Leonardo DiCaprio might have been the actor to say this, but the compliment goes something like, “If I’m watching TV, and Goodfellas is on, I’ll drop everything and watch it till the end of the movie.” Granted, why believe the quote if I can’t source it, but why believe anything that happened in Henry Hill’s accounts either? Point being, it’s not about the accuracy, it’s about the feelings that Goodfellas stirs up. Then again, you could say that about 95% of Martin Scorsese’s decades-long output.
That’s why we love so much of Scorsese’s work, and that’s why we’re here today, foolishly trying our hand at a seeded list of his filmography. Perhaps it’s with pride, ego, and guilt that we even attempt to sort out the career of one of Earth’s mightiest film lovers, but try we will. A director of virtuoso camerawork and editing in every project. A man whose faith and upbringing drives his characters in fascinating ways. A New Yorker whose personality and interests have given way to a boatload of utterly fantastic films that we’re very grateful to watch and preserve as some of our all-time favorites. Till the end, of course.
It should be noted this is a feature-length film presentation here. For the sake of brevity in the face of 66 directing credits, we made some exclusions. Concert flicks like Shine a Light were politely avoided. And Scorsese’s documentaries — both short and long-form? Not presently included. (God, how we’d love to riff on Catherine Scorsese in ItalianAmerican.) And other short, commercial projects, well, that’ll be for another day. But you can always watch The Key to Reserva and/or his ad for champagne. (And hey, leave enough comments below, and maybe CoS has to publish either a revised or alternate listing.)
So, with that in mind, happy 30th anniversary to Goodfellas, yes. But thank you Martin Scorsese for Mean Streets, for The Irishman, for The Age of Innocence. All right, now grab your shine box, because this list’s about to get made. And in the spirit of Last Waltz’s opening title card, READ THIS LIST LOUD. Like, maybe while listening to The Crystals.
25. New York, New York (1977)
Runtime: 2 hr. 43 min.
The Pitch: She’s a small-time USO singer. He’s a shit-talking jazz saxophonist. This relationship has disaster written all over it, because when the creative types get together? Oh boy. De Niro and Minnelli headline Scorsese’s homage to big-band musicalia of the ’40s, and it merits saying: De Niro is a big-time asshole. And not in the “oh god this is fascinating” Raging Bull way. He’s a brute and a bully and well, more soon.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Liza Minnelli, Lionel Stander, Barry Primus, Mary Kay Place, Dick Miller, Clarence Clemons, and Jack Haley in an uncredited cameo
Awards: Four Golden Globe nominations. Shame those aren’t real awards.
Needle Drop: So, the title song is a bit huge. Just remember: Liza did hers before Frank did his. Arguably better. Just watch Liza go to town.
Film School: Scorsese goes hog wild in the “Happy Endings” number. It’s got visual allusions to Summer Stock, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, and more. Scorsese flaunts it like a student who really got into musicals over the weekend.
Speed-o-Meter: The films rushes and drags. When Scorsese is working out Minnelli and Doyle’s long-term romance, the movie is old studio somber (with temper tantrums and star personae, but still). But when Scorsese jumps into the music of things, letting De Niro play around to Tommy Dorsey, giving Minnelli a nine-minute homage to musicals, it’s record night at Scorsese’s house, and he has a fat stack of reference material at the ready.
Hot Mess: Tensions were high, drugs were involved (read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for fun). Minnelli and De Niro’s fight in a cab got so heated that Scorsese wound up in the hospital. Scorsese walked off set at one point, pissed at De Niro, and Scorsese’s longtime friend Steven Prince had to direct a scene. And that’s the stuff off-screen. De Niro’s cretinously mean the entire story.
Editor’s Note on Steven Prince: Watch Scorsese’s short doc American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. It’s so drugs. Prince is that one friend we all have that has seen truly crazy shit in his lifetime and stayed alive just long enough to share it all.
Not-So-Sound Mix: Scorsese’s almost always been a one-editor director, but on of New York, New York, three editors were required: Bert Lovitt, David Ramirez, and Tom Rolf. Bless ‘em. They had the unenviable task of making sense out of New York, New York after Scorsese allowed virtually all dialogue to be improvised, and when dailies hit post, the movie required a big band of editors to get it together. Part of the blame, as suggested by Biskind’s book, was Scorsese’s escalating drug problems and loss of control for the material.
Analysis: New York, New York sings. Often. But there’s one big, fat fucking sour note curdling the thing, and his name is Robert De Niro aka Jimmy Doyle. Like, there’s pre-La La Land stuff about stubborn lovers and talented souls at each other’s throats and hearts here. And Scorsese goes full blown Old Hollywood love letter, influenced by moving to LA in the ‘70s and being smitten by studio system nostalgia that gilds this film.
But man is De Niro the world’s biggest bully. Impulsive, insufferable. He screams at Liza in a way that makes her and the viewer deeply uncomfortable. He practically drags the film by its arm to the finish, impulsively pushing the movie scene to scene. He’s a rotten shit, he’s abusive to everyone in the movie in a way that raises far too many questions, and he’s the reason this is a hard-to-watch affair. And that’s saying something when the guy played Jake LaMotta.
24. Boxcar Bertha (1972)
Runtime: 1 hr. 27 min.
The Pitch: A zero-budget adaptation of Ben Reitman’s 1937 novel Sister of the Road, Boxcar Bertha tells a tall tale of a young Southern woman’s love life and crime life crossing tracks in the Depression-era South. Barbara Hershey is the titular Bertha, packing heat, taking on railroad tycoons, all while stoking the fires of passion with her man, “Big” Bill Shelly (David Carradine). It’s labor and unions versus the big boys in a series of train robberies, and Bertha’s fighting for the people.
Cast: Barbara Hershey, David Carradine, Bernie Casey, John Carradine
Awards: Ha, no. Awards were never a “Roger Corman Production” thing.
Needle Drop: Gib Guilbeau and Thad Maxwell, members of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Swampwater provided the twangy, old-timey sound for Bertha. Think chain gang prison flick. Lots of energetic harmonica.
Film School: The exploitation parts of this project didn’t stop Scorsese from staging a movie theater scene, complete with posters for The Drum, Wife of General Ling, Desert Guns, and The Man Who Could Work Miracles. Show-off.
Speed-o-Meter: Bertha possesses a sub-90-minute runtime and rules in place from grindhouse guru Roger Corman that demanded tons of blood and breasts every 15 minutes. So even if Boxcar Bertha feels a little dated, cheap, and sleazy, it still gives away 1970’s goodies at a clip. Scorsese obliged Corman. With the utmost taste on a low budget, of course.
Mean Cassavetes: The merits of tough love and bullying are totally up for debate. But how useful was it that John Cassavetes basically guilted Scorsese into making Mean Streets over this project?
I really like John Cassavetes method of shaming Scorsese into making Mean Streets by calling Boxcar Bertha a piece of sht. pic.twitter.com/yDwxj8AXCO
— John Frankensteiner (@JFrankensteiner) June 7, 2018
Playboy and Playgirl: Apparently this movie was promoted via a photo spread in Playboy. That’s right, the magazine that once had naked pictures, and specifically for Bertha, stars Barbara Hershey and David Carradine were photographed making — ugh — passionate love in a rundown house. They were partners at the time. Exploitation films, baby. If you really want to see the pictures, go to Google images and search for “Boxcar Bertha Playboy”. You’re welcome, I suppose.
Analysis: Watch any Corman flick from the ‘70s, and it’s almost a requirement that you watch through your fingers. Such crass amounts of gore and nudity, all at low-cost to grab cash at drive-ins. But when Martin Scorsese came through American International Pictures’ doors, he saw Corman’s demands and managed to make his own meal out of the situation. He had control over the project, drew up roughly 500 storyboards, made characters with names that reference his heroes Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. And the movie ends with a crucifixion. All filmed in a 24-day shoot window. Boxcar Bertha is a solid B-movie, and a decidedly strange, dirty, and fun one at that.
23. Gangs of New York (2002)
Runtime: 2 hr. 47 min.
The Pitch: A fully grown Amsterdam Vallon returns to New York City’s Five Points to avenge the death of his father by killing Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. When his true identity and purpose are discovered, he finds himself thrust into leading his people and finishing his father’s work.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, and Liam Neeson
Awards: The Academy heaped 10 nominations on Gangs of New York, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Day-Lewis, and that elusive Best Director award for Scorsese. Unfortunately, the film struck out entirely (going zero for 10), and Marty would have to wait a few more years to shake hands with Oscar.
Needle Drop: Sorry, all you rock ‘n’ rollers. Though he ventures out of period to mixed effect during a few different scenes (like the original challenge between Bill and Priest Vallon), Scorsese opts to mostly stay true to the time in both instrumentals and a few old-timey tunes from the old country. Never do those sounds work better than as the marching lead-up to the film’s opening confrontation, an arrangement that creates the feel of armies assembling ranks for a major battle rather than local gangs rumbling over turf. This is stuff they don’t teach you in history class.
Film School: As much as Gangs of New York suffers from a sputtering story, lackluster characters (apart from The Butcher), and an identity crisis that seems to stem from trying to stuff too much history down our throats, damn does Scorsese know how to create a visceral experience. Yes, the violence gets the blood boiling, but everything from the filth and grime of the city to the grease in Bill’s hair and the blood on Amsterdam’s blade makes me want to go take a long, hot 21st century shower.
Speed-o-Meter: It’s a slow burn — quite literally when Bill unravel’s Amsterdam’s scheme and brands his cheek — that threatens to extinguish itself at times as Scorsese puts in motion clunky plot devices and lays off the gas pedal so often that we’re not quite sure how to feel when Amsterdam finally runs the Butcher through and gets a face full of blood for the favor. Relief that the end credits must be near comes to mind.
Marty, Meet Leo: Despite a bit of a rocky beginning (the character of Amsterdam was compelling yet muddled from the get-go), this would mark the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Scorsese and DiCaprio that would lead to better films, cranberry juice, and even Oscar gold.
Little New York: Because The Five Points and other historical locations in Gangs of New York either no longer exist or look nothing like they once did, Scorsese had his production team build nearly everything you see overseas in Rome. Scorsese recalls that George Lucas, who was filming a Star Wars prequel nearby at the time, came over for a photo-op at the location. The friends lamented that with the emergence of CGI, there might never again be a set so expansive and ambitious as Rome’s “Little New York.”
Madness in the Method: Daniel Day-Lewis’ intense preparation for roles has become the thing of Hollywood legend. In this case, the method actor reportedly caught pneumonia because he wouldn’t swap out his period clothing for a modern winter coat off-camera and spent his time walking about the location picking fights with people in character as Bill the Butcher. Not strange enough? In a peculiar breaking of character, Day-Lewis would pump himself up each morning by listening to Eminem, particularly the song “The Way I Am” several times. Will the real Bill Cutting please stand up?
Analysis: After redefining the mob genre with Goodfellas and Casino in the ’90s, it seemed like a natural fit for Scorsese to take a look back at the city he loves and tackle its volatile history and earliest examples of organized crime and corruption. Unfortunately, this is one passion project where his fascination with the material gets in the way of doing the film’s story justice. “I just wanted to say everything … I didn’t know where to stop,” the director joked on Charlie Rose. It’s a dilemma that surfaces throughout Gangs of New York, where the story sputters and it becomes unclear of whether the man at the helm is more interested in the period or his protagonist’s quest for revenge. While the sets, costumes, camerawork, and a standout performance by Day-Lewis all lend themselves to creating a New York more enthralling and barbaric than our history books ever let on, the blood left on this particular blade will be that of a potential masterpiece that Scorsese unfortunately butchered.
22. The Color of Money (1986)
Runtime: 1 hr. 59 min.
The Pitch: Long-retired pool player “Fast Eddie” Felson stumbles upon a fresh, young talent in Vincent Lauria and offers to stake him and show him the ropes of the hustle on the way to a nine-ball championship tournament in Atlantic City. Once on the road and in the old pool halls, something in Felson awakens that he hasn’t felt since he famously challenged the legendary Minnesota Fats decades ago.
