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Scorsese At 70: 5 Of His Most Underrated Films

by Oliver Lyttelton
November 16, 2012 12:33 PM
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Tomorrow, November 17th, one Martin Charles Scorsese turns 70. One of the most celebrated American filmmakers in the history of the medium, Scorsese first broke out in the 1970s, coming out of the mentorship of Roger Corman (for whom he made "Boxcar Bertha") to direct the astonishingly confident "Mean Streets." And over the years, the director has made multiple classics, from "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" to recent awards-laden triumphs like "The Departed" and "Hugo."

The director's currently hard at work on his fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, the financial world drama "The Wolf of Wall Street," but as he enters his eighth decade, we wanted to pay tribute to the master by picking out five of his most underrated movies from across his career. While the aforementioned movies, along with others including "The King of Comedy," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Goodfellas" and "Casino" have been rightly lauded, there are a few movies that aren't quite held up by cinephiles in the same way, and we wanted to shine a light on them for a moment. You can read our picks below, and let us know if there's a Scorsese picture you think is undervalued in the comments section.

And a very happy birthday, Mr. Scorsese...

“New York, New York” (1977)
Coming off the success of "Taxi Driver," Scorsese was starting to feel pigeonholed by his trademark "gritty realism," so to test his creative boundaries he made a 2-hour-plus musical with Robert De Niro as a jazz saxophone player. The shoot was not a great time for Scorsese personally; he was splitting with his second, and very pregnant, wife and had begun an affair with his lead actress, Liza Minnelli. As such, it's not entirely surprising that Scorsese’s first big-budget picture was a resounding flop, financially and critically, but its reputation has been somewhat restored over the years, even if it's still overshadowed by Frank Sinatra's recording of the theme tune that became a huge hit three years after the movie was released. Set in the title city in the aftermath of World War II, it's a "Star Is Born"-ish tale of the tumultuous romance between saxophonist Jimmy (De Niro) and a singer (Minnelli) over a course of many years as they find success, even as their own relationship falls apart. Few would argue that the film is an unqualified success; it's overlong, uneven and De Niro's character is so unlikeable that it's hard to really latch onto the film (given his personal issues, one can certainly see the film as a self-portrait, and it's undoubtedly a film produced at the height of the director's drug use). But in moments -- the stunning opening scenes, the glorious "Happy Endings" film-within-a-film sequence, a tribute to Liza's father Vincente -- the film absolutely soars, with sections that number among the best things the director has ever made. Scorsese introduces the DVD by saying he was looking for a fusion of "truth and artifice," and it's perhaps this that proves most fascinating about the film -- a mix of kitchen-sink drama and stage-bound sets is an uneasy dichotomy, but one that genuinely turns the genre on his head. It's arguably the most imperfect film on this list, but one that no Scorsese fan should go without seeing.

"After Hours" (1985)
With passion project "The Last Temptation of Christ" struggling to come together, Scorsese headed in a new direction, taking over a former Tim Burton movie for his first (and really, at this point, only) out-and-out comedy ("The King of Comedy" doesn't quite count). And if "After Hours," which disappeared on release, but has found a cult audience over the years, is anything to go by, we wish the director would tackle the genre more often. Set over the course of a single night, the film follows ordinary twentysomething Paul (Griffin Dunne), who meets a girl (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee shop. That night, he heads to her apartment hoping for a romantic liaison, but loses his money en route, setting off a string of cosmic disasters that suggests that the universe is out to get him. The same drug-fuelled energy of the filmmaker's earlier work is present and correct, but it feels leaner and hungrier -- the director shot with a small crew, and trimmed 45 minutes from the original cut, keeping up a tight and frantic piece. As a result, it's enormously funny. Dunne is hapless and neurotic as seemingly everyone he meets conspires to end him, like a Woody Allen character in the middle of a Marx Brothers movie. Watching it now, there is a faintly unpleasant strain of misogyny in the "women be crazy!" plotting, but it's not like the men, Paul included, are any saner. That aside, it's still one of the great depictions of Scorsese's favorite cities, and numbers among the director's most entertaining movies. One can't help but feel that, after the excess of his recent efforts, taking a film along these lines couldn't be the worst thing in the world for the director.

