Top 5 Tuesday: Martin Scorsese

I thought it was high time that The Lantern finally give one of America’s greatest filmmakers his due. In all honesty, I am somewhat embarrassed that it has taken me this long to post a list honoring the legendary Martin Scorsese. But to make up for my negligence, I thought it would be a good idea to get two separate Top 5’s composed by two huge Marty fans…Phil Carbo (who writes the ‘Ludovico Files‘ page) was gracious enough to share his personal favorites…and I have my own 5 faves here as well. And we are both in agreement…with so many classic films to choose from (including his many documentaries & shorts) since the late 1960’s, this was one challenging task. Five slots go way too quickly, and many great films are unfortunately left off both lists. Not only is he a master director constantly pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, but he has done so much for the preservation of film – and that, my friends, is pretty awesome. I mean really, is there anyone you would rather learn about the history of film than this guy? The man is a walking encyclopedia of movie knowledge. I can hear him speak about movies for hours and still want more. And to think that before becoming one of our most cherished directors, he was seriously considering a life as a priest. Instead, he became one of the most influential directors of the modern era — and at age 68, is still hard at work and entertaining us all. Here are our lists…they are surprisingly similar (so much for diversity…sorry guys), which surprised me just a bit. ENJOY!

Phil Carbo’s Top 5:

5. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

I’m sure many will think this is an odd choice and question whether this is truly one of the top-5 films of Scorsese’s storied career but to me, while not bringing the best plot or pacing to the table, Bringing out the Dead is a film that is quintessential Scorsese.  First, it reunites him with screenwriter Paul Schrader and the two have an undeniable chemistry.  Schrader’s scripts typically reveal the darker side of New York and this film is, despite its slow pace, a perfect vehicle for Marty’s trademark, hyper kinetic style: close-ups, dolly shots, lightning edits, fast motion and all enhanced with a classic rock soundtrack that is prototypical Scorsese.  Sure Nicolas Cage is over the top — but when is he not?  Marty’s vision here actually lends itself to the hyped-up, manic performances.  Filmed almost entirely at the darkest hours of the night, it progressively exhibits a surrealness and frantic absurdity that feels born out of a nightmare.

4. After Hours (1985)

Speaking of nightmares, the kinetic pace and off-the-wall oddness of this black comedy plays out like a bad dream for both Griffin Dunne’s character and the viewer. Little known fact: Tim Burton was originally attached to the project, which would have been interesting because After Hours seems like more of a Burton film…but Scorsese, of course, makes the material his own.  One of his few comedies, he once again exposes the darker side of New York as the city becomes a central character.  As mentioned, the film taps into many of the motifs we all find in our dreams (the reoccurrence of locations, the feeling that one is running and running but can’t seem to get away, and a seeming randomness to everything going on).  The film ends strangely (apparently a point of contention during filming), seeming to imply that the “normalcy” of a 9-5 office existence is not necessarily a bad thing.  Whatever you take from it, one thing is certain – this is one of Scorsese’s more visually arresting films.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

This film and my next are pretty much no-brainers.  When one thinks of Scorsese, it’s impossible for Taxi Driver to NOT come to mind.  It is a dark and deliberately paced film and contains one of DeNiro’s top 5 best performances.  Story aside, it is impossible not to marvel at the craft of filmmaking Scorsese brings to this film.  From the opening shot of the taxi driving slowly through puffs of city steam to the shocking and graphic shootout (that ironically turns Travis from psychopath to hero – at least in the public eye) the entire film has an uneasy edge.  Marty developed his trademark themes of alienation and Christian guilt in early films such as Mean Streets, but with Taxi Driver he was at the top of his game, and in the process helped to define the gritty, maverick style that 70’s film is known for (and sadly missed).