Cast: Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Helen Shaver, and John Tuturro
Awards: Paul Newman sunk an Oscar in the corner pocket for reprising the role of Eddie Felson, and the film received three other Oscar nominations, most notably for Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s role as Vincent’s girlfriend/manager, Carmen.
Needle Drop: The Band’s Robbie Robertson composed the film’s original score, and Scorsese peppers this world of motels and small-town pool halls with plenty of smokey Dad Rock, including Eric Clapton, Don Henley, and Mark Knopfler. However, by far the most inspired music selection comes as Vincent showboats to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” while trouncing the best stick in the house. If any scene in this movie still lives on in popular memory, it’s a youngish Tom Cruise strutting around the pool table and howling along with Zevon’s iconic chorus. It’s like Risky Business with a pool cue.
Film School: While the source material belongs to novelist Walter Tevis (to a degree) and the screenplay credit goes to Richard Price, credit Scorsese for keeping things in the now and getting on with the business at hand. Origin stories have since become an overwrought genre unto themselves in Hollywood, but Sese does a masterful job of giving us pieces of Eddie’s background without getting bogged down in the past. While fans of The Hustler will appreciate some of the nods back to that classic film, The Color of Money very much keeps its focus on the partnership between Eddie and Vincent. As it should be.
Speed-o-Meter: The slow, boozy grind of The Hustler mimicked the straight pool that “Fast Eddie” and Fats were shooting. Here, we have a sped-up game of nine-ball to suit a generation that grew up on television and video games. In theory, the movie, like its brand of pool, should be faster and more action-packed and not drawn out as long. Scorsese definitely tries to put the pedal down in The Color of Money, but in the process, the movie loses its ability to reflect the extent to which the thrill of victory and especially the agony of defeat can feed a man’s ego or send him to the bottom of a bottle. My how it turns out we miss those extensive montages that took us through the night and well into the morning when sunlight would start to force its way in through the blinds of a dingy pool hall.
Hello, Newman: It’s hard to believe that it took Newman so long to receive his first and only Oscar as an actor. He and Scorsese share that bond of having been overlooked for decades by the Academy. Still, the bastards got this one right. Chalk this up as a remarkable performance in a very so-so Sese film as Newman wins us over from the get-go. Damn it, I could listen to his character talk about hustling customers with cheap liquor for another 90 minutes, as he does in the opening scene, and go home happy. Few actors could wear the swings of life in their eyes and on their shoulders and in their voice like Newman. He was as good as it gets.
Cruise Cues Up: It’ll be no surprise to Cruise fans that even a younger Tom took it upon himself to do his own stunts, which here meant learning how to shoot a convincing game of pool. The actor bought a table for his apartment and practiced for several months so that he could perform the vast majority of Vincent’s shots himself. However, Scorsese opted for pro Mike Sigel when it came time for the film’s trickiest jump shot. Hey, gotta keep on schedule.
Analysis: Credit The Color of Money for a remarkable performance by Newman and a story that stands on its own whether or not audiences have seen The Hustler before. There’s a rich irony in seeing the frustration of “Fast Eddie” Felson as he becomes mentor to a reckless, young pool player much as he once was, a boatload of talent and a 10-cent head to go with it. However, the real joy is seeing something dormant awaken within Eddie that reminds him that the best will never be content to sit on the sidelines while others rack ’em and crack ’em. Unfortunately, this suped-up, nine-ball affair doesn’t always slow down and let the swings of hustling life weigh heavy on its characters. While Vincent dumping to Eddie and the latter refusing to win that way earns that great final line (“I’m back!”), the pacing of the film doesn’t allow us to fully absorb the gut-punch and what it takes for Eddie to get back up after being knocked down so many times.
21. Shutter Island (2010)
Runtime: 139 Minutes
The Pitch: The year is 1954 and US Marshalls Teddy Daniels & Chuck Aule have been assigned a disappearance on the asylum on Shutter Island. The sanitarium is home to a number of peculiar cases and the more Daniels learns about the place, the less convinced he is that heads Dr. Cawley and Dr. Naehring are as benevolent as they seem? Are the inmates running the asylum? Or is this place something altogether more sinister?
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, and Elias Koteas.
Awards: Not really. The Italians loved it and threw some gold in its direction, and it picked up a smattering of critics group prizes,’ but horror almost never wins awards.
Needle Drop: Robbie Robertson picked some of the best in modern classical and avant-garde to augment this tale of post-war malaise and PTSD. György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki are par for the course for an auteur horror film post-The Shining but the likes of Nam June Paik and John Cage are a little more unique. The most memorable piece in the film is probably John Adams’ arrangement for orchestra of his peer Ingram Marshall’s stirring and haunting Fog Tropes, the booming lament that plays over Teddy and Chuck’s arrival on Shutter Island.
Film School: This is as much a horror film as it is a lesson in horror history. Shutter Island goes back to the foundations of horror, borrowing liberally from the horror films made during the German Expressionist period of the ’20s, the innovative horrors directed by Val Lewton, including most notably Bedlam, which is similarly about the only sane man in an asylum, and later the post-war noirs that flirted with horrific implication like Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, and Nicolas Ray’s In a Lonely Place.
Speed-o-Meter: It moves, but it’s got to slow sometimes to build its unbearable suspense and plum the depths of Teddy’s damaged psyche.
Lehane No River Wide Enough: The film was based on a work by Dennis Lehane, who was having a “moment.” Of course, there is no more liberal interpreter in the popular cinema than Scorsese, who keeps the framework and reupholsters the rest to make room for his obsessions. Basically, what this means is that as in other Lehane adaptations The Drop, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, and Live by Night, the accents are all pretty bad.
Who’s Subconscious Are We in Now? Shutter Island raced Inception to the box office in winter of 2010 and neither film needed the added scrutiny of both being about characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio living in a carefully designed illusion. In hindsight, it’s funny that people compared the two movies because they have almost nothing in common as text. Inception is meant to be a thinking-man’s blockbuster that collapses after about five minutes of thought, and Shutter Island is an essay on post-war masculinity and accountability. One of them rewards repeat viewing; the other has nice suits.
Analysis: Shutter Island’s flashbacks variously recall the work of Douglas Sirk and Samuel Fuller, full-blooded maniacs who made 35mm film into deep oil paint. Sirk’s movies were all about the lies of domestic bliss in America lived in the shadow of the wars that Fuller’s characters fought in movies like The Steel Helmet, China Gate, Fixed Bayonets!, and Merrill’s Marauders. Sirk fled Nazi Germany, and Fuller marched in with the 16th Infantry Regiment and was there for the liberation of the concentration camps, a scene Scorsese dramatizes.
The point is that the American unconscious can’t possibly hold the notion of domestic bliss and unspeakable horror in its head at the same time without cracking, which is exactly what happens. The bliss was always a lie to paper over the terror that defined the 20th century. Shutter Island may have serial killers and ghosts, but this is a movie about the very real scars left by taking part in wars run by rich men who never had to touch their boots to a battlefield. Teddy was one man among thousands who saw the worst mankind could ever get up to and was meant to just go home and live the American dream with that song stuck in his head for the rest of his life. No wonder we go mad.
20. Cape Fear (1991)
Runtime: 2 hr. 8 min.
The Pitch: Newly released from prison after serving a 14-year sentence for rape, Max Cady stalks and terrorizes his former lawyer, Sam Bowden, and his wife and daughter in an idyllic North Carolina town after learning Bowden may have buried evidence that may have lessened his sentence or acquitted him.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Illeana Douglas, Joe Don Baker, and Fred Dalton Thompson
Awards: Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (DeNiro) and Best Supporting Actress (Lewis) and my own personal award for Creepiest De Niro Performance
Needle Drop: Beyond the obvious visual homages to the original (and Hitchcock), the film uses Bernard Hermann’s score with some re-orchestration and new arrangements by Elmer Bernstein. The menacing brass theme — working alongside the stylized visuals — immediately sets the tone for the film and gives it an old-fashioned thriller genre feel despite its ’90s setting. It’s tough to imagine the film working without it, and it adds another layer of tension to the drama onscreen.
Film School: Scorsese took the 1962 film’s obvious Hitchcock influences and upped them even more in his version, using lots of dutch angles, closeups, and unusual lighting and editing techniques to build suspense. The film also features cameos from Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Martin Balsam, who all appeared in the original.
Speed-o-Meter: This one is pretty intense from the start, building suspense all the way up to its watery, whirlpool of a climax on the titular Cape Fear River. The only thing dragging here is all the dead bodies.
Scorsese & Spielberg Together at Last: It might blow your mind to know Scorsese was developing Schindler’s List while Spielberg was developing Cape Fear, and the two swapped projects after Spielberg decided the latter was too violent for him. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment produced Cape Fear, and the director even visited the set several times to offer suggestions to his old pal Scorsese. However, he is uncredited in the movie.
Stolen Kisses: Of all the scenes in Cape Fear, perhaps the most disturbing is the seduction between Cady and underage teen Danielle in the high school theater, culminating in thumb-sucking and a lengthy kiss. Largely improvised and filmed in just three takes, De Niro and Lewis commit fully to the perversity, brilliantly creating a chilling moment you’ll remember long after the film ends.
Analysis: Cape Fear isn’t a shot-for-shot remake (like Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho) nor is it explicitly an homage to the 1962 original. Instead, it’s Scorsese’s version of a slick, genre film with equal parts style and brutality — almost just a fun exercise for him in between his other projects. There’s nothing subtle about its characters or violence (the line item for red corn syrup in the film’s budget must have been $$$), but the film suggests morality is far murkier than just simply black and white, good and evil. All of us are capable of terrible things when pushed to our limits. It’s a visual feast with a legitimately terrifying De Niro performance.
19. Kundun (1997)
Runtime: 2 hr. 14 min.
The Pitch: Imagine being four years old and being told by lamas (in disguise) that you are to be the next, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s holy leader. So begins the life story of Tenzin Gyatso, our current Lama whose early life is translated into an epic biography tracking 14’s life from the 1937 to 1959. This is his coming of-age, his handling of Chinese Communists and Chairman Mao, and his flight to India.
Cast: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, and Tenzi Yeshi Paichang (note: all four actors play the Dalai Lama at different ages)
Awards: While Scorsese has confessed his disappointment with how Disney marketed the biopic, Kundun still managed to sneak in four Oscar nominations, including Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, and Best Score. Speaking of…
Needle Drop: No, the Lama is not seen strutting into Beijing while the Stones “Gimme Shelter” rattles on the soundtrack.
No, ambient-classical maestro Philip Glass provided what Scorsese himself called a sensitive score that emanates from “inside the film.” Tibetan symbols crash, Guyto monks offer hypnotic moans, and Glass’ signature style of repetition signifies the great Lama’s sense of contemplation. Left field for Scorsese, perhaps. And harmoniously beautiful within the movie.
Film School: If you have 80 minutes — admit it, you do, you made it this far into the list — watch the making-of documentary. Within seconds, Scorsese professes to have first learned of Tibet as a child when watching Storm Over Tibet with Rex Reason.
Speed-o-Meter: Slow and smooth as sand poured out of one’s hand.
Dalai and David and Bob: In the fourth season of HBO’s cult comedy Mr. Show, Scott Aukerman wrote a sketch spoofing Kundun after seeing it in theaters (On the commentaries, he’s made fun of by other writers for seeing such highfalutin fare). The sketch’s joke? What if instead of a young Chinese child, the next Dalai Lama was in fact a shitty American teenager?
For Catherine: During pre-production, Scorsese’s mother, Catherine Scorsese, passed away at 84. Scorsese dedicated the movie to her, citing that the Dalai Lama represented “unconditional love” to him, and so did his mother. It’s the kindest, most audacious tribute, suggesting your mom is as good as a god-king, no?
