#10 – ‘Scent Of A Woman’
Al Pacino won his only Academy Award for his performance in “Scent of a Woman,” playing a blind, cranky, retired Army officer… for a very long 156 minutes. After consulting with several people who had lost their sight to trauma, Pacino was a devil with the details making sure he was accurate in how a blind person might sit in a chair, pour a drink… or tango across the dance floor with Gabrielle Anwar.
So why doesn’t his Oscar-winning performance rank higher? Firstly, because Pacino was so much better in other films! His Academy Award win, at the time, was widely viewed as a Lifetime Achievement Award after Pacino was denied winning a previous award after eight earlier nominations.
Some critics weren’t happy about his long-overdue win; some even called Pacino’s performance cartoonish or a gross caricature. Vulture called it “an embarrassing performance by a great actor.” Perhaps. But it’s his only Oscar win. So it goes at #9 of our list.
#9 – ‘Insomnia’
If “The Insider” can be considered the last great Pacino film, “Insomnia” was the last very good Pacino film with a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Robin Williams as a villain, it’s a remake of a Norwegian film and tells the tale of two L.A. detectives investigating a murder in a small Alaskan town. Without giving anything away, Pacino carries a lot of mental baggage in the film and can’t sleep in the land of the midnight sun—hence the “Insomnia.”
Pacino really lives the part. Sure, we can all act tired from a lack of rest, but Pacino’s weariness is written into his eyes, his body and his voice. Throughout the tension in the movie, you’re pleading with the screen, "Please give this guy a nap!"
And Robin Williams admirably goes toe-to-toe with Sleepy Al. And that matters too. Because Pacino is at his best when he works alongside other formidable big screen foes.
#8 – ‘…And Justice For All’
The courtroom satire is pure 1970s melodrama meant to shock and thrill the audience. Directed by Norman Jewison with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, Al Pacino portrays a defense attorney who must defend a judge who may have brutally assaulted and raped a young woman.
He was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Dustin Hoffman in another legal drama, “Kramer vs. Kramer.” However, while “Kramer vs. Kramer” played it straight, “…And Justice for All” was excessive in its defamation of the American legal system.
You want proof? Watch Pacino in his opening statement in the courtroom near the end of the film. It’s the famous 8:00 scene that includes the iconic rant, "You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order!"
That scene alone landed the movie on this list. If you only watch one scene from these Pacino movies, watch that scene. It’s over-the-top. It’s Pacino tapping all that rage he hid under his tight suits in “The Godfather: Part II.” And it’s glorious.
# 7 - 'The Insider'
Director Michael Mann’s masterpiece about a whistleblower in the tobacco industry received seven Academy Award nominations including a Best Actor nomination for Russell Crowe. Critics raved about the script and its cast, which included Al Pacino who played “60 Minutes” producer, Lowell Bergman.
While Russell Crowe was uncomfortable and muted, Pacino was all bravado, pushing and prodding his prey to speak the truth and bring down the big bad guys from Big Tobacco. It was considered a classic Pacino performance—which filmmakers and audiences have taken for granted for decades.
#6 – ‘Serpico’
In between the two "Godfather" movies, Al Pacino starred in “Serpico,” where he plays an exemplary New York City cop who exposes corruption in the NYPD and paid the ultimate price for his integrity. The role earned Pacino a Golden Globe win and an Academy Award nomination, his first for a lead role.
It was also an Oscar nominated script, directed by the great Sidney Lumet. Based on a true story, the movie covers 12 years in the life of Frank Serpico and Pacino’s performance slowly evolves over the course of two hours (along with his flourishing facial hair).
Like “…And Justice for All,” he plays a good man fighting against a corrupt system. But here his fury is more controlled. He’s a lion in street clothing, coiled up like a spring, with nervous energy and righteous anger simmering under the surface in every scene.
In the mid-1970s, Pacino was already building an eclectic career for himself in Hollywood. He was still years away from coasting on his famous name. At this point, he was still creating it.
#5 – ‘The Godfather: Part II’
Some may combine two (or perhaps three) "Godfather" movies as one big role for Al Pacino as the iconic Michael Corleone. But we’re splitting them up because “The Godfather” was intended as a singular film. However, it was such a huge success Paramount pressured Francis Ford Coppola into creating a sequel (while giving him complete autonomy). So “The Godfather: Part II” was born: with the origin story of Vito Corleone taken from Mario Puzo’s book, and Michael Corleone’s consolidation of power story written directly for the screen by Coppola and Puzo.
The film won six Academy Awards including a Best Supporting Actor award for Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone. But no win for Pacino. He was nominated for a Best Actor award but lost to Art Carney for his role in “Harry and Tonto.” It remains one of the Academy’s greatest blunders.
