In a little less than a month (October 20), a new Martin Scorsese film adapted from David Grann’s bestseller will arrive in theaters. Killers Of The Flower Moon looks like a potential career-capping achievement — a three-and-a-half-hour, $200 million epic with an all-star cast and urgent subject matter about the corrupt roots of modern America. Incredibly, Scorsese will turn 81 the following month. At an age when most people his age (who aren’t running the country) are contemplating nursing home care, Marty is dreaming bigger than ever.
As I wait semi-patiently to see his latest work, I have felt compelled to revisit Scorsese’s older films. And this has reminded me that Martin Scorsese has been one of the towering artists of my life, as elemental to my love of cinema as Bob Dylan is to my love of music. Reviewing his films, I honestly believe he’s never made a movie that’s not worth watching. Some might be better than others, but there’s always something that moves, excites, or rattles me in a Martin Scorsese picture. It’s a body of work that constantly gives back whenever you choose to revisit it.
For this list of Scorsese films, I focused on his narrative features. I could write an entire separate column on his concert films and documentaries like The Last Waltz and Italianamerican. (He surely must be counted as one of the finest “rock film” directors ever.) But for now let’s rewatch these 26 movies.
26. Boxcar Bertha (1972)
The year is 1990. I am around 12 years old. One night I am up watching television when I stumble upon an American Masters documentary on PBS called Martin Scorsese Directs. I am familiar with the subject from reading the latest edition of Roger Ebert’s Home Movie Companion, because I am a nerd who is destined to sit by himself in a room while typing out his thoughts on art and pop culture for money.
I have read about Taxi Driver. I have read about Raging Bull. I have read about something called The King Of Comedy. Over and over, Roger Ebert tells me that Martin Scorsese is a genius. However, I still haven’t seen any of the guy’s films, and in a pre-internet world, getting a look at clips of his work interspersed with interviews is invaluable for a pre-teen budding cinephile. What’s even better is the behind-the-scenes footage of the new Scorsese film due out in the fall. It’s called Goodfellas, and I won’t see it for another year or two. (The particular work-in-progress scene from Goodfellas the documentary captures is the “you wasted eight fucking aprons on that guy” scene, which is only one of 137 quotable lines from the film.) When Goodfellas finally shows up on HBO, it will blow my mind and teach me what it is that a director does. The camera moves, the editing, the use of music — Martin Scorsese is the person who shows me how these visual storytelling techniques can permanently implant images in your hippocampus.
A pivotal moment in Martin Scorsese Directs occurs about 11 minutes in when Marty recalls a conversation about his Roger Corman-produced feature Boxcar Bertha with the iconic filmmaker John Cassavetes. (Like Scorsese, I know of Cassavetes — mostly from media reports of his death a year prior — but actually know-know almost nothing about him.) Scorsese talks about how the great man pulled him aside after seeing the picture, embraced his younger contemporary, and then flatly told Marty, “You just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.”
The point of this story is that Cassavetes inspired Scorsese to get out of the business of making low-rent exploitation cinema, and into the personal and Scorsese-esque realm of Mean Streets, his next movie and artistic breakthrough. But it’s also possible to glean from this anecdote the simplest possible message: Boxcar Bertha really is kind of a piece of shit. (By Martin Scorsese standards, anyway. I also kind of like it!)
25. New York, New York (1977)
The Scorsese you see in Martin Scorsese Directs is the beginning of the Scorsese we see today in interviews, in commercials with Tina Fey, in self-satirizing appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm, in children’s films as an animated puffer fish, and in cute TikTok videos with his daughter. The gregarious speed-talker who is as quick to laugh as he is to reference an arcane bit of film trivia. What should be noted is that this Scorsese is not the same as the pre-1990 Scorsese. That Scorsese is quieter, reticent, and infinitely more intense. That Scorsese is the guy dressed like the Prince Of Darkness while chatting with his pal Brian De Palma about Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles on The Dick Cavett Show in 1978. That Scorsese is about as far removed from his future “animated puffer fish” era as he will ever be.
