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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