7 Martin Scorsese Films That Made Him a Legend

At age 72 and with nearly 50 years under his belt as a feature film director and 23 narrative films to his name, Martin Scorsese is not only one of the most experienced filmmakers in the industry, he’s one of the most respected. While all of Scorsese’s movies are worth watching at least once, some of  his films are undisputed classics. Here are Martin Scorsese’s seven best films in what has been a robust and consistent career as a director.

7. The King of Comedy (1983)

The King of Comedy

Source: Embassy International Pictures

Somewhat misunderstood upon release in 1983, Scorsese’s dark-comedy The King of Comedy has risen in status over the years in large part due to its content that predicted celebrity worship and the American media culture. Starring Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis, The King of Comedy tells the story of aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), who goes to increasingly bizarre and outlandish lengths to be as famous as his idol Jerry Langford (Lewis).

Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote in 1983, “It’s very funny, and it ends on a high note that was, for me, both a total surprise and completely satisfying. Yet it’s also bristly, sometimes manic to the edge of lunacy and, along the way, terrifying.” Roger Ebert had mixed feelings about the film when he first saw it in 1983, writing, “It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective.”

6. The Last Waltz (1978)

The Last Waltz

Source: FM Productions

The Last Waltz is a concert documentary about rock group The Band and their Thanksgiving Day concert on November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Although lead guitarist and primary song-writer Robbie Robertson originally tapped Scorsese to shoot the concert in 16mm based on the director’s work in Mean Streets, the film would balloon to a full-scale production employing seven 35mm cameras. Often ranked among the greatest concert films of all-time, The Last Waltz combines live songs from the performance with interviews with The Band’s group members as they reminisce about the group’s storied history.

The Last Waltz has been heralded as being both visually dazzling and a powerful statement on a particular moment in music history. Bill Wyman of Salon wrote in 2002, “The Last Waltz is our best insight to a moment when the giants of the previous decade raged against time, in the shadow of an age that changed them all inalterably.” But the most incredible feature of the documentary remains the unparalleled amount of talent involved in the performance, which includes Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and several others. Josh Goldfein of Village Voice explains that the film, “[gathers] so much talent into one theater that the stage buckles and the subject drops out of sight.”

5. The Departed (2006)

The Departed

Source: Warner Bros.

Although the four Oscars won by Scorsese’s 2006 crime-thriller The Departed are sometimes viewed as an apology for years of Oscar snubs, there’s no doubt that the film is deserving of its own place among the Scorsese pantheon and is as entertaining as any film the director has made. A remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, The Departed stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Wahlberg in a film loosely based on real-life Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. The film revolves around two characters involved in high-stakes undercover work on opposing sides. William “Billy” Costigan (DiCaprio) is a member of the  Massachusetts State Police, embedded with Bulger (Nicholson) and his crew; Colin Sullivan is a mole within that same police force working for Bulger.

While The Departed is as engaging a thriller as you’re likely to find, it’s the issues of identity and how it affects one’s actions, emotions, and behavior that will stick with a viewer in subsequent viewings. Ebert awarded the film four stars, writing, “What makes this a Scorsese film, and not merely a retread, is the director’s use of actors, locations and energy, and its buried theme. I am fond of saying that a movie is not about what it’s about; it’s about how it’s about it.” Even the more critical reviewers found it hard to knock the film when it came to the overall response. “Too operatic at times, too in love with violence and macho posturing at others, it’s a potboiler dressed up in upscale designer clothes, but oh how that pot does boil,” writes Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times.

4. Goodfellas (1990)


Source: Warner Bros.

Scorsese is no stranger to the crime genre, and his 1990 outing Goodfellas remains among the best of the bunch, maintaining a legion of fans over 20 years after its release. Based on the 1986 non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese, Goodfellas follows the rise and fall of Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill and his friends over a period from 1955 to 1980. Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta, the film was a notable success both at the box office and with critics, going on to be nominated for six Academy Awards and winning one for Best Supporting Actor (Pesci).

Ebert was a huge fan of the film, writing, “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime,” and awarding the film four out of four stars. Critics were also quick to point to the film as a return to form for Scorsese, whose work during the 1980s had not been nearly as well-received as his work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Scorsese’s fast, violent, stylish mobster movie is a return to form,” writes Time Out’s Geoff Andrew.

