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Every Martin Scorsese Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best

From ‘The King of Comedy’ to ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ — we break down the greatest living filmmaker’s career from bottom to top

Martin Scorsese movies


WHEN MARTIN SCORSESE’S true-crime epic Killers of the Flower Moon hits theaters on Oct. 20, it will be just short of 50 years to the day when Mean Streets, the director’s breakthrough movie, opened in his hometown of New York City and announced a major new talent. Back then, he was part of a wave of young, movie-mad kids who wanted to turn Hollywood inside out and reinvent genres for a new era. Five decades later, Scorsese is now widely considered the greatest American filmmaker working today, as well as the torchbearer for keeping the concept of cinema as an art form alive. Along with his stable of vital collaborators, he’s given us tales of garrulous gangsters, volatile loners, conflicted holy men, comedic kings, empowered single moms, downtown losers, Wall Street winners, and an all-too-human messiah. Most of these films are part of the informal canon of Movies You Must See Before You Die. Many are iconic. None of them are superhero movies, unless you count The Last Temptation of Christ. A handful of them are undeniable, ride-or-die masterpieces.

Ranking Martin Scorsese’s movies from worst to best requires scare quotes around the term “worst” — the man’s track record in terms of quality is surprisingly high, even if he’d be the first to tell you (likely at a speed that defies the human ear and the cognitive part of your brain to keep up) that his films have rarely been box-office successes. His allegedly lesser works are often more interesting, more thought-provoking, and more kinetic than a lot of his peers and acolytes’ greatest achievements. It’s just that, well, some Scorsese movies are better than others.

So, after countless arguments and narrowly avoiding some LaMotta-level punches, we’ve come up with our ranked list of Scorsese’s complete filmography, from the merely good to the greatest of them all. (Make that mostly complete — we’ve grouped some of the shorts and several docs together.) There will be disagreements, to which we reply: You arguin’ with us? I don’t see anyone else here, so you must be arguin’ with us.


‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013)

“I have been a rich man and I have been a poor man — and I choose rich every fuckin’ time.”In which Scorsese applies the Goodfellas/Casino rise-and-fall template to the story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, because of course), the king of pump-and-dump junk bonds and a Horatio Alger posterboy for Wall Street assholes before hitting rock bottom and getting busted by the feds. Look, any movie that features Matthew McConaughey in full moon-howling mode (this scene alone is its own six-minute McConaissance), Jonah Hill rocking mom jeans while begging Belfort to “smoke crack with me, bro,” and Margot Robbie both working and weaponizing a pre-Barbie bombshell persona can’t be all bad. But this fable of how nothing succeeds like excess in the U.S. of A. doesn’t feel as coherent as Scorsese’s similar criminal anthropology lessons, and what you’re left with is less a movie than a lot of set pieces brimming with sex, drugs, and debauchery dialed up to 11. There’s a lot to be said for the way the American Dream became perverted (adjective or verb, take your pick) in the go-go Eighties financial world, and kudos to DiCaprio for leaning into Belfort’s moral compass being systematically broken. But this is what talented artists spinning their wheels looks like.


‘The Aviator’ (2004)

“The way of the future… the way of the future… the way of the future…”Everyone from Michael Mann to Steven Spielberg to Warren Beatty to Christopher Nolan had been trying for years to make a movie about aviation pioneer/movie producer/first-rate recluse billionaire Howard Hughes; Scorsese would be the one to eventually bring this slippery 20th-century titan of industry to the screen, however. Leonardo DiCaprio was already attached to play Hughes, and the proverbial train was already in motion when Scorsese came onboard, which may explain why the film feels slightly rushed in places. It covers a decent amount of his life — from his “visionary” ideas about aeronautics and filmmaking adventures in the 1920s and ’30s to his battles with OCD and extreme paranoia in the 1940s, with some less-than-flattering personal and professional stuff for good measure — yet somehow feels like it never really gets the chance to figure out what made this enigmatic public figure tick. The movie’s real legacy may be the casting coup of getting Cate Blanchett to portray Katharine Hepburn, who dated Hughes for a short period of time; watch this sequence again, and you understand why the Academy couldn’t engrave her name on that Oscar fast enough. It’s worth it just to see her say, “You’re deaf and I sweat — aren’t we a fine pair of misfits?!”


