About halfway through its running time, I realized that The Wolf of Wall Street was probably never going to be one of my favorite Martin Scorsese pictures. That doesn’t mean I won’t be more than happy to eventually watch it again, and that definitely doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be first in line to see the very next Scorsese picture on its opening weekend.
No doubt you, the movie lover reading this now, have similar loyalties to your favorite directors or stars. It doesn’t matter if they don’t hit a home run for you every time; because you’ve loved so much of the work that they’ve done before, you’re always willing to give them another chance at bat to win you over with their next production.
This is one way to know that your love of a moviemaking artist has fully matured; when you can see clearly enough to experience disappointment with one of their films, and say as much—or hear someone else express their criticism of one of their works without getting overly defensive, and then making a case for a movie you otherwise don’t really believe in—and then turn right around and get wildly enthusiastic for their next contribution to the big screen. When they can disappoint you more than once, more than twice, more than three times, and still keep you coming back begging for more? That’s when you know they’re not just one of your favorites, but one of your heroes.
That is exactly how I feel about Martin Scorsese.
His pictures—and I go out of my way here to use the word “picture” more often than I normally might because it is a charmingly antiquated term he prefers–have become, over the years, one of the cornerstones of my love of the movies. We all have this short catalog in the back of our minds; in mine, Scorsese pictures occupy a rigorously well-tended mental space that includes the likes of other terrific working artists like Werner Herzog, Kate Winslet, and Spike Lee (among carefully decided-upon others).
I am almost never not ready to watch a Scorsese movie; my desire to absorb and re-absorb the many dazzling qualities of his films for both study and pure enjoyment has few rivals for my time. His encyclopedic knowledge of film history, championing of foreign films, and dedication to the practice of classic film preservation makes him more than just another great movie director. And if we were forced to name one active filmmaker to wear the label of “elder statesman” in the industry, who would come close to being as obvious a choice? His passion for the language and impact of the cinema is a model for any aspiring filmmaker, and his gifts of insight and analysis the same for any up-and-coming film scholar.
And now, we’re here, that part of the movie blogger’s task that’s both always fun and a royal pain at the same time—attempting to put together a list relevant to the topic. My list here won’t represent some presumptuous appraisal of “the best” Scorsese films; I’m not even sure I can say it will live up to the title and be a clear account of my “favorites.”
I say that because, while a Martin Scorsese picture routinely occupies a spot in my Top 10 Movies of All Time, I’d have to admit that over the years that, on that list, the Scorsese movie I choose frequently changes. For some years, I’d placed The Last Temptation of Christ (which I got into a little talking about Jesus Movies some time back) on my personal Favorites of All Time list; then, one time, when asked to rattle off the list for some trivial reason, I’d replaced Last Temptation with The Age of Innocence. That film stayed on the list for a while. I recognize Raging Bull as one of his masterpieces, without a doubt—but I can’t say that I return to that movie as frequently as I do some of his others.
That realization gave me the only criteria I felt I could live with in this particular list-making exercise: picking the first five of his movies I could name that I return to most often; the movies I probably feel dig the deepest into me, whether I am looking to be entertained or reawakened.
With those cautionary notes out of the way, here is what I arrived at—for today, at least—as my list of favorite Martin Scorsese pictures. They’re presented here in reverse chronological order.
In the history of Academy Awards snubs, there are few injustices equal to Oscar’s dismissal of Scorsese’s passion project about the criminal element of 19th-century New York. Ten nominations—including one for the profoundly colorful, deliciously outsized performance given by Daniel Day-Lewis as underworld ringmaster Bill “The Butcher” Cutting—and no wins. Yes, it’s true, the snub of The Color Purple bests it by one nomination (with 11 nominations and no wins), but the wave-off of the Spielberg film could be rationalized, at least in part, as a collective criticism directed at a filmmaker who was seen as betraying his source material and operating too far (and too unsuccessfully) outside his comfort zone.
