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May 2, 2012

10

Two Lists, Ten Favorites: Films of Martin Scorsese

by GEOFF GEIB, NIR SHALEV and HELEN GEIB

An occasional feature where the writers compare their five favorite films by some of the greats of world cinema.

Martin Scorsese (b. 1942)

GEOFF’S TOP FIVE

To be clear, this list is pointedly different than a list of my five best Scorsese films would be, and there is no better evidence to this than the omission of titles like Taxi Driver or The Last Temptation of Christ, which, while great, great films, are hardly ones that scream out for multiple viewings while distractedly typing away on the computer and trying not to overcook the penne. The following five I could stop, start in the middle, or watch endlessly on a loop and never want for more.

5) Casino (1995)

Truthfully, I didn’t like it that much when I first saw it. Everything felt too reminiscent of Goodfellas– the voiceover, the slick, inside look at the mob and its operations, the similar cast, etc. It all gave rise to the knee-jerk reaction that Scorsese was simply returning to familiar ground to service a built-in audience rather than making something new and exciting. I’m an idiot. I dismissed it, wrongly, and if it were not for cable re-running it at all hours of the night and day, literally giving me no other choice but to sit there and watch it over and over again, I would have missed out on a tremendously engaging movie.

4) Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

It was marketed badly (I still remember how misleading the trailer was), and by now, we’ve all seen so many bad Nicolas Cage movies/trailers to make the prospect of sitting through another the challenge that it never should be given his prodigious talent. For those who haven’t seen it, this is so worth the two hours, though, with superb supporting turns by Ving Rhames and Patricia Arquette in a dark film about a tortured man having a really, really bad night.

3) The Departed (2006)

It’s pulpy, and not always in good ways, and the shootout finale leaves a little bit to be desired, but in terms of craft and execution, it’s the most energetic and exciting Scorsese movie since Goodfellas, racing with passion and that French stuff they call joie de vivre from start to finish. Maybe it’s not quite as good as Hong Kong inspiration Infernal Affairs, and there’s no doubt that other Scorsese films deserve the Oscar more than this one (Raging Bull comes quickly to mind), but this is one of those movies that is simply impossible not to get swept away in. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, go watch it. Seriously, right now. I’ll wait.

(Waiting patiently)

See? Told you.

2) After Hours (1985)

It’s a breezy black comedy, about the only one I can think of that manages those two feats simultaneously. Part of the charm is that the movie refuses to help you out along the way, marrying one awkward moment to another strange character in an array of bizarre scenes without ever feeling the need to define itself along the way. The movie just is. So maybe a zen-like breezy black comedy is the better description.

1) Goodfellas (1990)

An obvious choice, I admit, but I can’t help myself, it’s such a great movie. The whole thing is electric, pulsating with urgency and excitement, and it functions as a great Scorsese primer to boot, containing all his favorite themes and cinematic tricks. I could gush for hours about this film, but suffice it to say I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like this movie, and frankly, I don’t think I want to. I’m not kidding, if you don’t like this movie, unfriend me on Facebook immediately.

NIR’S TOP FIVE

5) Hugo (2011)

By now everyone knows my enthusiasm for one of Scorsese’ best films in the last couple of decades, and its replay value only increases with every viewing. Whenever it’s over I want to watch it again from the start because it’s an utterly fascinating, utterly gorgeous, masterfully shot, edited, and presented piece of cinema at its best. And even though the advent of film is at the story’s core, the main subject of the film is destiny and finding one’s place in the world. Hugo worked hard to find his place in society and the result is terrifically satisfying.

4) Taxi Driver (1976)

I find Taxi Driver to be Scorsese’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker and storyteller, making it his best film to date. It takes tremendous concentration not to want to go out there with a camera and crew and make films like this one. Plus, films like this just don’t exist anymore. The screenplay by Paul Schrader tells the story of a likable taxi driver who was psychologically damaged in the war and upon returning to New York City was driven insane due to being surrounded by the filth of the urban jungle. How Scorsese’s managed to take that concept and make it simultaneously entertaining and icky is beyond me. That’s why, even though it’s his best film it’s also one of my favorites of his. But it does get a tad hard to watch at some points.

3) Mean Streets (1973)

I first watched Mean Streets in high school in the audio/video class. It wasn’t just the sex, nudity, and violence that blew me away; it was also the blatant visual symbolism that made it easy to understand. Even an atheist and a philistine could understand this film’s visual symbolism and be impressed with it. The images of Harvey Keitel burning his fingertips on candles periodically throughout the film, testing the fires of hell and questioning God about what’s right and wrong in his profession of Mafioso in New York City’s Little Italy will never leave my mind. Also, Robert De Niro’s electrifying performance as a runt and a moocher and the film’s finale are magnificently rendered on the screen with flair, realism, and honesty. I am not a religious man and watching Scorsese projecting his beliefs onto the screen doesn’t turn me into one, either. But I do love the imagery and the concepts behind his “religious” characters.

