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Ranking Scorsese

November 27, 2006

In honor of The Departed’s success, I’ve decided to rank Martin Scorsese’s movies from best to worst. This is by no means comprehensive; I limited myself to his full-length dramatic works (which regrettably excludes The Last Waltz), of which there are 20. I’ve seen 16 of them. The four I have not seen are: New York, New York; Boxcar Bertha; Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; and Who’s That Knocking On My Door? Because any ranking of “best” is inherently subjective, I’ve looked at this exercise as more of a question of which movies I like best than a question of which movies are best-made.

1. Goodfellas. Is there any question? It’s as great a piece of entertainment as it is a work of art.
2. Kundun. Not many people have seen it, not many think it’s anything special but the combination of Phillip Glass’ haunting score and Tibetan imagery–the vultures picking at the Dalai Lama’s father’s remains, the creation and destruction of sand art–have a powerful effect on me. For me, it captures the elusive mix of contentment and pain that embodies the Buddhist approach to life. There’s a point in the soundtrack that consistently makes me envision the moment of my death.
3. Taxi Driver. Navel-gazing psychos are a dime a dozen in modern movies, but when Scorsese and Robert DeNiro created Travis Bickle, he was an original. And as shocking as the ending is even on repeated viewings, I still find that the rest of the movie creates such a believable picture of a city gone to rot that I identify with Bickles’ isolation. Anyone who’s experienced extended periods of being alone can empathize with Bickle. And that shot where Scorsese pulls the camera away when Bickle is calling Cybil Shepherd? Pure genius.
4. The Age of Innocence. Just a flawless investigation of complex social dynamics, as relevant today as when Edith Wharton wrote the novel on which it was based.
5. Raging Bull. By any kind of objective measurement, it’s at least as well-made and groundbreaking as Goodfellas, but I find its portrait of a dim-witted, violent man so depressing that I can only watch it once a decade. Nonetheless, it is a masterpiece and DeNiro gives one of the greatest performances ever.
6. After Hours. This ingenious and neglected little movie is a Kafka-esque journey through the fringes of modern city life. It’s not particularly realistic nor particularly comic, but it is often both funny and powerful, evoking those strange, mysterious feelings of solitude and connectedness you feel on late night walks.
7. The Last Temptation of Christ. Perhaps the second-greatest “What if?” movie after It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s really nothing special about this story of a Roman subject who marries and has children other than utterly complicating the world’s vision of its most important religious prophet.
8. Mean Streets. I haven’t seen it in a long time and I don’t remember much about it, but this is probably the closest we’ll ever get to an autobiographical Scorsese movie.
9. Gangs of New York. It’s flawed in almost countless ways–Leo’s acting, Cameron Diaz’s casting, Henry Thomas’ existence–but it succeeds in the most important way: it’s wildly entertaining, and Daniel Day-Lewis is absolutely brilliant as Bill the Butcher. Plus the opening streetfight is one of the most heart-pounding fight scenes ever.
10. Casino. Too long and a bit too reminiscent of Goodfellas, it’s still a wonderfully visceral portrait of corruption and its psychological, marital and existential consequences. Even though Ace Rothstein survives and succeeds in the end, you still get the sense that his life no longer has meaning.
11. The Color of Money. Scorsese made pool a visually riveting sport. Still don’t know how he pulled that one off.
12. The Aviator. I’ll give Leo credit, he did a pretty darn good job with this one, although he’s upstaged by Cate Blanchett’s fabulous performance as Katherine Hepburn. I could have done without the inert congressional hearings, however.
13. Cape Fear. Pretty silly when you start thinking about it and DeNiro is way, way over-the-top, but again, it’s just a damn entertaining movie and there are a few scenes of brilliance: DeNiro’s icky encounter with Juliette Lewis on the theater stage, DeNiro’s cigar-puffing obnoxiousness in the movie theater, the opening shots where we encounter DeNiro in all his buffed-up, tattooed menance.
14. The Departed. I’ve said my piece on this one.
15. The King of Comedy. Not bad, but not powerful enough to be memorable. It’s Travis Bickle minus the violent streak with somewhat less believable mental quirks. And I think DeNiro might have been miscast.
16. Bringing Out the Dead. What was the point?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2006 4:55 pm

    My favorites are TAXI DRIVER and GOODFELLAS, but with a pretty wide gap between the two. To illustrate what I mean: As far as gangster movies go, I don’t think GOODFELLAS is even in the same league as the first two GODFATHER films, RAGING BULL is the most overated film of the ’80s, I think. It’s brilliantly directed on the outside, but hollow at the center. MEAN STREETS, while it takes a few viewings to get used to, is pretty damn good, and De Niro is spectacular in it. I liked THE AVIATOR and, now that I’ve seen it again, THE DEPARTED. CASINO is OK (I call it GOODFELLAS II), but I didn’t like THE COLOR OF MONEY, AFTER HOURS, KING OF COMEDY or GANGS OF NEW YORK. I haven’t seen BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST or KUNDUN. And, for some reason, I don’t remember THE AGE OF INNOCENCE very well — despite the face that my favorite actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, is in it.

  2. November 27, 2006 5:03 pm

    Oh, I almost forgot: I lreally like his concert film THE LAST WALTZ.

  3. bro permalink
    November 27, 2006 10:21 pm

    i cant argue too much with the list, since goodfellas is arguable my favorite movie, but i think departed, king of comedy, and cape fear should maybe be higher. as much i might have criticized the departed previously, it was still immensly entertaining, and despite cape fear’s faults, consider how many scenes from it have become part of the film venacular, if only due to the simpsons repeated homages to it. by the way, you should try watching new york, new york. I tried, but I just couldn’t fight my way through it

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