Retrospective: The Films Of Martin Scorsese

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 17, 2013 2:05 PM
32 Comments
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As a director Martin Scorsese ranks at the forefront of the all-time top tier of American filmmakers, but even as a presence in the film world in general he is pre-eminent. It is merely the just desserts of a life which, more than any we can think of, has been entirely dedicated, saturated and invigorated by cinema. For any of us who spend any portion of our days thinking about movies, Scorsese is, as much as we have one, a patron saint, perhaps the figure to whom the less Godly among us might whisper our evening prayers. Yet Scorsese also belies the directorial cliché of egotism, a Welles or a De Mille striding around with a bullhorn booming out orders to scuttling minions, because he has always been dinstictively softly if rapidly spoken, and thoughtful, especially when talking about cinema. Just to hear him talk about cinema is one of the great joys of the man. He is erudite, passionate and opinionated, with a film knowledge so vast that it’s hard to imagine where he ever found the time to make a single movie himself.

But make movies he has, and you may have heard of some of them. From his childhood as a second-generation Sicilian immigrant growing up on Elizabeth Street in New York City (his grandparents spoke hardly any English their whole lives); through his productive collaborations with neighbor Robert De Niro which gave rise to his early masterworks; through seven Best Director Oscar nominations (winning once for “The Departed”) right up to his establishment of various film preservation and protection organisations; Scorsese has knitted himself so indelibly into the filmmaking landscape that it’s possible if you (or more likely Thelma Schoonmaker) were to cut him, he’d bleed celluloid.

With Scorsese himself recently suggesting that he may only have a few more films left in him (though his restoration and preservation work seems to be gaining momentum), we felt it was (well beyond) high time to attempt a career retrospective of a director whose love of cinema inspired our own. So with his latest, the snarlingly batshit lunaticThe Wolf of Wall Street” opening on Christmas Day, let’s take a look back at the films that make up the remarkably consistent career of Martin Scorsese.

"Who's That Knocking at My Door" (1967)
Having caught Scorsese's first feature at the Chicago International Film Festival, a young Roger Ebert called it “a great moment in American movies.” Looking back, it’s not hard to imagine how this film, an affecting and invigorating laundry list of Scorsese’s usual themes—faith, guilt, male bonding that oscillates between tender fraternity and runaway machismo, a female love interest subjected to the Madonna-whore complex and choice musical cuts that meld impeccably with the imagery—must have toppled Ebert’s expectations. Today, the film remains fresh, acted with aplomb by a young Harvey Keitel (he would effectively reprise this role in the masterful “Mean Streets”) and Zina Bethune. It’s occasionally unwieldy (a montage of Keitel’s sexual encounters feels unnecessary and was forced on Scorsese in order to better sell the film), but the directorial touch is deft and a scene involving a party and a gun is one of the most memorable in his filmography. It’s a necessary and largely assured first foray into the world of features, a picture positively pulsating with something “real,” an intangible quality bestowed on films that feel plucked from real life. [B]

Boxcar Bertha” (1972)
This film is Martin Scorsese’s “foot in the door” if you will, an opportunity to direct given to him by benefactor and mentor to many, Roger Corman. “Boxcar Bertha” is 70s exploitation at its finest, helmed with gusto by Scorsese, the film is a “Bonnie and Clyde” takeoff that borrows the 1930s setting and criminal lovers-on-the-run themes from its popular and game-changing predecessor. Starring Barbara Hershey as a teenage temptress and David Carradine as her corrupting influence/lover, the pair and their gang head out on a crime spree that is as violent as it is sexy (there’s a lot of nudity). Their trip eventually takes a turn for the bleak, achieving depths of human darkness that Scorsese is all too familiar with. While the film is a decidedly Corman-esque American Independent Picture, it’s shot through with Scorsese’s sensibility and energetic sense of style. While it’s underseen and often overlooked, it’s a fine indicator of what he could do and a fun one to revisit for Scorsese completists. [B]

Mean Streets” (1973)
This is it, one of the desert-island Scorsese films, displaying the breathtaking, and seemingly instantaneous maturing of a talented filmmaker into a master storyteller. Unwieldy at times, a bit ragged around the edges and still utterly brilliant, “Mean Streets” is the antidote to the operatic grandeur of Coppola’s La Familia. Harvey Keitel returns, playing what’s essentially an expanded portrait of the boy from Scorsese’s touching 1967 debut "Who's That Knocking At My Door." Here, as Charlie, Keitel is all small-time, a bottom-feeder with a connected uncle and a ticking time-bomb friend—an unforgettable Robert De Niro, wiry, careless and absolutely heartbreaking as the damaged Johnny Boy. Scorsese’s style flourishes, shaping a film that allows for absorbing detours while Charlie and Johnny Boy barrel down to their ultimate unraveling. The picture is a kick in the door, a shot across the bow, a living thing powered by sublimely selected pop music. Sure he’s made more poised, controlled pictures since but this is the kind of genuine article few artists have the salt in them to put out—a masterpiece in part due to its imperfections, and a rallying cry for a peerless career thereafter. [A-]

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32 Comments

  • sheldrake movies | January 12, 2014 3:08 PMReply

    Just started a blog about Scorsese - The Wolf Of Elizabeth Street.

