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Retrospective: The Films Of Martin Scorsese

by The Playlist Staff
December 17, 2013 2:05 PM
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"Shutter Island” (2010)
Scorsese is as much a film fanatic as he is a filmmaker, and with “Shutter Island,” his sprawling, rococo thriller about a missing mental patient on an island full of them, the director was able to indulge his love of B-grade horror movies and loony bin melodramas (you get nods to Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Henri-Georges Clouzot among others). Depending on your sensibilities, it was either an embarrassment of riches, a gorgeous, gilded ode to splashily exploitative drive-in movies, or a waste of considerable talents (not only of Scorsese himself but his crack team of collaborators, including cinematographer Robert Richardson, longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and star Leonardo DiCaprio). We tend to fall somewhere in the middle. DiCaprio plays a rattled U.S. Marshal who is given a new partner (Mark Ruffalo) and sent off to the titular island, home to an insane asylum, off the coast of Boston. It’s 1954, and DiCaprio's character has already faced the horrors of World War II concentration camps, which makes for some very vivid flashbacks brought to life in wonderfully poor taste. It also somewhat dampens the fun of the more phantasmagorical aspects of “Shutter Island,” where fantasy and history (both personal and cultural) uncomfortably mix into one paranoia-infused stew. “Shutter Island” goes for broke in such a manner that it almost makes a virtue of its somewhat clunky plotting (at one point a character explains the plot in front of a chalk board where major narrative beats are literally spelled out for the audience) and cartoonishly broad characters; the entire enterprise is bloated with a kind of more-is-more over-the-top-ness. Either you’re on board, or you can’t wait to leave this island. We were happy to stay, through what is no doubt one of the filmmaker's slightest features, but who said Scorsese has to always be so serious? [B]

Letter To Elia” (2010) co-directed with Kent Jones
Martin Scorsese’s documentaries are generally love letters to the subject matter at hand, whether it's cinema ( "My Voyage to Italy” and “A Personal Journey Through American Movies”), the power of performance (“The Last Waltz” and “Shine A Light”) or the admiration of a musical legacy (“No Direction Home,” “Living in the Material World”). And one of his most personal of these endeavors, even if it was co-directed by former film-critic-turned-Festival-programmer Kent Jones, is “Letter To Elia,” his portrait of the filmmaker Elia Kazan. The venerable director behind "A Streetcar Named Desire" and films like "America, America" and "East Of Eden," in many ways, one could easily see Kazan’s "On The Waterfront” as a proto-Scorsese film (it's a picture the filmmaker explores at length in the doc). Scorsese’s fascination with his subject is palpable in all of his usually incisive documentaries, but on Kazan—a man to whom he and Robert De Niro co-presented his Lifetime Achievement Academy Award—one can feel something much beyond simple admiration: a genuine tenderness and warm affection for a man and a filmmaker of whom he was deeply in awe. Only 60 minutes long and only ever aired on PBS (not released in theaters), there’s … something missing to it, as if it was rushed or not quite Scorsese’s project alone (and it’s not, one can argue it is Jones’ film first). So perhaps in that sense it's something of a minor Scorsese doc, but as but as a heartfelt reflection, an aesthetic appreciation and a rousing analysis of Kazan’s oeuvre, it’s one of Scorsese’s most personal works. [B]

Public Speaking” (2010) 
If most Martin Scorsese documentaries are a type of billet-doux about the subject, then “Public Speaking,” his portrait of iconic (and sardonic) New York writer Fran Lebowitz is more of an esteemed acknowledgement. That isn’t to say Scorsese doesn’t have affection for his subject, like in other docs, it’s just that the filmmaker understands that anything that comes out of her mouth is prime rib. So, moving away from voice-over where he usually describes the passion for his subject, Scorsese simply gets out of Lebowitz’s way. Turning the camera on and letting the mordant and whipsmart social raconteur rip, “Public Speaking” is more of an appreciative tribute to the power of Lebowitz’s ever-so-candid art of conversation. Acerbic and witty, no topic is sacred with Lebowitz, but as the dialogue flows, she also reveals much about herself, her often difficult childhood and what made her such an important New York voice (she’s been called the modern Dorothy Parker several times). "I always said I'm the only Jew in America whose first exposure to an intellectual, it was a black guy," she quips in the doc about author James Baldwin. “I never met anyone like that in my life and I was mesmerized.” Sprinkled throughout the doc are clips of Lebowitz’s public speaking tours, but perhaps most personal are the anecdotes of a bitter and difficult upbringing with philistine parents who didn’t want her to read, and wanted her seen and not heard. It’s these revealing, never sentimentalized moments where Lebowitz articulates exactly why she went on to live a life centered around the gift of the gab, and Scorsese wisely lets her reveal herself almost unmediated. [B]

