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Martin Scorsese - Top Five Films

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes 57 seconds

Despite an abysmal winter, spring and most of the summer, 2019 is actually shaping up to be a good year for cinema. The first ray of sunshine came in the form of Quentin Tarantino’s wish fulfillment ode to Los Angeles, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Then the cultural hurricane known as Joker came along and sent the woke brigade and the impotent cuckolds in the establishment media into a full blown panic before most ever even saw it. When the Joker finally made landfall it was an insightful and electrifying artistic nuclear explosion at the center of the comic book genre that has dominated the box office and the culture wars.

Now that Halloween has come and gone, cinematic master Martin Scorsese has a new film, The Irishman, hitting theatres, and shortly thereafter hitting Netflix, that is generating massive Oscar buzz. This will be followed by another enigmatic auteur, Terrence Malick, who has a new film, A Hidden Life, coming out this December.

With Tarantino, Joaquin Phoenix, Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick in the mix, it is a good time time be a cinephile…and since Scorsese’s new film came out last Friday and I haven’t seen it yet, it is also a good time for me to rank his top five films.

Scorsese is the most important film maker of his generation and maybe the most important American film maker of all time. Unlike Spielberg and his popcorn movies, Scorsese hasn’t padded his wallet with his work but instead advanced the art of cinema. Nearly every single film and filmmaker of note over the last 40 years has used Scorsese’s artistic palette to paint their own works. His use of dynamic camera movement, popular music and unorthodox storytelling structures and styles have become requisite and foundational film making skills. Scorsese didn’t invent cinema, but he did invent a new style of it that did not exist prior to his rise to prominence in the 1970’s, and that is why he is the most unique of auteurs.

Scorsese’s filmography can be split in two, with 1997’s Kundun being the end of the first half of his film making career, and 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead being the beginning of the latter part of his career. The first half of his career is staggeringly impressive, as he jumped genres with ease. Films as diverse as the gritty Taxi Driver, the musical New York, New York, the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ, the remake of Cape Fear, the enigmatic sequel to The Hustler, The Color of Money, and his biography of the Dalai Lama, Kundun, showcase Scorsese’s cinematic versatility.

The second half of his career has shown Scorsese to have lost a few miles per hour off his fastball and to have been brow beaten by the studios into making more mainstream fare. 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead was awful, most notably because Scorsese fell under the then popular spell of acting charlatan Nicholas Cage. Gangs of New York had similarly bad casting decisions, such as Cameron Diaz, no doubt encouraged by meddling money people…like Harvey Weinstein, who also took a gigantic shit on Scorsese’s vision of the film by demanding he cut 45 minutes off the running time. Other notable films from this period are The Aviator, Shutter Island and Hugo, all of which are less Scorsese films than they are studio films made by Scorsese.

Scorsese’s lone Academy Award win for Best Director came during this period with the film The Departed. The Departed is an ok movie, but it definitely feels more like a knock-off of a Scorsese film than an actual Scorsese film. It also feels like it could have been directed by anybody, which is more an indictment of the movie than and endorsement of the movie making.

The first half of Scorsese’s career is highlighted by his frequent collaborations with Robert DeNiro, and the second half by his frequent collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio. If you’re looking for any greater piece of evidence that Scorsese is no longer at his peak, look no further than that fact. DiCaprio is a fine actor, but he is no Robert DeNiro, as DeNiro in his heyday was as good an actor as we have ever seen.

That said, Scorsese has made some great films in the second half of his career…as my list will attest…and who knows, maybe The Irishman will be worthy of inclusion. I am definitely looking forward to seeing it.

Now without further delay…onto the the list of Martin Scorsese’s “five” best films!

5C - Wolf of Wall Street (2013) - Wolf of Wall Street sneaks onto the list because it is uproariously funny while also being socially and politically insightful. In the face of the grotesque corruption so evident on Wall Street and in Washington, it was nice to see Scorsese focus his talents on the decadence and depravity that are the soul of American capitalism. It also helps that this is the only time the DiCaprio collaboration works, as Leo does the best work of his career as Jordan Belfort.

