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New York Stories: A Complete Ranking of Martin Scorsese’s Films

Martin Scorsese
Oliver Morris, Huston Archives

His films are transcendent. His influence is immeasurable. He is one of the greatest film directors, living or dead. So, how do you begin to definitively rank the 23 movies directed by Martin Scorsese?

This ranking was not just compiled by one writer, or even by a group of editors debating over lunch in a conference room. Over the past few months, we’ve reached out to over 100 actors, writers, artists, fellow directors, producers and film critics and asked all that important question: What is the best Martin Scorsese movie? Some polled answered with one, while others responded with multiple choices, unable to narrow it down. The ScreenCrush staff [Mike Sampson, Jordan Hoffman, Britt Hayes, Damon Houx, Jacob S. Hall and Kate Erbland] compiled all that data and sorted through it, ranking the films and inserting some of our own opinions to help break ties when necessary. It’s to note this list is limited to narrative, feature-length movies so no ‘The Last Waltz’ or ‘New York Stories’ (sorry, Rian Johnson).

The ranking may not present the films according to how many Oscars they won or what their Rotten Tomatoes scores would be, but they certainly represent the influence on a generation of artists and entertainers inspired by Scorsese’s genius. Edgar Wright may say ‘Taxi Driver,’ but David O. Russell may say ‘Goodfellas’ while Jon Favreau may say ‘Raging Bull.’

We present to you now, the definitive ranking of all 23 feature-length Martin Scorsese movies from ‘Boxcar Bertha’ to ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ Let us know what your personal favorite is in the comments below.


23

'Boxcar Bertha'

1972
 
 
 
American International Pictures
American International Pictures

Martin Scorsese may be one of the most acclaimed and honored filmmakers of all time, but like every great director, he started small. Boxcar Bertha was only his second film and, to be fair, it often feels like it. Shot for pennies and on a tight schedule, this ragtag production makes up for its lack of gloss with undeniable rawness and spirt, but it remains more of an oddity than a great movie.

There's nothing too deep in 'Boxcar Bertha's' Bonnie and Clyde-esque tale of a fugitive couple robbing trains and barreling toward a violent and tragic end, but it's enjoyable, simple pulp. It's a story we've seen before, but it has a pulse. Like all good exploitation cinema (and yes, the Roger Corman producer credit lets you know that this is very much an exploitation film), it moves quickly, sprinting through its 88-minute running time and throwing enough story twists at the viewer to distract them from everything else. Scorsese's fondness for this kind of fast, trashy cinema can also be seen in 'Cape Fear,' 'Shutter Island' even the Oscar-winning 'The Departed.' Alongside with 'Boxcar Bertha,' these films prove that even the greatest of directors like to get down and dirty. - Jacob S. Hall

22

'Who's That Knocking At My Door'

 
 
 
Joseph Brenner Associates
Joseph Brenner Associates

While 'Boxcar Bertha' was Martin Scorsese's first film, 'Who's That Knocking At My Door' was the first Martin Scorsese film.

Starring Harvey Keitel (in his acting debut), the film follows a Catholic guy (ahem) named J.R. hanging out with his friends in Little Italy trying to meet woman and get laid. He meets a beautiful and sophisticated woman and falls in love. After finding out she was raped, J.R. struggles with the Madonna-whore complex and whether he can still be with her.

It's certainly not one of Scorsese's best films, but 'Who's That Knocking' (shot and edited over the course of three years) was the first big step in the evolution of Scorsese as a major voice. Even though he didn't love the final film, Roger Ebert said of the film at its premiere at the Chicago Film Festival, the arrival of Scorsese as a director was "a great moment in American movies."

Without 'Who's That Knocking' there would be no 'Mean Streets' (they were originally intended as part of a trilogy) and for that, it's important not to dismiss this early part of Scorsese's library. - Mike Sampson

21

'New York, New York'

1977
 
 
 
United Artists
United Artists

Before any analysis of the film, there's this: the song, the Sinatra song, the Yankees' song, it stems from this movie. Yes, from a 1977 movie, which, I don't care how young you are, isn't that old. The song feels like it's been around since the erection of the first Manhattan skyscrapers one hundred years ago, but this is not the case.

