By John H. Foote
With the release of his extraordinary new crime epic The Irishman, once again the legendary Martin Scorsese flexes his artistic muscles to show why he might be the greatest American director in movies. Listing 10 of his greatest films proved impossible so I pushed it to 15. Let me be clear, of the first six films listed, understand they are inter-changeable, meaning any one of them could also be hailed his best. THAT is just how brilliant Scorsese is, as a director of astonishing depth and remarkable story telling gifts and techniques.
Nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director eight times, winning once which is just shameful, the director should have won Oscars for Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988), GoodFellas (1990), The Departed (2006) and The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013) but the Academy thought differently.
Look for his ninth nomination as Best Director for his epic masterwork The Irishman to earn him his his second Oscar for Director. It will be the first Netflix film to win Best Picture and changes the movie game considerably. Leave it to Scorsese at nearly 80 to again be a game changer.
As he approaches 80, how many more masterpieces does he have in him? I say at least three, the man is a genius.
I chose not to explore his documentaries in this article, believing that is a forthcoming article on its own. His work exploring rock music in docs is extraordinary, reaching back to the landmark Woodstock (1970) on which he worked as a film editor.
I had the absolute pleasure of spending thirty minutes with Scorsese in 2006 and it remains a high point in my career, in my life. Tiny, just five foot three, he is a hyper active man, always moving, tapping, talking with his hands, his dark, gentle yet alive eyes looking into my soul. That famous staccato delivery was intact as we discussed his films, De Niro, and Di Caprio. He asked about my family, truly interested, such a wonderful guy, and one of the greatest directors to ever make a film.
Here are his best 15 films.
1. GOODFELLAS (1990)
While Francis Ford Coppola’s Academy Award winning Best Pictures The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) are dark, operatic magnificent explorations of the Mafia, GoodFellas is gritty, intensely real, the sort of mob Scorsese saw growing up. Based on the life of mobster turned informant Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), GoodFellas is Scorsese’s masterpiece. A dark film about the inner workings of the mob, the film hurtles along with shocking speed, driven by an energy that gives the film a pulse, the narrative both violent and yet filled with humour as we watch Hill’s life unfold. As he is part Irish, Henry can never be a made man, but he is loved enough to be treated as an equal by the powers that be. Loyal to his friends, they admire him because he will never talk, shares what he steals, and keeps his mouth shut. His best friends are the infamous thief and cold blooded killer Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the explosive, psychotic murderer Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) in the mob run by Paulie (Paul Sorvino), the ever watchful, though slow moving, deadly family man. Henry marries and his life is dominated by the life of crime he leads. Karen (Lorraine Bracco) knows and understands everything he does and quietly accepts it. But the deeper in Henry gets, he sees and experiences more than he counted on. Murder, killings are all around him, including friends and men who are part of the gang. When Jimmy scores a huge theft, he shares with who he wants too, and who he has too, then kills the rest. When Henry starts dealing drugs in jail, he foolishly continues when released, hiding it from Paulie, who told him clearly not to do it. The FBI closes in and finally Henry is busted, and knows he is a dead man for having continued to peddle drugs after being told not to do so by Paulie. So now he has a choice: jail, where the mob can get him just as easily, or the Witness Protection Program after first turning against his lifelong friends. Scorsese gives the film a jaunty, near hyper speed, and makes being a gangster exciting, until the killing starts at which point it is a terrifying life. Ray Liotta is superb as Henry who truly loves his life as a gleeful sociopath, with Robert De Niro frightening as the fearless killing machine Jimmy. His baleful stare could freeze lakes and though beloved, suave, there is no mistaking the danger he exudes. As Tommy, the erratic, vicious cowboy of the gang, Joe Pesci won a well deserved Academy Award for Supporting Actor. Pesci brings to Tommy humour yet dread, a terrifying man who explodes into brutal violence without being provoked. The famous “do you think I’m funny” scene is electrifying because we never know if he will smile or kill his friend, the tension is unbearable.
Paul Sorvino is superb as Paulie, who conveys more with a stare than a long lecture. And Lorraine Bracco is brilliant as Karen, who is complicit in that she knows everything about Henry’s business, where the money comes from, what her husband does for a living yet loves him anyway.
