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Retrospective: The Films Of Martin Scorsese

by The Playlist Staff
December 17, 2013 2:05 PM
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The Last Temptation of Christ

The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)
Brazenly controversial and still banned in several countries around the world, Scorsese’s reimagining of the last period of Jesus’ life, and of a hypothetical life beyond the crucifixion, is his most blatant attempt to contend with the issues of faith and doubt that his Catholic upbringing instilled in him. Famously at one stage wanting to be a priest, Scorsese instead pursued filmmaking with an almost religious zeal, but has frequently said that the mystery of the Passion and spirituality in general has never left him. It seems Marty works these mysteries through in his films rather than from the ambo, leading not only to ‘Temptation,’ but to “Kundun,” George Harrison documentary “Living in the Material World” and possibly to his next potential project, “Silence.” ‘Temptation’ is the first and most overt of these, portraying a doubting, often despairing Christ (Willem Dafoe) and reinterpreting Judas’ (an awkward Harvey Keitel) role as betraying him at Jesus’ behest. Most “blasphemously” (according to several Christian fundamentalist organizations which boycotted and protested the film, to the point of setting a Parisian theater on fire), Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel of the same name posits a scenario in which Jesus is rescued from the cross by his guardian angel, marries Mary Magdalene and after her death, marries Mary and Martha, having a family and living into old age. It is only on his deathbed that a visit from Judas reveals that the guardian angel had in fact been Satan in disguise, whereupon Jesus begs God’s forgiveness and is returned in near-ecstasy to the cross as a young man. So the ‘Temptation’ is in fact that of life as an ordinary man, outside of Messiah-dom and the whole last section works rather like a very sombre version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” as it’s implied that Jesus essentially hallucinates what his life would be like without the burden of being part of the Godhead. It’s weighty, heavy stuff and Scorsese spares none of its density, so the film is wordy and brimming with a sense of Catholic crisis. But it’s also very beautiful at times (the pared-back budget contributing to a spartan, impressionistic look complemented by washes of monochrome reds or yellows over the image) and Willem Dafoe is quite extraordinary as the tortured Son of God, along with an Oscar-nominated Barbara Hershey as a surprisingly realistic and sympathetic Mary Magdalene. There is nothing easy about ‘Temptation,’ nor should there be, and if it remains among Scorsese’s least approachable works, its complexity, enigmatic tone and troubled, questing thorniness are in this case, totally justified. [B]

Life Lessons

New York Stories” (1989) (segment: "Life Lessons")
Scorsese’s contribution to “New York Stories,” which also includes shorts by Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, is the unquestionable champ among the trio. Sensual and uplifting via a keen musical selection (Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”), Scorsese drops us into the life of shaggy-haired painter Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte), his art, and Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), a former lover Lionel wishes to possess once again. It’s a character study immeasurably enlivened by Scorsese’s roving camera, mining crucial urgency when depicting Lionel’s creative process. Nolte delivers a typically gruff yet sensitive performance, making a louse of a man sympathetic, or at least relatable in his hearty pursuit of art and listless groping for the next ingénue to half-heartedly seduce. Lionel leaves his heart on the canvas and Scorsese poignantly illuminates the divide and the struggle. For those tested by runtimes, this short might be a proper antidote, an introduction to Scorsese that lures them to sample more significant works. [B]

Goodfellas Ray Liotta

Goodfellas” (1990)
Even among the very highest echelons of the canon of accepted film “classics,” there are gradations. Many films are undeniably great, but how often do we have a burning desire to rewatch them? Many others we’ll fight to death for, but can scoot past them when they show up late at night on cable. Amongst those, we’d even count some of our favorite Scorsese films: “Taxi Driver,” and “Raging Bull,” for example, are peerless classics, but there’s not a part of us that always wants to be watching them. Then there’s “Goodfellas”, which manages to do, for our money, everything that these other touchstones do, but also to be relentlessly, almost insolently entertaining: infinitely rewatchable, quotable and recommendable to old and young alike. Even broken up into its constituent parts the film is unassailable on so many levels: greatest ever Joe Pesci performance; ditto Ray Liotta; best-written voiceover; most dizzyingly inventive but apropos camerawork; sharpest script; the superlatives can go on. Adapted for screen by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, from Pileggi’s non-fiction book “Wise Guy,” “Goodfellas” is also so sharp and zingy in terms of how it bristles with its own manic energy that it’s maybe the fastest 2.5 hours you can spend at the movies. For the uninitiated (we can’t believe there are any, but still) the film is told through the eyes (and voice) of Henry Hill (Liotta) and charts his rise through the ranks of the local New York mob scene from his mid-fifties childhood (he’d “always wanted to be a gangster”) right up to his ignominious fade-out as “a schnook” in the early 80s, via violence, betrayal, coercion, murder, drugs, prison, adultery and the thinnest-sliced garlic ever captured on screen. It’s Scorsese and his cast firing on all cylinders and as sobering as the moral of the story may be, nothing can dampen the sheer joy in filmmaking that’s on display here: this is a film that would have been simply impossible from anyone who loved movies less. Yet despite all the quick edits, the freeze frames, the bravura long-takes, the detail-rich locations, despite the crazy skill and planning that had to have gone into its creation, the technique is somehow so completely transparent as to seem effortless and we are wholly immersed in a story of such gloriously gonzo excess that it seems to blast by on a cocaine high. If Scorsese had never made any other film, we’d follow him to the ends of the earth just for this one...Aaaand, now we have to watch it again. [A+]

