If Al Pacino had announced in, say, 1980 that he was retiring — deciding that the strenuous demands of Method acting had become too much for him — he’d have already done enough incredible work to be considered an all-timer. (If anything, leaving the limelight at 40 would have only bolstered his artistic credentials.) That, of course, did not happen, and as a result film critics and movie lovers have had to reckon with the exhaustive oeuvre this man has created — and, for better or worse, keeps creating. There is no question, as he nears his 78th birthday, that he remains one of the towering figures of film acting of the last half-century. And it’s also true that he’s given us a lot of dreck in the last few decades.
A workaholic, a genius, a guy who makes a lot of odd choices concerning the scripts he picks, Pacino seems quite content to do whatever the hell he wants and damn the consequences. That’s especially true with his onscreen approach, which started off as intensely interior and has morphed over time into flamboyantly demonstrative. “I think sometimes I went there because I see myself kind of like a tenor,” he said in March about his growing penchant to go big. “And a tenor needs to hit those high notes once in a while. Even if they’re wrong. So sometimes they’re way off. There’s a couple of roles that, you know, the needle screeched on the record. But if I ever see a movie that I feel, ‘Oh, gee, I went too far,’ I just fast-forward it a bit and move on.”
The problem is, a lot of his fans have had to fast-forward, too — or just pretend they didn’t happen. And yet, the man has given us so many brilliant performances — and they’re not all pre-1980. If anything, our rankings argue that his best work has been more spread out than that, with some of his 1990s filmography as glorious as his ’70s heyday.
But before we get to the list, let’s go over some caveats. We ignored cameos, although we’d be remiss not to at least note that his best performance in the last ten years is probably his incredible, lunatic turn in Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill. (“What’s my name?” “Dunk-acino!”) Some of his recent, barely released films are being ignored. (Sorry, Hangman.) Ditto his documentary Looking for Richard. And we’re setting aside his HBO work, which includes Angels in America and the forthcoming Paterno. What that leaves are some truly skippable movies and some unassailable gems. Pacino has made some terrible films that will make you wonder why he bothers. And then you remember the masterpieces and forgive him everything … well, maybe not 88 Minutes.
39. 88 Minutes (2007)
There was a period in the mid-aughts when the entire pitch meeting for Al Pacino movies was “have a crime happen in the beginning and then just sort of let Al do what he wants the rest of the way.” This is the pits of those, a tired thriller in which Pacino plays a police profiler who receives a call that he has 88 minutes to live and must figure out whether it’s true and, if it is, who’s going to kill him. The resolution is even dumber than the execution, and the worst crime of all is that this movie is, alas, a lot longer than 88 minutes.
38. The Son of No One (2011)
There was a time when Channing Tatum thought Dito Montiel was his Steven Soderbergh — before upgrading to the actual Soderbergh — and the nadir of their collaboration was this hackneyed, supremely dopey crime thriller in which Pacino looks like he just finished rolling his eyes at his director right before cameras started rolling. This is possibly the lowest-energy performance Pacino has ever given.
37. Stand Up Guys (2013)
Pacino wasn’t going to let the Old Dogs trend of gathering a bunch of old actors and letting them reminisce in a series of increasingly silly situations pass him by. So here he is, with Christopher Walken as a hitman assigned to kill him as soon as he gets out of jail and Alan Arkin as their former getaway driver. That sounds like it has potential, but if you were wondering whether or not there is a scene in which one of these old guys takes too much Viagra, worry not … that’s what sets the whole plot into motion. This is a classic example of the old Gene Siskel bit about whether or not a movie would be more interesting if it were just the actors having lunch. In this case, that would have been a lot more fun.
36. The Recruit (2003)
This was the wrong time to be teaming up with Colin Farrell, back during that short stretch when the actor was more handsome than interesting, and this is a pretty rote CIA spy thriller that is briefly curious but then scrambles off into duller territory. Pacino often plays the older lead to up-and-coming stars, but it never quite works: He’s way too big of a presence to do anything else other than suck all the air out of the frame, leaving none left for them.
35. Righteous Kill (2008)
What was so appealing about Heat — the first-time-ever onscreen pairing of acting legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino — was a hell of a lot less exciting when they teamed up a little more than a decade later. Righteous Kill was made during Pacino’s wandering-in-the-wilderness commercial period, where he seemed to be chasing paychecks rather than his muse. The two faded stars play detectives on the hunt for a Seven-style serial killer whose murders are thematically linked: Each victim committed terrible acts for which he received no punishment from a broken judicial system. The best you can say about this threadbare, stupidly plotted thriller is that Pacino holds onto his dignity — thankfully, he declines to chew the scenery. Actually, the best you can say about Righteous Kill is that it’s so disposable you probably don’t remember a thing about it.
