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TOH! Ranks Martin Scorsese's Best Dozen Films

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by TOH!
December 30, 2013 4:26 PM
11 Comments
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Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver"

When we ranked the Coen brothers films, there were only 16 to cover. It's tougher to narrow the focus on the best of Martin Scorsese, with 55 IMDb directing credits across shorts, docs and features, as his movies careen through the decades from genre to genre, from youthful grainy realism to increasingly big-budget studio epics balanced by gorgeous labor-of-love documentaries. So as new release "The Wolf of Wall Street" stirs up the usual controversy over a 71-year-old maverick who still has cojones to envy, feel free to complain about what we have omitted. We tend to lean back in time, skipping some surprising recent titles. But we couldn't manage a lean and mean top ten. These are the 12 Scorsese movies we know and love.

1. “Taxi Driver” **** (1976). Scorsese’s mega-classic seethes with the same unhinged passion of its antihero, Travis Bickle (iconic Robert De Niro), who’s watched the scum take over New York City streets for one cab ride too many. Bickle, a mentally unstable budding vigilante, takes it upon himself to save a pre-teen prostitute (husky-voiced Jodie Foster), to befriend -- or stalk -- a gorgeous campaign manager (Cybill Shepherd), and to wipe out East Village pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) in the film’s climactic, nightmarish bloodbath. DP Michael Chapman’s cinematography has the seedy, grainy glow of after-hours NYC, Paul Schrader's searing script never holds back, and Bernard Herrmann’s score brilliantly matches the doom-laden pace of Bickle’s nightly taxi drives to Hell on Earth. --Beth Hanna

2. "Goodfellas" **** (1990). While “Raging Bull” is opera verisimo Scorsese -- gritty naturalism at its most grandiose -- “Goodfellas” is the director opera buffa mode, making exalted comedy that is tightly choreographed, precisely executed, propulsively directed, and musical– Scorsese the DJ is at his most nimble and acute, making precise use of period pop to further enhance a movie with irresistible narrative momentum. Inspired by the mid-70’s Lufthansa robbery that left string of dead wiseguys across the outer boroughs of New York, “Goodfellas” is a movie that some people may find simply to be too much –too many characters, too much blood, too many shaggy stories, too much psychosis. We think they’re wrong. --John Anderson

3. "Raging Bull" **** (1980). Opening in slow-motion black-and-white against the triumphant swell of Pietro Mascagni's "Intermezzo," this dark biopic delivers a knockout punch of stylistic bravado and masculine fury. It's all but a fact that Robert De Niro gives his career-best performance as Bronx-born heavyweight champ Jake LaMotta, while our man Marty flexes his muscles as a trenchant visual storyteller of one unsympathetic man's identity crisis. De Niro's two-timing, bloody-knuckled LaMotta is nearly impossible for us to get behind. Except, of course, when he's rough-and-tumbling it in the ring opposite lifelong rival Sugar Ray Robinson. So how does Scorsese find the humanity amid such horror? In the poetry of cinema, no more evident than in the bookended moment where De Niro recites Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront." "Raging Bull," indeed, is a contender -- for one of cinema's great achievements, and perhaps for Scorsese's finest hour. --Ryan Lattanzio

4. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” **** (1974). Scorsese and Ellen Burstyn are the perfect pairing for this biting genre blend of romance and road trip picture. Burstyn, in her Oscar winning role, is single mom Alice Hyatt, reeling from the sudden death of her husband, who hits the road with her smart-ass yet sensitive adolescent son (Alfred Lutter). Penniless and pushing 40, Alice tries to jumpstart her singing career to make ends meet, and winds up working at some of the more depressing pit stops in the Southwest. Scorsese sets a tone right on the edge of desperation, with pitch black humor fully intact, and Burstyn matches him every inch of the way. Terrific supporting turns from Harvey Keitel as a wife-beating creep, Jodie Foster as a local tomboy, and Kris Kristofferson as the dreamy cowboy who may just be the one bright spot in Alice’s life story of hard knocks. --Beth Hanna