Now, the movie. It's not bad. It's not awesome, but it's no catastrophe. It represents Scorsese's desire to break out – to show his love of movies in all genres. A jazzy riff on 'The Best Years of Our Lives,' perhaps. But is it a musical, a tragic rom com or some arty postmodern thing with intentionally fake-looking sets? All of it, and the mash-up doesn't always harmonize. But DeNiro as the slick-looking saxophonist/bandleader and Liza Minnelli as the chanteuse finding fame in post-WWII America both have some solid star power moments. (Admittedly, Minnelli is someone not for everyone.) The movie was a famous flop and people tend to ignore it now. It's one of Scorsese's lesser films to be sure, but certainly worth checking out. - Jordan Hoffman

20

'Bringing Out the Dead'

1999
 
 
 
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

For the first half hour or so, 'Bringing Out the Dead' doesn't quite feel like a Scorsese film. Scripted by Paul Schrader, who also wrote 'Taxi Driver,' the film follows Nicolas Cage as Frank Pierce, a strung-out paramedic working a relentless string of graveyard shifts, begging to be fired and released from his misery. Haunted by the ghost of a teenage girl he couldn't save, Frank begins to descend into madness as we follow him from call to call on his journey to find, like most Scorsese characters, some sort of redemption.

Although set in the early '90s, 'Bringing Out the Dead' has this quasi-'70s vibe, thanks to Schrader's script and Scorsese's cinematography, music (The Rolling Stones and various '60s selections), and characters, like Ving Rhames' paramedic (styled like Billy Dee Williams) and a hospital cop who never removes his aviator sunglasses -- all of which occasionally hit a jarring clash with contemporary '90s hallmarks: a goth nightclub and songs by R.E.M. and Natalie Merchant.

But as the film progresses and Cage's character devolves further into despair and exhausted mania, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing starts to really click, working in tandem with Cage's manic energy. A later scene in a drug dealer's apartment calls to mind the sort of nightmare logic employed by Werner Herzog or David Lynch, with fish dying on the floor, flopping in time to UB40's "Red, Red Wine," sparks flying like gorgeous fireworks as the paramedics try to rescue a man impaled on his balcony, while Cage and his patient engage in existential conversation. By film's end this is clearly a Scorsese product: a wild, visceral ride in which one man struggles to find redemption and reconcile the value of life in the face of death. - Britt Hayes

19

'Shutter Island'

2010
 
 
 
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Fans of Dennis Lehane’s twisting and twisted novel knew what they were in for with Scorsese’s 2010 take on the psychological thriller, but the director’s cripplingly dark drama was still shockingly, well, shocking. Again directing frequent star Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese’s period-set film sounds relatively straightforward – a pair of U.S. marshals (DiCaprio is joined by the always excellent Mark Ruffalo as his partner) investigate a missing person at a creepy, island-set mental hospital, yet nothing is what it seems to be – but that killer crime stinger hides some terrifying demons of the personal kind.

 

DiCaprio is at his finicky best here, all shifty eyes and barely hidden suspicions, and his slow descent into madness (or was he already there?) is captivating and more than a bit nauseating. But who could blame him for being freaked? Picture it: Michelle Williams, burning. Picture it: flickering lights, sizzling matches, off and on. Picture it: an oceanside cliff, and a forever drop.

