Monday night, following screenings at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, HBO will premiere The 50 Year Argument, the terrific new documentary celebrating 50 years of The New York Review of Books. It is also the latest effort from legendary — and legendarily prolific — filmmaker Martin Scorsese (co-directing with David Tedeschi, who has edited several of Scorsese’s previous documentaries). So how does it compare to the rest of the Scorsese filmography? To answer that question, Flavorwire presents the DEFINITIVE* ranking of Martin Scorsese’s narrative and documentary features (stretching feature a bit to include long-ish documentaries and made-for-TV works), stacking up 36 films over nearly 50 years.
*(solely the opinions of a single writer/Scorsese fanatic)
36. Boxcar Bertha
It says something about the consistently high quality of Marty’s work (we’re on a first name basis, that’s what all his friends call him, y’know) that even his worst film, a Bonnie and Clyde rip-off and Roger Corman special, still hasn’t half-bad. He sprinkles in plenty of atmosphere and some inspired touches, and he ably showcases Barbara Hershey’s earthy beauty and David Carradine’s sideways charm. The gunplay of the final sequence is also impressive; this is one of his earliest pure action sequences, and it is a good one. Bertha is far from essential Scorsese, but there are enough flashes of what was to come to make for interesting viewing.
35. Cape Fear
If it bore just about anyone else’s name, this nasty little thriller remake might be a career high, and to be sure, it’s directed with skill, confidence, and a welcome touch of psychological complexity. But this was Scorsese’s first film after GoodFellas, and as such, it couldn’t help but feel like he was slumming just a bit — and frequent collaborator Robert De Niro’s performance, which includes literally chewing off the faces of his co-stars, is (to put it mildly) not his most sophisticated piece of work.
34. Feel Like Going Home
In 2003, Scorsese produced the PBS documentary mini-series The Blues, a seven-part exploration of the art form, with contributions by Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, Charles Burnett, Wim Wenders, Richard Pearce, and Marc Levin. He directed the initial outing himself, and it’s a thorough and thoughtful look at Delta blues (tracing its roots all the way back to Africa). Yet it feels oddly bereft of the Scorsese voice, which is usually not only present but pulsing in his music documentaries.
33. Shine a Light
The joke goes that this Rolling Stones concert documentary may be the only Scorsese movie where he doesn’t use “Gimme Shelter.” But the upside there is that the Stones used this pair of 2006 benefit concerts to play a few deeper cuts, which almost makes up for the fact that lifelong Stones fan Scorsese didn’t get the chance to shoot them until they were many, many years past their prime. That said, he assembled a dream team of the best cinematographers in the biz, capturing some genuinely exuberant performance footage (that moment where Keith spits out his cigarette, hew boy). And the prologue, with Scorsese serving as an Edgar Kennedy-esque foil who just wants a damn set list, is a hoot.
Let’s be clear: Scorsese’s 1997 biography of the 14th Dalai Lama is pleasurable just to look at and listen to; Robert Richardson’s cinematography is stunningly gorgeous, Philip Glass’ score is perfection, and Scorsese’s fascination with the rituals of the Buddhist religion creates several breathtaking sequences. But the movie itself? Kind of a snooze. It’s one of a handful of clear attempts to expand the definition of what a “Martin Scorsese Picture” can be — films that move as far away as possible from the criminals, psychopaths, and street characters of his most recognizable works. The desire to work outside of those boundaries is both understandable and admirable, and much of Kundun plays. But this is the kind of Scorsese movie that mostly just makes you want to watch Goodfellas.
31. Gangs of New York
Scorsese spent so long trying to get Gangs to the screen (he bought the rights to the book it was based on clear back in 1979) that he may well have lost sight of the picture on the way to its final, belated delivery in 2002. Daniel Day-Lewis is breathtakingly good, the production design is astonishing, the character players (Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Eddie Marsan, etc.) are memorable, and a couple of the set pieces are top-shelf. But it’s just plan overlong — one of the few Scorsese movies where that holds true — and the Leo/Cameron romance is a first-class dud.
30. The Aviator
Try as he might, Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan can’t quite dodge the formula pitfalls of this 2004 biopic. But the photography is playfully inventive (particularly its period-appropriate color timing) and Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn as Katharine Hepburn is a real pip. The Aviator never quite catches fire the way Scorsese’s best stuff does, but it offers up plenty of surface pleasures and memorable performances.
