Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ranking the Films of Martin Scorsese

I have made no secret of my love of Martin Scorsese on this blog. He is my favorite filmmaker of all time – and I even named my dog after him. With his latest, Hugo, on the horizon, I thought I’d look back at the 22 features Scorsese has already made. I left out his shorts, and his documentaries (which really deserve their own consideration, so I’ll have one up soon) and concentrated solely on his theatrical features (including his segment for New York Stories). Everyone has their favorites, and I’m sure I’ll be blasted by some for my rankings, but that’s what makes it so interesting. I have to say that really, there isn’t a “bad” film in the bunch. Sure, the ones near the bottom aren’t as interesting and are definitely flawed but none of them are awful.

22. The Color of Money (1986)
I cannot help but wonder what is was that drew Scorsese to this material in the first place. Was it simply the lure of working with Paul Newman? Did he love The Hustler so much that he wanted no one else to make the sequel? I really don’t know, but of all of Scorsese’s films, this is one that feels the least like the master’s work. Yes, it is an entertaining little film, about disgraced pool shark Fast Eddie (Newman), taking a young man (Tom Cruise) under his wing and showing him the ropes. But the film is all surface, so as entertaining as it is; it fades from memory fairly quickly after it ends. Scorsese hasn’t worked as a director for hire often, but that’s what this one feels like.

21. Boxcar Bertha (1972)
It took Scorsese a few years to follow up his debut film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, and after being fired from The Honeymoon Killers, he probably figured he had to do pretty much anything. Boxcar Bertha, produced by Roger Corman, has all the hallmarks of the exploitation specialist films of the era – tons of sex and violence. And yet, it is also somewhat different from most films of its ilk. The tone of the film is not fun, but sad and foreboding. Death hangs over every scene. This doesn’t really make the film much better, but it does make the film more interesting for fans of Scorsese’s work. No one else has much of a reason to see the film, but there are moments (like the crucifixion scene) that show just what kind of talent Scorsese was sitting on.

20. New York, New York (1977)
Scorsese has always been a big fan of musicals, so it’s no surprise that he attempted to make one. The problem with New York, New York is pretty much that Scorsese tried to put too much of himself – and the themes that drives him – into the film. The result is a strangely depressing, often chaotic film that at times is a complete mess. It probably didn’t help that Scorsese was lost in cocaine addiction at the time (he’d enter rehab soon after the film was complete). But the filmmaking is always impressive – the visuals wonderful. And in fits and starts, the performances by Robert DeNiro and Liza Minelli quite good. Like Boxcar Bertha, it’s more a film for Scorsese fans than anyone else.

19. Kundun (1997)
Roger Ebert has a theory about Kundun – that for Scorsese, a man who has struggled with his demons, his lust and bringing it in line with his Catholic faith, a movie about the Dalai Lama, who has found inner peace, represents what Scorsese wishes he was like. It’s as of a good theory as anything else, I suppose. The filmmaking on display in Kundun is gorgeous – making the most of its locations. And yet, the film itself is rather dull and straight forward. For someone who made such a complex portrait of Jesus Christ, Kundun is far too content to see the Dalai Lama as a flawless deity, and not as a complete person. A fine film, sure, but nowhere near what Scorsese was capable of doing.

18. Cape Fear (1991)
With Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese took a Hollywood classic about good vs. evil and turned it into a story about guilt vs. guilt, bringing it more in line with his own feelings. Whereas Gregory Peck was honorable in the original, Nick Nolte’s lawyer in this remake is far from good – he did screw over his client and he has cheated on his wife. That still doesn’t give Robert DeNiro’s crazed ex-convict the right to torment him, but it does add a layer that was missing in the first film – as does making his daughter a teenager, and the sexual tension between her and her father’s tormenter (the scene in the school auditorium between DeNiro and Juliette Lewis is clearly the best in the movie). Yet, Scorsese’s Cape Fear is still a little too bloated, and at times way too over the top. I liked Robert DeNiro’s crazed madman here – he completely lets loose – but he doesn’t come close to generating the kind of terror Robert Mitchum did in the original (in a much more casual, low key manner). I don’t think either version of Cape Fear is a masterpiece, but the original is better – mainly because of Mitchum.

17. New York Stories – Life Lessons
I’m sure it seemed like a can’t miss idea to have Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen each making a short film about New York and putting them together. But if you’ve seen New York Stories, you know that Coppola’s segment was embarrassingly awful, and Allen’s segment is pleasant but forgettable. The only reason to see the film at all is Scorsese’s segment, Life Lessons. It’s too bad it’s in a movie with the other two, and as such doesn’t get much recognition, because it’s actually very good. The film stars Nick Nolte as a brilliant artist, who needs turmoil in his life to fuel his work. In his younger assistant, Roseanna Arquette, he finds an ever abundant supply of pain to do just that. He uses her up, and spits her out. It is a harsh film, perhaps even a cruel one, but Scorsese’s direction is masterful. If you haven’t seen this one, check it out. Just stop once Scorsese’s segment is done.

16. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968)
From the first frames of his first film, you know what drives Martin Scorsese. Right there in the opening scenes of this film, is the conflict between faith and violence – a statute of the Virgin Mary with Jesus, flashes out onto the street where violence is erupting. Scorsese came to filmmaking with obsessions already fully formed. This film is certainly rough around the edges – and includes sex scenes that make no sense that were added in later to make the film more marketable. And yet, right from the start, you can see Scorsese is a filmmaker full of talent, and he has something to say. This wouldn’t be where I’d start my journey through Scorsese’s films, because its one you appreciate more once you’ve seen his later, better films. But it is still an excellent debut film.

15. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Bringing Out the Dead was largely seen as a misfire in 1999, and I haven’t heard too much to contradict that in the 12 years since the film came out. But it is a film that I happen to think is underrated. It really is the flipside to Taxi Driver, about a man driving the streets of New York at night. Of course, Travis Bickle lashes out in anger and violence, but Nicolas Cage’s Frank, with his haunted eyes, is a paramedic, and he’s just trying to save people – and as a result, save himself. Heavily Catholic (the structure of the film, over three nights, suggests the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday), Bringing Out the Dead concentrates on Frank as he tries to save himself. He has three partners over the three days (John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore), who are all wildly different, but have at least figured out how to deal with their job – Frank hasn’t. This is not among the very best of Scorsese’s movies, but if you’ve only seen it once, you should give it another chance.

14. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
To date, this is the only “women’s” movie on Scorsese’s resume. But while Scorsese has always excelled at portrayals of wounded masculinity, he shows a surprising sensitivity in this movie, about a young widow (Ellen Burstyn) who takes to the road with her son with dreams of being a singer, only to be stunted and end up working as a waitress. Burstyn won a richly deserved Oscar for her performance as a woman catching up to the feminist movement. Her scenes with Kris Kristofferson as her new suitor are excellent. Diane Ladd adds good cheer as her new best friend, and Harvey Keitel is truly scary as an earlier boyfriend. It took me three times to see Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as the sad film I ultimately think it is. It ends on a seemingly happy note, but that isn’t necessarily true. Alice has worked hard to break out of the role of wife and mother during the course of the film, but in the end, it appears that she’ll be heading back in that direction. Maybe it’s enough that this time, she chooses it herself. Then again, maybe not. As unlike most of his films as it seems, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a great movie – and a great Scorsese movie.

13. Mean Streets (1973)
Mean Streets marks the moment when Scorsese went from a promising director to a great one. It is a story close to his heart – about the neighborhood in which he grew up. There are echoes of Who’s That Knocking at My Door throughout the film, but this one is far more confident. It also marks the first of his many collaborations with Robert DeNiro, who gets the plum supporting role of Johnny Boy, an irresponsible, low level gangster, getting in trouble because he owes everyone money. The main character though is Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who is raked with guilt, over his affair with Johnny’s cousin, and because he’s thinking of abandoning Johnny to his fate. This is the first Scorsese film where violence and dread seems to hang over every scene – where the movie feels pulled towards its inevitable, violent conclusion. For many directors, Mean Streets would represent the apex of their career – that it doesn’t even come close for Scorsese says something about how great a filmmaker he really is.

12. The Aviator (2004)
The Aviator is an epic biopic of Howard Hughes, the legendary millionaire, aviator and Hollywood producer, who would eventually become a recluse who locked himself in Las Vegas hotel and wouldn’t see anyone. Scorsese shows how the obsessive compulsive Hughes got that point – and how that obsessive nature of his first led to success in business and in Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a great performance as Hughes, as does Cate Blanchett (in an Oscar winning turn) as Katherine Hepburn. The movie gave Scorsese an excuse to revel in the old Hollywood he loved so much, and the result is fascinating portrait of a man who becomes trapped in his own mind. This is old school Hollywood filmmaking at its best.

11. Casino (1995)
I know to many, Casino will always be little more than the poor cousin of GoodFellas, as both are mob movies, and Joe Pesci plays a very similar character in both films. But I think that does a disservice for Casino, which is a superbly crafted, immensely entertaining mob epic. The film details the rise and fall of Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) and his psycho associate Nicky (Joe Pesci), who are sent by the mob to make money in Vegas. Ace tries to do it the right way – by running a casino, and sending money back home. Nicky robs, steals, and murders his way through the town. And yet, it all falls apart because of a woman (Sharon Stone). Scorsese’s film is densely plotted at three hours, but it zips right by. The more times I see Casino, the more I love it – and I loved it the first time I saw it. This is more than just a GoodFellas clone.

