By Dalton Ross and Chris Nashawaty
Updated June 28, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

True Romance 1993
As the sadistic hitman Virgil in Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino’s crime film, Gandolfini displayed the first hints of the hair-trigger menace he would later become famous for on The Sopranos. His brutal fight scene with Patricia Arquette is almost too much to take.

A Civil Action 1998
One of Gandolfini’s most overlooked performances is in Steven Zaillian’s superb legal drama about the human cost of toxic-waste dumping. As a witness motivated by conscience, he got the chance to show that there were hidden depths beneath the imposing surface.

The Sopranos, ”I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” 1999
After hearing his mother talk about having him whacked, Tony confronts her in the hospital. ”Ma, I know what you did,” Tony hisses, pressing against her oxygen mask. No one could nail that mix of rage and psychotic glee quite like Gandolfini.

The Sopranos, ”Mr. & Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request…” 2006
Gandolfini’s quiet intensity dominates as Tony silently decides he must sucker punch his muscly bodyguard to prove his power, and later smiles to himself in the bathroom mirror — in between vomiting up blood.

In the Loop 2009
Armando Iannucci’s satire about the run-up to war in the Middle East is like Dr. Strangelove for the modern era, with Gandolfini as a general who unleashes arias of profanity.

Where the Wild Things Are 2009
As the voice of Carol, the saddest and scariest beastie in Spike Jonze’s interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s bedtime classic, Gandolfini makes you feel the disillusionment, confusion, and anger that come with childhood dreams.

Zero Dark Thirty 2012
In Kathryn Bigelow’s vérité account of the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, Gandolfini offers a brief but pivotal turn as CIA director Leon Panetta, weighing the cost of putting soldiers at risk by acting on what could be the hunch of a zealot. You can see the buckling weight of the decision in his eyes.