Martin Scorsese is unique among directors, among artists and among people. His influence over the last fifty years of world cinema is immeasurable and his impact upon the film industry in general is too great to summarise here. His films tell tales of violence and redemption, evoking such universal themes that they hardly ever fail to draw one in. He uses his personal experience to get into the minds of his characters and convey each thematic and emotional aspect of said stories. Regardless of genre, time or place he always seems able to deliver something breathtakingly unique.
Going his career has been a unique experience. I’ve always admired Scorsese and long held him as one of my favourite artists in the history of cinema, but upon reviewing all 24 of his films I have noticed parallels, recurring elements their universal appeal in a way I never have before. His style never substitutes for a lack of substance and his directorial trademarks are not always as noticeable as others, but you can bet you will miss them when they are no longer there.
With so many masterpieces to his name, narrowing down the top ten was difficult and naturally there are a number of honourable mentions to name. ‘The Age of Innocence’ deserves a place in any conversation about Scorsese’s finest for its brilliant construction, impeccably detailed design and emotionally riveting storyline as well as more than a few terrific performances. Then there is the criminally underrated ‘Brining Out the Dead’ which is a great descent into madness and insanity through one crazy night for an isolated ambulance driver, creating an emotionally engaging and viscerally involving movie. The imperfect epic with too many perfect moments to ignore in the form of ‘Gangs of New York’. Speaking of the directors collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio (obviously there will be a number of those to mention in the actual top ten) one cannot overlook ‘The Aviator’ for its brilliantly crafted portrayal of a genius’ fall into depression and obsession. I was tempted to out ‘Silence’ in the top ten but I feel more time is needed to make an accurate call over where it stand, though it is certainly an exceptional film.
I debated between this and any of my honourable mentions for the tenth spot on this list. But I feel where ‘Hugo’ excels the most is that it displays just how versatile Scorsese is as a director. The fact that he was able to defy all expectations this late into his career and make a beautifully crafted, hugely entertaining and emotionally touching children’s film (this is the same person who brought us that bloodbath at the opening of ‘Gangs of New York’). But ‘Hugo’ is far more complex than the label of a children’s film would give it credit for.
It integrates modern innovations with classical techniques perfectly, utilising the advancements of the age but never forgetting to connect with its cinematic roots. Such an ideology is fitting for the story given that ‘Hugo’ morphs from an adventure/mystery into one of the most brilliant love letters to cinema ever committed to film. It treats its characters as genuine human beings but never loses its sense of awe and wonder, leaving you in no doubt that the movie comes from a place of passion and adoration. The director wants his audience to look back on the early pioneers of cinema with the same wonder that he does, and ‘Hugo’ evokes that perfectly.
9: The Last Temptation of Christ
The most controversial film ever made, sparking boycotts, death threats and one or two terrorist attacks. But of course the ironic thing about Scorsese’s 1988 religious epic was that it was a beautifully thoughtful and contemplative movie regarding the subject of Jesus. Scorsese made a bold move in making a figure of that nature as achingly human as he did here, but like all of his films he understood that at its heart this was a story of guilt and redemption. It allows the viewer to see their own strengths and weaknesses within Christ himself and in a world where every religious movie is a pandering, unsubtle piece of veiled propaganda ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ remains gorgeously refreshing to this day.
It may be a far cry from his traditional New York but Scorsese films the expansive desert environments with such clarity, scope and intimacy that it almost defies belief. He turns the very landscape into a character to reflect the emotions of the people that occupy it. Scorsese’s direction is always in perfect synchronicity with the screenplay, informing and furthering the characters while reflecting the deeper themes of the story when necessary. But despite all the grandeur is simply excels as a fascinating character study about one conflicted person whose role in the world is bigger than himself.
8: After Hours
It is hard to believe a movie as great as ‘After Hours’ was born out of such desperation. When funding for ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was pulled out from under him at the last minute, Scorsese set about creating a more commercially viable film to convince a studio to finance his passion project. The energy that courses through ‘After Hours’ is astonishing, propelling every plot thread, every character motivation and every bizarre outcome. Scorsese balances such a variation of tone by bringing forth a movie that is so wonderfully whimsical but so darkly twisted. It turns its humour into horror and vice versa.
