The Films of Martin Scorsese: Part 1

11/23/2015

“He’s the mayor of movies.”
– Paul Thomas Anderson

“No matter how good you are, there’s always Scorsese.”
– Brian De Palma (as quoted by Quentin Tarantino)

“Long live the King.”
– Film Crit HULK

It’s difficult to introduce a man as influential as Martin Scorsese. I remember reading his review of Bottle Rocket in Esquire. Their bio read as follows: “Martin Scorsese is, well, Martin Scorsese.”

Quite right.

So recently I’ve decided to complete the filmographies of my favorite directors. The natural choice to start was the man more synonymous with cinephilia than anyone else living. At 25 he showed a profound respect for a bygone era of classics. At 73 he made one of the most subversive, forward-thinking films in modern cinema. There are filmmakers who have affected me more profoundly, but there is no denying that Martin Scorsese is the face of movies.

Here’s a quick rundown of his narrative features, which I’ve ranked in order of personal preference. I would like to add that there’s not a bad movie on this list. It was surprisingly easy to work through, and the passion that went into these films was contagious. I think I chose well.

23. Casino (1995)

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I just watched 23 Scorsese films, and with one exception none of them felt obligatory. Even with films I personally didn’t connect with, I could see Scorsese trying to improve his range; trying to tackle something he had never done quite that way before. And maybe Casino was intended to do that as well. I could see how this film posits itself as an expansion on the Goodfellas formula: a broader, more epic Nick Pileggi-adaptation that evolves from street hoods to the guys who run the world. However it’s as difficult to see this as a fresh new take on mob violence as it is to believe then-51-year-old Robert De Niro was a young kid making his way in the world. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. It was better last time.

I know Casino has its defenders, and in truth it bests many other films on this list at least in the technical categories. But as a viewer I could never shake the déjà vu. It doesn’t help that Scorsese eventually did top Goodfellas with a sprawling modern crime epic. For crime nostalgia it doesn’t get better than Goodfellas and probably never will. His next definitive statement on the subject, fittingly, looked forward instead, so it’s hard to see Casino as anything but a step back.

22. Boxcar Bertha (1972)

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Roger Corman is revered because of the opportunities he’s given to talented young filmmakers, but I’ve only seen two films he produced that were worth watching. The first, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, was a bad good movie. It was a formal achievement that just lacked things like acting talent and production value.

On the other side of the spectrum sits Boxcar Bertha, which is maybe history’s definitive good bad movie. A Bonnie and Clyde rip-off dubiously justified under another name stolen from the history books, this is exploitation at its finest. You’ve got gratuitous nudity, excessive violence, and one-dimensional villains that eschew any of the moral nuance that make Bonnie and Clyde great. In total it amounts to very little. However Scorsese makes art out of individual scenes that feel freakishly modern. In these moments you don’t just forget that this is a B movie. You forget that it was made 40 years ago. Scorsese had already proven with Who’s That Knocking at My Door that he was an artist. With Bertha he proved he was a filmmaker.

21. The Aviator (2004)

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The opening scenes of The Aviator depict something I hadn’t seen before in Scorsese: an unapologetic, straightforward celebration of the filmmaking process. Where else before 2004 had Scorsese celebrated a man or woman who does the same job, much less with such reverence and lack of irony? My ultimate beef with this film goes back to that politeness. Scorsese is an artist with the most primal sorts of conflict. Even if his choice to make The Aviator a fairly standard biopic isn’t wrong in any way, I just prefer the hitting and the shouting.

But I can’t deny that it’s fun to finally talk movies with the guy who loves them more than anyone else. The tribute to Hell’s Angels isn’t just a fully realized historical factoid. It’s a celebration of the uninhibited creative spirit. Scorsese has famously struggled to get passion projects financed throughout his career; something Hughes never dealt with. In a way he’s imagining passion unfettered by the gravity that keeps so many of us on the ground. He spent much of his career depicting the streets that threatened to swallow him in his childhood. Here he celebrates the spirit that inspired him to take flight.

20. Shutter Island (2010)

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Shutter Island, like much of Scorsese’s later work, is effortless and watchable at the expense of being affecting. His earlier films cranked up the conflict to almost unbearable levels, so the audience felt sanctified for having survived. If his later films aren’t exactly conciliatory, they’re at the very least kinder. They’re flawless and fluid and go down easy.

Many would argue the above statements are oversimplified. I’ll allow it, but not in the case of Shutter Island. Shutter Island works as a respectable potboiler that’s hard to hate and even harder to love. Maybe twenty years ago its twisty surreal narrative could work as a kind of Dr. Caligari homage. In the era of Christopher Nolan it’s just a drop in the bucket. Even the heightened violence and psychological realism don’t feel near as subversive as they did when Scorsese made his last horror film, Cape Fear, 20 years earlier. The attention to detail and understanding of genre are still vintage Scorsese, though. I suppose that’s the privilege of a fifty year career. They don’t all gotta be the second coming.