Gangs, on the other hand, was an example of a filmmaker operating deep inside his preferred wheelhouses (crime, guilt, martyrdom) at the very top of his game, along with a zesty desire to pay homage to his roots and his cinematic idols. A march to Oscar glory was anticipated and thought of as long overdue for the man said to have made the best movie of the 1980s (in Raging Bull) and, for some, one of the best movies of the 1990s (in Goodfellas)—leading to what may have been a sense of “entitlement” perceived to have crept into the awards campaign for the film, and its across-the-board rejection inside Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre.
Many Scorsese fans don’t hold this one in as high regard as I do; most of the criticism revolves around the notion of the film trying to do too much, or being too undisciplined an effort. I’m sure I’ve said before that, if given a choice, I will almost always prefer a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp over a movie that more safely achieves by aiming for far less.
One of the great things about Scorsese, though, is that he is always swinging for the bleachers; but I do think you can truly feel his devotion to the subject matter here even more so than in some of his more well-regarded pictures. Gangs is also one of the earlier films to directly invoke the memories of the September 11th terrorist attacks, by including an image of the World Trade Center at the very end of the film. It’s exhilarating and poignant, and an eloquently haunting restatement of the movie’s central idea—that the construction and destruction of our society can be understood through acts of violence that loom large, and might one day be forgotten unless we labor to preserve American memory.
By the time Scorsese had announced the making of Gangs of New York, we already knew he could handle the transition from the modern-day mean streets to those of the Victorian era—but that confidence wasn’t so much in evidence years earlier, when he declared his intention to film Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, a carefully realized exploration of infidelity in Manhattan’s high society. No blood? No thugs? No overly religious mise-en-scène?
A love story, for crying out loud? Tantamount to the belief that Bela Lugosi could only play vampires, George Reeves could only be thought of as Superman, and Woody Allen could never make a working-class action film, was the certainty that Martin Scorsese was about to fall flat on his face by working with material he couldn’t “understand.” The typecasters were summarily embarrassed when he turned in The Age of Innocence, which plays with every bit the intensity of his contemporary pictures. As it turned out, a story about a society kept in check by rigid rules of etiquette was the perfect match for a director whose powerful, focused control over his images rivals the eye of Hitchcock.
I remember going with a group of coworkers to see The Age of Innocence in the theater. One of them delivered a blunt review of the movie that has always stuck with me, and I think serves not just to describe the skill of this movie but Scorsese’s filmography in total. He said:
“Nobody should be that good.”
This was the first Scorsese picture I saw in the theater, and it was a great way to be introduced to the sheer velocity of his filmmaking. Michael Ballhaus’ roving camerawork and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s razor-sharp cutting are invaluable aspects of this picture’s brilliance; both of these frequent collaborators are vital contributors to the cinematic identity of Martin Scorsese, and their work here could be studied as a master class in movie comedy.
It’s said that Scorsese made After Hours during a time of some artistic crisis, moving ahead with a film designed to be more “commercial” because the kind of daring associated with the more personal films of the 1970s, with which he identified and found his earliest successes, was no longer being valued—a far greater emphasis being placed instead on the distribution of more conventional blockbusters.
There’s no question that this remains an accurate read of the 1980s in general, but have another look at this picture and ask yourself just how much it has in common with, say, Back to The Future—or The Breakfast Club, or Weird Science, or Spies Like Us, all from the same year. Scorsese movies are hardly ever prisoners of the time in which they were made, and After Hours is no exception. The story of Griffin Dunne’s “night from hell” is as tightly wound as the poster art suggests; the comedy is “black” but cheerfully so, and it seems to me to be the perfect movie to relax with after you’ve had a great day, or after you’ve survived a miserable one.
Today, we take for granted the kinds of laughs generated by TV shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but when The King of Comedy was released in 1982, this bracing comedy that relied on the extreme discomfort produced by unlikable wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin and his profoundly awkward social interactions was met with no shortage of puzzlement or outright disapproval.
