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Retrospective: The Films Of Martin Scorsese

by The Playlist Staff
December 17, 2013 2:05 PM
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American Boy: A Portrait of Steven Prince

American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince” (1978)
This little-seen gem from Scorsese’s fertile 70s period is the cinematic equivalent of a longform profile story. Friend and collaborator Steven Prince (you probably remember his memorable appearance as the slimy but knowledgeable gun salesman in “Taxi Driver”) is the subject; Scorsese and his small crew are merely the conduit to exploit Prince’s gift as a storyteller. The opening scene sets the stage properly and hilariously as Prince enjoys a hot tub with Scorsese, moaning and getting a little too comfortable next to the famously Catholic filmmaker. Scorsese asks him to not get so close, and then the opening credits roll to the sounds of Neil Young. As enjoyable and loose as the film is, it’s not without its own fascinating and potentially damning piece of cinema trivia: in this film one can find the ne plus ultra of Quentin Tarantino’s penchant for borrowing/stealing from more obscure films. It’s blatant and will no doubt only add more fuel to the fire of those who accuse him of being a thief, but if you remember the sequence from “Pulp Fiction” in which Uma Thurman overdoses on heroin, and John Travolta must give her an adrenaline shot to wake her up, well, that just so happens to be an experience that Prince was a witness to, and tells in detail in ‘American Boy’. It’s kind of shocking when you hear the story, as Tarantino lifted entire chunks of Prince’s description (“in a stabbing motion,” the use of a magic marker as a target, and much more). So this is pretty much must-see viewing for cinephiles for the debates on the ethics of homage and theft in cinema are sure to follow. [B+]

Raging Bull

Raging Bull” (1980)
It’s hard to believe now, but heading into “Raging Bull”—a film he had initially turned down—Martin Scorsese was in a bit of trouble. While he entered the 1970s with the one-two punch of “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” he was leaving the decade with the sting of the expensive, ambitious flop “New York, New York” hanging over him (though yes, “The Last Waltz” did help soothe that bruise away a bit). And that's not to mention that the director had almost died, following a drug overdose. Yet if there is anything that defines “Raging Bull,” it’s the absolute, undeniable vitality in every frame. From the camerawork of DOP Michael Chapman in the ring, to the unsparing, symphonic black-and-white photography to one of Robert De Niro’s defining performances, the film may run 129 minutes but by the time the credits roll, you’ll swear you just heard the bell 90 seconds before. A complex portrait of a man who was a champion in the ring and a loser outside of it, both Scorsese and De Niro key in on the fury that drove Jake LaMotta in both arenas, making “Raging Bull” so much more than just a picture about a pugilist. Importantly, when it comes to the career of Scorsese, if there was any doubt that he was an artist it was erased here. “Raging Bull” finds the filmmaker repaying the investment in his considerable talents to date with interest, with ferocity even; indeed he believed it would be his final picture. Thankfully for himself and for all of us, it wasn’t. While he would go on to shoot a startling variety of movies in the ‘80s alone, and the competition over his whole career is fierce, “Raging Bull” is not just his finest of that decade, but one of the best his career. [A]

King Of Comedy, De Niro, Jerry Lewis

The King of Comedy” (1982)
It’s telling that, in any other director’s body of work, a character like Rupert Pupkin would be a defining achievement. With muse Robert De Niro, Scorsese looked to the lighter side to bring forth a face of fame touched upon in “Taxi Driver” and semi-realized in the otherwise-claustrophobic “Raging Bull”: that of the dark side of celebrity. Rightfully, De Niro has been canonized for a roll call of brilliant characterizations, and Pupkin is another one, an obnoxious, delusional, conceited fool who nonetheless maintains the fast-talking skills to squeeze past the doors of people who will not have him. Jerry Lewis’ toxic talk show host Jerry Langford is an equal achievement, an absolutely vain showbiz lifer who drips contempt for his fans like the syrup cascading down a stack of golden IHOP pancakes. “The King Of Comedy” wrangles laughs out of these two as Pupkin’s desperate reach for stardom becomes violently aggressive, but it’s also just frightening to see these two even speak: De Niro’s Pupkin is a snake with a smile, and his utter incompetence gives his threats teeth: he might just shoot you by accident. Langford fires absolute daggers through Lewis’ stubborn face, his slow-burn silence says what some actors need multiple monologues to express. Gorgeous and creepily ambiguous, this satire is also probably one of Scorsese’s most actor-friendly films, offering up two titans blurring the lines between funny, cringeworthy and flat-out terrifying. [A]

