By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 17, 2013 at 2:05PM
"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-]
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