Martin Scorsese has made a lot of films. One of the establishment-shaking ‘brat-pack’ filmmakers to emerge in the 1970’s, Scorsese has notched up nearly five decades worth of movies and, unlike many of his contemporaries, has been pretty active the entire time. But Scorsese hasn’t just made a lot of movies – he’s made a lot of brilliant movies. He’s also had a surprisingly varied career. While Scorsese may have made his name making gritty movies about fallen men doing immoral (and often violent) things, he’s also found time to direct biblical epics (The Last Temptation of Christ), biopics (The Aviator), schlocky genre movies (Cape Fear, Shutter Island), documentaries (No Direction Home, Shine A Light) and even an honest-to-goodness children’s film (Hugo). When you think of Martin Scorsese you may immediately think of a certain type of movie but there’s much more to his filmography than Robert De Niro threatening people. With his latest feature (the thoroughly debauched Wolf of Wall Street) now available on home release, what better time to look back at the very best films by one of cinema’s very best directors.
10. Casino (1995)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone
Casino shares a lot of the same DNA as Scorsese’s earlier hit, Goodfellas. It’s Scorsese adapting Nicholas Pileggi, starring De Niro and Pesci as violent and corrupt individuals. This time, rather than playing a pair of common hoods, De Niro and Pesci are two of the most powerful men in Vegas and the scope of their crimes is far grander. Though it operates on a much larger scale than Goodfellas, Casino is a similarly seedy and sleazy look at the criminal underworld even if this time the seed and sleaze is concealed behind intoxicating extravagance. Unfortunately its similarities to Goodfellas work against it somewhat. Casino is a baggier, less dynamic film that never quite scales the same heights – but it still comes pretty close.
9. Shutter Island (2010)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo
Every list like this is bound to include at least one contentious “…really?” entry and I’m pretty sure this choice is going to elicit some confused responses. Though it was well received by critics and audiences (it was, at the time, Scorsese’s highest grossing film), Shutter Island is usually treated as a minor entry in his filmography. True, it may not reflect the zeitgeist like some of his more esteemed efforts but Shutter Island is the work of a director letting loose and having fun. This twisty-turny, psychological thriller has a solid plot and a great lead performance from Leonardo DiCaprio but Shutter Island’s real strength comes from Scorsese’s balls-to-the-wall direction. It’s an aesthetic delight, and Scorsese pull every Hitchcockian trick out of the bag. A genre exercise to be sure, but a remarkably tense and full-blooded one.
8. Hugo (2011)
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley
When Scorsese announced he would be following up Shutter Island with a children’s film (his first), many were surprised and more than a little confused. As it turns out, Hugo was directed with the same care and panache as any of his films. The tale of a young orphan in Paris, Hugo works as both a child friendly romp with real heart and a love-letter to the very language and history of cinema. Hugo stands alone in Scorsese’s filmography and while it may not be the sort of movie most of his fans love him for, it’s proof that even this late into his career he’s capable of taking real risks that surprise and delight audiences.
7. The King of Comedy (1983)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard
We’re in minor classic territory now. Scorsese’s collaboration with Robert De Niro on films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas is legendary but The King of Comedy is one such film movie that is often unfairly overlooked. This pitch-black comedy features one of De Niro’s most unsettling performances, not as a ruthless gangster or abusive boxer but as Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comedian whose obsession with chat show host Jerry Langford (sportingly played by real-life chat show host Jerry Lewis) leads him to increasingly dark places. Almost unbearably uncomfortable to watch in places, The King of Comedy is often laugh-out-loud funny but is, in its own way, every bit as disturbing as a film like Taxi Driver. One of Scorsese’s most offbeat films, The King of Comedy becomes even more prescient with every passing year.
6. The Departed (2006)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Scorsese made plenty of worthy films during the 90’s and early 00’s, but The Departed marked his first slam dunk in over a decade. This tale of two men working undercover on opposing sides of the law, trying to discover each other’s identity whilst both avoiding being unmasked represents Scorsese at his most assured. It’s a complex narrative full of twists and turns but delivered at a breakneck pace with style and wit to spare. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are perfectly cast as opposite sides of the same, increasingly desperate coin and the supporting cast shines, especially Mark Wahlberg’s unexpectedly unhinged turn as a foul-mouthed Staff Sergeant. While it’s true that Scorsese should have won an Academy Award for directing long before this, The Departed is no less deserving of its Oscar success.
