MARTIN SCORSESE TURNS 81 next month but the iconic filmmaker is showing no signs of slowing down, with the release of his 27th feature film, Killers of the Flower Moon, hitting cinemas today and already generating Oscar buzz.
Scorsese’s work spans genres, from sprawling crime epics (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Irishman) to period dramas (The Age of Innocence) to gritty biopics (Raging Bull, The Aviator), explorations of corporate greed (The Wolf of Wall Street) and even rock documentaries (Shine a Light).
What defines the filmmaker’s output is a determination to reckon with America’s sometimes rotten core, the inclusion of at least one ’Stones song per movie if he can swing it and a distinctive mix of gritty, visceral storytelling coupled with technical mastery—the Copa shot in Goodfellas is an all timer.
Have there been some misses? Sure, in a career this prolific there’s bound to be. The King of Comedy was not well received upon opening but has since received a critical evaluation. And it’s safe to say that New York, New York, the 1977 musical he made with Robert De Niro hasn’t held up.
De Niro, of course, has been one of the filmmaker’s great muses, famously along with Leo, who assumed the mantle beginning with Gangs of New York through to The Wolf of Wall Street. Both now appear in Killers of the Flower Moon, in what could well be Scorsese’s crowning work, though you can expect him to keep cranking out films as long as he’s able.
Here’s a look at the films that have made the director’s name and while a definitive ranking is a fool’s errand—it’s difficult to distinguish between classics, after all, there are some in his 26 films that are among the greatest works in American cinema.
10: The Irishman (2019)
Netflix spent a truckload on this three-and-a-half-hour odyssey, much of it on digital de-aging tech but you’d have to say the $159m outlay was worth it as Scorsese tells one of the most compelling stories in American crime history. Epic in scale and featuring a who’s who of Scorsese film regulars over the last 50 years in De Niro, Pesci, Pacino and Keitel, the filmmaker manages to find nuance, humanity, and even pathos among some of the 20th century’s biggest dirtbags.
9: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
A Roman-Catholic, Scorsese has grappled with his faith throughout his career, namely through the sins of his tortured protagonists. This adaptation of the life of Jesus Christ provoked outrage upon release, considered blasphemous for Scorsese’s decision to depict Christ as a man with all-too human failings—prostitute Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ lover, not least. To be honest, without said humanity, JC could make for a dull character study, and Scorsese, well, he’s more interested in sinners than saints.
8: Cape Fear (1991)
Where many of Scorsese’s films are grand in ambition, this 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 thriller, is tight as a drum with not a frame wasted. With his lean, sinewy tattoo-covered frame, De Niro oozes menace as the convicted rapist who, upon being released from prison, sets about terrorising the public defender (Nick Nolte) whom he blames for his incarceration. His slivery overtures to Nolte’s teenage daughter, an Oscar-nominated Juliette Lewis, in the film’s opening scenes are seriously unsettling, setting the tone for a film that grabs you by the throat and never releases its grip.
7: The Aviator (2004)
A film about the life of filmmaker, airline magnate, and OCD-sufferer Howard Hughes could have just been another ritzy biopic in anyone else’s hands. In Scorsese’s this tale of a man who was once the richest in America, becomes a finely calibrated dissection of what happens when ambition and madness collide.
6: Mean Streets (1973)
While Scorsese had made films prior to Mean Streets, including Boxcar Bertha and Who’s That Knocking at My Door, this was the film that announced his arrival as an electrifying big-screen talent. With echoes of West Side Story, the film has a ’30s noirish quality, as a cast of street thugs are elevated to outsized criminal archetypes. The film was De Niro’s first collaboration with Scorsese and set the template for the kind of gut-punching character studies that would come to define the pair’s output.
5: The Departed (2006)
This remake of the Hong Kong cult hit, Infernal Affairs, delves headfirst into the crooked dealings of shady cops in the Boston underworld, and would win Scorsese a long overdue Best Director Oscar, as well as a Best Picture gong. A heavyweight cast of Leo, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Vera Farmiga deliver stunning performances—Wahlberg has never been better as foul-mouthed cop, Staff Sergeant Sean Dignam. The last scene, in which a rat scuttles across the Boston skyline, is probably a little on the nose and a rare misstep for the filmmaker, which perhaps explains his more hands-off approach in The Wolf of Wall Street (see below).
4: Raging Bull (1980)
De Niro delivers a searing, unflattering performance as boxer and brute, Jake LaMotta, but it’s Scorsese’s technical wizardry that elevates this gritty biopic to a masterpiece. The film’s use of black-and-white is striking and the boxing scenes not only visceral but artistic, in what can be a tough watch at times. In an era of gushing sports docs and limp biopics, this raw, unvarnished depiction of LaMotta’s life probably wouldn’t get made today.
3: The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)
This might be a little high in the rankings for some and is certainly one of the filmmaker’s more polarising works with many taking issue with the film’s excess—dwarves are used as projectiles, the characters drown in cocaine and ’ludes—and for Scorsese’s refusal to offer heavy-handed judgement on the titular ‘wolf’, Jordan Belfort (Leo should have got his first Oscar for his comically physical, emotionally elastic performance). It’s also one of the funniest films of Scorsese’s career. The filmmaker is unsparing in his depiction of corporate greed, leaving it for the audience to make up their own minds on Belfort and his intemperate disciples.
2: Taxi Driver (1976)
Possibly Scorsese’s most disturbing work, which is saying something. De Niro is understated as troubled loner Travis Bickle, a man whose mind begins to splinter after suffering one too many setbacks. His grand, misguided mission to “clean up” the streets is an unnerving character study that remains one of the most powerful depictions of the grimy open wound that was 1970s NYC and a devastating portrait of masculinity in decay.
1: Goodfellas (1990)
Charting the rise and fall of mob associate Henry Hill, Goodfellas is Scorsese at his creative zenith, offering a stylish, visually kinetic treatise on America’s underbelly. It’s an actors’ showcase with Joe Pesci and De Niro in rare form and the soundtrack, featuring the ’Stones, and Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, drives the action and narrative momentum without ever overpowering it. An astonishing feat of mythmaking and visual storytelling, the film sits alongside The Godfather at the apex of the crime drama genre while doubling as a cultural artefact that stares deep into the cracks of late 20th century American idealism.