19. After Hours (1985)

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In a lot of ways After Hours is a circus freak show; a showcase for talents as diverse as Catherine O’Hara and Cheech and Chong. Paul (Griffin Dunne) meets a girl (Rosana Arquette). In an attempt to get laid he winds up in a bad part of town, and as the night wears on the residents get increasingly eccentric. That’s all there is here. I get the impression this is Scorsese making the best of a bad situation. This is the first film he made after King of Comedy bombed. It’s also the first film he made after failing to get Last Temptation of the Christ funded. The perfectly reasonable response is that he made the sort of movie people were watching at the time. This feels a lot more like an 80’s comedy made by Martin Scorsese than it does a Martin Scorsese comedy made in the 80’s. The distinction is huge.

So the talent on display is impeccable. The camerawork and pacing stand out almost immediately. Otherwise all the movie’s charms have a lot to do with one’s tolerance for standard comedies of errors. Some filmmakers have taken fairly banal scripts from the juvenile comedy era and made high art (see: Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H). Scorsese tries here. The result isn’t bad, but I’m glad he didn’t have to do it again.

18. Gangs of New York (2002)

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Gangs of New York is arguably the worst film on this list. It’s an absolute mess. The voiceover is balls. Leo is bland. And seriously, someone needed to either give Cameron Diaz something to do or cut her out of the movie completely. As it stands there are about forty scenes where she walks on screen, looks approvingly at Leo or nervously bites her nails, and then walks off screen again without saying a word or contributing anything to the drama. It’s like an art project summarizing all the problems with Scorsese’s female protags across history.

Gangs of New York is also one of the most fascinating films on this list. Daniel Day Lewis is presence maximized to unbearable levels. You can practically feel the greatness rolling off of him. The classic New York production design is also clearly the work of great passion. Scorsese’s camera views it almost like an archetypal fantasy world of kingdoms, castles, and caverns. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to learn that when Scorsese dreams, his childhood wonderland is the crime district in early 19th century New York.

It’s hard to accept the indefensibly awful on such an impressive list, but it’s even harder to ignore this movie’s greatness. At the very least it’s easy to understand why he was willing to cut corners to get this onto the screen. The good stuff was worth it.

17. Cape Fear (1991)

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Here’s what I like about Cape Fear. It’s more provocative than it might seem at first glance. In style and largely in substance, this is a Spielberg operation. That Amblin logo at the beginning is no accident. But Scorsese isn’t just doing Spielberg. He’s doing Hitchcock, if Hitchcock had gotten the chance to do Spielberg. Hitchcock had Thornton Wilder write Shadow of a Doubt, his signature takedown of suburban idealism. Probably the best modern equivalent to Our Town is Spielberg’s wide-eyed embrace of the American family, even among cynical filmmakers who serve as his contemporaries.

So like Hitchcock, Scorsese plays along to a point. His Bowdens are a prototypical family. His cast includes Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, both wide-eyed heroes from a different era of cinema. His father-figure is the paternally stalwart Nick Nolte. His score and cinematography evoke the most idyllic in Spielberg’s cinema. And then he subverts it all with a brutal rapist played by De Niro, rampant police corruption, and all the dark elements that populate Scorsese’s typical films. In doing so he highlights the difference between horror and realism: where you live and what you have to lose.

16. Kundun (1997)

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Martin Scorsese grew up during the golden age of Hollywood. While his oeuvre has been defined mostly by crime and testosterone from his life growing up in Brooklyn, it was also informed by the dark rooms and projector screens where he escaped.  Every film on this list, in one way or another, is an attempt to take something the movies’ greatest ambassador loved about the films of his childhood, then to honor it by taking it one step further. Last Temptation of the Christ might be more modern in its ideology, but at heart it’s a grand old Biblical epic like the ones Cecil B. De Mille used to make. The Aviator is part of a long tradition of biopics. The Age of Innocence is a costume drama. New York, New York is a golden age musical. Time and again Scorsese nods to the past, then says, “I’ll take it from here.”

Kundun looks and feels like a David Lean historical epic. It’s an opportunity for its director to get grandiose, with eye-popping colors, breathtaking vistas, and big emotions that are rarely possible in his usual milieu. But like Jesus had just a few more questions in Scorsese’s Passion Play, so here heroism is more confusing and topical than it had been in the past. The subject, the Dalai Lama, is not a traditional Western hero like those who led the film’s fifties and sixties predecessors. In fact, in the political climate where Kundun was released, the religious and political head of a state in total conflict with China (whose legitimacy could not even be acknowledged by the US) was a pretty controversial figure.

Scorsese embraced this, and in doing so, made the straight-up crowd-pleasing epic a meaningful, political enterprise for the first time in ages.

15. The Age of Innocence (1993)

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Several years ago Scorsese was handed several pages from a lost script by Hitchcock. He decided to direct them. The results were an entertaining trifle on YouTube, but I was even more inspired by the intro. I couldn’t help but feel all warm inside as one of cinema’s defining cynics blushed like a child when looking at the pages once touched by one of his heroes. It inspired me, even back when Marty hadn’t yet truly captured my imagination. It was a religious reverence that’s hard to understand for people who didn’t grow up reciting catechisms. This was his religion. The pages were icons. The words were scripture that could inspire holy epiphanies. There was nothing halfhearted or insincere about it. It reminded me what passion looks like, even in the face of a seventy year old man.