The film has story to spare, but it’s also got plenty of style to elevate it. The island itself feels like its own character (it’s own dark, drippy, and dank character, but a character nonetheless), and the period trappings necessary to pull off that 1954 setting are all noticeably on point. Released in mid-February, formerly a known box office dumping ground, Scorsese’s film impressed both audiences and critics alike, pulling in big money and big accolades. Sure, it was forgotten by the time Oscars season rolled around ten months later, but a moody movie like ‘Shutter Island’ didn’t need awards designation to prove its power. - Kate Erbland

18

'After Hours'

1985
 
 
 
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

‘After Hours’ was born out of desperation. The script might have been hot (Tim Burton almost directed it as his filmmaking debut), but Scorsese came on board after the funding for ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was pulled out from under him at the last minute. So this was the first of a couple commercial movies he made to help get funding for his passion project. The energy of frustration, of cinematic blue balls, courses through ‘After Hours’ as it follows one night in the life of a schmuck (played by Griffin Dunne) who wouldn’t have these troubles if he had a cell phone, or there were readily available ATM’s around in 1985. The film was shot down and dirty on a low budget, and Scorsese did it to recharge his batteries. It worked.

It’s easy to say that many of Scorsese’s films have a cocaine energy to them (few filmmakers are as talented at making audiences feel the effect of a drug without taking it), but ‘After Hours’ might be the cocainest of them all. From the movement of the camera to the paranoid final act, the film feels like a bad bender in the best possible way. And it – much like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ – highlights Scorsese’s pitch black sense of humor. Scorsese was so on top of his game with this that a minor film like ‘After Hours’ would be another filmmaker’s masterpiece. – Damon Houx

17

'Kundun'

1997
 
 
 
Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

On the surface, 'Kundun' is one of several strange anomalies in Martin Scorsese's career. Between the gangster flicks and the movies about dangerous weirdos, he found the time to make a biopic of the 14th Dalia Lama, who fled Tibet to escape the Chinese government in the 1950s...and he did it with no recognizable actors, only casting complete unknowns and family members of those who were actually involved. The film itself is gorgeous thanks to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Philip Glass' seemingly never-ending score helps tie together the occasionally scattered plot, but what's most astonishing about 'Kundun' is just how well it slides into Scorsese's filmography overall.

The threat of damnation and religious guilt haunt nearly every one of Scorsese's films and while his Catholic beliefs have little in common with Tibetan Buddhism, Scorsese is obviously moved by the story of a man so committed to his faith that he's willing to lose everything to stand up for it. Like 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' Kundun takes a seemingly untouchable religious figure and injects with humanity. With the flaws exposed and the mortal man exposed, faith and religion cease being abstract concepts and start feeling all too real and all too painful. There's hope at the end of Kundun, but it's at the end of a long journey. And since this is the rare Scorsese film without a violent, self-defeating hero, that journey feels hopeful and possible. - Jacob S. Hall

16

'The Color of Money'

 
 
 
Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

Though ‘Color of Money’ is rarely cited as anyone’s favorite Martin Scorsese movie, give it the credit it’s due. With it, Scorsese pulled off a feat that proved too difficult for Steven Spielberg: He made a late in the game sequel that’s actually good. Paul Newman resurrected his Fast Eddie Felson character for this 'The Hustler' sequel and brought him back as someone who’s given up the game until he meets hotshot pool player Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), and gets sucked back into the hustle.

There is a divide in Scorsese’s career between his more personal projects (like ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’) and his commercial outings (like ‘Cape Fear’ and ‘The Departed’), but even when he’s making “one for them” he gives those projects his all, and there’s a lot to like about this film. What may be most interesting about ‘Money’ is Cruise’s performance. Though ‘Top Gun’ came out in the same year and established the persona that Cruise has been playing (and playing with) ever since, ‘Money’ has him as the same sort of cocksure character, but here he’s the villain of the piece. It’s one of Cruise’s most fascinating performances as he’s playing the dark side of the characters he’s most associated with, but did so before he had become “Tom Cruise.” The biggest knock against ‘The Color of Money’ -- which is pretty entertaining to watch -- is that the combination of a Richard Price script with Scorsese directing Newman and Cruise didn’t lead to an out and out masterpiece. Oh well. – Damon Houx

15

'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore'

1974
 
 
 
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The biggest compliant that’s usually lobbed at Scorsese is that the women in his films are often wives and whores (and many of his leads have Madonna-whore complexes), which is funny because in 1974 he made ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,’ a film that won Ellen Burstyn an Academy award for best actress. You’d think that would render this complaint moot. And though it wasn’t around at the time, the film passes the Bechdel test and then some. As Alice says, “It’s my life, it’s not some man’s life I’m helping out with.”