5B - Casino (1995) - Casino is an often often overlooked gem in Scorsese’s filmography. The film may have suffered from “Scorsese fatigue” as it appeared to tread on the same “mob” ground his recent masterpiece Goodfellas (1991). Casino is an indulgent masterwork in its own right, as Scorsese tells the story of how the west was won, and lost, by the Italian mafia, who were replaced by the corporate mafia. The film showcases some stellar performances from DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone.

5A - Silence (2016) - Silence is the very best film of the second half of his career…so far. Scorsese has always carried a Catholic cross bearing a tortured Christ on it throughout most of his films, and Silence is a tantalizing glimpse at the muse that has haunted Scorsese his entire artistic life. Silence is an ambitious film, and it doesn’t quite live up to its ambitions, but it still is great. One thing that I felt hampered the film was that it also was the victim of cuts for time, which is frustrating as Silence is a rare film in that it runs 160 minutes but deserved, and needed, to run at least another 45 minutes. Secondly, Scorsese once again falls for artistic fool’s gold by casting this generations Nicholas Cage, the mystifyinly popular Adam Driver.

4. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)- Speaking of Scorsese’s Catholicism…The Last Temptation of Christ hit theatres while I was attending Catholic high school, and you would’ve thought that Satan himself had put the movie out. Students were read a statement by the diocese imploring us not to see the movie because it was blasphemous and viewing it would guarantee a one-way trip to eternal damnation. Obviously, I responded to this warning by rushing out and seeing the film as quickly as I could…and I am glad I did (and I’m still Catholic!). The Catholic Church’s fear over this film was so absurd as to be laughable, and this is only heightened by the fact that the film is the most spiritually vibrant and resonant depiction of Christ ever captured on film.

3. The Age of Innocence (1993) - The Age of Innocence is the most un-Scorsese of Scorsese films, as it tackles romantic intrigue among the austere world of Edith Wharton’s 1870’s New York. In many ways The Age of Innocence is a massive cinematic flex by Scorsese as he shows off his directorial versatility and exquisite film making skill. While the casting of Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer were hurdles to overcome, Scorsese does so and in magnificent fashion as The Age of Innocence is an exercise in dramatic and cinematic precision.

2. The King of Comedy (1982)- The King of Comedy is a piece of cinematic gold that accurately and insightfully diagnoses America’s star-fueled, delusional culture. The film is highlighted by Robert DeNiro, who gives an unnervingly committed and forceful performance as Rupert Pupkin, the celebrity obsessed comic wannabe who tries to get his big break by any means necessary.

The King of Comedy crackles because Scorsese creates a palpable sense of claustrophobic desperation that permeates every scene in the movie. The film is genuinely funny but uncomfortably unsettling and undeniably brilliant.

1C - Raging Bull (1980) - The top three films here could be in any order as all of them are undeniable masterpieces and the height of cinematic achievement. Raging Bull, the black and white look at former Middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta, is a tour-de-force from not only the film’s star Robert DeNiro, who won a Best Actor Oscar, but from Martin Scorsese, who brings all of his cinematic skills to bear on the most cinematic of sports, boxing.

Scorsese uses LaMotta’s story to explore the meaning of masculinity, its incessant fragility and its inherent volatility. While Scorsese does masterful work bringing LaMotta’s battles inside the ring to exquisite life, his most brilliant film making achievement is in illuminating LaMotta’s most imposing fight, the one raging inside of himself.

1B - Taxi Driver - Taxi Driver once again shows both Scorsese and DeNiro at the very top of their game. The film perfectly captures the madness of New York City in the 1970’s, and the spiraling madness of a delusional loner who is the modern day everyman.

Scorsese’s camera rides along a taxi cab as it ventures through the gritty streets and bares witness to the sick and venal society that produces pimps, whores and politicians, and we get to know Travis Bickle, who is the rain that will wash these filthy streets clean.

A simply astonishing film in every respect. Not just one of Scorsese’s greatest films, but one of the greatest films of all-time.

1A - Goodfellas - Goodfellas is a not only a monumental cinematic achievement, it is also a fantastically entertaining and eminently rewatchable masterpiece. Over the last thirty years, whenever I have stumbled across Goodfellas playing on cable, I will always and everytime stop and watch whatever scene is on, and 9 times out of 10, will end up watching the rest of the movie.

