back together. If that wasn't the formula before "Meet the Parents," it certainly was the formula after.
What makes the film work, however, is pretty simple: It's funny. Stiller's nice-guy-in-an-uncomfortable-spot routine hadn't quite become tiring yet, director Jay Roach kept the humor just on the right side of ridiculous and De Niro was a good sport, having fun playing the demanding, ex-CIA dad. It was a well-timed, perfect storm of comedy that "Meet the Fockers" attempted to recreate (not bad, if more on the wrong side of ridiculous) and "Little Fockers" then smothered with a pillow.
2001's "15 Minutes" isn't quite as smartly satirical or groundbreaking as writer-director John Herzfeld thinks it is. However, when compared to the other cop movies De Niro has done in the past 13 years ("Showtime," "City by the Sea," the incredibly disappointing "Righteous Kill"), it's easily the most interesting and compelling.
De Niro plays an NYC detective working with Edward Burns to hunt down a duo of Russian ex-convicts killing their way to stardom. Like many films that attempt to address media violence, the film ends up reveling a bit too much in the violence it's trying to condemn (see also: the 2008 Diane Lane thriller "Untraceable" … actually, don't). Overall, though, the results are a bit more intense, intriguing and unpredictable than you would expect from a standard Hollywood cop thriller.
It seems only "The Princess Bride" was able to capture that inconceivable combination of fantasy drama and whimsical comedy. 2007's "Stardust" at least gets points for trying and fairly succeeding.
The film, based off a novel by Neil Gaiman, follows a young wannabe hero named Tristan (Charlie Cox) who finds a fallen star – an actual star from the sky, not like a movie star, though she is played by current "Homeland" star Claire Danes – in the woods. This sparks an adventure across the kingdom of Stormhold, involving evil witches (led by Michelle Pfeiffer, De Niro's co-star in "The Family") and sky pirates.
There's a lot more going on in "Stardust" too, but I'd likely need a whole other article to explain it all. It's an overcrowded journey, but director Matthew Vaughn, as he did in "Kick-Ass" and "X-Men: First Class," finds just the right tone amidst all of the chaos, and the cast – including a rare gleeful De Niro as the sky pirates' captain who cross-dresses in his free time (because why not) – is a good deal of fun. You can even get a glimpse of a pre-Superman Henry Cavill.
In fact, if there's one thing you can say about "Stardust," it's that it has plenty of star power. Hey ... where'd everyone go?
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