By Vittorio Carli
Martin Scorsese is my choice for the best working American filmmaker. After the death of Robert Altman, there are still a few contenders left (such as David Lynch and Clint Eastwood), but no filmmaker has been outstanding for so long or has had such a wide or long lasting influence on world cinema. Spike Lee, Abel Ferrara, Quentin Tarantino, and Oliver Stone would not be possible without him. There was even a wave of Scorsese influenced films from Hong Kong.
Despite what most people think, Scorsese is not primarily a mafia film director. He has made 20 full-length features, and only three (“Good Fellas,” “Casino,” and “Mean Streets”) were about the Italian mob, and a few (“Gangs of New York” and “The Departed”) were about Irish organized crime.
Although he cannot be pigeon holed, it would be more accurate to characterize the former Catholic seminary student, Scorsese, as a religious or spiritual themed filmmaker. “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun” were movies about religious figures, and at least half of his films (especially “Mean Streets,” “Bringing out the Dead” and “Raging Bull”) have Catholic inspired symbolism, scenes or themes.
Here are the best Scorsese films in order of quality, significance and entertainment value. Some of his most popular films (such as “The Departed,” “The Color of Money” and “Casino”) did not make the cut because they are less innovative and personal than his smaller films. Scorsese may have finally won an Oscar this year, but he did most of his best work in the 70s and 80s
1.) Taxi Driver (1976) - Frequent collaborator, Robert De Niro, achieved immortality with his brilliant performance as a sociopathic cab driver. This Robert Bresson influenced film is the ultimate cinematic statement on urban alienation. Indescribably essential and one of my favorite films of all time.
2.) Mean Streets (1973)-Scorsese’s aesthetic (if not financial breakthrough) is about an insignificant gangster who wants to follow the life of Saint Francis. It perfectly captures the Little Italy of Scorsese’s childhood.
3.) Raging Bull (1980)-Darkly funny and disturbing biopic stars Robert De Niro as a troubled and violent boxer, Jake La Motta. Featuring gorgeous black and white photography (which makes the film more distinctive). Perhaps the most powerful and artistic sports film ever made.
4.) The King of Comedy (1983) - Robert De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, a media junkie who kidnaps a talk show host in order to become a celebrity. This criminally underrated thriller plays like a showbiz themed variation of “Taxi Driver.”
5.) Good Fellas (1990) - Film follows the rise and fall of a mobster/coke seller and uses rock music brilliantly. Except for “Bonnie and Clyde,” no film shifts from gory violence to comedy as well. This film deromanticizes gangsters and is a great antidote to the Godfather series.
6.) A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Films (1996)-Scorsese (who knows much more about film history than most film critics) take us on an informative tour of his favorite films. He is equally brilliant talking about big Hollywood films and cult favorites.
7.) After Hours (1994)- Splendid dark comedy about a yuppie that gets lost in the arty Soho neighborhood. Filled to the brim with delightful cameos and a great absurdist ending. This is one of the films that made me want to be a film critic.
8.) The Last Waltz (1978) - Classic concert film features a glorious final concert by The Band, (guitarist Robbie Robertson used to be Scorsese’s roommate) with great guest performances by Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.
9.) My Voyage to Italy (2001)-Scorsese’s best films of the last decade were all documentaries. This film does a great job of covering some of Scorsese’s biggest influences, the Italian Neo realists as well as later masters such as Fellini.
10.) No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)-Splendid portrayal of the glory years of folk rock legend Bob Dylan aired on PBS for free, but it was better than almost all the films that played theatrically that year.
11.) Kundun (1997) - This under rated mystical biopic tells the story of the Dahlai Lama tells his story from when he was picked as a boy to become the head of Buddhism. Stunning cinematography and an ideal score by Phillip Glass add to the film’s power.
12.) Last Temptation of Christ (1988) - Controversial and somewhat uneven version of the Christ’s tale does a good job of humanizing its subject. It owes more to the Gnostic gospels than the Bible and includes a brilliant dream sequence. Dafoe is a great Jesus, but Keitel’s accent gets annoying after awhile. Great cameo by rock great David Bowie in the role of Pontius Pilot.
13.) New York Stories: Life Lessons(1989)- The concept (three short films about New York by three of New York’s best film makers) should have been sure fire, but the results are disappointing. Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” which is about an unstable artist involved with a much younger woman is terrific, but the Woody Allen piece is merely good, and the Coppola one is among his worst works.
14.) Age of Innocence (1993)-Sumptuous historical romance finds Scorsese entering Merchant-Ivory country, and succeeding. The film centers on a love triangle between a man, the experienced woman he loves, and a naïve woman that society says he should marry.
15.) The Aviator (2004)-The second of his trilogy of films with Leonard DiCaprio (who does a good job although he never quite equals De Niro or Keitel) is the best of the three. It’s loosely based on Howard Hughes’s life, but it’s also a powerful visual and thematic homage to “Citizen Kane.”
Also recommended: Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Boxcar Bertha (1972), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), The Departed (2006), Gangs of New York (2003)
All of Scorsese’s films are worth seeing, but these are his weakest or least original features.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Cape Fear (1991), Casino, (1995), The Color of Money (1986), New York, New York (1977)
Vittorio Carli teaches at Moraine Valley Community College, Richard J. Daley College, and Morton College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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