    Would love people to have a look and let me know if they agree...

    'The Wolf Of Elizabeth Street' - thoughts on Scorsese.
    http://sheldrakemovies.wix.com/blog

  • Milano | December 29, 2013 3:32 PMReply

    Another correction: Barbara Hershey wasn't nominated for an Oscar for "Last Temptation of Christ."

  • Grego | December 23, 2013 1:06 PMReply

    I don't understand this list...at all. It's nice that you've awarded two A+s to two of his best films, but why not Raging Bull? How is Mean Streets only an A- and not a straight A? Honestly, reading through all of these, it seems like the contributors don't actually care about Scorsese, or are trying to knock him down a peg. Only a B for Last Temptation of Christ? It seems that in every case in which some critics love a film, while others are indifferent toward it, The Playlist decided to take the indifferent route. Age of Innocence, Casino and Kundun are all better than they're represented here. The Last Waltz only a B? After the totally positive retrospective you did on the Coens, this list makes Scorsese seem like the weaker artist.

  • come on! | January 1, 2014 1:42 PM

    I don't need to read something like that on Martin Scorsese. All I have to do is watch his incredible work and his generous soul. I also loved his documentary My voyage to Italy. I have never seen a filmaker that generous with other people's work. He's an inspiration all over the world. I want to make movies and I am incredibly happy to see him lead the way and be honest about what he does. Seeing that I think I'll have to grow stronger before I get out there in the film workd because critisism is harsh. Anyway, I believe in films, not in grades like in high school.

  • aquarius1271 | December 23, 2013 10:44 AMReply

    What's with all the indifference towards The Age of Innocence still lurking around even after 20 years? That film is a piece of art, never failing to bring tears to my eye after all those viewings over the years in awe of the wonderful direction, set and costume design and not least of all the tragic and impossible love affair between its two lovers achingly brought to life with almost career best performances by its two leads Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day Lewis? A thorough reevaluation is long overdue for that glorious film in my opinion. And for its 20th anniversary which inf fact is right now, a special features laden new Bluray edition would be so helpful for this. Are you hearing Sony?

  • baba | January 1, 2014 1:48 PM

    The age of the innocence. I saw it a year ago, it was the only movie that I hadn't seen of his filmography. It's very poetic. And I'm amazed how many different types of structures, style and stories he is able to tell. think about it: watch goodfellas then the age of innocence. Made by the same man!!!!totally different, yet, he is willing to sing the music of those worlds and respect their rythims.

  • Christopher Schnepp | December 23, 2013 9:58 AMReply

    NICK NOTLE Was Not Nominated For An Oscar For "CAPE FEAR",
    De NIRO Was Though!,NOTLE Did Nab A Nod For A Movie That
    Came Out The Same Year As "FEAR" BUT It's Was For "THE PRINCE
    OF TIDES"!

  • lxdf | December 22, 2013 4:36 PMReply

    1. Raging Bull
    2. Taxi Driver
    3. The Goodfellas
    4. Casino
    5. Shutter Island
    6. The Big Shave
    7. Kundum
    8. Mean Streets
    9. Cape Fear
    10. The Aviator

  • The Law | December 21, 2013 9:57 AMReply

    I am just going to do a top 5 because I feel like 6-10 could change on my mood.
    1. Goodfellas
    2. Casino
    3. Gangs of New York
    4. Age of Innocence
    5. Taxi Driver

  • Roman | December 20, 2013 3:39 AMReply

    At the moment these are my favorites.

    1. Raging Bull
    2. The Departed
    3. Taxi Driver
    4. Goodfellas
    5. Mean Streets
    6. The Aviator
    7. Hugo
    8. Life Lessons
    9. The King of Comedy
    10. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

  • MishuPishu | December 18, 2013 7:32 PMReply

    Also, must say that I have to agree 100% with After Hours and New York Stories. I had After Hours as a teenager and couldn't stop watching it, must have watched it twenty times and loved it the twentieth as much as the first. And the perception of Nolte's ambition coming to life as he discovers a new muse in NY Stories is priceless!

    And Age Of Innocence? Uh, yeah, I guess I forgot all about that one, like everyone else on the planet. (except the Playlist, of course!)

  • Xian | December 18, 2013 3:49 PMReply

    Better version of "Key To Reserva" http: //www. scorsesefilmfreixenet. com/video_eng.htm (correct the url yourself, cut/paste to address bar)

  • CrombyMouse | December 18, 2013 1:42 PMReply

    IMO Bringing Out The Dead is hugely underrated while Hugo is overrated. Yes, it's technically brilliant but a bit dull and some performances are uninspired.

  • Adam Cortright | December 18, 2013 1:19 PMReply

    Scorsese also directed "Bad" in 1987 (both the short film and the accompanying music video) for Michael Jackson, and the half hour (with commercials) episode "Mirror, Mirror" for the Steven Spielberg-produced television series "Amazing Stories." Not to mention the three short films he made at NYU, and whatever involvement he had in the 1970 "Street Scenes" documentary on the student riots at NYU.

