The Films of Martin Scorsese: Part 2

11/25/2015

 

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

And now I present my 11 favorite Scorsese films. Brace yourselves for hyperbole.

11. The Departed (2006)

The Departed

“When I was your age they would say we can become cops or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

The Departed is really close to being a masterpiece. The cast is stacked. The script is exciting and hilarious. And while the cops vs. robbers plot seems par for the course, tonally this movie is unlike anything Scorsese had ever made before. The Departed is a very, very good movie. Unfortunately, that little extra—that thing that makes his best films sublime—comes down to the aforementioned quote. A question is posed in no uncertain terms: “What’s the difference?”

The screenplay purports to answer this question. Leonardo DiCaprio’s bullheaded Billy and Matt Damon’s sleazy-but-polished Colin keep finding themselves in the same situations. Both fall in love with counselor Madelyn (Vera Farmiga). Both are viewed as sons by crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). And while both ultimately experience the same fate when they face the loaded gun, we’re meant to understand there was a distinct difference. Frank trusted Billy more. Madelyn ultimately responded to Billy’s sincerity, however acerbic, compared to Colin’s heavily-rehearsed banter.

Only I feel like I’m taking the movie’s word for it. Back in the day, with DeNiro and Keitel as the foils, there would have been no doubt. But I just don’t buy that Madelyn would fall for Billy so quickly or that Frank could be so entirely duped. Both Damon and DiCaprio are good. It just doesn’t coalesce for me like the best Scorsese films. What’s left is a very exciting, very funny, very quotable and rewatchable movie in which a lot of people swear and get shot.

10. Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets

Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket is one of my all time favorite films. That filmmaker and film’s survival owe a lot to Martin Scorsese. While Wes’s twee terrariums don’t seem to bear much resemblance to the Goodfellas brand today, the relationship makes a lot of sense when you look at where they started out.

Even the superficial comparisons are telling. Both films tell the story of well-meaning young men on the search for enlightenment and the self-destructive battle brothers who threaten to hold them back. Both showcase inordinately self-assured instincts for style and dialog that seem to evolve straight from their creators’ soul rather than any contemporary style or movement. In fact, I almost think my long romance with Bottle Rocket hurt my enjoyment of its forefather. I had seen and been deeply moved by this film before, only more specifically targeted to me and my generation.

But that does nothing to offset Mean Streets’ greatness. The bar fight alone ranks high in the annals of full-blooded action cinema. De Niro is phenomenal as he would be many, many times over the next twenty years. Keitel is similarly great. And then everything else just kind of falls into place: a vision of the world where the Virgin Mary, the Rolling Stones, the Saturday matinee, and the education of the street form an ontology that seems completely logical. If the novelty has faded somewhat in 40 years, the effectiveness has not.

9. Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967)

Whos That Knocking At My Door

Conventional wisdom says that Martin Scorsese’s first film is best viewed as a preface. This is the sandbox where a great career was first shaped; basically JV Mean Streets. Many of his signature fascinations are present—the Catholic guilt, the freewheeling street lingo, the rock and roll montages. The fully formed vision would arrive five years later.

In my opinion this does a disservice to a film that is truly great in its own right. Admittedly, the period between this and Mean Streets would weed out some extant habits. The New Wave experimentalism would not survive the journey. A stronger emphasis on classic storytelling would also emerge. However, Roger Ebert saw enough in the film to call it a new paradigm in filmmaking without any knowledge of what the next fifty years would bring.

The montage of Harvey Keitel in bed with numerous women is exhilarating cinema of the highest order. The flirtation between Keitel and Zina Methune is genuinely sweet. And the scene where the young men heckle two girls they brought home for a party is as pure a realization of the Scorsese brand as anything in Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. Their raging bro patter sounds like the cackling of hyenas. These aren’t tendencies waiting to solidify. They’re novel and very effective depictions of the war between body and spirit; a genuinely affecting story about a man reaching for God in the animal kingdom.

8. Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas-still

It’s hard to write about Goodfellas right after the two previous films, because I’ll start to sound like a broken record. These three films basically form the collective image in our heads when we hear the word Scorsese. A kid falls in love with the power and respect from mob life. His head full of the American dream, an old fashioned image of cowboys and paternal authority figures, he discovers that crime fits his perfect world better than anything else he can attain in his lifetime.

Goodfellas just picks up where those last two films left off. Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill scales the town pecking order quickly. When the real story kicks in, he has already lost his soul. He laughs emptily at sociopathic Tommy DeVito’s (Joe Pesci) jokes about violence and racism. When asked why he’s laughing, his response is it’s just funny. He’s long since lost sensitivity to any feeling that doesn’t get him power or respect. And it’s worked out pretty well.

This is arguably the film most people have seen, so there’s not much reason to reiterate its value. In fact, if it were by any other filmmaker I would probably have to justify why it ranks so poorly. Goodfellas is Goodfellas. It’s the classic, the genuine article, 100% pure product. I like several movies better, but this is really the standard by which they’re all judged.

7. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Bringing Out the Dead

Should there ever be a straight modern adaptation of The Inferno, Nicholas Cage should be the first choice for Dante. There is no man who seems more at home walking through hell. In Scorsese’s gonzo narrative apostasy, Cage plays a paramedic on the verge of insanity. Three nights Frank Pierce gets into his ambulance. Every one of them gets a little more apocalyptic. By night three he’s drinking and getting high at the wheel and watching the neon lights whiz by like he just activated the hyper drive on the Millennium Falcon. He begs his boss to fire him before it’s too late. The audience knows precisely when it’s too late.

Paul Schrader wrote four films for Scorsese. All of them were explorations of the line between sanity and madness. All of them were classics. Bringing Out the Dead has elements of all those previous films. Like Travis Bickle, Frank is disgusted by poverty and corruption in the low rent neighborhood he patrols for his job. Like Jesus, he sacrifices himself to save these people.  Like Jake LaMotta, he seeks many cinematic forms of redemption, even when they make no sense. We all play these roles at some point in our mortal coil, and nowhere else did Scorsese get at just how bonkers it all is.

6. The Last Temptation of the Christ (1988)

Last Temptation of the Christ

Earlier I paraphrased the opening line from Mean Streets. Here’s the actual quote:

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”

There is no collective Martyverse like that which connects all of Tarantino’s films. However if there were, it wouldn’t be hard to draw the line between most of his characters and Jesus. Jesus might appear in more of these movies than anyone else. Usually he pops up in paintings, stained glass windows, or pre-credit quotes. Still, his presence is felt.

There is the church and there is the street. Most of the Martyverse embraces the latter, but finally he ventures into the painting and explores the heart of spiritual yearning that hovers just outside the rest of his oeuvre. Harvey Keitel now plays Judas as a Zealot, on the edge of the story almost the way Jesus would normally appear in his films.

There are many reasons Last Temptation was controversial in its time. It is not a straightforward adaptation of the gospels. It features extreme violence, swearing, and nudity. Jesus sleeps with Mary Magdalene. Jesus experiences doubts. And yet honestly I cannot think of a more orthodox popular work about Jesus. Do you think Andrew Lloyd Weber actually thought Jesus was going to rise again when he made Jesus Christ Superstar? Scorsese seems to actually buy it all. He has no reservations about the physical claims such as miracles and resurrection. He just doesn’t buy the stuffy, reverent part.

Willem Dafoe is perfectly cast in opposition to every quality of a prototypical Scorsese protag. He is introspective, meek, indecisive, weak-willed. He actually seems like someone who could deliver the beatitudes and mean them. He seems like someone who could say, with authority, “Not my will but yours be done.” He seems like the work of someone who actually sat and thought for a long time about what Jesus would be like. That’s fairly novel, for the atheist or the Christian.

5. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore

Martin Scorsese primarily makes movies about men. This is unavoidably true. Even his biggest fans cannot deny it. His films are often critical of masculine habits and biases, but they also rarely venture over the line into the female perspective to provide a counterpoint.

