Martin Scorsese needs no introduction. Marty’s the greatest director alive right now. Depending on if you prefer him or Kubrick (I prefer Marty), he’s probably the greatest American director, too. It wouldn’t be blasphemous to say he’s one of the five greatest directors, either. He’s about as good as it gets, and, despite what some people might say, he’s absurdly versatile. The idea that the only type of movie he can make is gangster movies for film bros is both tired and unequivocally incorrect. He’s made thrillers, religious films, comedies, sports movies, period pieces, kid’s movies, musicals, bio pics, AND, of course, some of the greatest gangster films ever. His films are always brilliantly shot and endlessly quotable, filled with themes about machismo, faith, nihilism, Italian-American identity, redemption, and the pitfalls of a life of crime.
Scorsese’s had a longstanding partnership with eight-time nominated, three-time Academy Award winner editor Thelma Schoonmaker, the editor behind almost every one of his films (save for the 70s films). Thanks to her brilliant craftsmanship, his films, even the long ones, always fly by. He’s also worked numerous times with screenwriter Paul Schrader, who’s penned the screenplays to two of his finest films. He introduced the world to both Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, captivating actors who have gone on to have brilliant careers. Beyond those two, he’s worked extensively with Leo DiCaprio for the last two decades (Leo appears in five films of Marty’s from 2002-2013). The person most closely associated with Marty, though, is Robert De Niro, who he has made nine pictures with, including five of his eight best films.
I’ve taken the time to rate, rank, and write about his 25 narrative features (he has done extensive documentary work, too) as a means to celebrate the man who just recently turned 78-years-old. Even though many of his movies are very famous and have been seen by just about everybody, I’ll do my best to keep things spoiler free, as per usual. I only hope you enjoy reading about his movies a quarter as much I enjoyed watching them. And without further ado:
25. BOXCAR BERTHA (1972)
This one is the most difficult Marty film to write about, mostly because it inspires so little feeling at all, which is wholly unlike the typical Scorsese film. This is Marty’s worst film and the only film of his that I would describe as “not good”, though most of this feels more to blame with the studio and Roger Corman enlisting a director with an original voice to make a paint-by-the-numbers exploitation film. This film came five years removed from Marty making a more than solid debut picture with WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), but this follow up does little to show the future genius Scorsese would reveal time and again.
Barbra Hershey plays the title character of “Bertha”, and, surprisingly, she is a more competent actress than even Marty was probably expecting. Still, she isn’t good enough to elevate the tired material she’s given to work with. This one is a mostly boring BONNIE AND CLYDE karaoke session, save for a solid action sequence in the back half and a wonderfully shot climax involving a homemade crucifix on the side of a train. Outside of that, there isn’t much here worth seeing, save for the people trying to complete Marty’s filmography. At least it’s only 88 minutes!
24. HUGO (2011)
HUGO is fine. It actually has a sneaky-good cast with Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Jude Law. Still, with a roster like that, audiences must have expected a bit more. Asa Butterfield as the title character is passable, if not, slightly forgettable. Moretz is the one who shines here. Young Chloë Grace gives one of the finest performances of her life, with her wide-eyed wonderment legitimately endearing.
This film would probably work better if it was a Spielberg film. Although Spielberg is a master filmmaker, when I go to sit down and watch a Marty film, I’m usually looking for something with a little more bite than what Steven provides. This feels a bit too much like Oscar bait, which is unlike Scorsese. Still, it’s harmless, nonetheless. Nobody could ever say Marty isn’t versatile, though, especially after making a more than adequate children’s film.
23. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)
The 2000s were the worst decade of Marty’s professional career (which truly speaks to his greatness) and this early misstep was where it started. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible here and deservedly earned an Oscar nomination, but… cool? Lewis has never not been incredible in anything he’s done, so it’s hard to earn a bunch of points for that, especially if his performance is in service of an average movie. Truly good acting should elevate the material and Day-Lewis doesn’t do that here.
GANGS follows the story of Manhattan gang wars waged during the 1860s between the Catholics and Protestants. It was a passion project of Scorsese’s, one he had been trying to get made for 20 years, and the end result was… lukewarm. Even though it garnered ten Oscar nominations, most would consider it to be a lower-tier Marty picture. Much of this has to do with the fact that it features Leo DiCaprio giving one of the worst performances of his life. He’s bad here, getting acted off the screen left and right by Day-Lewis. This doesn’t even include the fact that Cameron Diaz is bizarre here, too, giving one of the most unneeded performances in any Scorsese film ever. DiCaprio and Diaz feel like they belong in another film, and ultimately, they prove to be the anchors that sink this one quickly. It’s also way too long to be so tepid. It gets points solely for Day-Lewis and some incredible costuming and choreography, but as a whole, this should’ve been better.
22. NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977)
Marty would follow up TAXI DRIVER (1976), what some consider his opus (It’s not!), with NEW YORK, NEW YORK, a near-three hour musical movie starring Robert De Niro and Liza Minelli. Scorsese had dreams of making a classic old-Hollywood 40s/50s musical-movie. What he got instead, was what he considers to be the low point of his career. While it’s not Marty’s worst film, it’s easy to see why he doesn’t look back on it with fondness.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK is a love story about a jazz musician (De Niro) and a singer (Minnelli), which really just sounds like the plot of LA LA LAND (2016). What people remember from this film is the final act, which is quite good and features Liza singing a show-stopping “New York, New York”, as well as a great nine-minute musical sequence. What they would forget is the first two hours of the film, which features awkward attempts at trying to convince audiences that De Niro and Minnelli have any romantic chemistry. They don’t, and ultimately, the whole film falls apart because of it. De Niro, still a young actor at this point, is incredibly stiff here and never really loosens up. He’s mostly rude and not even in the “He’s-an-asshole-but-charming” type-of-way. He’s really not in his element here, and much of the flaws found in the film can be laid at his feet. Minnelli is lovely and dynamic, though, as she so frequently was in the 70s. She does nice work here, especially in the final act, which is good enough to elevate the film to this spot.
21. KUNDUN (1997)
Of all the Scorsese films, this is the one that feels most unlike the rest of his filmography. KUNDUN follows the story of the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet in the mid 1900s. The cast is filled entirely with non-actors and instead with Tibetans, many of whom had close proximity to the actual 14th Dalai Lama. This proves to be effective, as much of the supporting cast exude a benevolence and serenity that maybe wouldn’t have been present with actual actors. Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong does excellent work as the adult Dalai Lama (the film chronicles 22 years and captures the Dalai Lama at different ages, but Tsarong has the brunt of the work). Phillp Glass provides an exquisite score here and KUNDUN also marks the lone collaboration between Scorsese and renown cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Deakins shoots the hell out KUNDUN, which should come as no surprise to anybody. It’s a shame these two never teamed up again.
My gripe with the film lies in the fact that Marty movies are usually most interesting when they’re led by immoral, awful people. If not awful, they need to be incredibly flawed and multi-faceted. The Dalai Lama here is TOO good. And I get that that’s who he is and it would be inauthentic to make him something he isn’t, but it doesn’t change the fact that it makes him less interesting. The role is too one-note and not nearly as engaging as some of his best protagonists. The screenplay by Melissa Mathison is also one of the weakest Marty ever worked with. Still, it’s unfortunate that more people haven’t given this one a chance. I imagine that’s rooted far more in the fact that audiences are uninterested in engaging with ideologies or periods of history that have nothing to do with what they already understand, but it’s a shame, regardless. This one is worth seeing, even if it’s one of Marty’s lesser films.
20. CAPE FEAR (1991)
CAPE FEAR isn’t a bad film, by any stretch. In fact, there is a lot to like in it, despite its flaws (of which there are many). For one, you get an unhinged De Niro performance (it would earn him his third nomination for acting in a Scorsese film) as Max Cady, a violent criminal recently released from prison seeking revenge against the attorney, Sam Bowden, who put him behind bars (played by Nick Nolte). De Niro looks like he’s never had as much fun acting here. He chews each of his lines to a ridiculous degree, fully embracing Cady’s depravity. Nolte is fine as Sam Bowden, as is Jessica Lange, as Bowden’s wife. Nolte is given an interesting character that he maybe doesn’t explore to the depths he should’ve, but he’s a fine counter to De Niro’s Cady, regardless.
Outside of De Niro, the memorable performance from this film comes from a young Juliette Lewis as Danielle Bowden, the daughter of Nolte and Lange’s characters. Lewis delivers a star-turn here (she was also nominated for her performance), managing to go blow-for-blow with De Niro in the strongest and most harrowing scene of the film. CAPE FEAR feels perhaps 15-minutes longer than it should and the ending sequence goes on for so long that it begins to feel anticlimactic, but even so, there is a lot to enjoy from this campy, trashy, Hitchcock-inspired thriller.
19. WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967)
This film reminds me a bit of Spike Lee’s SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986), another underrated debut film. Both are low-budget, black and white, small scale, came from NYU, and above all else, give a small glimpse of the styles the directors will eventually master, which will lead most to accept them as two of the greatest directors to have ever lived. For having been made by a 25-year-old, WHO’S THAT does a lot of things quite well.
