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Ranking: Every Martin Scorsese Film from Worst to Best

A complete guide to all 25 features in the New York filmmaker's iconic catalogue

Ranking Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese
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    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.)

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    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.

    –Blake Goble
    Senior Writer


    25. New York, New York (1977)

    new york Ranking: Every Martin Scorsese Film from Worst to BestRuntime: 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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

    –Blake Goble


    24. Boxcar Bertha (1972)

    boxcar bertha Ranking: Every Martin Scorsese Film from Worst to BestRuntime: 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.

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    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.

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    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?

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    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.

    –Blake Goble


    23. Gangs of New York (2002)

    gangs poster Ranking: Every Martin Scorsese Film from Worst to BestRuntime: 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

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    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.

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    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.

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     Ranking: Every Martin Scorsese Film from Worst to Best

    Gangs of New York (Miramax)

    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?

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    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.

    –Matt Melis 


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