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Ranking Martin Scorsese's five best New York City films

The city of New York has always played a major role in the films of Martin Scorsese, often acting as the protagonist as well as the primary contextual framework within which the filmmaker has based many of his artistic investigations. Scorsese’s vision of cinema and the city can hardly be separated from each other and there’s a good reason for that.

Born in the very same city which remained embedded in Scorsese’s imagination, he grew up exploring the world of cinema by renting copies of films from local video stores. When he was young, New York wasn’t a prominent hub for filmmakers but he enrolled in a newly started MFA program at NYU which propelled him towards a future of filmmaking.

After all these years, Scorsese’s relationship with the city has changed in many ways. In a recent interview, the master filmmaker said: “I actually don’t know where I belong on the island. I grew up downtown when it was pretty tough in that area. Now it’s very chic. It’s no longer home for me, certainly. I’ve grown old, and out, in a way.”

Check out some of the best explorations of New York in Martin Scorsese’s cinema below.

Ranking Martin Scorsese’s five best New York City films:

5. The King of Comedy (1982)

While some of his more well-known films such as Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street are also based in the city, The King of Comedy presents a more disturbing vision where atmospheric insanity is shown as a logical symptom that entails living in New York.

Robert De Niro delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Rupert Pupkin – a failed comedian who ends up embarking on a dark and dangerous path while daydreaming about becoming a very famous and successful talk show host.

4. Raging Bull (1980)

Another fantastic collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese, Raging Bull is a unique effort by Scorsese which interprets the city in a way that the filmmaker hadn’t before that or since then. Visualised in stunning black-and-white, New York is nightmarish in Raging Bull.

De Niro steals the show as Jake LaMotta, a talented boxer whose meteoric rise and fall is tragic. The explorations of the Bronx neighbourhood in the film provides the audience with some mesmerising vignettes, documenting the naked soul of the city.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

Probably one of the most famous films about New York City in the history of cinema, Taxi Driver is a scathing indictment of the civilisational decadence and moral decay of the American urban condition. The film’s overwhelming cynicism about the city is mostly evident in Travis Bickle’s (De Niro) meditative monologues.

Travis says: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me.”

2. Mean Streets (1973)

A relatively early gem by Scorsese which often gets overshadowed by the later successes of iconic films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Mean Streets captures the gritty underbelly of the city and Kent L. Wakeford’s cinematography translates it frame by frame.

The world of Mean Streets is that of petty crime, a brand of criminality that exists as a byproduct of the rotting microcosm which breeds violence and terror. Revisiting the film now is a perfect way to understand how Scorsese was establishing his style back then.

1. After Hours (1985)

Another severely underrated and under-watched gem from Scorsese’s filmography, After Hours is unlike any other film by the auteur and that’s exactly why it is so special. The film follows the surreal adventures of a data entry employee who is swallowed up and spit out by this unforgiving city.

Entering the New York of After Hours is a cerebral experience since Scorsese takes the audience on a Kafkaesque route, presenting an urban labyrinth that constantly diminishes individual agency. Scorsese rightfully won the Best Director prize at Cannes for this strange masterpiece.