Analysis: Scorsese, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, and other members of the production were banned by the Chinese government from entering the country for daring to consider filming the story of the Dalai Lama. (To Disney’s mild credit: Universal passed on the project for fear of upsetting Chinese censors … until then-Mouse House CEO Michael Eisner later called the film a cultural and commercial “mistake” in 1998.) Perhaps the rift merits further discussion. Maybe the film is nothing more than a series of simplistic gazes at the pacifist majesty of the Lama. But through a Westernized lens, Scorsese shares the Tibetan icon’s young life and times with a caring, curious, and utterly sympathetic eye. It’s with a loving irony that a man who can film violence better than most found a keen fascination with the Dalai Lama’s non-violent teachings and story. And in that way, Kundun is a well-intended gesture, an act of willingness to see the world through other eyes.
18. Hugo (2011)
Runtime: 2 hr. 6 min.
The Pitch: In 1931 Paris, orphaned 12-year-old Hugo lives among the clocks at the Gare Montparnasse railway station, fixing them without anyone being the wiser. When he’s caught stealing by Georges, the owner of a toy store, he’s instead conscripted to repair his toys, not realizing that Georges is actually the Georges Méliès, one of cinema’s greatest forefathers.
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Jude Law
Awards: Hugo scored a whopping 11 nominations at the 2012 Oscars (including Picture and Director), winning five of the technicals (Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Visual Effects, and both Sound Editing and Mixing).
Needle Drop: Hugo isn’t one of those soundtrack-heavy Scorsese flicks, but Howard Shore’s Oscar-nominated score is a delight from start to finish, swaying with all the joie de vivre of its Parisian setting, while also making little musical nods to the silent adventures it liberally references. It’s tender and exciting and should move even the most jaded child who knows nothing about how movies work.
Film School: Maybe one of Scorsese’s most openly film-literate works outside of his documentaries, Hugo is explicitly about the early days of cinema, with the grandfather of visual effects as its central subject. On top of Méliès classics, like Voyage to the Moon, references abound to the films of Buster Keaton (Safety Last!), A Train Arrives at a Station, and more early works of classic film.
Speed-o-Meter: The rule of Scorsese cool doesn’t apply to Hugo; it’s his dorkiest film, one that allows him to play the film nerd in front of a captive audience. As such, it runs a little slow, especially in the first act when we don’t know who Papa Georges is yet. But that’s not to say that it’s poorly paced — it just functions like an art-house take on a traditional children’s movie.
Martin Scorsese… in 3-D! In most contexts, 3-D is a scourge on the cinematic arts, but Hugo‘s one of the rare films to use 3-D well. Crucially, it avoids the “popping out at the screen” gimmick to which so many works succumb; instead, he uses 3-D to turn the cinema screen into a proscenium stage, giving greater depth to his compositions. Also, why not experiment with new technologies in a kid’s film centered around one of cinema’s greatest experimenters?
Marty Only Makes Gangster Movies! Next time someone mouths off on Twitter about how Martin Scorsese only makes movies about one type of thing (usually some mouth-breather upset that he has a dim view of superhero flicks), remind them that Martin Scorsese made a 3-D children’s film about the early days of celluloid that still won five Oscars, and walk away.
Analysis: Despite its low status on this list, I have a real soft spot for the adventures of little Hugo Cabret. While Scorsese’s made all manner of films in his lifetime, this is his first and most earnest attempt to make a children’s movie, and the results are at once pleasingly strange and innately Scorsese. It’s a light, frothy lark that still functions as a meditation on aging out of your own sense of relevance, only to be rediscovered by a new generation who appreciates your work — surely an instinct Marty can in no way relate to.
But even if you or your child aren’t well-versed in the inner workings of 1920s cinema, there’s a lot to appreciate in Hugo, from the effervescent performances (Cohen is fun as an intractable station inspector) to Scorsese’s visible glee at breathlessly showing a new audience how cinema evolved from its early days to the visual-effects apparatus we have today.
As Scorsese’s films go, it’s maybe one of his most shallow, and he doesn’t quite have the rhythms of the kid’s film down: John Logan’s herky-jerky screenplay contributes to that a bit. But watching Hugo feels like sharing in the joy of someone who can’t wait to tell you about their life-long passion, and that’s just downright infectious to be around.
17. Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967)
Runtime: 1 hr. 30 min.
The Pitch: Love never comes easy, and Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is a fitful meditation on romance. Already fueled with Scorsese’s signature faith, crime, and New York attitude, a young couple, J.R. (Harvey Keitel) and “Girl” (Zina Bethune) find themselves smitten with one another, only to watch the whole romance blow up in their faces over preconceived notions of what’s “normal” in a relationship. This is Scorsese’s first feature-length film.
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune, Ann Collette, Lennard Kuras, Harry Northup, and, of course, bit roles for Martin Scorsese and his mother, Catherine
Awards: None, but it was nominated for Best Feature at the Chicago International Film Festival. Faro Island Film Festival, too.
Needle Drop: That Mitch Ryder cue that opens the movie? It’s so fucking hot. Like a bullhorn on Martin Scorsese’s mouth screaming, “I am here, and this is how I want to do things in my movies!” And that’s to say nothing of the naked hallucinations set to The Doors’ “The End” later in the film.
Film school: “Everyone should love Westerns.”
Speed-o-Meter: The movie’s almost dizzyingly fast it comes out like a cannonball. But Scorsese feels the space. It’s his first flick, there’s room for left-field music cues, hangout scenes with no dialogue, people photographed at every conceivable angle as Scorsese looks to maximize attention and keep viewers alert. It’s a jittery, breathless hit.
Play as You Go: It took over two years for this project to take shape. What started as a student film about Keitel in 1965, evolved with scenes filmed, beats added, and a lot of editorial patience. Scorsese had to get funding piecemeal, shooting on 16 and 35mm cameras, time permitting. The original short’s title was Bring on the Dancing Girls, when the film was just about young dudes drinking and grunting around. But when the romantic subplot with Bethune was added, the movie became I Call First.
After a nudie scene was filmed in Amsterdam and added, the film became Who’s That Knocking at My Door?. And that is one way to make a movie.
The Martin Scorsese Fan Club: For starters, this was Harvey Keitel’s film debut and the beginning of a decades-long working relationship with Scorsese. But that’s not all: Brian De Palma and John Cassavetes were big admirers, and the latter went on to become a mentor for the young Scorsese.
Analysis: The best film school movie you ever saw, perhaps. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? has all the hallmarks from an early auteur excited to get out of the gate and show what he’s already learned up to that point. Scorsese’s debut was film brat to its core, but so comfortable in its own skin, unafraid of strange techniques, liberally borrowing from other films and genres, and injecting the 25-year-old New Yorker’s sense of Catholic moralism and doubt. All for a low-budget indie about young kids in love. Scorsese developed a sense of style so kick-ass it’s hard not to admire his energetic first film for what’s on display.
16. Silence (2016)
Runtime: 2 hr. 41 min.
The Pitch: When their mentor, Portuguese Jesuit priest Cristóvão Ferreira, goes missing in Japan, fathers Rodrigues and Garupe follow his path in the hopes of rescuing him. It’s the 17th century and for a time Christianity was outlawed by Japanese authorities, and those caught practicing were frequently punished with torture and death. Rodrigues and Garupe must pass through their own unending crucible to find the man who taught them about religion.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ryo Kase, Ciarán Hinds, Issey Ogata, Liam Neeson, and Shinya Tsukamoto
Awards: Lol. So Rodrigo Prieto was nominated for best cinematography, Andrew Garfield won a critics award, and Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks were given best screenplay by the national board of review. In short, one of the greatest and most monumental films about faith and religion ever directed by an American was completely ignored.
Needle Drop: Husband and wife Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge composed the minimal but effecting score and there are a number of traditional Japanese songs in addition to old religious music. Moments like Tetsuo the Iron Man director Shin’ya Tsukamoto intoning a mournful rendition of Tantum Ergo Sacramentum will linger longer than any particular tune.
Film School: Scorsese’s love of Japanese cinema isn’t as famous or pronounced as his surveys of European cinema, but he’s long been a devoted lover. He appeared in one of Kurosawa’s final films as the painter Vincent Van Gogh. He brings to Silence a stolid but unyieldingly earnest and pensive form clearly learned from the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi, Mike Naruse, Kon Ichikawa, and the gentler works of Keisuke Kinoshita. The story of Silence was turned into a 1971 film by the usually more flagrantly stylish Masahiro Shinoda, from whom Scorsese took one important queue: when dealing with a story this painful, it’s best to tone down one’s usual excessive approach.
Speed-o-Meter: It’s never boring, but Silence takes its time letting the horrors of a crisis of faith and the very real persecution endured by outcasts sink in.
Sue Me: The story of Silence was a curious one. Scorsese agreed to make it in 1990 and then kept putting it aside for his other movies until the company that owned the rights finally tried to sue him for breach of contact, which they settled in 2014 right before Scorsese made the film in Taiwan. Funnily enough, it was Silence that prevented Scorsese from being able to direct The Snowman, which then fell to Tomas Alfredson and failed miserably for a number of reasons.
Forget Me Not: Silence is notable for being one of the three films that openly tackle Scorsese’s complicated relationship to religion. After the release of The Irishman in 2019, there was, as there always is, outcry about Scorsese beating a dead horse vis-a-vis glorifying the gangster lifestyle. It was especially galling because literally the last film he made before The Irishman was this plaintive and searing study of faith under attack. Not a pressed suit or handgun in sight. And so once again people who hadn’t seen a movie wind up dominating the cultural conversation about its director.
Analysis: Silence is a towering work, one of the greatest films the tireless American hellraiser ever directed. Scorsese had proven fearless in the face of torture and murder, of essentially bringing biblical torture to American suburbs and cities. Silence wasn’t his first film to really examine what it means to suffer for your beliefs (that goes as far back as the crucifixions of Boxcar Bertha and later The Last Temptation of Christ), but it was his most emphatic and deliberate.
The film wrings every ounce of suffering from its misguided heroes quest to remain pure in the eyes of their god. Scorsese doesn’t ever take the easy route with this film, building complicated and nauseating tests of Rodrigues’ beliefs that are as patiently directed and edited as they are heartbreaking. A film about our beliefs should be this difficult, but it’s only this remarkable and fulfilling because Scorsese directed it. The voice of Scorsese’s god will stay with you long after the film’s journey has ended.
15. Bringing Out The Dead (1999)
Runtime: 2 hr. 1 min.
The Pitch: Paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage). He was good at his job. There were periods where his hands moved with a speed and skill beyond him, and his mind worked with a cool authority he had never known. Until, he lost a life on the job. Suddenly, Frank’s in a sort of purgatory, working the EMT game in Hell’s Kitchen (not subtle) looking for redemption and absolution in the wake of souls haunting him on the job.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, Ving Rhames, John Goodman, and Tom Sizemore
Awards: Nuthin’. A couple of technical awards for production stuff from critic and journalist circles. Bringing Out the Dead was released in October 1999 and was a commercial flat-liner.
Needle Drop: There’s the score and the soundtrack to consider here. For one, Elmer Bernstein’s Theremin-flavored score is ghostly but never cheap. Perfectly spooked-sounding for Frank’s fears while lamenting his failings. But on the soundtrack side, Scorsese pumps this thing full of pop hits like a doctor trying to save a patient with good vibes. There are endorphin rushes of The Who, Frank Sinatra, R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction, Martha & The Vandellas, The Clash. There’s even a smidge of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” tossed in when Frank comes to a New York-loving drug dealer’s rescue.
Film School: In terms of Scorsese’s New York stories, this might be his scariest work. Comparable kinda only to Taxi Driver in terms of the mood and mystery surrounding the Big Apple’s seedier elements.
Speed-o-Meter: The movie rubber-bands like nobody’s business. Frank’s sadness is pure, sullen, forlorn. Scorsese slows things down when exploring Cage’s headspace with narration that comes from a voice that can only be described as “burned out.” But when Scorsese and Schoonmaker whip together a nutty montage, it’s like the director and his editor are sneaking uppers off the ambulance when the camera’s not looking.