34. City Hall (1996)
If Al Pacino ever held public office, he’d probably love the public-speaking part. In this so-so drama — which Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman memorably called “the first policy-wonk thriller” — he plays the mayor of New York, a backslapping big-talker who’s embroiled in controversy after a black child is killed in the crossfire of a drug-land shooting. City Hall mostly concerns the mayor’s idealistic right-hand man (John Cusack) trying to learn the truth behind the shooting, but audiences went to see Pacino bellow and bark. By the mid-’90s, we’d seen this shtick from the man too many times — especially his centerpiece scene at a funeral, where he acts all over the place.
33. People I Know (2002)
Delayed more than a year because it contained multiple shots of the World Trade Center (which is a really strange reason, in retrospect, to delay a movie), this has a good concept that’s mostly wasted. Pacino plays, essentially, a public-relations fixer, a NYC publicist with a substance abuse problem who tries to defend the wrong client for the wrong crime at the wrong time. The movie never gets as grimy and dangerous as it needs to, and it’s mostly pedestrian, as is Pacino’s performance. Sometimes Pacino revs it up too high for the movie he’s in; with this sleepy movie, he should have gone the other direction.
32. Manglehorn (2014)
Much like with director David Gordon Green’s Joe, a low-key indie drama that gave Nicolas Cage one of his finest recent roles, Manglehorn paired the journeyman filmmaker with a past-his-prime actor. Pacino plays Manglehorn, an oddball locksmith whose only close friend seems to be a cat. The movie hints that Manglehorn once had a richer, happier life, and Pacino does a decent job of hinting at how fate and circumstance have conspired to drain the vibrancy from this man. This is a relatively tame turn from the Oscar-winner, even if he doesn’t entirely convince as a beaten-down ordinary guy. You watch him and keep thinking, Hey, wow, look: That’s Al Pacino dialing it down.
31. Revolution (1985)
Pacino received his first Razzie nomination for this bloated, ridiculously overwrought Revolutionary War drama, although Pacino himself has some affection for the movie. (“It was absolutely destroyed,” he said recently of Revolution’s critical drubbing. “There are people who have throughout the years known what [director] Hugh Hudson did in that film — some of the work he did in that as a filmmaker is just simply extraordinary.”) Still, the actor does a bad accent, and no one will ever mistake Al Pacino for a fur trapper. The movie was a box-office flop, but it’s merely bad rather than some sort of fiasco. Pacino, wisely, would never play a fur trapper again.
30. Gigli (2003)
“I say everything twice: ‘In in! Sit sit!’ ” Meet Starkman, the quirky, violent mob boss Al Pacino plays in Gigli, generally considered one of this century’s worst films. Pacino reteamed with Martin Brest, who directed him to his only Oscar in Scent of a Woman, and his memorable role in this stinker gives the film some drama and stakes. (Years later, when we hear anyone discuss whether a thumb is technically a finger, we think back to Pacino’s sadistic Gigli monologue.) This movie won’t ever be part of Pacino’s highlight reel, but his short blast of menace is a nice reminder of the controlled fury he can bring.
29. Author! Author! (1982)
This forgotten early-’80s study of a playwright juggling family, career, and love is a cutesy, harried comedy-drama that finds Pacino taking a stab at being a likable romantic leading man. In a different movie with a better script, it might have worked. Once his wife (Tuesday Weld) leaves him, the playwright has to become Mr. Mom to his five kids, and especially in retrospect, it’s funny to see the man who portrayed Frank Serpico trying his hand at family-guy fare. “What’s Pacino doing in this mess?” wondered film critic Roger Ebert at the time. “What’s happening to his career?” It would get so much worse, Rog’.
28. Two for the Money (2005)
Pacino has played his share of mentor figures in his later years, and he got a decent one in this D.J. Caruso film about a rising, hot-shot gambler (Matthew McConaughey) who’s recruited by Walter (Pacino), who runs a sports betting company. Walter has his demons, though — he’s a gambling addict and an alcoholic — and the Oscar-winner plays him with a lot of slick surface and endless raging anxieties underneath. Two for the Money isn’t very memorable, but it’s got its moments, particularly when Pacino attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and delivers some blunt truth: Gambling isn’t their problem, their compulsion to lose is.
