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15 of Scorsese's Finest Films (Including “The Irishman”)

Ray Romano (left) stars as Bill Bufalino, Al Pacino (center) stars as Jimmy Hoffa, and Robert De Niro (right) stars as Frank Sheeran.
Ray Romano (left) stars as Bill Bufalino, Al Pacino (center) stars as Jimmy Hoffa, and Robert De Niro (right) stars as Frank Sheeran. By Courtesy of TriBeCa Productions and Netflix
By Lanz Aaron G. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

Martin Scorsese changed Hollywood forever when he released “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Raging Bull” in quick succession from 1973 to 1980. He paved the way for cathartic, character-driven violence that influenced today’s greatest filmmakers, including Tarantino, and his films have set the precedent for today’s pop culture phenomena — most notably, Todd Phillips’ recent film “Joker,” which borrows heavily from “Taxi Driver.”

Scorsese’s strength lies in his tenacity; unlike many of his contemporaries (with the exception of Steven Spielberg), he’s remained shockingly relevant today. He won Best Director at the 2007 Oscars for “The Departed." “Hugo” (2011) was nominated for 11 Oscars.“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) was nominated for five. With his latest film, “The Irishman,” hitting select theaters this week on Nov 1, and streaming on Netflix on Nov 27, here are Scorsese’s 15 best movies, including “The Irishman.”

15. “Casino” (1995)

It’s no secret that “Casino” borrows heavily from Scorsese’s earlier, arguably more successful works. But from an all-star cast that reunites Scorsese regulars Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci (in their last film until this year’s “The Irishman”) with Sharon Stone, who delivers a stunning performance, to the overexposed lens-flares that glimmer with the avarice of Las Vegas, “Casino” is still extremely watchable, even if it isn’t original.

14. “The Age of Innocence” (1993)

Incredibly understated and restrained, “The Age of Innocence” is a romantic dive into the debauchery of Gilded-Age New York. It seems like a detour from Scorsese's common fare of grounded character studies in the criminal underbelly, but “Innocence” is an involving tale of lust and mistrust. What makes a simple plot so compelling is that no one speaks their mind; what would be an otherwise straightforward conversation today is stretched to the verge of laughability.

13. “Gangs of New York” (2002)

Fueled by breathtaking production design and an incredibly terrifying performance from legendary method-actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher, “Gangs of New York” is a sprawling epic that explores revenge, maturity, and fatherhood in 19th century mobster New York. The film is far from channeling the poignancy of Scorsese's best films, with an incoherent ending and sometimes inconsistent plotting, but it’s notable for its great set design and gorgeous cinematography.

12. “The King of Comedy” (1982)

A dark comedy that proved to be fatefully prophetic, "The King of Comedy" explores the treacherous depths of celebrity culture. It’s a haunting character study about the dichotomy of celebrity status: the hollow lives led by the famous and the hollow superficiality of the fans chasing validation from them. Robert De Niro delivers a fittingly bone-chilling as an aspiring late night talk show host, Rupert Pupkin, who served as a clear template for Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in Todd Phillips' "Joker."

11. “Silence” (2016)

A film that deconstructs religion, reconstructs it, and does it all over again, "Silence" follows Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) sent to feudal Japan when Chritisanity was outlawed in the 17th century. "Silence" is slowly paced and surgically precise — the film meditates on the existential state of purgatory, when one's prayers are answered with silence. “Silence” is beautifully shot, with cinematographer Rodrigo Prierto capturing the lush saturated greens of the Japanese countryside, the depersonalized gray wooden houses, and relentlessly vicious imagery of fire and death.

10. “Mean Streets” (1973)

With Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in starring roles, "Mean Streets" is an introduction to the themes that has made Scorsese a mainstay in the film industry: morality in a hermetically enclosed world, religion, family, and loyalty. It achieves the most intimate atmosphere of his gangster movies, probably due to its smaller budget and scale.

9. "Hugo” (2011)

For a director who indulges in violence, it’s surprising to see Scorsese direct what's essentially a children's movie about the love of cinema. With captivating cinematography and all-encompassing computer-animated 3D, Scorsese makes the most of new technology from swooping digital crane shots that immerse viewers in the train station where the film takes place to a beautifully rendered landscape recreation of early 20th century Paris. "Hugo" is as heartwarming as it is inspiring, and Scorsese's irresistible love for the film medium is infectious.