Schrader’s Farewell: It should be noted that this was sudden Film Twitter wunderkind (at least for the younger set) Paul Schrader’s last writing effort with Martin Scorsese. Together, the two collaborated on Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Two Catholic boys interested in misery, self-destruction, violence, the working lives of normal people … well, Jesus was a carpenter in addition to being a messiah, so. Point being, Scorsese requested Schrader’s involvement. He felt the writer could capture the words, images, and heat of miserable New York night. It’s the partnership’s black swan song.
Although, we’re glad to hear they stay in touch.
Guest Appearance by the Director: A brief word on Scorsese’s cameos. They’re all very good. From playing photographers without real dialogue in Hugo and The Age of Innocence to the creepy cab passenger in Taxi Driver, his bit parts have been meaningful, varied, and eye-catching. But without appearing on camera in the flesh, his smart-ass dispatcher has to be one of our favorite side roles. Funny, totally New York. A great role for Scorsese’s warp-speed style of talking.
Analysis: It truly bums us out to realize that Nicolas Cage never worked with Martin Scorsese again after this. The two’s instinctive stylings complement one another, and this was the perfect vehicle for them. Cage, a man who already acts like he hadn’t had any sleep, emaciates himself, engulfed in flames from Hell’s Kitchen’s scariest bumps in the night. Meanwhile, Scorsese’s penchant for guilt and black comedy is in full effect and is carried by Cage’s abilities to bounce from scene to scene. Scorsese is Dante, offering up ritualistic night moves for Cage’s ascent out of the fire. Call it a lost gem, an underrated effort, but something was alive and well in this 1999 effort.
14. Casino (1995)
Runtime: 2 hr. 58 min. Only his third longest!
The Pitch: Is it reductive to describe Casino as Goodfellas in Vegas? Like its predecessor, it’s based on a book by Nicholas Pileggi, features a screenplay co-written by Pileggi and Scorsese, stars both Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in prominent roles, and depicts the real-life rise and fall of an Italian crime family, as seen through the (snake) eyes of casino manager Sam “Ace” Rothstein. Only this time, the descent is on a much more localized level — Casino is just as much about the decline of Vegas itself as it is the gangsters who inhabit it.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, Don Rickles, Kevin Pollak, and James Woods
Awards: Despite (or perhaps because of) the similarities, Casino didn’t receive nearly as much Oscar love as Goodfellas, with only a single nomination for Sharon Stone’s can’t-look-away performance as Sam’s unhinged wife, Ginger McKenna. She lost the Best Actress gold to Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking (it was an exceptional Oscar year), but took home the Golden Globe.
Needle Drop: You’ve got to admire the audacity of the film’s very first musical cue. In the opening scene, Sam starts up his car, only to have it violently explode (yes, like Goodfellas, Casino also has an automobile explosion very early on). This time, it isn’t Tony Bennett that blasts from the theater speakers, but “St Matthew Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach.
With its double choir, double orchestra, and biblical overtones, it’s the most unsubtle sonic start to a film this side of “Carmina Burmana”. The visuals from renowned graphic designer Saul Bass aren’t exactly low-key, either — as flames fill the screen, we see Sam’s silhouette repeatedly float across the scene in slow motion before it all seamlessly morphs into the glowing lights of the Vegas strip.
The audiovisual representation of Sam descending to hell is so cavalier, it borders on corny. But hey, it’s gorgeous to look at, and its transformation into the movie’s geographical location may hint at a thematic complexity that Goodfellas didn’t quite reach (more on that in a bit).
Film School: Like Goodfellas (getting tired of me saying that yet?), Scorsese relies heavily on voice-over and not just the protagonist. Here, it’s even more strategically employed, used to explain the complicated inner workings of a Vegas casino and the thievery that comes with it. But Marty’s savviest move comes with the death of Pesci’s Nicky Santoro (essentially the Nevada version of Goodfellas’ Tommy DeVito). As he travels to a cornfield to meet what’s easily the most disturbing death of any Scorsese film, his voice-over gets cut off mid-sentence. Rambling inner monologue, steel bat to the head, then silence.
It’s an example of Scorsese fucking with his own conventions. His voiceovers are so often the engine of cool—even as Henry Hill’s life falls apart in Goodfellas, his brain-speech remains calm and collected, reassuring the audience that even as things get messy, he’ll be there to guide them through it all. But in Casino, Nicky’s verbal cutoff confirms that no narrator is eternal or omniscient, no one is safe, and crime is even more violent and ugly than the last time around.
Speed-o-Meter: Casino could be described as one of those weeks where the days feel short, but the sum of their parts feels long. While it’s largely filmed in the same momentum-driven, montage-heavy as Goodfellas, it’s also over a half-hour longer, so you can’t help but feel worn out by the end. Not that that’s a bad thing. Because the film isn’t just about the exhaustion of a crime outfit, but the exhaustion of a place, the fatigue comes across as intentional and justified.
Frank’s Revenge: By the time Casino came out, actor Frank Vincent had gotten severely assaulted by his old bandmate/comedy partner Joe Pesci in not one, but two Scorsese films. First, he got the shit kicked out of him in Raging Bull. Next, he got pistol-whipped, then full-on stabbed to death in Goodfellas. Marty finally gave Vincent his due in Casino, where he not only got to mete out Pesci’s gruesome cornfield death with his crew — he got to deliver the first blow of the baseball bat.
Joe Bob Says, “Check It Out”: Yes, that’s none other than iconic horror host Joe Bob Briggs (performing under his birth name John Bloom) as wet-noodle slot manager Don Ward, which makes him the Casino equivalent of Action Bronson in The Irishman. Does this mean we’ll get an interview with Scorsese on The Last Drive-In, maybe after a double feature of Cape Fear and Shutter Island? One can only dream…
Analysis: We’ve talked a lot about how similar Casino is to Goodfellas, but when the smoke clears, Scorsese seems to have a bit more to say with the later film. Unlike the more insular Goodfellas, Casino takes us into a world that so many Americans are already familiar with. Yes, there’s still the more foreign organized crime component, but it’s all poured into a public enterprise enjoyed by millions of law-abiding citizens every day. So, from the get-go, there’s a more established audience relationship with the goods being produced by the criminals.
This yolks Casino more firmly to the (perhaps bogus) concept of the American dream. When the crime syndicate falls apart, it has a direct effect on Vegas itself. The old hotels go the way of the buffalo, everything becomes more sanitized, and so many hustlers and card sharks are replaced by a phalanx of senior citizens descending upon Sin City. Most surprising of all, Scorsese is uncharacteristically judgmental here, depicting the transformation as destructive and lame, despite still turning a high profit.
While the murders and violence are presented with the same sobering bluntness as Goodfellas, the mob-controlled Vegas is presented as being better — or at least more interesting — than the one we have today. Personally, this makes the morality of Casino more complicated for me than Goodfellas. Or maybe I’m reading too far into it. Maybe it’s all just a general observation about entropy: empires end, life goes on, “and that’s that.”
13. The King of Comedy (1982)
Runtime: 109 Minutes
The Pitch: Rupert Pupkin is a thoroughly infuriating but nevertheless very endearing screw-up who has only one dream: he wants to go on the talk show his hero Jerry Langford hosts. The only thing stopping him is his lack of connections. So, he figures why not just go insert himself into Langford’s life and finagle an invitation that way? When he discovers that Langford can’t stand him, he isn’t deterred. He’ll just kidnap him and demand a talk show appearance as ransom. What could go wrong?
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Diahnne Abbott, Tony Randall, Shelley Hack, The Clash, and Dr. Joyce Brothers.
Awards: Ha! No. The Academy has never gotten “funny.” It did win a BAFTA, though.
Needle Drop: As usual, Scorsese mixes the classical with classic rock, letting Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Sinatra, and B.B. King mingle on the soundtrack, all chosen carefully by Robbie Robertson of The Band, Scorsese’s friend and confidante. The best moment musically here has to be a gleefully unhinged Bernhard singing, “Come Rain or Come Shine” to a bound Lewis during a candlelit dinner. Bernhard is the film’s secret weapon, a foul-mouthed lunatic who’s ever bit as determined in her madness as Pupkin.
Film School: The King of Comedy, despite a purposefully drab aesthetic to better augment this tale of losers and dreamers, is very similar to the work of its star Jerry Lewis. Lewis graduated from his buddy nightclub act with Dean Martin to making deeply strange anti-social madcap comedies like The Nutty Professor and The Patsy. Famously, the French film criticism establishment knew right away that Lewis was a rare kind of director. Lewis even wrote a book called The Total Filmmaker that explained his methods.
Scorsese was one of the few Americans who was on Lewis’ wavelength, casting him in a film that seems to take place in the same universe as the self-destructive The Patsy, Lewis’ last golden age directing job, which ends with him telling the audience to go home as he deconstructs the set and dismisses the actors. Pupkin performs in front of a fake cardboard audience, which can only be an homage to the weird and bathetic sight of Lewis ending his own career.
Speed-o-Meter: It’s no Goodfellas, but The King of Comedy has to move at a pretty precise pace to make sure the bulk of its odd humor lands. Written by sometime critic and full-time radical Paul Zimmerman (personal aside: my dad used to do yard work for him as a kid) this film is full to bursting with off kilter jokes that would later form the basis for what was once called anti-comedy. You can see the embryos of the likes of Tim & Eric, Mr. Show, Comedy Bang Bang, and The Eric Andre Show forming in scenes like the one where an elderly female fan goes from demanding Langford’s autograph to wishing him dead in about 15 seconds. “You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!” Magical stuff.
Jokers Wild: The King of Comedy was almost a Michael Cimino film, but he couldn’t get away from editing Heaven’s Gate. Similarly, Bob Fosse wanted to make the film with Andy Kaufman and Sammy Davis, Jr, which would have surely been a phenomenal and unreleasable movie. Fosse made the much reviled but fascinating Star 80 instead, just as a window into his headspace at the time. Scorsese and Fosse weren’t a million miles apart stylistically at the time, so add a couple of soft-shoe numbers and account for Kaufman’s deranged screen presence, and it’s not tough to be a little sorry we never got that movie.
Funny Ha-Ha? The King of Comedy, like the bulk of ’80s Scorsese not called Raging Bull, didn’t have much in the way of a reputation because it was possessed of such a strange sensibility. Part of this stems from a truly marvelous performance by Lewis playing himself as a stressful, passive-aggressive man who resents his success, some from De Niro doing a spectacularly delusional and socially awkward turn as Pupkin, who simply can’t understand the word “no,” and part of it comes from Sandra Bernhard in her screen debut. All of this to say the reason no one much made direct homages to The King of Comedy until 2019’s Joker lifted its plot wholesale like a petty criminal while Taxi Driver and Raging Bull entered the cultural lexicon overnight. Scorsese didn’t make an out-and-out comedy until arguably The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, and De Niro’s late turn back to comedy was seen as proof that his career was over.
Analysis: Scorsese was set to retire from fiction filmmaking, but De Niro talked him into doing a comedy after he told his director he didn’t want to play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. They went with a film that you have to look pretty hard between the lines to see the funny. It didn’t do well at all and only gradually garnered any kind of a reputation among his other work.
12. Mean Streets (1973)
Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.
The Pitch: Go to church on Sunday. Go to hell on Sunday. That was the marketing motto for Scorsese’s proto-gangster flick about two hoods, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Rober De Niro). Charlie aspires to rise through the ranks in the local mob, but is held back by his guilt and sense of responsibility for Johnny. And Johnny is a ticking time bomb. Together, they shoot the shit — and sometimes other people — on the cruel streets of their Little Italy.
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, and David Carradine
Awards: No Academy Awards, but Supporting Actor wins for De Niro at the National Society of Film Critics Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. And Mean Streets was entered into the National Film Registry in 1997, so, good chance you’ll be able to find this for some time.
Needle Drop: How Scorsese is Johnny Boy’s red-as-the-devil entrance to the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”? Like it’s not only a calling card for the director, but this is just straight-fire cinema, right?