In some ways that is what helps ‘After Hours’ transcend any basic genre. Yes it is a comedy on the surface, the nightmarish tension and moments of high drama are all keenly felt. Scorsese glides through the plot at a great pace but never too fast that he loses the moment and each emotion that can be wrung out of it. The characters and scenarios are all so brilliantly memorable despite nearly all of them being relatively brief. Like the main character you can feel the director’s frustration at not being able to accomplish what he wants, but it sure is entertaining to watch him try.
7: The Departed
The movie that won Scorsese his long overdue Oscar for Best Director. Few directors can make a crime drama quite as well as Scorsese and ‘The Departed’ is a terrific example of this. He takes a plot that in anyone else’s hands could have descended into convolution but underpins it with the same themes he has practised for his entire career. Those themes of guilt, identity and redemption, they help us latch onto the characters of ‘The Departed’ and see this morally bleak story for what it is, an exploration of how we hide our true identities.
The direction of ‘The Departed’ takes a more grounded and efficient route than Scorsese’s other efforts but as the stakes continue to build, the tension steadily rises and we descend further into the twisted labyrinth that is the films plot this choice becomes one of the films strongest assets. All the while we are treated to watching one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled with Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, a properly insane Jack Nicholson, Mark Walberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winston and Alec Baldwin. On top of that it is so unbelievably entertaining, to a point where just speaking about it now makes me want to watch it again this instant.
6: The King of Comedy
Of all the damaged characters Scorsese has crafted over his career none of them have been as pathetically entertaining as Rupert Pupkin. What distinguishes Pupkin is how Scorsese defies convention with this character study and does not even allow any cathartic release here, remaining just as painful and wounded as when it first started. But despite his horrifying acts Scorsese is still able to turn Pupkin into a relatable character because like all of us he has hopes and dreams, but his means of reaching them are a bit more extreme than that of an ordinary person. With Robert De Niro at the centre of it all, naturally we are treated to a masterful performance that breathes life into this.
‘The King of Comedy’ cuts so close to the bone of our celebrity culture and obsession that it is easy to be put off by how outright disturbing it can be. Despite containing very little violence it connects with viewers on a visceral level and unnerves them right to their very core. Make no mistake, ‘The King of Comedy’ is a funny movie to a certain degree, but do not be at all surprised if you find yourself squirming as you laugh, because in the process of making you observe this character Scorsese makes you empathise with him, and then it becomes agonizingly painful to watch his irreparable flaws.
5: The Wolf of Wall Street
Nothing is done by halves in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. From the way it depicts the immorality its characters revel in to its cut throat commentary about capitalism and the way it reflects our own adoration for such behaviour. Rather than laying out a simplistic moral compass to remind the audience “this is bad, remember” he completely adopts the viewpoint of Jordan Belfort, a man who understands his own detachment from morality and doesn’t care at all. It is filled with Scorsese’s best stylistic trademarks, being more expressionistic than realistic. Even if the events in the film were exaggerated (which by all accounts they are not) I have no doubt that is what it felt like to experience it.
To add to the list of what ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ gave us it allowed Scorsese’s long-time collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio to deliver is best performance ever, brimming with energy and ferocity from start to finish yet somehow integrating a clear arc in the process. But despite the scenery chewing performance from DiCaprio the supporting cast never get lost amid the chaos, with each player standing out brilliantly. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is a film of excess that studies excess. Its scope, runtime and atmosphere are gargantuan but Scorsese handles the scale perfectly and uses it to make a broad yet intimate comment on what it means to observe it.
4: Mean Streets
It was Scorsese’s third film that set the trend for the young director, a style and approach that he would return to time and time again throughout his career. For that reason, regardless of quality it deserves a place here. But the good thing is when it comes to said quality ‘Mean Streets’ is a masterpiece. It contrasts two very different yet intrinsically linked characters and uses their own struggles to convey its deeper themes of guilt and violence. The two characters in question are brilliantly brought to life by Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, each one evoking a great sense of depth but doing so with two completely different archetypes.
