in Retrospecticus

Retrospecticus: Martin Scorsese

I was kind of going back and forth on whether it was worth it to commit to such an ambitious post. But with Shutter Island coming out this weekend, I figured I probably won’t get as good a chance to pay tribute to one of my favorite filmmakers and perhaps the world’s greatest living director, Martin Scorsese.

Mean Streets (1973)

I’ve only seen about half of Scorsese’s first film Who’s That Knocking At My Door and haven’t seen Boxcar Bertha, but this is undoubtedly Scorsese’s first important film and the one that established him as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. In Mean Streets, you can see all of Scorsese’s signature touches: the rapid fire editing, the violence, the themes of Catholic guilt, the rock soundtrack, and Scorsese’s already astounding visual prowess. The film paired Scorsese once again with Harvey Keitel (who starred in Scorsese’s first film) and marked the director’s first collaboration with Robert DeNiro, who gives just one of the many great performances he would give during the ’70s. There’s a certain looseness to the film as a lot of it has this improvised feel and there really isn’t a whole lot of plot to speak of. But Scorsese seems like he’s never been too concerned with story, and Mean Streets is a prime example of his ability to just completely immerse you in this fast-paced, dangerous life style.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

This film’s a little bit of an anomaly in Scorsese’s early career, but already shows him exhibiting a certain amount of versatility as a director. It seems like despite the rise of the feminist movement in America in the 1970s, there’s only a handful of films of that era that reflect this changing of ideals, and this is certainly one of the best examples as Ellen Burstyn stars as a widow trying to pursue her dream of becoming a singer while dealing with the baggage of being a single mother. The film’s ending kind of underpins the film’s feminist message, but it’s filled with some great performances and helped break Scorsese further into the mainstream while helping Burstyn win an Oscar for her performance.

Taxi Driver (1976)

I don’t think I could ever say that Taxi Driver is one of my favorite films due it’s bleak subject matter, but it’s a film that I’m absolutely fascinated by every time I see it. It’s just an absolutely perfect collaboration between screenwriter Paul Schrader, Scorsese, and Robert DeNiro in one of his most brilliant performances. Taxi Driver paints one of the most haunting and masterful portrayals of alienation by giving us one of the cinema’s most iconic anti-heroes, the seriously disturbed Travis Bickle. And the film is first and foremost a unrelentingly dark character study, but also stands as a document of what a truly nightmarish place New York City had become during the ’70s. I’m having a hard time thinking of anything that hasn’t already been said about this film, but it’s in my opinion one of the best films to come out of the ’70s and if you haven’t seen it you should, I’m talking to you Seeeaan.

New York, New York (1977)

Coming off of the success of Taxi Driver, with New York, New York, Scorcese set out for something a little more ambitious, and this is one of the few times Scorsese’s ambitions have gotten the best of him. Though New York, New York isn’t without it’s merits, I can’t help but look at it as a noble failure. The film tries to pay homage to the MGM musicals of the 40’s and 50’s with it’s colorful set design, but Scorsese fuses this with his darker character-driven tendencies, and these two clashing styles really can’t help but make the film feel a little uneven. Liza Minnelli gives quite a good performance, but DeNiro’s performance just seems a little out of place in a film like this. Still, even in a slight misfire like this film, Scorsese’s visual playfulness is still intact, plus you gotta love the film’s famous title song.

Last Waltz (1978)

I wasn’t really sure whether to include any of the documentaries Scorsese directed, but it’s hard to deny that The Last Waltz ranks among the best rock films ever made, so I figured it was worth including. For those that don’t know, The Last Waltz documented the final performance of The Band before they decided to go their separate ways and brought together some of the biggest names in rock for this final performance. What makes this film stand out, besides it’s inclusion of so many great artists is the way Scorsese’s cameramen capture the concert in such a thorough and intimate way. I think this was actually the first Scorsese film I ever saw, and I’m kind of having a hard time remembering a lot about it, but I can’t remember any other time that I was as impressed with a concert film, and I’ve seen quite a few.

Raging Bull (1980)

After the box-office failure of New York, New York, Scorsese supposedly sunk deeper and deeper into cocaine addiction, and it was Bobby DeNiro who convinced Scorsese to take on this story of boxer Jake LaMotta. I think I’ve heard that Scorsese believed Raging Bull would be his last film, so in turn set out to make it the best film he could possibly make. Well, I think Scorsese achieved that goal and then some, as Raging Bull is probably the most mesmerizing film Scorsese has ever made, and truly an American classic. The boxing scenes in this movie are among the most frightening and visually stunning depictions of the sport ever put to film, and the more dramatic scenes are handled with the intensity of a truly magnificent director. However, much of the films brilliance has to be owed to Robert DeNiro who throws himself completely into a character that’s hard to like, but even harder to take your eyes off.

