"I just wanted to be an ordinary parish priest," Martin Scorsese once said. Fortunately for cinema and for lovers of film and television all around the world, things turned out differently.
For six decades now, Scorsese has been making films, entertaining and influencing. In his unrivaled career, Scorsese, an Oscar winner who has been nominated for 14 Oscars (nine times for Directing), has made well over 10 masterpieces. From a psychological thriller such as Taxi Driver, to crime dramas such as GoodFellas and Casino, to a dark comedy like The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has made renowned films in a variety of genres.
He has directed and gotten brilliant performances out of some of the most respected actors and actresses of the last half century, including Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joe Pesci, Cate Blanchett, Lorraine Bracco, Ellen Burstyn, Willem Dafoe, Matt Damon, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jonah Hill, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Margot Robbie, Mark Ruffalo, Paul Sorvino, Sharon Stone, Mark Wahlberg, and Jack Nicholson, to name a few.
With an ear for music like very few have and an understanding of the camera and film editing like very few have, Scorsese has been and remains inarguably one of the best film directors in film history. Having influenced other masters like Paul Thomas Anderson, Bong Joon-ho, and David O. Russell, to name a few, the greatness of Scorsese's films has contributed to the existence of countless other outstanding films.
He has not only made films, but he has cherished and protected films. In 1990, along with Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and several other filmmakers, Scorsese founded The Film Foundation, a non-profit foundation dedicated to film preservation and the exhibition of restored and classic films. "Our American artistic heritage has to be preserved and shared by all of us," Scorsese has said. "Just as we've learned to take pride in our poets and writers, in jazz and the blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, our great American art form." To date, The Film Foundation has restored close to one thousand films.
He has written, produced, and acted, but we're going to focus on his achievements as a director. He has directed short films, music videos, commercials, episodes of TV series, and documentaries, but we're going to focus on his narrative feature films.
We could, of course, name every single one of them for they all offer something remarkable. And it absolutely must be stated that we wish we could have included Who's That Knocking at My Door, After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, Shutter Island, Hugo, and Silence. But we're going to keep it brief.
Below, here are 12 essential Scorsese narrative feature films.
The very first time Scorsese and De Niro worked together was an absolute triumph. Mean Streets is a slice of life crime drama starring Keitel as Charlie, a young Italian-American man trying his best to be a saint amongst the gangsters in his Little Italy neighborhood. His friend Johnny Boy (De Niro) is a small-time hood who gets in over his head with a loan shark. And Charlie must keep the peace. Scorsese himself grew up in Little Italy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He co-wrote the script with Mardik Martin and filled the story with characters and events he knew quite well.
The film's movie poster described Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore as a movie for everyone who has ever dreamed of a second chance. After the death of her husband, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her precocious son Tommy (Alfred Lutter III), leave New Mexico for California, where Alice dreams of making it as a singer. Financial problems force the two to settle in Arizona instead, where Alice takes a job as a waitress in a small diner. Her plan is to make the money needed to head back out on the road, but her plans change once she meets and starts to fall in love with a rancher (Kris Kristofferson). Nominated for three Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay (Robert Getchell), this romantic drama won an Oscar for Best Actress (Burstyn).
Quentin Tarantino considers Taxi Driver to be the greatest character study ever committed to film. Widely regarded as one of the best American films ever made, Taxi Driver stars De Niro as Travis Bickle, the mentally unstable New York City taxi driver of the title. "You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here." Loneliness is a major theme in Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader. Travis, having served in the Vietnam War, is an ex-Marine with PTSD. He takes a job as a cabbie driving at night since he can't sleep at night. He starts working long hours. "Six in the afternoon til six in the morning, sometimes even eight in the morning. Six days a week. Sometimes, seven days a week." Travis is utterly disgusted by what he sees at night. "All the animals come out at night," he says. "Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets," he hopes. Slowly, Travis loses touch with reality and becomes increasingly dangerous. He decides that he must save an adolescent sex worker (Jodie Foster) by killing her pimp (Keitel). Gritty and nightmarish, the film is part psychological drama and part horror film. The whole film can be viewed as the story of a man succumbing to his inner demons. Scorsese was raised as a Roman Catholic and he has always acknowledged the influence of Catholicism on his work. Taxi Driver received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor (De Niro).
Brian De Palma reportedly watched Raging Bull for the first time and said, "No matter what you do, no matter how good you are, there's always Scorsese." Widely considered one of the best films ever made, Raging Bull is a biopic about boxer Jake LaMotta, who was nicknamed "The Bronx Bull" or "Raging Bull." LaMotta was world middleweight champion between 1949 and 1951. This gorgeously shot (by cinematographer Michael Chapman) black-and-white drama portrays how his violence and temper led him to the very top in his career, but brutally destroyed his life outside of the ring. De Niro has delivered countless moving performances throughout his illustrious career; many would consider this performance to be his best work. Nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, Raging Bull won Oscars for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker).
Edward Norton considers this one of his favorite films, and once said that The King of Comedy is "one of the greatest commentaries about America and fame." And Todd Phillips used The King of Comedy as an inspiration when co-writing and directing Joker. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, this satirical dark comedy stars De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, a failed comedian who yearns for fame while hosting an imaginary talk show in his mother's basement. When Rupert meets his idol, actual talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), he is convinced that it will provide him with his big break, but Langford could not be less interested. Rupert then decides that he must kidnap Jerry to force him to agree to allow him to perform his stand-up routine on the show. Rupert believes it's "better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime."
