His first films rarely strayed from the thriller/horror genre, but you can still see his touch, and themes he would explore later — even in Sisters, a flawed but interesting low-budget early effort.
Of course, De Palma also turns out Hollywood films that don't have his thematic stamp of meta commentary and voyeurism or flashy style (split screens, other creative editing and showy camera work). Unfortunately this occasionally results in some hackwork: I really enjoyed Mission to Mars and Snake Eyes when I was 15, but I'm not sure if I would be so kind in 2011. But his craftsmanship has also produced some of the best blockbusters in recent history.
This AVClub's primer on De Palma (http://www.avclub.com/articles/brian-de-palma,52964/) put exactly what I liked about his work into words better than I can. My above comments are rooted there. He's easily the most unsung and often misunderstood filmmaker of his generation.
It seems a bit convoluted to include De Palma-De Palma films and De Palma-Hollywood films in the same list, but here we go. My ranking, with the category each falls into labeled as either D-D or D-H:
1.) Blow Out (D-D)
This finally came out on home video this month after being essentially unavailable in the US for years. Blow Out is the rare film that improves significantly on the one that inspired it —Antonioni 's wildly over-praised '60s breakthrough Blow Up — by adding layers of plot and suspense without losing substance.
2.) Scarface (D-H)
I don't care how many MTVcribs have this poster. I don't care how many wanna-be goons butcher Pacino's already butchered "Cuban" accent. Scarface is one of the most ridiculously entertaining movies of all time.
3.) The Untouchables (D-H)
You already know why this is good. But I can't stop talking. De Palma loves movies. He fucking loves movies. And nowhere is his enthusiasm for entertainment more apparent than here. Even when it's corny, it's endearing.
4.) Mission Impossible (D-H)
5.) Casualties Of War (D-D
This Vietnam war drama allows De Palma to mix his new-found Hollywood budget and casting options, with all of his pet themes.
6.) Carlito's Way (D-H)
7.) Body Double (D-D)
His most glorious pulp-trash, it's classed up a bit with Hitchcockian craftsmanship, and more than a few nods to Vertigo.
8.) Femme Fatale (D-D)
Critics loved it or hated (more of them hated it), but it's a rock-solid neo-noir that again has a go at Vertigo and Rear Window.
9.) Dressed to Kill (D-D)
This was his second film after Carrie, and you can see him push his voyeuristic tendencies with less restraint. Dressed To Kill uses Psycho as its jumping off point, but its adherence to thriller/horror tradition creates a a few by-the-numbers plot points and reveals that aren't that revealing. It's still heads and shoulders above nearly any other horror movie from the era, and legitimately gutsy in some of its sexual content.
Mission to Mars (D-H)Snake Eyes (D-H)
The Black Dahlia (D-H)
Have not seen
Carrie (this is one of those huge, embarrassing cultural blind spots. Though at a certain point, if you haven't seen Carrie by the age of 25, it's nearly pointless to do so — it's been referenced and commented on so many times that I know all of the plot and shocks without seeing it. It's ruined for me.)
Phantom Of The Paradise
Bonfire of the Vanities