best film:   The Godfather is Al Pacino’s best film with Part II close behind and Heat not far in the rearview either. The next tier down includes Dog Day Afternoon and then Pacino’s big 2019 with both Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (where his contribution is very minor) and The Irishman (where his contribution is substantial). Of these six films, Dog Day Afternoon is far and away the film most dependent on Pacino to carry it. Pacino is the story arc in The Godfather and though it is the story of the entire family, Marlon Brando spends less time on screen than Pacino and the greatest display of acting in the film (there is a debate to be had here – the film is loaded with great scenes) is the close-up at dinner with the noise escalating as the intensity escalates – which belongs to Pacino of course.


Al Pacino at the age of thirty-two (32) here in The Godfather in 1972


best performance:  The Godfather Part II. Three options vie for the top slot here. Dog Day Afternoon is Pacino completely unhinged (okay maybe not completely – because if this is completely unhinged – then what is Scarface?). As Sonny, Pacino is frazzled, erratic, shouting, paranoid, drained. It is a knockout performance and would be a fine choice here. In the first Godfather, it is his Michael Corleone’s transformation that is tracked. It is hard to believe (but Pacino does it) that in three hours the guy in the army uniform sitting with Diane Keaton at the wedding is the same man getting his hand kissed and slamming the door on her at the end. Ultimately though, the serpent-like performance in The Godfather Part II that gets the nod as the single best performance of Pacino’s career. He is so cold blooded and internalizes most of the movie (which is extremely rare for Pacino in his filmography) but in a few key scenes he unleashes (the “you broke my heart” kiss scene with John Cazale, the Keaton fight) to great effect.


Pacino opposite frequent collaborator John Cazale (they worked together in The Godfather, The Godfather Part II – pictured here, and Dog Day Afternoon)


stylistic innovations/traits:   Pacino started his career with one of the all-time runs from 1971 to 1975. This was the peak of The New Hollywood era – a phenomenal group of actors:  Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman –  and Pacino’s run matches or surpasses any of them. He is in six archiveable films in six years, but more than that, he gives one of the best performances of the year in… get this …1972, 1973, 1974 and 1975. He would never top that stretch for the rest of his career but there are some extraordinary collaborations with Brian De Palma (Scarface, Carlito’s Way) and Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) yet to come. Pacino has twenty-three (23) films in the archives with far less total film credits than peers like Nicholson or De Niro. In fact, Pacino only made five (5) films total in the 1980s. The depth in his resume is there. He is superb in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia  (the man was fantastic at playing exhaustion – Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) and Donnie Brasco – but there is no room for them in his top ten.



The Irishman in 2019 – Pacino is masterfully cast as Jimmy Hoffa. Joe Pesci’s character says in the text: “he likes to talk doesn’t he?” This is Pacino’s first film with Martin Scorsese. He is so alive here – making speeches and stubborn as a mule. It is stark contrast to Robert De Niro’s performance.  If De Niro outduels Pacino in Heat, clearly Pacino is superior here.


directors worked with: Francis Ford Coppola (3), Jerry Schatzberg (2), Sidney Lumet (2), Brian De Palma (2), Michael Mann (2), William Friedkin (1), Warren Beatty (1), Christopher Nolan (1), Mike Nichols (1), Steven Soderbergh (1), Quentin Tarantino (1), Martin Scorsese (1)


Pacino is going for it in Scarface – he does not land every punch he throws but it is still, overall, a victory for him. Ebert defends it as well (in a four-star review)- “What were Pacino’s detractors hoping for? Something internal and realistic?” This from Rob Gonsalves is masterfully put as well “Pacino, of course, goes way over the top and through the floor on the other side.” . The cast and crew surrounding Brian De Palma matches his brazen style and undeniable talent. The film is written by Oliver Stone, scored by Giorgio Moroder (these two back from winning Oscars in 1978 working with Alan Parker on Midnight Express), and acted by Al Pacino. The film is directed, written, scored and acted to the extreme – like Tony Montana himself – glorious excess.


top ten performances:

  1. The Godfather Part II
  2. The Godfather
  3. Dog Day Afternoon
  4. Scarface
  5. The Irishman
  6. The Insider
  7. Serpico
  8. Dick Tracy
  9. Heat
  10. Scarecrow


Pacino’s brilliant high-wire act in Dog Day Afternoon – the famous “Attica! Attica!” scene


archiveable films

1971- The Panic in Needle Park
1972- The Godfather
1973- Scarecrow
1973- Serpico
1974- The Godfather Part II
1975- Dog Day Afternoon
1979- …And Justice for All
1980- Cruising
1983- Scarface
1989- Sea of Love
1990- Dick Tracy
1990- The Godfather Part III
1992- Glengarry Glen Ross
1992- Scent of a Woman
1993- Carlito’s Way
1995- Heat
1997- Donnie Brasco
1999- The Insider
2002- Insomnia
2003- Angels in America
2007- Ocean’s Thirteen
2019- Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
2019- The Irishman