By John H. Foote
Martin Scorsese is regarded by many as the greatest filmmaker in history, certainly the greatest living director. He just might be, though I would argue that Steven Spielberg gives him a powerful run for that title.
Has Martin Scorsese ever made a truly terrible film?
Choosing his 10 best films was easy; it was more difficult to find his 10 worst. He simply did not make bad movies. Some are weaker films, some were deeply flawed, but nothing like I found in Spielberg’s filmography. Hook (1991) is dreadful, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) is hopeless, and 1941 (1979) is a huge, noisy, UNFUNNY comedy.
Given his extraordinary body of work, and his nine Academy Award nominations as Best Director, there is no denying the gifts of diminutive Martin Scorsese. Talent and artistry must have been packed into this genius by the millimetre, because at five feet four inches, Scorsese holds more cinematic gifts in his pinky finger than most hold in their entire body.
I was 17 years old when I first learned of Martin Scorsese. Having become a huge fan of Robert De Niro for his Oscar winning performance in The Godfather Part II (1974), I was first in line Saturday afternoon to see his new picture Taxi Driver (1976) opening at the Odeon that spring. Two hours later, I emerged into the warm sun knowing two things: I loved De Niro’s work even more, and Martin Scorsese was going to be a major filmmaker. Taxi Driver was the work of a gifted filmmaker, a major director, one confident in his strengths, bold, daring, a true visionary. He captured the inner rage of his lead character and painted the screen with blood, a film shocking in its violence, yet intimate in its depiction of a man going insane. Galvanized, I was never the same after seeing Taxi Driver. Was anyone?
Not long ago, Quentin Tarantino was quoted bemoaning directors who don’t know when to quit and continue to work into their senior years. For some reason Tarantino believes whatever he says has cultural relevance, when in fact this statement displayed his gigantic ego and ignorance. Did he forget that Clint Eastwood was 62 when he directed Unforgiven (1992), and now at 90 is still directing and acting, with his newest film Cry Macho opening this fall? Steven Spielberg has, since Schindler’s List, been among the most daring and versatile directors in Hollywood, even though much of Tinseltown still see him as whiz kid and not the gifted artist he has proven himself to be. Woody Allen still directs a film a year, sometimes two, and still at a startling level of brilliance. Midnight in Paris (2011) was a time travel film without a single visual effect, and it worked beautifully! Imagine a senior citizen pulling that off!
Response Mr. Tarantino?
As for Scorsese, after years as a Hollywood outsider, by 1999 had Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and GoodFellas (1990) as Best Picture nominees. He also had three nominations for Best Director, missing for Taxi Driver, but received the single nomination for The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). From 2002 to present, of the eight films he has directed, six have been Best Picture and Director nominees, and the other two certainly should have been. As of today, he is the most nominated director, with nine. Six of those nominations came after he had turned 60. Like fine wine, some artists improve with age. Case in point, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and to a lesser extent Woody Allen.
Given the chance (and I admire Tarantino as a director) I would prefer to watch anything these senior citizens have directed than a single Tarantino film.
Never forget, the weakest Scorsese film is better than most director’s best films.
24. BOXCAR BERTHA (1972)
Predictable, silly film made for a dollar or more. We can’t see his talent yet, but his confidence is evident.
23. BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999)
One of the biggest let downs I have ever had in a movie theatre. I know many who love this film, but I am not among them. Nicolas Cage is an ambulance driver suffering with visions and insomnia. Though they try to make a connection with Taxi Driver, it is a disservice to that great film. Fast paced, good John Goodman performance, but deeply disappointing. I was excited when I heard that Nicolas Cage and Scorsese were working together. After seeing the film, I was stunned by the absolute lack of chemistry between actor and director. Nothing clicked.
22. NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977)
The cut that was released in 1977 was not that of the director. In the new millennium, Scorsese had a chance to go back and restore sequences the studio executives had mercilessly chopped, and the recut version was dramatically altered. It has moments that are glorious, and much of it is spectacular. The recreation of the time is stunning because Scorsese also creates a surrealistic work that is wildly original. Liza Minnelli is spectacular here, and deserved a third Oscar nomination, but Robert De Niro is woefully miscast as her loathsome lover. One of the few times I could not tolerate De Niro on screen. He was like a pesky mosquito that you could not kill. Often stunning, and that title song still makes me swoon, but only if Liza sings it.
21. MEAN STREETS (1973)
After the mess that was Boxcar Bertha, director John Cassavetes pulled Scorsese aside and told him to make a film about something he knew, his past, but be sure he knew the lives of the people intimately. Having watched the local gangsters doing business on the street from his bedroom window, he wrote and directed Mean Streets to be about them. The film caused a seismic shift in American cinema because Scorsese had arrived.