This was a hired gun project for Scorsese, and it’s fascinating that it was his first assignment after ‘Mean Streets’ -- it’s like he didn’t want to pigeon-holed right away. But because it doesn’t focus on the things normally associated with the director, it’s often overlooked as one of his very best films, or is perhaps dismissed because it led to a long-running TV show. What’s great about ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ is that it allows Scorsese to explore his love of other types of cinema (the film opens with an homage to ‘The Wizard of Oz’) while also showing that he was a master at character studies and needle drops (the use of Mott the Hoople and T. Rex is excellent). It makes you wish that Scorsese would make another Douglas Sirk-esque film. – Damon Houx

14

'Gangs of New York'

2002
 
 
 
Miramax
Miramax

Like so many long-gestating passion projects, 'Gangs of New York' doesn't quite work as well as you'd want it to, but there's no denying that this imperfect film contains countless perfect moments. The brutal Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), monologuing to himself while draped in an American flag. A hideously violent gang war in the streets of New York City with weapons that look like they belong in a medieval torture chamber. A montage of political subterfuge that manages to make ballot box stuffing hilarious.

Despite its uncharacteristically flat lead performance from Leonardo DiCaprio and a boilerplate revenge story, Gangs of New York is a movie that thrives in its details. Its depiction of a culturally divided, on-the-bring-of-chaos metropolis during the height of the American Civil War is unlike anything ever put on film before. Ignore the Hollywood touches and focus on Scorsese's attention to history and living, breathing world that his characters inhabit.

Watch the massive ensemble of amazing actors slide into the roles of bandits and crooks, but watch them all tremble next to Day-Lewis' fierce and terrifying performance. There may not be as much meat on the bone as some of Scorsese's other pictures, but this is a vivid and beautiful and horrifying snapshot of a truly insane and fascinating time and place. "Lesser Scorsese" still trumps most filmmakers' best. - Jacob S. Hall

13

'The Age of Innocence'

1993
 
 
 
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

The rules of society reign supreme in Scorsese’s ‘The Age of Innocence,’ a fluffy and frizzy period piece about manners, breaking them, and what that means for forbidden romance. Based on the Edith Wharton classic of the same name, the 1993 film garnered supporting star Winona Ryder her first of a pair of Oscar nods, even if the film really is the Daniel Day-Lewis show (and, yes, every film that Daniel Day-Lewis stars in is the Daniel Day-Lewis show).

Day-Lewis stars as a proper 19th century lawyer who is properly engaged to Ryder and just proper proper proper – until he so improperly falls in love with Ryder’s cousin (played with bawdy amusement by Michelle Pfeiffer), who has already stirred up societal notice due to her marital separation. Cue drama.

Over-the-top and overwrought, ‘The Age of Innocence’ is all breathy accents and just plain heavy breathing. But even with all that heaving, ‘The Age of Innocence’ still benefits from the kind of attention to detail that Scorsese brings to every production – the period-set hair, makeup, costumes, and sets impress even now, and an aged-up Daniel Day-Lewis looks bizarrely like the real thing (read – still a looker!). It may not be Scorsese’s best, but ‘The Age of Innocence’ is still a fine example of the earmarks of the filmmaker’s work – strong casts, compelling stories, and richly imagined worlds. - Kate Erbland

12

'Hugo'

2011
 
 
 
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Scorsese is nothing if he’s not versatile, and his inventive and innovative spin on Brian Selznick’s beloved children’s book breathed real life cinematic life into what could have just been another kiddie story. Starring rising star Asa Butterfield as the eponymous Parisian orphan who lives within the walls and roofs of his workplace train station, ‘Hugo’ is both charming and troubling, because few things are as wrenching to see on celluloid than a mop-topped moppet trying to make his way in the world, only to continually lose just damn near everything. While Hugo’s life improves upon meeting young Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), it’s also thrown into tremendous turmoil, care of her grumpy old godfather (Ben Kingsley).