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  • Dave | August 10, 2014 1:07 PMReply

    The most underrated scorsese movie has to be, by far, After Hours, even in these "underrated scorsese movies" lists it's always presented as a minor scorsese film whereas it's by far and large an original masterpiece

  • Penny | November 27, 2012 11:37 AMReply

    Marty left his pregnant wife for a fling with Liza Minelli? Embarassed of your past much? Cocaine is a helluva drug.

  • Bill | November 27, 2012 11:32 AMReply

    Is it possible for the Great Scorsese to have underrated films? How bout going out on a limb and posting his 5 most OVERRATED films?

  • Helluva | November 19, 2012 7:23 PMReply

    Wholly agree on "Bringing Out The Dead" and "Age of Innocence." Both are excellent films. I somewhat enjoy "After Hours," mostly because it seems to be Scorcese's quintessential 80's film. Haven't seen "Kundun" and not too big on "NY, NY." I can see what he wanted to accomplish, but music alone does not a musical make...

  • Burnsy | November 19, 2012 1:49 PMReply

    I actually love Bringing Out The Dead. Nic Cage needs to make more movies like this, instead of the crap he continues to make. I was pleasantly surprised when i had realized that it was Scorsese film, it seems so different than what i had seen from him but then again i'm young and havent since as much of his films as i want to.

  • SHuoula | November 18, 2012 11:04 PMReply

    great choices, but what about The Last Waltz?

  • Andrew Lovett | November 18, 2012 4:21 PMReply

    they should make another jumanji film or remake the other one in 3d or do both

  • Cribbster | November 18, 2012 3:19 PMReply

    I dunno, I think "The Aviator" is pretty underrated too. There isn't a minute of that movie that's boring. Maybe the big plane thing in the third act. But the first two thirds of that movie just roll.

  • Kevin | November 18, 2012 2:43 PMReply

    For me, Bringing Out the Dead is famous for getting Pauline Kael to swear she would never watch another Martin Scorsese film again.

  • steven ball | November 17, 2012 4:07 PMReply

    Mention should be made of his musical docs: THE LAST WALTZ (The Band) , SHINE A LIGHT (The Rolling Stones) & the one he made about Bob Dylan. My least favorite Scorsese film is Gangs of New York.

  • Salty Bill | November 17, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    After Hours is a gem. Bringing Out The Dead is a dud. The others are, of course, very fine films.

  • Anonymous | November 17, 2012 5:54 AMReply

    His last great film to date is Bringing Out the Dead? Somebody has obviously never seen The Departed and Hugo, or even Gangs of New York (talk about underrated!). And why do you have such contempt for Scorsese fans? Talking as if none of us appreciate of film of his unless "someone busts out a baseball bat" is absurd and wildly disrespectful.

    Happy Birthday, Marty, some of us still appreciate your most recent work.

  • Fraunch | November 17, 2012 4:27 AMReply

    Great feature! Happy birthday, Marty!

  • Jake Mulligan | November 16, 2012 4:39 PMReply

    A 2-page article, 16 comments, and no mention of LIFE LESSONS? That's his truly underrated masterpiece.

  • Dino | November 18, 2012 1:41 AM

    Thirded! One of my all time favorite movies

  • tyrannosaurus max | November 17, 2012 4:54 AM


  • Timelord | November 16, 2012 3:20 PMReply

    I wonder how a typical Best of Scorsese list will look in 30 years, when people who grew up with De Niro are dead while those who grew up with DiCaprio are old and nostalgic.
    I saw Raging Bull for the first time a couple of years ago and I wasn´t terribly impressed. The way the abused woman was portrayed was terribly dated and sexist.
    The movie that is closest to my heart is The Departed.

  • JD V | November 16, 2012 6:36 PM

    Which abused woman? There are several.

  • jimmiescoffee | November 16, 2012 2:35 PMReply

    'bringing out out the dead' and 'after hours' are both amazing movies.the other 3 are good but flawed.

  • Smyth E. Alan | November 16, 2012 2:13 PMReply

    I'd agree that these films are underrated by the public, not so much in cinephilia-- 'The Age of Innocence' and 'After Hours' in particular being very highly thought of amongst cinephiles in the know, the latter one of the titles I hear cinephiles wanting to come to blu the most! And 'Bringing Out the Dead' is his last great film? Come on, that's just baiting with that comment.