There are two explanations for this. The first explanation is that when Marty became known as perhaps the most brilliant of the New Hollywood Movie Brats, it took this man — who grew up a lonely asthmatic isolated from the outside world in his boyhood bedroom — a long while to deal with the public’s love and scrutiny. Growing older helped. Stabilizing his home life and having another child in his senior years helped even more. Over time, he came into his own.
The second explanation is cocaine.
I don’t know when exactly Marty stopped snorting blow. If you’re a super-fan like myself who has done many YouTube deep dives seeking out all of his talk show appearances, you might have noticed that he appears to be grinding the hell out of his teeth during his first-ever appearance on Late Night With David Letterman in 1982. This coincided with what he later classified as one of the worst times of his life when he was in the midst of muddling through the making of The King Of Comedy after the grind of creating Raging Bull
However, I am confident about when he was snorting the most blow while on the job, and that is New York, New York. Even if you have never read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, it’s not hard to spot the influence of the Bolivian marching powder on Scorsese’s uncertain mix of old-time musical and modern realist drama. The scenes that go on endlessly, the histrionic performances that wobble incoherently (especially a never-worse Robert De Niro), the extreme indulgence for the sake of indulgence — New York, New York plays like a film that was directed by Henry Hill as he was being tracked by those police helicopters. While I like the idea of that kind of Scorsese film, as a viewing experience New York, New York must rank as one of his least watchable movies.
24. Shutter Island (2010)
The post-1990 Scorsese, from a public persona standpoint, is cuddlier. Think about Bong Joon Ho’s speech at the 2020 Oscars as he accepted the Best Director trophy — possibly the last pure and decent cultural moment before COVID — in which he touchingly paid tribute to the old man, inspiring a spontaneous standing ovation from an adoring industry. In that moment it was easy to forget that this kindly grandfather figure was treated like a prickly outsider by the Oscars throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when he was frequently set up to lose in the director category to handsome superstar actors making their debut features.
Of course, that dynamic finally changed in the aughts when Scorsese got his Oscar for The Departed. He was now a made man, finally. Four years after that film, he returned with one of his commercial projects, an old-school Hitchcockian potboiler adapted from a twisty-turny Dennis Lehane novel set in a 1950s mental hospital that looks like it was filmed on the same set as Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” video. And, like The Departed, it was a big box office hit, though in hindsight I suspect that many viewers (like me) confuse Leonardo DiCaprio’s (haunted by a dead wife) character from this film with Leo’s (haunted by a dead wife) character from another film released five months later, Inception.
23. Hugo (2011)
This film and Shutter Island are paired together in my mind as Scorsese’s “post-Oscar” duology. While they have little in common in terms of subject matter or tone, they are similarly waxy and remote, technically impressive but lacking in purpose or kinetic energy. (Marty’s next film, 2013’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, was the necessary “injection of piss and vinegar” reboot.) While I recognize the ways in which Hugo is a “personal” film — the precocious kid who sketches out little movies on paper points to Marty’s childhood, the appearance of Django Reinhardt alludes to his father’s love of the jazz guitarist — I put it here because it signifies my least favorite sort of Scorsese picture.
22. Kundun (1997)
I refer to the Scorsese pictures centered on little kids. I have a prejudice against his “little kid” films. Marty can throw anything else at me. He can put a guy’s head in a vice and I’m game. He can depict religious believers (or even Jesus Christ himself!) being ritualistically tortured and I can hang. He can even cast Cameron Diaz as a street-wise thief and I won’t object. But if a little kid is one of the top three or four characters in a Scorsese film, I suddenly get allergic. Apparently, my man Christopher Moltisanti does not share this particular prejudice, and I’m glad for him. But personally, I would not shout out this particular film outside of a semi-exclusive New Jersey nightclub.
21. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Kundun is typically grouped with The Last Temptation and Silence as Scorsese’s “religious” trilogy, though this strikes me as a narrow view of Scorsese’s engagement with the divine, which permeates all of his films going back to at least Mean Streets. It’s in that movie that Scorsese has Harvey Keitel voice what seems like a mission statement vis a vis his perception of spirituality: “The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart… your soul, the spiritual side. And, you know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.” That speaks to the pain in both The Last Temptation Of Christ and Silence, though not so much Kundun, which is a relatively serene experience.