‘Mean Streets’ also stands as one of the best examples for Scorsese’s talent of blending style and grit. The streets of New York never fail to feel grounded and menacing but the slow motion, distorted colour and low angle shots help inject such a sense of vibrancy into the movie. If anything, each element complements the other as much as it contrasts it. The whole was shot on a minuscule budget, with inexperienced actors and despite New York was actually filmed on the disguised streets of L.A. But with it Scorsese established himself as an important voice in the new age of American cinema, with all the tragedy, violence and personal provocation to go.
3: Taxi Driver
“We have all felt as lonely as Travis Bickle. Most of us are better at dealing with it”. With that statement Roger Ebert summarised everything Scorsese wanted to convey in his 1976 masterpiece. If ‘Mean Streets’ set an outline for Scorsese’s career, ‘Taxi Driver’ defined it. The damaged an isolated characters searching for redemption, the violence of society, the haunting descent into insanity and loss of control as well as a great Robert De Niro performance, they have all come to be staples of Scorsese’s work.
By adapting Paul Scharder’s masterful script, Scorsese tapped into a form of subjective filmmaking that I don’t think has ever been recreated to such a great degree. ‘Taxi driver’ plays out like an epic novel in the way it gives you an insight into Travis Bickle’s mind and observes the world from his perspective. He uses stylistics to adopt a POV mind set. He implants into Travis’s own subjective view of New York while also allowing the viewer to see the bigger picture. We can see his damaged, painfully complex psyche. We see his various obsessions as thinly veiled attempts to be part of a society he loathes and we watch his descent with an ever present sense of dread. Then there is the ending, which is either the redemption Travis has been seeking or nothing but a wishful fantasy in his final moments. We’ll never know which one and it is better that way, it means his story will always resonate.
The greatest mob movie ever made. With ‘GoodFellas’ Scorsese did not just display a great character study, or a realistic portrayal of organised crime or an epic story of a rise and fall. With ‘GoodFellas’ he captured an entire way of life and placed us within it as if we had lived there our whole lives. Every directorial move only draws you deeper into the world and gives you a higher understanding of the men we are watching. As he traces the mob through three decades of activity he gradually shifts from showing us the allure of the business to its destructive powers. At the start Henry Hill is all powerful and Scorsese’s leisurely tone reflects that, but as his world crumbles around him and his mind is fried by drugs and fears of the Feds closing in Scorsese creates a sense of tension that is utterly palpable.
So on its most basic level the first half of ‘GoodFellas’ is about establishing the Mafia myth, and the second held proceeds to destroy it in favour of a cruel reality. But along the way we are treated to so many memorable moments and characters that it is difficult to name them all. Joe Pesci’s frighteningly temperamental mobster, that haunting montage of the bodies piling up as allies are turned enemies and that glorious one shot of the Copacabana that still stands as one of cinema’s most awe inspiring moments. It is remarkable that a film as indescribably perfect as ‘GoodFellas’ lands at the runner up spot, but that speaks a lot about the kind of director Martin Scorsese is.
1: Raging Bull
In 1979 Scorsese may have been highly regarded as a filmmaker, but he was in the midst of a personal crisis. Caught in the throes of a cocaine addiction that nearly cost him his life, Scorsese’s friend and collaborator Robert De Niro convinced the director to adapt the story of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta as a means of sobering up. Out of that came Scorsese’s definitive magnum opus, the greatest acting performance ever put to film and one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.
‘Raging Bull’ represents the culmination of everything Martin Scorsese is as an artist. It is yet another character study of guilt, redemption and violence. It paints a portrait of a man crushed by his own paranoia and unable to distinguish the real world from the boxing ring. It is as brutal on an emotional level as it is on a visceral one. Of course, conveying that emotion directly to the audience is De Niro himself. He famously gained 60 pounds to portray the boxer later in life but rather than let his altered physicality to the acting for him De Niro transformed himself in every way imaginable, somehow provoking empathy in a man with such a twisted sense of judgement and crippling paranoia.
Scorsese once finds that all important balance between style and grit but never has it been more perfectly executed than ‘Raging Bull’. His fight scenes in particular are more expressionistic than realistic but contain such brutality that it becomes viscerally unnerving. His scenes in the ring are artful and violent poems, conveying so much about character, atmosphere and theme. The scenes outside of the ring are even more interesting. They deconstruct a man to his most primal level and examine his flaws in such an unflinching light. La Motta’s story is rendered as complex, as painful and as heart breaking as cinema can be.