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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!