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Top 10 Martin Scorsese Films

By Riley Webster · November 15, 2013

Martin Scorsese is, justly, considered to be among the top ranks of film directors, of ours or any time.  Many of his films have been considered classics since the second they appeared, and he’s certainly among the most influential and important people to pick up a camera.  Along with Hitchcock and Kubrick, I think he’s the best filmmaker we’ve ever had.  And considering his upcoming Wolf of Wall Street is just around the corner (it was supposed to be released this weekend, but it’s been pushed back to December), I thought it was good timing to celebrate the man’s work with a Top 10 list.

Narrowing down a list of my 10 favourites of such a prolific dude was tricky, and I’m sure there are a bunch of other people’s faves that got short-changed.  I can’t say I’ve seen all his films (have yet to find King of Comedy and After Hours anywhere, and Cape Fear I still haven’t watched), but I’ve managed to experience most of them, and can probably say that despite being in the industry since the 60’s, he’s never made a bad movie (well…maybe Boxcar Bertha).

So the ones that just missed the cut: Shutter Island, Bringing Out the Dead, Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, Kundun, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Color of Money.

Let’s take a look at the most brutal and beautiful Martin Scorsese films:

10. Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1967)

Martin Scorsese’s first film was the perfect encapsulation of everything to follow.  Highly disorganized and choppy, Who’s That Knocking (originally titled I Call First) is also a showcase for Marty’s desire to impress, shock, titilate, and entertain.  Like many of his films, this one is 100% a director’s picture; the screenplay feels both rushed and overlong, and other than the lead character played by Harvey Keitel, no one in the script maintains much development or interest.  But Scorsese films it with such passion, such reckless abandon, that it’s easy to forgive the movie its flaws and be swept away.

Keitel gives a solid performance (one that is mirrored by their later collaboration, Mean Streets) as JR, a young New York hoodlum obsessed with a girl, Catholicism, and hanging out with his buddies.  Scorsese takes a very standard story and makes it compulsively watchable with frenetic camera work, rapid-fire editing, and a rock-song soundtrack that was very ahead of its time (the film was made several years before Easy Rider popularized this method of scoring).   The movie took a long time to get a proper release, despite the enthusiastic notices of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, and indeed at one point Scorsese had to film an extraneous sex scene just to reach a broader audience.  But for all its issues, Who’s That Knocking is a great introduction to the world’s finest director.

9. Mean Streets (1973)

After Who’s That Knocking, Scorsese entered the “grindhouse” arena by directing a cheap, schlocky affair called Boxcar Bertha.  It, too, showcased his talents, but the screenplay was even worse than Who’s That Knocking.   Luckily, he started co-writing his next gangster picture set in New York, and it was such a massive critical hit that he was able to make more edgy stuff like Taxi Driver later on.  Mean Streets is the best introduction to Marty’s fevered gangster dreams; growing up as a kid in New York, idolizing the mobsters, you can see both the love and disdain Scorsese has for them in every scene of Mean Streets.

The film follows Charlie (Keitel again, giving an even better performance than his JR), who also is obsessed with women, violence, and his fledgling Catholic faith.  Robert De Niro stars in his first Scorsese picture as Charlie’s idiotic and dangerous friend Johnny Boy, and it’s here that Scorsese had his biggest flash of genius — despite having an interesting character whose guilt we can often relate to, both Charlie and JR are rather static, and we needed a crazy, lively individual like Tommy Boy (and later the ones Joe Pesci plays in Goodfellas and Casino) to excite and propel the story.  Mean Streets isn’t Scorsese’s finest gangster film; it’s a little too rambling to compare to his latest masterpieces.  But there are moments within the film (like the shocking ending) that rank among his best.

8. The Aviator (2004)

Late 90’s/early 00’s Scorsese was having a hard time finding his footing.  Everyone endlessly praised his works in the 70’s and 80’s, but after the mammoth success of Goodfellas, there were a string of financial and critical disappointments.  The Aviator followed on the heels of his Gangs of New York, a very divisive film that is actually better when watching it stripped apart of all the hype (much of which was overblown).  But The Aviator is better than Gangs, and probably his best film since Casino, almost a decade earlier.  It shares many of Gangs’ flaws — a disjointed narrative, an episodic feel, and an overlong runtime.   But it excels in not just the standard Scorsese areas (like camera work, editing, and getting the best performances possible), but also in telling a highly interesting story about a fascinating, true-life character.

Leonardo DiCaprio, indeed, gives one of his finest performances as Howard Hughes, the unstoppably manic aviation nut of the early 20th century that made several huge films and a string of controversy, but then later descended into OCD-inspired madness.  DiCaprio is as good in the  early scenes when Howard’s the most powerful man in Hollywood as he is when he’s afraid to touch a bathroom door, and Scorsese is among the best directors out there to visually showcase panic, fear, desperation, and obsession.  Despite the movie  occasionally feeling like a “greatest hits compilation” of Hughes’ life, The Aviator is absorbing from beginning to end, and contains some absolutely wonderful set pieces and beautiful cinematography.

7. Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Possibly Scorsese’s most controversial film (and that’s saying a lot), Last Temptation  was met upon its release with riots, death threats, and even a theater bombing.  The Vatican enforced a strict “don’t watch” policy amongst the Catholics of the world, which must’ve given the formerly devout Scorsese quite the guilt trip.  It’s not difficult to see why they felt so threatened by the film — it’s not that it isn’t spiritual and believing of the life of Jesus Christ, but rather it shows him as a man first, and a God second.  This is a different Jesus than the usually perfect image we’ve seen; he’s often scared, sometimes angry, and at his moment of death is given a lengthy dream of leaving God and having a wife and family.  But why was it so horrible to showcase Jesus in this light?  If religious people could look past their fear of the unknown, they would’ve seen Scorsese’s most spiritually optimistic film, and the most honest  representation of Jesus in movie history.

Willem Dafoe plays Jesus (yeah….I know, not the best choice), and Keitel once again reunites with Scorsese as Judas.  The narrative follows his life in a pretty linear fashion, but once again Scorsese’s camera work and deep knowledge of what makes a film fascinating keeps our interest throughout it’s almost 3 hour run time, and the musical score by Peter Gabriel is one of the best I’ve ever heard.  Scorsese and his writer Paul Schrader (who also collaborated with him on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) make many interesting points on who Jesus the Man would be like, and his relationship with Judas is especially enlightening.  If you can look past the controversy, then despite what your religious inclinations are, Last Temptation of Christ is masterful filmmaking.

6. Hugo (2011)

After decades of delivering some of the toughest and most violent films of our age, Martin Scorsese finally decided to give us a charming, whimsical, and delightful family fable.  It also turned out to be one of his very finest works as a director.  Hugo is a sensory treat, filled with sumptuous visuals and a surprisingly mature and nostalgia-oriented storyline.  Seen in 3D, it was among the best representations of that medium (even James Cameron admitted it looked better than Avatar), but even in the standard two dimensions there is a universe of beautiful aesthetics to enjoy here (the movie beat out The Tree of Life for Best Cinematography at the Oscars, which is saying a heck of a lot).

But even without focusing on the gorgeous visuals, Hugo is possibly Scorsese’s most tightly focused and mysteriously enjoyable movies.  It follows the life of a young orphan living in a train station at the turn of the century Paris.  The story doesn’t take the “fantasy children’s film” direction you’d expect, and winds up becoming a beautiful love letter to classic silent cinema, as well as a giant hug to one of Scorsese’s idols, Georges Melies.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to spoil anything for you, because the gentle twists and turns the film takes are part of its many pleasures.   Considering the holiday season is approaching, rent or buy the Blu-Ray, and revel in Hugo’s joys.

5. The Departed (2006)

And then finally, in 2006, Martin Scorsese won the Oscar for Best Director with The Departed.  A lot of people felt it was more of a “lifetime achievement” award, but the simple fact is that he deserved the win, and The Departed truly does rank among his best films, certainly his strongest and most compulsively entertaining since Casino, or maybe even Goodfellas.  Armed with actors at the height of their games (and one, Jack Nicholson, doing what he does best, playing a total psycho), Departed became possibly the most fun time at the movies in 2006.  Despite being almost 2.5 hours in length, Departed never feels slow or dull; it moves along briskly, filled with violent action scenes, hilarious dark comedy, touching drama, a romance, and a deeply intriguing and suspenseful plot.

Although the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, and Jack Nicholson, the real main star of the movie is Scorsese.  He’s at the top of his game here, making everyone in the audience wish he directed a gangster flick every year.  From the first minute to the last, this is a Marty Scorsese picture, filled with his usual stylistic flourishes, intense editing from Thelma Schoonmaker, a soundtrack mixing a wonderful score by Howard Shore and classic rock songs, and scenes of startling, brutal violence.  I hesitate to take too much away from William Monaghan’s Oscar winning screenplay (filled with great lines like “I don’t wanna be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me”), but this is Marty’s show, and he fully deserved every accolade he received.

4. Casino (1995)

The initial disappointment in Casino is a product of its timing.  If this film had come out before Goodfellas, it would still today be lauded as the modern classic it is — but because it was so similar to Goodfellas in so many different ways, many felt it was almost a sequel, and I guess they thought it a little tired after the innovation and audacity of the previous gangster flick.  But this is doing Casino a disservice, because in several different aspects, I think it’s actually superior to Goodfellas.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t have that film’s over-powering sense of “flash in the pan”, but Casino can stand tall as one of the most indelible crime films of all time, and an absolute blast to watch.

Scorsese teamed up with his Goodfellas co-writer Nicholas Pelligi once again, and much like their earlier effort, Casino’s script is filled with excellent dialogue, suspenseful tension, horrific violence, and a deep understanding of the Mafia culture.  The most fascinating moments of the 3 hour flick is the first half hour, which is almost completely driven by a double voice over from Robert De Niro’s gangster, and Joe Pesci’s more vicious bodyguard.  It delves into the behind-the-scenes world of Las Vegas with such verisimilitude, you feel like you’re really there more than most films, and that sense of understanding carries you throughout the rest of the movie about drugs, murder, prostitutes, and Vegas.  It’s a brilliant film; dark without being bleak, funny without being hilarious, long and enveloping without ever being boring.