I’m going to put Kundun in a different trilogy — it goes in my “little kid” category with Hugo and this film. Now, I realize how reductive it is to put Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in the “little kid” Scorsese subgenre. And I definitely enjoy it more than the other two “little kid” movies. Ellen Burstyn’s performance is heartfelt and authentic. Kris Kristofferson is tender and his beard is invitingly soft. The soundtrack includes Mott The Hoople and T. Rex, which tells me that Marty is a closet glam-rock head. And it demonstrates Marty’s range — he can make a touching film about a single mother living in the southwestern United States, which is the opposite in every way from the milieu of his previous film, Mean Streets.
The only thing I don’t like about Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is the kid. That kid has to be one of the most annoying pre-teens in film history. It’s that kid and the kid from Problem Child in a cage match for insufferable supremacy. To be clear: I’m not necessarily faulting child actor Alfred Lutter, as the kid is scripted to be an obnoxious little snot. For all I know, Lutter committed to the performance like De Niro locking into Jake La Motta. It’s possible he’s amazing in the role. But I loathe him just the same. I loathe him so much that when Kristofferson snaps and spanks the kid, it is the first and only instance of on-screen child abuse that gives me a measure of comfort.
Don’t judge me. This is the kind of hell I feel deep in my heart.
20. Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1967)
Routinely ranked as one of the three worst Scorsese films on lists like this. But I would rewatch it ahead of any of the films I have already mentioned.
There are two things I appreciate about Who’s That Knocking At My Door. The first is the music. Scorsese is rightly celebrated for his innovative and influential application of needle drops. But Mean Streets is wrongly regarded as the first demonstration of his mastery in that department. It actually begins here, with the credit sequence to Who’s That Knocking At My Door, when Scorsese scores a sequence in which street hoodlums beat up a helpless victim to the tune of “Jenny Take A Ride” by Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels. Is this as awesome as De Niro walking into the bar as “Jumping Jack Flash” blares on the soundtrack? Not quite. But it’s in the same ballpark.
There’s another scene in Who’s That Knocking At My Door where the protagonist J.R. (Harvey Keitel) flashes back to a sexual encounter, and it’s shot like a pretentiously campy “art film” exercise set to “The End” by The Doors. It’s amateurish and funny in a manner that is absolutely not intentional. But that’s the second thing I appreciate about this moive: It is Scorsese showing you his drafts folder. You see the roots of his greatness while being reminded that even Martin Scorsese had a gawky period as a filmmaker.
19. Gangs Of New York (2002)
His first film with Leo. At the time the partnership seemed slightly cynical on Marty’s part if you happened to be a snob about him working with the teen idol from Titanic. If his union with De Niro was predicated on the leading man losing himself in his characters — by gaining weight, growing a stupid mustache, carving a mohawk into his dome, whatever it took — then the collaboration with Leo would lean more into the star’s indefatigable charisma. In that way, Marty-Leo is akin to Scorsese’s beloved pairing of John Ford and John Wayne, which he referenced directly in Who’s That Knocking At My Door and indirectly in scores of other films.
My rewatch of Gangs for this column was much better than I expected, and it had a lot to do with how my perception of DiCaprio has changed in the past 20 years. At the time of Gangs’ release, he couldn’t match the gravitas of Daniel Day-Lewis, who as the murderous Bill The Butcher was essentially workshopping his subsequent performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood five years early. But the stature that DiCaprio has gained since 2002 is magically infused into Gangs Of New York when you watch it now.
As for Cameron Diaz … I have already said my piece.
18. Bringing Out The Dead (1999)
In a 2020 podcast, Scorsese tells a funny story about Paul Schrader giving him feedback on Casino. Schrader complains to his friend and frequent collaborator about how people keep making three-hour films about terrible people, and that it needs to stop.
“So you didn’t like my movie?” Scorsese asks.
“Oh, I saw it three times,” Schrader replies.
Schrader is famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which makes his criticism odd. How many three-hour films about terrible people made in the last 40 years have been inspired by those specific films? How about “every single one?”
Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are the Beatles and Stones of contemporary epics about massive creeps. But Schrader also wrote The Last Temptation Of Christ, so I can see where he’s coming from. For the screenplay of Bringing Out The Dead, Schrader lands somewhere between Jesus and Travis Bickle, with a slight lean to the former.