2. Raging Bull (1980)

From opening frame to end, Raging Bull showcases the artistic genius of Scorsese like no other. Filmed in black and white (with one amazingly inventive color sequence), Raging Bull lays bare the tragic despair of Jake LaMotta, a man so full of self-loathing, that he abuses and alienates everyone around him, including his wife and brother with unspeakable brutality. Robert DeNiro once again proves his incredible ability to morph into character like no other actor of his time.  The violence both in and out of the ring is graphic, with close-ups of blood spurting from open wounds, and dialogue that makes some scenes downright uncomfortable to watch; all ultimately help us understand this unrepentant character.  This film was made during a difficult time in Scorsese’s life.  He was battling addiction and saw a bit of himself in LaMotta’s fall from grace. In this sense, it’s one of Scorsese’s most personal and autobiographic films (the theme of redemption comes up in many of his more accomplished works).  As a side note: It’s also the first time Joe Pesci would give an ass-kicking to Frank Vincent (a recurring cycle in several subsequent films until Vincent gets his ultimate revenge in Casino).

1. Goodfellas (1990)

I could easily write a Masters’ thesis on Goodfellas.  In my opinion, it’s not only Scorsese’s best, but it also happens to be my favorite film of all-time. It’s the first film that made me understand the medium as an art form. Goodfellas takes all the elements of great cinema to create the feeling that you are experiencing all of the joys, anger, paranoia, and desperation of each character.  And truth be told, I wasn’t even that interested in seeing it when released in 1990.  My friends had to convince me into going.  This probably had something to do with the fact that I had recently watched Sergio Leone’s ganster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, and while a good film, is just too slow for my taste.  At nearly 2 ½ hours, I suppose I expected the same from Goodfellas, but boy… was I wrong.  From the very moment the title zooms across the screen to a revving engine to Sid Vicious’ cover of “My Way” over the end credits, the movie never fails to electrify in its brilliance.  Scorsese has since made other phenomenal films in the genre (Casino, Gangs of New York and The Departed come to mind), but Goodfellas sets the gold standard for a plethora of the modern crime dramas that followed and remains the high-water mark of Marty’s career.

Peter’s Top 5:

5. Gangs of New York (2002)

I had about three different films in this slot before finally deciding on this ambitious work. More than any other Scorsese film in recent years, this one for me most resembles his stellar films of the 70’s & 80’s. I love the historical context of Lower New York’s “Five Points” district (1846 – 1862) and how Scorsese creates this past world. Daniel Day-Lewis gives another towering performance here as “Bill the Butcher,” the leader of the natives looking to oust all of the immigrants making their way to shore. John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, and Jim Broadbent give fine supporting performances. I’m not a Leo-hater by any means and his performance here is adequate, but his irregular Irish accent does bother me. The production design and period costumes are stunning – and the camerawork is gripping. A majestic American tale – and my favorite Scorsese movie of the past 10+ years.

4. After Hours (1985)

I know many would put his other black comedy King of Comedy (1982) on the list instead, and I would have no problem with that. But for me, this cult classic is one of my all-time favorite comedies. Joseph Minion’s script is an absolute trip, the camera never stops moving, and the all-star cast turn in some great performances. This is a wonderfully quirky and imaginative “New York movie” following the many misadventures and dangers that sheepish Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) encounters one evening as he simply tries to make his way home. As Phil cites above, Tim Burton was slated to direct this first – but seeing it now, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. This is a genuine Scorsese flick and a must-see for any fan of his work.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

A classic, gritty New York motion picture. Seeing it years later gives you such an authentic sense of how Manhattan (especially the seedier parts of it) was in the 1970’s. This is early Robert DeNiro, which means he gave it his Method-best (wish he were still here with us, btw). As the lonely, dejected ex-Marine Travis Bickle, DeNiro gives us one of the silver screen’s most terrifying characters – a ticking time bomb that can go off at any time as he drives through the streets of New York late at night, disgusted at what he sees. Scorsese assembled a great supporting cast – led by a young Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, and Cybill Shepherd. Paul Schrader’s script is authentic and inspiring and Bernard Herrmann’s music captures Bickle’s state of mind perfectly. A graphically violent movie, it’s surely not for the faint-of-heart. But it remains a mesmerizing character picture with a fantastic denouement that resonates long after.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