The basic conflict of the film – Hugo desperately needs to reclaim a literal key to his father and their past – is unexpectedly ramped up with the discovery that grumpy godpapa George is actually George Melies, and that the escapism that movie-going offers both Hugo and Isabelle is damn near killing him. Suddenly, everyone needs keys to their past, if only to unlock a possible future.

The film racked up a staggering array of awards – including five Oscars and six Oscar nominations for big time accolades like Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay – and proved to be one of the twenty-first century’s first true love letters to the power of the motion picture. The cherry on top, of course, is that it’s a fine enough film, even on its own merits (and especially when Scorsese’s camera is lovingly looping through that essential train station). - Kate Erbland

11

'The Aviator'

2004
 
 
 
Miramax
Miramax

Scorsese's second film with Leonardo DiCaprio came just two years after 'Gangs of New York' with 'The Aviator,' the story of aviation pioneer and film producer Howard Hughes. Similar to 'Taxi Driver' in theme, 'The Aviator' also deals with one man's singular vision and obsession. Hughes sees the world through a narrow view, dismissive of risks and roadblocks, determined to accomplish his goals regardless of their danger and improbability. Hindered by obsessive-compulsive disorder, Scorsese and DiCaprio explore the deeply afflicted life of Hughes and contemplate the persistence of such agony and the possibility of its self-inflicted cost. DiCaprio's performance here is one of his finest to date, eclipsed only when he shares the screen with Cate Blanchett, who disappears into the role of Katharine Hepburn seamlessly.

Scorsese shot the first 50 minutes of the film in reds and cyan blues to emulate Hughes' own Multicolor bipack film process, as this would have been the only available technology of the era. As the film transitions past 1935, it is treated to resemble three-strip Technicolor and becomes more saturated. Scorsese's obsessive attention to details like film stock and coloration reflect Hughes' own obsessive traits, and it's easy to understand how Scorsese was moved to tell this particular story: Hughes, who went from making modest planes and breaking flight records, and producing films like 1932's 'Scarface,' to crashing planes and struggling to complete titanic projects that exacerbated his obsessive-compulsive disorder, has a life empathetic to that of a filmmaker. He is a visionary, and he is a man possessed and obsessed by and with perfection. - Britt Hayes

10

'The Departed'

2006
 
 
 
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Few directors can do crime drama quite like Scorsese can, and 2006’s ‘The Departed’ is a bruiser of a crime drama that serves as a prime example of Marty’s talents when it comes to depicting bottom of the barrel baddies engaged in some serious back room dealing. For his third collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese wisely rounded out the rest of his cast with equally as big names – from Matt Damon to Jack Nicholson to Mark Wahlberg to Martin Sheen to Alec Baldwin, this thing is stacked with talent, and everyone brought top-tier work to the production.

As is so often the case with Scorsese’s best films, ‘The Departed’ is about a simple, surface-level story that grows more twisted and complex as it winds on. Who is double crossing who here? Is DiCaprio’s undercover cop Billy Costigan the hero? Or is it really Damon’s Colin Sullivan, who has done the reverse maneuver with his career (going from baddie to cop and back again, just as Billy does the opposite)? What is good? What is bad? Who are you? It might not even really matter, because ‘The Departed’ is just so damn fun to watch, even when you know it’s not going to end well for anyone (except maybe Mark Wahlberg, just as it should be) and especially when you’re so on edge that you’re actually looking over your own shoulder as the film unspools. Yeah, yeah, plenty of people get shot here, but at least they go out with perfect accents and perfect tension. - Kate Erbland

9

'Cape Fear'

1991
 
 
 
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Long before remakes became the norm in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese reteamed with De Niro for their seventh collaboration, a remake of the 1962 film, 'Cape Fear.'

One of Scorsese's more mainstream films (Roger Ebert said in his review, it proves Scorsese is "a master of a traditional Hollywood genre"), 'Cape Fear' plays like some of the best Hitchcock, from Saul Bass' opening credits to the adaptation of Bernard Herrmann's original score. Even with a remake, the film features classic Scorsese themes; a Bible-thumping maniac forcing a man, tortured by guilt, to atone for his sins.

