This week, let’s talk about one of the greats: Martin Scorsese. He is one of the most prolific and profound filmmakers of the past fifty years. From his incendiary and transgressive films to his fostering of burgeoning young talents to his preservation efforts which have saved dozens-upon-dozens of classic films from total disrepair, there’s a reason Scorsese’s name is synonymous with cinema.
With over thirty feature-length works to his name, Scorsese’s oeuvre can seem a bit intimidating to the uninitiated, so today, let’s take a look at five films that one can watch to best familiarize one’s self with Martin Scorsese.
5. Mean Streets (1973)
While Scorsese had directed films before, Mean Streets serves as a proper introduction to the propulsive cinematic language and deeply resonant themes of his idiosyncratic filmmaking.
The film not only features long-time collaborators Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro but also opens with Scorsese himself delivering an opening narration: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” It’s a tangible distillation of Scorsese as a young artist, and it’s truly incredible.
4. The Last Waltz (1978)
Look, I am desperately trying to avoid simply naming off Scorsese classics that you’ve already been inundated with praise for over the course of several years. Is Taxi Driver amazing? Of course it is, it’s fucking Taxi Driver! Is Raging Bull perhaps one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time? Yes, it is ludicrously great! But you don’t need me to tell you all that; you’ve undoubtedly already heard that. But one you’ve probably got a lesser chance of being so overtly familiar with but is just as crucial to Scorsese’s development as a filmmaker is The Last Waltz.
Music plays such a critical role in Scorsese’s filmmaking, and even more specifically, Robbie Robertson’s music is inseparable from Scorsese’s work. Beginning working together properly here, Scorsese and Robertson would go on to collaborate across the course of decades prior to Robertson’s unfortunate passing earlier this year, making Killers of the Flower Moon their final work together. But it all began here, with one of the most infectiously raucous distillations of live rock n’ roll music ever put to screen.
3. After Dark (1985)
I’ve heard it said that Killers of the Flower Moon is a humorless film, and to be frank, that’s fucking moronic. At times, it is a deeply funny film, just as many of Scorsese’s best works are. If one is only familiar with Scorsese through recent headlines and second-hand information, one may have a somewhat serious impression of him. But something that is not discussed nearly enough is how funny he is.
There are tons of great examples of this peppered throughout his career (Joe Pesci’s immortal ‘how am I funny?’ bit in Goodfellas, the entirety of Pretend It’s a City) but After Dark is one of the purest hits of this that one can find. A darkly hysterical labyrinthine journey through the bowels of nocturnal New York, this thing is pure Scorsese all the way through.
2. Hugo (2011)
Listen, I’m not sure there has ever been a more joyously made film in history than Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Part turn-of-the-century invention fantasy, part coming-of-age story, part cinema-of-attractions exploration of cutting-edge cinematic tools like the 3D form, and all Scorsese, this thing absolutely rules.
In telling the tale of children unearthing the cinematic legacy of legendary form innovator George Méliès, Scorsese delivers the ultimate preservationist call-to-arms for cinema, under the guise of a multi-million-dollar blockbuster. Unreal and unbelievably quintessential Scorsese.
1. The Irishman (2019)
In 2019, a few weeks before it hit Netflix, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the big screen and dear readers: it was transcendent. An unfathomable affecting work that swallows its audience whole right alongside its titular character, The Irishman is a stone-cold masterpiece and one that only a cinematic genius, still at the peak of his abilities decades into his career, could have delivered. Immaculate stuff.