Scorsese At 70: 5 Of His Most Underrated Films

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by Oliver Lyttelton
November 16, 2012 12:33 PM
36 Comments
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"The Age of Innocence" (1993)
After "Goodfellas" and "Cape Fear" took Scorsese to some of his dark places, the director made a serious left turn for the most atypical picture of his career -- the costume drama adaptation of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Age of Innocence." As such, it's hardly a favorite among the Scorsese fanboys who won't truly love something unless a character pulls out a baseball bat at some stage. And yet there's a real emotional violence going on in the picture, which easily ranks as the most romantic thing the director ever made. Set in New York in the 1870s, it sees lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) becoming drawn to Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), the soon-to-be-divorced cousin of his fiance May (Winona Ryder). And while it's a million years from "Mean Streets" or "Goodfellas," Scorsese displays the same nous for 19th century New York manners as he does for the rules of the street in the 20th, with a supporting cast of ringers (including Geraldine Chaplin, Richard E. Grant, Miriam Margoyles, Jonathan Pryce, Michael Gough, Norman Lloyd and Stuart Wilson) who seem to have stepped right out of that world. Best of all are the leads. Winona Ryder, who won an Oscar nomination for the part, is heartbreakingly dull and surprisingly forceful as May, confirming at the time that she was a real talent to watch. And Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer (particularly the latter) are as superb as you might imagine, the film bubbling over with the simmering eroticism between them. Scorsese tones his trademark stylistic flourishes down, but there's still a real grace and elegance to the way that he shoots the film that mentor Michael Powell (who'd died a few years beforehand) would surely have been proud of. Fingers crossed we get something as raw and deeply felt from the filmmaker again one day soon.
“Kundun” (1997)
The optimal experience to see Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” is free of expectations and context of its time. In other words, way after the fact. Easily the least seen Scorsese picture of the last 20 years (though maybe the “The Age of Innocence” comes close), “Kundun” came and went with a whimper during its day. Reviews of the time are faintly complimentary, but most politely dance around how “Kundun” is rather dull and not very engaging. Made for $28 million, the picture barely grossed $6 million in the U.S. and the director himself said Disney half-heartedly released the film, possibly due to corporate ties with China who were vehemently against what some described as a hagiography of the Dalai Lama. But free of all that burden, “Kundun” is far indolent. Featuring a rapturous and throbbing score by Philip Glass and breathtaking cinematography from Roger Deakins, “Kundun” is a spectacle, a majestic display of images and sounds, possessing a rich emotional weight. 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. It’s easy to see how disinterest or apathy of the subject, written by Melissa Mathison (“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) over seven years and 14 different screenplay drafts, could cause indifference in critics, as it did with audiences at the box office, but taken on its own merits, “Kundun” is a perfectly solid, engaging Martin Scorsese picture that without falling into idolatry, respectfully examines the story of the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, for Marty, it didn’t have a lot of mobsters, guns, violence or cool music, but that doesn’t lessen its impact.

"Bringing Out the Dead" (1999)
As the first reunion between Scorsese and "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver" screenwriter Paul Schrader since "The Last Temptation of Christ," hopes were certainly high for "Bringing Out the Dead," especially as it paired the duo with recent Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage, then at the peak of his star power. But the film, an adaptation of the novel by real-life paramedic Joe Connelly, received a muted response and tanked at the box office. We can see why audiences didn't embrace it at first, but over a decade on from release, it strikes us as arguably the director's last great film to date. Cage plays Frank Pierce, a New York paramedic in 1990, as a dangerous new form of heroin hits the streets. Over three long nights, with three wildly different colleagues (John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore, all terrific), Frank comes apart at the seams, haunted by the ghosts of those he couldn't save, even as the reformed ex-junkie daughter of a patient (Patricia Arquette) offers a sort of redemption. Those expecting another "Taxi Driver"-style look at the seedy underbelly of NYC might not have had their expectations met, but they were probably befuddled by the tonal mix of bleak drama, pitch-black comedy and the supernatural; it owes something to "After Hours," but it's still quite different from anything Scorsese has ever made, particularly thanks to a haunting, uncharacteristically restrained performance from Cage. And for all its darkness, Scorsese makes the film furiously entertaining in its gallows humor and stylistic tics. Of all the director's late period films, this one feels like the most in need of critical reevaluation.

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36 Comments

  • 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

    Seconded!

  • 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

    Uhhhh....

    (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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