“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” – Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese, lovingly known as ‘Marty’, is a talented and exceptional director whose unique and audacious ventures elevate him to the level of an auteur. This bushy-eyed veteran director might come off as the most harmless and demure person possible, but his explosive and personal cinematic content has been studied with pleasure and admiration by film-buffs and cinephiles for decades.
Born to Italian American parents in the Garment District of New York in 1942, Scorsese grew up in Little Italy, experiencing downtown life. His struggle with asthma proved to be a blessing in disguise for when he was unable to play sports he instead started watching films and grew increasingly infatuated with them; thus began Scorsese’s arduous yet rewarding odyssey to becoming one of the greatest auteurs of all time. He has battled heavyweight opponents and made a mark in the industry. Today, his cinematic legacy inspires countless filmmakers.
A champion of cinema and founder of the non-profit Film Foundation, Scorsese has always encouraged young filmmakers, arguing passionately and eloquently on behalf of his favourites. Over the years, he has faced truckloads of criticism, starting from his stereotypical and negative portrayal of Italian-Americans to his problems with the Catholic Church as well as the Chinese government — yet the wise-eyed, cheeky-grinned auteur remains unfrazzled and dauntless, even at 78.
Scorsese cannot be typecast into a particular genre. He transcends the boundaries set by cinema and traversing his wide spectrum of films, one encounters violent noir films as well as aristocratic love stories, the conflict between divinity and humanity to dysfunctional relationships being disrupted by jealous insecurities. Scorsese has had brilliant partnerships over the years with talented actors like Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Frank Vincent and more. His longest collaboration has been of nine films with the legendary De Niro, and six films with DiCaprio. While his relationship with the veteran actor is “extraordinary special”, he gushes about Leo being his “muse”.
Recently, Scorsese made headlines for comparing the films in the Marvel franchise to “theme parks” and criticising them for not being “cinema”. He later clarified by saying: “Today, that tension is gone, and there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary — a lethal combination. The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalise and even belittle the existence of the other,” a sentiment which, if anything, shows his passion for the honesty of cinematic art.
Scorsese is set to direct his 26th feature film with his favourite collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in his new film Killers of the Flower Moon, the shooting of which has been postponed due to the ongoing pandemic. The film is supposedly about the FBI investigations regarding the Oklahoma murders in the 1920s with underlying ties to oil deposits and could mark one of the director’s final feature film projects.
While fans wait eagerly for the next feature, the talented and mighty ‘Goodfella’ has successfully completed another trip around the sun. To pay tribute to our beloved Marty, we have attempted to rank the auteur’s films in order of greatness. It is difficult to compare films that include a wide range of themes, including aristocratic and opulent period dramas, controversial biographical dramas to fractured psychological character portraits. Groove to some scintillating jazz on this auteur’s 78th birthday and watch the real Infinity War begin.
Ranking Martin Scorsese films from worst to best:
25. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)
Scorsese’s feature film debut and Harvey Keitel’s acting debut is all about catholic guilt and rage. The film protagonist J.R. struggles to accept the past of his independent and free-spirited girlfriend Bethune.
The provocative character study of a man conflicted over the purity and morality of his girlfriend who is a rape survivor is appalling; it also predicts Scorsese’s future obsession with the theme of guilt and conscience in catholicism. Visceral themes and motifs of psycho-sexual anguish on being exposed to religious iconography is well brought out in this feature.
“Oh, yeah. Why not, huh? Everybody should like Westerns. Solve everybody’s problems if they liked Westerns.”
24. The Color of Money (1986)
Fast Eddie, former pool hustler turned liquor salesman, meets and partners up with the talented Vincent Laurie. After teaching the latter tricks-of-the-trade in scamming, they have a major fallout over behavioural disagreements. Soon they cross paths in a tournament as opponents.
Paul Newman and Tom Cruise thrive in their roles; Newman won his only Oscar as the Best Actor due to his charismatic role as the ageing mentor to the brash Cruise. Scorsese’s sequel is set 25 years after the events of the original film where the story is fresh and original.
