The word “auteur” is usually reserved, in film circles anyway, for people who write and direct (and possibly more) their own films. This means that whatever we see on screen is their vision writ large. There are a handful of directors who I’d say deserve this moniker, even if they don’t write. Certainly Hitchcock never wrote a screenplay (really) and yet he’s undeniably an auteur. I think the same holds true for Martin Scorsese, who in his nearly-50-year career has put one of the most distinctive and indelible stamps on the movie industry of any director, living or dead.
Scorsese’s movies are typically frenetic, both in editing and the cinematography. He’s worked with the same editor his whole career (the great Thelma Schoonmaker), has basically used the same shortlist of cinematographers (Michael Chapman, Michael Ballhaus, and Robert Richardson), and they all work together to create the right pace and energy that reflects the material.
Below are my personal seven favorite Martin Scorsese movies. I’ve chosen only to talk about the narrative films, though he’s made some astounding documentaries as well. I’ll also admit I’ve never seen King of Comedy. It’s a blind spot in my Scorsese knowledge, I’m aware, and this list might change once I do. Until then, these are my 7. As always, your mileage may vary.
7) After Hours (1985)
This movie has everything going for it as far as I’m concerned: an all-in-one-night time frame, a completely hapless character pushed to the edge of sanity, ever-escalating bad circumstances, and a supporting cast made up of terrifying weirdos. Something of an oddity for Scorsese, After Hours follows Griffin Dunne’s character on what should have been just a regular night but ends up full of embarrassment, violence, death, and a cute girl in a cute room with tons of mousetraps on the floor. Tremendous supporting cast as well. Like all/most of Scorsese’s movies, there’s a moment of reflecting on life through the lens of God. It’s his Catholic upbringing, you see. This is a very ’80s movie, but it’s just so amazingly dark and funny that anybody could watch it any old time.
6) Hugo (2011)
Speaking of oddities for Scorsese, this one seemed like it came out of nowhere. One of the director’s big passions is restoring old films through his company The Film Foundation, spending his own money to do so a lot of the time. In order to recoup some of these costs, Scorsese agreed to make a big 3D children’s film. I was going to see it regardless, but I was not sure how the famously gritty filmmaker would handle this kind of affair. First of all, he handled it great; secondly, I shouldn’t have worried at all. It’s EXACTLY in Scorsese’s wheelhouse, because it’s about the magic of cinema. The titular Hugo finds a clockwork man. Through him, while being chased around a Paris train station, he meets an old man who it turns out was Georges Melies, one of the fathers of cinema and one of the first practitioners of special effects. The 3D looked gorgeous and the story struck my cineaste chord. Well done, Mr S. Well done.
5) Shutter Island (2010)
I distinctly remember when the release date for this movie was changed from the end of 2009 to February of 2010. It was confusing. Why would a Martin Scorsese movie NOT be in contention for the Oscars, relegated to the place where studios dump their refuse? The truth is, though, that Shudder Island was probably never going to be in Oscar contention. And like the other two I’ve already talked about, it was Scorsese doing the kind of movie he wasn’t generally known for: a “ghost” movie with a twist ending. That was generally left for those other people. You know them. What makes this movie as good as it is is how Scorsese doesn’t tip his hand at all, keeping the secret close to the vest until he’s ready to reveal it. However, there are little hints and nods throughout for those who’ve seen it already or are particularly mindful.
4) The Departed (2006)
I saw this movie three times in the theater when it came out and then another several once it came out on DVD. I was mildly (okay, not so mildly) obsessed with this movie and just how much it chugged along. This felt like a movie Scorsese was born to make; he probably could have made it in his sleep, but he brought everything to it anyway. It’s a sad reality that he hadn’t won an Oscar before this, but I think he absolutely deserved it for this one. Though Scorsese had always made movies about New York and Italian criminals, he absolutely captured the Boston Irish organized crime feel. And as always, he’s able to get brilliant performances out of just about everybody in the whole movie. There’s even a visual reference to Psycho at one point, because he’s still Martin Scorsese after all.
3) Taxi Driver (1976)
Okay, let’s get to the classics here. You can’t talk about Scorsese without talking about these next three. Though he’d made a few features before, Taxi Driver is what established Scorsese as a force of cinematic nature. Perhaps due to his own struggles at the time, he was truly able to capture the fractured psyche of his lead character, Travis Bickle (played wonderfully by Robert De Niro), and manage to make him one of the most frightening yet sympathetic figures in films of the time. In the ’70s, with everyone still reeling from the Vietnam War, the country was in an angry state, very untrustworthy of authority, and getting increasingly fed up. Add to that, New York City had reached the pinnacle of being disgusting and hedonistic. That makes for a disturbed character who has a somewhat justifiable reason for wanting to take back the night. If you feel good after watching this movie, you’re weird, but if you feel you’ve just seen something incredible, you’re right in line.
2) Raging Bull (1980)
It’s pretty rare for me to know within the opening few seconds of a movie that I’m going to love it, but that happened the first time I saw Raging Bull. The black and white photography, the slow-motion shots of De Niro jumping around a boxing ring, and the sad, somber music by Pietro Mascagni all made me sit up and take notice. Again a story of a self-destructive person, this time De Niro played real-life boxer Jake La Motta who was flawless in the ring but nothing but flawed outside of it. Paranoid, violent, racist, and fairly loathsome at times, La Motta is nonetheless a hugely compelling figure. Scorsese again is able to capture the psyche of this man, changing the visual language of the film depending on what’s happening in his protagonist’s head. This is a gorgeous, gorgeous movie.
1) Goodfellas (1990)
As great as all of Scorsese’s other movies are, the one that I’ve never been able to shake is his 1990 ode to the mob. Based on the memoirs and life of gangster-turned-informant Henry Hill, Goodfellas both glamorizes and vilifies the life of guys in the ’60s-’80s who were part of organized crime. There’s certainly something enthralling about that lifestyle, especially as told by someone who’d been there, but around every corner was the opportunity for horrific, bloody violence and/or arrested and sent to prison. There are many virtuosic things in this movie, not least of which being the famous long take of Henry walking his date through the back of a busy New York nightclub or the increasingly quick cutting and zooming camerawork when Henry is on cocaine trying to traffic cocaine and hide cocaine from the police. This is a movie that no matter where it is, if I flipped passed it on TV, I’m going to watch the whole thing, and there can’t be any higher praise than that.
These are my top 7, surely yours are different! Let me know in the comments below!
IMAGE CREDIT: HBO