A terrific cast that boasts superb performances from Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco, turns this film about New York gangsters, into a familiar and familial tale that everyone can relate to in one way or another. The New York of Goodfellas, is the New York of my youth, and those populating that world are my Irish family…all of them. In my family there’s a Paulie, a Henry, a Jimmy and everyone knows a Tommy. These guys are my uncles and their friends and cousins, and their wives are my aunts. Watching Goodfellas is like watching a home movie for me.

The film teems with iconic scenes and sequences, from entering the Copa to the “Layla” dead bodies sequence to “hoof” to “go get your shine box” to “what do you want fucko?” to “funny how? I mean, funny like a clown? I amuse you?” I can’t get enough of Goodfellas, as I’ve probably seen the movie at least 100 times, and I’ve discovered something new every time I’ve seen it.

Scorsese has made many masterpieces, but Goodfellas is his most entertaining masterpiece, and is a testament and monument to his greatness.

More proof of Scorsese’s genius is that I had many, many films that I love sit just on the outside of my top “five”…such as Mean Streets, The Color of Money, Cape Fear and Kundun, and they stand up to most other makers very best work.

And thus concludes my Scorsese top “five”…which is really a top nine, because Scorsese, the consummate rule breaking director, deserves a list that breaks the rules. So go forth and watch as much Scorsese as you can, and let’s hope that The Irishmen lives up to the hype!


Roma: A Review


My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE. IT. NOW. A directorial tour de force and utter masterpiece from Alfonso Cuaron.

Roma, written, directed, shot and edited by Alfonso Cuaron, is the story of Cleo, an indigenous young woman who works as a live-in maid for a middle-class Mexican family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood in the 1970’s. The film stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in her first acting role.

2018 has not been a good year for movies, and as the final days of the year quickly fall away the chances of a cinematic redemption have grown ever more bleak. But sometimes a Christmas miracle occurs and a movie comes along that reminds us why God invented cinema in the first place…Roma is that movie. Simply said, Roma is a stunningly beautiful, staggeringly well-crafted masterpiece.

Director Alfonso Cuaron has made some very good movies in his time, the most notable of which were Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Gravity (2013), for which he won the Best Director Oscar. My personal favorite of Cuaron’s movies is the under appreciated Children of Men (2006), which I thought was magnificent but was maybe a little too dark and too existential for audiences and Oscar voters to embrace. Cuaron’s filmography is a testament to his storytelling ability and his dedication to craft, which brings us to Roma…and in the case of Alfonso Cuaron, all roads lead to Roma.

Auteur Cuaron puts on a remarkable directorial and cinematographic tour de force with Roma. Cuaron’s direction is intimate, intricate and impeccable and creates an immersive cinematic experience that is so sublime as to be hypnotic. Cuaron’s artistic visual prowess is on full display from the very first shot of the film, which is cinematically glorious in every way, and only grows from there.

Cuaron shoots the entire movie in black and white and intermittently uses a slowly panning camera which at times goes a full 360 degrees, to masterfully tell the story of Roma with moving pictures instead of words. Cuaron’s camera movement, framing, choreography and blocking are absolutely exquisite, and are the work of a true master. In fact, you could watch Roma with the subtitles off, and if you don’t speak Spanish or Mixtec you would still have an equally profound cinematic experience. There are so many visual sequences in Roma that are so breathtaking, and dramatic scenes so gut-wrenching, that viewers are left in a cinematic stupor when it is all over.

Cuaron’s use of black and white and his complete mastery of craft are reminiscent of another great auteur’s seminal work, Martin Scorsese and his 1980 classic Raging Bull. While the story’s of Raging Bull and Roma are very different, the artistry and craftsmanship that brought them to life and propelled their narratives are very similar.

Roma is a perfect stylistic combination of realism and formalism, where the viewer is shown a realistic slice of life in Mexico City in 1970 but one that is littered with mythic and political symbolism. Everything in Roma is intentional and deliberate, filled with deeper meaning and symbolic significance.

Water opens the film and plays a vital symbolic role throughout, signifying transitions and/or baptisms and rebirths. The symbolism of dogs (and their shit) rears its head…literally…and carries with it the symbolism of status and social hierarchy throughout the film. Planes, (symbolic of higher planes of spiritual existence), containers such as eggs and cups (symbolic of the womb-the container of the life force) along with natural disasters (symbolic of God/Fate/Destiny) and social unrest (symbolic of the political as the personal) are all used throughout the movie to great affect. These rich symbols are hiding in plain sight in Roma, but their deeper mythic and archetypal meaning is pulsating just beneath the mask of Mexico City’s middle-class mundanity.