2) After Hours (1985)

Griffin Dunne turns in a remarkable and entertaining performance that echoes truth with every word that he speaks and every movement that he makes. Martin Scorsese plants him, like a rat in a maze, in Soho and watches him not only lose his sanity but also the simple ability to get home. What begins as a simple first date turns into a Kafkaesque nightmare as Paul Hackett (Dunne) loses all of his money in a speeding cab; is somehow responsible for a stranger’s suicide; almost receives a mohawk in a kinky, underground night club; is mistaken for the neighborhood thief; and is also, at one point, covered entirely with paper mache. The film is just over 90 minutes in length and speeds along at a brisk pace right from the start. Scorsese’s stark imagery of New York at night is both beautiful and chilling and the film entertains me every time I watch it. It’s a favorite of mine, referred to by some as one of the best horror films of the 1980s, and my second favorite Scorsese film.

1) Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Although he’s played in numerous terrible films and given some questionable performances, Nicolas Cage is a favorite of mine and his electrifying performance in Bringing Out the Dead is one of his finest. Much like After Hours, Bringing Out the Dead has a tremendous amount of comedy in it, although he comedy’s far less obvious than in After Hours and it’s a more stylized film. Here is Scorsese at the top of his game. He’s made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, The Color of Money, After Hours, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, and Hugo but none (except for Hugo) has such class as Bringing out the Dead. You can read my review for the film and from it understand why it’s such a terrific film, and that’s also why it’s my favorite film of his. It showcases my favorite version of Scorsese’s New York, displays a terrific performance from Nic Cage (along with great supporting performances by John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, and Marc Anthony), and induces in the viewer a great melancholic state of mind while it entertains. It’s stylish, gorgeous to look at, well acted, sports a kickin’ soundtrack (as per usual), and its main theme is that of redemption, as expected from Scorsese. Simply, I find that there’s nothing to dislike about the film.

HELEN’S BONUS TOP THREE

I’m not a Scorsese enthusiast. If I didn’t run this website the guys would probably kick me out for such cinephile heresy but that’s the way it is. I’ve seen 10 of his films, six of them in the theater. I even watched Raging Bull before writing this post to burnish my Scorsese-viewing credentials (great film but I wouldn’t say I liked it). Ten movies is enough to make me feel pretty confident that that state of affairs isn’t going to change even after I watch Casino, After Hours, and Mean Streets, which are the titles on Geoff’s and Nir’s lists that I haven’t gotten to yet.

He’s a tremendously important filmmaker, his films are always worthwhile, some of them are truly great… but I’m not a fan. His movies don’t get to me like that. I just don’t feel the love.

So, no top five favorites from me. Instead, the three of the 10-viewed-to-date that I really liked. Don’t go looking for Scorsese in my DVD collection, but invite me over for movie night and I’d be happy to watch any one of these three again.

3) Gangs of New York (2002)

I like a lot of things about Gangs of New York but what really put it over for me was the Civil War metaphor and the ultimate tragedy of the characters’ profound unconsciousness of a world outside their small piece of it. I also really like the soundtrack; I bought the soundtrack CD when it came out and still play it now and again.

2) Goodfellas (1990)

Gripping story, bravura filmmaking, incredible performances… what’s not to like? I always love it in a movie when the cinematography and editing change to reflect the main character’s situation- in this case, inexorably deteriorating along with his hold on reality. It also made me like Ray Liotta even more than I already did, which is saying something. This is a seriously great movie.

(And I don’t have to unfriend my own brother over a movie. Whew!)

1) Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Superfluous at this point to rave about the performances, so I’ll highlight the film’s tremendous emotional power instead, a power that’s only heightened by the dark comedy. This allusive and resonant drama of spiritual crisis is the first Scorsese film I saw and still the one I like the best.

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Tell us your favorite Scorsese films in the comments.

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Next: Films of David Mamet

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. May 2 2012

    I am terrifically excited right now to see that “Bringing Out the Dead” has landed on all three lists. It is considered, by non professionals to be Scorsese’s weakest film to date and I find that utterly criminal. I also love that Geoff also loves “After Hours” and I’m happy to see “Gangs of New York” here, too; arguably, it’s the Scorsese film that I’ve watched the most.

    This was a really good, fun post. I’m greatly looking forward to the nest one. :O)

    And Helen, watch “After Hours”. Trust me, you’ll like it. It’s terrifically fun.

  2. May 2 2012

    Interesting and more than a little surprising that “Bringing Out the Dead” should be the one and only film to appear on each list.

    I don’t know how anyone could consider it Scorsese’s worst film but I also put zero stock in that opinion considering how few people have actually seen it. It was- undeservedly- a terrible flop at the box office; until Geoff reminded me I’d forgotten that the trailer was horribly misleading, strongly implying Cage’s character was being haunted by apparitions.