5. Mean Streets (1973)
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval
A personal favourite of mine, Mean Streets may not have been Scorsese’s first film but it’s the one that put him firmly on the map as a talent to be reckoned with. It also marked his first collaboration with Robert De Niro and the pair would work together on another 7 films in the future. At its heart, Mean Streets is a pretty straightforward yarn of petty crime and Catholic guilt but it feels absolutely electric thanks to livewire performances, exuberant direction and a degree of low-budget authenticity that Scorsese would never quite recapture. Mean Streets serves as an obvious precursor to a film like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street and, with its jukebox soundtrack, pulpy sense of cool and endlessly quotable dialogue, served as a clear template for the career of a certain Quentin Tarantino. Mean Streets represents Scorsese’s first triumph and marks the start of a career-defining string of instant classics.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
Now that the dust has settled somewhat I think it’s fair to say that The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s latest film, is up there with his very best. A riotous, anarchic take on greed, wealth and 80’s excess, The Wolf of Wall Street is as infectious as it is debauched. Probably Scorsese’s funniest film, The Wolf of Wall Street may be a bit on the long side but it never feels it thanks to the unrestrained enthusiasm everyone brings to the table. Leonardo DiCaprio is on top form here, revelling in the carnality but so too is Scorsese, directing with the energy of a man half his age. Scorsese has indicated he may only direct a couple more films after this but if this were to be his last, what a way to bow out.
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd
The top three films on this list are all unimpeachable classics that could easily go in any order. No doubt some will argue this is the wrong order but here we go… Though Scorsese has made many unpleasant films about unpleasant men, most of them are interjected with humour and propulsive energy. Taxi Driver is a little different. The tale of a deeply disturbed Vietnam veteran trying desperately to get someone, anyone, to notice him, no matter the cost, Taxi Driver is a slow-burning descent into one man’s personal hell. With a chilling central performance from Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver paints an uncompromising and iconic picture of New York’s grotesque underbelly.
2. Goodfellas (1990)
Starring: Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro
Arguably Scorsese’s most iconic and influential film, Goodfellas is a stone-cold crime classic and the most frequent candidate for the top spot on lists like this. Deservedly so – Goodfellas is an absolute masterpiece. Detailing two young wannabe gangsters’ rise through the ranks of the criminal underworld (played with aplomb by Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci), Goodfellas is Scorsese at his most, well, Scorsese: violent men, soupy morality, electric dialogue, a dynamite soundtrack and tracking shots galore. It’s a real tour-de-force and easily the most textbook example of what makes a great Scorsese film. Elements of this movie were hinted at in Mean Streets and later echoed in Casino, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street – indeed Scorsese says he considers this, Casino and Wolf to be part of a thematic trilogy. At a glance they glorify criminal activity but in reality they capture the appeal of the forbidden before gradually exposing the grim reality. No film in Scorsese’s catalogue does this better than Goodfellas.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci
Goodfellas may be Scorsese’s most recognisable film but there is no entry in his filmography that comes close to matching the raw, gut-punching power of Raging Bull. Based on the rise and fall of real life boxer Ray LaMotta, Raging Bull represents both Scorsese and Robert De Niro at the peak of their powers. While Scorsese’s other films feature violence and death by the bucket load, LaMotta’s volatile relationships both in and out the ring are astonishingly brutal. Other Scorsese ‘heroes’ like Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort may be vile men but they have charm to spare and even Travis Bickle is strangely sympathetic. Ray LaMotta, on the other hand, is a completely detestable man with no redeeming qualities and it’s to Scorsese’s immense credit that you still come to pity this monster’s fall from grace. Featuring a career-best central performance from Robert De Niro, Raging Bull is a powerhouse of a film that is frequently hard to watch yet remains utterly compelling.
What’s your favourite Scorsese film?