‘Shine a Light’ (2008)

“I don’t think onstage. I feel.“When Scorsese and Mick Jagger were discussing working together on a project about the music business, i.e., what would turn out to be the HBO show Vinyl, the filmmaker would check out the Rolling Stones on tour when they were both in the same town. I’ve got to get what’s happening on that stage on film, he told himself — so when the band booked New York’s Beacon Theater for a two-night benefit for the Clinton Foundation, Scorsese called in 15 cameramen and set up shop. What you get is the Stones doing their arena show in an intimate theater, no less and somewhat regrettably, no more. This isn’t The Last Waltz by a long shot, though you do get a sense of the live-wire energy the greatest rock & roll band in the world brings once they lock in with each other. (And watching Keef ‘n’ Mick share the stage with blues godhead Buddy Guy is a treat.) The behind-the-scenes stuff doesn’t add much to the mix, though you get a great sense of the Marty-vs.-Mick rivalry as these two alpha dogs jockey for control. R.I.P. Charlie Watts.


‘New York Stories’ (1989)

“It’s art… you give it up, you were never an artist in the first place.”The idea must have looked great on paper: Get three first-rate filmmakers, have them contribute one film each to an anthology movie, and have all of the stories set in the city that never sleeps. Only Scorsese’s contribution “Life Lessons” is worth returning to, however. (Francis Ford Coppola’s cute tale of a kid in a hotel is Eloise-lite, and the less said about Woody Allen’s bad mom joke, the better.) Kicking off with a killer needle-drop of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” this miniature portrait of a painter (Nick Nolte) who needs emotional distress and interpersonal chaos in order to create is one brutal take on the idea of the artist as incurable narcissist. His former lover and current muse, an aspiring painter named Paulette (Rosanna Arquette, in prime form), is trying to keep things platonic while negotiating her way through the downtown art scene. But her mentor’s jealousy and self-destructive ways of working are a death knell for any potential happy-ever-afters. You pray, for Scorsese’s own sake, that this isn’t autobiographical — though time has shown us that he’s at least avoided the endless rinse-repeat cycle that plague’s Nolte’s neo-expressionist vampire.


‘Hugo’ (2011)

“If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around — this is where they’re made.”When Scorsese was 13, he went to see Around the World in 80 Days, the Oscar-winning movie based on Jules Verne’s novel; before the movie, they showed Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, and he recalled being amazed and delighted by what the silent-cinema pioneer had accomplished. So it’s not a stretch to say that Scorsese’s fantastic tale of a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who lives in the clock in the Paris-Montparnasse railway terminal and befriends Méliès (Sir Ben Kingsley), is as much a tribute to that moviemaking magician as it is an adaptation to Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Or really, a tribute to the power of movies themselves, and how they’ve sparked Scorsese’s imagination over decades — the scene of young Hugo and his friend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) staring in complete rapture as images flicker across a screen couldn’t feel more personal. Whenever the focus is on Hugo’s relationship with Méliès and his bewilderment over this new art form, you can feel the film coming alive. Every time we cut back to scenes with the boy’s father (Jude Law), or a kindly flower vendor (Emily Mortimer), or a bumbling station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), you can feel Hugo starting to drift into generic, albeit gorgeous kids-movie territory. A minor work on Scorsese’s major obsession.


‘Silence’ (2016)

“Surely God heard their prayers as they died… but did He hear their screams?”Scorsese has never played down his religious upbringing or his history with Catholicism — he almost became a priest and risked his entire career to make a movie about Jesus Christ (more on that in a moment). By adapting author Shūsaku Endō’s novel about two Jesuits trying to rescue a fellow clergyman persecuted for spreading Christianity in 17th-century Japan, however, he momentarily switches from telling stories about the power of faith to the price one pays for keeping the faith. To declare yourself as a Christian in the country at that time was something close to a death sentence, and a missionary named Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has come to the point where he’s been forced to renounce his beliefs; why should others suffer for his piety? The two younger men who travel east to find him, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), view this as a betrayal, until they get to know his “secret “congregation and begin to understand what he’s endured. It’s a tough movie, as rigid in its aesthetic and dedication to authentically depicting the agony these Catholics went through in the name of their lord and savior as Rodrigues in absolutist doctrine. Which is ironic, given that so much of the movie views orthodoxy as an obstacle to true faith, and not a prerequisite. You can tell that making this movie meant a lot to Scorsese, even if it’s sometimes tough to penetrate as a viewer.