    Question for Geoff and Nir, and anyone else who’d like to chime in: What do you think is actually Scorsese’s weakest film? I’ve seen all since “Bringing Out the Dead” plus “Goodfellas”, “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “The Color of Money”. Out of that list “The Color of Money” was easily the least memorable.

    Also curious if you’ve watched any of his documentaries, of which there are a surprising number?

  3. Geoff
    May 2 2012

    I was pleasantly surprised as well to see Bringing out the Dead on everyone’s shortlist, but I was even more surprised that not one person put Raging Bull up there. I think Helen and I are of the same mind that it’s probably more ‘great’ than ‘fun’, but if I had to choose his best movie, it would be Raging Bull.

    As for his weakest movie, I’m not sure he’s ever made one that wasn’t, at a minimum, successful in my mind, but he has made several movies that I haven’t enjoyed all that much. The Color of Money was so close to being great but ultimately lagged and never quite paid off for me in the end, but I’d say New York, New York and The King of Comedy are my least favorite on his resume.

    As for his documentaries, I’ve seen The Last Waltz, which is really good, and I’ve seen Shine a Light, the Stones doc, which I didn’t like that much, but not really because of anything Scorsese did or did not do, but rather because the Stones are so sloppy. It’s really amazing to me that a band that’s played together for over forty years can’t play in step with each other.

  4. May 2 2012

    I can’t believe none of you guys mentioned ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’. I think that is one of his best and it netted Ellen Burstyn the Oscar. I also really liked his first film ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door’, which has a few too many long takes, but some powerful imagery as well. This was also Harvey Keitel’s film debut. Well worth checking out. It is in Black and White. Also, ‘King of Comedy’ with Jerry Lewis is an interesting curio of his. If you haven’t seen these check it out they are worth it although Sandra Bernhard is in ‘King of Comedy’ and understand that she isn’t one of Nir’s favorites.=)

    ‘Boxcar Bertha’ with Barbra Hershey is another interesting one. As for his worst one it is hands down, in my humble opinion of course, ‘Cape Fear’, which I found to be incredibly boring and drawn-out. The original, which wasn’t great to begin with, is far better then the remake.

  5. May 2 2012

    I’ve never seen so much love for Bringing out the Dead. Maybe I was wrong about that one. I should give it another shot.

  6. May 3 2012

    I like Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” as far as camp goes, but it’s definitely far weaker than the original film, which I find terrific. I mean, who doesn’t love Robert Mitchum playing a bad guy? Night of the Hunter anyone? :O)

    From Scorsese’s documentaries I’ve only watched “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan”; not knowing anything about Dylan’s music or his history I really enjoyed the film.

    And as for Scorsese’s weakest film, it’s probably “The King of Comedy” which I’ve watched for the first time last week. It should have been more psychedelic and more in your face rather than dry and taken at face value. I found that Scorsese was the wrong director for that film (yeah, you heard me!). Imagine what Kubrick would have done with that material after having watched “A Clockwork Orange”.

    For me, “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, and “Mean Streets” are his three best films, propped up side by side. Then there’s “Goodfellas”, “Bringing Out the Dead”, “The Departed”, and “Gangs of New York”. But those are different than personal favourites and belong on a completely different list. :O)

  7. Geoff
    May 3 2012

    Yeah, Cape Fear is a good choice for weakest Scorsese movie, but a lot of that for me is not so much that it’s not a well-made film, but simply my inability to watch it and not constantly compare it to the original. I’m with Nir, walking in Robert Mitchum’s shoes is no easy task.

  8. May 3 2012

    @Dave: I know, I thought if any title was going to show up on all three lists it would be “Goodfellas”. “Bringing Out the Dead” played very differently for me when I saw it originally in the theater vs. seeing it again at home. A lot of the dramatic tension was dissipated but it was also a lot funnier on the small screen.

  9. May 3 2012

    Before I watched it this week I expected to see “Raging Bull” on somebody’s list (possibly including mine) but now that I have seen it I’m not at all surprised it isn’t up there anywhere. It’s an exceptional film, and De Niro’s performance deserves the many accolades it’s received, but it would take a strong effort of will for me to watch it again.

    Our musical interests don’t really overlap so I doubt I’ll ever watch any of his music docs (especially considering how few documentaries I watch anyway), but I would like to see his film docs “My Voyage to Italy” and “A Personal Journey Through American Movies”.

  10. May 3 2012

    I love “Raging Bull” and have watched it many times. Yet it’s still not a favourite of mine because it lacks the that that films that I’d listed carry.

    And what I love mostly abut BOTD is that it terrifically hilarious. Helen, you’re not wrong in finding it funny. I especially love the scene in the goth club when they have to “resurrect” a guy from a cardiac arrest. Always cracks me up.

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