29. The Age of Innocence
Scorsese stretching again, with this 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic novel about keeping up appearances in early-20th-century New York. Gorgeous and earnest (if a bit too reliant on Joanne Woodward’s narration, lifted directly from the novel), the picture drags a bit, yet the unconsummated chemistry between Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer gives it a shot of real electricity.
28. My Voyage to Italy
Over the years, Scorsese has spent a fair amount of time — and seemed to have quite a bit of fun — making documentary miniseries spotlighting the films that inspired him as a youth. In 2001’s two-part My Voyage to Italy, he takes a look at the cinema of his ancestors, with a particular focus on the Italian neorealism movement of the 1940s and 1950s. His enthusiasm for the subject is infectious; four hours with a cinephile of this eloquence and passion will send just about any movie lover scurrying to their library or Netflix queue.
27. The 50 Year Argument
Scorsese’s latest hides an elegant structure behind the appearance of none at all — there’s a loose funkiness to the way the various detours, digressions, and sketches that tell the story of The New York Review of Books add up to a thumbnail history of contemporary culture. The filmmaker wisely takes on the perspective of the insider who’s still an outsider, fascinated by what the Review is and the community of readers and writers that it represents. It is, ultimately, an eloquent testament to the power, allure, and import of the written word (and one that will, most likely, send you scurrying to read these pieces and revisit these legendary battles).
26. A Letter to Elia
Film enthusiasts have wrestled with the legacy of Elia Kazan for decades: what do you make of a brilliant stage director and filmmaker whose personal and private life was a good deal less admirable? Scorsese (and co-director Kent Jones) take the “you” in that question quite literally, as he constructs a passionate, thoughtful, and searching portrait of this often polarizing figure.
25. A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
Scorsese’s cinema documentaries have a wonderfully conversational quality — they genuinely convey the simple but easier-said-than-done idea of talking through the films that moved and inspired him, working through themes and styles, and focusing on why they remain vital (rather than attempting some sort of comprehensive history). His onscreen presence runs counter to his fast-talking, jittery persona; in the on-camera bridges and particularly the voice-over narration, he speaks softly, carefully, as if whispering to you excitedly from the next seat while taking pains not to divert too much attention from the action onscreen.
24. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
The testosterone-driven narratives that dominate Scorsese’s filmography don’t allow him many opportunities to tell women’s stories. But fresh off his breakthrough with Mean Streets, Ellen Burstyn sought him out to direct this low-key dramedy, which would later inspire TV’s Alice. It hasn’t aged as well as you might hope, and the “traditional” ending rankles a bit. But it has a lived-in quality that is rarely seen in Scorsese’s typically larger-than-life stories.
23. Who’s that Knocking at My Door
Scorsese’s debut feature — an expansion of one of his early, NYU student films — is wildly uneven and frequently meandering. But this semi-autobiographical tale introduces the themes of aimless young men, confused sexual politics, and Catholic guilt in New York City that would dominate his work, and you can already see his particular fire on display in the film, which bursts with wild energy, street smarts, and a pulsing rock score.
22. New York, New York
Its initial, indifferent reception by critics and consumers in 1977 (it came out hard on the heels of Star Wars, which pretty much stomped every other movie of the season), lent this one an unshakable reputation as one of Scorsese’s few failures. But the ambition and experimentation of what Scorsese — hot off Taxi Driver — was attempting remains impressive: a fusion of old-school backlot studio musical extravaganza and uncompromising, Cassavetes-style 1970s drama. It doesn’t deliver on the crowd-pleasing requirements of the former, but it’s a solid, engaging example of the latter; Robert De Niro is forcefully opaque, while Liza Minnelli more than holds her own against him.
21. The Color of Money
One of Scorsese’s least appreciated efforts, this 1987 sequel to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler is often written off as a paycheck gig and a blatant play for commercial success. But you know what? If it is, I can’t tell. Scorsese directs like a man possessed, his constantly roving camera doing the impossible: he makes billiards exciting. Richard Price’s street dialogue sings, Tom Cruise is at his “flaky” best, and Paul Newman (who won an Oscar for reprising his iconic role of “Fast Eddie” Felson) is clearly having a great time. And you can’t blame him.
20. George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Scorsese’s two-part, three-and-a-half hour documentary portrait of the “quiet Beatle” is the story of a man on a life-long search for answers; it delves deep into the substance of his spiritual journey, and the struggle of maintaining it. Because it takes that element of his life so seriously, we feel real emotion and genuine enlightenment when his story reaches its end; Scorsese lets us observe and regard a full and complex life, and feel as though we understand it a touch better afterwards.
