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Feature: A definitive ranking of Scorsese’s deep well of films

With The Irishman landing on Netflix on November 27th, we’ve taken a deep-dive into the back catalogue (no documentaries this time around) of one of the most important filmmakers of all time.

No living filmmaker has had as big an impact on the art as Martin Scorsese. To this day he continues to change the shape of the art and how we access it; forever a student of film, always wanting to learn and, in turn, teaching through his learning. We often think of him as a man that deals with crime, masculinity, the darker corners of life. For us however, he is always searching for the light, or at least trying to reveal what it is that powers darkness.

So here is our controversy-free list of his 25 narrative feature films from our least favourite to favourite. The beauty of this list is that the films could be in nearly any order. More than half of these are completely necessary works of art that can be considered essential in their own right. It’s an ambitious attempt at organising something where there are no right answers, yet we’ve had a bloody good go anyway.

25. The Color of Money (1986)
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The unreadable Paul Newman (receiving his one and only Oscar in the role) and a smug Tom Cruise go to town in Scorsese’s really rather boring sequel to The Hustle (1961). Scorsese’s usually uncompromising approach to filmmaking seems to have fallen victim to the restraints Hollywood may have placed on the picture, making it meandering, predictable and at times frustrating.

24. Boxcar Bertha (1972)
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Scorsese’s second feature is certainly his least autonomous. Both the production and finish of the film suffer from being driven by producer Roger Corman’s vision: an exploitation western where sex and violence take president over style or character development. The film isn’t unenjoyable though, with solid performances and thin yet fun characterisation. Also, the final shot alone makes up for several of the film’s downfalls.

23. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
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Bringing Out the Dead is a product of its time stylistically, and definitely the most 90s feeling of Scorsese’s films. The swiping cuts, frantic (and at times mismatched) soundtrack and unhinged Nicolas Cage performance feel like something separate to what Scorsese knows, with more of Schrader’s fingerprints on it. Yet you have to admire a director with an established formula for quality movies taking visual influence from the decade where he was at his most prolific, but it doesn’t fully pay off.

22. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
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Scorsese’s most commercially successful film, embraced by film bros, norms and his doting arthouse fanbase, The Wolf of Wall Street was a triumph. Its depiction of sex, drugs and expensive lifestyles through the lens of what some would see as a straight-up comedy is at times wildly entertaining. Part of its success is down to how easily digestible it is, even more so than something as widely adored as Goodfellas, but that is part of the problem. In presenting us with a character more unlikeable that any criminal or murderer he has portrayed before, we are given far less to chew on in the shape of Jordan Belfort.

21. Gangs of New York (2002)
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Gangs of New York certainly feels like one of Scorsese’s passion projects. There’s an engaging (if not at times laboured) story of revenge, belonging, corruption and American ignorance that is sometimes told with political bite and patriotic reasoning, albeit sometimes with sentimental lulls. Daniel Day-Lewis electrifies every shot he’s in, making DiCaprio look rather insignificant in his first collaboration with the director. It lacks the energy and intensity of some of his previous gang films but it says a lot that one of his lesser films is still an achievement like this.

20. Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967)
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A very fine debut by the standards of American indie, WTKAMD is an exciting, energising blueprint for Scorsese’s career. A fresh-faced Harvey Keitel in his screen debut is sufficiently awkward and endearing to begin with, but Scorsese brings out another side of him that gradually goes from annoying film-bro to all-out misogynist. Scorsese still regularly flexes his technical potential and ability to handle juxtaposition here, showing that he was one to watch from the start.

19. Shutter Island (2010)
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The follow up to his most plot-driven film yet (The Departed) sees Marty doubling down on that trend with a mysterious thriller. Shutter Island can be heavy-handed and in hindsight the film’s smaller details are magnified, revealing a cruelty to the film’s orchestration that relies entirely on us not knowing. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun. Scorsese dips a toe into horror here, flaunting a plateau of masterfully achieved gothic elements. You wonder why he’s never gone all out with the genre before.

18. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
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Sandwiched between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver it’s natural to see this as a weird moment for Scorsese. His first Hollywood picture and his first to get some recognition from the Academy (1 win for Ellen Burstyn and 2 nominations for Diane Ladd and Robert Getchell), Alice acts as somewhat of a rest stop for Marty. A female-led tale of a woman searching for contentment in womanhood and motherhood and a desire to be proud of herself, Alice balances family drama and road movie to heartwarming effect, making the most of Getchall’s witty one-liner-filled script.

17. New York, New York (1977)
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The film that pushed Scorsese to depression and drug addiction thanks to its messy production and box office failure is actually a film that holds up far better than its reputation. It has all the hallmarks of an epic Scorsese, and shows a great deal of cine-literacy in evoking a look and feel of classic pictures too, particularly film noir. De Niro and Minelli’s chemistry—though a little too romantic of old fashioned values—captures the essence of the playful love/hate relationships golden age cinema used to achieve. Also, ‘Theme to New York, New York’ was made for a Scorsese movie – think about that.

16. Cape Fear (1991)
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As with previous genre films of his like Boxcar Bertha, Scorsese flexes his knack for perfectly imitating a style that is not necessarily his own. This remake is an effective amplification of the original’s menace and goes a step further in highlighting the ineptitude of the law around rape. What makes this so effective is Scorsese’s cine-literacy, and his ability to mimic Hitchcock-ian thrillers, emphasising that a remake like this may only be worth trying to pull off by a director of Scorsese’s ability.

15. The Departed (2006)
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The Departed’s significance lies in Scorsese’s overdue recognition from The Academy. A remake of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, it felt like a shame that he couldn’t have won for a masterpiece. Honestly though, who gives a shit? Perhaps his most plot-driven and star-studded film, The Departed simply bangs. Scorsese brings his steady, crime-worn hands to a genre reliant on mystery, suspense, and second-guessing. The double double-crossing, the array of  brazen performances and Jack Nicholson’s animal print wardrobe help bring to life a tale of identity crisis with a pulpy edge.

14. Casino (1995)
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Since its release nearly a quarter of a century ago, Casino has gained a better reputation than it had back in 1995. Some people even consider it a more mature work than the thematically similar Goodfellas, but the early critiques of Scorsese treading familiar ground are justified. It’s maybe the film in Scorsese’s back catalogue that pops most with colour, going all out on the neon vibrancy of Las Vegas and the hyper-violence of the mob. We’re also given two narrators in De Niro and Pesci, warring against each other to throw another spanner in the works of the unreliable narrator. It’s not Scorsese at his sharpest, yet it’s still a vital mob movie.

13. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
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Although faith and Catholicism had been a focal point of a lot of Scorsese’s work, up until this moment he’d never really centred it as a subject: in The Last Temptation  Scorsese grapples with faith from the off. Never a black and white topic, we get to see Jesus as fragile, flawed and confused, someone who is just human. This portrayal of Christ has been controversial to many Christian groups but for all the right reasons. Scorsese’s articulation of his feelings towards faith gets a little muddied, but that’s symptomatic of this kind of search for answers and an apt way to express one’s doubts.

12. Kundun (1997)
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After spending most of the 90s making films like Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Casino Scorsese was probably tired of violent people, making his film about the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist teachings a necessary exercise. That’s not to say that Kundun doesn’t tackle violence though. Kundun is not so much an escape from violence as much as a way of looking at it from the receiving end. The director’s one and only collaboration with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins is an inflamed canvas of delicious reds, oranges, yellows and golds engulfing the Tibetan landscape. This is Marty looking and listening, conveying a history lesson he’s become obsessed with, in maybe his most passive of ways.