8. “The Aviator” (2004)

“The Aviator” delivered on the promise of a great collaboration, one first teased two years earlier with "Gangs of New York,” between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio who turns in an arguably career-best performance as business magnate, Hollywood producer, and aviator Howard Hughes. At the core of "The Aviator" are themes of unbridled ambition, solitude, and mental health, with Hughes' deterioration signified by Scorsese's gradually changing film stock from green-blue to RGB.

7. “After Hours” (1985)

Hypnotic and paranoia-inducing, Scorsese’s “After Hours” marked the legendary director's comeback to filmmaking as a fundraising bid for his long standing passion project "The Last Temptation of Christ." A thought piece on yuppie-culture as much as it is a modern, nightmarish, retelling of "The Wizard of Oz,” “After Hours” is as original as it is visceral and stands as one of Scorsese's more overlooked masterworks.

6. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)

With flashy editing from longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, snappy dialogue from witty characters, and an incredibly comedic script, "The Wolf of Wall Street" crackles through its 180-minute runtime. There are easily 30 minutes of opulent Wall Street indulgence (from the yachts, drugs, and bars) that could be cut, but that's also what makes "Wolf" such an endearing project; it immerses viewers in an otherwise alien world of scandal, corruption, and cheating, and by its conclusion, there's little question that Scorsese is telling a cautionary tale.

5. “Taxi Driver” (1976)

"Taxi Driver" changed the film landscape forever as a thrilling, grounded character study of a Vietnam War veteran who returns to the streets of New York. At first, studios refused to show Scorsese's cut on the grounds that its violence was unearned and merely provocational. And although hindsight is 20/20, it's hard to imagine what movies would be like today had the film, and its admittedly bombastic closing sequence, never made it to theaters. Filled with nuanced emotions, and deeply socio-political themes of vigilantism, marginalization, and justice, "Taxi Driver" gave the role of a lifetime for De Niro and has stood the test of time as an undying cinematic classic.

4. “The Departed” (2006)

Scorsese’s electric remake of Hong Kong crime thriller “Infernal Affairs” arguably improves on Andrew Lau’s original. It’s about a policeman who’s undercover as a gangster (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to expose a gangster who is undercover as a cop (Matt Damon). What “The Departed” does so well is balance empathy between its two central, but diametrically opposed characters; we both understand their motivations, and feel for their losses. The film also features Jack Nicholson as the patriarchal mobster figure Costello.

3. “The Irishman” (2019)

A powerful meditation on aging and legacy, “The Irishman” is in constant intertextual conversation with the rest of Scorsese’s mobster filmography. From the somber opening tracking shot that careens around a nursing home set to “In the Still of the Night,” that draws sorrowful comparisons to the legendary tracking shot of the Copacabana, “The Irishman” packs an emotional punch where “Goodfellas” can't. “The Irishman” could be the gangster film to end all gangster films, achieving what Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" did for the Western genre.

2. "Raging Bull" (1980)

"Raging Bull" is regarded by many as the peak of Scorsese's storied career as the first film to be entered into the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility. It takes a deeply unlikable character, boxing legend Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), for all his animalistic behaviour, and builds a tragic character study. From the stunning zooms, incredible whip pans, freeze-frames and impeccable editing, "Raging Bull" often transcends its success as an effective drama and one can't help but appreciate it as a piece of cinema. With a sobering denouement that cleanses the sins of the first two acts, "Raging Bull" is an unforgettable look into regret and masculinity.

1. “Goodfellas” (1990)

Unforgettably electric and mesmerizingly immersive, “Goodfellas” explores the vices of the gangster life in a way that transcends genre expectations. The protagonist, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), is always an outsider looking in: He’s half-Irish so can never be fully integrated into the Sicilian mob, and nothing shows this character's separation from the mob better than an early scene where he is a child looking out blinds that look like prison bars. The film therefore allows the audience to directly follow the rise and fall of Henry Hill as he falls in and out of love with the gangster lifestyle. What was dramatically terrifying in Coppola’s “The Godfather” is strangely addicting in “Goodfellas,” with Scorsese also rolling out a romanticized soundtrack from doo-wop classics to ‘70s rock that mirrors the way Henry falls in and out of the mobster lifestyle.
—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at lanzaaron.tan@thecrimson.com.

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