The story is small in scope and focused primarily on the relationship between J.R. (Harvey Keitel in his first major role) and an unnamed Girl (Zina Bethune). Keitel is dynamite here. It’s no surprise when watching this why he went on to be such a frequent collaborator with Marty. Zina Bethune is the highlight, however. She’s brimming with an overwhelming amount of earnestness and kindness, which pairs effectively with Keitel’s J.R.. The tension that comes from their opposing personalities is the crux of the whole film. Marty also shoots a stunning sequence halfway through the film in which J.R. dreams of sleeping with a prostitute. The film touches on many of the themes that Marty would hit again and again as his career would continue: Male sexual insecurity, the Madonna-Whore complex, and religious (namely, Catholic) guilt. Though Scorsese would eventually find ways to handle these subjects in a more polished manner, this is no doubt an excellent debut picture that maps out the trajectory that his career would follow.
18. THE AVIATOR (2004)
DiCaprio is leagues better here than he was in his first Scorsese collaboration, playing Howard Hughes in the Hughes biopic. DiCaprio does a brilliant job navigating Hughes as a young, cocksure, playboy movie maker all the way to a middle-aged man, crippled by severe OCD and reclusive behavior. Leo gets all of Hughes’ tics down perfectly, turning out an exceptional performance, constantly driving the story forward and earning him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. Scorsese also gets more than solid performances from John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsale, and Cate Blanchett, who actually won an Oscar for her work impersonating Kathy Hepburn.
Not all of THE AVIATOR works, starting with the absurdly long runtime of 170 minutes, which should be considered a crime against humanity. I never have an issue with a long movie if the movie is exceptional, but this movie is merely good. Marty will make many long films. Five of his nine best films all hover around 160-180 minutes. Here, however, the 170-minutes doesn’t feel earned. The second act drags a bit, despite an exciting emergency plane landing sequence. Despite that, THE AVIATOR is a decent film with many solid performances, worthy of being watched at least once.
17. THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986)
THE COLOR OF MONEY is never brought up when people speak of Scorsese’s filmography. It’s technically a sequel to Robert Rossen’s 1961 film THE HUSTLER, which starred Paul Newman as “Fast” Eddie Felson, a professional pool player and small-time hustler. In Scorsese’s sequel, Newman returns as Felson, though it isn’t necessary to have seen THE HUSTLER to derive pleasure from THE COLOR OF MONEY. Here, Felson discovers a young pool phenom (a young Tom Cruise) named Vincent and he decides to get back into the game of hustling players for cash, bringing Vincent and his girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastratonio) in on the operation.
Newman won an Oscar for his performance, which everybody acknowledged was just a Lifetime Achievement Award, seeing as he had been nominated seven times previously and never won. Newman does adequate work in the film, playing just about every moment with subtlety, but it’s not such a noteworthy performance that it was deserving of the Oscar. Young Cruise is electric here, playing the energetic charismatic himbo perfectly. He can’t follow the rules of the hustle at all, but damn if he isn’t pretty and good at pool! Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is quietly the MVP of the whole film (she was also nominated), easily giving the most memorable performance, outside of a brief scene-stealing cameo from an unknown (at the time) Forest Whitaker. Marty shoots the game of pool with attention and his usual craftsmanship, but the film loses points because it’s a standard Hollywood story and explores played out tropes. And though I sit back and understand why the ending is what it is, I can’t deny that it is a bit disappointing and lacks the expected payoff. Still, it’s a fun movie that’s shot well and features some great performances.
16. MEAN STREETS (1973)
Roger Ebert considered MEAN STREETS to be Scorsese’s first masterpiece. While I wouldn’t go THAT far, it’s an impressive picture that’s deserving of plenty of celebration. When people think of Scorsese, they likely think of gangster movies: MEAN STREETS is the first of those movies. Marty again enlisted Harvey Keitel to play his leading man, Charlie, after the formidable work they did together in WHO’S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR. The highlight of MEAN STREETS, though, is that for the first time in Marty’s career, he collaborated with the actor who would be most closely associated with Scorsese for the rest of his career: Robert De Niro. De Niro is only the supporting role here, playing Johnny Boy, but there are many moments when he shines far brighter than Keitel. He’s desperately zestful, always operating with urgency at every moment.
MEAN STREETS works because it’s utterly tragic. Charlie is a young man caught between a life devoted to Catholicism and a life devoted to working for mafia men. Charlie tries to find some redemption through the church, but he’s unable to, so he instead sets out to do his best to make sure that he takes care of his cousin, Johnny Boy. Just like with most Scorsese pictures, things end awfully bleakly for all of the characters. Scorsese would go on to do everything he does in MEAN STREETS more impressively many times after this, so it would be unfair to call this a masterpiece, but it’s close.
15) BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999)
If AFTER HOURS (1985) isn’t the underrated gem in Marty’s filmography, it’s this. Even now, placing it at 15th feels criminal, which truly speaks to how impressive Marty is. BRINGING OUT THE DEAD tells the 48-hour story of the life of a burnt out paramedic named Frank (played wonderfully by Nic Cage) as he careens around Manhattan trying his best to save sick and dying people. The film plays like a spiritual successor to TAXI DRIVER (they’re both written by Paul Schrader, this being his fourth and final collaboration with Scorsese, to this point). It’s morbid and dark, painting Manhattan like purgatory. Everybody in the film is dead, in the midst of dying, or waiting to eventually die, and it’s stomach-turning watching a paramedic do his best to help those in need but often coming up short.
Unlike TAXI DRIVER, though, which is a film about Travis Bickle’s damnation, Frank in BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is a man seeking absolution. Frank is a flawed, but truly decent man. He wants to do the right thing, always trying to help people. Nic Cage has long gotten flak for not being a very good actor, or, at least, being too over-the-top. I find that assertion to be ludicrous. When given the right material, Cage shines. He is GOING for it here, putting everything he can into the role and it pays off. The rest of the cast is also superb, with strong contributions from Patricia Arquette (who’s emotionally devastating with every line read), John Goodman (who’s always fun), and especially Ving Rhames (who gives a commanding and powerful performance in the second act). This is definitely one of Scorsese’s weirder movies, but that doesn’t make it bad. I also have to shout out the way in which the film is lit, too. The off-kilter lighting makes everybody look totally washed out but in a good way, almost giving everybody a bizarre, heavenly glow. It’s part of what makes this film feel so fantastical and memorable.
14) SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
Even if I only have this at 14 here, this is truthfully my third favorite Scorsese film. it was one of the first “adult” films I can remember obsessively loving and watching over and over again as a 13-year-old. SHUTTER ISLAND, at this point, was the third collaboration between Marty and Leo DiCaprio. Even though he wasn’t nominated for his performance, he’s better here than he was in THE AVIATOR. Leo is almost never not excellent, but here, he is particularly good. Leo plays detective Teddy Daniels, sent to Shutter Island, along with his partner Chuck (played appropriately by Mark Ruffalo), to solve a case concerning an insane asylum patient who’s missing on the island. Once they arrive, they realize everything is not as it seems. Like he did earlier in his career with CAPE FEAR, Scorsese again proved with SHUTTER ISLAND that he could excel making any genre.
SHUTTER ISLAND is a stressful, mind-bending, psychological thriller that Scorsese gets everything out of and more. He directs stellar performances from a solid cast of Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, Max von Sydow, and Michelle Williams, who is particularly disturbing and heartbreaking, in addition to the previously mentioned DiCaprio and Ruffalo. It’s fun, pulpy, and riveting, featuring multiple dream/illusion sequences that are disturbing and gorgeously shot. It also has one of the most shocking endings in a Scorsese film ever. It’s a damn good picture.
13. ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)
Ellen Burstyn was the first person to be nominated for (and win!) an Oscar for a performance in a Scorsese film: It was deserved. She’s the heart of the film, portraying the title character of Alice, a newly single mother who leaves her home with her kid and her car seeking a better life, one where she pursues her love of singing. Burstyn as Alice runs the emotional gamut, managing to be endlessly sweet, goofy, and sympathetic, as well as hysterical and wildly emotional at times. She hits every note and hits them exceptionally well. And her vocal performance that comes halfway through the film is lush, to boot.
Alfred Lutter plays Tommy Hyatt, Alice’s kid son. He’s a bit annoying (as are many young child actors), but Marty proves to be more than capable of getting a good performance out of him. Harvey Keitel plays Ben, a sleazy and nasty man Alice becomes affiliated with for some time. He’s easy to root against. She also becomes romantically involved with David, played by Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson plays him with a warmth and gentleness that is lovely. Some of the sweetest moments in the movie are spent watching him help raise Tommy or him being affectionate with Alice. ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE is a quiet, little, small-scale film, one where Scorsese pulls some really great performances out of great performers. It’s totally sweet and worth watching.
12. AFTER HOURS (1985)
I would call this Marty’s most underrated film. It’s supremely fun and only doesn’t end up higher on the list because it doesn’t have anything to say. It’s pure style-over-substance, but it is incredibly well-done style. AFTER HOURS plays out like somebody asked Marty to make a Safdie brothers movie (the creatives behind GOOD TIME and UNCUT GEMS) in 1985. It’s a “comedy” film that follows the story of a lonely and reclusive man who tries to spend a night in an unfamiliar part of Manhattan with a woman he met at a diner. What ensues is a series of truly unfortunate events. Nothing goes right for the sap, and as the night goes on, things only get worse and worse.