A beautiful & explosive piece of filmmaking – and one of the very best mobster movies of all-time. I was always fascinated by how beautifully Scorsese and his creative team captured the many decades that this epic film spans…from the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Goodfellas encapsulates each period so well. The costumes, art direction, and music featured…all marvelously executed as we watch the rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family. Joe Pesci as the psychopathic Tommy DeVito is scary as hell, Lorraine Bracco was robbed of what should have been an Oscar-winning performance, DeNiro gives another well-crafted performance – and Ray Liotta does a terrific job of holding the entire film together. In fact, he has never been better. As impressive as the film is from a moviemaking standpoint, Scorsese managed to make this one hell of an entertaining flick – its 2 ½ hours breezing right by and you want another hour of it all. Love the “Layla” sequence and that impressive long tracking shot through the Copacabana is always a wonder to watch.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

In my opinion, this is Scorsese’s masterpiece. It is in no way one of those films I can turn on and watch at any time. I need to emotionally brace myself for this one because it is hard to stomach at times. Let’s face it…the guy is a fucking animal. Robert DeNiro is at the top of his game here as the brutish middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta,  giving arguably the best performance of his career and one of the greatest performances in film history. Joe Pesci is terrific as his brother. Calling Michael Chapman’s black-and-white photography breathtaking and stunning is still not doing justice to his work here. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is crisp and fierce. One of the greatest bio pictures ever made and an instant classic to be sure. This is a haunting, powerful film that is a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking. Marty’s best work to date.

Peter’s Honorable Mentions:

My Voyage to Italy (1999)
Casino (1995)

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19 Responses to Top 5 Tuesday: Martin Scorsese

  1. ajkima says:

    My top 5 goes like this:
    1) Raging bull
    2) goodfellas
    3) taxi driver
    4) The departed
    5) King of Comedy

  2. I love your Blog! It’s my first time here and I discover a Top 5 of Scorsese’s best films! Great!
    Mine would go like that:

    5. After Hours tie with Last »Temptation of Christ
    4. King of Comedy
    3. Goodfellas
    2. Raging Bull
    1. Taxi Driver

    • Thank you so much, Michael. Greatly appreciated. Sorry, I have been terrible at my blogging duties and offline for a while. Just saw your comment. A very solid Top 5 here. Last Temptation doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but it is a gorgeous and ambitious film.

  3. Stevie Ce says:

    King of Comedy, by far, out-New-Yorks After Hours. A bold statement, I know.
    But where as After Hours is admittedly a characterature of NY nightlife, King more realistically sheds daylight on the madness that occurs while we’re actually awake.
    The scene when Sandra Bernhardt and DiNiro argue on the street alone captures perfectly the essence of two lunatics fighting publicly.

    Also, I think King holds up so much better in both comedy and style.

    Good stuff! I anxiously await Phil’s Night Train to Terror review!

    • I love King of Comedy – but to say it is more “New York” than After Hours is insane! The whole movie takes place in the streets of New York and shows some many great NY spots downtown. The film is also filled with prototypical New York characters and moves at a New York pace. I never looked at King of Comedy as a “New York” film. But I do very much enjoy the film and yes, I agree with you — it does hold up very well. I too am anxiously awaiting Sir Carbo’s next review!!!

  4. paolocase says:

    After Hours is on my bucket list.

    Also, The Last Waltz, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Departed,

    • Love The Last Waltz – many of my favorite musicians are in that one! You MUST see After Hours. MUST!!! I never got into The Departed, though I know my sidekick Phil liked it very much. In fact, I was surprised it was not on his Top 5.

  5. Dan says:

    Great to see the love for After Hours – my personal favourite. I also love The King of Comedy. Taxi Driver would make my top 3 also.

