It is not easy to pick just 15 best Al Pacino movies. After all, there was a time he was the most electrifying actor in movies, his performances earning raves from the nations film critics, legions of fans following his work, his peers celebrating his artistry. In the seventies his work was astounding, seeing him nominated for four consecutive Academy Awards, his loss for The Godfather Part II (1974) one of the great injustices in Academy history.
He loved to challenge himself, which in part took him out of favor with his audiences, but he always managed to bounce back. The dreary love story Bobby Deerfield (1977) was the first film to explore his limitations as an actor, and there are very few with those same limitations. The comedy, well it was supposed to be, Author! Author! (1982) marked a low point in his career but he rebounded with Scarface (1983) which critics killed but audiences loved, re-discovering the film on video. Al Pacino’s next film was nearly a career killer.
Revolution (1985) was a massive historical epic directed by Hugh Hudson was one of the most critically reviled films of the decade, and a huge flop. Pacino was hammered for his wandering Scottish brogue tinged with that Bronx accent he made so famous. Stunned by the reaction to the film, he left movies, heading back to the stage. Something happened to his acting in the time in between because when he came back to films. His work was broader and louder.
It worked beautifully in Dick Tracy (1990) but not in other films such as a The Godfather Part III (1990), a pale shadow of the previous films, and even Scent of a Woman (1992)!
Since 1992, he has given perhaps three strong performances, the best, Donnie Brasco (1997) a haunting and powerful piece of acting. There have been flashes of his genius in Angels in America (2003), Spector (2013) and You Don’t Know Jack (2013). With everything said now let’s look at the list of top 15 movies of Al Pacino.
1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Simply remarkable, both the film and Pacino, his work as Michael Corleone should have won him an Oscar. In portraying a contained fury, he radiates danger throughout the film, his silences more frightening than anything he might say. Eyes dead, devoid of compassion or love, his world is about his business, his criminal empire that he has built into a world business. Morally corrupt, to say nothing as to his soul, Michael has become a victim in his own world, corrupted absolutely by absolute power. Told his business is bigger than US Steel he fights for that power, and by the end, at a terrible cost has achieved the power he seeks. As Michael, he does unspeakable things, killing his own brother, banishing his wife from his life, ordering the murders of many men, yet he remains a near Shakespearean tragic hero because we know what he once was, and see it again in a lovely dinner scene in flashback. The finest work of the actors career, by far, that he lost the Oscar is downright criminal.
2. The Godfather (1972)
His character arc here is astonishing, moving from idealistic young war hero, to cold-blooded killer, to ruthless head of the Corleone crime family, he is astounding. Brando might have won the Oscar, but this is Pacino’s film. Wide eyed and knowing when his father is gunned down, visiting him at the hospital he realizes they are not going to stop until the old man is dead. So though he is not part of the business, he guns down the men who have tried to, kill his father, returning years later to take over the massive crime organization from his father. Cunning, dangerous, intelligent, he plays the game almost better than his father, and by the film’s end, all his enemies are dead. Simply astounding, and then he surpassed it in the sequel! A powerful study of the perversion of the American Dream.
3. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
For his simply electrifying, commanding performance as Sonny, a hard luck bank robber, Pacino was brilliant. In fact there are historians who believe this to be his greatest performance! He certainly dominates the film, cockily talking to the army of police who have gathered, working the crowd, loving every minute of his grandstanding, but in the bank, where everything has gone wrong, he is quietly terrified. He picked a bank with no cash on hand, the police spotted him from the start and his partner wants to start killing people and stacking the bodies. As if that were not enough, now his overweight wife knows he was robbing the bank to pay for his male lovers sex change operation! Ever have one of those days? Sonny did, and it was based incredibly on a true story. You simply cannot take your eyes off Pacino throughout. Brilliant.
4. Serpico (1973)
As a purely decent and honest young man, Frank Serpico joined the New York City police force to do goo, to serve and protect. He was stunned at the amount of corruption all around him, and as he rose to Detective it got worse. Not able to accept it, he began informing on his fellow officers. They were wrong, they were criminals and one man had the courage to speak out, placing himself in danger. Suddenly his calls for back up were ignored, he received no assistance when arresting violent offenders, and he eventually was shot. Serpico would end up retiring early, living in Sweden for his own protection. Pacino slips under the skin of this seemingly world-weary cop and does not act the part, but becomes it.
5. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Knowing he is going to be executed he puts down the phone. Speaking to his wife he tells her he must go out, but to her in the life he leads that is no surprise. When she leaves the room he removes his watch and a thick roll of bills and places them in a drawer where she will be sure to find them. Then resigned to his fate, a look of sadness on his face, he leaves never to return. As Lefty, a soldier for a large crime family, he is a low man on the poll. When he unknowingly brings an undercover cop into the midst of the family, his fate is sealed, because at some point the family will be brought down by that very cop. More than anyone Lefty knows his lot in life, he knows where he stands and accepts it, which gives this aging, lowly soldier a quiet dignity. Superb, and for this he should have been nominated.