20. KUNDUN (1997)
Scorsese’s surprising film about the Dali Lama is undeniably beautiful, its colors rich, and stunning, the beauty of the life this man of peace leads superbly captured on film. But my chief complaint was that we never got to know the man. I knew no more about the Dali Lama coming out than I had going in. There are stunning mountain range vistas, but the most startling image is the bloody bodies of murdered priests around the young Lama. No question, a beautifully crafted film, but lacking a soul. It received four Academy Award nomination, but it won nothing.
19. ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)
When Ellen Burstyn was looking for a young director to guide her in this film, which she was both acting in and producing, she asked the intense young Scorsese why he wanted to direct the movie. He answered, “Because I want to learn about women to direct them properly.” Best answer ever! He got the job, and Miss Burstyn won an Academy Award for Best Actress. A fine film about a woman stunned when her husband is killed in an accident, leaving her to pack up her young son and travel across the county looking for a new life. She finds it and discovers she does not need a man to define her, instead looks for one who loves her for who she is and makes her smile. Great performances from Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson and Diane Ladd as a foul-mouthed waitress. Outstanding. Nominated for two Academy Awards, Burstyn won, Ladd did not.
18. THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986)
A huge admirer of The Hustler (1961), a searing portrait of low-life creatures in the sordid world of pool hustling, Paul Newman, the star of the film, approached Scorsese 25 years later to helm a sequel. Tom Cruise was added to the cast, and The Color of Money was among the biggest hits of 1986. Newman finally won that Best Actor Oscar he should have won three times in the 60s for The Hustler, Hud (1963) and his finest work, Cool Hand Luke (1967). All tipped their hats to Scorsese for a fascinating, worthy sequel to a magnificent film, which logically followed the career and life of one of Newman’s greatest creations, Fast Eddie Felson. Five Academy Award nominations with Newman winning his long elusive Best Actor award.
17. AFTER HOURS (1984)
A low budget, very different film for Scorsese at this point in his career. He wanted to work, he liked the concept, so he made the film. With no major stars, and a flimsy storyline, he nonetheless made an interesting film that showcases New York nightlife during its narrative. Griffin Dunne wanders through the hell of a New York night, bouncing from one event to another, being chased by a mob and surviving everything he encounters in inventive ways. One of the bounciest films of Scorsese’s career, it was well received and won the director an Independent Spirit Award for Best Director. The film has gained respect through the years but for me, remains more of a curiosity.
16. CAPE FEAR (1991)
A big budget remake of an ordinary B-movie from the 60s, this was the largest scale Scorsese had ever worked at that time. The star power of De Niro, Jessica Lange and Nick Nolte, along with cameos from Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum from the original, and the notable work of Juliette Lewis, made Cape Fear one of the must-sees of the 1991 fall season. De Niro is superb as the monstrous Max Cady, just sprung from jail and hellbent on getting even with the lawyer who withheld information in his trial, portrayed by Nolte. Cady is at first just a nuisance, but becomes a dangerous, murderous man to the family, who inevitably fight back. Oscar nominations came for De Niro and Lewis, and the film found a loyal cult following. A handsome production, large scale, with a throbbing, angry musical score.
15. HUGO (2011)
Scorsese’s first and only 3-D film, based on the wonderful children’s book, Hugo Chavet. He wanted to make a film for his daughter, one she would love as she got older, and chose this one. It became something very different from the book in the hands of the writers and Scorsese, who stayed true to the basic essence of the book but found in it a chance to pay homage to the early days of cinema. A young boy lives in the Paris train station, hiding from the law, but has a comfortable life just the same. He runs afoul of an old man, who he discovers is Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the great French filmmaker of the silent era, the man who essentially created the narrative cinema with A Trip to the Moon (1902). Méliès’ story is told in flashback and we see how he created many of his wonderful films, and the boy finds a surrogate father in the old man. Lavish, beautiful in every way, the film won five Academy Awards and remains breathtaking. Hugo remains the only film I have ever experienced where the 3-D is used to enhance the story and not as a gimmick. Of its 11 Academy Award nominations, it won five.
14. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)
Big, often beautiful, with a towering performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, it should have been much better than it was but still is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. Scorsese’s first and only experience with Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, the disgraced mogul tried to bully Scorsese, but had met his match in the tiny director who has a furious temper and would not be backed into a corner by Weinstein. Leonardo DiCaprio became the actor he is today on this film, not so much with his performance, which was overshadowed by Day-Lewis, but by being able to watch the older man work. The film explores the warring gangs at Five Points in New York at the time of the Civil War and it is the dangerous Bill Cutting (Day-Lewis) aka Bill the Butcher who runs the area. DiCaprio is the son of the only man Bill ever respected, though that did not stop him from murdering him years earlier. Returning to get his revenge on the Butcher, he falls under his spell until it is discovered who he is. Day-Lewis dominated the film, and when he is not onscreen, he is sorely missed. DiCaprio is fine, as is Henry Thomas and others in the cast, but Cameron Diaz is woefully out of her depth. Ten Academy Award nominations, but not a single award. One of the director’s greatest disappointments, yet the stunning performance of Day-Lewis elevates it to near greatness. Many awards were heaped on Day-Lewis for his extraordinary work, each richly deserved.
13. SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
Why did Paramount dump a Scorsese film? Paramount originally planned to release it in 2009 but loaded with films they felt had a shot at Academy Awards, they pushed Shutter Island to the spring of 2010, a graveyard release that drew sharp criticism from Hollywood. Dumping Martin Scorsese? Well, they did, and Shutter Island ended up being among his biggest box office hits, and critical successes. A superb, winding story about a man who might be an insane killer, it provides surprises throughout and then a whopper of an ending. See it twice and you will see the clues throughout, superbly hidden by Scorsese and his group of actors, each brilliant from the leads to the smallest roles. Perfect. In a repeat viewing, the smallest details speak volumes. DiCaprio is outstanding, as is Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley. There is not a weak performance in the entire film. Shot like a Gothic horror film, the bulk of horrors takes place in the mind of the DiCaprio character. In every way Paramount dropped the ball horribly. The movie didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination, though it was deserving of at least ten, despite being huge at the box office.
12. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)
How I wish The Age of Innocence could be placed higher on my list, but as great a film as it is, and it is a masterpiece, I choose 11 other Scorsese films as stronger works. When critics heard he was going to make this film about New York aristocracy moving into the 20th century, many were horrified. Scorsese doing a period piece? They forgot the man is an artist. Though many of his films are violent, the emotional violence committed in this film was extraordinary. Michelle Pfeiffer gave perhaps her finest performance as Countess Olensky, the slandered woman who returns to New York in disgrace and is the subject of much gossip, none of it ever to her face. As Newland Archer, the great Daniel Day-Lewis is the man who falls in love with her, though she knows she can never be with him. And as Mae, Archer’s intended, Winona Ryder is super, far smarter than she appears, a schemer and rather brilliant in using the people in her society as chess pawns in her grand game. The Academy blew it by ignoring this film for Best Picture, Actress, Director and Film Editing. A very different Scorsese film, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
11. THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)
Scorsese has made some very dark, very bleak films in his time, and ranking right up there is The King of Comedy, a dark comedy about the wretched aspects of success. I have been with celebrities enough to know their lives are not all rosy: Brad Pitt longing to take a walk on a lovely day in Toronto but knowing he could start a riot; Meryl Streep worried about going out for a coffee, concerned about the fuss she might cause the coffee shop; George Clooney concerned for his safety. Mark Walberg did not have that problem, choosing to draw attention to himself with four of the biggest, baddest bodyguards I have ever seen walking in a square surrounding him, Walberg making eye contact with everyone he encountered (including me), the guards making sure no one got through. The King of Comedy is about insanity and show biz. Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a deluded, aspiring comic living in his mother’s basement among cardboard cut outs of celebrities he pretends to interview with in his quest to appear on The Jerry Langford Show (think Johnny Carson) hosted by Jerry, portrayed dourly and angrily by Jerry Lewis in peak form, never better. When Rupert invades the private world of Jerry and is thrown out, he kidnaps the man to get on his show. He and his friend Masha (Sandra Bernhard) kidnap Jerry so Rupert can be on the show and Masha can have sex with Jerry. A ludicrous plot but acted with such genius you cannot take your eyes off the screen. Rupert and Masha are both out of their minds, and Jerry spots it right away. Lewis is superb as a lonely man, hugely popular and successful, but the price of that is he eats alone every night, his only joy is escaping to his country home to play golf. He needs to be alone. When he encounters Rupert and Masha, his whole world changes. The film divided critics at the time, though now it is hailed as a masterpiece. Though Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard were deserving of Oscar attention in the supporting categories, not a single nomination was to be had.
