Retrospective: The Films Of Martin Scorsese

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 17, 2013 2:05 PM
32 Comments
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A Personal Journey Through American Movies with Martin Scorsese” (1995)
There are few, if any, others we’d rather hear talk at length about cinema than Scorsese. And ‘Personal Journey’ is just the ticket for those wanting a detailed glimpse into the man’s influences as he lays down, in a breezy 225 minutes, his own cinematic canon of what’s meant the most to him from America (it’s all there in the title). The beauty here is in the simplicity of the endeavor: featuring Scorsese talking to the camera along with clips of the films (some 70+ titles) he discusses the format is not at all revolutionary. But it doesn't need to be when you’ve got Scorsese’s knowledge and passion guiding you. The film is broken down into four parts examining various director types: director as storyteller, director as illusionist, director as smuggler, and the director as iconoclast. This structure allows for a journey that bounces from one film to the next, not beholden to chronology but instead tracing influences and thematic resonances from one work to the next, and seeing how they connect. It’s so all-encompassing yet never overwhelming, and it gives one the feeling that Scorsese is our most gifted film professor, one we’d gladly listen to for twice the run time. Never didactic or snobbish, instead Scorsese is doing what’s become the standard in modern film criticism: he accepts that we’ve all had our own experience with movies through our lives, so he can only speak to that experience of his own, but he can do so with candor, passion, respect and irreverence. This may very well be the template for all the Ain’t it Cools, Slashfilms and, yes, The Playlists of the world. [A]

Casino” (1995)
Potential unpopular opinion alert: while a sprawling 3-hour Martin Scorsese film is usually the stuff cinephiles drool over (note the anticipation for “The Wolf of Wall Street” which only seemed to increase after news of its length), in truth, for those that are willing to look past the cool style, and technical prowess of Marty’s shark-like camera, the ominous halo lighting of Robert Richardson’s crystalline cinematography, and the occasionally inspiring performances, “Casino” is kind of decked out in the emperor’s new clothes. If “Goodfellas” is a ferociously entertaining look at organized crime; a rags-to-riches (and back again) story of the intoxicating potency of power, corruption and the pursuit of money and power at the expense of everything else, then the bare bones of “Casino” is essentially much the same story only told in Las Vegas. Another adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's work (he also wrote the book and screenplay of “Goodfellas”), “Casino” however, suffers from returning-to-the-same-well syndrome with familiar, derivative and proportionately less successful results. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, while entertaining in spots, feel as if they are on an autopilot that creates few surprising or inspired moments, in fact it's the new members of Scorsese’s troupe that are fantastic. Sharon Stone, in what might be her career-best turn, delivers an outstanding performance as the opportunistic, disenchanted mob wife. James Woods and in particular Don Rickles lend some solid supporting work too, but supporting players a great movie does not make. There are things to enjoy about “Casino” no doubt, but as a three-hour, five-course meal about the same subject from a slightly different angle, taken as a whole, the picture cannot but feel somewhat bloated (and its slathering over-reliance on pop music to keep the movie’s engine going certainly feels strained after a while). Put aside Scorsese’s trademark bravura visuals (including a Saul Bass title sequence that doesn’t even rank in his 10 best), and you have a stylish, frequently engaging film, but one that just cannot bring itself to say anything remotely new or different from its far superior predecessor. Familiarity breeds contempt and while Scorsese doesn’t earn our scorn here, the comfortably rephrased nature of the work and its themes still disappoint some 18 years after the fact. [B-]

“Kundun” (1997)
Kundun” is one of the most unfairly overlooked films of Scorsese’s oeuvre. While in terms of setting, it falls out of step with what is considered his usual milieu, upon closer examination, it expresses many of the themes that are manifest in his work: religion, devotion, one man’s struggle against external forces. The story of the Dalai Lama was written by “E.T.” scribe Melissa Mathison, who sat for a number of interviews with the spiritual leader and suggested Scorsese as director. The film chronicles the first part of the Dalai Lama’s life, from when he was discovered as the 14th Dalai Lama as a young boy, through his escape from Tibet during the military takeover by Chinese Communists. This latter part of the film focuses on his personal struggle to lead his people, to remain strong through the violent invasion of Tibet and loss of many lives. Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film is spine-tinglingly beautiful (it was shot on location in Morocco), saturated with blooms of reds and yellows, capturing the landscape and the people as one living, breathing element, underlined with a Phillip Glass score. The film has a meditative, almost hypnotic effect, cycling through different periods of the Dalai Lama’s young life, but it sort of washes over you, methodically laying out his life story, like the monks carefully creating mandala sand paintings. It’s not the definitive Dalai Lama story, only part of his life, but it’s a different universe and pace for Scorsese, and if it doesn’t reach the energetic, invigorating levels of some of his work, it’s still an immersive and colorful expression of this world. [B]