17. “Life Lessons” from New York Stories (1989)
Schrader is the most famous writer to work regularly with Scorsese. But I also have a soft spot for Richard Price, a quintessential NYC novelist and screenwriter who penned The Color Of Money and Scorsese’s segment of the superstar director omnibus New York Stories. A joint effort with Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, New York Stories captured a moment with Scorsese was about to be professionally ascendent and the other two guys were about to go into decline. And you can see why in the short films they made. Whereas Coppola and Allen come off as smug icons doing lesser imitations of their best work, Scorsese positions himself like his protagonist — a self-hating and restless artist (Nick Nolte) who listens to Procol Harum’s “A White Shade Of Pale” on a loop in order to conjure a shred of inspiration — while at the same time skewering the man’s vanity and womanizing. The result is his most underrated film, a funny and insightful exploration of “Great Artist” mythology that nevertheless revels in the unexpected epiphanies of the artistic process.
16. Cape Fear (1991)
More Nolte! Scorsese takes the “the pain in hell has two sides” concept from Mean Streets and literalizes it in the form of stalker-revenge horror film about a crazy ex-con (De Niro) who exacts revenge on the defense attorney (Nolte) who shafted him 14 years earlier. The idea once again is that if you sin, you won’t make your penance in a church but in the streets. (Or on a houseboat with an obnoxious, cigar-chomping rapist.) Whether the final act works depends on whether the prospect of Martin Scorsese making a high-end slasher flick appeals to you. I know it appeals to me, though I concede that Cape Fear is more effective early on when De Niro is merely chewing scenery and not inhaling and digesting it. Still, it’s a shame that Scorsese — an avowed horror fan — hasn’t worked more in the genre. The man has an undeniable knack for giving tangible terrifying form to intangible unsettling anxieties.
15. The Aviator (2004)
Scorsese has said that he was so miserable during the final weeks of mixing and editing this movie that he almost quit filmmaking. He blamed interference from studio heads, and since this was his last movie with Miramax, it’s fair to presume that he was referring to Harvey Weinstein. Even for a bastard on the level of Weinstein, nearly driving Martin Scorsese out of the movie business must be counted as one of his most heinous sins. Thankfully, this rancor doesn’t translate to the movie itself, which is remarkably breezy for a three-hour epic about a man who went on to preserve his own urine in jars.
14. Silence (2016)
The paradox of this movie is that it gets better when you see it multiple times, and it’s also the Scorsese film that’s the least fun to rewatch. At the end of a long day, it’s hard to get up for an 161-minute movie about two Jesuits priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to 17th-century Japan and eventually are persecuted for preaching the gospel in a country where Christianity is outlawed. Pleasure comes at a premium in Silence. There are no scenes in which Tom Cruise shoots pool while dancing to “Werewolves Of London” here. Instead, we get a long and thoughtful meditation on the power and fallacy of faith. It is a film without heroes and villains. (When the ostensibly “bad” Japanese authorities articulate their rationale for stamping out Christianity, they sound reasonable, even just.) It picks up where the last 45 minutes of The Last Temptation Of Christ leaves off, forwarding the idea that it is wrong for people to aspire to be Christ-like, because that is blasphemy. Instead, we are cursed to be like Judas, the flawed character who makes it possible for the savior to fulfill his destiny. This is a complex and profound idea. It also explains why Silence only grossed $23.8 million.
13. The Departed (2006)
After the Red Sox won the World Series, Marty abandoned New York and hopped on the Boston bandwagon. What are the odds that he was aware of Dropkick Murphys before the mid-aughts? One out of 100? How about one out of 1,000,0000? The most shocking aspect of this movie is that Scorsese somehow one-upped Paul Thomas Anderson and coaxed out the best-ever Mark Wahlberg performance. Marty earned a lifetime of free coffee from Dunkin Donuts for that magnificent feat. While there’s little disagreement about Wahlberg in The Departed, the jury remains divided on Jack Nicholson. Is this a great Nicholson performance? Is it the worst Nicholson performance? Is it the greatest worst Jack, or the worst greatest? Anyone I have ever talked to about this film seems to have a different opinion. I happen to think it’s a great Jack performance, though that’s partly informed by The Departed being his third to last film (before The Bucket List and How Do You Know, a 2010 movie supposedly written and directed by James L. Brooks that I learned about 2.1 seconds ago). We were spoiled by the cinema of the pre-MCU world. In the year of our Lord 2023, who wouldn’t want to see Jack Nicholson pull a dildo on Matt Damon?
