Top 10 Martin Scorsese Films
October 16, 2023
In the realm of American cinema, few names resonate as powerfully as Martin Scorsese. With a career spanning over five decades, he has crafted a body of work that is as diverse as it is profound. He’s bigger than the gangster films he’s mainly known for, adapting himself to deliver quintessential entries within the sports, noir, biopic, and kids subgenres.
It was an extreme challenge to narrow this list down to only ten movies, as a director of his stature has so many masterpieces that even the great ones don’t make the cut. A ranking of the 11-20 entries would still tower over 99% of other filmmakers. Honorable mentions that just missed inclusion were Raging Bull, Hugo, and New York, New York.
10. Gangs of New York
Gangs of New York is an epic about the battle for American democracy, often paralleling some of the modern struggles within our government. It features some of Scorsese’s best world-building as he weaves us in and around the catacombs and rickety tinderbox buildings of 1860s New York. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance may not rank as the highest in his filmography, but it doesn’t matter when Daniel Day-Lewis is chewing every scene as the violently charismatic Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting.
9. Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver sees New York as it truly was in the 1970s: a cesspool of crime and villainy that no decent person should visit, let alone live in. Scorsese bridges the gap between our thirst for the unseen on screen and how it plays out in reality. There’s a smoky focus on the physical and mental damage done, and how the media can twist evil into a morbid story of vigilante justice.
Faith-based movies are often met with skepticism, but the power of Scorsese’s filmmaking is always able to appeal to both sides of the coin. He transports us the 17th-century Japan, a place of clashing cultures that becomes the backdrop for the soul-searching journey of Father Rodrigues. Andrew Garfield painfully captures the inner turmoil of a man battling his faith and the system that surrounds him.
7. The Departed
Not many directors can claim that their seventh-best film was the one that netted them both the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. Scorsese blends a taut and intricate plot with stellar performances from its ensemble cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, and Martin Sheen. It was, and still is, one of his most straightforward films, offering escapist thrills through a refined lens.
6. The Irishman
At 209 minutes, The Irishman is a true-crime epic. Telling the story of mob hitman Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, the long-gestating project is packed with an all-star cast of Robert De Niro as the titular character as well as Joe Pesci and Al Pacino in career-defining roles. Instead of rehashing his usual gangster formula, Scorsese flips the script and fully exposes the audience to the doom and gloom that a life of crime brings to someone.
Goodfellas is the shining testament to Scorsese’s unparalleled brilliance at bringing the world of organized crime to life on the silver screen. It showcases an unapologetic and unflinching portrayal of the mafia lifestyle. We are in the same position as Lorrain Bracco’s Karen Hill, always weary of what’s going on and what’s around the corner, but too blinded by lights to do anything about it. And even when we spin out of control, there’s still a piece of us that wants to do it all over again.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
The exuberance and moral decay of 1980s Wall Street never felt more alluring than it does in The Wolf of Wall Street. But that excitement is also a powerful teacher, showcasing that greed isn’t good. It’s a car crash that you can’t look away from, filmed so kinetically that almost want to be in the driver’s seat. It also took extreme talent from Scorsese and his whole team to set a Guinness World Record for the most instances of swearing in a film, with the word “fuck” said 506 times.
Like the story itself, Casino is as excessive as possible. It was the most Scorsese-like movie Scorsese had made up to that point, featuring all the hallmarks: Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, the rise and fall of the mob, smooth camera movements, an absolute fuckton of swearing, and a roaring soundtrack. It’s compelling and thrilling to watch from minute one to minute one-hundred and seventy-nine.
2. The Aviator
This biographical masterpiece flawlessly captures the tumultuous life of aviation pioneer Howard Hughes. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast here as he was miscast Gangs of New York, brilliantly showcasing Hughes's genius, eccentricity, and inner demons. Scorsese’s meticulous attention to detail recreates Classical Hollywood as we witness the rise and fall of one of cinema’s first titans.
1. The Age of Innocence
The costume drama is not a genre one would normally associate with Martin Scorsese. But Scorsese is not a director confined to certain genres. Tender, yet brutal, The Age of Innocence burns with fiery passion while also being extinguished by icy repression. It's a battle of yin and yang that Scorsese perfectly balances with his sumptuous staging and set design.
But what always separates Scorsese from the pack is the performances he can bring out. He always seems to find a new level for even the very best such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Winona Ryder radiates and Michelle Pfeiffer incites yearning with her performance. Never has such a naked performance been given under so many layers of clothes.