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Retrospective: The Films Of Martin Scorsese

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 17, 2013 2:05 PM
33 Comments
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Italianamerican” (1974)
Coming off the success of “Mean Streets,” what did Scorsese do? He went home. There are fewer cinematic subjects more self-indulgent than interviewing your family for a profile documentary. Yet Scorsese’s parents, Catherine and Charles, who’ve appeared in many of his films throughout the years, are such good company that it more than works for this 49-minute interview in their New York apartment. Subjects vary from their experience growing up in the city, immigration, religion, their ancestors and most importantly, Catherine’s spaghetti sauce and meatballs, charmingly detailed in recipe form in the film’s end credits. Usually this is recommended for Scorsese die-hards only but that seems unfair when watching the film is such a joy. In fact, the filmmaker recently declared this to be his favorite of all his works. If nothing else, it’s proof that any subject can make for a good movie if told well enough. “Italianamerican” is simple, straightforward and provides a glimpse into Scorsese's own world and life experience. Not many filmmakers could pull it off without coming over as self-serving, but he does. [B+]

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore” (1974)
Martin Scorsese’s deeply underrated comedic, dramatic and softly tender picture earns itself two memorable distinctions which were arguably never to be repeated in the filmmaker’s career again. 1) the movie was a rare work-for-hire, shepherded by actress Ellen Burstyn who got it greenlit at Warner Bros. and then went to Francis Ford Coppola for a director suggestion (and he recommended Marty). 2) It spawned the diner-set situation comedy “Alice” which ran nearly 10 years on CBS and even appropriated three of the same actors (Vic Tayback, Beth Howland and Diane Ladd, though to be technical about it, the latter joined the show belatedly as a different character). Centering on second chances, love and dreams (lets not forget the stylized, “Gone With the Wind”-esque opening sequence) and its hardships, Burstyn stars as a New Mexico housewife who uses the untimely, accidental death of her uncommunicative and largely rotten husband to start anew. Migrating to Arizona with her difficult, prepubescent son, the single mother struggles to keep him happy, pay the bills, find work and survive. A former singer, Alice finds marginal hope and success in Phoenix, but this brief reprieve is hijacked by a psychopathic and jealous cowboy, who’s married to boot (Harvey Keitel in maybe his first and only role as Southwesterner). Settling in Tucson, things begin to improve somewhat when Alice, forced to give up her singing career and take a waitressing job, is courted by a kindly and gentle cattle rancher (Kris Kristofferson). But love and life being as complicated as they are, on top of demanding children (see Jodie Foster as the tomboy-ish delinquent who gets Alice’s son in trouble), the still emotionally wounded Alice never quite has an easy go of things. Slight in the way the movie could just be another chapter in Alice’s life (it ends with the rather incomplete sense of many further stories to tell), “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore” still succeeds as the rare Martin Scorsese film centering on a female protagonist, with a tenderness, empathy and humanity the filmmaker is not especially known for. Oh, and that denimy choogling ‘70s soundtrack is pretty choice too. [B+]

Taxi Driver” (1976)
Choosing between “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver” would be nothing short of a “Sophie’s Choice” in terms of which film is the greatest in Scorsese’s impressive filmography, so we're glad we don't have to attempt it. Whatever the case, ‘Driver’ is one of the greatest films ever made, and without a doubt the greatest achievement in terms of portraying loneliness and isolation. Cinema has the rare ability to completely inhabit a subjective point of view, and that aspect is in full force in this story of one Travis Bickle, a man who tries to make connections but instead finds himself spiraling out of control awash in disturbing thoughts and violent ambitions. It’s essentially like taking a stroll around the mind of a burgeoning psychopath. What else can be said about this classic that hasn’t already been said, countered and said again? Not much we suppose, but let’s just add to the echo chamber a bit. Robert De Niro gives one of the all-time great lead performances in cinema history and Scorsese directs Paul Schrader’s script (which he referred to recently as a "perfect" script) with a perfect sense of the material. There are plenty of stylistic flourishes in the film but they always add to the film instead of overshadowing, and Bernard Herrmann’s iconic, jazzy score (his final original score before he died in 1975) just gets better with every year. So, yeah, this is a brilliant film, the rare example of a piece of cinema revered at its time of release that’s also become better with every passing decade. We guess, in the end, the questions to ask are: if you haven’t already seen “Taxi Driver” then, why the hell not? And does anyone out there not think it's great? Not always, but sometimes classics deserve their unassailable position in the canon, and this is one of those times. [A+]

New York, New York” (1977)
Scorsese is the ultimate film fan and he has tended to genre-hop almost manically. This is never better illustrated than the jump from "Taxi Driver" to the kind of musical that is “New York, New York,” with its stylized, artificial sets, sweeping musical numbers, camera cranes, etc. Really, it's the culmination of a young boy’s Hollywood dreams (and with the daughter of Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland no less!). The ultra-artifice and stylization, represented by Liza Minnelli’s singer character Francine, is juxtaposed with Robert De Niro’s naturalistic performance as jazz saxophonist Jimmy Doyle, and the opposites don’t always attract (both thematically and cinematically). It’s ambitious, to be sure, and occasionally reaches great, ecstatic heights, such as Minnelli’s jaw-dropping climatic performance of the titular song (later made famous by Frank Sinatra). Scorsese lets his muse Minnelli (with whom he had just embarked on an affair, leaving his pregnant wife, no less) shine in the way only she uniquely can. The film is uneven, yes, and overly long but the moments of greatness that it does achieve make for a thrilling tribute to the grand movie musical. [B-]

The Last Waltz” (1978)
“This film should be played loud!” the title credits scream. And it's not bad advice for Scorsese's first full-length documentary and concert performance movie. After 16 years, first as The Hawks backing Bob Dylan, and then as The Band, the rock superstar group including Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and Levon Helm among others, decide to call it quits, but not before mounting a farewell show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Shot by Scorsese at the behest of Robertson, the two would go on to become cocaine buddies, which is still incredible when you think about it (who would have thought the asthmatic and already over-caffeinated Martin Scorsese would ever need blow?). Featuring appearances by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins and more, the exuberant concert doc is far more a celebratory evening than it is tearful goodbye. Interspersed with interviews with The Band, Robertson and company tell their tale which paints a portrait of road warriors who paid their dues, slept on floors, abused their bodies and lived to tell about it—sometimes it's best to get out when the getting is good. “The music took us to some strange places ... physically, spiritually, psychotically. It just wasn't always on stage,” Robertson reminisces. Regarded as one of the greatest concert documentaries of all time, the concert itself is shot in standard form (though there is one studio soundstage performance with Emmylou Harris) and is a little on the jammy and solo-y side (and yes, we’re fans of the Band and all the musicians involved), but the film overall largely transcends any niggles like that. [B]

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33 Comments

  • Akash | July 18, 2014 8:10 AMReply

    This is just wrong. Taxi Driver and Goodfellas get A+ but Raging Bull gets only an A. Goodfellas doesn't even hold a candle to the depth and complexity of Raging Bull. It's one of his more over-praised films.

  • 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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