BMD Picks: Martin Scorsese’s Top Five Films

In this Special Edition of Picks, Jacob celebrates the New Hollywood master's 75th birthday.

Nobody makes movies like Martin Scorsese. 

Today, the New Hollywood icon (and arguably greatest director in the history of American cinema) turns seventy-five. In order to celebrate both his life and fifty-plus year career, I thought it'd be best to present you with my picks for his Top Five pictures. Being a weekend, a good deal of the BMD Team were preoccupied, and hit the road for some relaxation. But we still wanted to provide you some reading in honor of the master auteur. So, kick back for this solo Special Edition of BMD Picks, in which I select the best of the best (and leave you to argue about the rest)...

#5. After Hours [1985] (w. Joseph Minion) 

“Rough night, Paul?”

In his recent evaluation of Scorsese's '85 dark comedy (which he labels a “huge inspiration”), Steven Soderbergh wrote:

“The way information is doled out in this film is fucking masterful, an absolute clinic in implication and inferenced - none of the key events that drive the story forward and fuck wtih the main character occur onscreen - and the math of plotting is absolutely airtight."

I’d bet solid money that Soderbergh wasn’t the only modern filmmaker to be influenced by Scorsese’s madcap comedy. Similar stylistic tics can be found in the work of such modern luminaries as Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell. But where the very mechanics of the film’s creation can be cribbed, the panicked, whimsical air contained within After Hours’ brisk ninety-minute runtime is wholly unique.

Scorsese’s battles with cocaine addiction are well documented, and even though he reportedly kicked the habit as of '85, After Hours distinctly feels like the work of an artist loaded up on an eight ball. There’s an unrelenting paranoia that pervades the black farce - mostly due to the fact that nearly none of the events that occur are a direct result of anything Griffin Dunne’s meek office worker does - and the manic way the film unfolds adds to this “speedy” feeling. However, there’s also a life-affirming air about the picture that leaves the viewer breathlessly in love. It’s a movie about the small discoveries that occur while exploring the seedy sides of the city, as Scorsese adapts a revelatory screenplay from Columbia grad student Joe Minion (side note: whatever happened to the Vampire's Kiss ['88] creator?) revolving around finding yourself after you’re done punching a clock.

#4. Raging Bull [1980] (w. Paul Schrader)

“Though I’m no Olivier / I would much rather… And though I’m no Olivier / If he fought Sugar Ray / He would say / That the thing ain’t the ring, it’s the play. / So give me a… stage / Where this bull here can rage / And though I could fight / I’d much rather recite /… that’s entertainment.”

Raging Bull saved Martin Scorsese’s life. After the utter failure of New York, New York ('77), Scorsese slipped into a coke-fueled hell that nearly ended with the director dying from an overdose. Scorsese agreed to the picture (after having initially turned it down when De Niro discussed it with him on the set of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore ['74]), as he related to the story of boxer Jake LaMotta. The filmmaker saw the biopic as a way to redeem not only his career, but also his entire reputation as a human being.

What resulted was a blood and sweat-stained black-and-white ode to a sport Scorsese admits to never loving before in his life. His camera discovers poetry in two men beating the shit out of each other, scoring the slow motion fisticuffs to classical music. In-between bouts, Scorsese draws a portrait of an unhinged, violent animal of a man, unflinchingly exposing every one of the broken boxer’s raw nerves. And the virtuoso direction is almost topped by De Niro’s now infamous body morphing performance. An absolute triumph, Raging Bull is inarguably the most brutal and bleak sports movie ever made, despite the behind-the-scenes Balboa-esque story that helped pull Scorsese out of the gutter.

#3. The Last Temptation of Christ [1988] (w. Paul Schrader) 

“Today and tomorrow I cast out demons and work cures. On the third day, I will be perfected.”

It’s somewhat easy to understand why The Last Temptation of Christ earned Martin Scorsese numerous death threats. Examining the mortal thoughts and actions of Jesus Christ The Man in itself is usually enough to enrage zealous “true believers”. But the fact that Scorsese is consciously playing with the visual myth of Jesus Christ is what makes the picture so subversively powerful. Had the director opted to go all the way and cast a person of color to play the Middle Eastern King of the Jews, his actions would’ve been undercut by the disconnect that altering of skin color creates. The change from blonde-haired, blue-eyed Christ would’ve certainly set off those who cling to the inherently racist Western re-writing of Jesus’ image, but the sexual acts which this hypothetical “Other Christ” engages in would’ve been easy for the Religous Right to discard completely, as the entire picture could’ve been viewed as conscious shit-starting on the part of the lifelong Catholic artist.

But that’s the beauty of Scorsese’s beast of a movie. By molding aspects of his Last Temptation in the image of classic Cecile B. Demille epics such as The Ten Commandments ('56), or Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy ('65), the auteur breeds familiarity that adds to the re-examination of Nikos Kazantzakis’ eponymous novel. Much like those filmmakers cast one of the blondest, blue-eyed actors of his day (Charlton Heston) in roles meant for much darker skinned peoples, Scorsese places Willem Dafoe front and center as the Son of God. While Dafoe certainly has the skin tone and eye-color of Church portraits, the near-reptilian character actor injects an almost equal amount of menace as he does compassion into his portrayal of Jesus Christ. Early scenes of Jesus having the “claws” of God’s Word dig just beneath his eyes as he writhes on the floor make Jesus look like a paranoid schizophrenic. His tumultuous relationship with Judas (Harvey Keitel) feels like two feuding Brooklyn brothers instead of canonical Israelites. It’s a brilliant bit of casting that lends the movie an unshakably iconoclastic aura.