Over the course of my entire Scorsese marathon, I never once bored of geeking out over his endless potential for geekery. In the case of Age of Innocence, this means the relationship between Edith Wharton’s dissection of Victorian social mores and Scorsese’s own more raw approach to drama and dialog. As the opening line in Mean Streets observes, redemption comes in the streets, not in the confessional. You’ll notice Harvey Keitel still goes to confession. And even if it’s not helpful, it’s fun to see how that little observation can inform someone’s entire artistic output. There was the more formal, ritualistic cinema of the fifties. Scorsese inserted chaos; a language that sounds like Ids shouting and colliding.

Age of Innocence explores a deeply ritualistic age that is the polar opposite. There rules and social observations form an invisible fortress around the characters. By tackling it, Scorsese shows he’s just as good with polite conversation as he is the raw and the improvised. And while it might seem a polite schmuck like Newland Archer doesn’t require the talents of Daniel Day Lewis, his skills are precisely what elevate this above typical costume drama faire. Lewis punctuates every interaction with the perfect balance of delicacy and inner turmoil the story demands. He knows precisely how to sell every moment while also maintaining a coherent character.

14. New York, New York (1977)

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I will attest that Martin Scorsese never made a bad film. However, his output between 1967 and 1982 is especially impressive. It’s hard to explain just why. There is that intangible quality of greatness that eludes definition. Scorsese had it.

And while New York, New York is overlong and De Niro’s character is a bit frustrating at points, there’s no denying this is a movie made while Scorsese had it. This is a movie with something to say. There are some downright phenomenal scenes here, in particular De Niro’s initial attempt to woo Liza Minelli. And of course there’s the titular song as performed by Minelli, one of the great musical performances in movie history. Scorsese also sneaks in a nod to his favorite film, The Red Shoes, with his own surreal dreamlike musical sequence. Like the best of his films, it’s reverent and modern in equal measure.

13. The Color of Money (1986)

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Many consider Money to be the most soulless film in this lot. This isn’t real Scorsese, they’ll argue, because even the director admits he only made it to secure funding for Last Temptation. And I will agree there’s a pretty glaring disconnect watching Tom Cruise (who looks like he’s twelve years old) play video games and dressing like one of the bullies from Karate Kid in a movie by the guy who made Raging Bull six years earlier.

But I think history has smiled on this film. For the filmmaker who made his career dissecting the male ego, what could be more perfect than an unnecessary sequel that digs up a star from a bygone age of Hollywood and supplants him with the last true star Hollywood would ever produce? I genuinely feel something when Paul Newman looks at Cruise’s young girlfriend, considers the possibilities, then thinks, “Nah.” And I’m really into the conclusion: old men like success. Young men want to be the best. Scorsese uses this thesis to make a pretty coherent statement on the relationship between one generation and the next. He also seems more free to indulge and entertain, the result of which is one of the most unapologetically fun films he ever made.

12. Hugo (2011)

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Scorsese has been many things throughout his career. One adjective that eluded him for a long time was optimistic. That changed in a big way with one of the stranger 3D children’s films you’ll ever see. In a lot of ways Hugo is a standard kiddie flick. Its characters are largely archetypes. There’s the precocious young girl, the winsome loner orphan boy, the abusive drunken uncle, the bitter old man with a secret, etc. And yet this never feels out of place among the rest of these movies. I don’t think I would have any trouble identifying this as Scorsese even if I wasn’t told he was responsible.

Part of that is the technical signature. Scorsese films the train station, the streets of Paris, the brilliant sets of Melies with the same fascination as the underground cities in Gangs of New York and the Hell’s Angels battle in The Aviator. The other tell is thematic. This may not gel with Scorsese the streetwise cynic, but the passionate defense of movies is a dead giveaway. It’s not that other filmmakers don’t make movies about how much they love movies. It’s just that Scorsese, like Truffaut before him, can tell his own redemption story through them in a way many cannot. In the book Scorsese on Scorsese, the director commented on how every filmmaker’s reality is different. He stated how the family scenes that populate Spielberg films would be dishonest in his own work, because unlike Spielberg, it was dishonest in his own experience. Yet he admits it plays truthfully when Spielberg does it. Now a father and a certified ambassador for the art he so loved, a mellower Scorsese allows for shades of optimism and passion that were always there but had to hide behind his bleaker reservations. Here he connects not only with a younger audience, but with a younger version of his own impulses.

I remember watching the Oscars with my little brother and rooting for Hugo a few years ago. I realized it would be a while before I could show him any other films on the list, but it was still fun all the same.

 

This concludes the first 12 films. Later this week I will complete the Top 11. 

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One Response to “The Films of Martin Scorsese: Part 1”

  1. […] Earlier this week I started running down all of Martin Scorsese’s 23 narrative feature films. Part 1 of that list is here. […]

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