"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Inspired by true events, this is the story of Henry Hill (Liotta). The crime drama covers about a quarter century in his life, starting from the mid-fifties. Based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, and co-written by Pileggi and Scorsese, GoodFellas depicts Henry's life as he grows up in the mob and works to climb the ranks. Ultimately, however, his life of crime begins to unravel.
"Funny how?" Few scenes in film history are as memorable as the scene where Pesci's Tommy terrifies Liotta's Henry while the crew is out together at the Bamboo Lounge. The Copacabana steadicam shot might be the film's most memorable, but GoodFellas is filled to the brim with epic shots. The performances, the fluid camera, the flashy film editing, the extraordinary soundtrack, and every single other element come together to form for the audience a viewing experience like no other. GoodFellas co-stars De Niro, Bracco, Sorvino, Frank Vincent, and Michael Imperioli. Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, GoodFellas won for Best Supporting Actor (Pesci).
The script for Casino was adapted by Pileggi and Scorsese from Pileggi's book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. In this spiritual sequel to GoodFellas, also inspired by a true story, De Niro plays mobster Sam "Ace" Rothstein and Pesci plays loose-cannon enforcer Nicky Santoro in '70s Las Vegas. Ace is tapped by the bosses to head the Tangiers Casino. Things start out going just fine. Soon, however, all kinds of problems begin to arise. "No one stays at the top forever," as this epic crime drama's tagline promises. Stone delivers one of the best performances of her career as Ginger, Ace's beautiful but volatile wife. Casino co-stars Don Rickles, Kevin Pollak, and Alan King. The performances, sets, costumes, soundtrack, perfectly employed voice-over narration, sweeping camera shots, and magnificent film editing make Casino yet another standout Scorsese film. Casino received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (Stone).
Gangs of New York marks the very first time that Scorsese and DiCaprio would collaborate. Day-Lewis plays Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, a powerful anti-immigrant gang leader, and DiCaprio plays Amsterdam Vallon, a young Irish immigrant recently released from prison. The year is 1862 and the place is the Five Points in Lower Manhattan. Amsterdam's father was killed by Bill when Amsterdam was just a boy. Now, as a young man, Amsterdam plans to avenge his father's death by killing Bill. Few mustaches have ever looked as glorious on-screen as Day-Lewis' does here. Known for always committing himself fully and delivering an iconic performance, Day-Lewis gives one of the virtuoso performances of his legendary career. Gangs of New York co-stars Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, and John C. Reilly. This historical crime drama received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Day-Lewis).
This biopic portrays the life of film director, aviator, and tycoon Howard Hughes from the late '20s til the mid '40s. DiCaprio plays the eccentric Hughes, who suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and is tormented by crippling phobias. The plot lacks a traditional structure and instead focuses on painting a picture of Hughes' life during those years. With a massive budget, this beautifully shot drama brings to life Hollywood during those years with big sets and gorgeous costumes. There is also one jaw-dropping plane crash in particular which allows for the visual effects department to truly shine. The Aviator received 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (DiCaprio). The drama went on to win five Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Blanchett), Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson), Best Film Editing (Schoonmaker), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell), and Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo).
With an all-star cast that features DiCaprio, Nicholson, Damon, Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga, this epic crime thriller is one of the biggest box office hits of Scorsese's career so far. The Departed marks the only time that Scorsese and Nicholson have ever worked together. The film is a remake of Infernal Affairs, a 2002 Hong Kong action thriller. Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), a cop in South Boston, must go undercover to infiltrate the organization of Irish mobster Frank Costello (Nicholson). Colin Sullivan (Damon), meanwhile, is a career criminal who has infiltrated the police department. Billy slowly gains Frank's trust as Colin continues to report on the activities of the police to his boss. When each organization discovers that they have a mole in their midst, Billy and Colin must each figure out the identity of the other. Scorsese once joked that this was his first time making a film with a plot. The Departed received five Oscar nominations and went on to win four Oscars. The film won for Best Picture, becoming the only Scorsese film so far to do so, and also won for Best Director, meaning that Scorsese finally received his Oscar for this film. The Departed also won for Best Adapted Screenplay (William Monahan) and for Best Film Editing (Schoonmaker).
Never has a person getting into a Lamborghini been this hilarious. Inspired by real events, The Wolf of Wall Street is the story of Long Island stockbroker Jordan Belfort. We meet Jordan in the late '80s when he takes a job at a Wall Street brokerage firm. Cut to the early '90s and Jordan is now running his own firm, Stratton Oakmont. Together with his trusted lieutenant (Hill) and a band of misfit brokers, Belfort makes a fortune by defrauding wealthy investors. Meanwhile, he can't seem to do enough drugs or have enough sex. While Jordan is busy having the time of his life, the SEC and the FBI are closing in. Robbie plays Naomi, Jordan's beautiful wife with the thick Bay Ridge, Brooklyn accent. This was Robbie's breakthrough role and she's never looked back. The film co-stars Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Rob Reiner, Kenneth Choi, P.J. Byrne, and Matthew McConaughey. The film was nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (DiCaprio), and Best Supporting Actor (Hill).
In The Irishman, Scorsese and Pacino finally got a chance to work together about a half a century into their distinguished careers. Frank Sheeran (De Niro) takes a look back at his life as a member of the Bufalino crime family. Pesci, coming out of retirement to deliver one of the best performances of his career, plays Russell Bufalino, the head of the family. Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa, the charismatic Teamsters Union leader who has ties to organized crime. The crime drama received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.