George Harrison: Living in the Material World” (2011)
From seemingly from out of nowhere, Scorsese delivered one of his best and most heartfelt non-fiction projects (his aptitude as a documentarist is often overlooked in favor of his fiction films, but is nonetheless exceptional), a nearly four-hour-long documentary dedicated to the life and times of the former Beatle. Told in a charming stream-of-consciousness style that mixes talking head interviews (with everyone from Paul McCartney to Terry Gilliam) with archival footage and musical interludes, your enjoyment of this sprawling biographical mass isn't based purely on your love of the Beatles (although your patience with all things related to transcendental meditation could probably help). Instead, Scorsese paints a portrait of a man, in both broad brush strokes and tiny details, who found himself caught up in one of pop culture's most explosive moments, yet who somehow remained relatively anonymous amongst all that noise. George Harrison is, it turns out, a man of nuance, grace, and intelligence, capable of true selflessness and the type of caring few humans exhibit willingly. Beautifully photographed and just as beautifully put together, "George Harrison: Living in the Material World" is a late-in-his-career crowning achievement, one made all the more powerful by the fact that it was almost a complete surprise. [A-]

"Hugo" (2011)
The films of Martin Scorsese often have a psychological weight, themes of sin, guilt, absolution, respect, power, et al, but infrequently do they have a truly resonant and lasting emotional one. Often it’s simply because Scorsese’s central preoccupations have lain elsewhere, but how heartening was it to see the filmmaker stray into such warmly emotive territory with the genuinely personal "Hugo." An enchanting children’s tale shot in 3D and set in 1930s Paris, “Hugo” chronicles a tumultuous period in the life of an orphan living with the walls of a bustling train station and secretly maintaining its gargantuan clocks. An adaptation of Brian Selznick's award-winning novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” Scorsese’s picture centers on a mystery involving Hugo’s late father, an automaton and bitter toy-shop owner. Visual splendor is always in Scorsese’s back pocket, but in “Hugo,” the luxurious use of 3D (really the first post-"Avatar" occasion on which the extra dimension really added to the experience), and care he takes over the emotional impact, is virtuosic. A touching ode to the wonders of imagination and cinematic history (Ben Kingsley's character turns out to be the rather important figure Georges Méliès), at 125 minutes, “Hugo” admittedly is overlong and has pacing issues (as a kids movie it was wholeheartedly rejected in North America and became a domestic flop). And it is true that it's difficult to see where the audience for such a deliberately old-fashioned paean to a bygone age and an evolving technology might have been found amongst the modern tots and tweens for whom it was ostensibly made. But for adults like us willing to embrace its slow, rich charms and alive to the kind affection for cinema that only a devoted cinephile like Martin Scorsese can bring, "Hugo" is a loveletter to the imagination and a warm, generous effort on Scorsese's part to provide us all with the key to the wonderful world of film that makes him tick. [B]

While we've endeavored to cover all of Scorsese's theatrical features, and some of his TV, the man has a demonic work ethic, and is also responsible for directing a few other television projects, not least among them the "Boardwalk Empire" pilot episode, his only music video for Michael Jackson's "Bad" and an episode of Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories," along with one episode of music documentary series "The Blues." He also has a bevy of short films to his name, aside from the justly famous "Italianamerican" which we've included in the main list. Among them are the largely unavailable "Vesuvius VI," comedies "What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?" and "It's Not Just You, Murray!" (featuring the first Scorsese hoodlum perhaps?). Then came student film "The Big Shave," and "Street Scenes," a documentary about anti-Vietnam activity in New York which at 75 mins is a little long to consider a short, but usually gets grouped along with the shorts due its relative unavailability.

Since his graduation to feature filmmaking, Scorsese has contributed segments to a couple of portmanteau films (all of which are given their own entry above), and also a documentary short, written by "Age of Innocence" and "Gangs of New York" writer Jay Cocks, about Giorgio Armani called "Made in Milan" in 1990. He then made "The Neighbourhood" which was included in the "Concert for New York City" that took place after 9/11 and used some footage from "My Voyage to Italy" and new candid interview material with Scorsese and the people now living in the Elizabeth Street area where he grew up. And the 9/11 loomed large also 2004's "Lady by the Sea" his first directorial team up with "Letter to Elia"'s Kent Jones, about the enduring legacy of the Statue of Liberty. And finally in 2007 he made "The Key to Reserva," actually essentially a long commercial for Freixenet Cava, but a tremendously warm inside joke featuring Scorsese himself and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, as they pay homage to Hitchcock by pretending to have found some lost pages of a script and recreating them. Starring Simon Baker and Michael Stuhlbarg, and shoehorning in references to multiple Hitchcock films, but primarily "North by Northwest," it's a trifle, really, but a sweet one and, since it's got kind of a holiday vibe, we thought we'd include it for you below. Enjoy, as we hope you enjoyed the retrospective, and a very Scorsese Christmas (that is to say, abounding in vigor and family and life, rather than violence and angst) to you all.

--Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Erik McClanahan, Drew Taylor, Katie Walsh, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravsky, Kevin Jagernauth, Kimber Myers

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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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