Bonus: Clearing the soundtrack took half the budget. That’s a supposed 150 grand on The Ronettes, Cream, Ray Barretto, and, of course, Mick and Keith.
Film School: After Michael (Richard Romanus) and Tony (David Proval) fleece a couple young brats of 20 bucks, the two go to the movies. Scorsese was told to write what he knows by John Cassavetes, and as a supreme NYU student, why not write about going to the movies? Among the posters, screenings, and other reference points to golden oldies in Mean Streets? X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Tomb of Ligeia, Point Blank, The Arrangement, Rider on the Rain, Husbands, Rage… you know, there’s a really good list on IMDB. But kudos to Scorsese for name-checking Cassavetes’ middling Husbands; that’s a good friend right there.
Speed-o-Meter: Fast, rabid, like a flash. Mean Streets announces a very classical Scorsese mode of jagged cuts, surprise tangents, and a shaggy loose shoot-the-shit cadence that carried his more naturalistic efforts.
Mean Exploitation Streets: Roger Corman offered to fund this project after Boxcar Bertha on the grounds that it be an all-black cast and in the model of blaxploitation films being released at the time. Scorsese, by his own admission, didn’t think he could do it. The script came from a very idiosyncratic place honest to his life experiences, and translating it to a black cast would have likely felt disingenuous. Fair. But to Corman’s credit, that’s not the worst idea in the world, and he understandably defends it to this day. Play the imagination game for a second, with a Mean Streets starring Richard Roundtree, Bernie Casey, and maybe Richard Pryor (if he wasn’t busy on The Mack).
Fuck! When Mean Streets came out in 1973, it had the record for the most uses of the word “fuck” in a movie at that time. That number was 52. Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail would beat that record just two months later. But Scorsese was undeterred. In 1990, Goodfellas would possess a hefty 300 uses of the word “fuck.” In 1995, Casino rolled with 422 uses of “fuck.” And in 2013, lord Jesus, The Wolf of Wall Street managed to spit out an incredible 569 uses of “fuck” over its three-hour runtime.
Yes, I am blushing just thinking about this.
Analysis: Mean Streets gets a little forgotten in the one-upsmanship of Scorsese’s crime career. People love Casino, Goodfellas, The Departed, and rightfully so. But it’s with a twinge of resentment that we suggest those have benefitted from kindly cable replay. Mean Streets isn’t out there as much as the later flicks, and it’s just as good if not better, purer, and more raw than most of them. Scorsese was running up to Mean Streets, a perfect blend of his nervous tics and authentic East Coast voice announcing himself as he blew up the ‘70s cinema scene like Jonny Boy leaving a letter bomb in a USPS mailbox.
11. After Hours (1985)
Runtime: 1 hr. 37 min.
The Pitch: Paul Hackett, computer data entry worker, is about to have the most exciting night of his life. What starts with a spark of romance in a local Manhattan cafe spins into a labyrinthine nightmare across SoHo, chock-full of drugs, punk rock, and plaster-of-Paris. It’s a trip, alright, and it’s doubtful anyone gets any shut-eye before dawn.
Cast: Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Teri Garr, Linda Fiorentino, John Heard, and Catherine O’Hara
Awards: You know, After Hours did pretty, pretty, pretty good, all things considered. Scorsese won Best Director at Cannes and the Independent Spirit Awards, and the film even took home Best Feature in the latter ceremony. What’s more, Dunne was up for Best Actor at the Golden Globes and Arquette for Supporting Actress at the BAFTAs. Given Scorsese’s award show record, this is curiously above average for the guy.
Needle Drop: Oh, boy, where do we begin? After Hours works kind of like that rusty jukebox you’d find in late-night diners, and that’s probably intentional on Scorsese’s part. It’s a greasy plate of pop, classic rock, and even a dose of punk rock. At one point, he goes from Joni Mitchell to The Danleers to fucking Bad Brains. It’s a soundtrack as outrageous as the story, and that eclecticism certainly feeds into the film’s frenetic vibe. For our money, though, Scorsese’s pan into Tom’s bar with Robert and Johnny’s “You’re Mine” blaring over the speakers is a perfect encapsulation of the film’s dreamy, nearly Lynchian aesthetic.
Film School: If you couldn’t tell, After Hours is a little left of the dial for Scorsese, mostly because it wasn’t really his project. He basically hopped on board when Paramount pulled the plug on The Last Temptation of Christ. In fact, this was originally in the hands of Tim Burton, and that actually makes sense. So, with that in mind, it’s not at all surprising to see Scorsese’s true stamp on the film is a piece of added dialogue inspired by Franz Kafka’s Before the Law. The scene in question is when Paul is pleading with the doorman outside Club Berlin; Scorsese later said it was his way of venting over the Paramount debacle. Ah, the sign of a true filmmaker, finding release through celluloid.
Speed-o-Meter: Fast, manic, and zany! This is loose-y, goose-y Scorsese, and we love it. From cartoonish taxi rides to coke-rattled zooms, After Hours never stops shaking alongside Dunne, which only embellishes his frustration. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus gives the film a marvelous midnight sheen, and Schoonmaker’s edits lend some character to the camera. So much of the film’s dark comedy draws from its portraits and pivots, particularly its bookends that feel like an utter delusion.
The Rick Dalton “Oh, That Guy!” Extravaganza: One fun game to play here is seeing how many faces you can recognize — and they’re all mostly outside of Scorsese’s wheelhouse. Blink and you’ll miss Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong loading up a van. Yes, that’s Bronson Pinchot in the beginning. No, no, you’re right, that’s Will Patton in all that gorgeous leather. Did you see Dick Miller in the diner? Remember Linda Fiorentino? It keeps going. Of course, the best bit of film trivia is seeing future McAllisters John Heard and Catherine O’Hara. They don’t share the screen, but they would five years later in Home Alone.
Lies, Lies, Lies: This hilarious slice of anxiety comes from the mind of screenwriter Joseph Minion. He wrote the script when he was only 26 years old for a film course at Columbia University. Unfortunately, he also borrowed heavily from radio artist Joe Frank’s 1982 NPR Playhouse monologue “Lies”, which Minion copped to and Frank was handsomely paid. Even so, the genius is there, and Minion would carry this zany brand of storytelling into his follow-up, 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss. That spiritual through-line isn’t coincidental, though, as Minion would conclude what he dubbed his Anxiety Trilogy with 1997’s Trafficking. He and Scorsese would later reunite for an episode of Amazing Stories.
Analysis: Every creator needs to purge. After Hours was a brilliant detour for Scorsese, a breezy escape that found him having a laugh — and in his own backyard, no less. It’s a strange one in his catalogue, sure, but it’s not without effort. Everyone knows exactly what movie they’re making here, especially Dunne, who carries it all on his rain-soaked, plaster-smeared shoulders. God, did Hollywood do this man wrong. Watching his turn here all these years later feels like one giant What If? This is the leading man Woody Allen wishes he was, a shaggy, anxious hunk, whose knack for physical humor should have seen him leading far more pictures. Alas, we have this one, and it’s a midnight masterpiece.
10. The Aviator (2004)
Runtime: 2 hr. 50 min.
The Pitch: Gather around ladies and gents for a big picture on an even bigger man — world-class billionaire Howard Hughes! There’s no ceiling for this tall drink of water, folks. No, the sky’s the limit for Mr. Hughes, and sure enough, he’s scaled it. Wall Street, Hollywood, the American government! He conquered it all and how! So, grab some popcorn, maybe some candy for the kiddies, and enjoy the talkie!
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, and Gwen Stefani
Awards: Heavens yes. The Aviator soared through awards season in 2005. In just about every ceremony, the epic dominated the slate and did quite well. Four BAFTA wins, including Best Film and Supporting Actress for Blanchett. Three Golden Globes for Best Drama, Best Score, and Best Actor for DiCaprio. And five Oscars out of a whopping 11 nominations, including Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, and Best Supporting Actress for Blanchett.
This was arguably the beginning of DiCaprio’s outstanding snubs run by the Academy. At the time, his portrayal of Hughes was seen as a career-best by most critics (and still remains at the top-tier of his resume), and it seemed like he was a shoo-in for the award. Hell, the competition wasn’t even that fierce. Unfortunately for him, there was another biopic in the race — Taylor Hackford’s incredibly mediocre Ray — and nobody could stop talking about Jamie Foxx’s performance. And that was that.
Don’t cry for Leo, though. By 2005, it was already an established (and long-running, not-so-funny) joke that Scorsese had yet to win Best Director. This was similarly primed to be his year, especially given that he was really only up against Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby and maybe Alexander Payne for Sideways. Sadly, Dirty Harry would wind up making Scorsese’s day, ruining everyone’s night and sending the director back to the chair, where he would begin work on his actual bread winner.
Needle Drop: After reuniting with Scorsese on Gangs of New York, Howard Shore stuck around for another history lesson. It’s a brilliant marriage, seeing how Shore has a knack for the strings, and all of this dusty “guff” — to borrow from the Hepburns — demands a vintage touch. Not only does Shore set the tone for the times, but he also really explores the madness of Hughes. The sequences toward the latter half of the film, when Hughes has more or less gone AWOL in his screening room, are given some unnerving depth by Shore. So much tragedy, so much terror, so much pain.
Film School: Are you kidding me? The whole thing is a living film school lesson! This was a straight-up wet dream for Scorsese, who got to reproduce Hell’s Angels and cast new A-listers to old A-listers like Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Errol Flynn. His passion for the medium is all over The Aviator — one of the lengthiest chapters in his ever-evolving love memoir to filmmaking. By far his most spectacular feat — and certainly his most clever — is how he revisited the lighting and color techniques of each era he was exploring. Scorsese not only wanted to mirror the early bipack color films, but also pay a subtle homage to Hughes, who had then cornered the Multicolor process. Genius stuff.
Speed-o-Meter: Like the Spruce Goose, this thing flies, baby. Considering the runway of history Scorsese covers, he admittedly maintains a fairly breeze tone. There’s certainly a deliberate pacing in scaling through the years, but he and Schoonmaker try their damndest to stay at the proverbial parties long enough to finish their drinks, if you catch my drift. What’s perhaps most effective is the way in which Scorsese uses his trademark fast cuts to embellish Hughes’ own mania. The most affecting example is when Hughes is left to his devices in the washroom. The cuts here are as sharp as the soap slicing through his pores. You feel every edit, and you really get a sense of Hughes’ mental anguish.
Way of the Future: Speaking of mental anguish, there are few films that accurately portray the caustic and life-draining effects of obsessive compulsive disorder. Granted, this is on the side of The Worst Case, but man, as someone who has long-suffered from its grasp, the lows portrayed here are truly haunting. True to his work ethic, DiCaprio deeply researched the condition, spending hours with patients prior to filming, and it shows on screen. The realities we create in our heads, the consequences we tell ourselves, and the regret that consumes us if we ignore it … you see it all in Hughes. It’s one of the reasons this writer was so ticked off when DiCaprio didn’t win the goddamn award.
Michael Mann’s The Aviator: Like most Hollywood epics, the story of Hughes passed through dozens of producers, writers, and directors over the years. Warren Beatty worked on something as early as the ’70s (and then finally got his wish in 2016 with Rules Don’t Apply). Miramax’s attempted one with Brian De Palma and Nicolas Cage. The Hughes brothers mulled over the idea with Johnny Depp, as did Edward Norton and Milos Forman. But, what really tickles the mind is how different this film might have looked in its original hands — that being Michael Mann’s. He likely would have been as technical as Scorsese (if not, moreso), but he also would have likely gone colder. Instead, he opted to be a producer, and, well, the rest is history. However, it is worth noting that Mann scholar Christopher Nolan was thinking of putting his stamp on Hughes history and as early as 2012. He had Jim Carrey in mind, and not gonna lie, would have rather had that over Interstellar.