AFTER HOURS reeks of paranoia, which makes it a perfect reflection of late night Manhattan. Though it’s billed as a comedy/satire and it is riotous, it’s also exhausting and stressful. Just like UNCUT GEMS (2019) is “funny”, so is this film. It’s funny, but also stress-inducing. Griffin Dunne is good as Paul Hackett, the everyman we follow on the journey, but the film is far less about the acting performances and more about Scorsese being a master of creating tension at an unrelenting pace. The film never slows down until the credits roll. It’s just mishap after mishap. AFTER HOURS is extremely rewatchable, even if it won’t leave you thinking about it 48 hours after watching. Fun flick!
11. THE DEPARTED (2006)
This being the only movie of Scorsese’s to win Best Picture and the only film that earned him a Best Directing Oscar is a travesty and speaks to the stupidity of the Oscars. It’s still an excellent film, but come on. THE DEPARTED is a gangster movie set in Boston starring DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga. Nicholson is the big bad here, playing Frank Costello, one of the key players in the Boston Irish Mafia. DiCaprio plays an undercover cop, Billy Costigan, trying to take him down from the inside. Damon plays Colin Sullivan, an undercover mafia man who gets hired as a cop to work for Costello secretly in plain sight.
To start, the soundtrack absolutely rips. It’s enjoyable as hell. The performances are all also mostly great, especially Baldwin, Wahlberg (who was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar), and DiCaprio. Damon and Farmiga are strong, too, though less so than the prior three. The weakest link here is Nicholson. He’s hamming it up and going for it, but unfortunately, he’s a bit cartoony, sometimes feeling like he belongs in another movie. Scorsese directs this with his usual flair, despite the fact that the final shot makes me audibly groan. It really is an excellent movie, though, with an awesome third act, and it features one of the most shocking moments in any Marty movie ever. If somebody else just played the Nicholson role, it might’ve been a masterpiece.
10. THE KING OF COMEDY (1982)
THE KING OF COMEDY has aged like wine, to the point I can’t stop thinking about it. Again here, Scorsese and De Niro collaborated (their fifth collaboration, to this point) and again, they created magic. This is a black comedy that follows an embarrassingly pathetic Rupert Pupkin (De Niro, in his second-best performance in a Scorsese film) and his attempts to find success in show business, which involves him both stalking and eventually kidnapping his comedy idol, late night TV host Jerry Langford (played perfectly by Jerry Lewis).
Pupkin doesn’t see Langford as anything but an ends to a means. He’s a gateway to the celebrity and status that Pupkin desperately seeks. He barely sees Langford as a real person at all. Maybe if he spent time working on his craft as opposed to obsessing over fame, he may have actually gotten somewhere. De Niro is as slick and charismatic as he is parasitic. He’s a leech, hoping to latch onto whatever he can to find the success he craves. Sandra Bernhard plays Masha, Pupkins’ nutty cohort. She gives one of the most hilarious and spastic supporting actress performances in any Scorsese film ever. She’s hilarious at every turn, but her final bit, which includes a tied up Langford, is maybe the funniest moment of the whole film. THE KING OF COMEDY is a wickedly brilliant (and, in 2020, prophetic) film about celebrity and the dangers that come with relentlessly pursuing it. And it only looks better when compared to the shameful, mid-tier Todd Phillips film that came out in 2019, J*KER (a mid movie), which apes and rips off both this AND TAXI DRIVER. That film is diet-Scorsese. It doesn’t compare to the real deal, which is too great.
9. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
This one has really stuck with me since watching it. THE LAST TEMPTATION is unique in Scorsese’s filmography. At the time, it was the first of his films to be wholly focused on religion (he would do it again with KUNDUN and then SILENCE), which seemed like a total departure from his earlier works. It stars Willem Dafoe as Christ and Harvey Keitel as Judas (he wears a wig that makes him look like Little Orphan Annie). It’s focused on the final days before Jesus’ crucifixion, and, as the title would indicate, his last temptation. The film would mark the third collaboration between Marty and screenwriter Paul Schrader, who provided the cast with an excellent script.
Dafoe, though unlike how Jesus is typically portrayed in film, does a wonderful job capturing him. Here, he’s a man plagued with uncertainties and he seems totally exasperated. He humanizes Jesus in a way that audiences would never expect. He’s clearly both divine and flawed, which makes him deeply compelling. Keitel’s take on Judas is also fascinating, painting him as a decent man just following orders. The film may be blasphemous as far as theology is concerned, but who cares? It’s a great film, and honestly, that’s all people should care about. The final act, featuring Jesus imagining himself living out his last temptation (getting to be a regular man who gets married to Mary Magdalene and grow old, not having to take on the burdens of mankind and dying for them) is some of the most serenely done work of Scorsese’s career. There is also a singular shot of fire in the film that appears suddenly with a voiceover from Satan, communicating to Jesus as he tries to tempt him, that will forever be etched in my brain. It’s experimental and stupendous, as is the entire film.