Many fans consider this 1995 favorite to be among Scorsese’s very best, and to be sure, it is overflowing with great moments, memorable sequences, and bravura performances (particularly Sharon Stone, Oscar-nominated as the picture’s doomed femme fatale). But it is hobbled, ever so slightly, by the shadow of Goodfellas, which shares much of its style and personnel (Scorsese, writer Nicholas Pileggi, co-stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Frank Vincent) and makes it feel like a slightly less accomplished and more indulgent sequel.
18. Public Speaking
Scorsese’s profile documentary of legendary humorist and raconteur Fran Lebowitz is a loose, witty, raucous portrait — possibly his funniest picture, and one of his most nakedly pleasurable ones. But Lebowitz also tackles subjects that seem close to the filmmaker’s heart, particularly the evolution of New York City, from a place of personality to a soulless tourist attraction. They’re both longtime New Yorkers, for better or worse, and that shared spirit lifts Public Speaking from conventional documentary fare to tart, spiky, and divine filmmaking.
17. Shutter Island
It could have been Cape Fear all over again — his first narrative feature after a critical smash (this time, The Departed), a commercial thriller featuring a major movie star. But this time, he doesn’t get lost in the muck; instead, adapting Dennis Lahane’s novel into a jittery suspense flick with some grimy Freudian twists, he follows his story’s frayed thread all the way to the tough, borderline nihilistic end. And along the way, he throws in plentiful shout-outs to the likes of Val Lewton and Samuel Fuller; as with the best of his work, Shutter Island is imbued with a lust for film, the work of an artist who gets drunk off movies, then sits us down and pours us a shot.
It sounded like a disaster — an intelligent and adult-minded filmmaker succumbing to the cash-grab of a big-budget, big-studio 3D movie aimed squarely at family audiences. And in light of how thoroughly it could have gone wrong, the outcome is even more impressive: not only did Scorsese serve up the delightfully accessible kid-friendly entertainment he’d been hired to make, but he also, simultaneously, created an intensely personal work that shines with its creator’s passions and distinctive personality. The heart of the picture isn’t in its slapstick chases or its orphaned-kid pathos, but in the final speech delivered by Ben Kingsley’s forgotten filmmaker, which may be the most heartfelt and open reflection of Scorsese’s worldview we’ve yet seen.
15. American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince
For a good portion of the ‘70s, Scorsese would turn out documentaries that complemented his narrative works (he did The Last Waltz while working on his big musical New York, New York; he followed his Little Italy masterpiece Mean Streets with the family doc Italianamerican). American Boy came out two years after Taxi Driver, but it plays like a companion piece; its subject, Steven Prince, plays a small role in Taxi Driver (as the hotel-room gun dealer), and is himself the kind of oddball character that could easily turn up in the back of Travis’ cab. A former heroin addict and road manager for Neil Diamond, Prince’s real skill is storytelling, and Scorsese’s riveting hour-long profile mostly just lets him talk. (His most memorable tale is that of reviving an overdosing addict with a shot of adrenaline to the heart, indicating that American Boy made its way into Quentin Tarantino’s VCR during his video store days.)
14. New York Stories: Life Lessons
This anthology film features a mediocre short from Woody Allen and one of the worst films Francis Ford Coppola’s ever done, but Scorsese’s contribution (which wisely opens the film) is a scorching bit of short-form storytelling, the rich and detailed story of an action painter (Nick Nolte, never better) hanging on to the last scraps of an affair with a protégé (a wonderful Rosanna Arquette). Scorsese’s restless camera has seldom been more effectively used, bracingly circling its protagonist as he works and pines for the woman who is, moment by moment, slipping out of his grasp.
13. The Departed
Its subsequent Oscar success gave Scorsese’s remake of the Hong Kong policer Infernal Affairs a sheen of reputability, so it’s easy to forget what a dirty bomb it was when it landed in theaters back in 2006; after a period in which he seemed bent on becoming a respectable classicist, like his heroes Powell and Pressburger, here was a crackerjack thriller filled with shocking jolts and dirty jokes, a reminder of how much fun he could have making a pop picture. And after years of experimentation and boundary-pushing, it was the kind of movie he made better than anybody: a tough, brutal, emotionally wrenching crime potboiler with a healthy dose of black comedy.
12. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Handed the prime gig of giving Zimmy the bio-doc treatment, Scorsese (wisely) doesn’t even attempt to encompass the entire career; even with two parts and four hours at his disposal, he only goes up to 1967 or so, around the time of Dylan’s motorcycle accident. But as with the best biopics, the narrow focus ultimately benefits the work: No Direction Home feels neither thin nor incomplete, and since Dylan reinvented himself so often in those years, by the time he (and Scorsese) arrive at the conclusion of his tempestuous 1966 British tour, it feels as though we’ve watched a full metamorphosis (even if we’re fully aware that there are many more to come). Dylan’s early years aren’t exactly a mystery, but Scorsese (and editor Tedeschi) manage to approach them with fresh eyes and real style, and the results are thrilling.
11. The Last Waltz
Scorsese’s justly celebrated documentary captures the Band’s Thanksgiving 1978 “farewell concert,” an all-star extravaganza featuring such guests as Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, and Paul Butterfield. As with Shine A Light, he assembled a team of crack cinematographers, including Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Chapman, and Laszlo Kovacks; Intercut with the songs are Scorsese-conducted interviews, which have a laid-back candor that’s still somewhat shocking. But the performances — captured with epic grandeur by a filmmaker whose head was still in the classic musical mold of New York, New York — are what make The Last Waltz such a powerful celebration of this band and their sound.
In 1974, on the heels of his Mean Streets breakthrough, Scorsese was one of several filmmakers contracted by the National Communications Foundation to create programs on the immigrant experience. Scorsese’s contribution wasn’t the typical densely researched sociological study or stock-photos-and-talking-heads history; instead, he went to his parents’ Little Italy apartment on a Sunday and turned the cameras on. The resultant film is charming, funny, and disarmingly casual, thanks primarily to the oft-noted warmth and charisma of Scorsese’s celebrated mother Catherine, a frequent cameo player in his films (she’s Joe Pesci’s chatty mother in Goodfellas). Plus, it ends with the recipe to Catherine’s pasta sauce — or “gravy,” as she calls it — which is worth jotting down. Magnifico.
9. After Hours
In 1984, Scorsese was about to fulfill a decade-long dream to make The Last Temptation of Christ — only to have Paramount pull the plug at the 11th hour, terrified by the protests and threats of evangelicals. Devastated by the cancellation, he had to throw himself into a new project, immediately (“I’ve got to work. I’ve got to do something,” he remembered saying). And he wound up making this pitch-black, almost Kafka-esque comedy, in which a numbers cruncher (Griffin Dunne) is swallowed whole by Soho over one long, very weird night. It’s a funny and peculiar picture, yet also one of Scorsese’s most energetic; you can feel that spirit of working to stay sane in nearly every askew frame of this unsung masterpiece.
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
Scorsese’s most recent narrative feature surges with the drug-fueled momentum of its protagonists and graphically dramatizes their excesses, but with a cynical, satirical edge; they’re not just con artists but overgrown children, and we (well, most of us) don’t have to be told that such drug-and-booze-and-hooker-fueled conspicuous consumption represents the worst of what is all-too-rhapsodically deemed “The American Dream.” His filmmaking has never been more confident — fast, crisp, and tight, captivated by the electricity of the trading floors and telephone transactions. Scorsese revisits the form, structure, and manic energy of Goodfellas, but with even more cynicism; it seems that the earlier picture’s wiseguys were somehow more honorable than these bastards.
7. Bringing Out the Dead
Seldom discussed among his finest pictures, weirdly dismissed by audiences (and most critics) at the time of its 1999 release, this haunting and powerful drama re-teams Scorsese with Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader for a similar story of a lonely man cruising through the New York night. It vibrates with a punk edge, its kinetic ambulance calls shot and edited at a fever pitch, but its real turbulence is internal; Nicolas Cage’s Frank is a man on the edge, on the verge of either falling into the abyss or pulling himself back. He’s a more thoughtful character than Taxi Driver’s Travis, and one capable of a different outcome — where, instead of lashing out in vengeful violence, he reaches deep into his soul and tries to find a peace within. (Bonus: you can also read it as Scorsese’s version of A Christmas Carol.)
6. The King of Comedy
This comedy/drama was a bit of a slow burn — audiences and critics in 1983 weren’t quite ready for its disturbing story, and it would take years (decades, even) for its remarkable prescience to become clear. Unmistakably rooted in the filmmaker’s response to would-be Reagan assassin John Hinkley’s identification with Taxi Driver and obsession with Jodie Foster, Scorsese took on the troubling ramifications of celebrity idolatry and lust for fame, coming up with powerfully atypical performances by De Niro and Jerry Lewis, and an ending that remains one his most haunting.
