Martin Scorsese’s 23rd feature-length fiction film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is now in theaters. It is but one of numerous projects to which the director’s name has been attached for years, a slush pile of pet projects awaiting only producers willing to bankroll them. That Scorsese, Hollywood elite and (belated) Oscar recipient, should still struggle to find backers for some of the film ideas he wants to make is appalling and depressing, but also vaguely affirming, proof that he is still considered sufficiently unpredictable as a 71-year-old fixture to be cautious with one’s investment.
And of course, if Scorsese is anything, he’s unpredictable. Who else would enter the late stage of his career with a sprawling one-movie adaptation of an Asian crime trilogy, then follow it up with a giddily shlocky mash-up of the Archers and Hitchcock, a lavish children’s tale-cum-plea for film preservation, and now a gloriously overwrought depiction of Wall Street excess to balance out the unforgivably tame depictions of corporate greed that Hollywood has churned out in response the collapse? And these are just the films that get into multiplexes, to say nothing of his prolific work outside major productions.
The primary focus of this article is on Scorsese’s feature-length work, both fiction and documentary, though it also includes some of his shorter, more idiosyncratic films, both as a means of providing a fuller portrait of the director’s impressive and constant evolution, as well as, between you and me, a means of getting a nice round number out of this list. That leaves a number of odd jobs left unremarked upon here, but to paraphrase Fran Lebowitz, the subject of one of Scorsese’s documentaries, I am both unfair and right. The 35 films profiled below are linked by various thematic and visual cues that link them to the same maker, yet they cover one of the widest ranges of any American filmmaker [this list will be updated to include "The Wolf of Wall Street" as soon as the author sees it]. From exploitation films to spiritual quests, they make one hell of a filmography, and as clichéd as it is to say, even the weaker entries can show up most people working at their peaks.
36. “Boxcar Bertha” (1972)
A career as big and prolific as Scorsese’s could not be without its average entries, baffling oddities and disappointments. But in terms of truly bad works, there may be only one: “Boxcar Bertha.” A knock-off “Bonnie and Clyde” made for Roger Corman, “Boxcar Bertha” belatedly follows up a promising debut by misapplying the talented young director’s skills toward empty exploitation. Yet the film is instructive in many ways: its meaningless sex and violence marks a sharp contrast to the vivid and seriously considered manner in which Scorsese has since employed the same elements, and it is perhaps a testament to how advanced Scorsese was even at the outset of his career that the chance to work as a young nobody for Corman actually limited him rather than spotlighted his innate talents. And as much as John Cassavetes contributed to cinema in his own right, he did us all a favor by urging Scorsese not to get caught up in this kind of filmmaking, at which point the director went on to make “Mean Streets.”
35. “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” (2011)
Scorsese’s profile documentaries always employ his most modest, respectful tone, though they reveal the director’s guiding hand in their minute attention to detail and their ability to reflect their subjects’ own relationship to fame. “Living in the Material World” is, apropos of a documentary about the overshadowed genius of The Beatles, a film that primarily illuminates George Harrison through delving at length into the lives of others: friends, lovers and peers. But this approach starts to take the film farther and farther from its subject, sometimes devolving into long stretches of anecdotal reminiscences all united by the fact that George Harrison so happens to show up in what is otherwise a story all about the person speaking.
Harrison spent his post-Beatles career searching for something bigger, spiritually speaking, and as such it is fitting that Scorsese’s film should be, in his own words, one of exploration. But the lack of focus results in an unwieldy picture, one filled with an impressive log of archival material and a few great talking head moments but remarkably empty and half-explored for a film its length.