8. CASINO (1995)
This came out five years after GOODFELLAS, starring both De Niro and Joe Pesci yet again. People speak about it as if it is simply diet-GOODFELLAS and I’m not sure that’s fair. Does it have some similarities? Sure. But this film more than stands on its own. It’s not QUITE a masterpiece, but it’s about as close as a film could come to being one. CASINO tells the story of Sam “Ace” Rothstein, an expert sports handicapper and mafia affiliate who is brought into Vegas to run a Casino via direction from mafia higher-ups. As with most Scorsese films, all the characters enjoy a good deal of time at the top, living lavishly and full of excess, until everything comes crashing down.
CASINO is three hours long, but once again, thanks to stellar editing by Schoonmaker, the time flies by. The first act is incredibly paced and my personal favorite, but the third act is no slouch either. Sharon Stone is bonkers here, playing Ginger, a hustling prostitute who eventually marries Ace. She gives the best performance in the film, which netted her an Oscar nomination. She and De Niro have surreally good acting chemistry. They have a couple different fights that are acting masterclasses, especially their final huge blowup. Pesci is enjoyable, too, even if many of his character beats are slight retreads of his GOODFELLAS beats. De Niro does more than serviceable work, even if he’s been better in plenty of other Scorsese pictures. I also cannot stress how good this soundtrack is. A few of the needle drops in this film are sublime. This film is a nihilistic, scathing indictment of capitalism and the grift that comes with the people who have found success in this country. It’s all artificial, glamorous, and phony, meant to colorfully hide the bodies buried in the desert around the corner. That final montage of Vegas? Just perfect.
7. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
Some would consider this not being number one, let alone at least in the top three, to be sacrilegious. I will preface this by saying TAXI DRIVER is no doubt a masterpiece, with both a brilliant performance from De Niro (he would go on to be nominated for it) and some of the greatest directing work of Marty’s career… and yet, Marty would top it with six BETTER masterpieces later in his life! TAXI DRIVER follows De Niro as Travis Bickle. He’s an ex-marine, now working as a taxi driver. He’s insane, playing a totally hate-filled, racist, sexist, homophobic dude just trying to take a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) out on a date. When she rejects him because he has no understanding of how to act like a normal person, he decides he wants to assassinate the political candidate Betsy works for.
De Niro sinks into the alt-right character exceptionally well, even though I would argue he’s topped the performance at least three other times when working with Scorsese. Young Jodie Foster plays a prostitute who gets pimped out by Harvey Keitel, too, displaying remarkable acting ability at age 12. Scorsese knocks it out of the park, this being the first time he made a truly perfect picture. It’s alienating and dripping with isolation. It stinks of loneliness and despair, thanks to both the performance from De Niro and the cold, empty screenplay from Paul Schrader. It’s a film about rejection, not only from love interests, but from society as a whole. Bickle is a man that has been cast away from society and normalcy. It’s nightmarish to follow him, but more than worth it.
6. SILENCE (2016)
Marty has made three of his six best films in the 2010s. It’s been the best decade of his professional career. The first of those masterpieces on this list is SILENCE, starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, and Yosuke Kubozuka. It’s the third of Marty’s religious films and easily his best. It tells the story of two Italian Jesuit priests (Garfield and Driver) and their journey to Japan in the 17th century upon hearing news that Jesuit priest Cristóvão Ferrira (Liam Neeson) renounced his Christian faith after he and his Japanese converts were tortured by Japanese authorities. It’s a slow burn, possibly Scorsese’s slowest burn ever. It’s also stupendously breathtaking.
Scorsese has never shied away from tackling religion in his films, but this is him at his most direct. The film deals with topics of religious guilt, the arrogance of man, ideas of seeking absolution, and above all else, steadfastness. Garfield gives the performance of his life. He’s magnificent here, as he does his best to help lead Japanese converts to Christianity and withstand cruel punishment and torture. Driver is similarly good, though he is given less to do than Garfield. Neeson is only in the film briefly, but he is more than effective with the brief time he’s allotted. This film is a marvel to look at. It’s as harrowing as it is beautiful. It’s one of only three Scorsese films to actually move me to tears and the only one to get me twice. The final shot is the best shot in the whole film, and truly, one of the best shots ever captured in any Marty movie ever. Outside of perhaps only the next film on this list, the final moment here is the best final moment in any of his movies. It’s perfect.