27. S1m0ne (2002)
On the heels of The Truman Show and Gattaca, both of which he wrote, writer-director Andrew Niccol tried to paste his cyberdystopia-future mind-set onto the film industry, with Pacino playing a director who falls in love (and then tries to destroy) a virtual character he invents for his film. The movie and effects have aged as poorly as you’d guess, and Pacino is a bad fit for Niccol’s icy remove. It’s an extremely odd match of lead actor and subject; did Pacino even own a computer when he made this movie?
26. Two Bits (1995)
With rare exceptions, Pacino has a tendency to still muscle everyone out of the frame even when he goes small. This is a great example, a quiet little coming-of-age film about a 12-year-old kid (Jerry Barone) who hears a story from his grandfather (Pacino in old-age makeup, sort of) and delves deep into his past. This is a family movie, something Pacino doesn’t do much of, but you never quite buy him here: His gentleness and whimsy feel forced, and even a little self-aggrandizing. The movie itself is not terrible, but this is proof Pacino is sometimes his loudest when he’s trying to be quiet.
25. Bobby Deerfield (1977)
Widely panned upon release, this Sydney Pollack movie about a racecar driver (Pacino) who falls in love with a dying woman is an egregiously over-the-top melodrama that’s a lot more ridiculous than it thinks it is but not nearly as terrible as everyone wanted to make it out to be at the time. It doesn’t really work — it nearly punches you in the face to try to make you cry — but he’s hardly offensive. This was in the post-Godfather period where it seems like critics were out to get Pacino every time he tried to do something a little different, the normal growing pains of an instant star. It’s a nice effort here, but yeah, you’ll groan a lot.
24. Danny Collins (2015)
One of Pacino’s movies-about-aging-men-looking-back-on-their-life endeavors, Danny Collins was written and directed by a pre–This Is Us Dan Fogelman, who tells the story of a ’70s rocker (Pacino) who seeks out the son (Bobby Cannavale) he never knew. There’s a sweetness to the movie that can be winning, but Fogelman basically places the story in a fairy-tale land filled with incredibly pleasant people who never do anything that terrible — which is weird for a movie about a lifelong rock star with a drug problem who walked out on his kid. Pacino has great chemistry with Annette Bening, who plays a hotel manager Danny is courting, but the actor can overdo the cutesiness once Danny starts to insert himself into his son’s life. All in all, it’s not a good sign that, for a lot of diehard Pacino fans, Danny Collins felt like a real comeback for the faded master …
23. The Humbling (2015)
… which can also be said of this Barry Levinson character piece, based on the Philip Roth novel and co-adapted by Buck Henry, about a faded actor who’s starting to lose his grip on reality. This gives Pacino plenty of room to let fly with some lion-in-winter exuberance as his character begins an affair with a much younger woman, played by Greta Gerwig. It’s a very actorly movie, full of passionate flourishes and self-indulgent moments. (“My memory of just filming it was we were just yelling at each other all the time or we were making out,” Gerwig would say later about her and Pacino’s characters.) The Humbling contains just enough flecks of genius to convince you that Pacino is still a master of his craft. But lowered expectations going in will certainly help.
22. Scent of a Woman (1992)
HOO-HA! We’ve got this movie this low for good reason. Not only is it even more apparent how audience-pleasing pabulum this is 25 years later, but Pacino’s performance was the representation of everything wrong about his worst performances. He screams, he shouts, he gesticulates, he basically grabs you by the lapels and brays in your face until you are looking at him and only him. The movie sent him off in the wrong direction in ways that are still apparent today. It’s an embarrassing performance by a great actor totally unleashed and let to roam far too free. The Academy, of course, gave him his only Oscar for it.
21. Any Given Sunday (1999)
It was inevitable that Oliver Stone and Al Pacino would eventually make a movie together: The director’s manic, hypervivid aesthetic is a perfect complement to the actor’s full-volume intensity. Stone wrote the screenplay to Brian De Palma’s Scarface, but the two titans worked more closely on Any Given Sunday, which is a perfectly fine football movie so long as you’ve never actually watched football or don’t know anything about the game. It’s a movie full of sports-movie clichés, right down to the haggard, grizzled head coach, who is conveniently played by Pacino with sick-of-this-shit gusto. Does Pacino give a rousing game-time speech during Any Given Sunday? Of course he does — and it’s actually a pretty good one, merging rah-rah rhetoric with some dark wisdom about the impermanence of everything.
