The Films of Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective
In the grand tradition of film websites the world over, welcome to Rough Cut’s first ever director retrospective/ranking. To celebrate this week’s release of The Irishman, we take a look back at the films of Martin Scorsese, renowned auteur and fanboy troll, but before we start, here are a few anticipated questions that our author wants to make sure he answers: Martin Scorsese has made a LOT of movies, did you really watch and rank all of them? No, this will only cover his 25 narrative, fictional features, for two primary reasons: (1) Marty isn’t exactly known for his brevity and (2) I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to track down a legal copy of Kundun. So this will be a straight ranking, 25 to 1? Hasn’t every other website on earth already done that? Glad you asked! We want to try something a little different here at Rough Cut, so instead of just a straight ranking, the films have been categorized into tiers, and then those tiers have been ranked by how successful I think the films in each tier are as a group. You said “I” there, are these tiered rankings not the result of a democratic and/or algorithmic process? Nope, not at all. These are 100% my personal opinions, a very important disclaimer given how little I anticipate anyone else at Rough Cut will want to be associated with these particular rankings. Oh, this article is going to make me furious, isn’t it? Almost certainly. Let’s dive in!
Tier 7: The Bad 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, covered in the next tier) 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: it’s far too long, relies on the premise of Liza Minelli falling head over heels in love with perhaps the worst person Robert De Niro has ever played, and doesn’t even have a great handle on the musical element until the very end, by which point it’s too little too late. 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 6: 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. Alice was also the last time — with the possible exception of The Age of Innocence — you could reasonably make the case that a woman was a lead of a Scorsese film; rather unfortunately, the rest of his career has much more in common with Who’s That Knocking at My Door, in which the male lead and supporting players are credited with their character’s names and the female lead is credited simply as “Girl.”
Tier 5: The American Dream Ones (21st Century Edition) Gangs of New York (2002); The Aviator (2004); The Wolf of Wall Street (2013); The Irishman (2019) 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 this throughline becomes particularly interesting post-2000. His first movie of the new millennium depicted the battle for ownership of a country less than a century old; his most recent grapples with the cost of achieving the sort of American criminal success Scorsese has famously explored at least once per decade over the course of his 50-plus years of filmmaking. In between, he partnered with Leonardo DiCaprio for two portraits of financial successes that can easily be construed as warnings about the kinds of lives these men lead. These films all work well enough in their own right, but are for the most part too bloated and end up merely spinning their wheels at times; this, combined with a sense that Scorsese doesn’t always have as firm a grasp on these movies’ underlying themes as we would expect, keeps this tier from greatness.
Tier 4: The Fun Ones After Hours (1985); The Color of Money (1986); Cape Fear (1991); Shutter Island (2010) These four 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. 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 — and in that he succeeds, and manages to put his own personal stamp on each to boot. If you’re looking for an exciting diversion from a true auteur, this is the place to find it.
Tier 3: The “Best” Ones Taxi Driver (1976); Raging Bull (1980); Goodfellas (1990) Survey the filmgoing community and you’ll likely come to the conclusion that these three films are the indisputable classics of Scorsese’s oeuvre, and on a purely technical level this can be hard to deny; from Taxi Driver’s visual reflection of its antihero’s worldview to Raging Bull’s beautiful black and white palette and Goodfellas’ virtuoso cinematography, these are clearly the works of a master craftsman. But something about them rings a little hollow, and while that may well be the intention given the subject matter at hand, it leaves one with the sense that the great potential in the combination of this director and these themes has yet to be fully realized. It may seem like heresy, but many of these concepts — including societal isolation, toxic masculinity, and organized crime — are explored more maturely and interestingly in some of his later efforts that will, not coincidentally, show up a little later on this list.
Tier 2: The Religious Ones The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); Kundun (1997); 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 in this unofficial trilogy. 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.
Tier 1: The Best Ones The King of Comedy (1982); The Age of Innocence (1993); Casino (1995); Bringing Out the Dead (1999); The Departed (2006) Apologies, but no fancy thematic link here — this top tier exists simply to highlight what are, for this writer, the apexes of Scorsese’s career so far. The success of these five films lies in their ability to perfectly blend bravura movie-making with distillations of the director’s primary intellectual and emotional obsessions: The King of Comedy is his most sympathetic look at the struggling and angry loner let down by society; The Age of Innocence melds a devastatingly beautiful romance with the frustrations of class structure; Casino is 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; Bringing Out the Dead is steeped enough in overt themes of mortality and religion that it could have easily fit in the previous tier, yet it crackles with the dark propulsive energy of a film like After Hours; and The Departed, despite its reputation as a makeup award of sorts, is easily his most entertaining movie, a devious thriller about loyalty, power, and violence that keeps the audience guessing all the way to the inevitably bloody end. Scorsese’s career is a fascinating one and most of his movies are at least worth a watch, but if you want to truly understand him as a filmmaker (and don’t have 50+ hours to spare), these are the ones to see.