‘Casino’ (1995)

“A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes.”Welcome to Las Vegas, where Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) rules over a Mob-run empire. He’s the brains of the outfit; his friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), is the muscle. Rothstein’s wife, Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), fills in the “beauty” slot. It’s all one big cash-fueled paradise, until it isn’t — cue exploding Cadillac. You can’t say this movie doesn’t have serious pedigree, from the cast to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi adapting his own book to those insane title credits from Saul Bass. But let’s be honest: Marty’s Excellent Sin City Adventure is easily the most overrated of the director’s work from that incredible 1990s run he had, and even though it’s separated from Goodfellas by two other films, the shadow of that earlier gangster saga looms way too large over this film. We love a dapper salmon-colored suit as much as the next person, and we still think Stone was robbed of a Best Actress Oscar for her work here. Yet the feeling that Scorsese has covered this ground and used this sprawling rise-and-fall format to better effect before overwhelms the rush of, say, a Stones-soundtracked montage or seeing someone’s head get put in a vice.


‘The Color of Money’ (1986)

“This here’s ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson… who are you, the end of the world?”Paul Newman had written a fan letter to Scorsese after seeing Raging Bull, and wanted Marty to direct the belated sequel to The Hustler. The filmmaker had always considered the 1961 pool-shark character study “a masterpiece,” yet he was reluctant to take on a belated sequel centered around the star’s second most famous role after Butch Cassidy. “But I always loved Newman,” Scorsese would say years later, “and he was giving us a great chance.” It’s really the perfect lion-in-winter continuation of “Fast Eddie” Felson’s story, with the former next big thing comfortably settled into life as a middle-aged liquor salesman. Then he sees Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise at his most Tom Cruise-iest) knocking eightballs in with the greatest of ease, and suddenly our man Eddie wants back into the high-stakes hustling game. Along with the kid’s girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), he sets out to show this hotshot how it’s done. It’s a dual star vehicle, and would win Newman his long-overdue Oscar. Yet Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman never treat this like a for-hire gig, injecting some serious energy into every show-offy run and seedy pool-hall showdown. Who knew endless montages of balls smacking into each other on green felt could feel so exhilarating to watch?


‘No Direction Home’ (2005)

“It’s hard to get in tune when they’re booing… I don’t even wanna get in tune!“Scorsese had been involved with documentary filmmaking from the jump — don’t forget that he was at Woodstock, with cameras a-rollin’. And he’s made a number of nonfiction movies over the last half of his career, from the diary-like (My Voyage to Italy, which finds Scorsese paying homage to Italian cinema) to music docs (George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Personality Crisis) to straight-ahead portraits of people (Public Speaking) and institutions (The 50 Year Argument). But it’s his eclectic, epic look at the life and work of Bob Dylan that best demonstrates how he’s used the form to merge the journalistic with the cinematic. A do-look-back deep dive on Dylan’s evolution from Hibbing, Minnesota’s happy wanderer to the voice of a generation to a Fender-wielding iconoclast, this bio-doc is anchored by a long, candid interview with the man himself (courtesy of his archivist Jeff Cohen) and incredible footage from the notorious 1966 tour featuring Bob, the Band, and a lot of booing crowds. Scorsese uses the former to guide us through the journey, and keeps dropping in the latter to disrupt it throughout this two-part chronicle; the result makes his big going-electric moment and the fallout around it somehow seem inevitable. By the time we get to that legendary Manchester concert (“Judas!”), the director has made it feel like this was Dylan’s destiny. “I can’t articulate what Dylan’s music means to me,” Scorsese said, when asked to explain his motivation behind making the documentary. “But the music is all.“


‘Kundun’ (1997)

“I will liberate those not liberated. I will release those not released. I will relieve those unrelieved.”“The question for me was and is: Do you have to be religious to be a spiritual person?” This was on Scorsese’s mind when he was given Melissa Mathison’s script about the early life of Tenzin Gyatso, who was identified by Buddhist monks as the 14th Dalai Lama when he was just a child. The boy will eventually try to broker peace between the Tibetan people and the Chinese government, before living in exile in India in the late 1950s. For those who understood Scorsese to be a person with longstanding interests in spiritual matters and an omnivorous appetite when it came to studying theology, the notion that he would make a film about this figurehead wasn’t a surprise. Moviegoers who saw him as the guy who makes nothing but Mob movies, however, were deeply confused. Though it was released to little public fanfare — but much consternation from contemporary China’s regime — it’s now regarded as a key film in his overall body of work, and feels completely in line with his other movies that question what it means to lead a spiritual life. We 100-percent agree with Christopher Moltisanti on this one.