Cape Fear

Cape Fear” (1991)
Looking back, it's kind of shocking that Scorsese, following the critical and commercial groundswell surrounding his virtuoso mob masterpiece "Goodfellas," would follow it up with "Cape Fear," a shlocky, B-grade chiller featuring frequent collaborator Robert De Niro at his all-time campiest (and sinewiest). Ostensibly a remake of the 1962 suspense film (original stars Gregory PeckRobert Mitchum and Martin Balsam all make appearances here), Steven Spielberg was originally attached to direct but at the last minute swapped projects with Scorsese (who awarded him "Schindler's List" instead), citing "Cape Fear"'s extreme violence, which Spielberg felt uncomfortable with. What we get is an elegant, gore-soaked pastiche that incorporates not only the original film (with the Bernard Hermann score lovingly reproduced by Elmer Bernstein) but elements from Alfred Hitchcock thrillers (complete with Saul Bass credit sequence), seventies exploitation movies (the Illeana Douglas rape sequence is blood-chilling) and, of course "Night of the Hunter" (De Niro is similarly tattooed). Although the movie runs slightly too long (the prolonged, hurricane-ravaged finale is overcooked to the point of limpness), it's at times one of the more exhilarating Scorsese experiences—a movie that knows exactly what it is and is having a blast with it. (It is also the inspiration for one of the best-ever episodes of "The Simpsons.") Anchored by fine performances (Nick Nolte was nominated for an Oscar, as was De Niro), breathtaking cinematography (and exemplary, subtle work by Industrial Light & Magic) and a willingness to gleefully sail over-the-top, "Cape Fear" is, first and foremost, pretty much fearless. [B]

The Age Of Innocence

The Age Of Innocence” (1993)
A film we should confess we weren’t overly enamored of when we first saw it, a recent rewatch of “The Age of Innocence” has led us to at least a partial reappraisal. It is, as we had remembered, sumptuously beautiful and if some of the principals feel miscast, it doesn’t stop them from turning in individually impressive performances, especially in Michelle Pfeiffer’s case. And the settings and supporting cast, including Joanne Woodward’s drily ironic reading of swathes of the source Edith Wharton prose, are all deliciously on-point as the rarefied world of upper class 1870s New York gradually closes in on poor, lovestruck but noble Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). But still, a certain narrative thinness makes itself felt—the film feels stretched out unnecessarily and, for a world with so many secrets and trapdoors, strangely lacking in subtext. And without those layers, Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder as May Welland and Day-Lewis seem rather exposed, having to manufacture emotional engagement where none springs up naturally. In fact, Day-Lewis’ Archer, if anything, is so distant as to not really register with us at all, and his illicit passion for Pfeiffer’s Ellen too often communicated repetitiously by him hissing some new entreaty or assignation at her from behind a curtain or a doorway. But elements of Scorsese’s filmmaking enthusiasm do find their way through: he plays with iris-ins and wipes and vignetting the edge of the frame at times to give it a kind of classic, almost silent-movie feel, and special mention should go to Saul and Elaine Bass’ credit sequence, which, set against a lace-overlaid backdrop of time-lapse flowers bursting into bloom, manages to be exactly as lushly romantic and yet arch as Wharton’s original book. It’s a line the film in general walks only unsteadily, but if the result is neither as broad nor as deep as Scorsese at his best, there is still a great deal to enjoy here, just don’t expect to be fully enraptured by the romance or fully tickled by the social satire. [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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