    I would probably drop 'Kundun' for 'Alice Doesn't Live Here', though.

  • RODRIGO @ THE PLAYLIST | November 16, 2012 7:43 PM

    Uhh, i never looked at it like that. I just, having not seen it since it came out, decided to put it on. I remembered almost nothing about it and shut it off after 30 minutes, it was so stylistically self-conscious and garish. I dunno, I'll try again one day...

  • Smyth E. Alan | November 16, 2012 2:47 PM

    Yeah 'Casino' is underrated precisely because it lives in the shadow of 'Goodfellas'. It will always be seen as the junior of that cinematic pair.

  • Rodrigo @ The Playlist | November 16, 2012 2:41 PM

    But Alice Doesn't Live Here anymore is awesome. Everyone knows that, right? :) King of Comedy rules too and we kinda imagined cinephiles have already vouched for both more so than the other ones we chose.

    One of the most overrated to me is certainly Casino which I found dreadful the last time I tried to watch it.

  • Duddi | November 16, 2012 2:01 PMReply

    A 'perfect list'... :) I've always thought of this movies being very underrated... But people can't accept all of them to be that good so they go and specify the ones "that didn't work" or they just want Marty doing only Crime movies - and this comes from Transformers or Twilight geeks .

  • mark | November 16, 2012 1:36 PMReply

    actually "wolf" is their 5th collaboration. I agree that gangster genre nerds are the only logical reason as to why some of his films are underrated, especially "Age of innocence".

  • zatopek | November 16, 2012 1:36 PMReply

    "Soulful, it’s also a rather haunting meditation on the the Dalai Lama, the spirit of man and the endurance and tolerance of the Tibetan people."

    Blah. Kundun is boring and generic biopic with no real understanding of it's subject. Nice cinematography, sure, but that's about it. I call it Scorsese's worst film.

  • dddd | November 16, 2012 8:47 PM

    Agreed. It's totally vacuous. Note the ending: the Dalai Lama is exiled, permanently, but somehow the tone is of...triumph? A boring hagiography, and I don't even think it looks particularly good

  • spassky | November 16, 2012 1:35 PMReply

    I'll take this as a sign that "King of Comedy" isn't underrated, and has FINALLY taken its place as one of Scorsese's best. "After Hours" seems to be getting the reevaluation it so much needs.

    I gotta admit though, as much as I personally love "Kundun" and "Bringing out the Dead," I never thought either was a great movie, per se. (PS my landlord did the mandala art for 'Kundun'!!!!)

  • kris | November 16, 2012 1:32 PMReply

    kundun was a great movie.good list

  • JD V | November 16, 2012 1:18 PMReply

    It's only the "Goodfellas / Casino / Departed" fanboys who underrate New York, New York, Age Of Innocence, and Kundun--cinephiles love 'em. Jonathan Rosenbaum, I think, considers Kundun Scorsese's best film.

  • JD V | November 16, 2012 6:38 PM


    (Annie Hall moment...)

  • Jonathan Rosenbaum | November 16, 2012 2:02 PM

    For whatever it's worth, I don't believe I've reseen "Kundun" since it came out (I've been a little bit afraid to), and until I do, I'd currently opt for "The King of Comedy" as his best film, along with "My Voyage to Italy".

  • Really | November 16, 2012 1:07 PMReply

    'Bringing Out the Dead' as his last great film? Really? 'The Departed' is pure high energy aces. 'Shutter Island' is one of his most emotional & powerful films ever & 'Hugo' is absolute magic!

    P.S. Wolf will be DiCaprio & Scorsese's FIFTH collaboration.

  • Bill | November 27, 2012 11:34 AM

    Hugo made me throw up a little in my mouth, but, whatever floats your boat.

  • matty d | November 16, 2012 12:54 PMReply

    Who's That Knocking At My Door?

  • yer | November 16, 2012 12:45 PMReply

    Scorsese has a lot of underrated films. After Hours is fantastic and The King of Comedy should be right up there with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. I don't understand why people like to label him as a gangster movie director when he has such a varied filmography. I hope he lives long enough to finally make "Silence", I can't think of a better book for the man to adapt.

  • [A] | November 16, 2012 12:44 PMReply

    Glad to see BRINGING OUT THE DEAD here..

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