Ranking the Martin Scorsese Films

UPDATED: 2/16/2023

Still Need to Watch: Who’s That Knocking On My Door, Kundun

Still Need to Re-Watch: New York New York, Last Temptation of Christ, Mean Streets

Martin Scorsese has a genuine case as being the greatest filmmaker ever from the United States (and he only has a few genuine competitors for that title). His pictures are just absolutely beautiful tributes to humanity and the pain we cause ourselves and each other.


21. Hugo [20`11]

It will always be impressive that Scorsese decided to dabble in 3D for shits and giggles and proceeded to do it as well if not better than James Cameron and then simply decided to never do it ever again. I was curious to see it once again without the 3D part years later and was pleased to discover how visually stimulating and interesting it was without that element (something Avatar **cannot** claim). The movie is a love letter to cinema and the delight to the senses that it can and should be. Beyond that, I never have that strong of a reaction to this film beyond being glad it exists?


20. Shutter Island [2010]

One of the strangest entries of Scorsese’s entire career! Just a bizarre neo-noir comedy that does a great job exploring what it feels like to lose touch with reality and positioning oneself as the protagonist in your own story. It is also a fun parody of “twist” ending-based films. Scorsese’s comedy chops were a little rusty as he hadn’t made one in what 30 years but this is good fun still. Then the way Scorsese is able to generate genuine terror and horror when DiCaprio pulls his children from the water is truly remarkable. The fact that he managed to say something truly human about the impact of grief as bow on top was lowkey remarkable.


19. Gangs of New York [2002]

Visually rich and thematically ambitious, the film marked a turn for Scorsese to more broader stories with less intimate character work at times (but not always). This was the nadir of this period for him, as the characters make little impression (beyond one of the least well-done comeback performances from Daniel Day Lewis). That was not entirely an inappropriate direction for a story largely pointing to the idea that we are all ants being ignored by the country’s rules let alone in the grand course of human history. It would have been nice though to be more emotionally invested in the people though if we were gonna spend almost three hours with them.


18. Cape Fear [1991]

Fear was one of Scorsese’s most obvious “for hire” gigs as the story feels very different in many ways than what you come to expect from Scorsese, but the contradictions make it interesting and he still found ways to make it his own.

The most intriguing aspect of the film is the way Scorsese really makes guilt and inner torment the true villain and torture for Nick Nolte. Scorsese makes this gruesome story his own by making the heart of the film about Nolte paying for his sins and the sins of the world. Nick Nolte validates himself on the “sophomoric infidelities” that come from female attention. He must pay for that.

Only a cruel world could create a system where Nolte is doing wrong as a lawyer by not arguing that the victims of Max Cady had it coming by having a sex life. And Nolte is paying not just for his own sins but the world’s as well.


17. The Aviator [2004]

If you were a teenager in the 2000s and you care about movies, your formative Scorsese films were Gangs of New YorkThe Aviator, and The Departed. Now, I like all three movies (and love The Departed) but that is just plain strange in retrospect. Now, there are more than a fair share of themes and ideas explored in these movies that are very much connected to things Scorsese looked at in his famous “traditional” pictures.

So, after accumulating decades of Scorsese knowledge, I went into this rewatch (possibly my first time checking it out since I saw it in theaters at 15 years old) looking for something more than just the slickly made biopic my teenaged brain processed it as. But here is the thing, while thematically rich and visually stunning (at times), The Aviator really is just one of the very best biopics ever made. And that is more than okay.

Probably the aspect of the film that stood out to me the most of anything this time were the performances from Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale. As a kid, I (and the rest of the world) was sucked into Blanchett’s Katherine Hepburn and thought it was amazing. This time through, I felt much more connected to Beckinsale’s Ava Gardner.

There is so much happening behind her eyes in this one. Her final scene where she shows up to help Howard look decent for his government hearing, there is such a strong tenderness to the way she carries herself. In the midst of this big, broad film, it is a rare small human moment. Those moments where we recognize that the ones we love are often the ones that hurt us the most and yet we still want what is best for them. “You would do the same for me.”


16. The Color of Money [1986]

Scorsese takes what could have been a fairly conventional story about an old mentor and a young up-and-comer and manages to make it so much more. The film becomes a deep look at our motivations for pursuing things in life? Paul Newman and Tom Cruise’s abilities at pool stand in for what we all end up doing with our lives. Is it for love? Passion? Self-respect? Money? Do we delude ourselves in thinking it’s just one or another? The journey Paul Newman goes on in this film is heartbreaking, as he breaks the facade of being at peace with his life and opens himself up to heartbreak and disappointment again. The combination of that great premise and real-life coming together of two generational superstars in Newman and Cruise makes for a sincerely compelling film and slightly unsung with regards to where it stands in Scorsese’s career.