That is except for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of the 70’s truly great dark comedies and a film in which men are almost entirely viewed as other. Alice and her friends are the people with dialog. Their worldview drives the film. The men, in particular Harvey Keitel’s Ben, are inscrutable. The only male depicted with any first-person insights is Alice’s oddball son; and since our introduction to him involves the music of Mott the Hoople, it’s reasonable to assume his relationship with traditional masculinity is complicated as well.

But this isn’t just Scorsese’s lady picture. Arriving between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, this character study is as unique and insightful as either. Ellen Burstyn is phenomenal as Alice. She tries to balance post-war maternal concerns with post-revolution feminist freedoms, arriving at an uncomfortable compromise. You can tell Scorsese is working hard to stretch his range, trying to give his female protagonists just as much empathy and complexity as he gave to the boys from Brooklyn a year earlier. This is what it looks like when a world class filmmaker, at the height of his powers, looks beyond his horizons and tries for something completely new. Stylistically, thematically, aesthetically, morally, this is as strong a film as he ever made.

4. Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull

One well-known saying about American studios during the seventies and early eighties goes, “The inmates were running the asylum.” The directors, writers, and artists took over the major studio productions. Names like Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, and others headlined pessimistic, artistically-inclined films that likely would get small independent releases today. This period is considered an artistic golden age by some, a failed experiment in benevolent capitalism by others. There’s a reason it couldn’t last. There’s also a reason so many films from this period continue to survive.

No movie typifies this sentiment more than Raging Bull. Raging Bull might be one of the strangest, most fascinating films ever to embed itself in the public consciousness. Do you really think this would be a hit today? Would such uncomfortable, gritty scenes as De Niro’s, “Did you fuck my wife?” rampage be listed right alongside “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca as definitive moments in movie history? Would audiences be willing to connect the dots between LaMotta shouting, “I’m not an animal!” and its roots in Kubrick’s Spartacus?

Because even though its’ greatness is so readily accepted it can be listed alongside Rocky and Hoosiers on ESPN, Raging Bull is insider filmmaking at its most beautiful and inscrutable. It was intended to be so. It is knowingly, aggressively cinematic with the intention of showing just how much Scorsese was capable of when he pushed himself. The allusions to classic cinema; the free-flowing mumbling, profanity, and casual violence; the ballsy artistic flourishes; these are all anti-commercial excesses today. It is spiritual filmmaking by a guy who was actually thinking, “I want to compare myself to Robert Bresson, to Andrei Tarkovsky, to Akira Kurosawa.”

And amazingly, it didn’t just work for the cinephiles. It worked for everyone. Even if the inmates ultimately couldn’t hold the asylum together, at least we have Raging Bull to point to and say, “See what we can agree on when we all come together?”

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Wolf of Wall Street

At 73 years old, Martin Scorsese was supposed to have been entering his “twilight” period. It’s almost impossible to talk about this film without mentioning Quentin Tarantino’s dictum about “old man movies” old directors make when they can’t cut it anymore. Half a dozen reviews I read when the film first came out all mentioned it.

And the consensus said this was Scorsese saying, “Oh yeah? Well watch this!”

The Wolf of Wall Street is not an old man movie. In fact, it might be the craziest, most inventive, liveliest, most straight-up punk rock movie the Mayor ever made. There is not a scene, not a decision, not a line of dialog that isn’t a punch to Capitalism’s corpulent gut. It would be tempting to simply call it a response to the critics of the last decade of prestige pics and Oscar legitimacy, if this film weren’t fueled by such moral fury that it operates on a level where petty criticism simply does not matter.

And for the first time in Scorsese’s and his collaboration, Leo looks like a true successor to De Niro. His charisma, his youthful glow, his undercurrent of resentment all explode here in ways they hadn’t in any film previously. He is a force of nature as Jordan Belfort. This is the best performance of his career, and it is not close.

The film was misunderstood initially. Not only will that fade, it will ultimately be part of what makes this film a classic. This is one of the first films in the modern era that had the intestinal fortitude to show the American Dream as viewed in actuality. It depicted the way society actually treats these levels of decadence and corruption. It said, “This is what we are,” and people responded with, “That’s despicable! Why would you show us that?” It took the secret reservations we all hold, the compromises thousands made when faced with money and power, and put them on the screen for us to actually consider.

