The Essential Al Pacino: 17 Must-See Films

Al Pacino is going to star in two films at the Toronto International Film Festival, Manglehorn and The Humbling. Now would be a good time to recall that he’s one of the best actors of his generation. 

Al Pacino refuses to be quiet. Whether he’s playing shy guys, working stills, cops, cartoon villains, or Satan himself, Pacino slunk unto the screen with a burning intensity that few of his peers could match. Pacino possesses large, sad eyes which give them impression that he’s disappointed with the world, a subtle scowl indicating that he just may be withdrawing in disgust, but also a strangely empathetic gait, giving him an ineffably brotherly quality. Pacino specializes in playing hard cases and badasses, but he is so much more than that. He is the sympathetic villain, the put-upon everyman, and the working class hero all rolled into one. 

Pacino ascended during the diverse and rich 1970s, a rich, diverse, and magical time for American film. Only during the 1970s could someone like Al Pacino become a movie star. This was a time of grounded, cynical dramas, and a nouveau wave of bratty film-school-raised filmmakers began infiltrating the marketplace. Audiences didn’t want the frothy artificiality of previous generations. They wanted something grounded and real. The contemporary filmmakers responded by porting over the dominant filmmaking aesthetic of the French New Wave, and began casting actors who were to be known more for their bitterness, intensity, and dramatic strengths, rather than for their glittering, square-jawed movie star qualities. 

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Al Pacino was not ever supposed to be a handsome leading man. Pacino was always supposed to be the twitchy guy, the unsure guy, the mean guy, the angry guy. His ability to remain casual in the face of some of the most bleak and revolutionary dramas of an entire decade marked him as an unmovable talent in the 1970s. His portrayal of the angry, evil, drug-addicted crime lord Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of Scarface also codified him as being capable of over-the-top villainy and ceaseless energy. By the 1990s, he had graduated to elder statesman status, capturing and commanding attention just by stepping on the screen. 

There are four phases to Al Pacino’s career. There are the early days of playing sympathetic little men with problems the world wouldn’t let him solve. There was the middle period, beginning perhaps with Dick Tracy, when he was a legitimate movie star, and was fully comfortable with himself as a performer, allowing himself to stretch and perform in odder roles, while still banking on his now-established reputation. The third phase is a mixed bag, wherein Pacino has been selecting some films of dubious quality (I’m thinking of widely-panned movies like 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill). And then there is the little-seen side phase of Al Pacino, the stage thespian.

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Lest it be forgotten, Pacino is – and has always been – an actor’s actor. He takes his craft very seriously. This is a man who does what comes naturally, but doesn’t rely on naturalism and charm to carry a role. This man delves deep. It’s Pacino’s willingness to express that intensity that leaves him such a powerful presence in our minds.

Sure, he can get goofy and screamy from time to time (starting with Dick Tracy, you might notice that Pacino started screaming with a distressing and increasing frequency), but watching such an intense actor cutting loose and hamming it up is most certainly a great pleasure. Has Pacino become a ham in recent years? In some of his films, certainly. I think that a lot of his hammier stuff, however, can be traced to his sense of humor. Pacino can be funny. Although I wouldn’t consider it an essential role, I nonetheless encourage you to find Andrew Niccol’s underrated sci-fi comedy Simone. Pacino, who plays the mastermind behind a secretly virtual, computer-generated star actress is perhaps as funny as he’s ever been. Yes, I openly recommend Simone.

It’s hard to winnow down a list of Pacino’s greatest performances because he gave us so many. But winnow I shall. Al Pacino’s crazy intensity cannot be absorbed all at once, so I recommend that you trek slowly through the following films in chronological order, seeing him evolve, grow, and become more and more comfortable as his career went on.

Slideshow: The Essential Al Pacino: 17 Must-See Films

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly Trolling articles here on Crave, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.


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