‘New York, New York’ (1977)

“I love you. Will you marry me? I don’t want anybody else to be with you.”Pretend you’re watching an old MGM musical from the 1940s, and suddenly, Johnny Boy from Mean Streets walks in, blowing on a saxophone and stirring up shit. That’s the sensation you get watching Scorsese’s brilliant, oddball attempt to mash Old Hollywood artifice and New Hollywood grit together in the name of revitalizing a beloved but near-extinct Dream Factory ideology. A longtime fan of those golden age song-and-dance extravaganzas and blessed with post-Taxi Driver industry juice, the filmmaker came up with a story of a jazz musician (Robert De Niro) and a singer (Liza Minnelli, channeling her mother, Judy Garland, to an uncanny degree) who make beautiful music together circa 1945. Except De Niro purposefully turns the romantic “hero” into a possessive, aggressive, near-abusive jerk who could have easily stepped out of a 1975 drama about anti-social creeps. She later becomes successful on her own. Things fall apart between them. The friction between these two different types of movies would, per Scorsese, produce something unique, and it did — just not the kind of “unique” his producers and 1977 audiences were looking for. It nearly derailed his career and contributed to his well-documented breakdown. But when you watch it now, especially with the glorious “Happy Endings” restored after it was cut out in ’77, it feels like a lost gem in Scorsese’s back catalog. And yes, Minnelli’s rendition of the title song still slaps.


‘Cape Fear’ (1991)

“Maybe I’m the big, bad wolf…”“Sometimes I try to make a picture for purely entertainment reasons,” Scorsese has said in reference to his decision to do a remake of the 1962 thriller, in which recently released felon Max Cady (Robert De Niro) returns to terrorize Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), the defense lawyer who withheld evidence that might have kept his client out of prison. Specifically, this heavily-tattooed, Bible-quoting brute wants to punish not just Bowden but his family as well. Watch the original version, and you can see how Robert Mitchum exudes a ticking-time-bomb sense of menace as Cady. In De Niro’s hands, however, Max is loud, vulgar, and something out of a Grimm fairy tale. Scorsese keeps turning the screws tension-wise, leading up to what remains one of the most disturbing sequences in any Nineties movie, much less his filmography: an unsettling “seduction” scene between Cady and Bowden’s 16-year-old daughter, Danielle, played by Juliette Lewis. (The actress herself described the nine-minute sequence as “a psychological tango.”) Not even its big horror-movie ending can kill the creepy vibe he and his cast conjure here. What could have been a shot-for-shot re-creation ends up being a singularly sick movie, and we mean that in the best way possible.


‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988)

Scorsese’s passion project — or rather, his Passion project — dates back to the early 1970s, when Barbara Hershey first gave him Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel about Jesus as both a man and a messiah. The director came close to making it a number of times before funding and cold feet from producers and studios kept resetting everything back to square one. When Scorsese signed with Mike Ovitz in the mid-’80s, the superagent promised that he’d help get the film made, and after finishing The Color of Money, the director was finally to make his dream project a reality. Pitched somewhere between the old Biblical epics that Scorsese grew up watching and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s unvarnished The Gospel According to St. Matthews, this retelling of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is one of most reverent and awe-inspiring movies about Jesus ever made. It’s the work of both a true believer and someone willing to entertain questions about the person many call “the son of God,” and a genuine testament to Scorsese’s faith. There are those who take issue with Willem Dafoe’s performance, but we are not among those critics; we do admit that Harvey Keitel’s red ‘do (he plays Judas) is slightly distracting, but not a deal-breaker. Unsurprisingly, it stirred up a ton of controversy, yet to think that Scorsese’s attempt to wrestle with the contradictions and re-establish a connection to Christ is blasphemous feels dangerously close-minded. It’s a profound work of art.


‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ (1974)

Ellen Burstyn said that when she first spoke to Scorsese about possibly directing this story of a single mother trying to make ends meet, she wanted to know why he’d be the right person for the job. After all, here was a guy who just directed Mean Streets, a movie characterized by some extremely masculine energy. What the hell did he know about the inner lives of women? “Nothing,” he allegedly responded. “But I’d like to learn.” Scorsese dipped into his love of old Hollywood movies from the 1930s — the Wizard of Oz homage at the beginning is particularly inspired — for this melodrama about an aspiring singer stuck with her son in Phoenix, Arizona, and working a waitress job while planning her next steps. But more importantly, he relied on his actors to find the emotional connections of their characters, and continually tweaked the script and their scenes based on improvisations; Burstyn later said that, thanks to his specific combo of “methodical and loose,” she couldn’t imagine having made this film with anyone else. It won her an Oscar, and established Scorsese as a versatile director who did more than just fugeddaboutit tough guys. No one trick pony here, thank you very much.


‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ (2019)

“I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder… it happened so long ago I wasn’t even born!”You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that Scorsese’s look at Bob Dylan’s infamous 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Tour was just a companion piece to his marathon-length Dylanology 101 doc No Direction Home — that film stops in 1966, right about the time a motorcycle accident forced the singer to reconsider which way the wind is blowin’ for him. And indeed, his revisiting of that period sees the rock & roll bard play small venues and deconstruct earlier hits while wearing Kabuki makeup. As the copious amount of concert clips attest, it was even weirder (and more brilliant) than it sounds, and had the director done nothing but finally find a way of making all that Renaldo and Clara footage watchable, the film would already be a success. (The hard-rockin’ version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” is eye-opening, and the scene in which Joni Mitchell wows his Bobness with a rendition of “Coyote” is priceless.) Instead, Scorsese takes a cue from his subject, and once Sharon Stone and fictional politician Jack Tanner begin reminiscing about their memories of this carnival, well … when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Don’t follow leaders, or trust anyone onscreen or behind the camera, either. Sheer genius, this.


‘The Departed’ (2006)

“I got this rat — this gnawing, cheese-eating fuckin’ rat — and it brings up questions…”Scorsese admitted he was reluctant to take on this semi-remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, in which an undercover cop infiltrates a gang while a criminal acts as a mole within the police department for said gang. He just wasn’t sure he could do anything with the story, until it occurred to him that it revolves around the idea of betrayal — and suddenly, the director felt like he had both an emotional investment and a way in regarding the material. This was the film that would finally win Scorsese his Oscar, and while that doesn’t forgive the Academy for past snubs, it’s definitely the sort of movie that lifts up its pulpy narrative to delirious heights without sacrificing depth in a way that made awards love almost inevitable. It’s also the collaboration between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio where they finally found an ideal actor-director chemistry — the star is tapping into something darker and more conflicted than usual here. Plus, it gives Matt Damon both a plum role as the precinct spy and a hometown Beantown victory lap, and lets Jack Nicholson tear into his Mephistophelean Mob boss with gusto. It’s endlessly quotable (“I’m the guy who does his job, you must be the other guy”), and proof that, despite Scorsese’s long-repeated mantra about not having no idea how to make commercial films, he could still succeed in making a critical and financial hit just by sticking to his guns.


‘After Hours’ (1985)

“Different rules apply when it gets this late.”Feeling depressed after almost (but not quite) getting The Last Temptation of Christ off the ground for the gajillionth time and feeling like there was no place for him in the film industry, Scorsese was in a funk. He needed to make a movie, fast — and he needed to make a movie in a way that was fast, fleet, and not too bogged down with Hollywood studio brouhaha. Salvation came in the form of a script written by Joe Minion when he was a student at Columbia University, about a guy from Manhattan who ventures south of 14th Street for what he believes will be a date with a beautiful young woman he’s just met. By the end of the evening, he’ll have endured all sorts of indignities and find himself in a waking nightmare straight outta Kafka. Scorsese said he was roughly 10 pages in when he knew he had to make the picture, and this black comedy was indeed just the creative rejuvenation he needed. It feels like an early Nineties indie flick, only delivered five years earlier than scheduled. The cast — Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Catherine O’Hara, Teri Garr, and yes, Cheech and Chong — know exactly where the sweet spot is between funny and WTF bizarre, and Scorsese balances Hitchcockian dread and boho parody like a champ. It’s Marty’s off-the-cuff midnight movie, perfect for any hour of the day.