34. “Shine a Light” (2008)
Mick Jagger joked that “Shine a Light,” the Rolling Stones concert film, might perversely be the one Scorsese movie not to feature “Gimme Shelter.” It’s a fun tease, but it also prepares one for circumventing expectations that the film fails to deliver. Indeed, the most surprising thing of all about a meeting point between the maverick director and his favorite band is how conventional the proceedings are: a fleet of masterful cinematographers turn in a homogenized, slick production that matches the band’s long-ensconced position as elder statesmen, largely stripped of their context as once the most dangerous of the English white blues invasion. Even playing songs rarely, if ever, performed live, the Stones look and sound like a machine going through the motions, and the film only occasionally provides glimpses of the band’s vestigial snarl, usually when a camera cranes with Keith Richard’s bent frame until practically inverted as he manages to make a lick seem tossed-off even when it’s practically been programmed into the fretboard by now.
33. “The Color of Money” (1986)
Far better than any unnecessary sequel to a long-ago starring vehicle has any right to be, “The Color of Money” has to be one of the more refined and carefully considered films to be made by a guy who openly took the project only to fund one he actually wanted to do. Scorsese’s ability to fuse his camera with the demands of each production is especially benefited by a story that relies on “trick shots,” that of the pool hustlers old (Paul Newman) and new (Tom Cruise). Certainly no one else has ever made billiards seem as dynamic, with roving sweeps and “Black Narcissus” cribs for close-ups that give every shot and cut the rush of a cue ball launched in a break. It’s enough sometimes to make you forget that you’re watching a wan update of a fine film and a mercenary effort for everyone involved.
32. “A Letter to Elia” (2010)
Elia Kazan is one of the most divisive figures in American cinema: even his greatest and most enduring film achievement, “On the Waterfront,” is tied inexorably to his notoriety, a feature-length apologia for his HUAC testimony. Yet Kazan also helped modernize film acting, and the films he made in the wake of his testimony are remarkably ragged and personal. Scorsese’s brief American Masters episode only has enough time to be an overview, yet Scorsese’s own personal affection for and attachment to the filmmaker helps reposition Kazan to doubters as the person he always was: an unparalleled director of actors whose films, as in his political decisions, cannot be as easily reduced as many would wish.
31. “Cape Fear” (1991)
The 1991 version of “Cape Fear” is like Nick Cave’s rendition of the murder ballad “Stagger Lee,” an update of a sufficiently timeless work of horror that modernizes its content through hyperbolic grotesquerie. Its offenses run from visible assault to heavily suggest ephebophilia, with a string of impossibilities that allow De Niro’s Cady to always be near his targets. Yet coming from a movies-as-God type like Scorsese, it’s no wonder the scariest moment of the film might be the one in which Cady sits down to a banal movie in a theater and promptly acts like an ass, smoking a cigar and cackling at every dull line. In a filmography defined by its open, passionate indebtedness to film, here is a character who mocks their insipidness, and the increasing, De Palma-esque mania of the movie that follows hints that the director himself is shaken by this bad faith.
30. “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” (1967)
Generally, and accurately, seen as a prototype of “Mean Streets,” “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” is best seen as a startling glimpse at a young filmmaker’s sheer ambition, and if the mere existence of “Mean Streets” and its attendant fulfillment of that ambition is proof that Scorsese needed a bit more experience to pull it off, it nevertheless offers a concise précis of the director. Catholic guilt, men whose misogyny is undercut and reinforced by their total reliance on women for their emotional strength, cinephilia, hyperactive but fluid camerawork, rock music. It’s all there in utero, not yet tied together but clearly chafing at its limitations of budget and professionalism; Marty was always going big, it is obvious from this. Even today, its Cassavetian rawness is a crucial skeleton key for even the biggest Scorsese movies, an indication of how independent he remains even when making blockbuster young adult movies.
29. “Made in Milan” (1990)
Scorsese’s willingness to shoot anything if it means trying something new has filled his resumé with intriguing knick-knacks, one of the strangest of which much surely be this 20-minute film commissioned by Giorgio Armani. A kind of experimental company orientation video, “Made in Milan” is a tour of Armani’s present and the cultural past that informs him. Renaissance art bleeds into modern design as throughlines are drawn from art philosophy to Armani’s beliefs in fashion, dining, even the layout of his office.