“You gotta have two things to win. You gotta have brains and you gotta have balls. Now, you got too much of one and not enough of the other.”
23. Boxcar Bertha (1970)
“I’d do anything you want. Wanna quit, we’ll quit. We’ll go away.”
A very Bonnie and Clyde-esque film, it focuses on the story of Boxcar Bertha Thompson and ‘Big’ Bill Shelly, a pair of lovers and robbers, who are forced to be on the run as fugitives after Bertha is suspected to have murdered an affluent gambler.
John Cassavetes had harshly criticised Martin Scorsese for this film by saying, “You just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit”. This was not quite fair as the film is “weirdly interesting”. The low budget allowed the director to experiment with his editing and cinematographic skills. With stellar performances from the cast that included David Carradine, Barbara Hershey and Barry Primus, it is not only an “exploitation picture” but also an impressive and familiar parallel to the popular outlaw-couple films of that age.
22. New York, New York (1977)
The film focuses on the life of a jazz saxophonist Jimmy Doyle and singer Francine Evans who meet and fall head-over-heels in love with each other. However, after marriage, as they struggle to move forward in their careers, the saxophonist’s volatile behaviour leads to the disintegration of their relationship; their marriage falls apart after the birth of their baby.
De Niro, who has a knack for playing jealous and repulsive characters, can make his portrayal of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver seem saner. An ambitious project on Scorsese’s part, the musical is thrilling and exhilarating, while the dysfunctional relationship evokes sympathy and unease. As Scorsese commented, “What would happen if you combined the formal elements of classic MGM musicals with more contemporary acting styles?” As Roger Ebert says, “Scorsese’s New York, New York never pulls itself together into a coherent whole, but if we forgive the movie its confusions we’re left with a good time.” It might remind the younger audience of La La Land and A Star is Born, while raising the question ‘it is better, right?’
“ Will you marry me? Will you marry me? I love you. Will you marry me? I don’t want anybody else to be with you. I don’t want anybody else. I want to be with you, do you understand? I don’t want anybody else to be with you except me. I love you. I love you. Look at me. I love you.”
21. Cape Fear (1991)
Following his extravagant triumph after Goodfellas, Scorsese’s Cape Fear was really “just a thriller”. Scorsese had conducted an auteurist swap with Spielberg who went on to direct Schindler’s List instead. Scorsese employed Hitchcock’s techniques by using unique camera angles, lighting and editing. In his seventh collaboration with Scorsese in this smart and well-crafted film, Robert De Niro’s buff and sleazy psychopath of character steals the spotlight. Both terrific and terrifying, De Niro’s character is of optimum shock-value.
The film focuses on Max Cady, a convicted rapist, who uses his knowledge of the law and its loopholes to avenge his 14-year imprisonment. He blames public defender Sam Bowden for concealing proof that could have secured his acquittal.
“I am going to teach you the meaning of commitment. Fourteen years ago I was forced to make a commitment to an eight by nine cell, now you are going to be forced to make a commitment. You could say I’m here to save you.”
20. Hugo (2011)
Hugo Cabret, a lonely orphan, maintains the station clocks and lives in the station walls in 1930s Paris. Along with Isabella, he embarks on a quest to solve the mystery of the broken automaton as well as find a home.
Not a product of Scorsese’s oeuvre, the extravagance and elegance that lies in the innocence of the film is beautiful. Having been nominated for 11 Academy Awards, the powerful performances, as well as the exquisite aesthetics, make it worth watching. James Cameron called the film “a masterpiece” due to its superior quality of 3D effects. Martin’s unabashed love for cinema finds a relevant and magical homage in this film.
“I always believed the world is a machine. All of us were made for a purpose.”
19. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
“I’d always had nightmares, but now the ghosts didn’t wait for me to sleep.”
Another product of the classic Scorsese-Schrader duo, the film brings to light a totally different yet frenzied depiction of the wounded New York Streets from the perspective of a city paramedic, Frank Pierce, haunted by the pressure of saving lives and witnessing deaths. Sanity hangs loosely by a thread and before he snaps, he befriends a victim’s daughter, Mary Burke.