10. CASINO (1995)
No, it is not Goodfellas goes to Vegas. In fact, it has no connection to Goodfellas (1990) at all except Scorsese, De Niro and Joe Pesci. This is an entirely different story, based on the life of Frank Rosenthal, hired by the mob to run a lucrative hotel in Vegas and make sure the money gets back to the boys in New Jersey. For the film, Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) is the proxy for Rosenthal, a razor-sharp gambler who always made money for his partners and would make sure the casino made a fortune. Reaching the top very quickly, Ace then begins a long free-fall from which he can never recover. His first grand mistake is falling in love with a hustler, Ginger (Sharon Stone) who looks out for herself first in every deal she makes. Their marriage is less one of love than about money, with Ginger taking care of Ginger. Second mistake, Nicky Santuro (Joe Pesci) is sent to Vegas to protect Sam but is soon running afoul of the law, shaking down the other casinos, break ins, robberies, intimidation, finally even threatening Ace in the desert. Nicky has an affair with Ginger, leaving her thinking he will kill Ace for her, which he laughs off. As Ace says at the beginning, “We fucked it all up.” Joe Pesci is ferocious as Nicky, a different kind of psychopath than he portrayed in Goodfellas and again should have been nominated. Critics complained the portrayal was too close to the first, but those critics just weren’t paying attention. James Woods is sleazy as Ginger’s ex, a vile pimp who uses her for money. As Ginger, Sharon Stone is a revelation, positively brilliant going places and heights she had never gone before, while De Niro is rock solid, giving his last great performance until 2019. The dazzling craftsmanship with which the film is put together is thrilling, the cinematography and editing crisp and quick, catapulting us from one event to the next. An underappreciated work and one of Scorsese’s very best explorations of the mob.
9. THE AVIATOR (2004)
In exploring the life of the young tycoon Howard Hughes, Scorsese chose to cover his years in Hollywood when he was being a film producer and making waves in the aviation world. Much has been made of the latter years in the life of Hughes, that crazy old man living in a hotel, naked, peeing into bottles, hair and fingernails grown out, running his business while in seclusion. Warren Beatty had tried for years to get that movie made, but without much luck. Scorsese relished the idea of doing a movie about early Hollywood. Hughes spent an unprecedented $3M on Hell’s Angels (1930), initially as a silent film, but then reshot when sound came out. Disliked by the other studio owners, such as Louis B. Mayer at MGM, he was famously refused a loan of cameras from MGM who routinely loaned to both Universal and Fox. The film focuses on the Hollywood years when Hughes was a playboy around town, bedding the likes of Katherine Hepburn, who was among the first to know about his affliction and mental illness. Those closest to him did their best to keep his illness quiet, but eventually it became known. There were incidents such as when he locked himself in a projection room for over a month, drinking only milk, eating the same meal over and over, and peeing in the emptied milk bottles. No word on where or how he moved his bowels, and I do not care to know. Though deeply ill, Hughes was also an innovator and genius both in the aviation world and the film business. He took risks no one else would. When he landed in court accused of cheating the United States of millions, he fought and won. His massive plane, the Spruce Goose, took flight after being told it was impossible. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a tremendous performance as Hughes, capturing the mental illness to perfection, along with his ambition and how the illness curbed that ambition. Cate Blanchett is uncanny as Katherine Hepburn, nailing the voice, the mannerisms, every aspect of the actress, including her love for Hughes but also her inability to help him through the staggering depths of his depression. He found that person in Ava Gardner, portrayed with pluck and compassion by Kate Beckinsale, but she would not marry him, as she could not bear to see him at his worst, so chose to be his friend. There are outstanding performances from the entire cast including Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Adam Scott. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, the film would win five, and though it was thought this would finally be the one to win Scorsese his Oscar, he lost both Best Picture and Best Director to Million Dollar Baby and Clint Eastwood.
8. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
For years, 10 to be precise, Scorsese had attempted to secure financing for his adaptation of the book of the same title, written by Greek writer Nikos Kazantakis, a book banned in several countries for its portrayal of Christ and what happens when he is tempted off the cross. Scorsese believed it to be the perfect merging of Christ the man with Christ the son of God. Twice he was set to go, once with Robert De Niro as the leading role, which I think would have been grotesque, and the second with Aidan Quinn. The studios declined both options. Finally, Scorsese got the funds, $6M, and off he went to Morocco to make the film, this time with Willem Dafoe who had recently been nominated for Platoon (1986). I have struggled with religion ever since I was banished from Sunday school for asking too many questions. Here was a film that portrayed Jesus not as a supreme being but rather as a human, a man terrified by the voices he heard and more terrified of what they were telling him to do. His path as Jesus Christ led to crucifixion and that method of dying was agony. Christ learns that it was not just the Romans who feared him, but the Jewish elders too, and both groups were responsible for his death. I saw the film on a Sunday afternoon in downtown Toronto the first weekend it opened, and there was a picket line outside the theatre. I asked some of the picketers why they were there. They said they had not seen the film but had been told by their church it was horrific. Wow, that kind of blind faith was alarming. My wife and I emerged from the film two and a half hours later galvanized, stunned by the film we had just seen. The film was without question the most moving religious experience I had ever experienced. Dafoe was stunning as Jesus, frightened, strong, often weak, but finally accepting of his destiny and willing to die for his father, his God. He grew in strength as the film progressed just as Jesus must have as he travelled those dusty roads with his men. Harvey Keitel was excellent as Judas, who believes in Christ and when Jesus is told who will betray him, he is not surprised. Barbra Hershey is fine as Magdalene and David Bowie has a marvelous cameo as a very matter of fact Pontius Pilate, condemning Christ while he grooms his horse. The road to Golgotha is frightening and the look on Christ’s face as they arrive, when he sees the nails that will be driven into his flesh, the terror emerges within him. When on the cross, writhing in agony, an angel appears to Jesus in the form of a beautiful child, enticing him to come off the cross and live his life. He does, and we witness his ensuing life. Finally, on his death bed, he realizes the child angel is really the devil. Calling on God, Christ asks to be returned to the cross where he will accomplish his destiny. As he dies, the bells from the superb Peter Gabriel score chime in celebration. Brutally realistic, grim in its depiction of the path to death for Christ, yet filled with hope and optimism, beautifully crafted and acted by Dafoe especially. Stark and realistic, as it should be, this is a masterpiece. Scorsese was nominated for Best Director, the only Academy Award nomination the film received.