15. Boxcar Bertha [1972]

Bertha is looking for something in life. The system is rigged, and everyone understands it. The means of fighting back on a large scale are so overwhelming.

Barbara Hershey plays the young, impressionable, and lost young woman. David Carradine is the leftist labor leader-ish who has seemingly given up on the system being taken down through mass movements. Their paths converge several times until they finally decide to stick together and lash out at the world.

Much like the characters themselves, the film is a little loss and not really sure how it feels about things beyond “shit is fucked up.” That is not actually a problem of course.

It leads to a really chaotic film about chaotic people that ends with Marty getting to do a scene where he literally crucifies one of his main characters at the end. If it was longer than ninety minutes, they could have been in trouble but as such.


14. Mean Streets [1973]

I had not seen this film in over a decade. I was struck by how much I had forgotten that this movie was just young dudes being young dudes and hanging out with each other. The characters grew up with few options and are making their way the best they know how. And they do not know very many good ways how.

The highlight is almost definitely the pool hall fight sequence. Robert De Niro baits someone more powerful than him into picking a fight with him that gets so chaotic that the cops have come in. Things settle down, and then, as soon as the cops leave, De Niro manages to instigate a fight again.

The scene captures the energy of the main characters. While they all exist on a wide spectrum of self-destruction (with De Niro being by far away the most destructive), they are very human in their way that they struggle to grow in their lives.


13. Bringing Out the Dead [1999]

Much like Taxi Driver, Dead has always felt much more like a Paul Schrader film than a Scorsese. That is not much of a comment beyond the fact that the themes and ideas feel much closer to Schrader stuff but with maybe something of Scorsese twist.

Nicolas Cage here makes for a classic Schrader protagonist. He cannot sleep. He is constantly narrating. He goes about his life in a rather detached manner. He is suffering from a deep emotional affliction. And he is understands on some deep level that there is something terribly wrong with the world.

Cage is desperate to make sense of it in or to find more purpose in what he does in any way. He is haunted by things from his past he cannot fix. He is looking for an avenue that can provide him some sense of peace. And like much of Schrader’s work, there is a simultaneous cynical and optimistic feeling that there is not much we can do about the world but we can perhaps find a bit of comfort with each other.


12. Raging Bull [1980]

“Why does he have to make it so hard on himself, for Christ’s sake?”

An interesting part of rewatching iconic films is that they can exist on a level that makes it impossible to experience free of expectations and the world’s general opinion of them. How can one watch Silence of the Lambs and escape the pop culture significance of Hannibal Lecter? How do we assess something like Star Wars?

Two of Scorsese’s movies have been impacted the most for me based on my perceptions of what they are as opposed to developing my own connection to them. Goodfellas took REPEATED viewings to really “get it” and get what I liked about it (after years of being what I now understand to be feeling disconnected from it).

As you can probably guess by now, Raging Bull is another such film. Writing this out as De Niro’s Jake LaMotta does the Marlon Brando speech from Waterfront, I connected with what made De Niro’s work so tragic here. His LaMotta has such a limited sense of who he is and how sees himself. He cannot and has never been able to imagine a better future for himself than the next punch and that has led him to destroy everything in his life and himself.

While LaMotta may be an extreme example, the scariness about him is that in the world we have build for ourselves, so many of us (if not all of us) are just one step away from being on that same self-destructive path.


11. Taxi Driver [1976]

It is most helpful to think about this film in context of Schrader’s work. Schrader has always been drawn two types of protagonists that are truly just two sides of the same coin: protagonists who desperately cling to the status quo and then get sucked into confronting the world, and protagonists who see through the bullshit of the status quo and are struggling with how they respond to the truth of the world. Travis fits into the latter. Scorsese, Schrader, and De Niro really came together here to capture the inner torture our country subjects our people, and how the response of men in particular can just turn them absolutely twisted. The most fitting aspect of it was how easily it was accepted at the end and nothing at all was done to address what drove Travis to such depths. On some level, Travis understands there is something fundamentally sick about the way we have organized society, but he has no idea how to process that feeling let alone how to do anything about it.