The King of Comedy (1982)

This is one of Scorsese’s films that I’d kind of like to see again. I remember being rubbed the wrong way a little bit by The King of Comedy, as I kind of felt uncomfortable about the tone of the movie. It’s almost hard to watch some of the scenes in The King Of Comedy as DeNiro plays another borderline psychotic who is obsessed with a talk show host whom he basically stalks throughout the whole movie. Jerry Lewis gives a very good performance as the aforementioned talk-show host and I think Scorsese has said that this film contains his favorite performance of DeNiro’s, and I can kind of see why, but he’s still more or less doing a variation on Travis Bickle. It seems like the rest of the 80’s were filled with films that were interesting, but not among Scorsese’s best work, and though some would say this film’s better than that, I can’t help but feel like this is a minor work.

After Hours (1985)

Definitely not one of Scorsese more well-known films, but one that I’m still fond of. After Hours shows Scorsese exploring somewhat lighter material after the dark character studies The King of Comedy and Raging Bull, with a story chronicling one crazy night in the life of Paul Hackett, played not by Robert DeNiro, but Griffin Dunne of all people. It’s a modest little film, but one that still shows Scorsese’s ability to still pull off smaller, more independent features in a decade ruled by box-office spectacle.

The Color of Money (1986)

I’m pretty sure I’ve read that Scorsese has said that he did this sequel to the 1961 film The Hustler just so he could get funding for The Last Temptation of Christ. But from watching the film you probably wouldn’t be able to tell, as it show’s Scorsese innate ability turn out quality work, even when it’s one of his more mainstream ventures. It’s also entertaining as hell to see the great Paul Newman reprise the role of Fast Eddie Felson, and seeing him facing of with Tom Cruise makes for an interesting dynamic. And though it’s far from Newman’s best performance, it helped him win his long-overdue Best Actor Oscar.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
I actually wasn’t able to get around to seeing this one before completing this post, sorry. I guess I just have a hard time committing to watching controversial Jesus movies, which also explains why I still haven’t seen The Passion of The Christ either. I really didn’t want to postpone this post any longer from being finished, I hope you’ll forgive me.

GoodFellas (1990)

After a series of somewhat mixed results during the eighties (or at least by Scorsese’s standards), GoodFellas saw Scorsese returning to the excellence he had shown earlier in his career. GoodFellas is undoubtedly one of my favorite films of all time, and one of the few films I can watch over and over again and not get tired of. For me, GoodFellas captures the mafia lifestyle in a way that really no film has managed to do. But GoodFellas also steers clear of glamourizing the mafia, as Henry Hill’s downfall is just as compelling to watch as his rise to the top. This is quite simply a story Scorsese was born to make, by utilizing his signature fast-paced visual style as well as his penchant for troubled, violent Italian-Americans, GoodFellas is nothing short of a classic.

Cape Fear (1991)

Coming right off the heels of GoodFellas, you could say Cape Fear might have been somewhat of a letdown, but I’d say it’s still a first-rate thriller by any measure. I haven’t seen the 1962 original film, but you can see that the film pays homage to the thrillers of that time as it has a very Hitchcock-ian feel to it. At the center of this incarnation of Cape Fear is Robert DeNiro’s interpretation of Max Cady, and though you could say DeNiro goes a little over the top with his performance, he’s still undeniably fun to watch, and the always reliable Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange are quite good as well. You could say that this is an example of Scorsese’s more mainstream, and therefore less personal projects, but I think it’s still a very entertaining thriller even if it doesn’t rank among the director’s most interesting work.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

This is another Scorsese film I’d kind of like to see again, because the first time through I couldn’t help but find this movie a little boring. I guess I just have a hard time getting into the whole 19th century upper-class costume drama thing, although I still found it to be an interesting venture for Scorsese as he’s definitely going out of his comfort zone here. Daniel Day-Lewis gives what might be his most restrained performance, but as far as I remember Michelle Pfeiffer gives the real stand-out performance as the two of them as well as Winona Ryder are stuck in a forbidden love triangle. Though I really couldn’t find myself getting engaged in this story, I still found the film to have not only some nice set design, but also an undeniable visual flair to it, but I guess that’s something you can always count on Scorsese for.