The film is bound to move the audience with a stunning and compelling story of a troubled and anguished paramedic. Nicholas Cage as Pierce is intense and vulnerable while trying to survive each night. The paranoia and anxiety in the film permeate through the screen. Though it was a box office flop, it was Scorsese’s tribute to the city paramedics and their relentless labour that he witnessed in his younger years: “I had 10 years of ambulances. My parents, in and out of hospitals. Calls in the middle of the night. I was exorcising all of that. Those city paramedics are heroes — and saints, they’re saints. I grew up next to the Bowery, watching the people who worked there, the Salvation Army, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, all helping the lost souls. They’re the same sort of people.”
18. Kundun (1997)
Martin Scorsese tells an emotionally isolating and spiritually enticing tale of the 14th Dalai Lama through the lens of Hiss Holiness. It brings to light how a simple boy from an ordinary Tibetan family became the political and spiritual leader of his people followed by the Chinese invasion of Tibet which forced him into exile.
The film is visually and aesthetically pleasing as it brings forth a surreal and mystical Tibet aided by Roger Deakins’ excellence. Roger Ebert once said, “Unlike Scorsese’s portrait of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, this is not a man striving for perfection, but perfection in the shape of a man…we are freed to see the film as it is: an act of devotion, an act even of spiritual desperation, flung into the eyes of 20th-century materialism.” It is a beautiful and haunting portrayal of Dalai Lama’s quest for life. As an aftermath, China banned the members of the production from entering and even banned Disney films and cartoons (Disney had the distributing rights). To undo this “stupid mistake”, Disney opened Shanghai Disneyland by 2016.
“I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.”
17. Gangs of New York (2002)
Due to rising tension among the Protestant and Catholic communities in Five Points, Priest Vallon is mercilessly slaughtered by William “ill the Butcher” in 1846. Vallon’s son who witnesses the killing, returns to the town in 1862, using the alias of Amsterdam to murder Bill and avenge his father’s murder.
Nominated for ten Oscars, Gangs of New York was the first Martin Scorsese film Leo starred in, and the rest is history. While critics have praised Daniel Day-Lewis’ “electrifying performance” as the ruthless Bill, DiCaprio’s Amsterdam is a quintessential Dickensian hero whose eyes serve as the narrative lens. He does a spectacular job paving his way into Scorsese’s heart which marked the beginning of a new era and a brilliant partnership.
“When you kill a king, you don’t stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.”
16. The Aviator (2004)
“Sometimes I truly fear that I… am losing my mind. And if I did it…. It would be like flying blind.”
Howard Hughes, an aviator, is also an eccentric director famous in the film industry. However, his growing OCD and paranoia become a threat to his legendary reputation and career; personal demons and past reminiscence make it increasingly difficult for him to take control of his life.
A second successive Scorsese film, DiCaprio earned his second Academy Award nomination with his brilliant and insightful portrayal of Hughes, to the point where the eccentric tycoon becomes an object of sympathy and admiration. He thrives in Scorsese’s artistic and scintillating approach. His acting prowess, well-gauged by the visionary director, was put to good use. Years later, Leo was quoted saying “I felt I could truly own the term artist by working alongside him”.
15. The Age of Innocence (1993)
Adapted from Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, The Age of Innocence is a historical romantic drama which revolves around the lives of aristocrats in 1870s New york. Wealthy and handsome, Newland Archer, a lawyer, is engaged to the sweet and charming socialite May. While it seems to be a match made in heaven, the arrival of May’s beautiful cousin Countess Ellen Olenska disrupts their idea of paradise. Enchanted by Ellen’s unconventional and defiant thinking, Newland’s desire for her makes him question his love and engagement to the demure May, amidst a dilemma between his emotions and society.