Analysis: The Aviator is history porn, especially for Scorsese, but done really, really well. It. must be stressed how difficult this picture was on every level — the script, the production, the editing, the design, and especially the acting. This could have been so goddamn schmaltzy and precious, but it never is, even when Scorsese is resurrecting genuine Hollywood legends. To their credit, though, Blanchett, Beckinsale, Law, and even Adam Scott never ham it up. They’re all in this world that has a sheen, no doubt about it, but feels lived-in just enough. Much of this has to do with Scorsese’s nerdy affinity for precision — god bless him — but also DiCaprio’s commitment to the screen. Love him in The Revenant, love him in The Wolf of Wall Street, and love him in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, but goddamn this was his Oscar-winning turn. It’s a tour de force performance for a tour de force historical figure, and it’s through Hughes that he truly got to Scorsese.
09. The Irishman (2019)
Runtime: 3 hr. 30 min.
The Pitch: At once both a biopic about hitman Frank Sheeran and his years spent working for the Bufalino crime family and Jimmy Hoffa and also a poignant meditation on life, aging, friendship, family, and death from a master director, who seems to be also looking back on his own career.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, and Stephen Graham
Awards: Despite near-universal critical acclaim (minus a lot of harrumphing about its bladder-testing runtime) and a whopping 10 Academy Award nominations, Scorsese and his mob of heavyweights went home empty-handed on Oscar night.
Needle Drop: Robbie Robertson’s main theme for the film is somewhat unexpected and spare, using haunting harmonica and cello solos over a simple drumbeat. As a result, it feels and sounds less like a theme for a gangster movie than a spaghetti Western. Robertson’s original score is supplemented by plenty of mid-century dance and jazz tunes like The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night”, Johnny Ray & the Four Lads’ “Cry”, and Jackie Gleason’s “Melancholy Serenade”. The music for The Irishman, like the rest of the movie, feels like both a nod to Scorsese’s past work while acknowledging the future is closing in.
Film School: Nobody knows more about making movies about organized crime than the guy who basically mastered and perfected the genre, but I tend to agree with Guillermo Del Toro, who compared The Irishman to late Renoir, Bresson, and Bergman — Scorsese is working with headier themes and a wisdom only accrued from years spent honing his craft. It permeates every frame.
Speed-o-Meter: This one is helpfully split into parts, so if you drank too much liquid prior to starting it, you’ll have a few good opportunities to pause for a bathroom break. It’s more ruminative than earlier Scorsese, so the pace is slow in parts, but it moves along enough you’ll find yourself easily engrossed.
Frank Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa, “…and Peggy!” Some were quick to criticize Scorsese for Anna Paquin’s lack of dialogue as Frank’s adult daughter, Peggy, but her silent, judgmental presence is key to understanding not only Frank’s neglect of his own family but the erosion of his once moral core. Peggy says volumes about what she thinks of her father’s choices without saying more than a few words. Paquin nails it.
“It’s What It Is” There’s no question Joe Pesci is the MVP of The Irishman. Coming out of a long acting retirement to play ruthless crime boss Russell Bufalino, Pesci’s soft-spoken portrayal, which is rooted in a deep stillness, stands in sharp contrast with his previous, more volcanic Scorsese collaborations. He’s never been better.
Analysis: What could have just been a retread of his past work turns into something far more emotionally potent, especially in the third act. The Irishman takes the best of what Scorsese does — highlighting the intersection of crime, greed, violence, and toxic masculinity — and puts it nakedly on display. Rather than indulging the more rollicking side of his gangsters as he does in Goodfellas and Casino, here there is somber recognition of the personal and political damage caused by ruthless brutality. Frank literally becomes a shadow of his former self, forgotten in a mausoleum. Scorsese has spent his career making entertaining movies about Very Bad Men, but The Irishman stands as a reminder that remorseless violence has a high price.
08. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.
The Pitch: After her husband is killed in a car crash, aspiring singer Alice and her preteen son pack up their lives and head west to start over. Financial problems leave Alice and Tommy stuck in Tuscon, where she takes a waitressing job and falls for a handsome divorced rancher named David.
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, and Alfred Lutter
Awards: The film was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, five BAFTAs, and three Academy Awards, but only Burstyn took home Oscar gold for Best Actress.
Needle Drop: Still holding onto a childhood dream of being a singer, Alice likes performing schmaltzy songs from the Great American Songbook like Rodgers & Hart’s bittersweet “Where or When” and Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You”. In contrast with her son’s love for very loud, contemporary rock ‘n’ roll like Mott the Hoople, Alice’s musical tastes feel both extremely old-fashioned and out of touch with her own burgeoning independent, feminist sensibilities. This dichotomy between old and new creates tension not only between the characters but within themselves as Alice struggles to figure out what she really wants for herself.
Film School: Scorsese had just finished filming Mean Streets when Burstyn hand-picked him to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore after watching an early cut of the former. He uses lots of handheld camera shots in the film, which give it both an intimacy and freedom reminiscent of Cassavetes, his mentor.
Speed-o-Meter: The film good-naturedly ambles like a tumbleweed in the Southwestern desert with a lot of camera movement following the characters around. Scorsese is clearly working to establish his visual style and pace here but hasn’t quite solidified it yet.
The Spin-Offs: This is Martin Scorsese’s only film with television spin-offs. The popular sitcom Alice, created by screenwriter Robert Getchell, ran for nine seasons on CBS from 1976-1985 and included the famous catchphrase “kiss my grits!” It also birthed the spin-off Flo, which only ran for two seasons before being cancelled in 1981.
So Dern Cute: If you look closely during one of the last scenes of the movie, a six-year-old Laura Dern can be seen eating an ice cream cone in the diner. Dern was visiting her mother, Diane Ladd, on set during her summer vacation when Scorsese — who also makes a cameo as a diner patron — asked if she’d like to be an extra.
Analysis: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a deeply felt, intimate character study about female independence, home, and the pursuit of dreams. While it certainly reflects the gender politics going on in the early ’70s, it’s also yet another example of how the women in Scorsese’s films are incredibly resilient in the face of toxic masculinity and patriarchy, maneuvering their way through the world with prickly independence. Alice is as tenacious as they come, but she’s also tenderhearted — finally giving herself over to real love, which she realizes can be freeing rather than like her suffocating first marriage. Scorsese and Burstyn make an indelible director/actor pairing. It’s a shame they only worked together once.
07. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Runtime: 3 hr.
The Pitch: Based on a true story, the film follows the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a hedonistic stock broker in New York in the late 80s and early 90s, who swindles investors out of millions, leading to an investigation and subsequent arrest by the FBI.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jon Bernthal, Jean Dujardin, and Cristin Milioti
Awards: Five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Hill), and Best Adapted Screenplay. DiCaprio won Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globe Awards.
Needle Drop: What can I say? The man loves a good montage set to music, and there’s no lack of them here, including a semi-anachronistic moment using the Foo Fighters’ 1997 track “Everlong” after Jordan and Naomi’s 1991 wedding. The music works both to set mood and time period but also often acts as a cheeky counterpoint to the action whether it’s “Oompa Loompa” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Sharon Jones & the DAP Kings’ cover of “Goldfinger”, or Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. There’s also a heavy amount of blues legend Bo Diddley and jazz great Ahmad Jamal. It’s a sonic trip.
Film School: If anything, The Wolf of Wall Street is a kind of spiritual successor to Goodfellas between the voice-over work and excessive drug use (with which Scorsese has some, uh, personal experience). It’s also packed full of pop-culture references from Dumbo to The Graduate. It’s one of Scorsese’s breeziest, most irreverent films.
Speed-o-Meter: It’s like taking very good drugs (so I hear) — for the first few minutes you’re wondering when it will kick in, and then all of a sudden you get a jolt of adrenaline and a high you hope never ends. Despite its length, this one moves with coke-fueled energy.
Nothing Gold Can Stay: In one of the film’s more eyebrow-raising moments, Jonah Hill’s morally impervious Donnie swallows a live goldfish in front of the entire office after berating and firing its owner. PETA wouldn’t allow Hill to actually swallow a fish onset, but the actor did hold a real goldfish in his mouth for three-seconds at a time while shooting — including one that accidentally peed in his mouth.
Crime Doesn’t Pay … But It Might Help Finance Your Movie: In what sounds like a move right out of Belfort’s playbook, Riza Aziz, one of the film’s producers, was accused of using stolen funds from 1MDB — a Malaysian fund created to help impoverished citizens and spur development — to finance the film. According to a BBC Report from May, Malaysian officials dropped charges after Aziz agreed to pay back an unknown sum.
Analysis: The Wolf of Wall Street is perhaps Scorsese at his most excessive — three full hours of drugs, sex, and bro-y Wall Street douchebaggery — but beneath its hedonistic charms, it’s still a classic morality tale in the grand tradition of his other films. DiCaprio is working in Fun Mode, trading on the boyish looks and charm that made him a gigantic star (and party boy tabloid fodder) nearly two decades earlier to create a tragic portrait of a toxic, greedy manboy for whom the party is almost over. It’s an irresistible (and often deeply funny) cocktail that packs a surprising, walloping punch.
06. The Departed (2006)
Runtime: 2 hr. 31 min.
The Pitch: In a tale of two cops, recent police academy graduates enter the service of the Massachusetts state troopers. One goes undercover in order to take down Boston’s Irish crime boss while the other, groomed his entire life by the same mobster, infiltrates the police force in order to make sure that never happens. When the the two rats become aware of each other, it becomes a life-and-death game of who can find and expose the other one first.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga
Awards: Hallelujah! After five Best Director nominations and five times fake-smiling in his seat after someone else’s name got called, arguably the best and most influential director of his generation finally got to hold Oscar … and actually take him home, too!
Needle Drop: The Dropkick Murphys in a Boston-based film might not seem like a very creative pick, but when these hometown lads let “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” rip throughout the film, it induces an adrenaline rush that doesn’t quit until the closing credits. Just don’t tell ’em a lot of the scenes were actually filmed in New York due to tax incentives. They look like brawlers to me.
Film School: The Departed can be simply seen as thrilling, violent, bat-shit crazy fun in an almost-Tarantino sense, but Scorsese does return to familiar themes, such as masculine bonds between mentors and proteges that often take on the complications of a father-son dynamic and ideas about how environment and fate shape us. Nicholson’s character, Frank Costello, begins the film talking about moral ambiguities but also about opting to shape his environment rather than becoming a product of it. Both DiCaprio’s Bill and Damon’s Collin have aspirations that drive them, but what they pursue and how they choose to go about it — mixed in with a little fate — can be seen as the two sides of that coin of which Costello speaks.
Speed-o-Meter: Although Scorsese has a habit of running long (always hit the restroom before his movies), The Departed, despite some heart-to-heart (kinda) moments between mob boss Frank Costello and his surrogate sons, Bill and Collin, doesn’t feel like it hangs around too long — at least not without appropriate payoffs. It’s as full-throttle as it can be without losing the nuance of the cat-and-rat chase that takes place between Bill and Collin.
A “Young Brad Pitt”: Brad Pitt actually bought the rights to Internal Affairs, the Honk Kong film The Departed is based on, in early 2003. After a script was produced and Scorsese came on as director, Pitt opted to step back and let a younger actor take his place. Luckily, Scorsese had Matt Damon’s number. Not that Damon needs the help, but I guess he can now say he was once considered a “young Brad Pitt.”
Hey, Whitey: Getting Nicholson was, of course, a huge coup for Scorsese, but the Hollywood veteran wanted more meat on the character of Frank Costello than the original script offered. Screenwriter William Monahan appeased Nicholson by adding elements to the character that were taken from the life of infamous Irish-American mobster Whitey Bulger, who acted as an FBI informant for several years while continuing much of his criminal activity. This leads to the perhaps unnecessary, but still intriguing, reveal that Costello had been diming out his guys for years. It also ties into Costello’s theory that there isn’t much difference between good and bad, right and wrong, cops and mobsters when a loaded gun is pointed in your face.