Casino (1995)

When this movie first came out, it seemed to get a kind of mixed response due it’s similarities to 1990’s GoodFellas. Though there are a number of things it has in common with that earlier film, it’s still a very good film by any standard and another example of Scorsese’s mastery of the crime genre. Scorsese does a great job of capturing all of the glitz and glamour of the Vegas lifestyle while giving us this fascinating account of Ace Rothstein’s rise to the top of a Vegas empire. This would mark the last collaboration between Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, but there’s always hope that they’ll do one last great movie together someday.

Kundun (1997)

Another example of Scorsese taking on material that you wouldn’t think he’d be most suited for. I’d say Scorsese does with this material about as much as he can, but to be honest I couldn’t help but feel like the Dalai Lama just isn’t a charasmatic enough figure to deserve a biopic chronicling his life. However, it seems like Scorsese and cinematographer Roger Deakins manage to avoid this somewhat by shooting the film in a way that’s visually stunning, but I still can’t say Kundun ranks among Scorsese’s most memorable work.

Bringing Out The Dead (1999)

This is probably most notable for it being the first collaboration between Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader since 1976’s Taxi Driver. You can definitely see some similarities between Bringing Out The Dead and Taxi Driver, as Nicholas Cage plays an ambulance who’s slowly becoming dissatisfied with his nocturnal lifestyle. However, Bringing Out The Dead‘s filled with a much more kinetic energy, as well as some great supporting performances from the likes of John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore. This has got to be one of Scorsese’s more underrated films, as it’s a very good film whether you take it on it’s own terms or as kind of a companion piece to Taxi Driver.

Gangs Of New York (2002)

By the early 00’s, it seems Scorsese was bent on getting that Oscar that had never been given to him for any of his past achievements. What Gangs of New York does very well is immerses you in a somewhat overlooked period in American history, when the streets of New York where overrun with looting and violence. A great deal of the film’s praise has to be owed to the incredible set design that creates this living, breathing world that seems taylor-made for Scorsese’s sensibilities. And at the center of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis, providing a deliciously villainous role as he’s paired against Leonardo DiCaprio in what would mark Scorsese’s first but certainly not last pairing with the actor. I guess the one thing that keeps this from being a great Scorsese film is the fact that when you get down to it, Gangs of New York is a simple revenge tale, and Scorsese doesn’t quite seem able to make this story seem more complex than that.

The Aviator (2004)
This film once again saw Scorsese turning to Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man in this riveting biopic about the earlier years of Howard Hughes. And after a somewhat underwhelming turn in Gangs of New York, DiCaprio truly shows that he’s the real deal with this astounding performance that might be his best yet. Another great performance comes from Cate Blanchett, who proves just what a talented actress she is by being able to breath life into one of the most recognizable and beloved of all Hollywood starlets, Katherine Hepburn. And besides that, The Aviator shows another example of Scorsese’s ability to take a troubled and complex figure and bring you into his world, although this certainly qualifies as lighter material when you compare it to the likes of Raging Bull or Taxi Driver.

No Direction Home (2005)

I know this wasn’t given a theatrical release or anything, but I figured it deserved to be included as it probably ranks among my favorite documentaries of all time. And this isn’t a film that I’m fond of simply for the fact that it’s about Bob Dylan, one of my favorite musical artists ever, it’s just simply a great documentary. We get a fascinating look in to how Bob Dylan came from humble beginnings in Minnesota to becoming the “voice of generation” only to become the target of vitriol and disgust by his own fans after “going electric”. By telling the story of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home also manages to paint a detailed picture of Greenwich Village’s early sixties folk scene as well as the changes that were starting to happen in America during the first half of that turbulent decade.

The Departed (2006)

When Scorsese returns to the crime genre, and in this case the mafia, good things happen. But this is just as much a cop movie as it is about the Irish mafia, and Scorsese manages to give us a crime epic that’s brutal, intense, funny, and a testament to Scorsese’s ability to knock you on your ass when he gets a hold of a story of this sort. DiCaprio is quite good in another demanding role, and I feel like this might of been the movie where Matt Damon turned into Hollywood’s most reliable “everyman”, and of course it’s always fun to see Jack Nicholson chew up the scenery in a role like this. It might not be Scorsese’s best film, but I think it’s a film that rightfully earned Scorsese that Oscar that he’d had his eyes on for all those years.
Shine A Light (2007)
Didn’t really feel like writing about this one again, but if you really care what I think about it there’s always this.
Shutter Island (2010)
Not sure how soon I’ll get around to reviewing this considering I’m pretty exhausted from writing this Retrospecticus. If any else wants to review it, feel free.

Comments are closed.