11. The Aviator (2004)
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Yet another example of Scorsese being an avid history student, this time essaying on the turbulent life of filmmaker and aviator Howard Hughes. With his historical films, you always get the sense that Scorsese is sinking his teeth into something that captivates him and The Aviator is another showcase of the intricacies that make up people’s lives. DiCaprio gives an erratic (and often over-expressive) portrayal of a fascinating and troubled man riddled with OCD. The conflict between Hughes’ compulsive obsessions and his obsession to achieve makes The Aviator one of Scorsese’s most ambitious and detailed pictures.

10. After Hours (1985)
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Where Bringing Out the Dead was Scorsese’s most 90s film, this is his most 80s. Griffin Dunne energetically plays Paul, a man who constantly feels everything is going against him, constantly amplifying his agitation. Here the sense that everything that can go wrong will go wrong doesn’t make us sympathise, but makes us laugh at Paul and his misfortune. There is an unreality at play here compared to Scorsese’s other films, so the continual doom and gloom of our protagonist’s situation has a ridiculous humour to it. It’s a zippy, small scale adventure movie that is, to a degree, light relief in Scorsese’s filmography.

9. Hugo (2011)
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Hugo is an experiment with 3D, a tribute to film, a question of how things work as both technical mechanisms and the mechanics of the soul and a parable about failure. Hugo is a tale about seeing, being seen and reaching until we get the answers that satisfy our thirst for knowledge and love. It plays out in gestures, actions, visual cues—letting us see into Hugo’s heart rather than have him try to explain. Inaudible interactions played out in disciplined, measured shots that take us right back to the silent era.There’s a lightness of touch to the romances, the slapstick, the squabbling. It’s an intriguing, magical, painful and illuminating family film that deserves a better reputation.

8. Mean Streets (1973)
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Mean Streets is the true follow-on from his debut and the film that really put Scorsese’s name out there as a modern voice in cinema. Ever since its release it has had a significant impact on both American indie and gangster films all over the world. A star-is-born moment for Robert De Niro, the movie is energised by his volatile enthusiasm and sheer idiocy, then calmed down by Keitel’s guilt-hiding charisma. The structure, writing, performances, and subtext all have an understated maturity to them that have set a template for all modern crime films. It’s a fully realised vision in just his third feature.

7. The Age of Innocence (1993)
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A decadent, romantic costume drama from the guy who gave us Goodfellas is a dream prospect for me. For someone so commanding with setting, character and juicy plots it seems just the sort of venture Marty should’ve tried sooner, and should try again! Around all the costumes, flower arrangements and paintings Scorsese provides us with yet another male protagonist we can’t make up our minds about.

We are bombarded with the lavishness of his life, his immense privilege, his fulfilling work, and social lives and beautiful wife. Yet, we still want what he wants. Because of Day-Lewis’ aching performance, we concede our jealousy of his two apparent options (the love of Winona Ryder or Michelle Pfeiffer) and wish for him what his heart desires, even amongst such an embarrassment of riches.

6. Raging Bull (1980)
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It probably wouldn’t finish as low as sixth in any other list it was part of, but the undefeated champion of boxing movies is somehow not even in Scorsese’s top five. The biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta is a turbulent fall from something near grace.  Based on the memoir of the American boxer, Raging Bull follows LaMotta (played by De Niro who won is one and only Best Actor Oscar for the role) from early 40s to mid-60s as he goes from promising youngster to down-and-out comedian.

The chronicling of this period of his life is envisioned perfectly by Scorsese, never afraid to show LaMotta as an awful person. The boxing sequences are remarkable and groundbreaking, putting you in the ring with the actors for a visceral experience. Great supporting performances from Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty give a beautiful fragility to a story of victims who struggle to escape their love for a paranoid man.

5. Silence (2016)
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Maybe his most ambitious film, Silence is slow, painful and torturous from the off. You get an instant impression from the steaming hot springs, military demeanour of the Japanese and vast landscape that this is perhaps the deepest Scorsese has been willing to take us his whole career. Its obvious partner is The Last Temptation, where yet again the human condition is stripped bare at the mercy of something continually queried, but this time we get a harsher look at the repression and inquisition of one’s faith.