'Cape Fear' will probably be remembered best for its most disturbing scene, one that for all the film's violence, contains no blood. It's just De Niro, preying on his target's nymphal daughter (Juliette Lewis). It's one of the scenes in Scorsese's oeuvre that highlights just how good he is playing tension. In fact, the scene was so masterfully planned, Scorsese used the very first take of De Niro and Lewis (each of which were nominated for an Oscar for their performances) in the film.

The film was originally intended for Steven Spielberg to direct, but when he felt the film was getting too violent for his pedigree, he traded films with Scorsese. The film he got in return? 'Schindler's List.' - Mike Sampson

8

'The Last Temptation of Christ'

1988
 
 
 
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

It took Scorsese nearly a decade to make this and he was rebuked by many members of his faith for doing so – but the result is clearly worth it. While some scenes were (still are?) shocking to devout Christians, the message of the film is in line with the Gospels – and may, in fact, be the sharpest way to get that message out to a generation of media-savvy skeptics. The crucifixion-hallucination ruffled feathers (and incited a terrorist attack in France) but it resolves itself with a firmly pro-faith message.

Theology aside, it's a dazzling bit of movie-making, with gorgeous location photography and elegantly put together sequences. Harvey Keitel's Judas Iscariot with a Noo Yawk accent is a marvel to behold and the soundtrack by Peter Gabriel did a tremendous amount to build on Paul Simon's work to introduce so-called “world music” to Western ears. Each important moment in the story of Jesus' life is represented, but in unexpected ways. (Wait, THAT was the Sermon on the Mount?) Even with all the dazzling technique, this sits right alongside Pasolini's 'Gospel According to St. Matthew' as one of the more touching, personal versions of the story of Christ. - Jordan Hoffman

7

'The Wolf of Wall Street'

2013
 
 
 
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Repulsive, abhorrent, immoral. . .hilarious?

Scorsese retreads his 'GoodFellas' moves, swapping the mafia for stockbrokers and the result is outstanding. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best (adult) performance, deftly walking the line between out-of-control barbarian and sympathetic go-getter who happens to be in a field where there are no rules and no consequences for bad behavior. Jonah Hill as his toothy sidekick ought to inspire lousy impressions for years to come.

The film is an assault on the senses – a barrage of party scenes and alpha-male scheming. Oh, if only all of this energy went toward something that did some good in the world, not just funding coke-fueled yacht parties. Also: hilarious, with the only genuine slapstick in Scorsese's entire filmography. 'The Wolf of Wall Street' doesn't offer much in terms of solutions, or even overt commentary, it just shows the logical extension of unchecked capitalism, and how it can turn human beings into animals. Kyle Chandler's FBI agent would be the hero in any other version of the movie. Here he's just a schnook.

This movie is sooooo enjoyable, and you'll hate yourself for laughing afterwards. - Jordan Hoffman

6

'Casino'

1995
 
 
 
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Marking the eighth and final collaboration between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese (for now), 'Casino' pulls no punches. A glitzy tour of excess, the film follows Sam Rothstein (De Niro), a Jewish-American gambling handicapper, hand-picked by the mob to oversee their latest foray into legitimacy: the Tangiers hotel and casino in Las Vegas. The film -- based on the true-story novel by Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the script with Scorsese -- is like an inverse of 'Goodfellas,' the previous Pileggi-Scorsese collaboration. Where that film was all New York mob grease and grime, 'Casino' is all polish and shine -- but beneath the sparkling veneer still lurks the startling, violent mob underworld of 'GoodFellas.' There are moments in 'Casino' that are equally -- if not more -- violent, particularly a third act trip out to a field with Joe Pesci, a slow-building climax of dread that erupts into a jarring, gut-wrenching act so unflinching in its depiction that it's nauseating.

Juxtaposed against the colorful, bright lights of the world of the Tangiers casino, Scorsese paints a portait of what's behind the curtain, and it's never pretty.

