Hailed as one of the greatest living filmmakers of our time, Martin Scorsese has enriched the legacy of cinema with multiple gems such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull which are studied and discussed by many to this day. A true creative force who ushered in the glory days of the American New Wave, Scorsese will always be remembered as one of the visionaries who revolutionised the art form.
In his defence of cinema, Scorsese wrote: “For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”
Adding, “In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”
As a celebration of his invaluable contributions to the world of cinema, we take a look at some of the finest works from Martin Scorsese’s illustrious and unforgettable filmography.
Top 10 Martin Scorsese films ranked:
10. The Departed (2006)
The Departed is the film that finally earned Scorsese the elusive Best Director prize at the Academy Awards. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Martin Sheen among others, the film uncovers the corrupt roots of public institutions such as the police and the mob.
Scorsese said: “I hardly did any press for that film. I was tired of it. I felt it was maddening. I mean, I like the picture but the process of making it, particularly in the post-production, was highly unpleasant. I said, ‘I don’t care how much I’m being paid, it’ll kill me. I’ll die. Very simply.’”
9. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
An early gem by Scorsese, this 1974 drama features Ellen Burstyn as a widowed woman who embarks on the mystical quest for a better life with her son. For her fantastic performance, Burstyn won the coveted Best Actress Award at the Oscars.
“The first cut of Alice was 3 hours and 16 minutes. There was so much character stuff thrown out; it was a real pity,” Scorsese revealed. “I was trying to capture a number of characters who were really very much in a state of confusion and never really settling. So the camera is always shifting and moving around… When it does stop, they are usually scenes of stability, like in the bathroom scene between Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd.”
8. Casino (1995)
Casino is Scorsese’s ambitious attempt to capture the glamour of the 1970s, starring Robert DeNiro as a gangster who is at the helm of the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. Based on the figure of mafioso Frank Rosenthal, Casino is a dizzying deconstruction of the illusory Sin City.
“I guess for me it’s the sense of something grand that’s been lost. Whether we agree with the morality of it is another matter – I’m not asking you to agree with the morality – but there was the sense of an empire that had been lost, and it needed music worthy of that,” the director said.
Adding, “The destruction of that city has to have the grandeur of Lucifer being expelled from heaven for being too proud. Those are all pretty obvious biblical references. But the viewer of the film should be moved by the music. Even though you may not like the people and what they did, they’re still human beings and it’s a tragedy as far as I’m concerned.”
7. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Featuring Willem Dafoe as the Biblical messiah, The Last Temptation of Christ is a fascinating investigation of the synchronicity between faith and doubt. Its indictments were so scathing that conservative Christians tried to get the film banned. Fortunately, Scorsese’s exigent questions are neither lost nor forgotten by most of his fans.
Dafoe commented: “So much was required of me. Actors want to be challenged, to be put in a position where the heat is turned up. And we had a master filmmaker. Look, it was a low-budget movie. People forget that. We were healing the blind in the afternoon and up on the cross in the evening. That’s not a complaint – it was kind of a blessing.”
6. The King of Comedy (1983)
One of the finest performances in Robert DeNiro’s brilliant career, The King of Comedy tells the story of a pathetic aspiring comedian who fetishises the luxury of celebrity culture. Despite having the will to achieve fame, he is too devoid of any talent to ever escape his sad little life.
The filmmaker reflected, “Over the years, I began to realise how genuine and how serious my involvement in The King of Comedy was. De Niro noticed that connection in Paul Zimmerman’s script first. De Niro was also more aware of autograph people and the idolisation for the sake of idolisation of celebrities.
“I understand that now, but I stumbled my way through it each day back then. Being around Jerry Lewis helped. He was an idol of mine, and represented all aspects of American show business, which meant a lot to me. [King of Comedy] is about a certain aspect of our culture, and also about not taking yourself too seriously, even though I do. All of that came out during the making of the film.”
5. Goodfellas (1990)
An iconic adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s novel, Scorsese’s gangster epic is an interesting meditation on the obsolescence of morality in the underworld. Filmed with avant-garde energy and a restless irreverence for cinematic conventions, it is evident why Goodfellas is considered by many to be one of Scorsese’s finest.
“I was interested in breaking up all the traditional ways of shooting the picture,” Scorsese explained. “A guy comes in, sits down, exposition is given. So the hell with the exposition — do it on the voiceover, if need be at all. And then just jump the scene together. Not by chance. The shots are designed so that I know where the cut’s going to be. The action is pulled out of the middle of the scene, but I know where I’m going to cut it so that it makes an interesting cut.”
4. After Hours (1985)
After Hours is a criminally neglected masterpiece that is often left out of discussions about Scorsese’s genius. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare about one man who ventures out into the night only to get lost in the terrifying constructs with which we populate our urban labyrinths.
Scorsese said: “I like that movie a lot. It’s the only movie of mine that I can watch over and over again. It’s so funny to me. Someone called it a ‘farce of the subconscious.’ That’s what it is. Like a French farce. Here we have the timing down to psychological elements and sexual dread.
“I thought it was a whole metaphor,” continued the director, “for the way we are living and for what I went through in L.A. trying to get The Last Temptation made.”
3. Mean Streets (1973)
Mean Streets is a manifestation of the New Hollywood auteur’s distaste for society’s omnipresent hypocrisies.
Starring the likes of Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel, it is the perfect refutation of epics like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather because it focuses on the dirtiest, most insignificant underbelly of criminal filth.
The director revealed: “It took me years to realise Mean Streets was more about my father and him than myself and my old friends because my father was constantly making sure he wasn’t going to get killed or beat up… I wondered how you balance that, how you live a life like that. I don’t know…My father didn’t go to church or any of that. He didn’t have to. This was what it was all about.”
2. Taxi Driver (1976)
Probably Scorsese’s most well-known masterpiece, Taxi Driver is the perfect crystallisation of a psychological and political state of being. Starring De Niro as a disillusioned cab driver who drifts along the wasteland of New York, the film is a visual translation of widespread nihilism and societal malaise.
Scorsese praised DeNiro, saying: “Bob (DeNiro) was very instrumental because he pointed out to me that the first line of dialogue was ‘Turn off the meter.’ And I did one take, and he said to me, ‘When you say – Turn off the meter – make me turn it off. Just make me turn it off.
“I’m not going to turn it off until you convince me that you want me to turn off that meter.’ So, I learned a lot. He sort of acted with the back of his head, but he encouraged me by not responding to me. And using that tension of the inherent violence, I was able to able to take off and riff some dialogue.”
1. Raging Bull (1980)
The best collaboration between DeNiro and Scorsese, Raging Bull is visual poetry at its scorching best. The film follows the descent of a promising boxer into the depths of his own misery, crippled by his masculine insecurities and his penchant for self-destruction.
Scorsese explained: “My picture’s really about that process, not boxing. The idea was a kind of rebirth, the possibility of redemption. It’s about guilt, sin and trying to find some sort of salvation so that you can be at peace with yourself, so that you don’t either kill yourself or other people.”