  • Ed | December 17, 2013 10:34 PMReply

    I've said this before, but I'll keep saying it - the way you break out articles into so many pages really discourages me (and I imagine others) from visiting this site. Please CUT THE CRAP!

  • cat | January 1, 2014 1:52 PM

    yeah , i agree. But I love martin's work so I don't need to read somebody else telling me about his work. I just put one of his films on and his world speaks to me.

  • Hardly Painful | December 20, 2013 7:09 AM

    Pffff, at least it's not Indiewire that makes a regular review 3 pages or Empire or Total film that do ONE page her item. Meaning, if this feature has 30 films on it, that's how many pages they would do.

  • TheoC | December 17, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    I've always felt Bringing out the dead was far too underrated (it's a great book too), and Shutter Island and the Departed have been way overrated in general.

  • TheoC | December 17, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    Excellent list and a labour of love, a good read too. You may have been too kinda to some of the later stuff, or I'm just a curmudgeon.

  • Allen | December 17, 2013 4:34 PMReply

    Gangs I think suffered more from Weinsteins interference than Scorseses direction. This was during a dry spell where he unfortunately took the bait offered to him. It's not a bad movie but it's certainly not up to his general standards.

  • jimmiescoffee | December 17, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    casino a B-? that's an A+.

    bringing out the dead and departed also deserve an A

  • Rodrigo | December 20, 2013 7:11 AM

    We had to compromise on grades for the sake of the how the piece flowed and how things were written, but my original grade for Casino was a C+ and having recently rewatched it for that feature, I think that's right. It not only says far less about its characters and world then Goodfellas, what is has to say thematically, emotionally and psychologically is virtually the same. So yes, it's entertaining in spots, but man, is it, even on its own merits... just feels been there done that. This is also not having seen it since it first came out.

  • Ed | December 18, 2013 2:24 AM

    Casino deserves a C.

  • Charles | December 17, 2013 8:55 PM

    Agreed. Casino is an A+. I think it's lazy to call it a retread of Goodfellas. De Niro's performance is phenomenal. The use of narration is incredible.

  • NewYorker | December 17, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    my 10 favorite Martin Scorsese movies are
    1-Goodfellas
    2-Casino
    3-The Departed
    4-Taxi Driver
    5-Raging Bull
    6-Cape Fear
    7-The Aviator
    8-Gangs Of New York
    9-Hugo
    10-The Last Temptation Of Christ

  • Eric | December 18, 2013 3:04 PM

    Great list. I'm gonna try it too (not including docs or TV):

    1. Goodfellas
    2. The Departed
    3. Casino
    4. Taxi Driver
    5. Raging Bull
    6. The Aviator
    7. Cape Fear
    8. Bringing Out the Dead
    9. Gangs of New York
    10. The Color of Money

  • film expert | December 17, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    Scorsese films in my time..

    Bringing Out The Dead
    Gangs Of New York ---saw it in the cinema
    The Departed ---saw it on pirate dvd
    The Aviator
    Shutter Island
    Wolf of Wall Street ---will watch it online

  • Eric | December 18, 2013 2:59 PM

    what the hell is the point of this post?

  • cineman | December 17, 2013 2:18 PMReply

    As great as Scorsese is this list is way too kind to Hugo, Gangs of New York & Bringing Out The Dead.

  • Carl | December 28, 2013 8:32 AM

    @MishuPishu

    I didn't get the departed either.

    I watched it many times, but failed to see the all touted greatness of it.
    (I like Nicholson's performance, and DiCaprio has good moments.
    But I grew tired of the one note - albeit invigorating - Whalberg's Bostonian drill sergeant shtick)

    I wonder whether my fond liking of the original movie has something to do with it.

    Now, the Oscar thing is just symptomatic of the irrelevance of the Academy or maybe reward system as a whole.
    The Academy managed to miss Scorcese' best movies with a amazing regularity. And tried to patch things up that was embarrassing for everyone involved.

  • MishuPishu | December 18, 2013 7:17 PM

    The Departed is easily the most overrated film on this list. It's the only Scorsese film that I couldn't wait til it was over and truly wished that I just turned it off earlier. I'm on the side that it truly is just a lifetime achievement award. I mean, come one, to get it for that clunker and not Goodfellas or Raging Bull, two films that will be remembered forever as cinematic brilliance? Departed will only be remembered as the one that got Scorsese the gold.

    And Casino is the most underrated for me. Another classic story that is quintessential Scorsese style and mystic.

    P.S. I did sort of fall asleep at the end of Hugo and didn't really care that much by then, but it was pretty good for the first two hours.

  • Eric | December 18, 2013 2:58 PM

    Those are all brilliant films and deserving of praise. I'll admit this is not Scorsese at his very best, but that's the difference between an A+ for Goodfellas and an A- for Hugo, Gangs of New York, and Bringing Out the Dead.

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