20. Cruising (1980)
William Friedkin’s notorious project about a serial killer preying on New York City’s gay community in the ’70s was widely protested when it was release and has aged so poorly that James Franco did a whole movie about its infamous 40 minutes of “graphic sexual content” that Friedkin cut from the film. Pacino’s performance does its best to ground the film and make it something less sensational and gross — his character is so distant that he seems to be outside the film itself — but then the bizarre ending totally sells him out.
19. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Al Pacino as the Devil — perfect casting, right? The Devil’s Advocate leans into the juiciness of its premise, crafting a cheesy-good thriller in which Keanu Reeves’s hot-shot lawyer is recruited by Pacino’s ethically slippery big-city attorney. The movie’s plot twist — Oh shit, Pacino is the Devil! — is ridden for all its worth, and Pacino obliges his fans by playing Satan as the Satan-est Satan to ever Satan. Big Al devours his scenes, relishing in his character’s showboating evil, while Reeves mostly hangs back, getting a front-row seat. Pacino has overacted plenty of times, but at least in The Devil’s Advocate it’s kinda justified.
18. Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
Put Pacino with a supremely talented director and he can still deliver worthy performances — he just needs the right motivation. Steven Soderbergh harnessed the man’s effortless menace and cool for Willy Bank, the oily nemesis in Ocean’s Thirteen. Pacino hadn’t seen Ocean’s Twelve — we wonder if he ever did; it’s good — but he perfectly plugged into this franchise’s suave nonchalance and cheeky sense of humor. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis described Pacino’s character exactly right: “Willy Bank is a pint-size Trump in oversize eyeglasses and a burnt-orange tan that makes him look like an Hermès handbag.” The actor plays a man of massive ego without any of his own, which makes him a very funny bad guy — you root for him to go down, even though he’s pretty enjoyable company beforehand.
17. The Merchant of Venice (2005)
As over-the-top as Pacino can be, it really is fun sometimes to watch him sometimes just grab a CAPITAL-A ACTING! role and gnash and gnaw into it like a grapefruit, juices flying everywhere. Having him play Shakespeare, Shylock no less, is asking for trouble, but he ends up becoming the whole show himself. The rest of the cast seems to be tiptoeing around him, and who wouldn’t? That doesn’t make it less fun for us to witness.
16. Dick Tracy (1990)
To date, Pacino has received eight Oscar nominations. His role in Dick Tracy is probably the one people most forget earned him a nod. Buried in makeup and given free rein to go nuts, he plays Big Boy Caprice, a raging mobster who has made it his life’s purpose to kill the squeaky-clean Dick Tracy. Channeling his Scarface turn for an all-ages blockbuster, Pacino has a twinkle in his eye that makes the portrayal awfully fun. Is it one-note? Absolutely. Is the note very enjoyable? Without question.
15. … And Justice for All (1979)
One of the earliest Pacino, King of Shouters, roles, this is a fairly contrived courtroom drama that, thanks to Pacino, goes wonderfully off the rails at the end, culminating in Pacino’s legendary “THE WHOLE SYSTEM’S OUT OF ORDER” speech at the end. Really, you should just watch it:
It is easy to see how, in 1979, this would look like as dramatic and serious a performance as you could find, the superstar actor just killing it. Knowing what we know now, it’s Pacino going full ham, as always. But to see young Pacino doing it … what can we say, it’s a little bit more innocent and fun. Scream away, Al. You’re only young once.
14. Sea of Love (1989)
Pacino hadn’t made a movie in four years, not since noted flop Revolution, when he starred as a homicide cop investigating a murder that might have been committed by a woman (Ellen Barkin) he finds impossible to resist. Pacino and Barkin have undeniable chemistry — they reunited for Ocean’s Thirteen — and Pacino seems to enjoy stepping back and letting someone else dominate the screen for a while. This would serve as the template for many, much worse Basic Instinct–esque clones to come, but this remains one of the better ones, even with a mostly unsatisfying conclusion.
13. The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
If you’re going to make your movie debut, it doesn’t hurt to make it in a movie with a screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. This drama about young heroin addicts in New York doesn’t seem quite as scandalizing today as it was back in 1971, but it still packs a punch, not least because of Pacino’s untamed, almost feral performance. This was a lot of energy, too much energy, to be contained in one young actor, and you sense him almost vibrating to release it.