In some ways society is broken because the idealists live in a fantasy that in no way resembles the reality they’re fighting. Scorsese took it on. He stared it down. He didn’t bury it in parables about gangsters or the alien past. He finally said, straight up, “This is how American actually works. This is what we encourage. This is what we reward.” The greatest crime filmmaker of all time made his greatest crime film about an American who, technically, didn’t commit many crimes. The crime he showed was one in which the entire audience was complicit.

2. Taxi Driver (1976)

Scorsese

Bernard Hermann’s sultry jazz score kicks in over the top of New York City, painted in neon lights and volcanic smog; then Robert De Niro owns the impotent self-loathing of Paul Schrader’s screenplay.

“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”

And you think, whatever cinema was meant to be, it is this. Scorsese once pointed out that his hero, Michael Powell, had memorized a lot of canonical poetry, admitting that he personally was not nearly so well-read. But with Taxi Driver Scorsese proves himself a master of the poetics of moving images. The prosy confessions from Schrader merge almost miraculously with a new kind of vision for a new audience.

Taxi Driver has not aged a day in forty years. It is still shocking, still thrilling, still universally affecting like classical music. Travis Bickle sits right alongside Holden Caulfield as great expressions of male angst and postmodern insecurity. Robert De Niro has delivered some amazing performances, but once you see Taxi Driver you know the one he was born to play.

The same goes for Scorsese. Both before and after, he told some transcendent stories ambitiously and successfully, but the perfection he reached here is lightning in a bottle stuff.

1. The King of Comedy (1982)

King of Comedy

At the level where Martin Scorsese operates, there is no such distinction as “best.” A good majority of these films are timeless and inventive. Some were more influential than others, but all have been assimilated into the language of modern film in ways that are indistinguishable to those of us who weren’t present to watch the change occur. It would be ill-advised, maybe impossible, to comment on the historic or cultural value of these films. At the very least that’s a much different discussion.

But among the handful of his best movies—the ones that hit hardest, that linger years later, that seem especially perfect—The King of Comedy is the one for me. That’s not to say that it’s definitive Scorsese. It’s not even to say that it’s his most accomplished work as an artist. However it does mean something. The top five to seven films on this list all reach a rare level of excellence most filmmakers can only dream of. I cannot argue against any of them. But the experience I had watching De Niro sleazily worm his way into television’s spotlight is one that I can decisively, and without reservation, call most affecting on myself as a viewer. For me it indicates an artist at the peak of his powers, using the camera as a tool to guide the audience through a unique, thrilling journey by what Tarkovsky called “shock and catharsis.”

Scorsese’s milieu has always been the gut-churning language of violence. His music is the siren’s song of wealth and power, the buzz of adrenaline, the thunder of machismo, the idyll of camaraderie. Some ill-founded critics have gone so far as to argue his cinema is so masculine it cannot be understood by women. If you can work your way past a very natural gag reflex, that impulse is not entirely off. This much is true: Scorsese makes movies about an older notion of what it means to be a man. The immediacy of his cinema—the ability to sit down without any knowledge and be effortlessly transported—is tied up in just how alluring one finds that experience. How much do you want to be king of the castle? I think the fact that women can, and do, enjoy his films is a testament to just how much these identities are projections.

But enough of that. My point is, Scorsese is a documenter of sin and vice. It would make sense that the film depicting your vice of choice would be the one you prefer. This is the case for me with King of Comedy. I am embarrassed by Rupert Pupkin because I see so much of him in myself: his desperate need to be liked, his willingness to go to Olympian lengths for attention, his excess of bravado that mask his dearth of talent.

At the same time I also see the nobility there. Fame in media, especially talk shows, is pretty absurd. There’s a context built that tells us when to laugh, when to gasp, who to respect and who to consider a schmuck. These qualifiers are mostly imagined. Like the hero of a Kafka novel, Rupert is frequently told there are gates he cannot enter, but he insists on trying anyway. At first it feels sickening. Then it’s sad. Soon it starts to feel heroic.

And then there’s that final line, which for my money is the best in movie history.

 

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