‘The King of Comedy’ (1982)

“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”Cringe comedies don’t get much cringier than Scorsese’s caustic satire on celebrity culture, in which aspiring stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin refuses to take “no” for an answer yet is perfectly fine taking hostages in order to achieve his showbiz dreams. Robert De Niro applied all of his alpha male energy to Scorsese’s sad-sack beta male, giving the man who would be king a dangerous, unpredictable edge — he’s like Travis Bickle with less guns and a tight 10. The object of Pupkin’s admiration, late-night TV godhead Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, perfectly cast), is soon perceived to be the “obstacle” standing between him and his destiny. So of course Rupert’s only recourse is to enlist the help of an equally unhinged fan (Sandra Bernhard) and kidnap his idol, using the Carson-esque host as leverage to do his Borscht-Belt-meets-therapy-session act on his show. Desperate times, etc. It remains both one of the funniest and the most painful movies in Scorsese’s filmography, courtesy of a toxic cocktail of humiliation and aggression. The director would later say that when he first read Paul Zimmerman’s script in 1974, he couldn’t comprehend how obsessions over celebrities could cross the line into hostility. By the time he returned to the project in the early 1980s after experiencing his own brush with fame (and had watched a potential presidential assassin credit Taxi Driver as an influence), Scorsese understood the story all too well.


‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ (2023)

“This blanket is a target on our backs.”Any adaptation of David Grann’s bestselling true-crime book about a series of murders within the Osage tribe in the oil-rich 1920s was bound to be a big deal. The fact that Scorsese would be the gent directing it, and the film would feature both Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro acting together for the first time in one of the director’s movies, was almost enough to get the movie’s opening day declared as a national holiday. And while most filmmakers would have turned this into a white-savior story, in which the newly-formed FBI swoop in to save the day, Scorsese takes the road less traveled and puts the focus on the love story between Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) and his Osage wife, Mollie (Lily Gladstone). That notion makes all the difference, adding an intimate element to an epic American tragedy. This was the mixture of history, violence, romance, and Freudian father-son drama that the director was aiming for with Gangs of New York, only now he hits the bull’s-eye. Both a gothic take on the Western and a corrective to the damage that genre’s done to Native Americans, this frontier noir somehow makes you feel like the 80-year-old director is just beginning to hit his stride.


‘Mean Streets’ (1973)

“You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets.”From the second that Harvey Keitel’s head hits the pillow perfectly timed to the drumbeat from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” you can tell that something special is about to go down onscreen. This tale of two guys from the old neighborhood is the film in which Martin Scorsese became Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker with a keen ear for rock and pop music cues, a peerless eye for framing his characters (if there’s religious imagery in the background, so much the better), and a sixth sense for knowing exactly where the line between the sacred and the streetwise was. He’d worked with Keitel before, who plays the filmmaker’s screen counterpart Charlie as a young man who takes his professional ambitions and his Catholic guilt very seriously. But this was the first time Scorsese would work with a guy he’d seen around Little Italy since they were both teens, Robert De Niro — and the dynamic sense of unpredictability he brings to Johnny Boy, the resident fuck-up, would be the be the first in a long line of unstable males he and the director would dream up. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and not just between De Niro and his director. Mean Streets is where Scorsese establishes a rapport with the medium itself, marshaling all of his talents, obsessions, and artistic preoccupations into what would become his voice as a filmmaker. This was his third feature, but it all really starts here.


‘The Age of Innocence’ (1993)

“This is a world balanced so precariously that its harmony could be shattered by a whisper.”Question: Who’s more brutal, more violent, and more unforgiving in the ways of crime and punishment than the Mob? Answer: 19th-century New York high society. There’s a strong argument to be made that Scorsese’s exquisite rendering of Edith Wharton’s novel is his most savage movie to date — the sheer number of backs silently stabbed per capita outdoes his crime movies two to one. Daniel Day-Lewis is Leland Archer, a lawyer marrying into one of the most prestigious families in Gotham via Winona Ryder’s young May Welland. There’s simply the matter of May’s cousin, a.k.a. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Countess Ellen Olenska, who had the misfortune of marrying a European cad and is now persona non grata. Leland is able to get her back in the good graces of the elite, but the two begin to develop feelings — and those who can deem you “acceptable” can just as easily cast you out while sporting the politest of smiles. What appears to be an anomaly among Scorsese’s tales of codes of conduct, tribal loyalties, and betrayal is actually just a period-dressed version of the same. It’s also one of his most thoroughly devastating works, in which not a drop of blood is shed but still leaves several of its characters dead in all but name.