Created by Scorsese as a tribute to his father Luciano Charles Scorsese, the film features the Scorsese patriarch and matriarch in small cameos. Although it had not been a box office success, the opulence and grandeur of 1870s New york aristocracy is a visual treat to the eyes. In this saga of unrequited and unconsummated love, longing and loss, the ensemble cast including Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder deliver outstanding performances. Scorsese goes all out in portraying a different side of himself with a dash of elegant balls and romantic strolls; the film is almost out of a dream sequence. As Rita Kempley rightly commented, “Perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a grand surprise that he [Martin Scorsese] is as deft at exploring the nuances of Edwardian manners as he is the laws of modern-day machismo.”
“Newland. You couldn’t be happy if it meant being cruel. If we act any other way I’ll be making you act against what I love in you most. And I can’t go back to that way of thinking. Don’t you see? I can’t love you unless I give you up.”
14. Silence (2016)
“I feel so tempted. I feel so tempted to despair. I’m afraid.”
Adapted from Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name, the film is set in the Ed-era period in Japan when Christians were mercilessly pursued. In the 17th century, two Jesuit missionaries Father Sebastian Rodrigues and Father Francisco Garupe embark on a perilous mission from Portugal to Macau to locate ad rescue their missing mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira, as well as Catholic Christianity. However, they have to be discreet lest they get caught by feudal leaders which will result in an extremely painful and agonising death.
Termed as Scorsese’s “passion project”, this is the third film with troubled figures caught between faith and doubt. The auteur’s 26-year-long odyssey to mirror his spiritual and reverent beliefs is resonated in the film. The film is an experience where the characters are embroiled in a dilemma between adherence to one’s moral beliefs and beliefs that seem pragmatic with respect to societal values. An ensemble led forward by Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield results in an electrifying yet mellow and melancholic performance in a tense anguished atmosphere. Scorcese had an interesting answer to questions about his need for making films on the spiritually paradoxical films: “As you get older, ideas go and come. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me. Yes, the cinema and the people in my life and my family are most important, but ultimately as you get older, there’s got to be more… Silence is just something that I’m drawn to in that way. It’s been an obsession, it has to be done… it’s a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way, but it deals with those questions.”
13. The Wolf of Wall Street (2011)
Based on the true story of a stockbroker named Jordan Belfort, Scorsese’s hedonistic saga of sex, drugs and crime chronicles the former’s journey from rags to riches by defrauding wealthy investors in billions, which ultimately has an adverse effect on his life.
One of his most iconic roles, DiCaprio rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for his stellar performance as the roguish Belfort. As Leo himself said, it is “a cautionary tale… like a modern-day Caligula- The Fall of Roman Empire”. He spent “many months” with the real-life Jordan Belfort and even videotaped the latter’s expression to impersonate him better when high on extra-strong Lemon Quaaludes. Leo has further added, “It’s the biggest adrenaline dump… I haven’t been able to step on a set since”.
Matthew McConaughey, who has a flair for outperforming lead actors with his striking supportive roles, plays the sleazy senior broker, Mark Hanna, under whose tutelage Belfort gets inducted into the world of hedonism; cocaine, masturbation and hookers should advisably be his top priority. In one of the scenes that are considered the most memorable, the lunch meeting comprising Belfort and Hanna, McConaughey is outstanding as he lends questionable career advice and tries to explain the tricks of the trade to the former, by saying “The secret is cocaine and hookers”, followed by the iconic chest-thumping scene and the humming, which was incorporated at DiCaprio’s insistence.
“On a daily basis, I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month. I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my “back pain”, Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, pot to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine… Well, because it’s awesome.”
12. The Irishman (2019)
An old school masterpiece, the film focuses on Frank Sheeran, a truck driver-turned-hitman who works in close collaboration with a North-eastern Pennsylvania crime family, headed by Russell Bufalino. Frank begins “painting houses”, a code word for contract-killing and is cold and charismatic. Eventually, he is introduced to the fiery Jimmy Hoffa who has ties with organised crime. Scorsese’s brand-new outlook on the gangster genre is phenomenal.
Finely curated, the film boasts of a heavyweight ensemble, including Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and more. Pacino is exhausted and vulnerable yet loud and funny. DeNiro as the cold-blooded killer does not talk much and carries out his orders without breaking into a cold sweat. Pesci is equally compelling and communicates with his mere presence. Reminiscent of Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, the film conveys how the upcoming modernity is changing the ways of the old world. The film ends on a poignant note, and with Scorsese’s name in the credits, it is almost heartbreaking to think of how the golden era has come to an end. A brilliant epic, it features the dream team while paying tribute to the dying genre via the inevitable doom that awaits the characters.
