One of the biggest box office cash-ins in Hollywood today is also one of the boldest talents. The career of Leonardo DiCaprio has had many growing pains, but now that he’s grown up and knows exactly what he wants out of his career, he appears unstoppable. His gift is to take us inside the often harrowing mind of the male psyche by manipulating and subverting the things that make people sympathize with it. He often yearns for connection in his films, whether it be from an unrequited love (Inception, Shutter Island) or just a human to be normal around (The Departed), he takes us to these places with ferocious skill and unbreakable humanity. Rarely does he crack a smile these days, but that makes them all the more meaningful when he does. If there is any hope that the art house can continue to have a big budget, it’s because stars like him appreciate the art they work in, and not just the huge salary it gives them.
J. Edgar– Though he’s never won an Oscar, this may be his year in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. Not only is the biopic a goldmine for any actor looking for a trophy, but DiCaprio also does his best work in this one. Eastwood’s off-kilter deconstruction of the genre’s conventions still allows for a performance that registers on a deeply emotional level. As the complicated former director of FBI, DiCaprio shows us a man using personal repression as an excuse to blackmail politicians, invade privacy and forever change how we gather intelligence.
Revolutionary Road– Suburban repression is another familiar story that DiCaprio happily inhabits with a grueling, intense portrayal. Opposite Kate Winslet, these two achieve performances that showcase just how far they’ve come since Titanic. The actors are the only real reason to see the movie, but DiCaprio’s performance as Frank builds to such a devastating climax that it lifts the movie up with it.
Aviator– Another unconventional biopic about a complicated man, Martin Scorsese allows DiCaprio to give his showiest performance in one of his films. As the reclusive genius Howard Hughes, he travels through the decades from initial inventive spark to his later madness. Like Revolutionary Road, the movie itself got mixed reviews, but DiCaprio’s performance helped lift up the uneven story.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?– Besides a brief turn on Growing Pains, this turn as the mentally challenged brother of Johnny Depp’s Gilbert is what DiCaprio is known most for pre-Titanic. He scored his first Oscar nomination by giving an honest, deeply felt performance in a movie filled with raw feelings and difficult emotions.
The Departed– DiCaprio’s blending ability among a talented ensemble is never more apparent than in Martin Scorsese’s Boston gangster romp. He wisely chooses not to steal the show as Billy Costigan (that was Jack Nicholson’s job here), but still shows the smoldering intensity that comes with being a rat inside a violent crimelord’s entourage.