‘The Last Waltz’ (1978)

“This film should be played LOUD.”It begins at the end, with the weary members of the Band shuffling onstage to hoarse cheers. They kick into their customized cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” then exit, stage left. And with that, Scorsese not only delivers the definitive document of the Band’s farewell 1976 show — he jump-starts what many consider to be the single greatest concert film ever. (Or at the very least, one perpetually tied for first place.) A groundbreaking long goodbye fueled by sound, fury, and a who’s who of rock-legend guest stars, The Last Waltz captures the agony and ecstasy of those five guys playing together one final time. The who, where, and why of the Band’s Thanksgiving swan song make this required viewing for fans of the era’s rock & roll culture, but it’s the how of it all that makes it soar. “The form of it was important to me,” Scorsese told Richard Schickel in the book-length interview Conversations With Scorsese. “The camera movement to music, the editing, capturing the live performances.” He kept the focus on the musicians rather than the audience, and pulled out the stops in terms of shooting this like a narrative feature rather than fly-on-the-wall verité; those rhythmic cuts as the Band members and the Staple family sing the chorus to “The Weight” (one of the few numbers re-created on a soundstage) makes that sequence a testament to sound and vision as much as the song itself. It remains one of the rare concert films in which both words in that genre description have equal bearing.


‘Italianamerican’ (1974)/’American Boy’ (1978)

“You’ll never get out of this house alive!”Like most filmmakers, Scorsese cut his teeth on shorts, ranging from the goofy (It’s Not Just You, Murray) to the darkly satirical (The Big Shave) — you can check several of them out on the Criterion Collection’s Scorsese Shorts compilation. But two of the briefer works he made in the Seventies, after he’d established himself as a young, hungry, New Hollywood player, offer telling glimpses into both Scorsese’s preoccupations and slightly addled mindset during the Me Decade. Italianamerican is little more than Scorsese prodding his parents, Charles and Catherine, into telling stories about their upbringing and their life in New York’s Little Italy. American Boy finds a skeletal Marty hanging out with his buddies in Los Angeles, listening to actor Steven Prince — he’s the gun seller in Taxi Driver — regale everyone with tales of managing Neil Diamond and his run-ins with the law. One feels like you’ve been eavesdropping on family anecdotes during a Sunday supper; the other feels like a nocturnal transmission from Planet Cocaine, a world stuck in a perpetual midnight. They were often programmed together in two-for-one revival screenings, and looking back, they now feel like key works in his back catalog, every bit as vital and rich as his feature-length movies. You get a sense of where Scorsese came from, how he was the product of a family filled with love and a love of storytelling. And you get a chilling glimpse into where he was potentially headed circa 1978, when the company of dangerous characters and burning the candle on a dozen different ends suggested he was skirting perilously close to the edge of oblivion.


‘Taxi Driver’ (1976)

“Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s a world where To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Robert Mulligan directs Jeff Bridges as Travis Bickle. (No, really — that almost happened!) Thankfully, we live in this world, in which Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro turned screenwriter Paul Schrader’s tale of “God’s lonely man” shepherding his cab through hell, a.k.a. Manhattan between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m., into one of the most iconic American films of the past 50 years. It cemented the bond between director and actor that had initially been forged in Mean Streets, proved Harvey Keitel could play a pimp, and presented the world with a disturbed, socially awkward antihero angry over his place in society long before the term “incel” was coined. Even casual film fanatics know the whole “You talkin’ to me?” sequence by heart; should they then go into a word-for-word recitation of Scorsese’s cameo as a homicidal husband, however, you are advised to run for the hills ASAP. The director said that he wanted to depict Bickle’s descent into madness as something like “a cross between Gothic horror and the New York Daily News,” and the film’s extraordinary scenes of urban violence still inspire arguments today. (See: Quentin Tarantino’s heated chapter on it in Cinema Speculation.) What’s most shocking about it is how shocking it still feels when you watch it — the unflinching way it forces us to reckon with this outcast is more genuinely unsettling than ever. Scorsese and Co. were remarkably prescient. Travis Bickle used to be a cautionary tale about masculinity, isolation, and rage. Now you can find a legion of similar types lurking on every social-media app.


