The Good Shepherd (2006): Some thespians age beautifully, revealing in their autumn years a relaxed mastery of their craft. Robert De Niro should have been one of those actors. Instead he’s become bored and boring. Let’s be charitable and pinpoint the cutoff at 2001. The last decade has barely seemed to interest one of the greatest actors of his generation. He doesn’t exactly set the room ablaze with his small recurring role in this sprawling CIA lesson, but then he was otherwise engaged: As director, he maintains a consistent air of paranoid dread for three dense hours. Also, the thing is a beaut.
Stardust (2007): It’s often forgotten that Robert De Niro can be a funny fuck: He’s hilarious in Brazil and Midnight Run , and hilariously insane in King of Comedy . Nuts to the Analyze This and Meet the Parents cycles: He saved the real goods for Matthew Vaughn’s spirited Neil Gaiman take, which stops dead so that De Niro can delight as a swishy, cross-dressing pirate.
Stone (2010): De Niro’s penchant for introspective performances—which, with Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter , suggested a fascinating inner life roiling under the surface—has, in the last decade-plus, turned into mere sleepiness. His character in John Curran’s chamber piece, a parole officer seduced into aiding imprisoned arsonist (and cornrows-wearer) Edward Norton, is withdrawn and intransigent, too. Thing is, this time he remembered to bring the barely suppressed intensity. A scene where De Niro quietly implodes at his retirement party ranks with the actor’s finest moments.
Machete (2010): It’s a lazy stereotype of a crooked, bigoted Southern politician. But it’s something.
Killer Elite (2011): Actually, De Niro doesn’t give a shit in this needlessly convoluted action flick. He’s just for once entertaining about it. Cherish the moment where De Niro dives greedily into a satchel of money. I mean, De Niro’s character.
Being Flynn (2012): As a would-be great novelist who’s actually an eternally grouchy homeless drunk, De Niro is more ham than master thespian. But as with Machete , it’s just nice that he’s awake.
Over the past couple decades we’ve gotten so used to half-assed, openly contemptuous performances from Robert De Niro, that after seeing Paul Weitz’s Being Flynn there might be an understandable tendency to overrate it—simply because Bobby looks like he’s finally trying again.