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Retrospective: The Films Of Martin Scorsese

by The Playlist Staff
December 17, 2013 2:05 PM
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Gangs Of New York Leondardo DiCaprio Martin Scorsese

Gangs of New York” (2002)
Structurally, “Gangs of New York” is a mess—Scorsese’s action-heavy narrative of the conflicts that set aflame Five Points in lower Manhattan circa the 1860’s tries to bite off far more than it can chew. The tales of the New York Draft Riots, the underworld run by crooked Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and the strife between Americans and foreigners all feel like separate movies jammed together for the sake of a wide-ranging epic about a rich time in American history. And at this point, Leonardo DiCaprio had the intensity but not the necessary charisma or depth to make protagonist Amsterdam Vallon as magnetic as he’s supposed to be (and he’s a sharp downgrade from his father, played by a cameo-ing Liam Neeson). But then you get to Daniel Day-Lewis’ improbably electric Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and the film’s shortcomings fall by the wayside. Maybe our greatest actor, Day-Lewis is absolutely terrifying as the picture’s muscle-bound villain, twirling his mustache as he postures and pontificates as though he were Uncle Sam himself. Even with Scorsese’s extravagant budget, which allows for widescale sequences of disaster and spectacle in the film’s final third, Day-Lewis towers over the material, a twinkly-eyed predator who makes looking away feel like reconstructive surgery. [B]

The Aviator

The Aviator” (2004)
Latter-day Scorsese is sometimes knee-jerkingly treated as “awards bait” “prestige pictures” but there’s never been a doubt that if he needed to, Marty can just bring it. Case in point: this 2004 biopic of Howard Hughes as Scorsese saw him: a shut-in delusionist in his later years, but also a rock star, a man with mommy issues who truly almost took over the world. Compare the film’s high-energy aesthetic with peer Francis Ford Coppola’s similar “Tucker: A Man And His Dreams” and you see the difference between a man who has far too much reverence for his topic, and another who wants to use a legend as a vessel for cinephilia (Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow could only come from the mind of a genius or a prankster). Though baby-faced to a certain point in his adult years, Leonardo DiCaprio finally grows into his legacy with this performance, cementing his status as a go-to guy for outsized personalities with intensely repressed emotions. But Scorsese benefits from a superb supporting cast that includes a perfectly campy, Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Alan Alda as a ballbreaking senator, and Alec Baldwin as embittered Pan Am head Juan Trippe. Ultimately, Scorsese’s take on Hughes feels incomplete, as it seems to check-off several biopic boxes with manic glee without expanding on it, and it allows one of cinema’s greatest lovers of the medium to indulge a bit too much. But when one of the world’s greatest filmmakers is having this much fun, we can't judge too harshly. [B]

No Direction Home

"No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" (2005)
Trying to crystallize the iconic music, life and times of Bob Dylan in one movie is a fool’s errand and Scorsese wisely doesn’t try. Instead, the sprawling, two-part, three-and-a-half hour documentary chronicles the seminal 1961-66 period, from the songwriter’s arrival in the coffee shops of New York (hello and goodbye, Llewyn Davis!), to his ascension to seminal civil rights-focused folk hero, to his controversial “going electric” period leading up to the “Don’t Look Back” event where Dylan suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident, and up to his return to the public eye a year later, forevermore an even more inscrutable figure (and he would “retire” from touring for eight years after). Those who know Dylan’s work, know the singer as an enigma, and while not its chief aim, “No Direction Home” in many ways illuminates the road to how Dylan became this riddle and refused to be pinned down or owned by any one establishment—political, musical or otherwise. Ironically, as interviewed by longtime manager Jeff Rosen, Dylan is at his most relaxed, effusive and straightforward in the talking head conversations shot in 2001. But a portrait is drawn; a young man who quickly bristled against the trap of expectations, disavowing “the songwriter of his generation” albatross, ditching the protest folk songs and becoming smeared as a “Judas” on camera by his own audience for going electric with The Hawks (a backing band who would later go on to become The Band, a group Scorsese would obviously come to know well). The notion held by many over the years was that Dylan turned his back on them, but the reality was a hungering restlessness to venture out on a journey into the unknown. Employing hours of unearthed archival footage (including D. A. Pennebaker's seminal Dylan doc "Don't Look Back"), never-before-seen performance footage and interviews with artists and musicians whose lives interconnected with Dylan’s during that time (Dave Van Ronk, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Dylan's old girlfriend Suze Rotolo, and many more), the documentary fittingly peels back layers, while letting the mystery remain; never solving the alluring enigma that is one of the 20th century's great artists. “No Direction Home” is a definitive, engrossing and must-see portrait of an artist whose oxygen was reinvention and evolution. As Dylan sang himself, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” [A-]

The Departed Damon Nicholson

The Departed” (2006)
Marking both Scorsese’s first Oscar for directing and his first time collaborating with fellow ‘70s film legend Jack Nicholson, “The Departed” is a latter-day Scorsese triumph. It’s an adaptation of the Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs,” but feels entirely a product of the city of Boston and its director. The film follows two parallel tracks in the Beantown crime world: Scorsese’s 21th-century muse Leonardo DiCaprio is good-man-playing-bad Billy Costigan, who attempts to move past his family’s history with crime; meanwhile, Matt Darmon co-stars as wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing Colin Sullivan, a mole working inside the organized crime unit with the state police. The film is ostensibly about their dual struggles with identity, but of course, Nicholson looms large as Irish mob boss Frank Costello. Like Nicholson’s Costello, “The Departed” blooms a bit broader than it probably should, but it’s an energetic return to form and genre for the director. Thanks to the hilarious, profanity-spewing turn by Mark Wahlberg (he drops the “c-word” less than 10 minutes into the movie), it’s also Scorsese’s funniest film, with plenty of caustic asides also coming from Alec Baldwin’s police captain. Critics might say that Scorsese’s statuette was more of a lifetime achievement award than one deserved for directing this single film, but we were rooting for him to win based on this movie’s merits alone. [A-]

Shine a light

Shine a Light” (2008)
What makes "Shine a Light," Scorsese's Rolling Stones IMAX concert documentary, especially frustrating is that at the beginning of the movie, we see Marty planning his shots and how the documentary is going to look. He talks about how he's going to track this way and that and add some real Hollywood-special-effects-oomph to the Stones' already electrifying stage show (at one point be hilariously bemoans, "We cannot burn Mick Jagger."). The problem, of course, is that the stage show he describes (and the movie he envisions) isn't the same one that we, as an audience actually get to see. Instead, it's a fairly humdrum Stones documentary that occasionally splices in vintage interview footage of the band and some other insignificant razzle dazzle (the first of the two nights doubled as a benefit for one of Bill Clinton's philanthropic ventures, with the former president on hand to introduce the band, every bit as rock star as anyone else on stage). Given Scorsese's long-standing history with the band (how many times has he used one of their songs?) and his nimble ability with visual pyrotechnics, you'd think that the movie, the filmmaker's first in the large-screen IMAX format, would have been something special, bordering on the downright remarkable. Instead, with an over-reliance on rapid fire editing (which doesn't really work with an image projected that huge), and strangely uninventive direction, it becomes one of the few Scorsese films in which the music is much stronger than the images. [C+]

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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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