28. “The Aviator” (2004)
Robert Richardson’s knack for mimicking not so much the texture of three-strip Technicolor but the image one’s mind conjures when Technicolor is invoked makes him an ideal DP for Scorsese, especially for “The Aviator.” Richardson’s brightly lit, sumptuously colored images exaggerate and pay tribute to classic Hollywood as much as the Howard Hughes biopic renders elements of that period—moguls who fancied themselves the guiding filmmakers, Kate Hepburn in all her blunt, androgynous force—in loving, broad strokes. That attribute eventually becomes a setback, sanitizing the darker impulses and prejudices of Hughes, who is rendered less as an unstable tyrant than a victim of his own success, a man who seemingly had it all yet discovered he was powerless. Coming off the butchered and manipulated “Gangs of New York,” though, perhaps Scorsese felt a kinship that overrode his usually critical appraisals.
27. “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” (1995)
Made for British television, “A Personal Journey” could be the first lecture of any Intro to Film Studies course, a four-hour sojourn that, contrary to its title, is less like a trek than the final preparations to begin that journey. Even the “personal” is suspect, betrayed in the director’s enthusiastic narration but generally absent from the assemblage of canonical classics. The documentary picks up in its second half, when overview gives way to specific topics that feels like but the first episodes of a series of ongoing thesis docs that never materialized. It is in this back half that Scorsese reveals himself not a historian but a critic, wrong on occasion on tidbits of factual data but always keen in analyzing a movie even with a single shot.
26. “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince” (1978)
Steven Prince is a one-man oral history of the ‘70s, regaling all those within earshot with a host of stories that jump off from amphetamine usage to jobs ranging from construction to managing Neil Diamond, with pit stops in various diversions to sate the wandering focus of a recovering speed freak. That Scorsese was himself in the throes of drug addiction at the time suggests that the camera’s own spasmodic zooms and jumps are indicative of a deeper intuition of that jumbled attention process. Damned if Prince doesn’t make a captivating raconteur, though: his description of jumpstarting a OD’s heart is, in telling, as exhilarating as its inspired visualization in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”
25. “The Departed” (2006)
Overstuffed, ham-fistedly symbolic and reliant on a number of auterist tics that have rarely seemed so played out, “The Departed” is nevertheless a relentlessly entertaining film, and perhaps the strangest, most idiosyncratic Best Picture winner of our time (only “Slumdog Millionaire” offers any challenge, and it has the benefit of a simperingly reactionary feel-good narrative). Jack Nicholson threatens to upend the film with his showboating, but elsewhere are the delights of Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin’s deft double-act, a corkscrewing narrative that ceases about halfway to care about how little sense it makes, and the sight of Leonardo DiCaprio at last coming into his own as Scorsese’s new leading man precisely by taking such a backseat to others, popping up mainly to barely conceal his pure terror as his harebrained undercover mission threatens to go belly up at every second.
24. “Public Speaking” (2010)
Fran Lebowitz is the first person to completely steal a film from Martin Scorsese. Scorsese himself is heard throughout the film, rarely as the person asking the intellectual questions but as the listener rendered breathless with laughter at her every bon mot. (The notoriously asthmatic director must have had spare inhalers at the ready when sitting down with her.) If the subjects of Scorsese’s other profiles are oblique, either unable or unwilling to speak about themselves, Lebowitz has made a career forcing people to listen as she shares her life and views in exacting detail, and it may be for that reason rather than its modest running length (less than half that of the Dylan and Harrison docs) that the film zips along. Despite her smoke-ravaged Noo Yawk accent, Lebowitz is almost musical when her wit is left to run rampant, and one cannot fault Scorsese for cackling like Max Cady in the corner of the frame.