There is nothing negative to say about Pacino’s performance. The #5 ranking is more about petty politics. The first film follows Michael as the idealistic war hero who becomes a cold-blooded killer in the family business. In the sequel, it’s a well-established role that chills with its intensity and menace. It’s lived-in. It’s stable. In the first film, he lost his soul. In the second film, he buries it deeper.
Still many will argue that Pacino’s performance in “The Godfather: Part II” is his best work. They’re not wrong.
#4 – ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’
“Glengarry Glen Ross” follows the lives of four desperate real estate agents who are willing to conduct several unethical and illegal acts in order to sell, sell, sell. The dialogue is explosive as they lie, bribe and threaten each other throughout the film. And no one escapes the movie without a thorough, verbal thrashing from someone else.
Al Pacino plays Ricky Roma, the smooth-talking, top dog of the firm. Surprisingly, he was the only actor nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, because “Glengarry Glen Ross” truly contains one of the best casts ever assembled. In addition to Pacino, there’s also Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce and Alec Baldwin.
David Mamet wrote the screenplay (based on his Pulitzer Prize winning play) and it crackles with some of the most vicious dialogue ever recorded on film. And Pacino relishes in it, savouring every word and spitting out every ruthless intention.
Tragically, Al Pacino won his only Oscar for “Scent of a Woman” instead. Released in the same year, the make-good Oscar should have been awarded for “Glengarry Glen Ross.” And yes, I said, “tragically.”
#3 – ‘Donnie Brasco’
In some ways, Al Pacino’s role in “Donnie Brasco” was like a natural evolution of Michael Corleone from the first two “Godfather” movies (without the need for the forgettable “Godfather: Part III”). Here, the menace of Michael is replaced by the desperate doom of Lefty Ruggiero, a Mob middleman who knows his best days (if he had any) are long behind him.
Based on a true story, Paul Attanasio wrote the Oscar nominated script. It was a project that had been kicked around Hollywood for a few years but was shelved for a while because of the huge success of that other mobster movie, “Goodfellas.” When the film was finally released in 1997, Al Pacino was the only A-lister that was still attached to the project—and he remained the film’s melancholy heart and tortured soul.
As evidenced in this list, Al Pacino plays well with others, whether in an ensemble or in a duet. Here, his on-screen bond with his mob protégé (and FBI informant), Johnny Depp, the titular Donnie Brasco, is undeniable, believable and ultimately heartbreaking.
#2 – 'Dog Day Afternoon'
They just don't make them like this anymore. Directed by Sidney Lumet, "Dog Day Afternoon" is based on the true story about a desperate, but charming, thief named Sonny who attempts to rob a busy bank in order to pay for his male lover's gender reassignment surgery. Things go awfully wrong while his hostages, and the locals gathered outside the building, eventually support him in his bumbling endeavour.
It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Pacino, but won only one for Best Original Screenplay. Released a year after "The Godfather: Part II," "Dog Day Afternoon" returns Al Pacino to his fiery form seen in "Serpico" and the first "Godfather."
He is at odds with himself throughout the entire movie, desperate then sympathetic; furious then mournful; bombastic then painfully shy. His eyes never stop burning and his body never stops moving as he lurches from one bad decision to another. And yet you can't help rooting for him... while the pit of your stomach tells you things will probably end very badly for him. In "The Godfather" films, Michael gained control while losing his soul. In "Dog Day Afternoon," Sonny never had control and loses everything.
#1 – ‘The Godfather’
No other role has defined Al Pacino’s Hollywood career more than Michael Corleone from “The Godfather.” The same can be said for its director, Francis Ford Coppola, who was only “picked” by Paramount after a dozen other directors turned them down!
Marlon Brando was the first big name cast as Vito Corleone and he went on to win the Best Actor award at the Oscars (which he refused). The last significant role to be cast was his favourite son, Michael.
The film was a game-changer in Hollywood. Previous films about the mafia usually had the perspective of a police officer or a victim or a love interest. “The Godfather” took us inside the family and instead projected the outside world as corrupt and untrustworthy. And Al Pacino, as Michael the war hero and reluctant son, was our entry point.
It was his story arc—from passive outcast to vengeful tyrant—that dominated the film. So much so, Pacino didn’t attend the Oscar ceremony because he believed he was nominated in the wrong category as Best Supporting Actor. He’s not wrong. (Remember that Vito died in the film and spent a lot of time off screen in the hospital…) And it ultimately didn’t matter because Joel Grey won the award for his master of ceremonies role in “Cabaret.” But the master of his craft in 1972 was really Al Pacino whose spotlight only burned brighter after his doomed descent into the heart of darkness that is “The Godfather.”