Never has Scorsese explored a landscape so rich and dense in nature, an earthly tool in which to frame and silence beliefs that are otherworldly. He manages to match this beauty and marvel with a brutality both physical and spiritual. Truly his most stunning film to look at and arguably his most painful to think about, Silence is a perfect way to begin the top five.

4. The Irishman (2019)
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52 years in the game, Scorsese proves he’s still a purveyor of the latest technologies by collaborating with the industry’s largest streaming service, whilst also reuniting with De Niro and Pesci for the first time in 24 years, going back to gangsters and finally getting to work with Pacino. It’s hard to say what this blend of new and old is a recipe for just by reading about it; watching it though is a different matter.

The Irishman is three and a half hours of unrelenting reflection that rips through its sharp, controlled narrative. We see into the heart of Marty, his fascination with the genre, the brutality of man, and look out onto what is his most sweepingly sorrowful epic yet. It’s conflicting to feel such a sadness towards such contemptuous people but it’s what Scorsese wants, and he wants to do it for himself. As a one-two with Silence, you really get a sense of Scorsese’s age, a slow and sombre approach towards the edge.

3. The King of Comedy (1982)
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Scorsese and De Niro’s fifth collaboration is perhaps their most underseen, and yet it’s easily one of their best. A second capturing of incel behaviour after Taxi Driver (way before we even knew that word), only instead of a seething hatred of the world, De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin displays an inexplicable delusion bred out of the misbelief he’s destined for more.

As with many white men, there’s very little evidence to suggest he is justified in thinking this. His desire to be famous is only exceeded by his desire to know the famous, and his sycophancy acts as a motivator for his increasingly disturbing behaviours. A heavily underappreciated film by the masses that is rife with humour, creepiness and a De Niro performance better than his Oscar-winning turn in Raging Bull. Also, my favourite of all Scorsese’s title sequences.

2. Goodfellas (1990)
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For my (and many others’) money, Goodfellas is the ultimate mob movie. To chronicle a story spanning that amount of time, juggling that many perfectly realised characters with such clarity and coherence is a feat seldom achieved in the history of cinema. It’s a film not just concerned with its subject matter’s material and mechanics, but how that material can drive and dictate the pace of the film.

By increasing the tension scene after scene and keeping the tone of its characters in a constant state of flux, Goodfellas renders as close to a true depiction of low-lives living the high life as we’re likely to ever see. The film itself acts as a pivot to the dizzyingly enjoyable ascent of its protagonists and their inevitable downward trajectory. A perfect example of cinematic craft, Goodfellas is impossible to deny as a cornerstone of not only the crime genre, but of cinema itself.

1. Taxi Driver (1976)
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That opening shot. That score. That script. That… De Niro. Everything here is perfection; a landmark in American cinema, and a pillar of modern cinema as a whole. Taxi Driver is the godfather of incel movies before incel culture had even become a part of the collective consciousness, and Travis Bickle is the truest encapsulation of the delusional white man. His misogyny, racism, and homophobia are all typical of a man that cannot blame himself for the state of the world he so despises.

Ravaged by a saviour complex and complete contempt of the world he inhabits Travis must act. In setting out on a path of destruction he must be seen to be doing some good and what better way to do that than saving one of society’s precious children? The film has had many interpretations but for me, it acts as a warning sign. It’s a sign that a figure such as Travis is but a product of our way of life and who determines its course, yet we don’t seem to have learned anything.

Taxi Driver is the jewel in the crown of what is one of the most impressive bodies of work in any art form. You could start here as an entry point to Scorsese’s filmography or use this as a marker with which to measure all of his films. Either way, you’ll want to come back to it in the end and savour it as a master among masterworks.

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Harry Jones

Long and incompetent man who is being allowed to write about films you can watch from your bed.