23. “No Direction Home” (2005)
A three-and-a-half-hour film about Bob Dylan that stops at his ‘66 motorcycle crash should be the absolute worst kind of exhaustive fan documentary: over-analytical, unable to cut any anecdote or fact for the sake of a narrative, and dry as a bone. Instead, the film is the best straight-ahead look at Dylan precisely because it actively seeks to preserve his mystery, to dig into the truth behind the artist’s obfuscated past while still printing the legend. Thus the aloof, stand-offish prig of “Don’t Look Back” is revealed to be a kid reacting like a cornered animal to the pressure of an entire generation on his shoulders, only for that insight to feed a larger mythos of Dylan as iconoclast, willing to challenge and disappoint his followers. As in the Harrison doc, one is left with no clearer an image of Dylan at the end of the massive film than the beginning. Unlike “Living in the Material World,” however, this comes off not as a failure of execution but a means of staying true to its artist.
22. “My Voyage to Italy” (1999)
Oh, to imagine a world in which “A Personal Journey” and “My Voyage to Italy” were but the first in a long-running series of cinephilic fireside chats from Scorsese, personalized tours through select national cinemas. (Just imagine one for Japanese cinema, or East Asian cinema in general. Or African cinema! Bollywood!) Scorsese’s voyage through Italian cinema is sweeping but, as its title implies, subjective, less about an introduction to the nation’s output than how each film illuminates something for him. In a revealing statement at the top of the four-hour sojourn, Scorsese admits that it was seeing subtitlted Italian films on a local New York TV station catering to a big Italian-American demographic (perhaps explaining the film being presented in Academy ratio black-and-white) that helped him truly understand his Italian heritage.
That sets up the prism through which to view the full film, as well as Scorsese’s cinephilia writ large. And even when the director’s citations do not necessarily line up with his own style—Scorsese’s fondness for and seeming debt to Rossellini is hard to process given their totally divergent aesthetic and moral foci—the documentary provides a keen insight into how one of America’s greatest and most porous directors found his own voice through breaking down that of others.
21. “Kundun” (1997)
Scorsese’s films are one in which each action is literally sensationalized, its effusive color, composition and cutting provoking a transference that fills one’s nerves with the sensation of throwing a punch, or one’s nostrils with the scent of an old camera’s flashbulb exploding. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is equally tactile, seemingly natural detail rendered so exactly that the real becomes too real. Together, each somehow made his most abstract work, a film about the Dalai Lama that glides over the material nature of religious leader’s existence in favor of an attempt to capture his quest for spiritual enlightenment. Even the inseparable political context of the Tibetan is rendered as background (though one may attribute that to the usual simple-mindedness with which Hollywood treats the Free Tibet movement), so that a child who becomes an egomaniac upon being chosen as the next leader is without warning a measured, wise man, and the harsh reality of Tibetan life is subsumed into rituals and art that preserve that reality in a cultural history through poeticizing it. More stately in aesthetic than most of Scorsese’s other work, “Kundun” is nevertheless the director’s most ephemeral film.
20. “The Last Waltz” (1978)
Intricately storyboarded and assembled as much off the concert stage as on it, “The Last Waltz” paradoxically has the feeling of being as spontaneous and in-the-moment as a rock show, an impression eclipsed in the genre only by Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.” Scorsese’s experience in helping to cut “Woodstock” clearly benefited the director when it came to shooting and organizing footage of a performance, and each edit only draws the viewer in closer, until you’re sitting on the sidelines of an increasingly crowded stage. The roster of guest performances further elevates the film outside of the director’s input: there’s something uplifting about a band primarily known as backing players amassing such good will that the cream of the crop of ‘70s rock comes out to see them off.
19. “Italianamerican” (1974)
Roughly the length of an hour-long TV episode with commercial break, “Italianamerican” is so densely layered that it could stand as a fair summary of its maker were it not so obscure. Funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, “Italianamerican” is a straightforward mini-feature in which the director interviews his parents on topics ranging from their own parents’ immigration to New York from Sicily to Mama Scorsese’s meatball recipe (helpfully included in full in the credits). Far from being a simple document of Scorsese’s domestic life, however, the film blossoms outward from his parents’ fond reminiscences into a rich tapestry of social and anecdotal history, the story of the Italian emigré in the first half of the 20th century. Interspersed with family photographs and stock footage of Sicilian and Italian-American communities, “Italianamerican” is “My Voyage in Italy” without resort to cinema, a means of the director explicating his own roots through intimate and epic stories.