5. THE IRISHMAN (2019)
This film shouldn’t exist. A film made in 2019 starring De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci directed by Scorsese shouldn’t exist. Yet, it does, and for that, we should all be thankful. THE IRISHMAN is perfect in every way. To delve into what makes it so spectacular would probably require a full essay. To keep it short, THE IRISHMAN is a deeply tragic and meditative film that spans sixty years of mobster life. It features the most impressive acting from De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino in at least two decades. Outside of those three, it also features excellent performances from Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano, and especially Anna Paquin, who did an impeccable job acting with her eyes. The fact that her place in the film was filled with controversy at the time of the release because she “didn’t have enough lines”, which was “sexist” (ignoring the fact that she gave the fourth-best performance in the film, despite only uttering seven words in 209 minutes) was infuriating.
The film is long because it should be. It could be longer. It chronicles sixty years of grueling, regret-filled life. The same people who will complain about the film length are the same ones gleefully sitting down to watch 181 minutes of AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Thelma Schoonmaker, Marty’s longtime editor, has to be commended for her remarkable job of making 209 minutes feel brisk. People also criticized the film and De Niro’s performance, in particular, because of the lackluster special effects attempting to de-age him, citing that his body doesn’t move like the body of a young man. This is not what the movie is about and is further proof that Superhero movies have melted the brains of audiences. As fun as Pacino is (maybe my favorite in the movie) and as subtle as Pesci is (perhaps the best acting of his career), De Niro gives the strongest performance here. He’s as subdued as he’s ever been, littering his performance with the perfect mix of prideful loyalty in one moment and regretful shame in the next. He’s heartbreaking. The final hour of the film might be the best hour of Scorsese’s career, and that final shot might be the most gutting moment he’s ever captured. This is a film about a mobster reckoning with a life of regrets, but even more so, it’s about a filmmaker reckoning with HIS life of regrets. It’s a film about the end of the mobster movie. It’s a film about everybody’s burgeoning mortality. We won’t have these men around much longer. We would be wise to appreciate potentially their final masterpiece while we can.
4. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)
One of the easiest ways to make a good movie is to cast Daniel Day-Lewis as a horny whore that lusts after beautiful, cunning women. That’s the conceit of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, a perfect film about a nineteenth-century love-triangle between three of Manhattan’s wealthy elite. This really could be argued as Marty’s best film. Any of these final four films would be more than deserving to sit at number one, truthfully. Marty’s maybe never shot a film better in his life than here. Schoonmaker’s editing is impeccable, per usual, and the soundtrack is one of the best in Scorsese’s filmography. The costumes and set design are extravagant, too.
Day-Lewis, maybe the greatest film actor to ever live, gives one of the best performances of his life. We will not remember him for roles like the ones in GANGS OF NEW YORK or LINCOLN; we will remember him for performances like this. As great as he is, Michelle Pfeiffer may best him. She might be the only performer to ever out-act him onscreen. She’s exceptional as the beautiful, brilliant temptress that he has his eye on the whole film. Winona Ryder is wonderful, too, giving an underrated performance and stealing the final act. She was the only one of the three to net an Academy Award nomination for her work, too. I find that nobody ever talks about this one, but it really does belong on Marty’s Mount Rushmore. It’s sublimely great.
3. GOODFELLAS (1990)
What is there to be said about GOODFELLAS that hasn’t already been said? It’s considered by many to be one of the greatest films of the 90s, if not one of the greatest films ever made. It may not be a greater mobster movie than THE GODFATHER, but it’s certainly a more realistic one, and it’s one that I find myself wanting to revisit far more often, too. It follows the story of everyman Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and how he gets caught up in the mob and all the life has to offer him, until the wheels eventually inevitably fall off. It also features a star-studded cast of De Niro, in maybe his scariest role ever, Joe Pesci, in the role we’ll all remember him for (he deservedly won an Oscar for this one), and Lorainne Bracco, as Henry’s wife, Karen, played with the right amount of fiery appeal.
It’s a classic movie that doesn’t need much explaining, but it holds up just fine 30 years later. It’s shot dizzyingly well and is easily Scorsese’s most quotable film (“Funny how?”) The 185-second-long take when Henry and Karen enter the Copacabana is still just as astonishing as it was the first time I saw it. Few moments in film are as exciting and memorable as hearing the music swell up in the first act before Liotta’s narration comes in with, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.”. It’s absolutely criminal that Scorsese lost out on a Best Director Oscar win to Kevin Costner’s DANCES WITH WOLVES.