The cinematography in the film is perfect, an intimate, up close look at the life in the mob, including a stunning tracking shot from the street, through the bowels of the famous Copa club, to a front seat in the house. Equally perfect are Scorsese’s choice of songs, both the swooning love ballads of the fifties and sixties, to the rock and roll of the sixties, seventies and eighties, ending with a punk rock version of “My Way”. That last lingering look of regret on Liotta’s face tells us how much he truly loved the life. The film swept the major critics awards in 1990, winning Best Film and Director Awards from the LA and NY Film Critics groups, and the prestigious National Society Of Film Critics. Nominated for six Academy Awards, it shamefully won a single Oscar.
In every way a masterpiece of America cinema.
2. RAGING BULL (1980)
Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) was a powerful middleweight boxer from the Bronx in the forties and fifties, a fiercely proud man who refused to accept aid from the mob, choosing to go his own way. A ferocious fighter who was famous for the brutal punishment he could take as well as dish out, LeMotta was the middleweight champion for a time, fighting often with Sugar Ray Robinson, the two men delivering savage punishment to each other. The opening credits foreshadow what the film is about – LaMotta shadow boxes in the ring, quietly at war with himself. That is the essence of the film, LaMotta was constantly at war with himself, fighting those who hated him but equally fighting those closest to him. He beat his first wife and his second, Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) was a gorgeous statuesque blonde who hated his jealousy, for while she was loyal to him, he constantly attacked, berated and accused her of cheating on him. As he raged in the ring, so did he rage in life. Alienating his wife, his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) who managed him, he is left alone. After retiring from the ring, he operated a nightclub and tried his hand at stand up comedy, but was eventually busted for statutory rape and serving alcohol to minors. Finally in jail, he is forced to look at himself and realize he is the engineer of his sad life. Met with rave reviews, the film was a box office flop, judged to be too savage a character study to click with audiences. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, De Niro won Best Actor while Thelma Schoomacher won for Film Editing. De Niro utterly transformed himself getting into extraordinary fighting condition to portray young Jake, then gaining 80 pounds of fat to portray the older Jake. Joe Pesci was brilliant as his brother Joe, with Moriarty equally outstanding as Vicki. Both, along with Scorsese, were nominated for Oscars. Scorsese captured the absolute savagery of the sport, the punches breaking bone, blood erupting from freshly opened, blood dripping from the ring, icing the swollen, battered hands, and the punishment dealt to the body and mind. Beautifully shot in stark black and white, the film transformed New York into a city of beauty, while the scenes in the ring were raw and visceral. Never before had a boxing film, not even Rocky (1976), gotten so inside both the ring and the mind of the a fighter. Darkly astounding, a difficult film to watch a second or third time as it pummels humanity.
3. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
The film unfolds slowly, seething with rage, very clear that something terrible is going to happen, you can sense it from the moment the film opens. Steam billows up from beneath the street, as though hell were about to burst through from the bowels of the earth. Travis (Robert De Niro) is a Vietnam veteran plagued by insomnia and thoughts of doom. Fascinated with a beautiful, vapid blonde who rebuffs him, Travis decides to clean up the city, which he believes an open sewer of filth. When his initial plan goes wrong he attacks a pimp and the handlers of Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12 year old hooker he has befriended. What Travis does amounts to a slaughter, moving through the criminals like a scythe through soft butter. Elevated to a city hero for returning Iris to her parents, Travis gets off all charges though we know what he did was cold blooded, premeditated murder. The last glimpse we get of his eyes in the rear view mirror, they are again dead, lost and we know it is a matter of time before Travis does this again. De Niro was astonishing in the film, leaping into the front ranks of American actors with Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. The actor won every critics award available to him, but lost the Oscar he deserved. Scorsese leaped into the majors with this, he was overnight one of the most sought after filmmakers in the business. His searing film counted down to a murderous rampage, one of the most extraordinary films of all time.
4. THE IRISHMAN (2019)
His newest film is vintage Scorsese, though one can feel the fact it was created by a filmmaker in his late seventies. Working for the first time with Netflix, Scorsese was given absolute freedom to make the film he wanted, and that is precisely what he did. Melancholy, regret, even sadness permeates the narrative as the story of mob hit man Frank Sheehan is told to us by an elderly Sheehan (Robert De Niro), now himself elderly, in a wheelchair in a retirement home. Like the many other old folks in this home, Frank awaits death and will, it seems, welcome it when it comes. Frank is no stranger to death, having dealt out quite a lot through his life. In flashbacks we see his penchant for killing began in WWII, where he was ordered to kill German POW’s after first ordering them to dig their own graves. He becomes a hit man, eventually working for Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and a local mob boss, portrayed with gentle humility by Joe Pesci. A dark, haunting, sometimes funny film, anchored by superb performances from the actors: De Niro, but especially Pacino and Pesci, cast against type yet perfect. The Irishman is a huge, sprawling film, spanning 40 years, sporadically violent, and a study of a man who killed with no remorse but in his later years holds regret. Brilliant on all fronts, count on this in the Oscar race, a film for the ages. Remarkable.
5. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)
In a furiously paced film seething with barely concealed anger and rage, we watch Jordan Belford (Leonardo Di Caprio), a young stock broker, conquer Wall Street. Learning about the incredible percentage to be made with penny stocks, Belford builds an empire, making millionaires of his group of twisted, vulgar friends, establishing himself as the Wolf of Wall Street. Before long Jordan is divorced, married again to the stunning blonde he calls the Duchess (Margot Robbie), with a mansion, cars, a yacht complete with a chopper, they have it all, including an endless supply of hookers, cocaine, pills and booze, all in which they indulge, finally attracting the attention of the FBI. Di Caprio has never been better, he astonishes in every frame of the film. Jonah Hill and Robbie are equally good and Scorsese gives the film a furious, driving narrative. Easily the year’s best film, one of the greatest on the twenty first century.
6. THE DEPARTED (2006)
The one that finally won him his Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture is actually a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. Scorsese works for the first time with Jack Nicholson, the results darkly spectacular and unsettling. Leonardo Di Caprio is a cop deep undercover in the crime family of Frank Costello (Nicholson) a dangerous, possibly insane coke head, while his protege, a young cop, portrayed by Matt Damon, feeds Costello information. With inside info, Costello stays one step ahead of the police and appears untouchable. Brilliant performances from Di Caprio, Damon and especially Nicholson are perfectly supported by Alec Baldwin, Mark Walberg, Vera Fermiga, and especially Martin Sheen. On set, Nicholson was given free reign to improvise and his wild antics, all in character, made it into the film, as do the reactions of the younger actors. In every way a stunner, and it never goes where you think it might. The blood runs in the streets, execution and murder comes swift and without warning, and once targeted for death, you are finished. Nicholson’s last great performance, he reminded everyone why he was, why he is, forever, Jack. Explosive, exceptional filmmaking.
7. THE AVIATOR (2004)
Though Warren Beatty would finally make his long gestating Howard Hughes film, which promptly flopped, Scorsese beat him to the punch with this superb, big budget, vast study of Hughes and his years in Hollywood. These are the years before mental illness took him out of the spotlight and saw him living out of a hotel room, never coming out. Leonardo Di Caprio is simply stunning as young Howard Hughes, a genius building planes, but who loves making movies, pushing the envelope of what audiences wanted to see. When not filming daring scenes for his war epic Hell’s Angels (1930), Hughes was bedding movie stars, having relationships with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and nearly marrying Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). So dedicated to his planes is Hughes that after a terrible crash that scarred him for life, leaving him in chronic pain, when the medics got to him, rather than say his name, he said simply, “I’m The Aviator!” It received 11 Academy Award nominations and won five, including Blanchett’s eerily perfect work as icon Hepburn. A superb story of a deeply challenged man, with an active, brilliant mind, haunted by the harpies which tormented him his entire life.
8. CASINO (1995)
For years many, myself shamefully included, thought this film to be GoodFellas Goes to Vegas, when in fact it is so much more. The true story of how the mob controlled Las Vegas gambling for years, hiring Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) to look after their interests, a Jewish bookie who had a gift for picking winners. All goes smoothly until Nicky Santuro, portrayed with vicious, violent glee by Joe Pesci, and Ginger (Sharon Stone) come into Ace’s world and turn it upside down. Great performances from DecNiro, Pesci, Stone, and James Woods, merged with Scorsese’s fluid, fast paced direction make Casino a film for the ages. Stone received the films’ single Academy Award nomination as Best Actress, though it should have been in the supporting category. Pesci was deserving of at least a nomination and Scorsese should have been there too. The film is much better thought of now, years after its release than it was upon opening.
9. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
The most controversial film of Scorsese’s career, this was not based on the Bible but the incendiary novel by Greek writer Nikos Kazantakis, which Scorsese had wanted to make into a film for years. People often forget the role religion has played in his life and his films. In this masterpiece he poses the question: what if Christ, as well as divine, was just a man? And as a man, the voices he heard terrified him, what they told him to do scared him, and of course the final action traumatized him. Willem Dafoe is superb as Jesus, arguably the finest performance by an actor as Christ. Shot on a shoestring budget, to his credit the director gives the film the look of a Hollywood epic. An astonishing film that earned the gifted filmmaker an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
10. SILENCE (2017)
His long awaited adaptation of the Endo book was a labour of love for Scorsese, and he responded with a wildly under appreciated film that was stunning to look at and deeply emotional. Critics loved it, some even hailed it a masterpiece, but audiences stayed away. The narrative deals with two 17th century Jesuit priests sent into Japan to find a friend who has disappeared while the Japanese are destroying Catholic Christianity, person by person, priest by priest. Beautifully shot, the film is a wonder to look at, and the powerful performances of Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson and Adam Driver are perfection. A most underrated work of art.
11. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)
Scorsese long wanted to make this film adapted from the classic piece of literature by Edith Wharton. The director meticulously moves into Merchant/ Ivory country in recreating late 19th century New York, a world full of manners and traditions, of unspoken emotions, longing gazes, and touch that is downright sexual. Michelle Pfeiffer gives the finest performance of her career as disgraced Countess Olansky, who loves a man she can never have. Sadly she loves Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) as well, but the society of the time prevents them from being together. Winona Ryder is excellent as the much smarter than she seems intended of Archer’s who is absolutely aware of what is happening, and is smart enough to do something with it. Impeccably acted, New York is miraculously recreated and Scorsese captures the stifling manners of the time.
12. SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
By 2010 Di Caprio was a great actor, and had more than proven himself in working with Scorsese. In this psychological thriller he portrays a U.S. Marshall travelling with his partner to an isolated, well protected psychiatric hospital far away from society. Nothing is as it seems in the film, and I urge you to take in every detail. The unshaven faces, the subtle reactions from the supporting actors or back ground players, every word carefully chosen lest something very important be given away.
13. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)
A big flawed film with much to like, but to be honest, it was not the masterpiece we hoped for. Daniel Day-Lewis is both electrifying and terrifying as Bill the Butcher, a dangerous psychopath who despises the immigrants coming into New York. Leonardo Di Caprio is the son of the only man Bill held in regard, before he killed him, and now the son wants revenge. Between the two men is a woman, portrayed by an out of her league Cameron Diaz. To like? Day-Lewis is astounding, most of the direction, Liam Neeson, the scope and reach of the film, the cinematography, art direction and score. Superb. The struggles? Di Caprio had not developed into the great actor he is, the story peters out long before the film ends, the supporting cast of great actors have little to do. The bad? Cameron Diaz. That said it remains immensely entertaining and watchable, especially when Day-Lewis is on screen.
14. THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a dangerously unstable stand up comic, honing his material hoping for a coveted spot on The Jerry Langford Show. After helping Jerry (Jerry Lewis, never better), from a frantic fan, he fantasizes they are friends, shows up at his home, bombards his office with visits until finally, he and accomplice Masha (Sandra Bernhardt) kidnap the talk host superstar. Also Rupert gets a shot on the show. For his crime he becomes, of course, famous and if we are to believe the montage sequence that ends the film, hugely successful, or is that merely a figment in Pupkin’s warped mind? Brilliant performances by De Niro, especially Lewis and Bernhardt, highlight this very black, sometimes ugly black comedy that for some is a cautionary tale. Lewis is haunting, so angry and closed off from the real world he cannot function as a person anymore, the stifling, taxing cost of fame.
15. KUNDUN (1997)
Visually stunning, this meditative film about the Dali Lama has great beauty, inner and visual, and never really got the appreciation it deserved. Lacking the motion of vintage Scorsese, instead he takes his time, patiently exploring the strange life of this peaceful man, forced out of Tibet by the Chinese. An odd choice for Scorsese, but a passion project nonetheless, he brought his cinematic gifts to a fascinating story about a gentle man of peace, patience and compassion for all mankind. With a cast of unknown Asian actors, Scorsese made a quiet film of great power that sadly, no one was interested in seeing. For the crisp, pristine cinematography, capturing the beauty of Tibet, audiences should have given this film a chance. However flawed, it is a singular work of art and beauty.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”