“You don’t know how fast time goes until you get there.”
11. Shutter Island (2010)
US Marshal Teddy Daniels and his newly assigned partner, Chuck Aule, travel to the Ashcliffe Hospital on a remote island to investigate the disappearance of the patient. As Teddy delves deeper into the investigation, he realises the sinister nature of the asylum and its inmates; he must confront the ghosts of his past as well as his fears to be able to successfully leave the island.
Intense and unsettling, Shutter Island is one of Scorsese’s most phenomenal yet underrated works. Provocative, the film challenges the sanity of the viewers. He pervasive gloom and anxiety is heightened by Leo’s outstanding performance as Teddy Daniels, a man haunted by his traumatic past. Mark Ruffalo adds a brilliant dimension to the former. Scorsese pulls off the greatest plot twist at the end of the movie, leaving an indelible mark on the minds of the viewers.
“Which would be worse – to live as a monster? Or to die as a good man?”
10. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
“I’m out there, spending too much money on clothes… trying to look like maybe I’m under 30 so somebody will hire me… and you’re sitting in here, whining like an idiot. I will get a job, all right?”
After Alice Hyatt’s husband, Donald dies in an auto accident, she decides to move across the south-west to reach Monterey, California to realise her dreams of being a singer as well as seek for a better life with her precocious and talkative preteen son, Tommy. The duo goes through a variety of misadventures before settling down and finding true purpose in life.
Alice’s frustration as a young woman burdened with motherhood and the pressure to sustain themselves is palpable. Scorsese who has been criticised for the lack of female representation in his films presents this film with a wonderful female protagonist in the centre. Perceptive and funny, the film paints the painful predicament of American women in the ’70s. Scorsese said: “It’s a picture about emotions and feelings and relationships and people in chaos… We felt like charting all that and showing the differences and showing people making terrible mistakes ruining their lives and then realizing it and trying to push back when everything is crumbling – without getting into soap opera. We opened ourselves up to a lot of experimentation.”
9. The Departed (2006)
While constantly infiltrating each others’ organisation, Boston Police officer, Billy Costigan, and Boston Mob member, Colin Sullivan, are embroiled in a vicious cat and mouse chase. They find moles in their respective organizations and go to various lengths to prevent that from getting exposed.
One of Scorsese’s best films to date, The Departed boasts of a heavyweight ensemble which includes Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo DiCaprio among others. According to Entertainment Weekly, “If they’re lucky, directors make one classic film in their career. Martin Scorsese has one per decade (Taxi Driver in the ’70s, Raging Bull in the ’80s, Goodfellas in the ’90s). His 2006 Irish Mafia masterpiece kept the streak alive.” In his third successive film with Scorsese, Leo as the hot-headed Costigan brings a wonderful emotional depth and maturity to his character. Fiercely entertaining, it is a shame how Leo did not get a nomination at the Academy.
“When I was your age, they would say you could become cops or criminals; today what I’m saying to you is this: When facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”
8. Mean Streets (1973)
After being vehemently criticised after his film Boxcar Bertha for spending a year “making a piece of shit”, Scorsese decided to base his new narrative on his personal experience as a boy growing up in Little Italy, New York City. It is not a gangster film but one about living in sin and the dread of eternal suffering lest a sinner died without redemption. It is Scorsese’s most personal with the atmospheric tension and filth heightened by electrifying performances from the ensemble especially Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. The contradiction between faith and doubt makes the setting look darker. The film marks the beginning of a wonderful partnership for over four decades. Thoroughly captivating, as a reverie of violence and frenzied brutality it has been termed “one of the best American films of the decade”.