18. “The Age of Innocence” (1993)
The glance is all-powerful in Scorsese’s cinema: the audience not only sees what characters see, we feel how those sights make them feel. Maybe it’s not so surprising, then, that a director coming off the one-two punch of “GoodFellas” and “Cape Fear” should turn in a near-perfect adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel of frustrated love and suffocating social mores. Rituals of gangster life become the even fussier details of high society, and the maddening tedium of a life so planned is shaken violently by the meaningful gaze of a woman who threatens to fall outside that rigidly bound caste.
Romantic longing is so rare a feature in Scorsese’s films, as his protagonists are usually of the sort who simply “take” the women to whom they are attracted, but to see Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis engaged in a constant pas-de-deux of snuck glimpses, unable to take direct action but living out entire love scenes in a blink, suggests that the director could have been one hell of a “women’s picture” director.
17. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974)
And speaking of women’s pictures. Scorsese’s films may critique belligerently masculine, unapologetically misogynistic men, but they frustratingly never attempt to prioritize the women who could provide a contrast to that insular world. The sole exception is “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” a dark ‘70s comedy about a widow (Ellen Burstyn) who capitalizes on her husband’s death by trying to belatedly live out her dream of being a singer. The film boasts numerous hilarious moments—child actor Alfred Lutter’s relentless, infuriating “shoot the dog” story, Diane Ladd as a well-meaning waitress co-worker who makes everything awkward—but it also successfully incorporates the grit of early Scorsese in the form of some terrifying interactions with men that play the usual Scorsese males from the point-of-view of the woman on the receiving end of their tirades.
That darkness, combined with the film’s confused longing and nervous humor, fulfills Burstyn’s intent to make a feminist movie by expanding its emotional and thematic range outside a two-dimensional tract. It is a film that treats women neither as reactive agent nor thematic cause but as people, and it’s a shame Scorsese has yet to try and make another film that takes that approach.
16. “Casino” (1995)
“Casino” is “GoodFellas” without its built-in limitation of following around a couple of low-level mooks. The people at the heart of this film are actually powerful, not bossing around dingy nightclubs and postmen but a floor in which millions change hands daily. As in Paul Verhoeven’s similarly styled “Showgirls,” “Casino” is a film lit by the glint of Vegas, its rhinestone and neon shimmer calling out for every object to be grabbed even as everything sits behind harshly defended barriers. The collapse of the mob-casino empire may not be as exciting as Henry Hill’s helicopter pursuit, but that is because it is not one man falling to pieces but a business that went south over bad books. Even so, the coda, in which mob rule gives way to corporate oversight of Vegas, is one of the best “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” punchlines in cinema.
15. “New York, New York” (1977)
Like so many of the other designated white elephant flops of the New Hollywood era (“1941,” “Heaven’s Gate”), “New York, New York” is not only better than reputation would have you believe, but perhaps a more subversive work of art than many of the decade’s accepted classics. In re-using MGM’s old musical lots, Scorsese not only breaks from the reductive “realist” tag applied to his early work but reminds a generation that viewed Scorsese and his peers as the rescuers of an outmoded Hollywood how strikingly modern the old studios were.
The director calls attention to the artificiality of the sets even as the narrative introduces elements that clash with the old sensibilities those sets once reinforced, pitting a complex, emotionally muddled love story against those flat but impossibly deep backgrounds and props to see if they can expressionistically render that love as well as they could the easier, happier kind. If the results are messy, well, so is life, and “New York, New York” simultaneously pays tribute to and erodes movie romance (to say nothing of the musical and cinematic history with which he toys) with greater clarity than serious, thematically frank dramas.