Analysis: If Coppola gave us the traditional, family-oriented mafia and Scorsese introduced us to the likable wiseguy (think Goodfellas and The Sopranos), then The Departed takes a look at the bat-shit crazy side of organized crime that simply does at it pleases because, well, go fuck yourself. DiCaprio and Damon balance each other beautifully as undercover counterparts, but it’s the wild, unpredictable performance of Nicholson as Frank Costello that keeps viewers on edge, knowing that he can snap in a bloody, violent rage at any moment. Sese uses that psychotic tension brilliantly as the search for the rats unravels in a final hour that finds the stakes rising, the deception thickening, and a just ending seeming further and further out of reach until the ultimate twist puts the flick to bed in one of the most satisfying last scenes you’ll ever see. This is the coked-up, balls-to-the-wall mob thriller that pulls no punches, refuses to slow down, and sure as fuck doesn’t care about oaths, being reasonable, or remembering to take the cannoli.
05. Raging Bull (1980)
The Pitch: Somewhere between a tale of peak athletic performance and peak self-loathing, Raging Bull is a hallucinatory, brutal re-telling of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta’s life story. From the producers of Rocky, um, well, here comes a film that’s absolutely nothing like Rocky at all. Robert De Niro plays LaMotta as a talented, selfish, womanizing, grotesque champ who pushes the limit of his own successes and failures.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Frank Vincent
Awards: De Niro’s win seems to be one of the most celebrated Best Actor wins of all time. While contemporary thinking begs the question of whether or not dangerous physical transformations, method acting, and self-brutalization are necessary to win awards, De Niro took great risk to portray La Motta as a self-destructive animal. It is an ugly, hypnotizing characterization. And it’s still a revolutionary feat, amazingly memorable too. De Niro did more than pack on the pounds and chisel his abs. He truly was a monster with oxblood paws.
Additionally, Thelma Schoonmkaer won her first of three Oscars for her simultaneously spiky and poetic editing that would define her partnership with Scorsese in the years to come. Bull also managed to nab nominations for Best Picture, Sound, Cinematography, Director, and Supporting Actress and Actor for Moriarty and Pesci, respectively.
Needle Drop: There’s a balletic beauty (and hideous irony) to the opening credits of Raging Bull. Pietro Mascagni’s Intermezzo from the opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” hums in harmony with La Motta sizing up the ring. The slow-motion camera gracefully tracking the puncher’s every twitch and kick as he readies himself, the music preparing viewers for the lamentable story to come. Iconic stuff.
Film School: A boy’s best friend is his idol’s liner notes. To assemble the infamously grisly fight between LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson, Scorsese used the shot list from Psycho to get the brutalist rhythm and tone. Hence the violence.
On the flipside? Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler, a put-your-dukes-up comedy, inspired Scorsese’s sense of the ring. That’s right, Keaton, the comedy god. Scorsese’s gone so far as to say Keaton’s the only man in film to get the “feel” of boxing right onscreen.
Speed-o-Meter: After nearly dying of a drug overdose, Scorsese had to get clean in order to make this movie, viewing it as his comeback, last chance, and shot at redemption. What started as a project ostensibly for his acting pal, became something similar to the high functioning pugilist he depicts: Raging Bull is nimble, aloof, brazen, and capable of smash everything in short order at any given moment. United Artists even got frustrated at the amount of time he took in editing because he viewed this as his rebirth, and he wanted to get every blow right.
The Joe Pesci Show: Remember Pesci’s nine-year acting absence and that old gossip about De Niro having to ask Joe Pesci something like a hundred times to star in The Irishman with him? Pesci’s been pulling this stunt for years. He was running an Italian restaurant, and waffling between being a stage performer or a movie actor when Raging Bull came charging at him. De Niro basically had to beg Pesci to be in Bull.
Tossing His Hat in the Ring: This film is as much De Niro’s project as it is Scorsese’s. According to legend, the director just didn’t want to do it. He didn’t very much like sports (he was a kid with asthma). But De Niro read LaMotta’s autobiography while filming The Godfather Part II and jabbed at Scorsese for years to make something of LaMotta. Scorsese agreed to the project after the soft landing of New York, New York, and saw both redemptive and punitive qualities in LaMotta’s story.
After years of rewrites under multiple writers, the shooting script was the product of two weeks of overhaul from Scorsese and De Niro. (Paul Schrader himself admitted that he added shock material just to see what he could get away with knowing full well that this was a Bob and Marty joint.) And De Niro clearly wanted this project. Insert overfamiliar anecdote about method acting (training with the real LaMotta, tons of boxing matches) and weight gain (60 delicious pounds that freaked Scorsese out enough to halt production).
Analysis: This is entertainment. Granted, it’s the dark prince of entertainment. Like the very best of Scorsese’s films, the title, the logline, are but a framework to deal with bigger ideas about faith, guilty, and of course, rage. Jake LaMotta’s a man blessed with fists and cursed with brutality. A man so jealous of even the smallest compliment his wife might give to another man, that LaMotta must—and does—pulverize that man’s face to a bloody pulp. He’s a sexual cretin, a man with the discipline of a petulant child, and the only way he can profess his sins is through harsh acts somehow sanctioned in the ring. Boxing matches are his church. Raging Bull was like an act of confession on all its creators’ parts, an exorcism of our worst and most toxically masculine fears made manifest through De Niro’s exquisitely eery depiction.
04. The Age of Innocence (1993)
Runtime: 2 hr. 19 min.
The Pitch: In 1870s New York, respectable lawyer Newland Archer’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) world is turned upside down with the arrival of the beautiful, disgraced American heiress Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), the cousin of his fiancée, May Welland (Winona Ryder). Archer finds himself torn between his desires and his duty in this sumptuous adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic novel.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Richard E. Grant, Miriam Margoyles, Mary Beth Hurt, Jonathan Pryce, Michael Gough, Stuart Wilson, Geraldine Chaplin, Alec McCowen, Robert Sean Leonard, Joanne Woodward
Awards: Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Ryder, but only received one award—for Gabriella Pescucci’s gorgeous costume designs.
Needle Drop: Elmer Bernstein’s sweeping, lush, romantic, string-heavy score takes its cues from Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, which is seen and heard at the beginning of the film. The foreboding introduction to the 1859 work—which would eventually open the Metropolitan Opera’s inaugural season in 1883—is played over the opening credits before segueing into the dramatic love duet between Faust and Marguerite as Newland, May, and Countess Olenska watch from their box seats. Both Bernstein and Scorsese use the tragic opera as a musical and cinematic parallel to Newland’s own forbidden and tragic love for Olenska and the performative nature of New York society in the 1870s. Bernstein’s score, like Gounod’s opera, expresses the passionate emotions bottled up inside the characters.
Film School: Scorsese immersed himself in the world of Wharton’s novel, but the filmmaker is also a long, self-proclaimed fan of period films, drawing inspiration especially from Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti and William Wyler’s 1949 drama The Heiress starring the late, great Dame Olivia de Havilland.
Speed-o-Meter: Like the passionate affair at its center, this one waltzes along with increasing urgency. Neither languid nor rushed, it’s meant to be savored.
God Is In the Details: Scorsese making a costume drama may seem like a head-scratcher, but in a 2017 interview with Criterion, the director admitted he was drawn to the rules and rituals of 1870s society, finding parallels with both Catholicism and organized crime. The film takes special care to focus on little details like food, flowers, jewelry, fabrics, and how all of it—including asking Mrs. Mingott for permission to wed—adds to the restrictiveness of Newland’s world.
On Scorsese & Women: If ever there was an argument against those who have criticized Scorsese’s lack of female characters in his films, it’s The Age of Innocence. The movie may center on Newland, but it is no doubt all about the women—right down to Joanne Woodward’s cheeky narration. Pfeiffer and Ryder are alluring, strong, independent, and heartbreaking in their own ways while Miriam Margoyles’ Mrs. Mingott is as pompous and powerful as one of Scorsese’s mob bosses.
Analysis: The Age of Innocence may not contain the physical violence of Scorsese’s usual oeuvre, but it is no less violent beneath all the gentility of the period—what could be crueler than the repression of feelings for the sake of social respectability and duty? Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer less as a man than like a boy discovering the world for the first time as it could be, naive to how impossible it is to truly be free, which the women in his life are far wiser to. This is easily Scorsese’s most erotic movie—has taking off a woman’s glove ever been sexier?—but it’s also a quiet masterpiece about self-sacrifice and heartbreak with an ending so beautifully poignant, it will break your heart too.
03. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Runtime: 2 hr. 44 min.
The Pitch: Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish carpenter who builds crosses for the Romans, struggles with God’s plans for him and contemplates a normal life free from the burdens of being the Messiah who must die for humanity’s salvation.
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, and Barbara Hershey
Awards: While Dafoe starred in two films that year later nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director (Last Temptation and Mississippi Burning), Barry Levinson and his film, Rain Man, took home Oscar gold for both Director and Best Picture. Takeway: Christ can die for your sins but can’t deliver Marty an Oscar.
Needle Drop: As he did for The Color of Money with Robbie Robertson, Scorsese turned to a rock star to score the life of Jesus. This time, he asked former Genesis lead singer Peter Gabriel, who brought in musicians from his WOMAD (World of Music, Arts, and Dance) festival to play parts inspired by the story and the rhythms and textures of the region. Gabriel would go on to flesh out ideas that didn’t get completed for the film and release them in 1989 as Passion, an album that won him a Best New Age Performance Grammy. In hindsight, the score is scene as an important moment for the spread of what we now dub “world music.”
Film School: Scorsese spent much of the second decade and change of his career demonstrating that he was far from a one-trick pony. To go from the intimidating claustrophobia of the big city, a cab, or a ring to the expansive, barren deserts of Christ’s nomadic ministry offers an example of how a great director can make any scenery sing and serve the story at hand.
Speed-o-Meter: Though not to be taken as gospel (get it?), anyone who attended Sunday school or cracked the New Testament will recognize many of the beats of Jesus’ story. It’s a long, slow film that wanders much as Christ and his disciples did — and that stands to reason. Nobody goes from tortured, terrified carpenter to radical Rabbi overnight. However, all bets are off for the film’s mind-blowing final 30 minutes.
The Second to Last Temptation of Christ: Barbara Hershey tapped into a lifelong fascination when she gave Scorsese a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ, by Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis way back in 1972 while filming Boxcar Bertha together. Later that decade, Scorsese bought the film rights and finally began working on the picture for Paramount in the early ’80s. However, the studio pulled the plug on the project due to both concerns about the budget and resistance from religious groups. Scorsese would later get the green light (and half the previous attempt’s budget) from Universal Studios and began shooting the film we know today with Willem Dafoe in the Jesus role replacing Aidan Quinn.
Ziggy Pilate: Yes, that’s David Bowie as Pontius Pilate condemning Jesus to crucifixion — call it a Station to Station of the Cross. Not sold that Scorsese has rock ‘n’ roll pumping through his veins? Well, in the original stab at the movie, the director had none other than Sting in the role. The original Judas Iscariot? The Kinks’ Ray Davies. Case closed.
Analysis: Whether one believes in Christ as the son of God, a historical figure, or a figment of man’s imagination, Scorsese makes the story of Jesus of Nazareth more compelling than ever by putting the tale in utterly human terms. Dafoe painfully agonizes over the voices in his head and the fate he’s foretold of but also suffers temptations every step of his journey in a constant tug-of-war between humanity and divinity. It’s the most relatable Christ has ever been, which has the power to both strengthen faith and enrage the faithful — and, of course, Scorsese’s film did both. Dafoe and Hershey give career performances (Harvey Keitel in Judea might be a bit much, though), and the last 30 minutes of the film will make any serious Christian consider their savior and His sacrifice in a new light. After ruling the streets of New York City in the ’70s, Last Temptation demonstrated that Scorsese could roam the deserts with equal grit, conviction, and vision.
02. Goodfellas (1990)
Runtime: 2 hr. 25 min.
The Pitch: The real-life rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family (and thus the New York Italian mob in general), as seen through the eyes of associate Henry Hill over 25 breakneck-paced years.
Cast: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino
Awards: Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. And with the exception of Joe Pesci taking home the Supporting Actor gold, Goodfellas criminally lost almost every other category to Dances With Wolves. Guess which flick has aged better?