12. The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)
The most controversial part of Martin Scorsese’s most controversial film is the extended “temptation” sequence that concludes the movie. We see Jesus (Willem Dafoe) on the cross. He is in extreme pain. He calls out to God and demands to know why He has abandoned him. Then, a little girl appears. She claims to be sent by God to relief his suffering. She helps him step off of the cross. She says he can now live as a man. So, Jesus goes out into the world. He marries Mary Magdalene. They have sex. They have children. Jesus grows old. As he is about to die, he realizes that the little girl (to quote Elvis) is the devil in disguise. The devil doesn’t want Jesus to be crucified and resurrected. As the elderly Jesus nears the end of his life, he begs God to put him back on the cross. Like that, Jesus is back where he was. He accepts his fate. He is the Jesus, once again.
Christians objected because they didn’t like the idea of Martin Scorsese remaking the scripture for what they viewed as nefarious purposes. What they didn’t know is that The Last Temptation Of Christ doesn’t copy the structure of The Bible. It copies the structure of It’s A Wonderful Life. In both films, a man no longer wants to be himself. Then a supernatural figure shows him an alternate reality where he gets his wish, and he sees that it is bad. So he goes back to his normal reality with a new appreciation of his circumstances. In the end, an angel gets its wings.
11. The Irishman (2019)
We can agree that de-aging Robert De Niro did not work. The scene where the elderly De Niro pretends to be a middle-aged De Niro beating the hell out of a storekeeper absolutely does not work. De-aging Joe Pesci and Al Pacino kind of works, but not well enough. But if Marty was going to de-age people anyway why not cast Ray Liotta in the Bobby Cannavale role?
These are among the reasons why the first hour of The Irishman is the weakest part of the movie. Thankfully, the remaining two and a half hours are great. Pacino’s “to his fuckin’ father’s … to his fuckin’ father’s …!” rant at the 63-minute mark marks the unofficial start of the “good” part of The Irishman. Steven Van Zandt’s cameo as Jerry Vale soon after kicks it up to “great” status. And the last 20 minutes is one of the most overpowering sequences in Scorsese’s entire canon. We see De Niro and Pesci in jail, gumming their bread and slurping their grape juice, and the subtextual baggage of fading film history is almost too much to take. All of a sudden, De Niro is the last man standing, and he’s shopping for coffins and weighing the benefits of being entombed versus a burial. “You’re dead but it’s not that final,” he reasons about the crypt. It’s like watching a lifetime of cinema flash before your eyes.
10. The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)
The best Scorsese film with Leo. Also the best Scorsese film that features the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.” Again, similar to my Dropkick Murphys question: Did Marty buy The Colour And The Shape on compact disc in 1997? Or did he hear “Everlong” many years later on Sirius’ alt-rock station and think to himself, “I bet people would be friggin’ surprised if I needle-dropped the friggin’ Foo Fighters in one of my films!”
I concede that my Martin Scorsese impersonation is not good.
9. The Age Of Innocence (1993)
My favorite scene in The Wolf Of Wall Street occurs when Kyle Chandler visits Leo on his yacht, Leo tries to bribe him, and Chandler says “Good for you, little man.” Good for you, little man! What a line reading! What a reaction from Leo!
The best Scorsese films have at least one standout “Good for you, little man”-style moment. Certainly, all of the movies in the top 10 have several scenes that are highly quotable and instantly recognizable. This picture is the exception. The Age Of Innocence is not a collection of scenes that pop out and grab the audience by the lapels. It’s an embroidery composed of small gestures, unspoken desires, and eternal regrets. It was released between Cape Fear and Casino, and for years I dragged my feet on seeing it, because I was a dumb teenager with an aversion to period dramas. When I finally caught up with it, I saw that it had 10 percent of the bombast and physical violence of those other films and 2,000 percent more romantic anguish. Nobody gets beaten to death in a cornfield in The Age Of Innocence. The suffering is quieter and more drawn out. It’s that hell of the spirit. And, as we have already established, the worst of hell’s two sides is the spiritual.