6. Scarface (1983)
Wretched excess is what the director, Brian De Palma wanted to capture, and the brash, big performance of Pacino as Cuban Tony Montana fit in perfectly. He seems always to be talking, and when talking he is observing, watching everything that takes place around him. He quickly works his way up through the ranks of the Florida drug world, until he its King. But he makes the mistake of getting hooked on the very cocaine he sells in the streets, and betrays a vicious Columbine cartel chief that seals his doom. Pacino is truly mesmerizing in the film, and though critics initially condemned the film and the performance, years later it is praised as one of the great films of the decade, and among the actors strongest performances.
7. Scarecrow (1973)
A strange little film that was lost in the shuffle between The Godfather (1972) and Serpico (1973), The actor shares the screen with Gene Hackman in a sort of modern-day Of Mice and Men tale. Both down and out, what we might call losers, the two men nonetheless have dreams. Pacino outshines his gifted co-star as a man who is an extrovert until sexually assaulted in prison, at which point he retreats into himself. Capturing the intensity of severe sexual trauma, Pacino is outstanding in the film. Little known, little scene, but most deserving of attention. One of those buried treasures.
8. Angels in America (2003)
One of the greatest accomplishments for HBO television was this soaring adaptation of Tony Kushner’s masterful play about the early eighties AIDS crisis and how it devastated the gay community of New York. In an all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Pacino is the evil lawyer Roy Cohn, known to be a gay man, but who denied instill his death of AIDS. A vicious bully who sat beside no less a monster than Senator Joe McCarthy during the communist witch hunt of the fifties, Pacino brings out the monster in the man, leaving us no question we are staring into the eyes of something that sprung from hell. Yet as he lies choking and gasping his last breath, the actor incredibly, brings humanity to a reptile of a human being. Genius.
9. Dick Tracy (1990)
Obviously having a blast under layers of make up as Big Boy Caprice the criminal mastermind in Warren Beatty’s dazzling, underrated Dick Tracy (1990), Pacino is superb in the film. In a film bathed in rich primary colors, with the added distraction of Madonna, Pacino chose to play his role like a cartoon Richard III, which was just perfect. Despite the make up he gives a deeply funny performance, though the humour is as black as his characters soul, giving the film a jolt of furious energy it needs. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this, which seemed to encourage him, because he has been playing the same part, often ever since.
10. Cruising (1980)
A tough, uncompromising film which takes an undercover cop into the world of S and M gay sex. When a serial killer starts slaughtering young men with a certain look, Steve (Pacino) is assigned to go deep undercover and get him. What he does not expect is how this bizarre world of sweaty, muscled men draws him in. By the end we are asking, has he lost himself in this world? Has he become the killer? Is he so filled with self loathing at what he has become he lashes out at gay men trying to live their lives? Pacino is brilliant, unsettling in one of his greatest, yet most controversial and troubling performances in a cruelly misunderstood film.
11. Panic in Needle Park (1971)
In this gritty, low-budget film, one of his first, Pacino is scarily good as a junkie living in New York, scrounging for drugs every waking day. The film has a raw feel to it, and young Pacino shows flashes of the acting genius he would vey soon become. To this day the film remains one of the most frank and honest depictions of the life of drug addicts. Pacino’s overdose scene is alarming in its intensity.
12. Phil Spector (2013)
As the strange, often brilliant record producer accused of murder, Pacino slips under the skin of Pector, bringing this most bizarre man to life. A vain, self-absorbed music producer, Spector wore a bevy of wigs that constantly changed his appearance and seemed fueled on cocaine. He landed in trouble late in his life, sentenced to jail for second degree murder. The film traces his trial, bizarre defence and relationship with his lawyer. Pacino is terrific in Spector, the kind of showy role he so loves.
13. Frankie and Johnny (1991)
A far better film and performances than the critics thought, Pacino and Michelle Pfieffer are outstanding as two broken people who find one another, working together in a small diner. He is an ex con trying to put his life together after passing bad cheques, she is an abuse victim, slowly dying a bit each day, until she meets him. He is a force of nature who proclaims his love for her very quickly, and then goes about trying to get her to love him back. Pacino is wonderful as the hot dog short order cook, though we can understand why she might be wary of him, he comes in strong. As he explains, he has no more time to waste, prison taught him that.
14. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Reteaming with De Palma for this decent film about a man just freed from a long prison term, Carlito, portrayed by Pacino, the actor does very good work looking lean and intense, Pacino dominates the scenes he is in, unless Sean Penn is in them with him. Trying to go straight with the woman and child he loves, he finds the long arm of crime pulls him back, always. It leads to a dazzling chase finale in which Carlito is suddenly betrayed and gunned down. There is a profound sense of tragedy throughout the film, we sense that Carlito is slowly moving toward his doom.
15. And Justice for All (1979)
As Arthur Kirkland, a defence attorney in New York, Pacino earned his fifth Academy Award nomination, portraying a truly good man who fights for the rights of others. Believing fiercely in the law, he is conflicted when a high-ranking judge he has often locked horns with, asks him to defend when accused of rape. Arthur agrees, but as he digs he finds the character of the judge is repellant, and fighting his conscience he turns on his own client, dooming his legal career, because it is the right thing to do. The court room scene in which he exposes the judge is electric.
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