10. Gangs of New York (2002)
Let me state this right off the bat – I know just how flawed Gangs of New York is, I just don’t really care. When I first saw the film back in 2002, the flaws were less evident, as I simply got lost in Scorsese’s hugely ambitious, old school New York crime film. The art direction, the cinematography, the costume design is all just about perfect. Daniel Day-Lewis’ huge, larger than life performance as Bill the Butcher still stands as one of my favorites of all time. Yes, the film is sloppy in places. And yes, this is DiCaprio’s worst performance in a Scorsese film, and the romance with Cameron Diaz adds nothing to the plot. But when Gangs of New York works – and so much of it does – few films can match it. Yes, it is flawed. But no, I don’t care.

9. After Hours (1985)
This is the only time that Scorsese has ever made an out and out comedy – and in doing made one of the best black comedies I can think of. The film is surrealistic, as it documents a regular office drone (Griffin Dunne) as he heads out late one night on what he hopes will be a booty call. The date doesn’t go as anticipated, and he has no way of getting home. Thus begins a journey into hell, where everyone he meets, everything he does, seems to make things worse for him. Scorsese was going through a tough time when he made After Hours, and he says he made it to rediscover why he loved making movies so much. Rarely has Scorsese overdosed on style as he does in this film, for which his wild camera work sets the perfect tone for this film. Many of Scorsese’s films take place in New York, and he has always been able to make the city into a character in his films. It has never seemed so crazy, so alive, as it does in After Hours.

8. Shutter Island (2010)
Scorsese’s latest feature is probably his most underrated. Many simply saw a genre exercise, with Scorsese showing his love of film noir, mixed with grand old horror films. And while there certainly is that element to the film – I do love the visual flourishes, the pounding score that scream those genres – Shutter Island is actually a deeper film than its surface appears. Sure, you can complain that the final plot twist is easy to see coming (and it is), but surprise is not always the most crucial element to storytelling. Scorsese has crafted a film about love and loss, about memory, about violence, and how it can be easier to give up, then move forward. The performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams are absolutely brilliant. I have a feeling that in 10 years, Shutter Island will be much better regarded than it was when it was released last year.

7. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The Last Temptation of Christ was probably the most controversial film of the 1980s. Martin Scorsese received death threats, theaters showing the film received threats from people who said they were going to burn the building down. Why? Because Scorsese had the nerve to make a film that actually takes the life of Jesus Christ seriously. If Jesus was All Man and All God, like the Bible teaches, than he must have had the same doubts, the same desires as all men have. The Last Temptation of Christ does not diminish Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but rather shows what may have tempted Jesus down. In the end, he doesn’t come down, and dies like he is supposed to. Why is that so controversial? Anyway, the controversy blinded many to what is actually an amazingly well made film – with a thoughtful performance by Willem Dafoe as Jesus, and impeccable filmmaking my Scorsese. Watch this one without any blinders on, and you’ll actually find it’s a very spiritual film – even if it doesn’t stick rigidly to the ideas expounded by the Church.

6. The Age of Innocence (1993)
The more times I see The Age of Innocence, the more I love it. This is a film about buried passion, where Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is in love with a divorced woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) even though he is already engaged to May (Winona Ryder). This is only a problem because this is New York’s high society, in the 1870s, and it would be scandalous for someone of Archer’s position to break his engagement to a nice girl, from a good family like May, to run off with a divorcee like Pfieffer. But he cannot help himself, and he begins the affair. Everyone knows he is having an affair, and yet no one says anything. That would be rude. But underneath the prim and proper surface, there is seething jealously and resentment, and things are being said – and it’s not the words being used that sting, it’s how they are delivered. Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant as Archer, a man torn between what is supposed to do and what he wants to do. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, but it’s Day-Lewis who carries the movie, right down to its sad final scene. The poor sap never knew what hit him. Although one normally doesn’t associate Scorsese with costume dramas, this one couldn’t be anymore a Scorsese film.

5. The Departed (2006)
The Departed was the film that finally won Martin Scorsese an Oscar – 30 years too late if you ask me. The Departed may just be the most deliriously entertaining film of Scorsese’s career – moving at a breakneck speed from its opening frames to its closing moments. The performance by Leonardo DiCaprio (looking like a wounded, cornered animal), Matt Damon, as a snake in the grass, Jack Nicholson, as the over the top crime kingpin, and Mark Wahlberg, gloriously profane, are all excellent, as is everyone in the supporting cast. And while the film is so entertaining, a tale of undercover cops and undercover criminals, there is much going on underneath the surface – as two men, who grew up without fathers, and pushed by their surrogates dads towards certain death - the enemy being a lot closer than you think. Like Shutter Island, I think many think of The Departed as little more than a genre exercise – Scorsese just making a fun B-picture. And while you can take the film on that level, and have a gloriously fun time at it, there is more than meets the eye here. A masterpiece.

4. Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull is widely seen as Scorsese’s best film, and while you can see I don’t agree with that, I do think the film is an absolute masterpiece. Roger Ebert has called it an Othello for our times, and that is as good of a description as any, as clearly Raging Bull is one of, if not the best, cinematic depiction of sexual jealously ever put to film. Robert DeNiro is amazing as Jake LaMotta, a boxer who was brutal both in and out of the ring. The boxing scenes are the bloodiest in any movie – and they hurt. You can feel the punches landing. But it’s outside the ring where Raging Bull is at its very best, as LaMotta leaves his first wife for his idea of female perfection, in the teenage Cathy Moriaty, and then can’t figure out why she married him. If she’ll sleep with him, she’ll sleep with anyone. The scene between DeNiro and Joe Pesci, as his brother, starting with “You fuck my wife” is the pinnacle of screen acting. So no, I don’t think Raging Bull is the best film Scorsese has ever made. But it doesn’t mean I love it any less than those you do.

3. The King of Comedy (1983)
There are days when I think The King of Comedy is the best film Martin Scorsese has ever made. It is certainly the most painful film on his resume. When I reviewed it a few years ago, I said the entire movie reminded me of that scene in Taxi Driver when Robert DeNiro is being rejected on the phone by Cybil Sheppard, and the camera pans and looks down the hallway, as if the scene is too painful to watch. The difference being that this time, the camera never looks away. There are less camera moves in The King of Comedy than any other Scorsese film – here it seems locked to ground, as it sits there and watches Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) being continually rejected by everyone – and never seeming to realize it. Everyone just wants him to go away, and that’s the one thing Pupkin won’t do. In many ways, The King of Comedy was years ahead of its time – it sees the celebrity obsessed culture ours would become as clearly and as prophetically as Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network did about the news industry becoming more and more entertainment. Scorsese was apparently depressed when he made The King of Comedy – and it shows in every scene, and I mean that in a good way, because only making the film the way he did would have resulted in it being as good as it is. Rupert Pupkin is every bit as violent and deranged as Travis Bickle – and the film is pretty much every bit as good as Taxi Driver.

2. GoodFellas (1990)
As great as The Godfather (and for that matter The Godfather Part II) is, GoodFellas is to me the best mob movie ever made. Scorsese’s film, chronicling the life of Henry Hill from his days as a low level street peddler for the mob in the 1950s, to his downfall due to drugs in the 1980s is the best because it provides a more street level view of the mob. In The Godfather, you could almost believe them when they said it was a business, here, with the all the violence on full display, you can’t make that same excuse. GoodFellas wallows in this violence, that comes often with no warning, and is quick, brutal and bloody. Ray Liotta has never been as good as he is here, and he is ably supported by Joe Pesci as his psychopathic sidekick, Robert DeNiro as his coldblooded mentor, Paul Sorvino as the mob boss and Lorraine Bracco, as the wife who doesn’t quite fit the same mold as other mob wives. The film moves fast, never slowly down for an instant, and it drives us towards its inevitable conclusion. I’m not sure I’ve watched any film more times than GoodFellas – and just writing this paragraph makes me want to go back and watch it all over again.

1. Taxi Driver (1976)
Taxi Driver will always be my favorite Martin Scorsese film because more than any of his other films, it was left an indelible mark on my psyche, and did so when I was just a teenager discovering my love of movies. It is film about Travis Bickle, Vietnam vet, home from the war but permanently psychologically damaged. He can’t sleep at night, so he takes a job as a taxi driver in New York, and as he cruises the streets, he grows more disgusted by everything he sees – that disgust leads to rage, which will eventually boil over. He tries to make a connection with others, but is constantly rejected. Played by Robert DeNiro in what is probably my favorite screen performance in history, Travis Bickle is a rather pathetic, petty little man, but one that once he enters your mind will most likely never leave. The supporting cast – Jodie Foster as a child prostitute, Harvey Keitel as her pimp, Peter Boyle as a cab driver who tries to reach Bickle, Cybil Sheppard as the object of his affection and Albert Brooks as her lacky, and Scorsese himself as a demented passenger are all great. Scorsese’s direction has never been better. This is a film that refuses to leave you alone. It is one of the greatest ever made.

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