While Rothstein struggles to maintain control over the casino, he's also battling his wife, a former hustler played by Sharon Stone in what is, definitively, the greatest role of her career. Stone is often known for chewing the scenery and going unnecessarily over the top in most films, but the role of Ginger practically demands that she devour every scene as the strung-out, money-loving, defiant wife. Ginger is the role Stone was meant to play, and she almost didn't get the part. - Britt Hayes

5

'The King of Comedy'

1982
 
 
 
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

As a filmmaker, Martin Scorsese has always been interested in the lonely and the obsessed, the broken people who turn to higher powers or false idols in order to empower themselves. Often, these characters manifest themselves as tough guys, but The King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a special case. He doesn't want to be a gangster -- he wants to be a stand-up comedian like his hero Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). However, like the typical Scorsese antihero, he's willing to go to unpleasant extremes to get what he wants.

Many people seem surprised by how funny 'The Wolf of Wall Street' is, but its seeds lie here in one of his best (and most often overlooked) movies. This is vicious, brutal and pitch black comedy, misanthropic humor at its most biting and revealing. It's hard to not have sympathy for the disturbed and pathetic Rupert, but his actions are beyond reproach and his lack of sanity isn't even treated as a mystery. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Rupert performs an entire comedy set for an audience of cardboard cut-outs in his apartment and the sadness threatens to overwhelm the creepy hilarity of the scene. He's an artist. He's compelled to create and he's compelled to entertain and no one is going to get him to stop. Is there a little bit of Scorsese in Rupert Pupkin? Probably more than he'd like to admit. - Jacob S. Hall

4

'Mean Streets'

1973
 
 
 
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

In what is something of a “print the legend” story, Martin Scorsese screened ‘Boxcar Bertha’ for John Cassavetes, who told Scorsese “you just spent a year of your life making sh—.“ Scorsese says that Cassavetes meant it in a nice way, but this was the impetus for ‘Mean Streets,’ and to make it Scorsese put a lot of himself into the film to show the New York and the gangsters and wanna-bes he grew up with. It was the moment that Scorsese became the director we know and love today, and where he found one of his greatest collaborators in Robert De Niro, who launched his acting career with this film (it’s easy to see why).

Even if ‘Mean Streets’ wasn’t a masterpiece (it is), it would be the Rosetta Stone for Scorsese’s work to come. It’s all there: the inventive camerawork and editing, the needle drops, New York as a character, gangsters, and perhaps most importantly De Niro, the actor most associated with Scorsese until Leonardo Di Caprio tried to take that throne. It’s interesting to note that the film has a number of elements in common with George Lucas’ ‘American Graffiti’ (and the two came out in the same year) in that both follow four friends at a crossroad in their lives, but Scorsese’s view of his neighborhood was much rougher, though both are just as deeply felt. Lucas focuses on sex and love, Scorsese on money and power. It also showcases Scorsese’s love of characters – though David Proval’s Tony is the least important of the four leads, he has one of the best moments when he shows his friends his new pet tiger. This was the film that told the world that Scorsese was a filmmaker to be reckoned with, on top of it being one of the best films of the 1970s. – Damon Houx

3

'Taxi Driver'

1976
 
 
 
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Based on a script by Paul Schrader, Scorsese's second film with Robert De Niro has become one of his most critically acclaimed. You can see the DNA from 'Taxi Driver' in several of his later films: obsessive and afflicted characters who are driven or haunted by singular ideas search for redemption, sometimes spiraling out of control. Even the child-friendly 'Hugo' has echoes of similar themes.

But 'Taxi Driver' is where it all began, with the story of honorably discharged Vietnam vet Travis Bickle. A lonely soldier searching for his place in New York, the insomnia-afflicted Bickle takes up driving a taxi to while away the nighttime hours and is disgusted by the casual violence he witnesses on the streets. When he meets Betsy, a campaign volunteer for a local senator, he similarly becomes obsessed with her goodness. In a highly memorable scene, Bickle takes Betsy on a date to see a movie, but the film he takes her to see is a Swedish porn, reflecting his inability to assimilate back into society.