Roma is the story of one drop of water lost in the meaningful, yet mystical and mysterious, Sea of Life. It is a detailed glimpse of the specifics of one woman’s life, where tedious work is transformed into transcendent ritual and the minute and mundane into spiritual magnificence.

Roma’s politics are both personal and profound, as class and social hierarchy are at the fore of the story, and speak to the scourge of income inequality and the enormous disparity of wealth across the globe and the angry populists sentiments rising in reaction to it. The reason viewers so quickly project themselves onto Cleo is because so many of us are in her shoes in one way or another, under the boot of someone higher up the social/economic class totem pole. Cleo is all of us, exploited and degraded by those who consider themselves our superiors and who look down upon us from tony, Ivy League, Washington, Wall Street, Media, Hollywood perches. Cleo’s struggles are our struggles, in one form or another, and as elites across the globe have been slow to discover, that struggle is quickly becoming conscious and growing very sharp and lethal teeth.

Cuaron’s skillful direction is not limited to just his camera work, as he coaxes an astounding performance from first time actress Yolitza Aparicio. Ms. Aparicio is staggeringly good as Cleo, creating a grounded and genuine character that is part sherpa and part lama, whom the audience is instantly drawn to and sympathetic towards. Aparicio is so comfortable on camera that it appears she isn’t acting at all, and while this may be a case of a person just being perfect for a specific role, that does not diminish her incredible work in Roma. There are so many scenes where Ms. Aparicio has to do so much in regards to blocking and specific “business” and has to do them all with perfect timing and in synchronicity with very detailed camera moves, that it is just remarkable she is able to pull it off. I can tell you with first hand, recent experience with some famous actors, that Ms. Apricio’s skill in regards to doing this is very, very uncommon, and extremely beneficial to a director. Ms. Aparicio isn’t painting by numbers as Cleo either, she brings a potent and palpable emotional vitality to the role that is so compelling it drives the entire film.

In conclusion, Roma is a monumental and magnificent masterpiece that is a film for our times and of our times. It is one of those films that restores my faith in the art form and reminds me of why cinema exists in the first place and why I love it so much. I am hesitant to write too much about the film because I don’t want to spoil it, but just know this…I cannot encourage you strongly enough to go see Roma. If you can see it in the theatre, do so to swim in the lush and immaculate waters of Cuaron’s cinematography on the big screen, but if not, watch it on Netflix (it is available now). I don’t care where you see it, just see it, and bask in the glow of Alfonso Cuaron’s talent and skill, because with Roma, he is currently at the height of his glorious cinematic powers.


First Reformed: A Review


My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A serious art house meditation on religion and politics and the politics of religion. A flawed but worthwhile film for the religiously, spiritually and cinematically inclined.

First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, is the story of Toller, a protestant pastor and former military chaplain, struggling with his faith amidst environmental and personal concerns. The film stars Ethan Hawke as Toller, with supporting turns from Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles. 

First Reformed is a fascinating film that, like Jacob with the angel, wrestles with complex issues of faith and politics (and a fusing of the two), with a deft and insightful passion. I can't tell you what a joy it is for me to see a film that takes seriously matters of faith and genuinely grapples with religious issues without falling into either a display of saccharine christianity or reflexive anti-religiosity. 

When Ethan Hawke's character Toller mentions iconic 20th century Catholic monk Thomas Merton, and later has a small debate with a fellow pastor over Merton's work, I knew this was no ordinary movie about religion, but rather a serious contemplation of complex spiritual issues. Spiritual questions, such as whether in the search for a vibrant religious life should one engage with the world (and its politics) or retreat from it into a monk-like existence, and the perils of both approaches, are at the forefront of First Reformed

Writer/director Paul Schrader is best known for being the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese's masterpieces Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. While Schrader is an infinitely more talented writer than director, he did on one occasion make an exquisite film, his 1997 examination of familial rage, Affliction. That film resonated so deeply with me that I frequently contemplate it even twenty years later. Affliction aside, Schrader's films usually suffer from his less polished direction. 