14. “Hugo” (2011)
“Old-fashioned” was the favored term that greeted “Hugo” upon its release by supporters and detractors alike, but both invoked the description as if it would not apply to all of Scorsese’s works. As “New York, New York” indicated, Scorsese is not a rule-breaker but rather the most fastidious follower of the rules, relying on them eve in untested scenarios in which their application seems a violation of convention . “Hugo” obeys all the usual trappings of a family film—overactive movement, brightly chromatic frames, unabashed sentimentality—but when the film ceases to apply all of these things to the Dickensian street urchin who lends the film its title and instead turns to a plea for film preservation, “Hugo” morphs into something singular. Is it didactic? Of course it is, it’s a children’s movie. But it is also enthusiastically stylized, and if Judeo-Christian values can be passed down through kids’ movies, why not a message of responsibility of a more specific variety?
13. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)
Writer Terence Winter specifically cited “GoodFellas” as a key reference for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” though if anything, this is the movie that at last transcends its inspiration for sheer mayhem in depicting a subjective view of unchecked, thoroughly masculinized greed. How quaint the mafiosos seem next to Jordan Belfort, who one-ups cooking lavish meals in the backroom of the prison mess by playing tennis out in the open in the pen. “I always wanted to be rich” is Belfort’s mantra, a goal that transcends occupation and therefore rules, yet even as Scorsese dives into the broker’s headspace with a flurry of tricks, he betrays his own formal control in keeping everything coherent and ordered.
His extreme long shots of endless workfloors replace the gray-flannel-suit stagnation of “The Apartment” with the screaming, drug- and testosterone-driven pandemonium of modern money-making, which is not done quietly and with a degree of bourgeois guilt but with unrepentant, id-stoking glee. That he still films such sights with a degree of restraint, however, allows the director to have his cake and eat it too: the image dutifully replicates Belfort’s carnival world, but it also undermines that construct at every turn. The only thing funnier than Scorsese’s depiction of Bro-ker lifestyle is the idea that some people should take that cartoonish, lacerating depiction as endorsement.
12. “After Hours” (1985)
Made during Scorsese’s long period of frustration in trying to get “The Last Temptation of Christ” made, “After Hours” is spleen-venting of the highest order. Infused with Michael Powell’s reds and camerawork to make Ophüls blush, the film plunges into a comic nightmare shade of New York in which S&M, modern art and light hellraising shake up the rota of Griffin Dunne’s desk jockey. The amount of time and effort put into the most innocuous, unnecessary moments (especially the carefully timed camera drop to follow a tossed key) confirm that Scorsese’s larks are more thoroughly mapped and considered than some magnum opuses. As ever, the ostensibly apolitical filmmaker produces a work that summarizes its time, a vision of a desperately maintained Reagan-era fantasy of capitalist overwork eroded by, then rebuilt around the carnal pleasures hidden by that system of labor value.
11. “The Big Shave” (1968)
If Scorsese’s other student shorts are very obviously the work of an amateur, “The Big Shave” is stunning for its clarity. The film is an exercise in simplicity: shots establish a man coming in, washing and lathering his face, then close-ups dart over that face as the man shaves. Innocent enough, until he keeps shaving and shaving, and nicks and cuts start to multiply. The increasingly gruesome sight is gripping for its own sake, but it also illuminates a crucial tenet of Scorsese’s filmography, that of its characters’ willful self-immolation. The final title card adds an additional context to the short that speaks to how political Scorsese’s work can be, if one dips just below its surface.
THE LIST CONTINUES WITH THE TOP 10 SCORSESE FILMS ON PAGE 2.
10. “Gangs of New York” (2002)
Deeply compromised by recuts, saddled with a distracting love story and centered on an unconvincing protagonist (and equally unconvincing star), “Gangs of New York” is a messy, confused epic that nevertheless attains the kind of broad-stroke cultural mural that “Heaven’s Gate” accomplished 20 years earlier. (“Please, don’t help me,” Scorsese begs from afar). Released in the wake of 9/11, the film turns inward to examine New York’s own history of xenophobia and cross-cultural strife. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher is a gang leader too busy engaging in ethnic cleansing in Five Points to care for the national conflict raging farther south, yet his status as an honor-obsessed man who resorts to brutal war over democratic ethnic acceptance shows the Civil War coming to New York well before the Draft Riots. The final time-lapse, in which a city grows up from a battlefield as if watered by bloodshed, pays tribute to a wounded city even as it suggests horror has always been with it.