Mean Streets is a ‘slice-of-street-life’ film based in Little Italy which focuses on Charlie and Johnny’s escapades as they navigate through the ranks of the Mafia. Charlie is caught between his Catholicism and loyalty to his Uncle while his friend Johnny Boy is neck-deep in debts. It is Scorsese’s biographical tale of Little Italy’s nameless sons and daughters lurking in the shadows.
“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”
7. Casino (1995)
“For guys like me, Las Vegas washes away your sins. It’s like a morality car wash.”
Adapted from yet another Nicholas Pileggi novel, the film revolves around Robert De Niro’s Jewish American gambling expert persona by the name of Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein who is entrusted with overseeing the operations at Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. The trials and tribulations faced by Ace include operational difficulties due to subsequent Mafia involvement which lead to the further disintegration of his relationships and marital life, with a rapidly changing Las Vegas as its background.
A fine blend of violence, tragedy, mishaps, exuberance, jazz and humour, the film is a delicately balanced masterpiece. Supported by a brilliant ensemble including Joe Pesci, James Woods, Sharon Stone, Frank Vincent, Kevin Pollard and others. Robert De Niro as the principal character delivers an outstanding performance as the troubled casino handler. A tale of American opulence and excess, the exhilarating performances take Scorsese’s carefully crafted humorous and jazzy film forward.
6.The King of Comedy (1983)
A satire accentuated by dark comedy, the film revolves around Rupert Pupkin, a commoner who hosts imaginary talk shows in his mother’s basement and idolises the celebrity talk show host Jerry Langford, who, he is convinced, will provide him with a big break in the TV industry. However, Langford rebuffs Rupert which instils an obsession to stalk the former in the latter’s mind; subsequently, Rupert kidnaps Langford and as a ransom, demands a guest spot on his show.
In his fifth partnership with his beloved Marty, Robert ‘Bob’ De Niro plays the deranged “sympathetic psychopath” Pupkin who wants nothing more than recognition from his idol. It is interesting to note how the roles were reversed in Todd Philips’ 2019 film Joker where Joaquin Phoenix played the deranged psychopath craving attention from his idol and talk show host, played by Bob himself; the reversal of fate and the uncanny resemblance is chilling. The film is a macabre satire on the hero-worship of celebrities and the effects of media culture which includes the perverted and voyeuristic ambition of the aspiring stars motivated by the success stories of their idols. Hilarious yet poignant, Rupert’s unsettling cheerfulness and indefatigable obsession in the prescient screenplay stays to haunt the viewers long after the film is over.
“I look at my whole life and I see the awful, terrible things in my life and turn it into something funny.”
5. After Hours (1985)
“What do you know, man? A stereo’s a stereo. Art is forever!”
When the quintessential everyman Paul Hackett meets Marcy in a Manhattan cafe, he is smitten by her eloquence. He takes a cab to her apartment in the seedy area of Soho; his $20 bill flies out of the window which ominously predicts the series of surreal, bizarre and awkward situations he gets himself embroiled in, meeting quirky and dangerous people, while constantly trying to return to the safety of uptown.
Paul is at times way worse than an everyman which removes the audience support. His predicament does not evoke sympathy; however, the crazy and colourful characters are indeed intriguing. This is a classic Scorsese odyssey through the seedy downtown tinged with energy, paranoia and black comedy. The protagonist is constantly emasculated by the overbearing female characters in the film. As Michael Rabiger said: “The hero of Scorsese’s dark comedy After Hours is like a rat trying to escape from a labyrinth. Indeed there is a caged rat in one scene where Paul finds himself trapped in a talkative woman’s apartment. The film could be plotted out as a labyrinthine journey, each compartment holding out the promise of a particular experience, almost all illusory and misleading”.
4. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Termed as ‘blasphemous’ by devout Christians, the film is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel of the same name. Jesus is a humble carpenter who, seen as the son of God, is roped in by Judas to rise in rebellion against Roman oppressors, despite his claims that only love, not violence, could lead to salvation. The burden of being the Messiah torments him and leads to self-doubt and anguish. His crucifixion scene which led to a lot of controversies records visions of his “last temptation” to settle down with a public sinner, Mary Magdalene.