2. RAGING BULL (1980)
There are many people that say that TAXI DRIVER is De Niro’s greatest performance ever. They’re wrong; It’s RAGING BULL, which is perhaps the most taxing, exhausting Marty film ever. It’s the black-and-white biopic that follows prizefighter Jake LaMotta over the course of two decades (from the 40s to the 60s) as he rises to boxing stardom and then eventually descends to embarrassing lows. It’s far less about the boxing, though (this isn’t ROCKY (1976)), and much more about the sexual insecurity and toxic masculinity of LaMotta and the way in which he takes his rage towards the woman in his life (an incredible, young Cathy Moriarty) out on his opponents when he’s in the ring.
De Niro does the finest work of his career here. Sure, he transforms his body in extreme ways (both chiseled and puffy De Niro make appearances), but that isn’t what makes the performance so strong: He’s completely understated here. He gets so much across with his eyes and face: His insecurities, his fears, his shame, his rage, his pain. It’s all there. And by the end of the movie, De Niro is able to so sink into the pathetic depths that LaMotta reaches, that, despite LaMotta being a reprehensible man, it’s hard to not feel sorry for him. That’s a credit to De Niro’s acting prowess. One of his final scenes, featuring an emotional breakdown in a cell, is De Niro finding his acting zenith. He would win his second Oscar for his brilliant performance. This film also introduced the world to Joe Pesci, who would go on to work with Scorsese many times afterwards and also earn a nomination. He’s great here, and more than holds his own with a pretty seasoned De Niro. Scorsese shoots all of the boxing sequences like dances. They’re gorgeous to look at, featuring brilliant, eye-popping, choregraphed camera work. The black-and-white is a great touch, too, especially for the fight sequences. Blood pours out in visceral ways that make the audience feel part of the brutality. Even the sound design intersplices animals roaring with the crowd noise during the fights. It makes everything feel guttural and tribal. Schoonmaker, as always, does brilliant editing here. It’s essentially impossible to improve on this film in any way. It’s difficult and painful to watch, but it’s impeccable.
1. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)
People might scoff at this being number one, but it really is Marty’s greatest movie ever. To quote my friend Jayson Buford, “Imagine making your best and most audacious picture at 70.” It’s totally true, too. I don’t need to delve into the details of this one much, since most have seen it, but WOLF is a bio pic film that follows the story of Wallstreet broker Jordan Belfort and his band of crooks as they sleep with every woman in their sights, do as much cocaine as they can, and take advantage of innocent people and their money. Three hours has never felt quicker (kudos again to Thelma Schoonmaker for making 180 minutes feel like 90).
This is the one we’ll remember Leo for. It’s the greatest performance of his career and, arguably, the most impressive performance of the century. DiCaprio gives the best performance in any Scorsese film ever. Leo is kinetic as all hell here, playing a locomotive train with an insatiable appetite for greed and corruption. Nobody else in the world could have played Jordan. Just Leo. Jonah Hill plays Jordan’s best friend, Donnie, and he’s truly a depraved heathen. So many of the early laughs in this film come from him. Both Leo and Hill were nominated for their work but they lost out to Leto and McConaughey for fine acting in a bad movie (DALL*S B*YERS CLUB). This film also introduced much of the world to Margot Robbie, who would go on to be a superstar in her own right. She goes blow-for-blow with Leo. It’s criminal she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, too. Scorsese works with the best cast of his career here, too, getting everything out of them (Matt McConaughey, Jon Bernthal, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Cristin Milioti).
This is three-hours of drug-fueled sex and debauchery, but that’s just a front for what the film is truly about: Greed. Marty illuminates the dirty truth about the American Dream, one that has always been obvious: It’s a load of shit. The only way to find any true monetary success in this country is to be a barbaric animal and as reprehensible as possible at all times. This film embodies America: The greed, the corporatism, the way in which capitalism leaves things destitute after it sucks up every morsel from each person that it can. People criticize this film and say that “Marty glorifies these people” and “because there are no likable characters, they can’t enjoy the film”. Don’t talk to those people about movies. They have worms for brains and have missed the point. Marty brilliantly shoots a film showing how regular Americans were screwed left and right at the benefit of overzealous primates that pull levers and snort coke and screw prostitutes and take and take and take until there’s nothing left to take and no more fun to be had. Marty abhors these monsters, perhaps more than he’s ever resented any of his other characters. He paints them with no strokes of sympathy and does nothing to make us think these are likable, good people. He knows they’re not redeemable and he indicts the audience watching, making them complicit in all of the acts caught on screen. It’s a perfect picture. It hits every mark as well as any film ever could. It’s Marty’s masterwork. The most audacious and boldest film of his career and he did it at 70. What a legend.