The Tuesday List: The Martin Scorsese Canon

Martin Scorsese has simply too many films under his belt for me to rank them all. On the other hand, that makes him a prime candidate for a Canon piece. Oh happy day!

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Martin Scorsese (Non-Documentary) Canon (In Chronological Order) (Roughly) (But Seriously, Isn't The Last Waltz Like the Best Music Documentary Ever?)

Mean Streets- De Niro was never scarier and if that doesn’t make you want to see the movie, well, I’m not sure what will. Scorsese casts 70’s New York as the battleground for man’s soul (Harvey Keitel) and every decision, good and bad, you can feel in your bones.

Taxi Driver- Vigilantism carried out to its logical conclusion with Scorsese unblinking camera forces you to face it (and your own discomfort). I watched this for the first time with my uncle in his studio apartment in Philadelphia and I still remember the way it settled over me, depressing and disturbing me. And how I absolutely did not want to stop watching it.

Raging Bull- Gorgeous, blood soaked, wonderfully acted by obsessives fully invested in all degree of ugly human beings. Goodfellas might be the Scorsese film everyone thinks of first when his name is mentioned, but this is probably his most “him” movie, drawing on all his tricks, loves, and obsessions in a single feature.

The King of Comedy- It makes my skin crawl, even now. De Niro is sweet, pathetic, and frightening, often all at once, and Jerry Lewis, as his idol, is a victim and, at the same time, an utterly nasty cruel character. Sandra Bernhard is nearly a horror movie monster at points. At one time, this was my favorite Scorsese feature.

After Hours- Somehow the New York City neighborhoods here feel both wholly real and utterly fantastical; a place you could turn a corner and find and a literal dimension of hell all at once.  It feels like drinking 8 cups of coffee and wandering an 80’s NYC neighborhood at about 2 AM must. Jittery, scary, and, yet, somehow, wildly tempting.

The Color of Money- Many would not put this on their Canon list. Many are so very wrong.

As a sequel to The Hustler, 20 years removed from that first film, it shouldn’t work. But it does. And works well. Paul Newman’s Oscar for this is no mistake and no Lifetime Achievement Honor, he earns it. Tom Cruise, who I seem to be making a cottage industry out of defending, nicely using his own burgeoning pretty boy stardom to invest his character with some of the same sense of “is this guy for real or just a moment from proving to be a flash in the pan.” Even Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, in the very slight role as Cruise’s girlfriend, makes an impression.

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The Last Temptation of Christ- It kills me that we live in a world where this film was met with such venom and protest while Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ was embraced. One celebrates the humanity of Jesus and explores what it means to be God made flesh, the other glorifies violence and assures you that it’s holy to watch torture. As profound a piece of religious filmmaking as I think exists.

Goodfellas- I kind of hate Goodfellas. Don’t get me wrong, it is great; smart, funny, impeccably shot. It is also a movie that has been embraced for all the wrong reasons, as a salute to the mob lifestyle, an altar to violence, as opposed to a repudiation of all that. None of that, of course, is the fault of the director, actor, screenwriter, etc so here I must place it.

Bringing Out the Dead- This is the other one I expect people might question me for including in the Canon, but they are wrong and I am right, I promise you that. Like its star—Nicolas Cage—the movie is a crazed high wire act pushed right to the edge of being too much. But it is not too much, it is just right.

Honestly, I’m not sure why this one’s reputation is not great. It has everything we’ve come to associate with Scorsese’s best: frantic, yet completely understandable camera work, a faultlessly curated soundtrack, supporting performances that steal scenes but don’t swallow the action, and a hypnotic lead you dare not stop watching.

The Departed- This is a borderline choice that gets pushed into the Canon but its often black hearted sense of humor, usually delivered by a motor mouth Alec Baldwin. Mark Wahlberg also gives, I would argue, his best performance ever here as an officer turned weapon of vengeance. Genuinely shocking here and there as well.

Nicholson, as the film’s big villain, is actually very good as well. He just happens to seem like he wandered in from a very different movie.

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Lesser Films Still Worthy of Consideration

Think of these as the near masterpieces, won’t you?

Who’s That Knocking at My Door?- This is basically a Scorsese student film. Think about that. Wild, right? The narrative lacks cohesion here and there, but it is a frank and interesting engaging of the subject matter. Watching it, you kind of wonder why Harvey Keitel didn’t end up as revered as De Niro.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore- Everything about the setting of Alice is pretty much perfect; it’s impressive how Scorsese so thoroughly defines the world so quickly. Where I get tripped up is that it feels dated in a way that most of his other movies do not.

New York, New York- It’s a mess, it really is. But it is also kind of incredible. It lacks a certain zing that I think most silver screen musicals need, but it is undeniably well made and somehow Scorsese makes sure De Niro (the Method poster man of the moment) and Minnelli (an undeniably talented song and dance woman who was not as well-known for her dramatic chops) feel like they belong on screen together.

Cape Fear- I hate to say it, but I think the original is better. That said, DeNiro turns in as big a performance as he ever has. Scorsese sets the mood with skill and the way he manages to use sexual menace that you can feel without it being overly exploitative is an impressive high wire act.

The Age of Innocence- A near miss from the list above. A challenge for the director, to be certain, in that it is a period romance that is more about emotional repression, not explosive. And, I think, it is a challenge met. Beautiful and, dare I say, kind of hot in a “we dare not let this lust consume us” kind of way.

Casino- See my feelings about Goodfellas above. They, more or less, apply here. This isn’t as good as Goodfellas. Hence, here it is.

The Aviator- It’s dry. Really, really dry. Unlike Kundun below though, the performances push it above its slow pacing. Cate Blanchett as Hepburn, in particular, is a livewire delight.

Hugo- Sweet, if slight. I love that Scorsese made a children’s fairy tale film that is about rediscovering Georges Méliès (literally and figuratively). And I love that Scorsese made a movie about rediscovering Georges Méliès (literally and figuratively) that he filmed to be seen in 3D.

The Wolf of Wall Street- A few outrageous set pieces and genuinely great acting overall can only hide the fact that the movie is just unending and repetitive for so long. Credit given where credit due though, that ending… that stings.

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A Few to Avoid

I am of the opinion that there’s nothing in Scorsese’s filmography that isn’t at least worth a look, for various reasons. That said, I do recognize that he, like anyone, does have a few that are not as strong as they could or should be. That’s these. Don’t actually avoid them, just be aware they are not quite equal to his typically excellent standards.

Boxcar Bertha- The least of his films, I would argue. Worth watching for the bravura gun battle and Barbara Hershey’s performance, but certainly his least realized effort.

Kundun- Very pretty. Gorgeous even. Certainly better than the other Tibet movie of that year. But, well, kind of…inert. I know Scorsese can tell compelling narratives outside his comfort range (Take Age of Innocence, for instance) but he doesn’t quite achieve that here.

Gangs of New York- Daniel Day Lewis is great. Leonard DiCaprio is pretty good. Cameron Diaz is…out of place. The movie is an overlong mess. It was a passion project years in the making and one can feel that in every frame, for better and worse.

Shutter Island- Moody and evocative, it’s too bad the ending goes all M. Night on us. It might come from the book but it is so…look, Scorsese does not need the shock. And he shouldn’t have gone there with this poor twist ending. 

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