After Hours

After Hours” (1985)
There’s a certain sensation that comes with being up all night, broke, tired, and in way over your head, an intangible sensation that courses through your veins like a narcotic. It’s the sort of awareness you only feel on the hairs prickling from the back of your neck, the sort that makes you feel like Superman but also tests you by giving the impression that danger is around every corner. This discarded Tim Burton project (uh-huh, really) stands alone in the Scorsese oeuvre as being lighter, funnier, and more playful than his usual work, but in truth it’s still laced with the same nervous, dangerous energy as “Mean Streets.” For once, Scorsese’s protagonist is something of a beta male: Paul (Griffin Dunne) is a put-upon everyman who mistakenly believes he’s entitled to a night out on the town, only for New York City to chew him up and spit him out. The picture is both light on its feet but saturated in foreboding, as every single wrong turn forces Paul face-to-face with criminals, shady artists and kink peddlers from a New York City that seems miles away from his comfort zone. What’s amusing is that “After Hours” doesn’t dip into the sort of violence or dark slapstick of something like John Landis’ “Into The Night,” but still maintains an edge that nonetheless feels in the spirit of the Keaton-Chaplin era, where overstressed silent stars faced insurmountable odds. It’s gleefully bent, but unmistakably a Scorsese picture, pitched a different tempo to some of the classics of his that more immediately spring to mind, but no less deserving of attention. [A-]

The Color Of Money

The Color of Money” (1986)
Though this sequel to the classic “The Hustler” is not quite up to par with the 1961 original, it has aged quite well and proves better than its original reputation suggests. When it was released in 1986 the film did well commercially but was greeted with mostly mixed reviews (Siskel and Ebert both gave it a thumbs down). It’s definitely minor Scorsese, but it’s a blast to watch and features a wonderful Paul Newman performance as he stepped back into the shoes of pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson (and won a long-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his efforts). Here he's playing the mentor to none other than Tom Cruise, who also gives a wonderful turn as a cocky up-and-coming hustler. The standout sequence sees Scorsese doing what he does best, marrying a perfectly selected pop song with his trademark zippy camera as Cruise works the crowd around his table to the sounds of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” And really, most of the film plays like this sequence, with loads of stylish camera flair set around the standard Scorsese milieu of bars and pool halls. The soundtrack is ace, as are the pieces of original score by former The Band member Robbie Robertson. It’s a film that helped Scorsese finally earn the clout to make his passion project “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but even as a means to an end (or even as a one-for-them type project) it’s an utterly watchable, top-notch sports/gambling picture that saw the emergence of the director as an occasional studio gun-for-hire. It may not be from his guts but he still does great work here simply making a piece of entertainment. [B]

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  • Greg | August 6, 2014 1:59 AMReply

    The films of Martin Scorsese are all "B" movies if you really think about it. Most of the films have a common thread and by that I mean the racial epithets and the violence perpetrated against Black characters in some scenes. If you take away these controversial scenes each movie would lack any substance other than being a poorly conceived and directed mellow drama. Scorsese is an overrated bum.

  • 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.

  • 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 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
    3-The Departed
    4-Taxi Driver
    5-Raging Bull
    6-Cape Fear
    7-The Aviator
    8-Gangs Of New York
    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


    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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