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The Godfather Part II (1974)
The best fathers are, of course, totally selfless. Everything they do revolves around giving their kids the best lives possible—that’s all basic human knowledge. But that’s also the underlying theme of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful sequel The Godfather Part II, if not the entire Godfather series. The second specifically details how the young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro, as the young Marlon Brando) reluctantly enters the Mafia world as a desperation move.
Before the guns and violence, Vito was a nondescript grocery store worker, but gangland nepotism—that bastard Don Fanucci weaseled his nephew into the grocery store position—forced him out of his job and, in turn, pushed him towards working for his neighbor, Peter Clemenza. First, he stashed guns, which led to a bigger partnership with Clemenza, and, eventually the Corleone empire seen in The Godfather.
As the back-against-the-wall, younger Corleone, De Niro channels the delicate yet seemingly effortless balance of subtle vulnerability and chilling intimidation that’s come to define his iconic big-screen career. The Godfather Part II, released a year after the career-making Mean Streets, officially set that reputation in motion.
A Bronx Tale (1993)
The first time you watch A Bronx Tale, it’s understandable to anxiously wait for Robert De Niro’s big outburst of violence. After all, the film — De Niro’s first as a director — is, at its core, a gangster story, and who’s better than De Niro at explosively portraying charismatic yet dangerous Mafioso types? The answer is “no one,” of course, yet there’s nothing dangerous about De Niro in A Bronx Tale. Other actors in the film play mobsters with blood on their hands, but Mr. Tribeca? He’s Lorenzo Anello, the one adult character who’s actively speaking against the crime in his family’s Italian neighborhood.
It’s easy to see why De Niro not only wanted to direct actor/writer’s Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale script, adapted from Palminteri’s one-man stage play, but also act against type in it. In a crowded field of gangster movies, A Bronx Tale is unique because its non-gangsters are as important as its gun-busters. For years De Niro had won rave critical raves and statues for playing abusive boxers, homicidal gangsters and mentally disturbed taxi drivers, but with the ’60s-set A Bronx Tale, he was given the rare chance to play a blue-collar dad. Lorenzo is a working-class bus driver who’s doing his best to keep his son, Colagero (Lillo Brancato, Jr.), from falling in too deep with local crime kingpin Sonny (Palminteri).
Naturally, De Niro is brilliant in the role, nailing the character’s toughness in the face of Sonny’s reign and his humble paychecks but also the softness and wisdom that comes from loving his son.
De Niro's Vegas magnate Sam "Ace" Rothstein does few — if any — good things over the long, labored length of Scorsese's Casino.
Emotionally manipulating his fragile, way-too-fashionable-for-him wife (Sharon Stone, who we were just worshipping) into drink and despair, strong-arming his associates, contributing to the corrosive corruption of an entire gaming empire, and (spoiler) having his right-hand man (Joe Pesci) whacked (/spoiler) definitely don't win him any points.
And yet Sam, at the very least, makes an active effort to shield his young daughter from all the crime and carnage surrounding him, as well as her raging boozehound of a mother. Pesci, too, is depicted as a man of dubious character (and unsavory night prowler tendencies) who still manages to get home every morning to cook his son pancakes, keeping in line with Casino's unusual fascination with bad men who are nonetheless surprisingly great fathers.
Meet the Parents (2000)
A basic premise — an over-protective father connives to get rid of his beloved daughter's dweeby fiancé — took on new, amusing meaning when one of cinema's preeminent tough guys joined the project to give Ben Stiller the chilliest reception of all time.
Who knew we'd ever get to watch De Niro attempt such broad slapstick comedy? Who knew we'd ever get to hear him somberly talk about "cat nipples?"
De Niro's seemingly effortless brand of terrifying comedy makes Meet the Parents into more than just a prankish pantomime, but rather a riotous, all-out battle of wills between the clown-faced mascot of mass movie comedies and one of the greatest actors of all time. No wonder everybody else on screen can only look on in fear.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
De Niro acts from the gut in David O. Russell's modern-day screwball romance and, in turn, delivers the most valuable performance of his latter-day career, playing the exasperated father to Bradley Cooper's highly-erratic, recently-returned head case.
Tender, tentative, and acutely-observed, De Niro's Oscar-nominated performance eloquently conveys the pain of the ornery father cut off from his impossible son, as well as the hearty, hard-won joy when reunion and forgiveness suddenly appear on the horizon. A lovely, lived-in performance.