12. Heat (1995)
We’re probably more constitutionally aligned with the controlled, cautious Robert De Niro gangster side of this acclaimed crime drama than Pacino’s unhinged, chaotic cop. Still, we gotta say: It’s impossible not to think of Pacino’s “I LIKE BIG ASSES!!!!!” scene first and foremost every time this movie comes up. Of all his performances, this is definitely Pacino’s biggest. Whether it’s his best or not, we leave it up to one’s individual tastes. We think you know ours.
11. Frankie and Johnny (1991)
An underrated Pacino delight, one of the few times he ever dipped a toe into the world of romantic comedy. He’s an ex-con who takes a job at a diner and falls for a sad waitress (Michelle Pfeiffer), and the movie is the story of their stop-and-start, delicate courtship. Based on a beloved stage play, Frankie and Johnny finds Pacino light on his feet, clearly taking joy in the opportunity to do something different. There are times he almost feels like a dancer here. Worth revisiting.
10. Carlito’s Way (1993)
In 2018, a movie starring Al Pacino as a Puerto Rican criminal definitely wouldn’t fly — especially considering the actor’s exaggerated accent for the role. But with that acknowledged and lamented, his work in Carlito’s Way remains volcanic. Carlito Brigante is a bad guy trying to go straight, which of course is a lot harder to do than he’d like. Pacino’s second collaboration with Brian De Palma isn’t nearly as popular as their first, Scarface, but amid Carlito’s Way’s world of violence and desperation, there’s a weary poignancy underneath. Carlito knows he’s getting older and that the young punks nipping at his heels will soon overtake him, and Pacino brings that dark realization to the performance. Carlito’s Way was the actor’s first film after his Oscar turn in the crowd-pleasing Scent of a Woman, and it’s easy to imagine Pacino seeing this crime-thriller as a way to reconnect to the gritty, messy movies of his early years.
9. Insomnia (2002)
When Christopher Nolan made his major studio debut with Insomnia, which was a remake of a Norwegian film, he knew he wanted his movie to have the feel of an old-school Hollywood thriller. So it made sense to cast a legend in the role of Will Dormer, an L.A. cop investigating a murder in Alaska. Pacino gives the role a lifetime’s worth of weariness and expertise — this cop is good at his job but haunted by an internal-affairs investigation back home that may torpedo his reputation — and his existential anxiety is perfectly mirrored by the stark, snowy landscape and his inability to sleep. Insomnia is Pacino’s last great performance and easily the finest work he’s done this century, and one has to wonder if that’s in part because of Robin Williams’s expert turn as the cold, calm killer he’s pursuing. (For once, Pacino has a worthy sparring partner.) There’s no room in this spare cat-and-mouse film for Pacino’s indulgences, and the actor ably proves that he’s still got the chops.
8. Scarecrow (1973)
There are some people, people we adore, who swear by this film, who think it’s one of the best, most unheralded movies of the ’70s. We think it’s a little bit too proud of itself and is far too concerned with making Great Cinema than concentrating on the people involved. Either way, we can all agree that seeing Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, both at the absolute peak of their powers, in a road movie about two vagrants, is absolutely irresistible. It doesn’t entirely hold up today, but that doesn’t make it any less watchable.
7. Scarface (1983)
Just as with Carlito’s Way, it’s impossible to talk about Scarface without acknowledging the ickiness of casting Al Pacino as a person of color. In this case, he’s Tony Montana, a Cuban hood who fights his way to the top of the Miami cocaine trade. The culture has so absorbed Scarface — its indelible lines, Pacino’s batshit-crazy rage, the story’s giddily hedonistic worldview — that the movie exists more as a collection of memes, punch lines, and pop-culture references than an actual motion picture. Even trying to critique Pacino’s performance feels foolhardy — it’s a parody of a cartoon — but after all these years its hypnotic swagger is still arresting. And let’s not forget: Pacino’s operatic turn cannily serves De Palma’s nightmarish vision of American capitalism going to hell in a flurry of bullets and bad 1980s pop music.
6. Serpico (1973)
This Sidney Lumet drama belongs to a proud but underserved genre: movies about one good man fighting a corrupt system. Al Pacino was a superb choice to play Frank Serpico, a real-life New York cop who embraced the counterculture while working in law enforcement, learning that there was a price to be paid for exposing the unethical behavior of his colleagues and superiors. Serpico allows Pacino to unleash his righteous anger in every direction, but unlike in his later years when his explosions were cartoonishly broad, here there’s a controlled fury that’s utterly startling. Like a lot of cinema’s 1970s heroes, Serpico is a complicated lone wolf — perfect for a young actor whose hunger was palpable in every frame.
5. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Based on actual events, the other terrific movie Sidney Lumet made with Pacino concerns Sonny, who foolishly decides to rob a bank in order to finance his lover Leon’s (Chris Sarandon) gender-reassignment surgery. In Dog Day Afternoon, the actor’s rumbling fury is turned in on itself, resulting in a character who seems ready to implode and is clearly in over his head once his plan goes pear-shaped. Sonny isn’t a very bright guy, but what makes him riveting is the way that Pacino shows his mind always furiously churning: How do I get out of this mess? How do I get back to Leon? It’s funny and terrifying and also quite sad — Pacino has rarely been so tender.
4. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
The year Pacino won Best Actor for Scent of a Woman, he was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Glengarry Glen Ross. Think about it: The Academy was actually this close to awarding a long-overdue actor with its greatest prize in a legitimately great performance, and then the voters went and chose the wrong performance. James Foley’s exquisite adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play about some cutthroat salesmen isn’t just one of the 1990s’ best films, it’s a still-pertinent study of toxic masculinity and the American Dream run aground. The whole ensemble is superb, but Pacino earns first prize as Ricky Roma, the suave, smart shark who rules the roost at a real-estate firm filled with faded killers (Jack Lemmon) and hapless fools (Alan Arkin). Pacino is such a devilish pleasure in the film, seducing Jonathan Pryce’s ineffectual sucker and then exploding at Kevin Spacey’s bumbling manager when the oaf screws up his sale. Every one of Mamet’s profanities is a symphony coming from Pacino’s mouth. Seriously, he won for Scent of a Woman and not this.
3. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Perhaps Pacino’s quietest, saddest performance, and one that remains a total surprise, coming on the heels of his some of his most unwieldy performances. He’s a Mafia middleman for the Bonanno crime family, but he’s at the end of his career, and rusty, and maybe a little too willing to trust the eponymous Brasco (Johnny Depp, dialing it back himself), who turns out to be an FBI informant. The bond between the two men is surprisingly touching, which makes it that much more tragic that Brasco is probably going to get his mentor and friend killed. Pacino’s last scene in this movie is as silently moving as anything he’s ever done. He has rarely underplayed it like this since then, and that’s a shame: When he reins it in, he can break your heart.
2. The Insider (1999)
Because we’ve become so accustomed to knowing that, in any ensemble, it will be Pacino who dominates the frame, it can be very easy to underappreciate how terrific he is in The Insider, where he’s probably the third-flashiest actor. Michael Mann’s supremely intelligent, gripping exploration of 60 Minutes’ battle with Big Tobacco stars Pacino as Lowell Bergman, a show producer who needs Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), an anxious tobacco executive, to help blow the whistle on an industry-wide cover-up concerning the addictiveness of its product. Crowe’s tormented Wigand and Christopher Plummer’s peacock-proud Mike Wallace are The Insider’s scene-stealers, leaving Pacino (reuniting with Mann after Heat) to be the movie’s calm, intense center, grounding the movie in the same way that the brilliant, resourceful Bergman guides his explosive exposé to air. There’s more than a whiff of Frank Serpico to Bergman’s righteous, journalistic fervor, but 25 years after that iconic portrayal, Pacino topped it with a wearier but more resilient one.
1. The Godfather movies (1972, 1974, 1990)
You’re welcome to dismiss The Godfather: Part III as an unfortunate afterthought. But even then, Michael Corleone remains the character that defines Al Pacino’s cinematic legacy. In the first installment, Michael is the anxious outsider, fully aware of what his family does but convinced he can remain removed from its insidiousness. By the end of The Godfather, though, he learns that blood is inescapable, leading to one of the most heartbreaking finales in all of movies: Michael becomes the king but sacrifices his soul. The Godfather: Part II shows the effects of that decision as the last fibers of his moral decency are ripped away. As for Part III, well, it’s Pacino going full-on Shakespearean tragedy, and the bigness of the performance is in keeping with a monster who was devoured by his own ambition and ruthlessness long ago. The young Michael is handsome, sweet, and sensitive, but Pacino keenly, effortlessly navigates the character into murkier waters, demonstrating just how seductive power can be. We never stop sensing the good man trapped inside the leader of this Mob clan, and Pacino holds that tension between darkness and light, always making us hope that Michael can pull himself free. Pacino’s dead eyes in Part III show what a futile dream that was to harbor — for the audience and for Michael.