My Voyage to Italy” (1999)
For anyone with even a glancing interest in Italian cinema and its pioneers, “My Voyage to Italy” is essential, less a didactic documentary than a conversation about an epochal movement with someone who understands it, and feels it, vitally. And for anyone who has not a vestige of such interest, “My Voyage to Italy,” simply put, will convert you: it’s that generous an endeavor in irresistibly communicating Scorsese’s own passion for these films. Its long running time (246 minutes) absolutely pelts by, giving an eclectically comprehensive overview of the lives and careers of Rossellini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni, told through plentiful clips from their key films; “key” as defined more by Scorsese for the purposes of this film than, necessarily, by accepted wisdom. And so while neorealist touchstone “Bicycle Thieves” does feature affectionately, de Sica’s subsequent and lesser known “Umberto D” is also given great deference by Scorsese, just as Rossellini’s “The Flowers of St Francis” sits alongside “Rome, Open City” in terms of the director’s engagement, while Visconti’s ”Senso” gets more time than any of his other, probably better known, works, and the whole builds to a long dissertation on Fellini, with “La Dolce Vita” being examined in depth, but the honor of wrapping up the film, and Scorsese’s broader thoughts on art vs life, going to “8 1/2.” The chatty, informal feel of the documentary overall, and the brilliance of how it is edited together, with Scorsese appearing on camera in interstitial segments introducing each new director and relating their works to his own life, and otherwise only appearing in voiceover (within clips from the films he occasionally literally directs our attention with a “Watch this!” or “Just see what he does here!”) means that it feels as close as we can get to sitting down with Scorsese and a stack of DVDs. And we pretty much can’t imagine a better way to spend a few hours than that. As such “My Voyage to Italy” also serves as a key to unlock a sort of hidden bonus level to your appreciation of Scorsese’s own films: suddenly you see the traces of “Senso” in “The Age of Innocence”; an earnest desire to contend with issues of faith through film that is heavily influenced by Rossellini; a heartfelt tribute to Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” in “Mean Streets” and so on. Scorsese is as inspirational and warm a companion as we could hope to have on this journey through a national cinema that, more than any other, inspired him to become the defining American filmmaker of his age. He’s not above riffing on the lighter aspects, the jokes and the humor, nor above fetishizing tiny details like the movement of a skirt, the way a true geeky fanboy might. But most of all, his is a restlessly curious intelligence that seeks in these films the answers to very personal questions about the nature of his own identity as well as the reason for his own lifelong romance with the moving image. As much as you may value film history, Scorsese or Italian neo-realism before you go in, “My Voyage to Italy” weaves them all into a fascinating fabric that makes you gladder than you’ll ever have been for all three. [A-]

Bringing Out the Dead” (1999)
One of the director's more bafflingly overlooked movies, "Bringing Out the Dead" reteamed Scorsese with "Taxi Driver" scribe Paul Schrader and stars Nicolas Cage as a strung-out EMT worker battling, amongst other things, a deadly strain of heroin called "Red Death" and a succession of criminally insane coworkers (among them John Goodman and the probably-actually-insane Tom Sizemore). Many of the same themes Schrader and Scorsese explored in "Taxi Driver" are echoed here, and while Cage's obsessive, debilitated antihero is somewhat less engaging than De Niro's psychotic cabbie, he still makes for compelling, nearly compulsive watching. And the film is hampered somewhat by the episodic nature of the storytelling and a slightly wooden performance by Cage's then-wife Patricia Arquette (she's about the slowest thing in a movie that seems to cannonball forward) there are still a number of memorable set pieces, including a haunting sequence where Cage approaches an apartment following a gang shooting, while "Red Red Wine" by UB40 plays ominously in the background, and an extended flashback that Scorsese edits backwards so that the snow appears to be drifting upwards. It's a Scorsese movie that seems bound for rediscovery, a furious, sometimes ghostly rumination on how close we come to death, and the strain that's placed on those that bring us back from it. [B]

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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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