Bickle becomes increasingly frustrated with his futile attempts to court Betsy and to reconcile the violence he sees on the street every night -- feeling impotent and spiraling into madness, he struggles to take matters into his own hands in a dark and gritty exploration of the narratives of "man versus" self, man and nature -- but Bickle is truly battling himself, as we see not only when he keeps his diary, but when he talks to himself, or when he mimes committing suicide. While De Niro is certainly outstanding in his early role, the supporting cast is also top notch, featuring turns from young Jodie Foster as a teen prostitute, a sleazy Harvey Keitel as her pimp, Cybill Shepherd as Betsy, and a foxy Albert Brooks (yes, foxy).

The ending of the film has been the subject of debate for decades -- many an afflicted Scorsese protagonist has sought redemption, but does Bickle truly find his? Or is it simply a fantasy glimpsed in his final moments? - Britt Hayes

2

'Raging Bull'

1980
 
 
 
United Artists
United Artists

If losing or gaining weight for a role is de rigueur for modern day actors (does anyone even remember what Christian Bale really looks like?), Robert De Niro's towering performance in 'Raging Bull' is the granddaddy of them all. Martin Scorsese famously called a four-month hiatus in the middle of filming, so De Niro could pack on 75 pounds, to play the flabby, washed up ex-figher Jake LaMotta. It's a role that would win De Niro his Second Oscar, but it was Scorsese's own life and struggles that pushed the performance forward.

With Scorsese deep in the throes of a cocaine addiction, De Niro came to visit him in the hospital after the director almost died from an overdose, and convinced him to finally make the film. Keeping him sober, the two retreated to the Caribbean where they spent two weeks extensively working the script, including the classic scene where LaMotta, trying to fix his television, collapses under the weight of his escalating paranoia and accuses his brother (a brilliant turn by Joe Pesci) of sleeping with his wife. It's another brutal examination of the Madonna-whore complex in Scorsese's films dating back to 'Who's That Knocking on My Door' (though here, it pays out considerably more violent and destructive).

It's a film of such staggering accomplishment, it would be almost impossible for a director to top. Until Martin Scorsese went, along with his 'Raging Bull' stars De Niro and Pesci, and topped it.

'Raging Bull' is a film ranked #25 on Sight & Sound's Top 100 (ahead of 'Casablanca' and 'Seven Samurai'), but was just edged out in the voting on our list by one film... - Mike Sampson

1

'Goodfellas'

1990
 
 
 
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

We can argue if whether Scorsese has made richer or more meaningful films, but as far as style and impact, 'GoodFellas' is on top. While there were moments of levity in 'The Godfather' and other mob/crime movies, nothing cemented the now now ubiquitous Goombah wiseguy simultaneously stirring the sauce and goin' out to whack a guy. Never before did we think a truly frightening villain could also be hilarious. No 'GoodFellas,' no 'Sopranos.' No 'Sopranos' no altered perception of television as new delivery method of choice for smart, longform storytelling. (Sure, maybe something else may have broken the mold, but you tell that to these guys, hah?)

Everything about this movie sings – the dialogue, the narration, the camerawork, the cutting and the game-changing use of classic rock needle-drops. 'GoodFellas' blasts out of the gate with one of the slickest opening reels and the “you wanna see helicopters?” breakdown is a masterclass in editing.

Many have tried to imitate the style of 'GoodFellas' and most have failed. It isn't just being brutal while a Phil Spector tune plays on the soundtrack. There's an art to it, rooted in observation and an ineffable pop to the rhythm of the scenes.

The miracle of the film is how these truly reprehensible people that do such horrible things can also, somehow, be so enjoyable company. Scorsese draws you in to the party and warps your notions of acceptability, just the lure of money and danger corrupt the young would-be gangsters who join the family. 'GoodFellas' is Scorsese's best work because it takes from all of his top films – the dark abyss of 'Taxi Driver,' the operatic beauty of 'Raging Bull' and the young anger of 'Mean Streets.' - Jordan Hoffman

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