    • I couldn’t NOT put After Hours on my list. It is such a clever, ingenious film. It hold up to time too. I also love King of Comedy. That’s what makes these Top 5’s so hard. So many worthy efforts are left off. I am still upset that I didn’t fit Casino, Last Temptation, or My Voyage to Italy in there…

  6. Dan Heaton says:

    It’s cool to see a mention of Bringing out the Dead. That would fall just short of my top 5, but I agree that it’s an underrated film. Here is my top 5 (off the top of my head):

    1. Goodfellas
    2. Raging Bull
    3. The Last Temptation of Christ
    4. Taxi Driver
    5. The Aviator

    • Good five. For whatever reason, I never got into The Aviator. Perhaps it needs another watch. Last Temptation just fell short for me, but I would put in the Top 10 for sure. Love that film. I see you side with my compadre Phil and put Goodfellas on top of Raging Bull. I pox on the two of you!!! 🙂

      • Dan Heaton says:

        I’m sorry to report that it wasn’t very close. Goodfellas would be in my top five of all time, so it’s way up there over Raging Bull. The Aviator could be swapped out from a bunch of movies, including After Hours. That was the toughest slot. I know most people are down on it, but it really worked for me, especially the first two-thirds or so.

    • Phil Carbo says:

      Nice top-5, Dan. Bringing out the Dead was on the bubble for me, but when compiling my list, I tried to focus on the films that are genuinely Scorsese-esque in every sense (which of course meant many great films needed to be left off). Even though it’s not his best from a pacing or plot standpoint, I can’t image anyone other than Marty making it with such technical finesse and artistry. That’s why I felt it deserving of my 5 spot.

      • Dan Heaton says:

        Thanks. Your comments about Bringing out the Dead make sense. That’s the tricky part with making a Top 5 of a director like Scorsese. He’s made a series of what you’d consider “Scorsese-esque” like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, etc. However, there are also much different films like Kundun and The Age of Innocence. Bringing out the Dead definitely fits in the first category.

  7. John says:

    Very nice. My own scheduled piece for tomorrow is about the genius of Goodfellas. The beauty of a list like this is that I really don’t think you can go wrong. There’s not a single Scorsese film that I’ve seen that I felt was a genuinely bad movie. Not one. Given how many films he’s made, that’s a pretty impressive feat.

    What makes me like Scorsese so much is that he’s the quintessential “American” director. This country is a melting pot, snagging influences from all over the world and turning it into something completely unique. And that’s what Scorsese’s films are- there’s influence from the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, Kurosawa, even (one time) Bergman… He takes all of these phenomenal influences and blends them together seamlessly, and then squishes them on top of American stories like Goodfellas or Casino or The Aviator or Raging Bull… the kind of stories that couldn’t really happen in any other country.

    • You make a remarkably profound point here. For someone like Scorsese, who knows TONS about international films (especially Italian neorealist films), he does make very “american” films. One would think that the European aspects would bleed into his work — and they do…but not in a way that copies or makes it seem very European. Tarantino mimics others and it comes off as such, but Scorsese has his own niche. Excellent point. And you are right. I don’t think he has made a “bad” film. I’m not crazy about The Aviator, and I think Color of Money could have been loads better — but he has made so many wonderful films. Great comment, John! Thank you…

    • Phil Carbo says:

      Very astute comments, John. I agree with what you say about Scorsese’s films being truly American while heavily influenced by Asian and European cinema. It’s a testament to his skill that he’s able to use those influences so transparently in his films.

      I’m really looking forward to reading your piece on GoodFellas (I think you can get a sense for how passionate I am about the film). Where may I find your post?

      • John says:

        Thanks, guys. Scorsese is easy to be passionate about. Of all of the great American directors out there, I’ve taken to him as easily as any of them. I think it probably has to do with his love of movies and how infectious it is. He gets a huge kick out of making movies of all kinds and he wants his viewers to get the same kick out of his films- and all films, really- and it shows.

        My article just went up. Peter, I hope you don’t mind me linking my own article here. I wouldn’t do it had it not been requested. If it’s gauche or something, please feel free to delete it:

        http://tdylf.com/2011/07/26/the-movies-we-love-goodfellas/

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