From Goodfellas to The Departed to The Irishman: Martin Scorsese's 10 greatest films, ranked

Prahlad Srihari

Dec 01, 2019 09:26:43 IST

The Marvel vs Martin Scorsese debate has raged on for long enough. There has been backlash — and then backlash to the backlash — over the celebrated director's comments. Of course, it has not stopped the rest of Hollywood's old guard and new from chiming in on what is and is not cinema.

With the release of The Irishman on Netflix, we hope to turn the heated debate aside to reflect on the work of the patron saint of contemporary cinema. Scorsese has continued one of the hottest streaks in cinematic history, delivering many a masterpiece in the last five decades or so. Even some of the lesser films in his back catalogue have endured longer than most filmmakers' career-best output. So it is easy to see why he inspires such devotion. But where does his latest stack up?

To celebrate the storied career of the legendary filmmaker, we present an entirely subjective — we repeat subjective — ranking of his defining work.

(Please note: we are only appraising his narrative feature films, not his documentaries)

10 | Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

 From Goodfellas to The Departed to The Irishman: Martin Scorseses 10 greatest films, ranked

Bringing Out the Dead is probably the least re-watched of Scorsese's collaborations with screenwriter Paul Schrader. But 20 years on, it feels like a mood more than a movie as it is emblematic of a work culture that has caused stress and burnout to reach epidemic levels. Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), an overworked paramedic, is dragged over the edge of sanity as he is forced to work the soul-crushing and spirit-breaking graveyard shift in Hell's Kitchen. He feels jinxed as he has not saved a dying patient in so long he has started to wonder if he is a saviour or an angel of death. Haunted by the ghosts of those he could not save, Pierce hopes to save one dying soul so he can save himself. Scorsese internalises Pierce's frustrations and externalises his thoughts as we see — and hear the voices of — the living, the dead, and those stuck in between. He traps us along with Pierce in the nightmare of working in a thankless industry in an indifferent city. But it is still a beautiful nightmare as streaks of red and blue ambulance lights bleed into the city streets abstracting it into an urban delirium. Overall, Bringing Out the Dead is a case of parts being greater than the sum.

9 | The Departed (2006)

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The intricate plot, kinetic editing, and impeccably curated music choices of The Departed turn it into one of Scorsese's most purely joyous and wildly entertaining films. Scorsese takes the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, and deftly relocates it to Boston, adding a more richly layered study of the fractured Irish-American identity. Though he does not break new ground, he fine-tunes his flair for gangster thrillers for a more mainstream audience. He sets up the movie perfectly with an unforgettable establishing scene: we see a silhouette of Jack Nicholson's character Frank Costello, who delivers a monologue as money changes hands, a young boy gets how-to-be-a-gangster 101 lessons, and a couple are shot in the head — all of which is soundtracked to 'Gimme Shelter'. The film tells the story of an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a mafia mole (Matt Damon), and the crisis of consciousness that arises from leading double lives. As each tries to uncover the other's identity before they are both exposed, the body count and plots grow into a substantial-sized cemetery. But it keeps you guessing about their true motives down to its final moments.

8 | The Age of Innocence (1993)

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Scorsese trades in mobsters and guns for manners and gossip, bringing an intimate immediacy to his faithful adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1920 novel of the same name. This pre-tabloid melodrama works as both a character piece and a broader glimpse into the absurd conflicts between the old rich and the new. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) finds himself entangled in a love triangle between the more Bohemian but married Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), and her more conformist cousin May Welland (Winona Ryder). These affairs of love, tradition, and social politics are however handled with great dramatic discipline as Day-Lewis, Pfeiffer, and Ryder bring the truths and telling details of Wharton's prose on screen without resorting to histrionics. Their character arcs are weaved together into a cohesive whole that provides both insight and emotional payoff. Its subtle tone masks a deeply submerged passion that surfaces in a few searingly beautiful moments. To quote the great Roger Ebert, "I have seen love scenes in which naked bodies thrash in sweaty passion, but I have rarely seen them more passionate than in this movie, where everyone is wrapped in layers of Victorian repression."

7 | Casino (1995)

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Casino uses — and at times abuses — the template of its breakthrough predecessor Goodfellas, and delivers a near-equal version of the gangster epic. Though the setting shifts from New York to the "morality car wash" that is the Sin City of Las Vegas, it still feels like a spiritual sequel to Goodfellas: both are written by Nicholas Pileggi; both are real-life tales of a crime syndicate's rise to power and subsequent fall from grace; and both feature Robert De Niro as a more level-headed mob figure to Joe Pesci's more psychotic character. Only this time around, Pesci's hot-headed behaviour and sociopathic disdain costs him dearly as he becomes the casualty of a singularly unpleasant moment of ultra-violence. After he is forced to watch his fellow Mafioso indulge in some baseball batting practice with his brother's head, they repeat the process beating him close to death before burying him alive. However, behind its freewheeling brutality, Casino is still a great cinematic examination of the criminal mind and an accurate depiction of Las Vegas as a "Disneyland" for adults. 

6 | The Irishman (2019)

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Returning to the fruitful stomping ground of gangster films, Scorsese reunites with De Niro and Pesci, and reconnects with the genre that earned him his reputation. Only The Irishman is a self-reflexive work as he reinterprets familiar stories in a new canvas. You can sense a lifetime's worth of his films and mafia mythology embedded in its layers. If Goodfellas takes a Steadicam one-take stroll through the Copacabana to showcase gangster life in all its sordid glamour, The Irishman gives you a shot of a gun sinking into the depths of a river where hundreds of other disposed firearms rest after having served their purpose. Perhaps, some of these were used by gangsters from other Scorsese films as they spread misery and death to everyone and everything they touched. So, it is an elegy to gangster films, a requiem for the American Dream. It is a film made under the retrospective gaze of an auteur still at the peak of his directorial powers.