9. “Shutter Island” (2010)
If one focuses only on plot, “Shutter Island” is a serviceable psychological thriller with a predictable twist. In motion, however, it is an exuberant work that journeys through and updates Scorsese’s various influences. The Archers are there, of course, and so is Hitchcock, in a climax that replays “Psycho’s” fatally expository dénouement and finds the angle that makes it work, not as a clinical diagnosis but as a means of verbalizing grief to a person corrupted by it. Scorsese employs various image sources to better visualize its characters’ increasingly evident insanity, and bleeding color palettes add violence and heartbreak to a circuitous search for answers. I’d call it the best of Scorsese’s mature period, but it is enough to know that someone’s “mature period” could house such a film.
8. “Raging Bull” (1980)
Has a biopic ever cared less for its subject than “Raging Bull” does Jake LaMotta? Even Mark Zuckerberg comes across as an allegory and a tragic figure, but LaMotta is only ever a dumb bruiser, a pudgy thug who hurts everyone in front of him until he runs out of opponents and starts beating loved ones. Like Vicki’s view of ballet in “The Red Shoes,” Jake boxes not for the adulation but for the bloodletting, the space around the ring rendered as a howling black void that leaves nothingness around the ring, that prioritizes pummeling another person over all other aspects of existence. Crucially, the film never mistakes being pathetic for being worthy of pity, and even when the boxer is reduced to a fat, washed-up hack defacing his legacy for chuckles, one can only view his lot as just desserts.
7. “Mean Streets” (1973)
Johnny Boy’s introduction, set to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and unfolding in slow-motion so that a goon’s entrance feels like the arrival of a king, is the heir to “Stagecoach’s” rush-zoom into John Wayne’s face, announcing the arrival of a star, and of a partnership that would give incalculable gifts to cinema. The rest of “Mean Streets” is almost incidental to that moment. Almost. Harvey Keitel’s Charlie surprises on each new viewing with his vulnerability, how he stands as one of a precious few Scorsese protagonists with a keen awareness of his own lack of importance and agency. Catholic guilt hangs over the picture, of course, but it is Charlie’s weak, obedient supplication to the bosses he hates, which manifests as condescending paternalism in his lecturing tone with Johnny Boy, that explicitly links Catholic dogma to mafia hierarchy, the boldest religious gesture of any of the Catholic movie brats.
6. “Life Lessons” (1989)
In the otherwise execrable anthology film “New York Stories,” Scorsese’s contribution stands out as one of his finest works. Having remade “Notes from Underground” for “Taxi Driver,” here the Dostoevsky work being adapted is “The Gambler,” though narrative in general ceases to be a priority almost immediately in the visual and aural din of this study of Nick Nolte’s self-absorbed painter. Dobie’s painter’s block is expressed through busily edited splashes of color set to deafening music, a collage that digs even deeper than Nolte’s mercurial performance to communicate art’s ability to elate and torment its makers. In 45 minutes, Scorsese expresses in abstract what his lengthy documentaries do through specificity: explain why he is driven preternaturally to create.
5. “GoodFellas” (1990)
What “The Shawshank Redemption” is to TNT, “GoodFellas” is to Spike, but don’t hold that against a film that so thoroughly skewers what so many celebrate in it. “As far back as I can remember,” intones Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill at the top of the film, “I always wanted to be a gangster,” but “GoodFellas” emphasizes what an empty, stupid, caveman desire that really is. The Copacabana shot is one of the most lauded single-takes in film, but its showiness is meant to be as gaudy as possibly, reflecting its characters’ feeling of total power while also showing what a sad, small kingdom they run. Few of Scorsese’s films are billed outright as comedies, but find a better-sustained work of high comedy than Hill’s descent into (justified) cocaine paranoia, in which family drama escalates into federal crackdown and imagined foes become real black helicopters.