3. Mean Streets (1973)

Source: Warner Bros.

Source: Warner Bros.

After making his directorial debut in 1967 with Who’s That Knocking at My Door and following with 1972′s Boxcar Bertha, Scorsese exploded onto the scene with 1973′s Mean Streets, often referred to as the director’s first masterpiece. Starring  Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, Mean Streets tells the story of Charlie (Keitel), a young Italian-American man trying to move up in the local New York Mafia. But his feelings of responsibility towards his reckless friend Johnny Boy (De Niro) put him on a collision course with New York’s dangerous underbelly.

Extremely well-received at the time of release, Mean Streets is often viewed as paving the way for modern filmmaking, with its kinetic style of filmmaking and acting along with an atypical screenplay structure. In 2000, nearly 30 years after the film was first released, Ebert explained, “In countless ways, right down to the detail of modern TV crime shows, Mean Streets is one of the source points of modern movies.”

In Ebert’s original review from 1973, we start to get a sense of what was so revolutionary about the film, even if it seems standard in modern filmmaking convention. ”We never have the sense of a scene being set up and then played out; his characters hurry to their dooms while the camera tries to keep pace. There’s an improvisational feel even in scenes that we know, because of their structure, couldn’t have been improvised,” Ebert writes. “The whole movie feels like life in New York; there are scenes in a sleazy nightclub, on fire escapes, and in bars, and they all feel as if Scorsese has been there.”

2. Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull

Source: United Artists

Released in 1980, Raging Bull is often listed among the upper echelon of films in Scorsese’s career, and for good reason — over 30 years following the film’s release, the film still seethes with unmatched energy from a director at the top of his craft and an actor to match.

Based on ex-boxer Jake LaMotta’s memoir, Raging Bull: My Story, Scorsese’s adaption stars Robert De Niro as LaMotta — an Italian-American middleweight boxer whose self-destructive behavior would ultimately lose him everything, the least of which being his boxing career. Shot in stark black and white photography and featuring some of the most impressive action cinematography ever committed to film, Scorsese has arguably never matched the sheer technical feat of Raging Bull in over thirty years since its release. But, to focus on Scorsese’s skill behind the lens is to fail to acknowledge the tour de force of De Niro, who committed to the role emotionally and physically, gaining 60 pounds for the final scenes in the film and rendering himself nearly unrecognizable.

Raging Bull would go on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Film Editing. Ebert ranked the film among his favorites of the year, writing, “It’s the best film I’ve seen about the low self-esteem, sexual inadequacy and fear that lead some men to abuse women,” and Ebert and Gene Siskel would later name Raging Bull the best film of the 1980s. When it comes to De Niro’s performance, Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York asks, “When has a performer as fully and uniquely sacrificed himself to the moving-picture cause as De Niro?” awarding the film a five out of five.

1. Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver

Source: Columbia Pictures Corporation

While there may be other films that more readably display Scorsese’s technical ability as a director, there’s simply no film in his career — perhaps any director’s career — that bristles with the kind of raw, unnerving energy that Taxi Driver continues to have to this day.

Starring Robert De Niro and featuring Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, and Cybill Shepherd, Taxi Driver tells the story of Travis Bickle (De Niro) – an honorably discharged U.S. Marine working as a taxi driver on the streets of New York following the Vietnam War. Featuring an unanchored plot that seems to wander aimlessly just as Travis does, the story begins to lead viewers toward a terrifying conclusion before subverting viewer expectations completely and commenting on American society itself.

For a film that feels as if it couldn’t have been made without the shadow of the Vietnam War hanging over the American psyche, Taxi Driver feels extremely modern, despite being almost 30 years old. That’s because as school shootings and mindless killings continue to plague American news stations, the nature of what drives a person to evil is just as misunderstood now as it ever was.

Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Taxi Driver would go home empty-handed at the Oscars, although the film did earn the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Desson Thomson of the Washington Post writes, “Since the mid-1970s, the movie has become presciently emblematic of our emotionally diseased, violence-prone culture.” Ebert calls the film, “One of the best and most powerful of all films.”

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