The film humanises Christ opposing the Bible’s rendition of his divinity. It associates human emotions such as fear, doubt, lust, reluctance and depression. Christ is easily tempted and has sinful sexual dreams. This portrayal led to an outrage among the fanatics. Even the disclaimer of the film could not stop the controversies: “This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.” For a director who has mastered his art in films based on organized crime, a religious drama is least expected. Seen as a “surprisingly straight and passionate affair, one that also seeks to redeem Scorsese’s ‘80s career”, William Dafoe’s brilliant and vulnerable portrayal of Christ brings out his distress, misery, anguish and anxiety during self-discovery.
“You don’t have a choice. Neither do I. Remember, we’re bringing God and man together. They’ll never be together unless I die. I’m the sacrifice… Forget everything else, understand that.”
3. Raging Bull (1980)
“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.”
Robert De Niro plays the protagonist Jake LaMotta, an Italian-American middleweight boxer. As he rises through the ranks to bag the crown, he falls in love and gets married to a beautiful girl. However, overcome by psychological demons like self-destructive and uncontrollable rage, sexual jealousy and gluttony along with his general animosity severely affects his interpersonal relationships.
The brutal fight sequences coupled with a man’s wounded ego causing rifts in his relationships weigh heavily; the film is poetic and psychologically scarring at the same time with an intense and brutal script by the legendary Paul Schrader. Joe Pesci rose to prominence with this film as Jake LaMotta’s supportive brother Joey who tries hard to help his brother battle his inner demons. Jake’s slow and steady emotional degradation leads to his isolation; the beautiful monochromatic cinematography brilliantly captures the depressive and gloomy atmosphere that pervades through the screen. De Niro is explosive as the “unsympathetic hero” whose insecurity and obsession leads him to crave control over events inside as well as outside the boxing ring; he had even gobbled down a bowl of pasta to look like the middle-aged jake. Powerful with a brilliant character study, Raging Bull is one of Scorsese’s finest works to date.
2. Taxi Driver (1976)
“You talkin’ to me?”
Travis Bickle, Vietnam War veteran and now a taxi driver, leads a lonely and depressing life in the morally bankrupt New York City and he is infatuated with a campaign volunteer named Betsy. Disgusted and appalled by the degradation of New York City, plagued by forced prostitution, corruption and dysfunction, Travis’ descent into madness and frenzy motivated by violence, causes him to be obsessed with the assassination of the Presidential candidate as well as the man who pimps out Idris, an underage prostitute and his friend.
Scorsese is at his best in this riveting film. Brutal violence and jarring characters add to the dysfunctional atmosphere of the film. Robert DeNiro delivers an outstanding and memorable performance as the angst-ridden Travis Bickles who embarks on a carnage. He is relatable when he says “I got some bad ideas in my head”, yet unfamiliar when his hands are soaked in blood. Travis attempts to be the “real rain” that will “wash away all this scum off the streets.” wonderful cinematography and intense dialogues coupled with powerful performances make Taxi Driver a brilliant yet nightmarish masterpiece, which will surely quench the thirst for madness and violence in the neo-noir aficionados.
Adapted from Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, the film revolves around the lives of three pivotal figures and their lives as a part of 1960s and ‘70s New York mafia. It follows the journey of a young, petty criminal Henry Hill, who along with his friends, the jack-of-all-trades Jimmy Conway and the intimidating Tommy DeVito, ascends the organised crime ladder to live a life of luxury. Unbeknownst to him, the brutalities soon cause a sea change in their lives, bringing into the picture the question of survival.
An obvious fan favourite, this film made Scorsese the household name he is. The movie, which questions the extent of willful ignorance on the part of an individual towards his compatriot’s immorality, boasts an incredible ensemble comprising Robert De Niro, Jo Pesci, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino. The rehearsals led to a variety of improvs and ad-libs which gave the actors creative freedom to express themselves and the best ones were retained in the improvised script. Deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”, Goodfellas is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Scorsese had used “all the basic tricks of the New Wave from around 1961” to create his masterpiece. Phenomenal performances and a crisp, gritting narrative make this Scorsese’s greatest film of all time.
“Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”