4. “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)
From a certain point of view, “The Last Temptation of Christ” is almost funny, a presentation of Jesus as the first victim of Catholic guilt. But contrary to its frothing reception from offended religious leaders, the film does not disrespect Christ. Yet for a film whose title speaks to a final, dying moment of feverish bliss, “The Last Temptation” does Christ the service of taking him down from the cross, of questioning how hard it must have been for a man to live without sin in a world as steeped in it then as it is now. Most films about Jesus treat his teachings as a mere preamble to his death, but Scorsese’s film takes the appropriate tack, portraying his final moments as a final illumination of the radicalism of those teachings. “The Last Temptation of Christ” is a work of spiritual rumination filtered through a material prism, and as such is the only film that truly betrays the director’s professed debt to Roberto Rossellini.
3. “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999)
The setup is simple: “Taxi Driver,” but redemptive. Travis Bickle wants to cleanse the world, Frank Pierce wants to clean it, a distinction made most plain in their relationships to their respective vehicles. Bickle drives his car, the camera always pointed forward as he makes his grim destiny, but Pierce is but a passenger of his ambulance, able only to see the streaks of light and objects that slip past the rear windows. As a result, the city is smeared around Pierce, muddled as it reflects not only its vast wastelands of hurting souls but the fragmenting psyche of the man who thinks he can do nothing to staunch the blood loss. It is the pinnacle of Scorsese’s occasional exercises of pure style, yet as Nicolas Cage acts his heart out to match the director’s frenzy and Patricia Arquette does double duty as Pierce’s comfort and sharpest critic, the film emerges as the director’s most affecting, as well.
2. “Taxi Driver” (1976)
Broadly misinterpreted, embraced by some of the same people the film exposes as a horrific mutation in our society, “Taxi Driver” still stands tall as one of the few masterpieces to endure its context-stripping acceptance into mass-cultural parlance. All the “You talkin’ to me?” riffs are shoved aside from that first image of Bickle’s cab emerging from sewer fog like a Viking longship rolling over misty waters to war. It is perhaps the cinema’s greatest depiction of rage, occasionally given hints of focus in De Niro’s steely gazes at politicians, pimps, women and people of color but ultimately bypassing all potential external motives for its protagonist’s warped Self.
Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro have a punchier editing style than Schoonmaker, but it suits Bickle perfectly: Schoonmaker’s work with Scorsese stresses the sensual synapse-firing of every action, but “Taxi Driver” reflects its protagonist’s joyless, blindly driven nature, in which all that matters is forward motion and the tangible accomplishment of a makeshift holster. Bickle’s final, frantic glance into his rearview mirror gives lie to the emptily happy ending, confirming him as victim of his own monster and promising a future rampage that will make the killing spree of the climax look tame in comparison.
1. “The King of Comedy” (1983)
Scorsese’s finest three films are linked around the same central type, yet the shared nucleus of “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” manifests in divergent ways. Travis Bickle kicked over his television in disgust, but Rupert Pupkin lives inside of his own, an inverted realm in which it is the audience frozen as an image on his wall as he acts out toward them. The coldness of the style, all metallic grays and acrylic reds, is unmatched anywhere else in Scorsese’s corpus. It betrays Pupkin as the most obsessive of Scorsese’s underground men, someone who swaps the splenetic anomie of his peers for icy calculation, so thoroughly considered that the sheer stupidity and futility of each plan is both sadder and funnier.
Much of Scorsese’s ‘70s work, vibrant as it remains, can resemble a frozen moment in time, a depiction of a New York that is now a phantom limb. “The King of Comedy” exists forever in the present, the ever-increasing relevance of its depiction of overambitious, under-talented bozos riding their very lack of star power to stardom gradually turning a satire into a horror film.