5. The Last Temptation of Christ
Scorsese had tried to adapt Nikos Kazantzakis’ Bible-inspired novel since Barbarah Hershey handed it to him on the set of Boxcar Bertha. But he’d wanted to make a Biblical epic since childhood, and his controversial 1988 film burns with that intensity and desire; it fuses the storytelling scope of classic Hollywood with naturalistic acting and modern technique (à la Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew), and that fusion creates a film both devout and disturbing. It’s ironic that it was targeted and, in many ways, successfully censored by American evangelicals, because for those outside their narrow scope, it inspired more serious thought on faith and religion than a thousand Sunday sermons.
4. Mean Streets
Something of a spiritual sequel to Who’s That Knocking At My Door, featuring the same leading man (Harvey Keitel) and many of the same themes, Scorsese’s 1974 breakthrough picture is a vivid, keenly observed portrait of street hoods and would-be businessmen — the kind of workaday “grinders” that were mostly left out of The Godfather. Scorsese pops up not only in a cameo (as a hitman), but in voice-over, his interior monologue battling Keitel’s own, in a kind of dialectic battle for the young man’s soul. And while Keitel is the protagonist, the picture belongs to Robert De Niro, who makes his first appearance blowing up a mailbox (seemingly for the sheer fuck of it) and turns in an electrifying performance as an untetherable force of reckless nature. Oh, and it finds the filmmaker making perhaps his savviest use of popular music (no small statement, that), from the evocative home-movie accompaniment of “Be My Baby” to the goofy nonsense lyrics of “Rubber Biscuit” paralleling the actions of a drunken Keitel to the clean, crisp “Please Mr. Postman” incongruently scoring the ugly, messy pool hall brawl to, finally, De Niro shimmying and shaking to “Mickey’s Monkey,” a dead man dancing.
Scorsese’s 1990 masterwork is remembered mostly for its iconic set pieces: the tracking shot into the “Copa,” the “Sunday, May 11, 1980” sequence, the discoveries of the bodies after the Lufthansa heist. In those sections, and throughout the picture, Scorsese calls upon all of his considerable gifts as a technical filmmaker — zip pans, trick zooms, fast dolleys, unbroken takes, slow motion, fast cutting, inventive compositions, circular storytelling — to cast his spell. From this vantage point, nearly a quarter-century on, Goodfellas feels like the moment when Scorsese became the guy that young filmmakers (the Tarantinos, the Rodriguezes, the P.T. Andersons) wanted to pattern themselves after. As the last decade of the 20th century began, Scorsese seemed to be bursting open the notions of what was possible in “mainstream” cinema, making up new rules seemingly as he went along; in doing so, he pointed the way for a new era of bold, brash filmmaking. As with all truly great films, Goodfellas sums up what came before it and suggests what’s to come. And it proves its director, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be a storyteller of unmatched technique and unquestionable virtuosity.
2. Taxi Driver
I still vividly remember the first time I saw Scorsese’s seminal 1977 film, late one night on Cinemax, and when it ended, I turned off the television and my 14-year-old mind tried to comprehend what I’d just seen. In many ways, I’m still trying to. Famously penned by an apparently unstable Paul Schrader in a furious eight-day exorcism of a writing session, Taxi Driver burrows, with great discomfort, into the mind of a deeply disturbed Vietnam vet and NYC hack who would like nothing more than to wash all the scum off the streets. Scorsese and Schrader (and Robert De Niro, never more convincing) don’t apologize for their protagonist — but they don’t dismiss him, either, peering deep into the darkness to try and understand what could make such a time bomb tick. Its climax remains Scorsese’s most unnerving sequence, not for the copious bloodletting, but from the inevitability of it all, which he seems to tee up from the first frame.
1. Raging Bull
In the first year of both the ‘80s and the ‘90s, Scorsese made the best film of the decade, and his colleagues spent the next ten years trying to catch up. Raging Bull was a passion project that De Niro brought to the filmmaker while he was recuperating from heart trouble brought on by years of drug consumption, and it became a lifeline; unsure (after the failure of New York, New York and the shift towards impersonal blockbusters) if he’d ever get the opportunity to make another movie, he poured everything he had into this one. Remembered mostly for its impressive aesthetics — the luminous black-and-white photography, the stunningly visceral fight scenes, De Niro’s transformative, Oscar-winning performance — it is more vital as the film where Scorsese would most fruitfully explore the themes (of masculinity, sexuality, repression, guilt, and jealousy) that had obsessed him, for years, as both a filmmaker and a human being.