8. After Hours (1985)
This film is billed as a comedy, but it’s not as funny as Goodfellas and it’s just as discomforting as Raging Bull. I have known people who got up and walked out of the room when it was on because they couldn’t take it. You don’t even have to be a New Yorker to fill the dread of After Hours. All you have to be is a human being who is capable of being seduced by the sexual allure of Rosanna Arquette to the point of abandoning your better judgment and almost ruining your life. And that is basically 99 percent of the population. From there, it’s set up like the ultimate anxiety dream, only anxiety dreams typically don’t last for 90 minutes. And After Hours actually feels like it lasts much longer than that. Fear and paranoia are around every corner. A Plaster Of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweight portends doom. Not even Teri Garr is trustworthy in this setting.
7. The Color Of Money (1986)
When Scorsese made After Hours, he was in filmmaker jail in the wake of The King Of Comedy bombing at the box office. The idea was to prove that he could make a good movie cheaply and on time. With The Color Of Money, the point was to prove that he could work with movie stars on the level of Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. This is how The Color Of Money is always contextualized. It’s discussed more as a means to an end than as a great Scorsese film.
But it is a great Scorsese film! From a pure entertainment standpoint, it matches anything at the top of this list. I’m sure I will be accused of overrating it, but this is honestly the Scorsese movie I am always most excited to rewatch. And I rewatch this movie a lot. Yes, Taxi Driver is a better film. But you can’t put Taxi Driver on an airplane or when you feel lonely in a hotel room. But I will watch The Color Of Money on an airplane. And I will certainly watch it when I’m lonely in a hotel room. I love The Color Of Money so much that I downloaded it on my phone so I can watch it whenever I’m bored. I love The Color Of Money so much that I worked in a reference to one of my favorite Fast Eddie Felson quotes (“He’s got to learn how to be himself — but on purpose”) into a book about Kid A. I love The Color Of Money so much that one of my top five most watched YouTube clips is Tom Cruise killing John Turturro at pool to the tune of Phil Collins’ “One More Night,” a hard-as-hell scene I will put up against any hard-as-hell scene in the Scorsese-verse.
I love The Color Of Money so much that I put it above After Hours, The Age Of Innocence, and The Wolf Of Wall Street on this list, and I had to physically restrain myself from putting it even higher.
6. Casino (1995)
One of my favorite bands of all time is the Rolling Stones, and this is due mostly to Martin Scorsese. When I listen to the Stones, I see Martin Scorsese films in my head. And you simply can’t beat that combination of visuals and sounds.
Uncreative people love to point out that Scorsese is fond of using “Gimme Shelter” in his films. First of all, you can’t use “Gimme Shelter” enough times in a film. It’s impossible. But this overlooks the number of other Stones songs that he uses brilliantly in three of the top six films on this list. In Casino, for instance, we get an early scene in which Joe Pesci repeatedly stabs some poor sap in the neck with a pen while the mid-’60s deep cut “Long Long While” plays. Then, during a sequence showing Pesci’s crew committing a series of robberies, there’s one of the greatest Stones songs ever, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” bounding out of the soundtrack.
Casino also includes a live version of “Gimme Shelter.” And you know what? It works.
5. Raging Bull (1980)
“He uses ‘Gimme Shelter’ too much” is perhaps the only criticism of Martin Scorsese that really lands at this point. His approval rating otherwise is about as close to perfect as a filmmaker can get in 2023. That doesn’t mean he isn’t subject to the occasional wrong-headed thinkpiece. Take this profoundly stupid article published by The NME in 2019, which is emblazoned with possibly the most annoying headline of the last five years: “Martin Scorsese wants to take us back to the days of white male heroes? OK boomer.” The “OK boomer” is what pushes it over the edge for me, as I’m going to assume that the author isn’t a sassy 14-year-old lurking on social media. But the part about “white male heroes” is just egregiously wrong. Heroes? What heroes? To which Scorsese films is this person referring? Has this person only read Wikipedia summaries of his work? On paper, Raging Bull is a sports biopic about a champion boxer who goes on to a career as a nightclub entertainer. Does that sound heroic or what?
