The Films of Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective
Back in 2019, two events coincided: the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and the founding of Rough Cut Cinema. One of the first articles I wrote for our site was a tiered retrospective of Scorsese’s films, a format that we’ve returned to since to discuss auteurs such as Jane Campion and Ang Lee — instead of a traditional “ranking” (an inherently silly project no matter how you slice it), we place a director’s films into thematic groupings, then tier those groups based on how artistically successful we find each collection to be on balance. The whole endeavor is of course completely subjective, but — ideally — can prompt some additional perspective about an auteur’s trajectory.
With this weekend marking the release of Scorsese’s latest, Killers of the Flower Moon, I’m taking the opportunity to revisit my Scorsese tiers — both to place Killers and to make some adjustments that I find necessary to reflect my continuously evolving feelings on an American master.
Tier 6: The Forgettable Ones
New York, New York (1977); Hugo (2011)
Now, Scorsese hasn’t really made a truly bad film, but these two (along with his debut) come closest. New York, New York has the misfortune of being the follow-up to Taxi Driver, which could lead you to believe that the mixed reviews are mostly a product of high expectations; however, it really feels like a misfire on multiple levels — the biggest offender is the central relationship, handled in a thematically confounding way, especially when compared to other depictions of toxic romance across the director’s filmography. Hugo, on the other hand, was critically acclaimed and nominated for 11 Academy Awards; it’s main problem is that it might be, pound for pound, the most boring movie Scorsese has ever made. Moving on.
Tier 5: The First Ones
Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967); Boxcar Bertha (1972); Mean Streets (1973); Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Scorsese’s first four films are valuable mostly for the fun in recognizing the themes and stylistic tendencies that would continue to show up throughout his career. There is one standout from this group, but it’s not the one you’re thinking of: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is the best of these early films, showing Scorsese at his lightest and most humane and featuring an Oscar-winning performance from Ellen Burstyn. Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets, though electrifying in their own ways, struggle to fully interrogate the subjects of Scorsese’s fascinations in the cohesive manner that elevates so many of his later works.
Tier 4: The American Dream Ones (DiCaprio Edition)
Gangs of New York (2002); The Aviator (2004); The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
There’s an argument to made that almost all of Scorsese’s films are, in some way, ruminations on the promise of the American Dream, but as the calendar shifted from the 1900s to the 2000s, so did the way these ruminations played out. The biggest change came in the form of his primary acting muse — after a multi-decade collaboration with Robert De Niro, a younger leading man stepped up to help Scorsese tell a new era of stories. Their first work together depicted the battle for ownership of a country less than a century old, and from there flowed portraits of the predatory financial successes those battles eventually wrought. These films all work well enough in their own right, but suffer from some messiness and bloat that his best works avoid, keeping this tier from greatness.
Tier 3b: The American Dream Ones (De Niro Edition)
Taxi Driver (1976); Raging Bull (1980); The King of Comedy (1982); Goodfellas (1990); Casino (1995)
But then again, perhaps the reason some of the films in the previous tier can be found lacking is the natural comparison to a selection of Scorsese’s most heralded works. In De Niro, the director found the actor most capable of helping him portray the rotting frameworks of our country, and from a purely technical level these films are among the high-water marks of Scorsese’s career: from Taxi Driver’s visual reflection of its antihero’s worldview to Raging Bull’s beautiful black and white palette and Goodfella’s virtuoso cinematography, these are clearly the works of a master craftsman. Few would deny the seismic cultural and artistic impact of those three films, but I should note my fondness for the other two on this list — I personally find The King of Comedy to be his most sympathetic look at the struggling and angry loner let down by society and Casino to be the best of the DeNiro-Pesci mob movies (helped in no small part by an astounding Sharon Stone), combining Goodfellas’ depiction of the mob’s allure and The Irishman’s contemplation of the futility of the American Dream to incredibly resonant effect.
Tier 3a: The "Fun" Ones
After Hours (1985); The Color of Money (1986); Cape Fear (1991); The Departed (2006); Shutter Island (2010)
These five films are showcases of the director’s ability to put his own stamp on a variety of genres — absurdist comedy, psychological thriller, road trip/sports drama — that rank among his most purely enjoyable efforts. But look closely and you’ll find many of his standard preoccupations are present; guilt, religion, personal insecurity, failure and redemption, they’re all there, just hidden under a pulpier veneer. This is particularly true of one of Scorsese’s best and most rewatchable efforts, The Departed, which is not only his most entertaining movie, but a devious thriller about loyalty, power, and violence that keeps the audience guessing all the way to the inevitably bloody end. Watching these movies, you get the sense that Scorsese feels looser, like he doesn’t have anything to prove other than that he can make genuine, crowd-pleasing entertainment. In that he succeeds, and manages to put his own personal stamp on each to boot.
Tier 2: The Remorseful Ones
The Age of Innocence (1993); The Irishman (2019); Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Guilt (Catholic or otherwise) looms large across Scorsese’s filmography, but these three pieces are the premiere examples of how the master considers and portrays the sinking horror of regret, making us all question how we might account for our lives as we near the end of the road. Yes, this trio of films take different forms and different paths: The Age of Innocence (for my money, Scorsese’s masterpiece) melds a devastatingly beautiful romance with the frustrations of class structure, The Irishman acts as a coda to the mob stories told in Goodfellas and Casino, and Killers of the Flower Moon unfurls a sprawling, true crime saga based in America’s original sin. But by the end, all three are asking variations of the same question — can I rest easily with what I’ve done and left undone, with what I’ve said and left unsaid? For Scorsese’s protagonists, the answer is often no; for the man himself, his legacy shines much brighter and more secure.
Tier 1: The (Overtly) Religious Ones
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); Kundun (1997); Bringing Out the Dead (1999); Silence (2016)
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the nature of religion (and Catholicism in particular) is one of the central motifs of Scorsese’s career, beginning with his very first feature. But while questions of faith and forgiveness underlie many of his most popular films and drive several of his more unsavory characters, he is at his best when he foregrounds these issues, as he does across these four films in particular. Courting controversy, he has tackled both Jesus Christ and the Dalai Lama, portraying their internal struggles (whether real or imagined) with empathy and a recognition that — despite their deification — these men may be, in the end, merely men, subject to human needs and desires. By holding these figures at less of a remove, Scorsese makes us fully reconsider any faith we might have (an examination he himself does onscreen in Silence), but in the end he brings us closer to the divine than ever before.