Needle Drop: Like so many Scorsese films, Goodfellas shuns an incidental score in favor of a busted-open jukebox stacked with oldies, pop standards, rock, R&B, blues, and punk. There’s a song in almost every scene, and given the film’s timespan of 1955–1980, almost every era of popular music up to that point gets represented.
So, what to choose as the defining musical moment? There’s the glorious opening, where a young Henry Hill detonates a used-car lot and summons Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches.” The audiovisual combination of petty destruction and Italian classicism—not to mention the song’s title—could be a representation of the film itself.
Or is it the collage of transactional violence set to the Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man”? Or the bitter, nihilistic final moments of the film, where the Sex Pistols’ violation of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” makes a mockery of everything Hill has obtained and lost?
All worthy contenders, sure. But let’s be real: If we’re placing the words “Goodfellas” and “music” in the same sentence, the first image that comes to mind is Frank Sivero’s corpse being discovered in a meat locker to the tune of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.” On paper, it would make more sense to use the frenzied front half of the song.
After all, this is the capstone of a sequence where corpses dispatched by De Niro’s Jimmy Conway are being discovered all over the city. But instead, Scorsese turns to the enchanting piano coda, thus making that stretch of celluloid feel both dreamy and disgusting—the rot of unchecked ambition and consumption.
Film School: Though the events of Goodfellas hew fairly close to the events chronicled in Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book (he also co-write the screenplay), Scorsese heavily rooted the dialogue in improvisation. In rehearsals, he’d allow the actors to say whatever they wanted, after which he’d incorporate the best lines into the script. The result is a kinetic verbosity that feels more authentic than ripping the words straight from reality ever could. The film’s believability comes from its energy, not a strict recitation.
Speed-o-Meter: Goodfellas‘ uses Henry Hill’s coke addiction as an organizing principle—fast until everything crashes and burns. Liotta’s chilled and slightly bemused voiceover guides us through the hypnotic chaos, and montages are often the rule rather than the exception.`Even the film’s most iconic camera trick—an uninterrupted tracking shot through the Copacabana—operates completely off of momentum. Indeed, Scorsese intended the film to play like a “two-and-a-half-hour trailer,” as to show why someone would become allured by the mob lifestyle in the first place. It’s as if the speed and movement doesn’t give the characters time to think about the (a)morality of their actions.
Badfellas: Believe it or not, the real-life inspirations for several Goodfellas characters were actually worse than their onscreen counterparts. Most surprising of all is Paul Vario (changed to Paul Cicero in the script). As played by Paul Sorvino in the film, the Lucchese underboss is as close to a moral center as Goodfellas gets. While he’s definitely not a good person—the man still runs an empire that traffics in murder, theft, etc.—he doesn’t seem to get off on violence like so many of his underlings, and we never see him commit any heinous acts with his own hand. If anything, he’s more of a father figure to the rest of the cast. In real life, however, Vario was ruthless. One of his more notorious acts involved him breaking a barmaid’s collarbone with a baseball bat because she had threatened to tell his wife about their affair. According to gangster lore, he would also eat his meals by opening his mouth over a plate and consuming all of the food in one swallow. Although that’s not evil per se, it sure is gross.
It’s Our Thing: The Sopranos creator David Chase has repeatedly said that Goodfellas was his bible when making the acclaimed HBO series. Beyond featuring many of Goodfellas‘ actors—most notably Lorraine Bracco; pitch perfect in both her anxiety as Henry Hill’s wife, Karen, and her stoicism as Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi—it never utilized incidental music after the opening episode. There’s an even stronger connection in the final moment of both stories. Goodfellas ends with a quick shot of Pesci’s Tommy DeVito—deceased at that point—firing a revolver directly at the camera. On the surface, it’s nothing more than a fun homage to the ending of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. But Scorsese elaborated on it as being a thematic summation of the film: “The gunshots will always be there. [Henry]’s always going to look behind his back. He’s gotta have eyes behind his back, because they’re gonna get him someday.”
The same could be said of the now-legendary abrupt cut to black in The Sopranos‘ finale. TV fans are still debating whether it signifies that the protagonist has just gotten whacked, and maybe those in the Tony’s-Dead camp have a point. But the real meaning is much deeper and seemingly indebted to Goodfellas (and, indirectly, The Great Train Robbery). “There was nothing definite about what happened, but there was a clean trend on view—a definite sense of what Tony and Carmela’s future looks like,” Chase once said. “Whether it happened that night or some other night doesn’t matter.” Regardless of their fates, both Henry and Tony have a special kind of dread to contend with for the rest of their lives—however long or short they may be.
Analysis: With its speed, livewire camerawork, and charismatic performances, it’s easy to mistake Goodfellas as an endorsement or, at the very least, a fetishization of the criminal lifestyle. But the rosetta stone of Goodfellas‘ moral stance lies in its depiction of violence. Note how, unlike the thrilling shootouts in, say, The Godfather, it’s presented bluntly, painfully, nonchalantly. As cool as it feels to watch Henry stroll into a nightclub or a bunch of imprisoned mafiosos turn their jail cells into a makeshift gourmet restaurant, there’s nothing enticing about the way Scorsese presents the various pistol-whippings, shootings, stabbings, and bludgeonings. In fact, it’s in these moments that the camera is at its stillest and starkest, as if Scorsese’s saying “Look. Look at what’s going on. Despite everything else, this is who these guys really are.” What might feel like non-judgement is actually nonchalance, and considering what the characters are doing, the apathy isn’t just disturbing, but downright frightening.
01. Taxi Driver (1976)
Runtime: 1 hr. 54 min.
The Pitch: It’s lonely out in the big city. What city is that, you ask? Manhattan. New York. The Big Apple. A total wasteland of potential, squandered by the sewage that passes for human beings. Upright citizens, my ass. Floating amidst said waste is Travis Bickle, a lonely taxi driver on the brink of insanity. He’s had enough with the stench. He’s had enough of the phoney baloneys. He’s had enough of the violence. He’s had enough.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd
Awards: It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year. Bernard Herrmann and Foster won BAFTAs (she won two, in fact). But like most things Oscar, the Academy was completely out of touch, showering the thing with nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Score) and leaving it without a towel to hang up. Should we even mention how Scorsese was snubbed for Director? Well, there you go. What a joke.
Needle Drop: Unlike Mean Streets, Scorsese opted for a more classical approach with Taxi Driver, ensconcing his portraits of New York with Bernard Herrmann’s haunting tones and luscious jazz. This would mark the composer’s final score before his death, and it’s one hell of a swan song for the legend. The signature sax line alone demands top shelf real estate on his greatest hits; a sliver of grace amidst a melange of brass, woodwinds, and percussion that’s become synonymous with the city itself.
But really, it’s how Herrmann intones a sense of dread that makes Taxi Driver so effective. He gives the score so much room to breathe, and the use of volume — the way it pans in and out — is akin to traffic lights drifting by a block a pace. It’s hypnotic, tranquil even, but Herrmann never affords much rest for the wicked. No, no, this score is as manic as the man at the center of the film, and when Herrmann isn’t letting the breeze in, he’s hammering us with terrifying tones straight out of Psycho.
In short, it’s a diamond score, and he should have won the goddamn Oscar.
Film School: “You talkin’ to me?” Great line, right? Certainly iconic! Ever the film scholar, Scorsese has said the mirror scene was influenced by Marlon Brando’s own mirror mugging in John Huston’s 1967 movie Reflections in a Golden Eye. The inspiration runs deeper as De Niro, who improvised the line on the spot, has since credited the line being the catchphrase of an underground New York comic. Whatever the case, everyone from Marty McFly to your doofus dad has quoted it at some point in their life.
Speed-o-Meter: Nuanced is the word. When it’s slow, it’s patient. When it’s fast, you don’t see it coming. It’s perhaps worth discussing the final act, when Bickle goes AWOL and attacks the brothel. Scorsese personally shot the violence in 48 frames per second, twice the normal rate, and he explained why to Roger Ebert in 1976: “In the scenes of the killing, the slow motion and DeNiro’s arms … we wanted him to look almost like a monster, a robot, King Kong coming to save Fay Wray.” In hindsight, this choice has elicited countless theories about Bickle’s fate and arc, many of which Schrader debunked on the 30th anniversary DVD in which he confirmed Bickle is “not cured by the movie’s end.”
Jokers and Incels: On that note, let’s address the cackling Joker in the room, and talk a little about the film’s sordid influence. Like Bickle, too many viewers have watched Taxi Driver, convinced of their own self righteous motives and madness. At the top of the list is John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981, all to impress Foster no less. His attorney’s defense was to play the film, pointing fingers like Tipper Gore, and Hinckley, Jr. was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Not surprisingly, the whole debacle affected Scorsese, so much so that he even mulled over the idea of quitting filmmaking altogether. Fortunately, he came to his senses.
In more recent years, Taxi Driver has been tied to the rise of incel culture, and the argument reached deafening levels last year with Todd Phillips’ Joker. Influenced by Scorsese’s films — at one point, the maestro was even attached to co-produce — the Oscar-winning (!) knockoff spawned all kinds of vitriol online about what this kind of movie does for the kinds of men who find the kinds of people like Joker (and, by proxy, Bickle) heroic. Given the current political landscape in America — not to mention, the rampant acts of violence across the country — many theaters amped up security, all of which only added to the hype. Fortunately, nothing happened, and the only tragedy is that Joker has Oscars to its name, while both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy does not.
Schrader vs. Schrader: Taxi Driver is the first collaboration between Scorsese and Schrader, who was introduced to the director through Brian De Palma. It’s also the first in a series of films that Schrader has dubbed “Man in a Room” or “Night Worker” films. These would go on to include 1980’s American Gigolo, 1992’s Light Sleeper, and 2007’s The Walker. To him, these films are centered around the same character, whose only distinguishing trait is age. They’re also achingly personal for Schrader, particularly Taxi Driver, which he based around his own harrowing experiences living in a car and being interred in the hospital following a nasty stomach ulcer. The more political-leaning attributes stem from the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. In other words, this all came from a truly happy place.
Analysis: What’s left to be said about Taxi Driver over 40 years later? It’s exceptional. There’s the influence to consider, sure. De Niro is probably at his strongest, at least up until that point. (This writer would argue it’s a career-best turn; it’s all on his shoulders for Christ’s sake). There’s even a time capsule quality to it. Scorsese will hound anyone for saying it speaks to a naturalist or realist filmmaker — and, whatever, we’ll give him that — but you can’t watch this and not feel like this is the New York of the ’70s. Particularly now, when the whole fucking city feels like an extension of the Walt Disney corporation. To those who weren’t alive at the time to grab cabs, shag ass, and live out of a box of cigarettes, this feels like a goddamn documentary.
But that’s the thing, and why it’s Scorsese’s finest film. It’s so intimate. Scorsese is so zeroed in on the mania that his connection to Bickle is achingly palpable in every shot and frame. The same goes for the city; it’s his most honest love letter. There’s nothing precious about this movie, there’s nothing exaggerated, there are no punches being pulled. This is grim, grimy, and gruesome filmmaking that only happens when a filmmaker and a storyteller are so evenly matched. It’s no wonder Scorsese and Schrader would continue to work together; they’re basically fucking each other on screen. It’s a gorgeous partnership with De Niro their pseudo-child, bringing their story to life with a performance that inspires method actors by the dozen each year.
We didn’t even talk about Albert Brooks, who steals the screen every time he’s around. Or Cybill Shepherd, who had already won over America’s hearts with Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Or how about Jodie Foster, whose controversial, Oscar-nominated performance pushed the limits of casting in Hollywood. Or even Harvey Keitel, whose transformative look still drops the jaw every time he pops up on screen. This was a moment for all parties involved, but it was a transitional one for Hollywood, and the passing of Herrmann only cements that notion. Taxi Driver was a bridge between the past and the future for the industry; a film that said, “This is where we’ve gone, and this is where we’re going.” Decades later, the fare is still running.