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Martin Scorsese’s 27 narrative feature films range from beloved gangster titles, to a bold religious trilogy, to popcorn thrillers, to dark character portraits. Picking and ranking his 10 best? A list is “wrong” before it even begins (except, perhaps, for No. 1, which might be an inarguable choice). So much depends on which version of Scorsese is most valued by the chooser. Do you revere Scorsese’s breakout 1970s films? His more mainstream 21st century hits? Do you find his religious films moving or a snooze?
Here’s the perspective of this particular list: Scorsese is at his best when his masterful technique is married with compelling characters and propulsive storytelling. Some of the Catholic-raised director’s titles (such as Silence, Taxi Driver and his latest, Killers of the Flower Moon) force moviegoers to endure a cinematic penance that echoes the journey of his tormented protagonists. They evoke that eternal debate between what truly makes a film great: its artistry or its ability to entertain. Thankfully, so many Scorsese titles successfully do both, and below those films have an edge.
10. Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Flower Moon is extremely well made; a clear Oscar contender that succeeds in provoking outrage and empathy while telling an important story about the plight of preyed-upon Osage tribe who were systematically murdered for their oil-rich property rights. It’s also a punishing three-and-a-half hours of watching people suffer and perish amid nonstop gaslighting and brutality. For the bulk of the film, every character is presented as utterly evil or a naive, passive victim (with arguably an over-emphasis on the white characters). Near the end, Scorsese begins to inject bits of his most unappreciated secret weapon — his dark, dry sense of humor — which by then feels tonally inconsistent. Opening this week, it’s powerful, yet sure to be divisive.
9. After Hours (1985) and The King of Comedy (1982) (Tie)
After Hours is a Scorsese fan favorite. Very much a time capsule (and a bit dated upon re-watch), this charming comedy follows an unlucky guy (Griffin Dunne) experiencing one calamity after the other over the course of one surreal night in New York. In The King of Comedy, Robert De Niro plays an obsessive stand-up comic who kidnaps and torments his favorite comedian (Jerry Lewis). King of Comedy is one of several early Scorsese pictures that became more revered over time, and Todd Phillips’ Joker wouldn’t exist without it.
8. Cape Fear (1991)
De Niro plays obsessive ex-con Max Cady stalking his former attorney (Nick Nolte) and his family in this remake of the 1962 film. Cape Fear is such a cartoon of a thriller that it comes as a surprise it’s from Scorsese when it feels more like the Coen brothers channeling Hitchcock on bath salts. The movie contains the occasional cringe (such as Cady’s attempt to seduce a teenage Juliette Lewis), but Cape Fear is a ride that stands as one of the director’s most popular films (bonus: Cape Fear inspired an entire Simpsons episode — season five’s much-loved “Cape Feare”).
7. Age of Innocence (1993)
A fine example of Scorsese coloring from a different palette, the director drew praise for venturing far outside his comfort zone with this romantic drama based on Edith Wharton’s romance novel that’s set in early 20th century New York. The story tells the courtship and marriage of Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) to May Welland (Winona Ryder) amid various entanglements. A sumptuous period piece.
6. Taxi Driver (1976)
De Niro plays the original incel Travis Bickle, a lonely angry Vietnam vet, who Scorsese recently noted in an interview has become an all-too-common personality type nowadays. In her breakout role, 12-year-old Jodie Foster plays a prostitute Bickle tries to protect. The film (written by Paul Schrader) is a raw, rough, bitter portrait of a ticking time bomb who is equal parts destructive and self-destructive. President Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. famously said he was inspired by wanting to impress Foster after seeing Taxi Driver. An important work set in a world you won’t want to revisit again anytime soon.
5. Casino (1995)
Often underrated as “Goodfellas, just not as good,” Casino is another dynamic gangster flick that is based on a true story chronicled in a Nicolas Pileggi book. De Niro as a controlling casino boss and Joe Pesci as his unhinged gangland cohort are every bit as magnetic as you expect, but the surprise is Sharon Stone in the arguably best performance of her career as De Niro’s hustling, drug-addled wife. The trio form unstable triangle for which tragic fates seem inevitable, while Scorsese delights in portraying late 1970s Las Vegas with all its blinking lights, coin-and-cash and holes in the desert.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Scorsese’s highest-grossing film, based on a loose adaptation of the 1990s rise and fall of stockbroker king Jordan Belfort with Margot Robbie in her breakout role as Belfort’s seductive wife. In chronicling Wall Street excess, the film itself is excessive — exhausting, even. Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour firehose blast to the face of vulgarity, drugs, sex and money (from a script by Sopranos great Terence Winter). It’s a testament to Scorsese’s talent that he manages to make this so much fun while squeezing DiCaprio for his wildest performance. An aside: Scorsese’s top five highest-grossing films all star DiCaprio (Wolf, Shutter Island, The Departed, The Aviator and Gangs of New York).
3. Raging Bull (1980)
The black-and-white biographical drama (written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin) about boxing champ Jake LaMotta stars De Niro in a transformative role and includes his first pairing with Pesci. Scorsese combines sports action with the criminal underworld, and the film is remarkable for its gloriously cinematic scenes in the ring and De Niro’s extraordinary performance. Modestly received upon release and considered powerful yet sometimes difficult to watch, Raging Bull went on to be considered one of the best films of all time and won De Niro an Oscar for best actor.
2. The Departed (2006)
It’s rare a movie is great despite Jack Nicholson. The Oscar winner’s leering performance is probably the weakest of the film’s stellar ensemble cast. The Departed is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs and plays like a Scorsese version of a Shakespearean tragedy (there’s even a deep-cut Hamlet quote). The film (written by William Monahan) marries Scorsese’s best-known narrative style — which can often feel like loose, stream-of-consciousness storytelling — with a suspenseful and tightly structured plot. Here DiCaprio and Matt Damon play dueling cops both living a double life — one working undercover in the criminal underwood, the other secretly working for the mob. Throw in a fatherly Martin Sheen, a quick-witted Vera Farmiga, an obnoxious Mark Wahlberg and a snarky Alec Baldwin, and you have a gripping crime drama where every scene is being stolen by somebody. For The Departed, Scorsese finally won the Oscar for best director, and the film won best picture.
1. Goodfellas (1990)
Goodfellas and The Godfather (I and II) are often considered rivals for the title of greatest mob drama of all time, though Goodfellas was under-appreciated at first (the film grossed $47 million worldwide, less than The Color of Money released a couple years earlier). All the director’s crime drama tropes are here: The rise and fall of wiseguys, voiceover narration, a vintage rock soundtrack, graphic violence and a large ensemble of colorful characters. But it’s in Goodfellas that Scorsese made all his familiar components into a symphonic crime masterpiece. It’s such a memorable story packed with so much drama (penned by Pileggi and Scorsese) that it’s hard to believe Goodfellas clocks in at less than two-and-a-half hours. Here’s De Niro and Pesci again, along with Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco. Pesci took home an Oscar for his performances (with the film losing to Dances with Wolves and Kevin Costner for best picture and director, respectively).
Near Misses: Silence, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Aviator, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.