This is the film this writer always wrestles with most; not because of content, but because the final forty minutes are the most intimately lovely filmmaking of Scorsese’s career. At the end of Last Temptation, Jesus marries and fathers two children with Mary Magdalene, yet none of it ever truly happens. The scenes are shown in the context of an illusion, as part of the titular temptation Satan (in the form of a little girl) offers to Christ as he’s on the cross. In this moment, Jesus sees all that he's giving up to fulfill a destiny he admits to not fully comprehending. He’s no longer allowed to be a man, father and husband; instead he is a deity, bleeding out to help save millions he’s never known. And Jesus rejects the offering, opting to live out the final agonizing moments, believing himself to be a part of something bigger than mere mortal happiness. It’s achingly personal, important filmmaking, as we’re witnessing one of our greatest artists try and understand his God as a man, and in turn bestows upon his audience a gorgeous work of art.

#2. Taxi Driver [1976] (w. Paul Schrader) 

“Here is a man who would not take it anymore…”

The way Paul Schrader describes Travis Bickle in his original Taxi Driver script is incredible:

TRAVIS BICKLE, age 26, lean, hard, the consummate loner. On the surface he appears good-looking, even handsome; he has a quiet steady look and a disarming smile which flashes from nowhere, lighting up his whole face. But behind that smile, around his dark eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, one can see the ominous stains caused by a life of private fear, emptiness and loneliness. He seems to have wandered in from a land where it is always cold, a country where the inhabitants seldom speak. The head moves, the expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing empty space.

Travis is now drifting in and out of the New York City nightlife, a dark shadow among darker shadows. Not noticed, no reason to be noticed, Travis is one with his surroundings. He wears rider jeans, cowboy boots, a plaid western shirt and a worn beige Army jacket with a patch reading, “King Kong Company 1968-70”.

He has the smell of sex about him: Sick sex, repressed sex, lonely sex, but sex nonetheless. He is a raw male force, driving forward; toward what, one cannot tell. Then one looks closer and sees the evitable. The clock sprig cannot be wound continually tighter. As the earth moves toward the sun, Travis Bickle moves toward violence.

It’s one of the greatest passages of screenwriting ever committed to paper. Schrader’s words capture this aimless, dangerous wanderer as he is in this moment in time, and freezes it for all to see and dissect and poke and prod. The only thing more impressive than Schrader’s words is the fact that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro were somehow able to top what was on the page.

Documents of discontent don’t come much more explosive than Scorsese’s '76 ode to disgruntled America. Travis Bickle became an icon in the eyes of film fans (in some cases, not for the best reasons) after Taxi Driver’s smash first run. The jazzy tones of Bernard Herrman’s score make the urban jungle Bickle inhabits feel as dreamy as it is menacing. While most cling to De Niro’s almost paranormally intense portrayal of the titular vigilante, it’d be foolish to ignore the subtle powers of Jodie Foster’s Iris, Harvey Keitel’s Sport or Peter Boyle’s Wizard. The violent ending is positively orgasmic, as we watch one man’s all-consuming paranoia boil over into a flurry of gun violence. There’s a reason beyond sheer artistic intent that the Library of Congress decided to preserve the film in the National Registry in '94. Taxi Driver captures an all-consuming fear of the “other” that transcends time period; a disturbing look into the divides that conquer the mental landscapes of scared white men.

#1. Goodfellas [1990] (w. Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese) 

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

Goodfellas is one of those rare moments of absolute cinematic alchemy; a picture whose pop culture influence has been seemingly omnipresent in the near thirty years since its initial release, but has rarely (if ever) been replicated. From genius works like The Sopranos to cheap imitations like Blow ('01), attempting to replicate Scorsese’s masterpiece has practically become a competitive sport. Goodfellas is one of the best examples of an artist reaching his zenith - a careening filmic missile that hones its creator’s greatest talents into laser focus while never losing his unique, angry viewpoint.

Beyond immersing the audience in the clandestine world of working class omerta, Scorsese achieves sympathy for these robbing, murdering devils. While certainly still as moralistic as any “rise and fall” story, Goodfellas forms a psychic bond between the viewer and Henry Hill’s family of gangsters. We’re inundated with the crew’s caveman code of ethics, as the criminals are presented to be “just like us”. Where Coppola created a mythic air about the Corleones and di Leo treated the Sicilian mob with nothing but contempt, Scorsese presents a story of tiny, street-level achievements. These men could be your neighbors and friends, they just provided for their families in the most nefarious of ways. It’s warmth for the coldest amongst us.

However, what makes Goodfellas truly special is the attention to character minutiae. Tuddy (Frank DiLeo) getting mad over the bloody aprons. The way young Henry innocently approaches the bench during his first trial (and then grown Henry shrugging off Janice’s inquiries into his line of work with “I’m a Union delegate”). Morrie’s (Chuck Low) insanely goofy wig commercials. Janice (Lorraine Bracco) getting nervous over the wedding envelopes being stolen at her and Henry’s reception. Tommy’s mother (Scorsese’s mom, Catherine) not letting her boy and his friends leave before they eat (even though they snuck in during the middle of the night). Where directors like Ridley Scott are known as “world builders” because of their meticulous attention to production design, Scorsese creates microcosms with human beings.

Goodfellas is an amalgamation of style and subject tailored to the artist’s own personal experiences. Marrying his love of pop music (The Piano Exit on Clapton’s “Layla”!) with a newly matured style and genuine connection to the material, it’s a connubial that almost feels too good to come out of mainstream Hollywood. So, of course it was passed over by the Academy in both the Best Picture and Director categories.

To wit, there are very few pictures that could be considered “perfect”, but Goodfellas is one of them.