I think, in keeping with Schrader's history, First Reformed is infinitely better written than it is directed, but Schrader's direction is strong enough to put it in second place in his directorial cannon behind Affliction. There are certainly some pacing problems with the narrative, not that it goes too slow, but rather it makes dramatic leaps that the story hasn't quite yet earned, which left me feeling that the final third of the film was a bit dramatically rushed. In addition, the transition from the realism of the first two thirds of the film to the final third's deep dive into symbolism and the metaphorical, might be jarring to some, but I encourage you to make the leap as it is worth the effort to suspend your disbelief (which may very well be the brilliant sub-text of the entire film). 

Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan do paint an intriguing picture with First Reformed, particularly with their framing. There are some shots that are absolutely delicious, such as when Dynan turns a rather mundane shot of Toller's entrance into a church into a visual masterpiece by simply shooting from above (God's perspective) down onto a rug with the church's logo on it turned upside down. It is a dizzyingly glorious shot that, like all great pictures, speaks a thousand words. 

The religious and spiritual dimensions of the film are surprisingly nuanced and complex. Toller is representative of a traditionalist (old world) faith, his church is one of the oldest in America, but that faith is dying. His church is nicknamed "the souvenir shop" because people don't go to actually worship there, only to stop by for historical tours and to buy trinkets. 

Toller's "old religion" is contrasted with the new wave mega-church of Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyle). Toller deems Pastor Jeffers house of worship more akin to a corporation than a church but he still tries to off-load his counseling duties to its abundant staff. This religious clash between Toller and Jeffers in First Reformed is playing out in real time here in the U.S. as evangelical mega churches sell a corporatized, flag waving, prosperity gospel under the veneer of Christianity while more traditional churches get more and more marginalized in the culture and their pews are more and more empty. 

The Toller character is not only representative of the old church, but of God's green earth. Not only is Toller's faith and church dying, but so is the planet, and Toller's body comes to symbolize the earth. Toller fills his body with toxic trash and refuses to change his behavior even when doctors tell him he must in order to save himself. First Reformed makes the case that the same is true of corporate America (and the world), who constantly ignore existential environmental concerns in favor of myopic capitalist ones. 

As the film plays out, Toller turns into a Christ-like figure, battling demons within and without and trying to save his soul in the process. Like Christ, Toller must choose between a dizzying array of archetypes…is he a warrior, a martyr, a savior, a devil or all of the above? Is Toller an activist or a terrorist? An evangelist or a monk? As Toller goes deeper and deeper into the rabbit's hole in search for the meaning and purpose of his life (and maybe all life), spiritual vertigo sets in, at which point viewers are asked to take some leaps that may be a bridge too far for some, but which I found to be challenging yet deeply rewarding. 

Ethan Hawke does some of his best work as Toller. Hawke's Toller has a world weary gravitas about him that fills the character with a troubled present, past and future. Hawke gives Toller a palpable cross to bear, and his skillful performance lures the viewer in to help him carry it. Toller's metamorphosis and awakening in the film is compelling and is a testament to Hawke's talent and mastery of craft. 

Amanda Seyfried plays Mary and is meant to be symbolic of hope and potential. While at times Seyfried performance feels a bit out of rhythm with the film, and feels unconscionably lightweight next to Hawke's burdened Toller, she does do enough to fulfill the character's dramatic purpose. Treating Seyfried's Mary as less a real-life character and more a totem of spiritual hope and redemption makes her performance much more digestible. 

Cedric Kyle, who is better known as Cedric the Entertainer, is unrecognizable from his comedic persona as Pastor Jeffers. I had no idea that is who the actor really was as Kyle looks the same but is energetically unrecognizable to Cedric the Entertainer. Kyle gives a seamless performance that is shocking because it is entirely without any artifice. 

In conclusion, First Reformed is a very interesting, if somewhat flawed film, that I found well worth worth my time and money. If you have minimal or no interest in matters of faith and religion, this film will be too much for you. And if you are allergic to the art house, then stay well clear of First Reformed. But if you are a cinephile, a religiously minded or faithful person, and can make the leap from taking the film literally to taking it figuratively, First Reformed is the film for you. It certainly won't give you any easy answers, but it will definitely ask you some very difficult and profound questions.