7. SILENCE (2016)
Wildly unappreciated, this is, obviously among the finest films Scorsese has ever made and will be re-discovered by future generations and hailed for the masterpiece it is. Based on the book of the same title by Shusako Endo, Scorsese had been trying to find funding since reading the book 25 years earlier. It became an obsession for the director. At one point, he was set to go with HBO, but then the money fell away. After the wild success of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), likely as a gift, Paramount Pictures gifted Scorsese with the film, pairing him with his frequent collaborator producer Irwin Winkler. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) play two Jesuit priests in the 17th century, journeying into hostile Japan to find their colleague and friend Ferreirra (Liam Neeson) who they fear is either dead or has renounced his faith to escape death. When the two priests arrive at Tomogi, they discover that Christians have been driven underground, terrified of the punishments that await those who practice the faith in the open. If caught, they are crucified, with the cross then placed in the ocean where the tide slowly drowns them. Over and over, the priests watch in horror as this practice takes place. They discover where their friend is, but at terrible costs. Each wonder why they pray to a God who greets them with astonishing silence. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, both emerging young actors, are superb in the film. Driver dropped 50 pounds off his already lean frame displaying a De Niro-esque dedication to the role. Driver is becoming recognized as one of the most astounding new talents in film, Brando-level great. Liam Neeson offers strong support as he always did before becoming an action star. The film was nominated for a single Academy Award, Best Cinematography, which I believe is shameful. Silence was deserving of at least eight Academy Award nominations. The one suggests the members voting have lost touch with film as an art form because Silence was breathtaking in its quiet power.
6. THE DEPARTED (2006)
At last, at last Scorsese finally won an Oscar as Best Director and Best Picture. Is it his greatest film? If I controlled the Oscars, Scorsese would have won Best Director awards for his best six films on this list, as well as The Last Temptation of Christ. The Departed was an American remake of a superb Hong Kong thriller entitled Infernal Affairs (2003). The narrative was reshaped to fit Boston, following the attempt to bring Frank Costello to justice. A massive, twisting narrative which places two young men on the inside of very different organizations, one as a mole within the police department reporting directly to Costello, the other, within Costello’s crime organization, reporting to the police. Matt Damon is Costello’s protégé since a very young age, more than happy to keep his benefactor on the streets and safe. Leonardo DiCaprio is the young cop, disgraced on purpose, doing real jail time, and then infiltrating the world of Costello, getting himself close to him, so that the crime lord trusts him, relies on him. What this does to him emotionally is devastating because he knows if he slips up once, he is dead, and a most unpleasant death it will be. At the centre of this madness is Costello, portrayed brilliantly by Jack Nicholson in a broad, dangerous performance, one of the very best of his career. Nicholson walks the line, never going over the top, but coming close. He captures the madness of a man who has gotten away with everything for so long, he likely does not know what is right or wrong anymore and does not care. Everyone in the neighbourhood fears him and are both honoured and terrified when he speaks to them. Martin Sheen is warm and fatherly as the police Captain who takes care of DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg is excellent as the hot-headed, foul-mouthed cop working with Sheen, and Alec Baldwin is powerful as a frustrated cop trying to nail Costello. Scorsese creates a brilliant, tight game of cat and mouse, each man hiding within the organization fearful of being caught. Nicholson gives a towering performance as a cocaine loving maniac to whom killing had become part of the job, certainly nothing to be concerned with anymore. Both a Grand Guignol performance and realistic in that we know there are evil men like this, I still cannot believe he was ignored for an Oscar nomination. A box office titan at the end of 2006, there was little doubt The Departed was headed for Oscar glory, and indeed it was, winning four Academy Awards and at long last Scorsese was named Best Director. I thought DiCaprio was worth of at least a Best Actor nomination for the film, as well as Nicholson. Though DiCaprio was a Best Actor nominee for Blood Diamond, I felt the Academy got the wrong film. So great on so many levels, it is fascinating just to watch the camera move from the early moments, right through to the end. Stunning.