10. The Irishman [2019]

One of the more interesting things about Scorsese films is his selection of narrators and thus the point-of-views of his films. He often picks characters who for one reason or another are just completely full of shit. With The Irishman, the whole story is told through the eyes of an aging, near-death Robert De Niro, aka the titular Irishman. This both gives the story a tremendous amount of pathos and also a bit of skepticism.

De Niro lived a life of violence that included him murdering his best friend and at the end of it all he got was a long prison sentence and daughters who do not acknowledge him. With his body falling apart and all alone in a nursing home, De Niro is left with little to comfort him but his memories. So he tells the stories of his life in a way that many of us tend to do: we center ourselves and make ourselves out to be more important.

Which is where the skepticism comes in. The great freedom that comes from listening to a 3.5 hour yarn spun from a dying old man is that even more so than usual the point is the feeling the story gives and much less so the veracity of what is being told in the story.


9. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore [1974]

There is this one early moment in the film that really just meant so much to me. It is quickly established that Ellen Burstyn and her husband have a less-than-ideal marriage. A lot of moments are delivered in succession that make clear that their dynamic is not satisfying for Burstyn at all. She is spends all day at home taking care of the house and making sure their son is raised. Her husband works all day.

One night in particular it’s particularly bleak, as she informs her husband when dinner will be ready. Her husband, lounging in bed, reading the paper responds with an indifferent, “You’re the cook.” It is a soul-crushing moment and one that would possibly imply that her husband is perfectly happy with this arrangement. Burstyn has not fully given up though. She is still trying to find some sort of satisfaction in her life.

Later at night, she joins her husband in bed as he is watching a movie. She tries to act curious about what he is watching, but he is just not having it and replies robotically. It’s a breaking moment for Burstyn. It’s clear that it is not the uncooperative responses about the movie that causes her to sob hysterically. It’s everything.

Her husband – at this point, potentially still just a real asshole, as far as the audience knows – does something so incredibly beautiful and sad. With tears welling in his eyes, he rolls up and sincerely tries to comfort Burstyn. His reaching out is clearly filled with pain and not merely a token attempt to “make up” for what he did. He understands something is wrong and has no idea what to do. It was just pitch perfect.


8. Silence [2016]

There are so many ways to engage with this film. When I first watched the film, I was primarily caught up in what I perceived to be an extraordinarily sympathetic views of the Christians given the “well-intentioned nature” of the priests and the Christian converts as they were being exterminated by the Japanese inquisitors.

On my latest watch, I was drawn more to the delusion and cruelty of those very same priests the film follows. They are so blinded by their own bubble that they cannot entertain any notion of doubt to the goodness of their actions.

This contradiction between these two experiences I had watching the film is actually why the film is so interesting. The film is undeniably from the perspective of the Jesuit priests and quite sympathetic to them as spiritual people and the conflicts that come with being a spiritual person. But the film is absolutely filled to the brim with moments and sequences where the very same priests seem absolutely insane and reckless to not recognize the consequences of their actions.

Silence is a film that stays with you and begs you revisit time and time again. It’s a film searching and exploring what it means to be a man of faith. What it means to be born into a world of belief. And what, if any, value there is in it.


7. The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]

I don’t think I could say anything better than what The Chris said:

I cannot think of a better made film or a more accurately made film about the United States and capitalism. This fucking nation is diseased and run by people addicted to money, and they have passed down that sickness to so many of us.  One of the best and most essential films about the United States ever made.


6. The Departed [2006]

“I’m fucking Irish. I’ll deal with something being wrong the rest of my life.”

In the illustrious career of Martin Scorsese, it does seem insane and unfitting that the one time the awards circuit comes out in full force to celebrate him, it’s for the fucking Departed. In many ways, despite it generally being about “criminals,” it’s one of the least Scorsese films to exist. It is an incredibly cynical film about people who have almost completely given up on themselves and the world around them.

The film works so well though because it is self-aware. It does not wallow in the cynicism but rather revels in it. The world is ending and the film wants to go out with a bang. Every single person in this film goes for a homerun, and they all pretty much nail it. Each role becomes tailored to the persona of the actor playing them. It may lead to lead to criticisms of some of the actors not really acting but I call bullshit on that. It is just great filmmaking to cast a bunch of stars in a film and actually decide to capitalize on who they are as stars.


5. The King of Comedy [1982]

This film is just SO fucking funny and terrifying. It feels totally unique in what it manages to accomplish and in some ways a way better version of Taxi Driver. Scorsese really is in his element in mining the absurdity of the human condition for comedy, and De Niro’s comedic timing was long under-appreciated.

