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.