3. Goodfellas (1990)

After mentioning it almost a dozen times already, I’ve finally come to Goodfellas, Scorsese’s seminal gangster epic.  Taking everything he had learned from both his life as a boy in New York as well as what he’d learned technically as a filmmaker and storyteller, Goodfellas literally explodes off the screen and slaps the viewer in the face, now just as it did then.  While many films from 1990 have now become dated or slightly overrated (I’m looking at you, Ghost), Scorsese’s movie still towers high, regularly included in Best Of lists from all around the globe.  What seems like a very specific movie about a very specific time and place, Goodfellas has actually spoken to millions of people ever since its debut, showcasing the evil’s and pitfalls of greed, indulgence, and reliance on the wrong people.

Plus, y’know…it’s just an awesome movie, lest we get too intellectual about it.  Goodfellas opens with a bang, quite literally, and never stops rolling from there.  Following the life of Henry Hill for three decades, it takes what could’ve been an uninspired rags-to-riches-to-rags story and makes it fascinating.  We learn rapidly how Hill (played wonderfully by Ray Liotta) can be seduced into this Mafia world, even when his friends like Tommy DeVito (played even more wonderfully by Joe Pesci) can turn on him, or anyone, in the blink of an eye.  Drugs, theft and murder are common place occurances for these men, and after spending a couple hours with them, you’re both envious of their balls and thanking God you’re nothing like them.  Goodfellas isn’t just a sprawling epic, it’s a hugely entertaining movie, showcasing Scorsese’s love of the camera and editing (even the on-purpose discontinuity between shots) more than almost any other.

2. Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese’s first largely successful and popular movie is still almost his greatest, and among the best of the 70’s.  Robert De Niro delivers a acutely twisted performance as Travis Bickle, the deeply unsettled anti-hero of the film who, despite being the main character, is an offensive, dumb, racist, violent bigot who can best be described as a ticking time bomb of rage, one that never really explodes until the final 15 minutes.  Those 15 minutes are, to this day, shocking and revolting, proving Scorsese’s worth as a master of the gritty and violent, and it probably places in my top 5 greatest movie scenes of all time.  But it’s the build-up that makes the blood and guts worth it; we learn to understand Travis, even if we can’t condone or sympathize with him.  He is, as he himself puts it, “God’s lonely man”.

Thematically, Taxi Driver encapsulates all of Scorsese’s favourite discussions — loneliness, obsession, guilt, and guns.  Paul Schrader wrote the film (as well as the #1 pick on this list), and both screenplays rank among the best ever written.  These two men truly understand what makes a disturbed individual tick, as well as the New York environments that seem to breed this kind of insanity.  De Niro is brilliant, of course, even apart from the classic “You talkin’ to me?” scene.  Scorsese films with the aesthetics of Hell — garish colours, nightmarish smoke and fog, and the last score Bernard Herrmann ever wrote for a film.  Taxi Driver is possibly Scorsese’s most famous film, and with only one viewing, you can see why.  But after many more viewings, you begin to see deeper, and learn just how perfect this movie really is, and how absolutely none of it was by accident.  It’s disturbing, and sometimes hard to stomach, but there’s rarely been a better movie, in any genre.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

Scorsese’s gritty yet poetic ode to the monstrous boxer Jake LaMotta is almost the single greatest motion picture ever made (I’d personally place Shawshank and Vertigo above it, but only just).  It’s a long and plot-less biopic that is never anything but hypnotic, fixating, disturbing, horrifying, grisly, beautiful, epic, intimate.  The film is often cited by Scorsese as his “salvation” (he was hooked on cocaine and in a downward spiral when De Niro brought the film to him), and for a man deeply embedded in Catholic guilt, that means a lot.  Robert De Niro’s performance is possibly the most powerful I’ve ever seen, from any actor, and he’s surrounded by excellent supporting turns by Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty.

Visually, it’s Scorsese’s finest moment, too.  Turning the film into black and white (so the blood wouldn’t push it into X-rated territory) wound up being a stroke of genius, making everything enter this more surrealistic state, perfectly juxtaposed with all the grit, grime, and harsh violence.  The boxing scenes are virtuoso filmmaking; every swoop, every pan, every jitter, every cut, is perfectly timed and planned (the boxing scenes took something like 2 months longer to film than expected).  Paul Schrader’s screenplay has often been said to have been heavily rewritten by Scorsese and adlibbed by the actors, but whoever is responsible for it, they will forever deserve a place in the Screenwriter’s Hall of Fame — watch the scenes where Jake twists and turns his jealous dialogue to see if his wife is cheating on him; like a snake, he keeps circling and circling, waiting to bite.  It’s wonderfully uncomfortable to watch.

Raging Bull is the epitome of great, classic cinema.  I wouldn’t change a shot, or even a frame, of it.  Despite being very dark and depressing at times, Raging Bull is something I could pop in almost any day of the week, and still be completely overwhelmed by its staggering emotional and visual power.  Scorsese’s greatest achievement, and (almost) the finest movie ever made.