5. THE IRISHMAN (2019)
An absolute masterpiece. Scorsese this time explores the regret that comes with a life lived on the wrong side of the law, making the wrong choices, choosing your friends over family, until your world implodes on you. With his daughter’s constant, accusatory stare haunting him most of his life, Frank (Robert De Niro) has so much for which to atone, and those nightmares come for him when he sleeps. A chance meeting when his truck breaks down with a local mob boss, portrayed by Pesci with breathtaking clarity, sets Frank on the path into crime and money for the rest of his life. He becomes bodyguard and best friend to labour leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and some of the best known, powerful men in America. Through the years, Hoffa wears out his welcome with the mob, and very matter of factly, his friend Frank is sent to execute him. Pesci tells him over breakfast, “We did everything we could. He’s gotta go.” Just like that, Frank flies to Michigan, kills Hoffa, and comes back to Pesci waiting where he was when Frank got on the plane. Life in the mob wears you down, your friends die, or are killed off, until you are literally alone. We watch Frank in the quiet senior home haunted by his deeds which have pushed his daughters away from him. Lost in a world of regret, Frank sits utterly alone. Produced by Netflix, this was their first film directed by a major filmmaker and was nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and both Pacino and Pesci were nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Pesci deserved to win, having collected the New York Film Critics Award already. Sadly, despite being the year’s finest film, The Irishman won nothing. In fact, it almost seemed as though the Academy set out to humiliate Scorsese for daring to direct a Netflix film! What was he supposed to do? He shopped it around Hollywood, and nobody wanted it. Can you imagine no one wanting a Scorsese film? Good for Netflix. Well done. This melancholy masterpiece sits high among the finest films of Scorsese. Is there a more haunting scene than De Niro sitting alone, elderly in an old age home, his friends all dead, the ghosts of them dancing around him, waiting for death? So powerful.
4. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
The sewer grate is a dead give-away, as the steam billows forward, we sense hell is threatening to explode from the bowels of the earth. Through that steam, slowly emerges the yellow taxicab, driven by Travis Bickel (Robert De Niro) a self-appointed avenging angel who is descending into madness. A former Vietnam veteran, Travis takes a job driving because he cannot sleep and figures he might as well make money for it. Travis is a time bomb and has already began ticking when the film starts. He drives anywhere, where the other cabbies refuse to go at night, fearlessly, recklessly. Cruising the mean streets of New York late at night shows Travis the darkest aspects of the city, the drugs, pimps, hookers, the scum of the earth nightlife (as perceived by Travis) he so despises. Many of the passengers he picks up serve to reinforce his feelings, and his hatred for humanity grows. He calls the city an open sewer and hopes someone can come along and flush it right down the toilet, working himself into a fury talking about it. More than anyone around him, Travis knows he is slipping from reality, he knows he is capable of violence as he describes to Wizard (Peter Boyle), the know-nothing cabbie the others think is a know-all. Failing miserably with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for a senator running for President, taking her to a hardcore porn film, he sinks lower into anger and depression. When he meets a 12-year-old hooker named Iris (Jodie Foster), he believes he has found the one person worth saving in the entire city. They forge a strange friendship and Travis begins to plan what he intends to do. He buys an arsenal of guns, and trains to get his body back into shape. For what we wonder? His first plan, to assassinate the senator running for President fails, so he goes after the men holding Iris as a hooker, though she does not seem to mind. He mows through them like a hot knife through butter, shooting and killing all who oppose him in a scene that was in 1976 the most graphically violent I had ever seen. I was stunned by what was happening on the screen. And then as quick as it started, the bloodbath is over, Travis wounded, blood dripping from his finger as he motions a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. That is after all what he really wants, to die. Instead, Iris is reunited with her parents in Minnesota, and Travis is a hero, the headlines screaming about his actions to “save” Iris. We of course know better and catching his eyes in the rear-view mirror one night, we know at once he will do it all again. The time bomb is ticking down once more. De Niro collected prizes from the major critics groups, the Los Angeles and New York film Critics Awards for Best Actor, the National Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Actor, as did Jodie Foster for Best Supporting Actress. Both were nominated for Oscars, both lost to actors from Network (1976), which in hindsight seems downright criminal. Scorsese won the National Society of Film Critics Award as Best Director and earned his first nomination from the Directors Guild of America, but incredibly was snubbed by the Academy as Best Director. Taxi Driver received four Academy Award nominations, Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Best Score. Aside from Scorsese, the most notable snub was the films cinematography, gritty and powerful and the superb film editing of the film. A descent into hell, a masterpiece of a film about the darkest aspects of life on the streets of New York. Seething and downright masterful.
3. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)
A stunning vision of white-collar crime, the story of Jordan Belfort plays like the tale of a rock star within the stock market, a dark genius who took penny stocks to a whole new world, making him and his partners wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Brilliantly filmed with a narrative that moves at a furious speed with a stunning lead performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street, might be the greatest film of the 2010’s. Scorsese injects the film with a ferocious energy that exudes through his characters, chiefly DiCaprio and Jonah Hill (who knew?), and Margot Robbie, brilliant as Belfort’s all-knowing trophy wife. The film explores the rise of a hard-working family, struggling to get ahead. Upon discovering a way to get rich through penny stocks, the decent young man is seduced by the cash, becoming a drug-addicted, hard-drinking womanizer, who cheats his way out of his first marriage, and falls into a world of debauchery and greed. For Jordan, there always has to be one more score, and that is his addiction. He connivingly reels in his victims, convincing them to turn over their cash. More than any drug or hooker, that transaction is what Jordan is truly addicted to. Watch his face as he works his dark magic in the shabby penny stock office, astounding his co-workers. And he teaches them, making them important cogs in his machine as he rises to the very top of the stock market world. He is Wall Street incarnate. Unlike anything Scorsese has ever done, the film is blackly funny. In one scene, Belfort is stoned on Ludes and navigating his car home, bashing into everything he encounters. It might be the finest example of physical comedy I have experienced since Steve Martin in All of Me (1984). Both DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are hysterically funny playing stoned, each mesmerizing. DiCaprio gives a performance for the ages as Belfort, the finest of his career and the one that deserved to win him his Oscar. Presented as a modern-day Caligula, a sexual deviant, fond of hookers, cocaine, and every other drug he can find. He is charismatic and electrifying in the part. Though nominated for Best Actor, he would lose when the Academy decided it was the year of Matthew McConaughey who ironically has a small part in this film as a stock guru who has clearly snorted too much cocaine. DiCaprio towers over the rest of the cast, no small feat because Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie are both spectacular. Nominated for five Academy Awards, the studio released the film late, cheating it of its chance to win early critics prizes. Otherwise, I am sure it would have won most of them. Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor and Screenplay were its nominations, and yet many more should have come, including Cinematography, Sound, and Film Editing. Possibly the greatest film of the new millennium. A bonafide masterpiece.
2. RAGING BULL (1980)
I feel like I have written a lot about Raging Bull in the last few months, from the superb new book from Jay Glennie and naming it among the best 30 films of the 1980’s, Raging Bull has been in my head a lot. Though many Scorsese biographers have named it the best film of his career, as much as I admire it, it does not get my top billing. It is a masterpiece, no question, bold and brilliant. Scorsese was at the lowest point of his career when Robert De Niro brought the project to him, got him out of the hospital and took him away to the tropics to heal and write. Scorsese had been abusing cocaine during the making of New York, New York (1977), and at war constantly with the studio. Finally, when Scorsese collapsed, the studio took over the editing of the film as Scorsese fought for his life. When De Niro tabled the life of Jake LaMotta, Scorsese slowly saw a way into the film and they decided to make the picture. LaMotta was a middle weight champ in the 40s and 50s, a lethal hitter who could take as much of a beating as he dished out. De Niro was trained by LaMotta, and whipped himself into extraordinary condition, leaving LaMotta to state he could have climbed into a ring and contended. When the production had shot all of the fighting and early scenes in the film, the entire production shut down to permit De Niro to gain in excess of eighty pounds to portray LaMotta later in life. At the time this was hailed as the ultimate method performance, and something greater than acting. This was a complete inhabitation of a role, an actor so far into the character he was portraying he had become the character in a way very few actors would ever accomplish going forward. De Niro was LaMotta. In doing so, De Niro created one of the most insidious, reviled men ever put on the screen, an abusive bully, a pathologically jealous man who did his talking with brutality and his fists. Though an astonishing performance, it was not something everyone wanted to see. It certainly wasn’t a date movie. While it is a seething biographical film, easily the greatest film ever made about boxing, it is not an easy watch. I first saw the film in 1980, opening night, but have not watched it more than five times since, and believe me, I re-watch films all the time. De Niro is astounding, the ultimate method performance, the bar by which all subsequent performances would be measured. Joe Pesci as his brother Joey was a true find, a gifted actor who did his best work for Scorsese throughout his career but was also an accomplished comic as he proved in Home Alone (1991). This was equally true of Cathy Moriarty, the luscious blonde who portrayed Vicki LaMotta, a brilliant performance that sadly she has never repeated. Though De Niro won most of the critics’ awards for his performance, the film was not given much hope at the Academy Awards. When the nominations were announced, it shockingly led the field with eight, tied with The Elephant Man (1980). Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor (Pesci) and Actress (Moriarty), Cinematography and Film Editing among the nominations. On Oscar night, De Niro took Best Actor, Thelma Schoonmaker won for her sublime film editing, but Scorsese went home empty handed, which deeply wounded the artist. He understood he was an outsider, and always would be. That said he had exploded into the forefront of American filmmakers and would remain there.
