The gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America as fractured opium daydream, tripping back and forth in the skull of a Jewish hood (Robert De Niro) until the past, present, and future more or less mush into a mournful opera of betrayal and guilt. Along for the pageant: James Woods as a weaselly cohort, pre-Downton Abbey Elizabeth McGovern as the trollop that got away, Tuesday Weld as a decaying slattern, and Joe Pesci as an unlucky rival. Directed by Sergio Leone, the man that made Clint Eastwood famous in A Fistful of Dollars, this reckless monstrosity spends its plot, characters, and themes like a drunken sailor: settle for nothing less than the nearly-four-hour version, but even then, the film can barely contain so much stuff. 1890s New York childhoods, teenage hookers, Prohibition, hits, rapes, backstabbings, lost love—Leone left nothing out, making this the buddy elegy flip side to The Godfather’s familial moan. With, ironically enough, one of Ennio Morricone’s most heartfelt scores.
Could this be the saddest baseball movie ever? Coming from a 1955 novel, this subdued, grown-up drama simply waits out the last season of a low-IQ MLB catcher (Robert De Niro), who learns at the outset that he has a fatal disease. Emphasis is placed less on mortality or the game, and more on the day-to-day traveling life of pro players in the days before bazillion-dollar contracts and steroids. Viewers who were moved when Bang the Drum Slowly came out—and it’s tough not to be when the catcher, in his last game, looks for a fly ball that’s no longer there—keep it close to their hearts.
Michael Mann’s epic tale of cops and robbers, Heat weaves multiple stories into its Robert De Niro–Al Pacino “last of the hard men” struggle, but it is also very much an L.A. story; the city is captured in all its smoggy sprawl, glamour, economic disparity, freeway craziness, and industry. Likewise, Mann’s Collateral (2004) hits the same note (while driving around with Tom Cruise’s contract killer and Jamie Foxx’s cabbie), but with a difference: because it’s shot in digital video, you see the lit city at night, partially illuminated by smog-reflected neon, like never before. With Val Kilmer.
This brutally comic hit found the lurking fears of all young lovers who are meeting their prospective in-laws for the first time—and lit them up good. Ben Stiller is just, well, Ben Stiller, but Robert De Niro, as the fiancée’s father, shines: much more than just a controlling, disapproving patriarch, he’s actually a semiretired CIA ramrod, with only his little girl now to serve and protect. Every step Stiller makes is the wrong step; every action is scrutinized mercilessly. Stiller’s anxious gaze of disbelief as each new mishap befalls him is a wonder, and De Niro flexes all of his dead-eyed menace.