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Ranking: The 5 Best Leonardo DiCaprio Performances! (Minus The Revenant)

Updated on January 10, 2016

The Revenant - Finally, an Oscar for DiCaprio?

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DiCaprio Movies: From Growing Pains to Titanic...

There are few celebrities quite as loved and recognised as Leonardo DiCaprio. Born in California, the diverse actor cut his teeth on the 'coming of age' sitcom Growing Pains in the mid 1980s. You would be forgiven if you assumed that DiCaprio was the lead character on that shows, but he actually was nothing more than a support character (Kirk Cameron, of all people, was the lead) and DiCaprio does not even feature on the sitcoms IMDB page.

DiCaprio's first role in a film followed that of Johnny Depp, with a role in a horror movie. While Mr. Depp stared in one of the greatest slasher flicks of all time, DiCaprio was in Critters III (Kristine Peterson)...

The 1990s is when the world, finally, took notice of Leo, with a series of highly acclaimed performance in properties like What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (Lasse Hallström) and This Boy's Life (Michael Caton-Jones) (staring opposite Robert De Niro). Towards the end of the decade, DiCaprio was propelled into the fantasies of every teenage girl with a series of heart throb roles in Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann) and Titanic (James Cameron). Despite both of those releases doing relatively well, DiCaprio failed to really distinguish himself as a lead actor (and his performance were serviceable rather than brilliant).

After a series of flops, Martin Scorsese cheery picked DiCaprio to be his new De Niro. After a fantastic 2002, with staring roles in Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg) and Gangs of New York (Scorses), DiCaprio has slowly built himself a filmography that could make any Hollywood legend jealous.

When it comes to this list, the aim is to point out the best individual performances, rather than movies themselves. Fortunately, the quality of DiCaprio's performance seems to correlate highly with the quality of the property.

5. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)

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Calvin Candie

Django Unchained is not one of Tarantino's best movies (although it is still very good) but he did manage to put together a highly talented cast that seemed to have a blast shooting the deranged Western.

And nobody is enjoying himself more than Leonardo DiCaprio. His Calvin Candie was a genuine first for him, an actual villain. Not someone who is kind of in the wrong but still likeable (Catch Me If You Can), no, his Calvin remains one of the most detestable and punchable characters in recent cinematic history. DiCaprio was not on screen for very long, but he made every single second count.

Going into Django Unchained, I could not really imagine myself hating DiCaprio. He was just so likeable and charming in everything he was ever in (even crap like The Beach (Danny Boyle)), that I figured he would end being a likeable villain. But my fears proved completely unfounded, I hated DiCaprio's character with such a passion, that I actually yelped with happiness when he was killed.

This performance can be rather cartoon-ish at times, but there is a lot of depth behind his Calvin. He is not just racist for the sake of the plot, the audience sees enough to understand why he is the way he is. That should be equally credited to DiCaprio's immaculate performance and Tarantino's flawless writing.

4. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese

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Teddy Daniels

Shutter Island was Scorsese and DiCaprio's fourth collaboration and strongest, by that point (in terms of performance). This was the performance that a lot of people were anxiously waiting for DiCaprio to give under the guidance of the master.

While The Departed was entertaining as anything else released around the time, DiCaprio's performance failed to really stand out much due to the hugely impressive cast. Shutter Island was DiCaprio's show from the very first second and it showcases what a subtle and intelligent actor he has the ability to be.

I do not want to ruin the mind-bending reveal, so I'll just describe his character as the stereotypical cop with a twist. This is a performance that can only really be appreciated on a second viewing.

At first, DiCaprio comes off as rather uninspired. We've seen this cop in millions of other films, and done better. When the twist is revealed, the whole performance falls under a new light.


3. J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)

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J. Edgar Hoover

Eastwood's J. Edgar is a flawed film. Not one of the director's best releases and would not even crack DiCaprio's 10 best films. However, like I said in the introduction, this list is not pointing out DiCaprio's best films but his best performances. J. Edgar is worth watching just for him.

DiCaprio has taken quite a few roles that allow him to step in the shoes of famous historical figures, arguably none bigger than the FBI director. It is challenging to be able to pull off that type of character and have audiences see you as him. DiCaprio is, also, instantly recognisable know a days, which makes it even more challenging.

There is not a single second of this movie were DiCaprio is on screen. It is always, and I mean always, J. Edgar Hoover. The emotions, his attitude, the delivery and the personality screamed the title character. This was a completely different performance to Inception (Christopher Nolan) which it followed, and although that film is significantly better, this is the superior DiCaprio performance.

2. What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (Lasse Hallström)

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Arnie Grape

Child actors rarely give great performances. The best one can hope for is an adequate showcase that does not detract from the movie. DiCaprio's turn as Arnie Grape was one worthy of an Oscar.

Although What's Eating Gilbert Grape? is definitely Johnny Depp's film (and it is one of his best performances as well), DiCaprio had the harder role. Mental illness is never easy to portray on screen, since it can quickly came across as insensitive or over the top.

Remember, this was in the 1990s, were awareness on certain mental conditions was still limited. To see an actor this young, take on a role with so much attached to it, and knock it out of the park demonstrated the potential DiCaprio had, even at such a young age.

Arnie Grape was the role that made the world take notice of Leonardo DiCaprio. It made us realize that he had the potential to go places.

The final film on the list is the one were that potential became realized.

1. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese)

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Howard Hughes

The Aviator is only my fourth favourite Scorsese / DiCaprio collaboration. It is not a film I particularly seek out (even though it is extremely well made) but out of all of DiCaprio's roles, this is the one were the potential found in Arnie Grape finally was achieved.

Gangs of New York was the first step to redemption after a series of very weak projects. It showed that DiCaprio could, potentially, make the jump from romantic hearth throb to genuine movie star.

Catch Me If You Can built on that performance but it was not enough to shake of that Titanic residue.

The Aviator is when DiCaprio became the actor he is seen as today. He was nominated for Best Performance By A Lead Actor and he has continued to build on it since 2004.



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    • Diego Esperante profile image

      Diego Esperante 23 months ago from Mexico

      Nice list. My personal favorite is his performance in "The Wolf of Wall Street."