4. The King Of Comedy (1982)
I kid. We all know that Jake La Motta is one of the most repellant protagonists to ever be featured in a major Hollywood production. But for all of his many faults, at least Jake accomplished something in his life. The most repellent “white male hero” in Scorsese’s filmography arrived in the film after Raging Bull. As Rupert Pupkin, De Niro shed any vanity he might have had about looking cool, tough, or remotely attractive on screen. It’s his finest performance after Travis Bickle, a true virtuoso display of “what a fucking loser!”-dom so incredible that even makes me forgive the existence of Joker. And it’s not even the best performance in The King Of Comedy. That honor goes to Jerry Lewis, who for the first time in his life made it possible to put his name in the same sentence as “understated.”
3. Mean Streets (1973)
The movie that made me wish that I had grown up in New York City in the early 1970s. As a kid from the Midwest, the pain of being a Scorsese fan is the feeling that you have no culture. I did not come up in a world in which young Italian guys put on suits and then attempt to beat the hell out of each other. My atmosphere was not filled with the sounds of opera and The Ronettes. The people around me were neither naturally hilarious nor constantly shouting. Mean Streets drove home the fact that my surroundings were hopelessly vanilla. Only later did I realize that Scorsese didn’t like where he grew up either. His world was not better than mine in reality. His world was (to borrow a Mean Streets-ism) full of mooks. It was his filmmaking that elevated the circumstances of his background to the level of high art because that is what great artists like Martin Scorsese do.
2. Goodfellas (1990)
Like I said earlier, this is the film that made me notice what a filmmaker is and does. Before that, I didn’t think about making a film. Films were these things that just appeared at your local cineplex, and you then watched them, and whether you enjoyed them or not you definitely did not think about them afterward. After Goodfellas, that changed. Along with being one of the most rewatchable films ever — it is physically impossible to not watch at least 30 minutes of Goodfellas if you happen to catch it on television — this is an incredibly fun movie to think about. You can reference it for days: “What do you mean I’m funny?” “Now go home and get your fucking shinebox.” “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” “Now I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” The quotable lines are endless. Like all mid-40s men, I constantly make analogies to Goodfellas. A major turning point in life is a “Billy Batts moment.” A bad day is likened to the gonzo “helicopters and cocaine” sequence. A non-desirable request gets a (Joe Pesci “pondering his mother’s painting” voice) “what do you want from me?” response. I don’t just love Goodfellas. I have lived inside of Goodfellas for 30 years.
1. Taxi Driver (1976)
My favorite movie by Scorsese, and my favorite movie made by anybody. Taxi Driver is such a loaded picture that Scorsese had to unpack various elements in future films — its portrayal of tortured masculinity points to Raging Bull, the satire of media leads to The King Of Comedy, the messianic drive to cleanse sin was expounded upon in The Last Temptation Of Christ, and the strain of black comedy informs Goodfellas. (Do people realize how funny Taxi Driver is? The “I’m gonna get organized” scene is one of the more hilarious “uncomfortable dates” in cinema history.)
The miracle of Taxi Driver is that everyone who sees it secretly relates to Travis Bickle, and each of us believes that (1) this is unseemly and (2) unique to only us. But it’s not. Scorsese, De Niro, and Schrader all saw themselves in Travis, just like we do because at heart he is the lonely, awkward side of ourselves that we try to hide. Travis also tries to hide this part of himself, but he can’t. And that is why he shoots up a brothel and becomes a folk hero in the eyes of a sick and misguided public. (John Hinckley couldn’t hide this part of himself either, but at least he wasn’t glorified.)
I said earlier that this isn’t necessarily a movie I make a point of regularly rewatching. Because, like many Scorsese movies, it can be an intense and painful experience. But it’s also true that I don’t need to see it because it’s already a part of me. Taxi Driver plays in my mind all of the time, informing how I see other films and the larger world. I could say the same about many of these films. Martin Scorsese movies are part of the fabric of my life. And I can’t think of a higher compliment for an artist than that.