The way De Niro is able to make himself feel so **small** in this film is remarkable. Normally, De Niro has an element to his work that makes him feel so larger than life. Here though, he feels so tiny. Between that and his matter-of-fact delivery of absurd dialogue, it’s one of De Niro’s most compelling performances.

It also cannot go without passing just how brilliant Jerry Lewis was here. There is something terrifying about him in this film, particularly in the (at least in my view!!) iconic sequence at Lewis’ vacation home where De Niro and his girlfriend are crashing. There is a just an energy to the sequence that gives it an unpredictable quality that is so unnerving.


4. After Hours [1985]

“I just want to live. Live.”

Growing up, you get a sense of what are Scorsese’s most celebrated films and which are his “lessers.” Then you actually track down the supposed lessers as an adult, and quickly discover that they all kick ass, too. After Hours is quite easily one of the best movies of the eighties and one of the best films Scorsese ever did.

No film has more accurately captured what it feels like to be a relatively young person existing in New York City and trying to expand your horizons. When you exist like that, there is a constant mood that everything is seemingly going to shit, everything is simultaneously out of control, and yet totally your responsibility all at the same time.

This sensation created in the film is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious from beginning to end.  And if you can distance yourself from the more horrifying parts of your own existence, you recognize your own life plays out in frighteningly similar ways. At least metaphorically anyway.


3. Goodfellas [1990]

My experience with this film over the years has been relatively unique (I would imagine, anyway). I saw it right before college by which point I had seen (and practically memorized) all of The Sopranos and of course seen The Godfather multiple times. So when I finally watched one of the most celebrated and hyped films featuring the mafia…I was underwhelmed?

Every few years, I would try again, and I would still feel unimpressed with what I was watching. It was to the point that I would literally tell people, “I am pretty sure I am just wrong about this movie. I watch the movie, and I never have a strong response to it.” As time has passed, I not only finally appreciate the movie and respond strongly to it, but the film has become one of the ultimate “just put it on to feel good” movies.

Looking back on why it took me so long to love this film, I come to a couple of ideas. My two defining experiences with the mafia in the art (as previously stated) were The Godfather series and The Sopranos. With Coppola’s films, there is a lot of mythmaking at work. While it is an intimate family story in many crucial and vital ways, there is something larger than life about the whole exercise. The Sopranos is in many ways the opposite of that. There’s a lot more nuts and bolts, showing how small the characters are, and it’s a comedy in many ways.

Goodfellas is not really either of those things; Goodfellas is its own thing, and it took me too long to recognize and value that. Goodfellas is all about mood and energy. It is this immersive experience almost in the life of Henry Hill. Scorsese does not just show you the intoxicating nature of his life. He makes you feel lie you are living it yourself in the most exciting and depressing ways. It is simply one of the most exhilarating films ever made.


2. Age of Innocence [1993]

“Then it occurred to him that she might die. People did. Young people, healthy people did. She might die and set him free.”

The violence we do to ourselves and others in our quest to become matched with a partner for life is one of the cruelest parts of being a human being. The way we allow emotions of fear, hate, anger, hope, etc. direct us from person to person leads to so much pain even when there is genuine love behind our desires too. Few films capture this particular tragic element of the human condition as well as Age of Innocence. It is a film that I will come back to time and time again to process life, and I hope to add more thoughts in the years to come.


1. Casino [1995]

“Back home, they would have put me in jail for what I’m doing. Here, they’re giving me awards.”

There is a really great small scene in this film that captures all the big ideas that it is going for. Robert De Niro is running a major casino in Las Vegas for and protected by the mob. He manages every little detail to maximize profit, at least in his eyes. He gets such tunnel vision though that he fires a well-connected worker whose connections can cause major problems for him and the people he works for.

The (empty suit) president of the casino tries to check him on it, but then De Niro gets distracted during their conversation because he notices that blueberry muffins they are eating have a grossly unequal number of blueberries. He then takes the president of the casino into the kitchen of their casino to berate the cook and make the insane request that every blueberry muffin have an equal number of blueberries.

Everything about De Niro’s rise and fall can be understand from this sequence. His attention to detail allowed him his success but his inability to see the forest for the trees was his undoing in both his personal and professional life. It also embodied the insanity of completely unfettered capitalism that the film explored. The entire world is sick due to this system and the rot is just so impossibly deep. It is one of Scorese’s most tragic and beautiful films.



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