‘The Irishman’ (2019)

“If they can whack a president, they can whack a president of the union.”Or: The Gangster as Tragic Zero. With the possible exception of Raoul Walsh, no other filmmaker has left a bigger mark on the mobster film than Scorsese, for better or for worse — and with this adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Hear You Paint Houses, the director gives what’s essentially his valedictory statement on the genre. Robert De Niro is Frank Sheehan, the Mob muscle turned Teamster official who was Jimmy Hoffa’s ace in the hole and, according to his memoir, the labor leader’s killer; Joe Pesci is the capo calling the shots; Al Pacino is Hoffa, who loves the working man almost as much as he loves ice cream and power. Yes, it’s more gunshots and smooth criminals shooting their cuffs against the background of 20th-century gangster capitalism, but Scorsese is going after bigger game than just a greatest-hits reel (in more ways than one). This is a serious, somber movie that makes you question how we’ve viewed these wisecracking wiseguys and take-no-shit tough guys over the years, and what happens to them after the ring-a-ding fun stops and the party’s over. It is, in so many ways, the anti-Goodfellas — a long, sustained adrenaline rush that then asks you to spend serious time contemplating the aftermath of a life characterized by moral compromises and Mob rules. Even if it ends up not being Scorsese’s last time taking on these archetypes, it’s the final word on the mythology he helped turn into pop-culture manna. Late-act masterpieces don’t come moodier — or more impressive — than this.


‘Raging Bull’ (1980)

“I want you to hit me with everything you got. I want you to fuckin’ lay me out.”The backstory is now as legendary as the movie itself: Having worn himself down with too much work, too many after-hours activities, and too much living on the edge, Scorsese suffered a collapse that led to him being hospitalized. While he was recuperating, De Niro came to visit his friend in the hospital, and brought prizefighter Jake LaMotta’s autobiography with him. It was a project he’d pitched Scorsese on before, but the filmmaker had no interest in making a boxing movie. Gradually, however, he began to realize it was about a man who was driven to self-destruction but was trying to make peace with himself — something that, after his near-death experience, the director could relate to all too well. The rest is history. Raging Bull is not only one of the greatest boxing films ever made (Scorsese said he shot those electrifying fight scenes based on the cine-choreography of the Band’s numbers in The Last Waltz), one of the greatest films of the 1980s, and one of the greatest examples of De Niro’s Method-madness commitment to acting. It’s the rare film that makes you feel not just every punch thrown but every inch climbed toward spiritual redemption. For such a painful, physical movie — violence happens as much outside the ring as it does within it — there’s something near-transcendent about the way that LaMotta claws his way out of the darkness and back into the light. When he’s finally able to look himself in the mirror at the end, you know exactly what it’s taken to get to that moment of self-acceptance. It’s hard not to think Scorsese knew every step of that path by that point in his life as well. And it remains a towering achievement for everyone involved.


‘Goodfellas’ (1990)

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”Scorsese’s woozy, dizzy adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s slice-of-Mafia-life book Wiseguy is a social anthropology study, an epic look at the American Dream, a coked-up nightmare, a head-spinning display of virtuosic filmmaking, the blueprint for the modern organized-crime saga, and a peerless look at a world where you might be slapped on the back or shot in the face. “Mob guys love it, because it’s the real thing,” Pileggi told GQ. “They say, ‘It’s like a home movie.’” Every performance, from the holy trinity of Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci (“Funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?”) to future Sopranos royalty Lorraine Bracco’s long-suffering queen to the round-the-way guys in the background, feels pitch-perfect. Scorsese’s references run the gamut from The Godfather to The Great Train Robbery; the soundtrack incorporates everything from Bobby Darin to Donovan, the Stones to Sid Vicious. (After that murder montage, filmmakers are essentially forbidden from using the “Layla” coda to score a scene ever again.) And thanks to the way the humor and the violence play off each other, it feels like the ultimate ha-ha, bang-bang chronicle of how crime does, in fact, pay — you just have one hell of a bill due on the back end. Scorsese may have dealt with the world of those who live outside the law that he saw growing up in Little Italy before, but this feels like his grand statement on the Mob mentality — you’re either a crook or a schnook. “I wanted to seduce everybody into the movie and the style,” he’d say years later. “And then just take them apart with it.”