5. "The Last Waltz" **** (1978).  The first and arguably the best of "Woodstock" contributor Scorsese's eight music-related docs, "The Last Waltz" combines The Band's "final" stage performance in San Francisco on November 25, 1976 --with guest performers Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Doctor John, Emmy Lou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield and Neil Young (whose dangling coke shard had to be erased one frame at a time)--and bravura, camera-swooping soundstage renditions including "The Weight," with drummer Levon Helm and the Staples Singers on vocals. (The album is also a must-own.) This close collaboration with Robbie Robertson combines Scorsese's superb live concert filming and interviews with the studio movie-musical chops he picked up during the making of "New York, New York." In many ways "The Last Waltz" set the format and standard for many music docs to come. --Anne Thompson

"Hugo"

6. "Hugo" **** (2011). Scorsese's ode to the cinema's glorious adolescence, from flipbooks and "A Trip to the Moon" to the Lumiere brothers and Douglas Fairbanks, may be his most playful film -- it's buoyant with childlike wonder. Following the inventive orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) through the innards of a Paris train station, the camera dashes, glides and dives with abandon, painting the dreamy architecture of Hugo's world in kinesthetic 3-D strokes. As the boy unravels the mystery of visionary filmmaker Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and communes with the memory of his father, "Hugo" registers Scorsese's abiding love of the art form as though the director were discovering it anew. His tribute to "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat," to the stories of panicked patrons diving out of the locomotive's way as though it would break the fourth wall, is enough to bring you to tears. "It was like a new kind of magic," Melies reminisces about seeing the film for the first time, and it is Scorsese, as much as his young protagonist, who turns out to have been the brilliant apprentice. "Hugo," beautiful and terrifically moving, is nothing less than a kind of sorcery. --Matt Brennan 

7. "Mean Streets" ***1/2 (1973). Martin Scorsese was just shy of his thirty-first birthday when "Mean Streets" arrived in theaters, and the boisterous, violent tale of a tough (Harvey Keitel) on the make reflects the director's youthful daring. Mixing stocks, angles, saturations, perspectives, tones, and career-making performances by Keitel and De Niro, all sailing on an eerie ocean of mismatched pop tunes, his portrait of Little Italy in the early '70s is sometimes ungainly but always, indomitably, alive. If nothing else in the film quite lives up to the ruthless economy by which he introduces Charlie, Tony, Michael, and Johnny Boy -- a quartet of brief scenes that count among the best of his career -- "Mean Streets" sustains the passionate, poetic intensity of Scorsese's subsequent classics. --Matt Brennan

8. "The Departed" ***1/2 (2006). Having chased Oscars with Harvey Weinstein-backed "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator," after Scorsese opted to sit out the 2006-7 award season, the New York "outsider" was finally welcomed into the Oscar club. In a classic case of a delayed reward for past excellence, and already established as a box office juggernaut, the Boston mob drama took home four Oscars including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing, as well as earning supporting player Mark Wahlberg --a revelation--his first and only acting nomination. Like many of Scorsese's best pictures, "The Departed" marks the director in relaxed good spirits, eager to please audiences as he racks up the tension and wearing no pretensions on his sleeve. DiCaprio is superb as an undercover cop tracking dangerous and wily Irish mobster Jack Nicholson. --Anne Thompson

9. "After Hours" ***1/2 (1985). Lonely computer programmer Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is reading a Henry Miller paperback when he first meets Marcy (sublime Rosanna Arquette). And so, to break from mundane nights spent channel-surfing in his spartan apartment, he puts the book down and follows her into the night and through the mean streets of SoHo for a nonstop freak-fest that unfolds with the logic of a dream. Agnes Varda lists "After Hours" as one of her favorite films for a reason: this weird, offbeat 1985 gem has New Wave in its blood, but it's entirely Scorsese's creation. From the lurid, loopy cinematography--with Marty's camera in full-on "shark" mode from the opening shot-- to the endless portents of sex and death, it feels somehow wrong to call "After Hours" a comedy. But it's Scorsese's most hilarious nightmare. --Ryan Lattanzio

10. "Kundun" ***1/2  (1997). The kind of film in which the spirituality of the filmmaker both informs and exalts the movie itself, this bio of the 14th Dalai Lama may seem like an uncharacteristic choice for Scorsese to have made. But his Catholic background has always informed his mob movies. And he has striven through filmmaking, as his young monk does via Buddhism, to achieve a kind of enlightenment. A relatively obscure entry in the Scorsese canon – Disney defied China by distributing it at all, then negelcted to properly market it -- “Kundun” nonetheless represents an important moment for the director, one in which he operated not principally as a storyteller, but as a film artist using his medium in a modernist, aspirational fashion that, as fate would have it, also possessed an inspirational narrative. --John Anderson

Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey in "The Wolf of Wall Street"

11. "The Wolf of Wall Street" *** (2013) The most rollicking and entertaining movie Scorsese has made in years is dominated by a confident, sexily exuberant DiCaprio and packed with yachts and helicopters and VFX and pricey locations from Manhattan to Las Vegas. The $100-million comedy's best sequence was developed and choreographed by DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, who hilariously flop around like bleating beached seals after popping far too many Quaaludes. But the movie glorifies real-life Jordan Belfort and his cronies, who fleeced ordinary folks out of their life savings by selling them worthless stocks. And over three hours, the repetitions come on fast and furious. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker admits she could have used more time. --Anne Thompson

12. "New York, New York" *** (1977). Scorsese's most memorable box office bomb, this costly-for-the-period $14-million stylized post-World War II backstage musical came and went (managing just $13.8 million at the box office), but left behind four Kander & Ebb ('Cabaret," "Chicago") originals that became classics, from the title song, originally sung by Liza Minnelli, to "But the World Goes Round." The movie looked and sounded swell, but the romance of mismatched torch singer and saxophone player, played by shrill good-girl Minnelli and a surly trigger-tempered De Niro, respectively, never connected with audiences. Why has this exuberant musical never gone to Broadway? Because, like the movie, it would be expensive to mount. But I'd love to see Scorsese tackle another movie musical. He's good at it. --Anne Thompson

11 Comments

  • David | July 6, 2014 10:15 PMReply

    The Age of Innocence, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, The Aviator

  • cadavra | December 31, 2013 4:13 PMReply

    CASINO can't be overlooked. From the casting of many comedians in serious roles to the shockingly good performance by Sharon Stone to the almost dialogue-free first act to the vivid recreation of Vegas in its halcyon days--was there ever a more stunning climactic line than "They turned it into f***ing Disneyland"?--this is arguably the crown jewel in Scorsese's collection of mob movies.

  • tyler4all | December 31, 2013 10:15 AMReply

    Can we stop it already with the ranking movies? it is pointless to call a work of art better than another. it is fruitless. Why can't you just write an article that says "hey, Wolf of Wall St. is coming out in theaters so why don't we talk about how great Martin Scorsese's movies are?" and then write a short synopsis, as you did, but without the rankings?

  • Edward Copeland | January 1, 2014 3:52 PM

    While guilty of doing it myself, I concur with TYLER4ALL, especially since any list ultimately is a person or group's subjective opinions, just like the many awards.

  • Edward Copeland | December 31, 2013 9:40 AMReply

    I think that The Age of Innocence deserves to be high on that list and The King of Comedy belongs there over some other titles as well, though it's difficult to do with a body of work that has more hits than misses. Kudos for including The Last Waltz.

  • AureaArredondo | December 31, 2013 4:53 AMReply

    These are very Nice and amazing Movie to watch .
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  • steve barr | December 30, 2013 9:07 PMReply

    Since Scorsese's been making the same movie for thirty years what difference does it make .

  • Edward Copeland | December 31, 2013 9:42 AM

    Yes. Taxi Driver, Kundun, The Age of Innocence -- all virtual remakes.

  • pol | December 30, 2013 8:04 PMReply

    BS.

    Wolf: Scorsese’s Best Film?
    http://wp.me/pwAWe-3dF

  • Theo | December 30, 2013 7:04 PMReply

    17.The King of Comedy 16. Bringing ou the Dead 15.Mean Streets 14. Hugo 13.New York, New York 12.The Color of Money 11.Cape Fear 10. Taxi Driver 9. Raging Bull 8.Casino 7.The Aviator 6.Gangs of New York 5.The Last Temptation of Christ 4.Goodfellas 3. Shutter Island 2. The Departed 1. The Wolf of Wall Street

  • Nathan | December 30, 2013 5:34 PMReply

    Too many great movies to narrow down. I'd go:
    17. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore 16. Bringing Out the Dead 15. The King of Comedy
    14. Hugo 13. Shutter Island 12. The Aviator 11. Casino 10. After Hours 9. The Age of Innocence
    8. The Wolf of Wall Street 7. The Last Temptation of Christ 6. Mean Streets 5. The Departed
    4. Gangs of New York 3. Goodfellas 2. Raging Bull 1. Taxi Driver

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