Martin Scorsese knows movies like other people know breathing. So it’s no wonder that whether they’re about made men, mad men or men of God, his films are rarely anything less than electrifying. Here are 10 of the best:
Goodfellas (1990): “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster,” Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill tells us. And thanks to Scorsese’s fluid, virtuoso filmmaking, we as audience members become as immersed in this landscape as Liotta’s Henry Hill does. Scorsese’s sprawling saga drags us feet-first into a profane, blood-splattered, coke-crazed mosaic of wise-guys fuelled by women, drugs, violence and food - yes, rarely have movie mobsters eaten so well or in such exacting detail. By focusing on this minutia of underworld life, Scorsese brings the genre - operatic after The Godfather - back to the terra firma of New York’s mean streets.
Raging Bull (1980): Robert De Niro deservedly won an Academy Award for his body-morphing performance as savage, self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta. And like the young, spry La Motta, there isn’t an ounce of fat on Scorsese’s black and white bio-pic. Instead, he dive-bombs us dizzyingly into LaMotta’s sweat-and-blood-stained existence, in and out of the ring. It’s bare-knuckled, bruising and unbeatable.
Taxi Driver (1976): Before Times Square became as sanitized as a Disney theme park, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver wallowed in a New York at the height (or depths) of its paranoid gloom. Driving the streets is Travis Bickle (De Niro), a loner who envisions himself as an avenging angel, seething at the scum that surrounds him. In Bickle, De Niro and Scorsese tap into a terrifying but truthful zeitgeist - the character was said to have inspired would-be Ronald Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr.
The Age of Innocence (1993): Edith Wharton’s dissection of manners, clan and class structures in 1870s New York seemed an improbable match for a director so closely identified with urban, violent visions of modern life. But Scorsese’s attraction to the material wasn’t unprecedented necessarily. After all, he’s long been fascinated by the machinations of societies and their customs. And while The Age of Innocence isn’t a violent movie, its characters played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder are among the most wounded - and wounding - he’s ever put on screen.
Kundun (1997): As unexpected as Scorsese adapting Wharton was the idea of him dramatizing the story of the Dalai Lama. But Scorsese, regardless of his subject matter, is a supreme storyteller. And his visual acuity proves sublimely attuned to the restraint of this moving, beautiful-to-behold epic.
The King of Comedy (1983): Decades before reality-TV and TMZ, De Niro and Scorsese gave us another disturbed loner. This one, Rupert Pupkin, isn’t a cabbie, but a talentless stalker and would-be stand-up comic desperate for fame - even if it means kidnapping a famous talk show host (Jerry Lewis) to achieve it. Scorsese’s celebrity satire tanked at the box office, but seems prescient nearly 30 years later.
The Departed (2006): This crime thriller, for which Scorsese was finally recognized with an Oscar, is a fearsome miracle of mood and momentum. DiCaprio is the undercover cop who’s infiltrated Jack Nicholson’s Boston mafia crew. Matt Damon, meanwhile, is Nicholson’s mole in the state police. But The Departed has an abundance of small pleasures beyond its cat-and-mouse game, including scene-stealing work from Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen.
Gangs of New York (2002): Scorsese spent decades preparing this exhaustive tale of New York’s barbaric past and the clashes between native New Yorkers and Irish immigrants. Too bad the plot, which follows Leonardo DiCaprio on a quest to avenge his father, feels awfully generic despite the vividness of the time period. The stand-out, hands-down: Day-Lewis as the volcanic Bill the Butcher, the target of DiCaprio’s wrath.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974): For all the testosterone in his work, one of Scorsese’s earlier triumphs came with this drama about a widow (Ellen Burstyn, who won an Oscar) who pursues her dream of a singing career. Eventually, she lands a job - and a chance at a better life - at a diner. If that sounds familiar, it may be because the movie was the basis for the 1970s sitcom Alice.
After Hours (1985): This disconcerting, dark comedy finds Griffin Dunne on a nocturnal trek to SoHo after he’s smitten by Rosanna Arquette. Not a wholly successful film, but with Scorsese, even his failures are more compelling than other directors’ successes.