This film was way ahead of its time; we can see echoes of Jerry Lewis’ fearless spoofing of his own celebrity (and, obviously, that of Johnny Carson’s) in the work of Ricky Gervais, with actors as notable as Kate Winslet and Liam Neeson eager to take jabs at celebrity venality by guest-starring as caricatures of “themselves” in the Gervais programs Extras and Life’s Too Short. In fact, you can pretty much draw a straight line right from the shocking moment an admirer of Lewis’ talk show host turns on him and screams “I hope you get cancer!” in The King of Comedy right to this howlingly mad scene where Neeson seeks advice on improv comedy from Gervais and explores the “humor” in AIDS.
Anybody who’s ever dreamed of making a go of it in show business, or has actually attempted to do so, recognizes the desperation and personal darkness of Rupert Pupkin. They know in their heart that it takes the kind of willful blindness to rejection that Rupert possesses to survive in the industry, but they also live in fear that they, like he, might simply be untalented enough to be despised by their betters and simultaneously deluded enough to believe doors are shutting in their faces because of others’ jealousy or lack of taste. The goal of any movie is to get you to identify, at some level, with the protagonist; in many a Scorsese film, we come away hoping against hope that, despite how much we recognize ourselves, they are not us.
If approached by the hypothetical person who’d been “living on a desert island” and asked to provide them with “the” Martin Scorsese picture, I have little doubt that, almost by reflex, I’d tell them to cue up the creepy, funny, sad, twisted saga of cabbie Travis Bickle.
Even though the scummy New York City of this film has evolved—or is that devolved?—into a much safer if more commercially sterilized urban theme park, Taxi Driver continues to feel as if it’s happening right now. That could be because it’s so easy to patch yourself into Travis’ interior monologue; who among us doesn’t occasionally feel utterly detached from our surroundings, an outsider looking in, despairing of how others are sullying the world and congratulating ourselves for having the piercing vision for understanding just how we might set things right?
It’s come to light that the man charged with the murder of three Muslim students was a devout fan of the Michael Douglas movie Falling Down, the darkly satirical 1993 film about an “angry white man” who goes on a violent rampage. This immediately brings to mind the massive stink made over the fact that would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley, Jr. was said to have been “inspired” by Taxi Driver to shoot Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster.
While it’s tempting to point to the accused gunman’s love of the Douglas film as a “signal” of his sociopathy—his ex-wife suggested as much by revealing that he “watched it incessantly. He thought it was hilarious. He had no compassion at all”—it’s hopeful we’re a little more sophisticated about this sort of thing today. After all, screenwriting consultant John Truby said of his experience watching Falling Down: “I can’t remember laughing so hard in a movie.” Should we assume these two men have the same deficit of empathy?
My guess is that the national conversation won’t be taken hostage by ruminations over the Joel Schumacher movie in quite the same way as Scorsese’s film became a cultural target in the wake of the Reagan shooting, not just because there are other hot-button aspects of the story that will command greater attention (the fact that the killer was an atheist, the religious affiliation of his victims, his obsession with firearms), but also because Falling Down simply doesn’t cut nearly as close to the bone as Taxi Driver.
Screenwriter Paul Schrader was inspired to call Travis Bickle “God’s lonely man,” borrowing the words of author Thomas Wolfe. God’s Lonely Man is always out there. He is a prisoner of his own needs, confusing self-absorption for self-sacrifice and arrogance for humility. He is desperate for love but ill-equipped to earn it, and ever certain he is one epiphany away from winning a heart and changing the world.
He just needs to get organizized.
These are the Martin Scorsese pictures that are on constant rotation for me. What are yours? What other director, actor, or craftsperson in the movies commands your interest at all times? What is the movie that invades your conscience? Who is the filmmaker you can’t get out of your mind, and why? What is the object of your movie-loving obsession?