1. GOODFELLAS (1990)
And finally his finest film, the extraordinary gangster film GoodFellas that swept the critics awards at year’s end in 1990, winning Best Picture and director from the Boston Film Critics, the Chicago Film Critics, the L.A. Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics. Was this finally Scorsese’s year? No, Kevin Costner and his sprawling epic western Dances with Wolves (1990) won. Once again, an actor directing his first film bested him at the Oscars and Directors Guild of America. Now, 30 years later, it is widely acknowledged that GoodFellas is not only a superior film, but an American masterpiece and stands towering high as one of the finest films made in the history of cinema. With this muscular, energetic narrative, Scorsese plunges the audience directly into the world of organized crime. With an almost buoyant, bouncy charm, GoodFellas begins with a savage murder and the immortal words, “I always wanted to be a gangster”. We follow the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) who started his life in crime as a teenager, running errands for the mobsters on his block. Trusted by the men, he rises quickly in the ranks and is soon present at all the card games and meetings, even asked to perform some crimes for them. Once busted, he keeps his mouth shut and earns even greater respect from the mobsters and is forever welcomed into their world. He meets Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) a feared executioner and thief and they become lifelong (well, almost) friends, and is introduced to Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) a little guy with a hair trigger, volcanic temper that grows into a murderous and the boss, Paulie (Paul Sorvino) a big lumbering guy who never moves fast because he does not have to–people come to him. This becomes Henry’s life, crime, late night dinners, drinking with the crew, card games, arguments and murder. He marries, Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and though she is aware of what he does, I am not sure she knows just how deep he is in. But she knows enough and becomes a willing partner, befriending the men he works with, understanding and excited by the risks. GoodFellas is a jubilant ride through the mob, punctuated with the most awful killings. Tommy’s explosive temper lands them in trouble more than once and finally it is decided he has to go. Cruelly they arrange for him to attend a celebration in his honour; ends up being his funeral. Nearly everyone who worked with Jimmy on a huge heist turns up dead months later, because Jimmy had no intention of sharing the money. Instead, he simply kills whoever was a part of it. And on it goes, until during a term in prison, Henry begins using and dealing drugs, which scares Paulie who wants nothing to do with drugs. He warns Henry that his dealing is drawing attention, but Henry is broke so he ignores the warning. With no idea the FBI has tapped his phones and is watching him 24/7, he spends an entire day wondering why a helicopter hovers overhead all day long. When they bust him at the end of the day, he realizes he is dead, either way he is finished. So he does what he swore never to do, he rats out his buddies, who had every intention of killing him and Karen anyway. What is that saying, “No honor among thieves”? Same goes with mobsters. Placed in the Witness Protection Program, he watches as Paulie and Jimmy go off to jail for the rest of their lives, each staring at him with dead, cruel eyes. Once friends, he is now nothing to them, except a rat. GoodFellas received rave reviews from the North American film critics, which paved the way for Scorsese’ Oscar win, or so it seemed. The film received six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Pesci), Supporting Actress (Bracco), Best Screenplay and Best Film editing. Incredibly the film was snubbed for its splendid cinematography which included an unbroken shot through the bowels of the Copacabana night club in which Henry and Karen enter through a side door and wind their way through the entire place, including the kitchen, finally ending up with a table front and center. In many ways it is a metaphor for Henry’s life, and one of the greatest shots in film history. The violence in the film is shocking in its realism, often without warning, and brutal each time. If they do not use guns, they use knives, or kick their victim to death. And no one is safe—from their closest friends to an innocent server who cracks wise at Tommy, to one of their own. Scorsese’s story is authentic because he saw these guys on the street corners when he was growing up, and the story Henry Hill told, Scorsese had literally watched it unfold as a boy. Only Joe Pesci would win an Oscar for his ferocious performance, but the legacy of the film has made the picture immortal. If I find it on TV while channel surfacing, even though the Blu Ray sits on my shelf, I watch, its infectious story always pulls me in.
Will he ever surpass his best five films? I would never best against him, he is Martin Scorsese.
Directing God, the Master of American Cinema.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.