Studiously researched and gorgeously shot, The Irishman tells the story of alleged mob hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro), his friendship with mafia boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and his involvement in the disappearance of union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). But Scorsese turns this gangster saga into something grander and more intimate than his previous films. It is in many ways an antithesis and a fitting bookend to the testosterone-filled gangster epics of past.

5 | The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)

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Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter abridge Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort's memoir down to its most garish elements. Belfort (DiCaprio) and his employees swindled millions of dollars from hapless investors through a combination of securities fraud and market manipulation to fund his decadent lifestyle of yachts, hookers, drugs, and midget-throwing contests. The Wolf of Wall Street offers a nightmarish perversion of the American dream as we see the rich go to hedonistic extremes in their pursuit of happiness. Scorsese intentionally makes all the sinful indulgences uncomfortably alluring — even inappropriately comical — in a clear condemnation of unbridled capitalism and the narcissistic behaviour it breeds. And it is anchored by an unhinged DiCaprio, who supercharges the entire film with a frenetic alpha-male energy as he takes you on a joy ride into the most decadent depths of humanity. Seeing a drooling Quaalude-impaired DiCaprio crawl his way to the car and use his foot to open the door is alone worth the price of a movie ticket.

4 | The King of Comedy (1982)

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In The King of Comedy, a wannabe comic named Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) becomes dangerously obsessed with his idol, late-night TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) — and kidnaps him in order to ensure a TV spot. This criminally underseen gem re-entered the conversation recently owing to its striking influence on the plot of Todd Phillips' Joker. But Scorsese's satire is far more revelatory in its criticism of media-encouraged celebrity worship. He also takes an unsparing look at Rupert's sense of entitlement that the world owes him 15 minutes of fame, and he will have it at any cost. It is sociopathic behaviour as performance art, and De Niro is simply exceptional in this outrageous comic fantasy that only seems to get better with each viewing.

3 | Goodfellas (1990)

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On another day, this film could easily have been No 1 on the list. Its influence is immeasurable as it is one of the slickest written and most quotable films. Scorsese synthesises the New York setting, the morally ambiguous characters, and their mafia machismo with such gusto that, once seen, you never forget it. He immerses us in the schemes and routines of these tough-talking wise guys who have now become oh-so-familiar in a sub-genre filled with the rip-offs it has since inspired. Tracing the rise and fall of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), whose only ambition as a kid was to be a gangster, Goodfellas explores the allure, logistics, and consequences of criminal life. De Niro and Pesci make for a dynamic duo, carefully balancing believability with theatrics in their equally bravura performances as ambitious mobsters. All this and more has made Goodfellas an enduring cultural touchstone and its depiction of the cut-throat world of organised crime in the US, second only to The Godfather.

2 | Raging Bull (1980)

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Scorsese's film about former boxing champion Jake LaMotta (De Niro) is arguably the finest biopic — sports or otherwise — in film history. Unlike most other biopics, Scorsese refuses to give us a straightforward objective reality of his subject. Instead, he paints a more subjective experience of the world as seen through the eyes of LaMotta, a man whose violent masculinity spills outside the ring into his home, ultimately wrecking both his personal life and professional career. Scorsese illustrates his descent by communicating his emotional wavelength with lighting and design of sets. The black-and-white photography not only deglamourises its subject but adds a muted softness to his internal conflicts. By filming the fight scenes from inside the ring, he not only builds an intimacy with the boxers but also captures the physical and psychological components of the fight. He also used smoke to create hazy images that emphasised LaMotta's punch-drunk consciousness. Hats off to Thelma Schoonmaker for editing these images seamlessly into a veritable masterpiece.

1 | Taxi Driver (1976)

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After the very first viewing, Taxi Driver lingers in the mind for longer than most films. Travis Bickle (De Niro) is a 26-year-old Vietnam War veteran with delusions of grandeur fuelled by frustrations with his socio-economic standing and sense of white male privilege. He is also a man with a plan. So, he begins a bloody path of vengeance, directing his anger at his ex-girlfriend Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), a Senator (Leonard Harris), and all the “scum” of the world. He also believes his redemption lies in saving a young girl named Iris (Jodie Foster) from a life of prostitution. In his mind, these actions are justified by their heroic intent and his own moral code. This rationale for American masculinity stems from the economic equality and social advancement promised by the so-called American dream. As Travis feels cheated out of this promise, he feels he has to lash out violently. Add the alienation, insomnia, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder into the equation, you have got yourself a ticking time bomb. When he stares into the mirror, it is like reality and fantasy are both pointing a gun at him. So Scorsese and Schrader confront this quintessential American ideal of the self-made, rugged individualist in pursuit of the American dream, and its potentially tragic consequences. But it is also a haunting character study of the human condition of loneliness and its devastating effects on the psyche. It is a film that demands multiple viewings, and you discover something new to cherish, ponder, and admire on each occasion. Michael Chapman’s cinematography turns New York into a noirish Gomorrah, and Bernard Herrmann's last score is as phenomenal as his first. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is simply cinema at its purest.

All images from YouTube.

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Updated Date: Dec 01, 2019 15:35:37 IST