Martin Scorsese. American Master.


Dec 22, 2009


The Bottom Line Martin Scorsese. The man and his best work.

Martin Scorsese himself needs no introduction. Anyone who's been anywhere near a cinema since the early 1970s will at least be aware of the man's work even if they haven't seen one or more of his films. Most moviegoers will have seen at least one Scorsese film if not more. While his tough gritty urban crime films are what most casual cinephiles know him for, the man has worked in a wide-range of genres since his arrival on the scene in 1968 with "Who's That Knocking At My Door".

Below I offer up what I consider to be the man's ten best films. I'm not saying that you should just watch these and forget about everything else Scorsese has made, for he is one director who has not made a bad film. He has made a couple lesser ones. But not one that I would not press the recommended button for if I were to review all of them on Epinions. Even efforts like "The Color of Money" and "The Aviator" are worth your time.

So on to the list. Starting at the top this time:

1: Taxi Driver (1976). It may not be my personal favorite Scorsese film (we will get to that one momentarily). But it is easily his best. Working from a script by the great Paul Schrader, Scorsese teams up for the second fruitful time with Robert De Niro and makes a classic of American cinema. De Niro's performance as scarred Vietnam vet Travis Bickle is the one that established him among the leading thespians in cinema. Schrader's script peels away the outer layers of a man who is a psychopath and shows the humanity beneath. Scorsese directs this tale of a man going mad in a society dying on its feet in a way that brings you in. There have been films since that have covered similar subject matter and been good ("Falling Down" comes to mind). But there hasn't been a better one. Most likely there never will be.

2: Goodfellas (1990). The greatest mob film of all-time and possibly my personal favorite film of all-time. Unlike The Godfather, which showed the Mafia from the men who run it up-top, Scorsese's film looks at it from a working class perspective. He shows a young man (Ray Liotta) lured in to crime by seductive power and money. Although the film has a classic moral, it never wags its finger in your face. Entertaining and affecting, Goodfellas is the crime film to beat.

3: The Departed (2006). After taking a break from present day matters so he could introduce us to Howard Hughes and offer a lesson in the bloodshed America was founded on, Scorsese returned to modern day America and big city crime with the best film of 2006. Re-making the crime film "Infernal Affairs", Scorsese shifts the action to Boston where cop Leonardo Dicaprio tries to get the dirt on crime baron Jack Nicholson, while Matt Damon as Nicholson's spy tries to help Nicholson stay ahead of the cops. A classic treatise on the thin line between cop and criminal with great performances. Like most of Scorsese's films, it gets under your skin emotionally.

4: Raging Bull (1980). About a year ago, the AFI voted this as the best sports film of all-time (beating out Rocky). It's hard to argue in terms of quality. However, it's also easy to say otherwise, since Scorsese's fourth collaboration with Robert De Niro is only loosely a sports film. What it is is a combination between classic sports film, biopic and tragic tale of a man digging his own graves. All old stories to be sure. But the way they are told makes them new.

5: The Last Waltz (1978). The best concert film ever? Quite possibly. In filming the 1976 Thanksgiving Day farewell concert by The Band, Scorsese utilized many of the techniques from his feature films to create a rock concert film that's pure cinema. Great performances by The Band, Van Morrison, The Staples Singers, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Diamond (no kidding) and Dr. John. The best concert film ever? Absolutely!

6: Mean Streets (1973). Here's where it all began. After the aforementioned "Who's That Knocking", Scorsese helmed "Boxcar Bertha". John Cassavetes saw "Bertha" and told him "Next time, make a film about something you really care about". Scorsese responded by writing and directing "Mean Streets". The first of his gritty urban dramas, "Mean Streets" began the fruitful Scorsese/De Niro collaboration. It also introduced certain Scorsese trademarks such as the extended tracking shot and the use of pop and rock songs as something other than soundtrack filler.

7: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). When this film was released in 1988, the fundamentalists went into a state of apoplexy. How dare Hollywood portray the life of Jesus Christ in such a manner? Ironically many of those same ones had nary a word for Mel Gibson's exploitation film thinly disguised as something spiritual. Anyway, The Last Temptation shows Jesus Christ (played excellently by Willem Dafoe) torn between being our lord and savior and living a normal life. That he ultimately chooses the former was overlooked by the fundamentalist screamers. That said I know quite a few religious people who have seen Scorsese's film and agree it is brilliant. I personally am not that religious (I consider myself as having a certain level of faith. But not being an adherent to any organized religion) yet I found this film extremely affecting. A way better film than The Ego Trip of the Gibson.

8: The Age of Innocence (1993). Scorsese and Edith Wharton? You're kidding right? No. Scorsese adapts Wharton’s novel to the screen and does it justice in a way Merchant-Ivory could only dream of. By not shying away from the dark undercurrents in the story (which M-I would doubtlessly have done), Scorsese makes it even more effective. Great performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.

9: Casino (1995). Ditching New York for Las Vegas, Scorsese reunites with 2 of his Goodfellas stars (De Niro and Joe Pesci) and offers up a tale of how the gambling Mecca of America was built on blood. Organized crime blood that is. The film is three hours long. But like all great movies, it never seems too long. Also featuring what is probably the best performance ever from Sharon Stone.

10: Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Scorsese returns to New York with Schrader writing the screenplay and Nicolas Cage starring in this nightmarish look at three days in the life of a New York City paramedic. Taking a break from playing generic action heroes, Cage gives a human performance as tormented EMT Frank Pierce. The superb cinematography depicts a New York that is one step removed from Dante's Inferno. Overlooked at the time of release, this is one film that will hopefully be more appreciated with time. Either way, it had Scorsese ending the 90s on a high note.

Runners up

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Gangs of New York
After Hours

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